Editor’s note: This article was originally presented as a speech in a 2021 pastors’ gathering in mainland China. In it, Elder Li Yingqiang divides the history of Chinese house churches into three time periods: 1949-1978, as the Chinese church stood firm in strong persecution; 1979-2008, when the church experienced great revival; and 2009-present, as the church has remained faithful through trials of money and power. Li divided house church history into these periods to help delineate general trends and characteristics during large segments of time. In this first section, he lays out the history of how the house church began and shares some experiences of those who helped to found her.
This selection has been edited and condensed from the original version for both time and space. It was originally published on the Grace to City website.
Standing Firm in the Persecution of Blood and Fire (1949-1978)
The house church movement began in August 1955, when Wang Mingdao was arrested. But planning began much earlier, during the government transition [to Communism]. In 1948 or ’49, one pastor suggested going to the countryside to plant house churches. Historically, the move to become house churches has been reactive, not proactive.
Before 1955, the Chinese Communist Party promoted the Three-Self Movement. The CCP supported leaders like Wu Yaozong and other Christians aligned with the regime. The Three-Self Movement promoted an accusatory movement forcing Chinese churches to sever ties with foreign missionaries and ecumenical churches. The Three-Self Movement used patriotism and nationalism to force Christians to sign the Three-Self Manifesto. Between 1950 and 1955, more than 427,000 people, more than half of Chinese Christians, signed.
Many Chinese churches of that day were already implementing “three-self ideology.” [This was originally conceived as a plan to help churches indigenize, and calls for self-governance, financial self-support, and self-propagation of the church.] But in 1955, the CCP brought established Chinese churches under government jurisdiction. They did this by arresting several leaders and dissolving or reorganizing their churches. During the land reform period, church activities were stopped, and church buildings were repurposed. In 1956, the Hong Kong Times reported on Christian persecution in China from about 1950 to 1953. Although we do not know exactly who these people were, simple arithmetic shows that more than 10,000 people were killed. Even before 1955, some Christian leaders in northwest China were arrested and sentenced for reactionary crimes.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
How many believers would stand firm when great persecution came? At that time, the Chinese church was under pressure from three directions. The first was pressure to sign the Three-Self Manifesto. If you signed, you were patriotic; if you refused you were reactionary. Second, there was pressure to denounce fellow church members and church leaders. Those who made accusations were on the side of the people; those who refused were reactionary. Third, there was pressure to join the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Joining was a patriotic religious activity; refusal to join was reactionary.
Most Chinese Christian leaders of that day signed the declaration, denounced their colleagues, and joined the Three-Self church. Yet compromise did not result in preservation of ministry. This proved true again and again in the political movements that followed. Pastor Wang Yi said the Chinese church, from leaders to laymen, was adulterous and had a terrible witness. But the Lord preserved for us 7,000 who did not bow down to Baal.
The Founders of the House Church
The Chinese house church movement officially began when Wang Mingdao was arrested in 1955. On August 7 of that year, he preached his last sermon. It was called “The Son of Man, Sold Into the Hands of Sinners.” At midnight, he, his wife, and 18 other young believers were arrested. On September 14 that year, the Guangzhou Damazhan meeting was closed. Samuel Lamb and others were arrested as members of the “Wang Mingdo Counterrevolutionary Gang.” A few months later, the “Watchmen Nee Counterrevolutionary Group” came to light. Many more were arrested.
Yet we have seen the wonderful work of God’s caring hand in history. When they went to prison, the Lord protected those who opposed the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and kept the faith. From 1955 to 1978, many of God’s faithful servants and children were arrested. Wang Mingdao, Samuel Lamb, Xie Moshan, Yuan Diben, Zheng Huiduan, Yuan Xiangchen, Yang Xinfei, and Li Tian’en are well-known. But there were many more unknown laymen and pastors.
Not many know of Hu Zhenqing. A book called “Myrrh Mountain” tells his story. He was first arrested in 1955, and then released shortly after. He was arrested again in January 1958. This time, his sentence was increased, because he continued to persevere in prayer. He was released in 1969. Finally, he was arrested for the third time in 1973. Each time he was released, he immediately returned to serve the church. He died of illness in 1995. Throughout life, he alternated between prison and ministry.
Wang Chunyi is even less known. Her prison testimony is very moving. Many well-known preachers and evangelists were arrested at the same time as her. Her written testimony shows that many well-known pastors in prison gave up their faith in order to survive. Because she insisted on praying out loud before each meal and refused to bow to the statue of Mao Zedong, Wang was constantly persecuted and beaten.
She wrote: “Unfortunately, some of God’s servants and ambassadors were once used by God, but in the last leg of their journey, they were complacent and arrogant. As a result, they walked outside of God’s will, and suffered various degrees of loss to their own reputation and to the Lord’s honorable name. This is a warning to all of us who walk the heavenly journey.
Wu Weizun is known as the Chinese Epaphras. Many people know the principle he established in the face of persecution: “No answers; no explanations; no confessions; no recantations.” He insisted on this to the end of his life. During his imprisonment, he insisted on praying for his meals. He paid a very heavy price for this. Later, authorities made two simple of requests of him: first, don’t pray before eating; and second, requite quotations of Chairman Mao.
He replied, “I cannot fulfill either of these two requests. It is an abomination to God to worship Chairman Mao as a god and to put the leader in the highest position. It is impossible that a man will live forever; it is difficult to live even a hundred years. Chairman Mao will not live forever. When he dies, his time will pass. Why should I recite this nonsense that is not in accordance with God’s will?”
When the CCP later wanted to release him, Wu said he did not recant and did not want to be released. After he was deceived out of prison, he rented a house near the prison and lived there until he returned to the Lord in 2002.
There were many such testimonies in the Chinese church before 1978. We stand in awe of the wonderful work of God’s gracious hand.
Revival Begins In Suffering
Incredibly, the church began to experience revival in the midst of the extreme suffering of the Cultural Revolution. During that time, church leaders and believers were severely persecuted, raided, paraded around, and suffered extreme physical and spiritual devastation. Many were martyred; others were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms. However, in many parts of the country, house church meetings have never stopped.
In the 1970s, during the latter part of the Cultural Revolution, there was an unprecedented revival. The number of people increased greatly, to many times the number of believers before 1949. Preaching and training ministries were started. Because Bibles were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, Wenzhou churches began to hand-copy mimeographed Bibles. The Wenzhou churches also continued to meet, getting up at 1 or 2 a.m. and going home at 5 or 6 in the morning. Then, in the day, they worked in the fields.
In the mid-to-late-Cultural Revolution, revivals occurred in Henan, Anhui, Shandon, Fujian, and Wenzhou churches. In the spring of 1971, more than 600 people, workers in charge of churches in urban Wenzhou and other counties, gathered secretly in Rui’an. That winter, the leaders met again and established the Wenzhou Area Christian Council.
Dear believers: God’s hand is wonderful. Even in the midst of great and deep suffering and persecution, he revived his church. The revival of the Chinese church did not begin with reform and opening. It started during the Cultural Revolution.
Elder Li Yingqiang is an elder of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. He and his wife have two children.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Praise God for his wonderful work in preserving and growing his church through difficult times.