The Rise of the Assembly Hall Church
The rise of the Assembly Hall Church signaled yet another reaction against Western Christianity and foreign domination, comparative late comer on the scene, it nevertheless in a short twenty-eight years, with neither Western men nor money, established another of the large churches in mainland China.
The spiritual leader behind this movement was a dynamic man by the name of Nee Tuo Sheng, better known as Watchman Nee. As a young student, Nee was led to Christ in 1919 by Miss Doris Yu. Through the additional counselling of a Miss Margaret Barber, an independent faith missionary, Nee was led to a deeply spiritual understanding of his faith.
In 1922, while still a student at Anglican Trinity College in Foochow, Nee began attending the home worship services of lay evangelist, Dr. Leland Wang. A former naval officer, young Mr. Wang’s informal, unstructured services appealed strongly to Nee who was currently in rebellion against the cold, ritualistic orthodoxy of Trinity College. Wang’s unorthodox practice of allowing laymen to mutually lead in the “breaking of bread” in a home setting was a direct challenge to the main-line churches with their structural and doctrinal hierarchy. During a period which produced some of China’s greatest anti-western, anti-missionary movements, this movement quickly gained wide support.
The new denomination soon won the label of a revolutionary reform church group. Its leaders were mostly young people under the inspired leadership of Dr. Wang who worked and lived entirely apart from any missionary or denominational authorization. All previous church customs were ignored. With no regular churches or chapels, they held their meetings in homes or rented halls. Their enthusiasm knew no bounds as together they would “march through the streets of Foochow, singing 'Onward Christian Soldiers’ ” (Tong, 1961:116).
Still under the leadership of Wang, Nee in 1924 left China to carry this new missionary movement to the South Sea Islands. Upon his return he began independently preaching throughout Amoy and the surrounding areas until in 1928 he established his own central church in Shanghai (Assembly Hall, n.d.:18). As a mark of indigeneity, Nee at this time also composed a songbook which in Chinese was called the Little Flock Hymnal.” Although Assembly Hall is their only recognized name, the title “Little Flock” was erroneously adoptded by the westerners.
In a day of sweeping demands to “indigenize the Church“ this new independent group soon attracted a large following, especially among students. Some missionaries began attending services and two women from the Church of England joined the movement. One was forthwith dismissed by her Bishop and sent home (Tong, 1961:116). In spite of missionary opposition, the movement continued to grow.
Alarmed by the growth of the Little Flock, Christian schools and colleges forbade students to attend its meetings. This did not deter them and some of the teachers followed. Foochow became the center of a remarkable spiritual awakening (Tong, 1961:117).
The historical records of the Assembly Hall Church are even more sketchy than those of the True Jesus Church. In one rare document which gives the only known recorded history of the mainland Assembly movement, the church suggests its own appeal through its criticisms of mainline Western missions. Although Western missionaries did bring the Gospel they admit, yet there were three disadvantages (Assembly Hall, n.d. 18):
They were not clear about the truth and the way. They brought in many Anglo-American tradition sand practices and built up different kinds of organizations.
Due to the language barrier, the translation and interpretation were unlogical (sic) and lacking in clarity and precision . . .
Because of the backsliding of the Chinese civilization and the resultant Western superiority complex, it became very difficult for the western missionary to come down to the level of the Chinese, to fit into their community and cooperate.
The Lord did not forsake China, however, for due toMargaret Barbers counsel to Watchman Nee, from then onthe Lord had a good beginning in China (Assembly Hall,.d.: 18).
Although the Assembly Church is a prolific producer of written materials, they are firmly opposed to any historical or statistical publications. Missionary sources, failing to recognize the size of this challenge, readily passed off the movement with a few minimizing comments. Additional insights are limited to a brief outline history compiled by the Assembly and to a few outside references recorded in the mid-1930’s.
While Watchman Nee had deep feelings about the practice of Western missionaries in China, he did not completely shut the door to Western fellowship. In 1931 a special series of meetings was held in Shanghai participated in by select representatives from America, England and Australia as well as by the famous Chinese evangelists Dr. John Sung and Leland Wang. The conference failed. It was their hope that “the churches would walk in their way” (Assembly Hall, n.d.:19) but unity could not be achieved. Dr. Sung resumed his revival meetings. Dr. Wang continued his independent missionary work and Nee carried on alone in his campaign against denominations (Tong, 1961:117; Rawlinson, 1934:104-108).
In 1933, at a still young age, Nee made an extended trip to England to seek support for his work. Upon his return in 1934 a great revival was held at Chefoo in northeast Shantung Assembly Hall, n.d.:20). During this famous revival, most o the members gave up their entire possessions for the Lord’s work. A group of over seventy plus their families migrated to the northwest and another thirty families moved to the northeast. By 1944 over forty new gatherings had sprung up as a resultf this migration and Chefoo in turn became a major center of spiritual strength during World War II (Assembly Hall, n.d.:20).
The devastation of World War II left us with few additional records of the Assembly Hall from the mid-1930’s. An attempt by the Japanese in 1942 to force the Assembly Hall into a united Protestant Church was rejected, resulting in the forced discontinuance of work in Shanghai until the end of the war. Reports indicate however that work in north China continued to be very prosperous (Assembly Hall, n.d.:20).
There appears to be little doubt that Watchman Nee was a most exceptional individual. Lyall refers to him as “a man with a brilliant mind, great ability and unique qualities of leadership” (1960:64). Nee was a firm believer in the necessity of the unpaid ministry and he practiced what he preached. He was also a keen businessman who knew how to capitalize on his investments. Extensive land in Fukien and a Christian pharmaceutical factory were both used for the extension of hi work. These personal holdings were later to account for some of the abuse he was to suffer under the hand of the communists.
The appeal of this new-found movement is illustrated by a comment in the 1935 China Christian Yearbook. Admitting the success of Nee’s evangelistic enterprises, the writer observes:
This movement has been growing very rapidly in Chekiang and has drawn away from the church many ordinary church members and even some church leaders. Its opposition to a paid ministry is arousing a response in those denominations that are being forced by mission policy or economic depression to require more self-support on the part of the local church. Nee Tou-Sheng teaches that a paid ministry is unnecessary and, therefore, leads some of the Christian groups to question why they should use their money to pay for a pastor (Rawlinson, 1935:104-105).
No one knows for certain the exact size of the Assembly church when the Bamboo curtain fell. Lyall speaks of “thousands of such assemblies throughout China” (1960:64) while Jones states that by 1949 it had “more than 700 churches with a membership of over seventy thousand” (1962:17). It is safe to assume that a church which grew from three members in 1922 to approximately seventy thousand twenty-seven years later was a spiritual force to be reckoned with.
The fate of these independent churches after 1949 was tragic. Because Mr. Nee had “capitalistic” holdings, the communists rapidly confiscated his Sun Hua Pharmaceutical Company. Although Watchman Nee did escape to Taiwan in 1949, he stayed but for a few days. His deep Christian conviction would not allow him to desert the many brethren on the mainland who would be living under the scourge of communism. Nee therefore returned and appointed his close assistant, Witness Lee to initiate new work in Taiwan.
It is a sad fact that most of the mainline churches, due to their former embarrassingly obvious reliance on westerners, were quick to confess their “sins” and join up with the new communist-controlled “Three-Self” church movement. It was the independent churches and their leaders who had no connections with the West to confess that were able to resist most vehemently. Because of this adamant refusal, “some of the most severe actions of the government (were made) against indigenous church leaders, men with no connection with any mission board abroad” (Jones, 1962:108). Almost alone these leaders protested the atheistic dictatorship of the new movement. The Jesus Family, because of their highly successful commune fellowship, originally met with high regard by the communists. But by 1952 they were singled out for special liquidation (Jones, 1962:109).
Watchman Nee was imprisoned in 1952. By 1956 the Assembly churches had come under special fire in an attempt to organize them into the body of the Three-Self Movement. Many more of the leaders were imprisoned at this time. Nee was personally accused, among other things, of having seduced more than one hundred women (Lyall, 1960:65). Mass denunciation meetings were held and in April, 1956, the Church, after attaining a “rebirth”, bowed to the “desires of the masses” and formally joined the Three-Self Movement.
In 1955 the famous independent evangelist Wang Ming Tao also came under heavy persecution. Steadfastly resisting earlier pressure to repent of his “crimes against the peoples”, he was finally arrested in August, 1955 and released thirteen months later after a complete confession of his “criminal deeds” had been exacted. The “confession” was extracted at the cost of a near-mental breakdown. Wang Ming Tao had been brain-washed but the day came when he realized what he had done, denied his “confessions” and was once again thrown into prison Lyall, 1960:30f).
In like manner the anti-government stance of the True Jesus Church was dealt with. Paul Wei’s son, Isaac, was imprisoned together with other influential leaders. As with all independent churches, every attempt was made by the communists to silence these dangerous indigenous reactionaries. Ultimately, they succeeded—at least on the surface.
The Assembly Hall Church Historical Beginnings
In his book Christianity in Taiwan, Tong notes that:
. . .amazing growth has recently been registered in Taiwan by a denomination which calls itself the Church Assembly Hall (or Little Flock). In 1948, this sect had only 8 members in all Taiwan. In 1959, according to an estimate of one of its active “worker” members, it had 20,000 adherents (1961:114).
Who is this church that has grown to become the second largest Protestant denomination in Taiwan? How did they begin? Why does its size so exceed the western-supported denominations? Why is so little known about them?
Part of the answer lies wrapped in mystery. Unlike the True Jesus Church, this church has no publically written history, no public documents, no tidy statistics. They grant no interviews for the express purpose of recording or publishing their work. Their leader Witness Lee, now living in Los Angeles, granted me a warm invitation to their services and casual conversation, but no interview. Lee had recently turned down a similar request from a Church historian in Taiwan. “Our work”, said Mr. Lee, “is done in secret.”
Why this passion for privacy? A clue is found in an anonymous Assembly publication: “We should not prepare a magnificent and luxurious building . . . We should build a plain, modest, practical building, not using material decorations to attract people. The adoption of material things to attract people indicates a backslidden condition in the church” (n.d.:45). This conviction results in churches that are usually hidden behind drab store fronts or tucked away down narrow, little-used lanes and streets. No cross marks the spot, only an inconspicuous billboard or sign proclaiming: “God loves the world.” Assembly churches represent a marked contrast to the large, conspicuous True Jesus buildings. And yet, for all their “secrecy” they are the second largest Protestant church in Taiwan. Obviously their growth does not depend upon external publicity. This is precisely the way they prefer it to be.
Although the Taichung leaders and elders were most gracious in discussing their work with me, their historical documents were limited to scrawled loose-leaf notes. Nothing was or is available for public distribution. Piecing together bits of information from various sources, including much helpful material received from former Assembly members and leaders (most of whom prefer to remain anonymous), we can construct the following history.
Assembly Hall refugees began arriving in Taiwan in 1947. From the beginning they had an advantage. They were dependent on no clergy or missionaries for their organization. Any man or woman could start a church in their home and this was the plan they followed. In 1949 their spiritual 1eader and founder Watchman Nee made a quick trip to Taiwan to encourage the newly arrived, confused refugee brethren. Within a few days he had gathered together several hundred members and the nucleus of the new church in Taiwan was formed. Nee thereupon returned to his destined fate of imprisonment. To carry forward the new work, Nee appointed his colleague Witness Lee. With the imprisonment of Nee in Shanghai, Lee became the new spiritual head apostle of the Assembly movement. By the end of 1949, shortly after Lee’s arrival, churches were established in Taipei, Taichung and Kaohsiung. Membership was reported at around 1,000.
The early 1950’s were extremely difficult days for the new refugees. With the mainlanders in total disarray, lacking permanent residence, leadership and often even income, there was little even Assembly Christians could do to maintain their new work. With no western resources upon which to draw, Witness Lee in 1951 was forced to seek out aid from the overseas Chinese in the Philippines. His appeal was most effective. Various sources suggest he returned to Taiwan with upwards of $30,000. This new aid, though significant, was hardly enough to guarantee an adequate income for all workers. In 1952, the first training class for full-time workers was organized with an enrollment of over 50. It has always been a basic principle that all Assembly workers shall live by faith with no guaranteed income but the early workers found things doubly difficult. The poverty of many Assembly members made faith-support an extreme act of self-denial. Early trainees were provided only living quarters and $5 a month “insurance assistance.” But $4.50 of this was needed for minimal monthly board (Shau, 1970).
Such self-sacrifice hardly retarded early growth. On the contrary, they grew faster than any other church in Taiwan. In 1953 a Lutheran reported three Mandarin-speaking churches in Keelung. The largest was the Assembly Hall with 300 members. The Southern Baptists were second with half the number (T.L.M., 1954:31). It is not difficult to locate reasons for this rapid beginning. When the mainlanders arrived in Taiwan there were few if any Mandarin-speaking churches. The Presbyterians and True Jesus Churches spoke Taiwanese. Most mainland pastors and missionaries had not yet arrived. But the Assembly Christians and a few other independent evangelists were there. Their early mobility and ability to independently initiate new work made them one of the first live options for mainlanders desiring a church home. A personal Lutheran survey in 1967 indicated that a number of present-day Lutherans baptized in the early 1950’s were baptized in Assembly Hall churches.
Early growth continued at a rapid pace. By 1955, over 50 central meeting halls had been established. By 1958 there were already over 90 full-time workers (including wives). A 1960 Protestant survey reported 20,000 Assembly members (T.M.F., 1960:85). The past decade has yielded little new information. Baptisms, although fewer than the 1950’s, nevertheless continue at a rate surpassing other churches. More than one eye-witness vouches that Taipei baptismal services sometimes last three hours with 500 baptized at one time. A recent Taichung service baptized 118 members. But the back door of the church appears to be widening as more and more members are siphoned off into other churches that make less rigorous demands upon them. Consequently, an American Assemblies representative again gave 20,000 members for 1966 (Carr, 1966:126). In 1967, a Taichung leader informed me that the Assemblies now count 35,000 adults in Taiwan. This same figure was again reported to me in 1970.
Such reports would indicate little emphasis upon numbers and quantity. The opposite is in fact true. Detailed records are kept and a personal resume is filed away on every believer. Every attempt is made to be as informed of the member’s background as possible although such records are highly confidential and available to none but the leaders of the church. Several former members, both intimately aware of the inner structure of the church, suggested that if the church reports a given membership figure, it most likely is quite accurate. With over 30,000 adults, the Assembly Hall today ranks well ahead of third place True Jesus with 22,000 adults and fourth place Southern Baptists with 10,000.
Although both the True Jesus and Assembly Hall churches migrated from the mainland, the True Jesus is today a church composed mainly of Taiwanese and aborigines. The Assembly Hall, on the other hand, has continued to find its place among the Mandarin community. Like the True Jesus Church, Assembly churches continue to be bi-lingual although early attempts to establish Taiwanese Assembly churches in the north and south failed (Shau, 1970).
The bulk of Assemblies membership is drawn from the large military, civil service community in Taiwan. Taichung, center of a large air base counts many members from this area. The main Taipei hall draws heavily from the surrounding military and government organizations. Kaohsiung and other area halls have many who come from the large naval and air bases located nearby (Shau, 1970). Thus, Assembly churches maintain a fairly homogeneous composition which contributes to their strong, cohesive unity.
Churches are also found in Europe, are growing rapidly in America, and recently, congregations were planted in Brazil. Tong reported 4,000 members living in southeast Asia in 1959 (1961:115).
Assembly church polity is quite simple. There are no conventions, no synods, no executive committees, no headquarters, and yet the Assembly Hall is highly organized, beyond that of most other denominations. The basis for all is the local church. This hall or home is the only validly sanctioned congregation. According to the Assembly Hall, all other types of church polity are unbiblical.
If we look carefully into this, we shall discover that the basis of division…is a single one—that of locality alone. If the New Testament is to be our guide, the only ground of division contemplated is geographical… The names given to churches in Scripture are invariably those of cities (Nee, 1961:138).
The Assembly Hall is most adamant regarding the inviolability of the local church. Therefore they insist on their distinctiveness against all other denominations.
We are neither Roman Catholics nor Protestants, and we neither recognize Catholics nor Protestants… We are neither those who have come out from the Roman Catholic Church, nor from denominations of the Protestant Church (A.H., n.d.,II:16).
Although they feel strongly that mainline Christianity is an aberration of New Testament principles, yet “we recognize that all born-again believers…in every sect are our brethren in the Lord and are members of the Body of Christ” (A.H., n.d.:II:16). But only the “ground of locality” can be recognized as the basis for church planting. Again, as Nee states:
God forbids any division on doctrinal grounds.…Though some may be right and others wrong, God does not sanction any division on account of difference as to beliefs or minor matters… If a group of believers split off from a local church in their zeal for certain teaching according to the Word of God, the new “church” they establish may have more scriptural teaching but it could never be a scriptural church.…the churches we found in various places only represent localities, not doctrines (1962:67).
Local churches, therefore, are to represent all Christian believers in any given locality. There can be no other basis for planting the church. Again Nee says:
It may be all right for missionaries to belong to the “X” Mission, but it is all wrong for them to form the fruits of the Mission into the “X” Church. The Word of God clearly does not sanction the founding of other than local churches (1962:96-97).
A church must therefore be responsible for the total ministry within its area. Anything narrower than a locality is unscriptural. Nor can a church represent anything larger than a locality. “In the Word of God we never read of 'the church in Macedonia', or 'the church in Galatia'.” Why? Because Macedonia is a province and Galatia is a district replies Nee (1962:50).
Another basic emphasis is on the church as the Body of Christ. “Building up the Body” and “building up the churches” are frequently used interchangeably. Christ’s Body cannot be divided, thus there is no basis for anything but one church per locality, regardless of the turmoil and disagreement within that given body.
Under the local church or hall are numerous district halls. The “local church” may be nothing more than a home but more frequently it is the district meetings under the head local church that gather in the homes. This home church is a vital keystone in the Assembly foundation.
Everything must begin at the beginning. When a church is founded, the believers from the very outset must learn to meet by themselves, either in their own homes or in some other building which they are able to secure. Of course, not every church is a church in a “house”, but a church in a “house” should be encouraged rather than considered as a drawback…This does not mean that the whole church will always meet separately; in fact, it is important, and of great profit, for all believers to gather together quite regularly in one place… But we should try to encourage meetings in the homes of Christians (Nee, 1962:116).
The Assembly Hall notes the many advantages of such an arrangement. “The grand edifices of today with their lofty spires…are not nearly as well suited to the purpose of Christian assembly as the private homes of God’s people” (1962:116). Why is this so? Nee makes the following observations:
In the first place, people feel much freer to speak of spiritual things in the unconventional atmosphere of a home… Still further, the meetings in believers’ homes can be a fruitful testimony to the neighbors around, and they provide an opportunity for witness and Gospel preaching. If numbers increase so that it becomes impracticable to meet in one house, then they can meet in several different homes… A hall for such purposes could either be borrowed, rented, or built…but we must remember that the ideal meeting-place of the saints is their own private homes (1962:116-117).
An example of this network is the Taichung district. The head “local church” is the center for all local gatherings. Under the head “local” church are seven “district halls,” some rented, some purchased and some located in larger private homes. Under these seven district halls are over 40 additional homes which provide for most intimate worship services. On Sunday morning all believers gather at the head church for morning prayer and praise. Weekly Sunday evening communion services are held in each of the seven district halls. The head church also serves as the hall for one of the districts. Additional week night services are held mainly at the district and home level with home services held primarily on the basis of need. No rigid pattern dictates when there shall be home worship services in the forty-some homes. Some may meet in the mornings before shopping. Others may meet several evenings a week. Others may have no expressed needs for weeks after which time they may come together for a concentrated time of home worship and prayer.
In addition to these three local divisions, the Taichung church also offers financial and personnel aid to over 30 additional district meeting halls within a 50-mile radius of Taichung. None of these halls are yet strong enough to become an independent local church but when they do they shall terminate all aid received from the Taichung church. A local church must not only be financially independent, it must also be capable of reproducing itself in any district not yet served by a local church.
Swanson, Allen J. Taiwan: Mainline versus Independent Church Growth: A Study in Contrasts. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1970: 57-63, 188-196.