On Sunday, 29 March, Russell M. Nelson, president of the 16-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, released a video from Salt Lake City calling on church members everywhere to join in a fast “to pray for relief from the physical, emotional, and economic effects of this global pandemic.”
Some 71 years before, on 6 April 1949, members of the True Jesus Church around the world responded to the call of their leader, Wei Yisa, to fast and “pray for peace.” Communist forces were advancing on the city of Nanjing, where the church headquarters was located. Shortages were severe and prices were skyrocketing.
“It is hard to buy even one grain of rice,” reported an article in the Holy Spirit Times, the church’s international periodical.
One month’s worth of contributions is not enough to cover basic needs such as a day’s vegetables. It is not enough to cover even one day’s postage. We have begun to take good wood beams intended for building and sell them for firewood.
A worldwide fast as a response to a life-threatening crisis, just as spring was beginning to warm the days and coax bright colors from the earth, is a lot for these two churches to have in common. But the parallels go far beyond this.
Both the True Jesus Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are restorationist churches, claiming to have restored the true gospel of Jesus Christ after centuries of apostasy. The Latter-day Saint tradition starts in the spring of 1820 when a New York farmboy named Joseph Smith said he had a vision in which God the Father and Jesus Christ told him none of the existing churches were true. The True Jesus Church tradition starts nearly a century later in the spring of 1917, when a rural northeastern Chinese man named Wei Enbo said he had a vision in which Jesus Christ commanded him to “correct the Church.”
Both Smith and Wei were charismatic leaders who claimed to receive divine revelation, were reported to have performed miraculous feats of healing, frequently got on the wrong side of the law, and died young. Both were succeeded by pragmatic leaders (Brigham Young and Wei Yisa) who solidified church institutions and ensured the movement’s long-term survival.
Both churches have continued to thrive and expand globally, though they remain tiny as far as world religious movements are concerned. In 2017 the True Jesus Church, now with 1.5 million members, commemorated the 100th anniversary of Wei Enbo’s founding vision. This year the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claiming 16 million members, celebrates the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s first vision (coincidentally, the day Smith formally organized the church in 1830 was 6 April—the same day as the True Jesus Church fast in 1949).
Restorationist churches are by nature exclusivist. For instance, Wei Enbo taught that no one could be saved unless they were baptized face-down and unless they had spoken in tongues. This exclusivist certainty leads to a universalistic orientation. In other words, the more a religious tradition insists that specific particulars of theology and practice are absolutely essential, the more likely it is to have mission outposts everywhere. If you believe your church is the only complete form of Christianity, when you move to another city or country, the local cathedral or neighborhood megachurch will not meet your needs. Wherever you go, you will seek out fellow believers like yourself, and if there are none, you will begin to seek converts.
Small, exclusivist religious groups tend to irritate people around them. Throughout their history, fellow Christians have labeled these two churches as disreputable and cultish. The Latter-day Saint movement began in upstate New York, but was driven west by flare-ups of mob violence and state suppression. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Communist party-state banned the True Jesus Church, imprisoning leaders and forcing rank-and-file members to meet secretly in their houses.
It’s sometimes difficult for upstart religious movements to strike the right balance between what sociologist Armand Mauss has called the twin dilemmas of respectability and disrepute. This is evident with the case of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea. Also led by a charismatic individual, also accused of being a cult, and also with a membership that likes to do things together, the church is now under fire.
Yet the resonance between the worldwide fasts of the True Jesus Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the spring of 1949 and 2020 suggests that such small but distinctive religious traditions also have something uniquely positive to offer. In the aftermath of World War II and today at the beginning of the twenty-first century, concepts such as “global arena” or “global community” are certainly viable. Yet in actuality, with real people, global scale tends to be overwhelming. It is nearly impossible to cast a global net without being sunk by the size of the catch. Small religious movements, however, are better positioned to pull it off.
Like Wei Yisa’s appeal to the True Jesus Church members in 1949, Russell M. Nelson’s call for a fast at the beginning of the first week of April 2020 went out to believers in such places as China, Japan, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom. Tens of thousands, possibly even millions of stomachs around the world went empty in concert. A fast offering was also collected to aid humanitarian efforts to ease the blow COVID-19 is dealing to the most vulnerable.
In times of global pandemic, inhabitants of the planet realize how inextricably we are connected, and also how little we usually have to do with each other, given vast divides in language, culture, space, and experience. In times like these, believers in tiny global communities who have long been eager to call each other sister and brother offer a sense of what is possible.