Seventh-day Adventism in Post-Denominational China
Schism is the first ethnographic and historical study of Seventh-day Adventism in China.
Scholars have been slow to consider Chinese Protestantism from a denominational standpoint. In Schism, the first monograph that documents the life of the Chinese Adventist denomination from the mid-1970s to the 2010s, Christie Chui-Shan Chow explores how Chinese Seventh-day Adventists have used schism as a tool to retain, revive, and recast their unique ecclesial identity in a religious habitat that resists diversity.
Based on unpublished archival materials, fieldwork, oral history, and social media research, Chow demonstrates how Chinese Adventists adhere to their denominational character both by recasting the theologies and faith practices that they inherited from American missionaries in the early twentieth century and by engaging with local politics and culture. This book locates the Adventist movement in broader Chinese sociopolitical and religious contexts and explores the multiple agents at work in the movement, including intrachurch divisions among Adventist believers, growing encounters between local and overseas Adventists, and the denomination’s ongoing interactions with local Chinese authorities and other Protestants. The Adventist schisms show that global Adventist theology and practices continue to inform their engagement with sociopolitical transformations and changes in China today.
Schism will compel scholars to reassess the existing interpretations of the history of Protestant Christianity in China during the Maoist years and the more recent developments during the Reform era. It will interest scholars and students of Chinese history and religion, global Christianity, American religion, and Seventh-day Adventism.
1. China’s Adventist Century and Wenzhou
2. To Pray or Not to Pray? The First Schism
3. Come Out of “Babylon”: The Wilderness Schism
4. Hybrid Identity: The Wheatfield Schism
5. “Sisters, You Should Also Help!” The Case of Horizontal Dyke Village
6. Divide and Divide: The Case of Stone Ground Village
7. A Brief Coalition: The Case of South Pond
“Christie Chui-Shan Chow’s research unlocks evidence of identity patterns that I have not encountered in any other author writing on comparable topics in contemporary China. Her book thus opens up new academic terrain, both within the study of Chinese Christianity and of contemporary China in general.” —Lars Laamann, author of Christian Heretics in Late Imperial China
"Christie Chui-Shan Chow’s superb study of the Seventh-day Adventist church in China recasts our understanding of the post-denominational context of Chinese Christianity. Fine-grained case studies detail four major factions, two local church splits, and one example of collaboration beyond schism, as Chow explores how churches of this Protestant minority have negotiated state control and enforced unity through retrenchment and adaptation of their rites, organization, and theology." —Chloë Starr, author of Chinese Theology
"This book has obvious appeal to anyone interested in global Adventism, but its real gift is the way it makes Christianity in China come alive. . . . For Adventists, like for so many other Christians, the pathway forward was never clear, and thus produced both intense conflict and enormous creativity. Chow suggests this may be one reason for Chinese Christianity’s vitality today." —Mission Studies
"As the first monograph-length study of Seventh-day Adventism in China covering the (roughly) forty-year period from the mid-1970s to the 2010s, this book is a significant contribution to the field of Chinese Christianities." —International Bulletin of Mission Research
"Schism: Seventh-day Adventism in Post-Denominational China is a riveting work on Chinese Protestantism that intentionally focuses on the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.... Schism is not only the first volume in the Liu Institute Series in Chinese Christianities by the University of Notre Dame Press, but it is also the first work that details the history of the Chinese Adventist denomination from the mid-1970s to the 2010s." —Social Sciences and Missions
Examining denominational impulses yields new insights into contemporary Chinese Protestantism. For one thing, denominationalism bridges generations of Protestant faith. It thus corrects a misconception that the departure of the missionaries and the disassociation with mission institutions together presuppose a rupture of denominational legacies. The Chinese adopted Adventist theology, church music, and worship styles from the missionaries. These religious resources made sense to them as long as Adventism addressed their needs. When circumstances permitted, or when new problems arose, they took the liberty of choosing and using any religious resources that were at hand. The American Adventist missionary heritage was as important as any other resources that Chinese Adventists borrowed from indigenous movements. In the process of reviving their Adventist faith, they preserved and reworked traditional Adventist theologies and practices in order to engage with the surrounding environment, local politics, and overseas mission institutions. The “Chinese-ness” of the Adventists is therefore about how they have revised and reinterpreted Adventism in the Chinese context. After all, they consider themselves to be autonomous agents capable of acting and adhering to their faith in any circumstances.
The claim that Chinese Adventists recognize themselves to be a denomination may pose a conceptual challenge. Practices and beliefs are the most convenient categories for identifying denomination. And in China’s authoritarian environment, political affiliation (TSPM churches or house churches) is another form of ecclesial self-understanding. Given that the four schisms in Wenzhou differ in terms of theology, worship practices, and relations with the TSPM, should one not consider the Adventists as multiple movements and not as a denomination? I suggest that Chinese Adventism has to be understood on its own terms. Its believers articulate their denominational consciousness, identity, and concerns in the terminologies that they employ to describe their ecclesiology, their relations with other Protestants, and the regulated frame imposed by the state. First, the two notions in the Adventist’s denominational name do just that. All the informants with whom I engaged agree that “Seventh-day” and “advent” describe how they see themselves as a church that is different from other Protestants. The core belief of the imminent return of Jesus Christ and the collective observance of Saturday Sabbath characterizes them as such. This is despite the clear fault lines among the four factions. Second, that the Chinese Adventists view themselves differently can be grasped from the way in which they refer to themselves publicly. Individual Adventists call themselves “believers of the return of Christ” (fulin xintu), and the Adventist churches collectively refer to themselves as a “Sabbatarian church” (anxirihui). These two terms came up in conversation with my informants and interlocutors whenever I asked them to describe who they are. Whether they were city dwellers or migrant workers, whether they were part of the TSPM or not, and regardless of their diverse social background and to whichever faction they belonged, they believed themselves to be an organization (hui) of believers (xintu), called to follow Jesus Christ, whom they believe would return in the present age, and to live out their Christian faith through the practice of Seventh-day Adventism. On the other hand, Chinese Adventists are keen to set themselves apart from Sunday Protestant worshippers, whom they call “first-day church” (yirihui), “Sunday church” (xingqiri jiaohui), or “rite-worship church” (libaihui). Adventist’s self-identity can also be approached through the Chinese terms “religion-faction” (jiaopai) and “clan-faction church” (zongpai jiaohui). The term jiaopai, rendered as “sect” or “cult,” is a label that non-Adventist believers attribute to the Adventists. In this designation, the former is at the center while the latter is on the periphery. The Adventists prefer to call themselves a “clan-faction church.” As a “faction (pai),” they are aware of their exclusivist claims and practices; but they recognize that there are other movements, organizations, theologies, and practices in Protestantism, and they are but one “clan” in the broad Protestant ancestry.
Given the factional claims and activities discussed in this book, one may be tempted to use the sociological concepts of “sect” and “denomination” to characterize Chinese Adventists. Indeed, scholars have long employed these analytical categories to explain worldwide Adventism. Ronald Lawson has identified signs that indicate American Adventism’s transformation from a high tension “sect” toward an accommodating and socially assimilated religious movement. These signs include the provision of education and medical ministry to members of the denomination for the purposes of upward social mobility, an increasing emphasis on church growth and decreased antagonism toward the state, and the call for open dialogue with and participation in evangelical Protestantism. The conceptual difference of “sect” and “denomination” enhances Lawson’s research on a changing American Adventism from a marginalized movement to an integral part of mainline Protestantism. Lawson’s macro-analysis has inspired Jomo Smith to argue that Adventists in Xiamen in East China are more adaptive to the local religious policy.
While the “sect-denomination” framework captures the process of Adventist transformation in the United States and in one Chinese locale, this book chooses to avoid using this binary to interpret the Adventist schisms for several reasons. First, from a lived religion point of view, Chinese Adventists do not think of their actions and beliefs in sectarian terms. They adhere to a clear understanding of “denomination” in their religious life, as my discussion of their ethnographic self-description has shown. Second, the assumption undergirding the “sect-denomination” binary is a monolithic religious group which seeks to change linearly. For one thing, Chinese Adventism is an evolving religious movement, but in its factional dynamics, the change has occurred in multiple directions and processes, eventually producing four factions to represent a broad Adventist spectrum. The schisms entail various versions of Adventism that require conceptual fluidity to comprehend them. As Russell E. Richey reminds us, a denomination is “an ecclesial body or form, an organized religious movement, with intentions for and the capacity of self- perpetuation, with a sense of itself as located within time and with awareness of its relation to the longer Christian tradition. It knows itself as denominated, as named, as recognized and recognizable, as having boundaries, as possessing adherents, as having a history.” I therefore suggest that the Chinese Adventist’s denominational reference is better understood as a series of simultaneously overlapping, self-interpreting, and reinterpreting processes which mutually reinforce each other’s denominationality in response to the surrounding environment.