Tuesday, 21 August 2007


The man calling himself "Li Chang-Shou" (this is like calling himself "John Smith" or John Doe: Li and Chang are the most common names among the Chinese, a nation of four billions) hailed from the People's Republic of China (PRC); ca. 1955, he fled to Taiwan (RoC). There he joined the Little Flock, a relatively new organization of Chinese Christians founded by Watchman Nee. Since the PRC held Nee in prison incognito, the Taiwanese could not verify Li's association with Nee. Within two years Li attempted to take over Nee's Little Flock congregation in Taipei, Taiwan (RoC). Nee himself held a number of controversial beliefs, most notably his advocacy for strong authority of leaders over followers. Such centralized authority can often be a temptation for the wrong kind of personalities. However, Li's attempted take-over of Nee's Little Flock in Taipei ultimately failed, but not after having split hundreds of its members off into Li's own group. When leaders of the Little Flock exposed Li as a fraud with no verified connections to Watchman Nee, Li fled the RoC.

Excommunicated from Nee's group, Li flew to the United States, and representing himself as a simple Chinese Christian fleeng Communist persecution, he was able to find audiences among less sophisticated non-denominational evangelical Bible studies. Even so, Li spoke only a halting pidgin and his non-Christian sentiments quickly became apparent. Soon, a growing number of American hosts began rejecting his requests for speaking engagements and charity. By 1961, Li was left with only a single charismatic fellowship in Los Angeles who were willing to allow Li to continue speaking among them. Li continued to live off the charity of its members.

By 1962, Li attempted a take over his host in Los Angeles, just as he had done in Taiwan. This too failed. But just as in Taiwan, Li split away a large number of followers, and these American proselytes had access to a great deal more capital and organizational know-how than Li's followers in Taiwan. With this technical capital, Li was able to apply what he had learned from his experiences in Taiwan and the USA. For example, Li had for years listened to naive accusations against him of "splitting" and "creating a division of within the body of Christ;" his solution in the United States was simply to beat his hosts to the punch and accuse them of division. He argued that only his doctrines were truly Christian (actually they were Chinese folk-Buddhist), and therefore his hosts were creating division by continuing in their ways.

One of the main problems with history of the Liite religion is that there is little effort to back it up with verifiable sources. A few writers have accepted Li's claims uncritically in their own writings, and Li's religious group in turn mentions the author as evidence for Li's claims. But this cannot be taken seriously. Indeed the one Little Flock assembly in the USA, in San Francisco, never associated with Li and Li set up his own "Church in San Francsico" in opposition.

With a membership base split off from fellowships Li had visited, and under the advice of his new American hosts, Li was able to establish himself at the head of his own organized religion. In 1963, his first line of business was to have his hosts to establish a publishing business dedicated to printing only his writings. "Writings" here does not mean literally anything that Li wrote; Li's English was oral and simple. However his American hosts found no want of followers they could instruct to transcribe his oral messages for higher-ranking members to edit for print. This was the beginning of the Living Stream Ministry, which would quickly become the de facto Vatican of Li's new and increasingly lucrative "Local Church" hierarchy.

Like many other new religions and cults of the counter-cultural 1960's and 1970's, by 1974, Li's found himself the undisputed head of an organization of more than 7,000 members worldwide. A house on several acres on prime urban real estate on Ball Road in Anaheim California was built and donated to Li, valued at 4 million dollars at the time, where he lived with his fourth wife. His favorite son, Philip, lived in a similarly spacious complex on the same compound with elaborately landscaped exotic gardens, waterfalls and a heated swimming pool walled off from prying eyes of the community -- and the religion's membership. Li travelled throughout the world free of charge several times a year to lead conferences and trainings and to acquire donors, chauffeured wherever he spoke and toured.

Li stirred up controversy wherever he went and he never shirked from leveling the most basest of charges at whoever who crossed him. Long-time friends and co-workers who did the actual work of creating and building the organization were excommunicated whenever they became too popular and sensational attacks were launched against their reputations. Any writer on the outside who objectively publicized his eccentric, Buddho-Christian dogmas quickly became the subject of unrelenting persecution launched with the full force of the LSM's war-chest numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Two famous victims Li persecuted were Reverend Jack Sparks and Dr. Walter Martin.

Li's own project to create a version of the Bible reflecting his views ended in a debacle. By 1991, the translator and editors of his Bible, William H. Duane, Jr, Albert Knoch, and John Ingalls were driven out and excommunicated when they hesitated to reword the version contrary to the original language and when they discovered that Li and his eldest son engaged in a sex-ring involving adultery with Chinese members of Li's Church in Southern California (particularly at the Liite cell in Rosemead) and elsewhere. The ensuing controversy almost ended the organization since it belied any pretense of morality even by "the world's" standards.

In this Local Church drama, however, the leadership who discovered the improprieties failed to act quickly and eventually left Li's organization in confusion. They did not pursue any aggressive stance against Li and his church. Perhaps they felt guilty about setting Li's religion in the first place. This left Li in control of an immense tax-free war-chest in the LSM. Bust just as the Jehovah's Witnesses lost a huge chunk of their membership when the Lord did return in the sky in 1974, Local Church activities resumed their former speed. When Li died in 1997, he was recognized by his church as the "Acting God" (attained through a "process" Li called "mingling"). A scramble among Li's Chinese followers established a new leader of the LSM and its subsidiary Local Church franchises, when Andrew Yu surfaced as the new head of the LSM and thus of the entire Liite religion.

Over the course of its history, the LSM has persecuted -- indeed sued -- nearly a dozen Christian publishers. The latest persecution was a $136-million dollar lawsuit against Harvest House for brief mention in an encyclopedia of American religious cults. The LSM pursued the case for six years against Harvest Publishers, losing every step of the way. Although the case was undoubtedly costly, the LSM accumulates a large war-chest during each suit through massive donation drives from members. So in the end, a lawsuit not only scares away potential research into the LSM, it also is enormously lucrative.

But now that the Liites have failed to silence the latest voice of a martyr, it may well be safe to print the truth for the world, with God's grace.