“You see: the more persecution, the more the church grows,” said Pastor Samuel Lamb in 1993. Before he was jailed for 20 years in 1958, fewer than 400 worshippers attended his underground church, Damazhan. When he returned to his pulpit, the congregation grew to 900. It swelled still more, to 1,200, after 1990, when the authorities tried to close down his church. After that, his following and influence kept waxing.
Mr Lamb died this month, at the age of 88. On August 16th some 30,000 people attended a memorial service in Guangzhou, his home city. That does not count the many police. As so often in his lifetime, they were nearby, with a close eye and a heavy hand. They warned dozens not to come; several were detained during the service. Wang Yanfang, a Guangzhou Christian, said she was handcuffed and restrained for nearly eight hours. Her husband, Tang Jingling, a human-rights lawyer, was also nabbed.
Yet the authorities did not stop the event, in keeping with their approach in recent years to ministers like Mr Lamb and to the unregistered “house churches” they lead across China. Officially, China has 23m Christians. The real number is somewhere between 60m and 130m.
Chen Guancheng, a leader of Mr Lamb’s church, says the police consulted him closely on plans for the service, which was attended by representatives of state-sanctioned churches too. Mr Lamb, or Lin Xiangao, was one of the last from an earlier era, when underground churches were harshly persecuted. His 20 years of jail and forced labour in coal mines followed an earlier two-year sentence. His grandson, Zion Hu, recalls the church’s early days, when “our house would be jam-packed, and people would sit on the stairs or take off their shoes and sit on our beds.”
Later, the authorities loosened their grip and even allowed him to receive foreign visitors, among them Billy Graham and representatives of two American presidents, Ronald Reagan and his successor, George Bush. But Maggie Lam, a church member, says the police constantly pressured Mr Lamb to comply with official doctrine and register with the government. He always refused. The church’s new leaders insist they will act in the same spirit. According to Bob Fu, president of an American Christian group, ChinaAid, the pastor would pack a backpack with a “bible, clothes and simple necessities”. Chinese believers, he said, must be ready for possible arrest.