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  • China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church by Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye
  • Chris White
Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xviii, 385 pp. US $99.00 (hb). ISBN 978-0-19-092346-4

With the archival experience of a historian and the descriptive pen of an ethnographer, Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye masterfully situates the history of the True Jesus Church in the broader context of twentieth-century China in her new book China and the True Jesus. The True Jesus Church (TJC) (Zhen Yesu jiaohui 真耶穌教會) is a Chinese-initiated charismatic denomination, started in 1917, that advocates for a return to pure Biblical teachings, but also includes unique rituals, such as face-first baptism and observance of Saturday Sabbath. Today, with a membership of over 1 million, True Jesus Church congregations are found all over the world, but mainly within Chinese communities. Based on the author's dissertation, but substantially enlarged and reframed, this monograph, comprised of nine chapters and an introduction and conclusion, lays out the founding and development of the True Jesus Church while interrogating many assumptions about what the TJC can tell us about Chinese Christianity in particular, or more broadly, "how charismatic claims inspire human organization" (p. 4).

A major contribution of this research is how Inouye goes beyond the continuation approach and deprivation theory to explain the growth and development of the True Jesus Church. The continuation approach to understanding the TJC, as revealed in previous scholarship, recognizes the antecedents of many of the rituals and charismatic leanings of the TJC as found in "traditional" Chinese religious experiences. The charismatic practices adopted by the community, most noticeable being glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, may find corollaries in China's religious landscape, but are more easily related to the Pentecostal movements which appeared all over the world in the early 1900s. Inouye similarly finds problematic the deprivation theory, which emphasizes the communal acceptance and support the church offered to marginalized, admittedly lower-class converts, as the reason for the growth of the TJC. Early members in the True Jesus Church did tend to be poor, uneducated, and vulnerable, but so were most Chinese in the first half of the twentieth century. This does not explain why such individuals joined this particular religious community. Inouye, instead, argues that the networks created by the True Jesus Church, strengthened by personal experiences and shared stories of miracles, led to the development of this unique religious community.

For Inouye, the continuity and deprivation rationalizations are low-hanging fruit and simply insufficient. To supplement such explanations, Inouye does a deep dive into late Qing and Republican history, focusing first on the Taiping rebel, Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全 (1814–1864), before moving on to early missionary activity in and around Beijing. This sets the stage for the appearance of Wei Enbo 魏恩波 (1879–1919), or Paul Wei, the founder of the True Jesus Church. By the time Wei started this new religious community, he was a prosperous cloth merchant living in Beijing. Though the True Jesus Church is considered an "indigenous" Chinese Christian denomination, Wei was initially baptized by a London Missionary Society (LMS) missionary in 1904 and became an active member in a congregation in Beijing. Inouye shows that even many missionaries with a "mainstream" mission agency such as the LMS were open to charismatic experiences and conduits of Pentecostal movements brought in from abroad. One of these transmitters was Bernt Bernsten (1863–1933), a Norwegian-American faith missionary, an individual without stable support from a mission agency, active in and around Beijing. Soon after arriving in China, Bernsten heard about the Pentecostal stirrings in Los Angeles and immediately set off to visit the Azusa Street revivals in 1907. Bernsten returned to North China that [End Page 228] same year, now, according to one report, "drunk on the new wind of the kingdom" (p. 66), and started spreading this pentecostal message, eventually connecting with Wei. Inouye frames the friendship between Bernsten and Wei as derivative of transnational Pentecostal networks that were only possible with...


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