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Three Grades of Servants

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A Chinese sect whose teachings and practices identify the movement as, theologically, a cult of Christianity.

The group has been in the news lately because its leader is on trial for allegedly having ordered the murder of religious rivals. These rivals have been identified as members of another cult of Christianity, Eastern Lightning – a group equally as violent as Three Grades of Servants.

In July, 2006, China sentenced the group’s leader and two members to death. Three others members were sentenced to life in prison.

Three Grades of Servants, a banned Christian sect that claims several million followers, made inroads in Huaide and other northern towns beginning nearly a decade ago. It lured peasants like Yu Xiaoping, as well as her neighbor, Ms. Kuang, away from state-authorized churches. Its underground network provided spiritual and social services to isolated villages.

But it also attracted competition from Eastern Lightning, its archrival, which sought to convert Ms. Yu, Ms. Kuang and others. The two sects clashed violently. Both became targets of a police crackdown.

Xu Shuangfu, the itinerant founder of Three Grades of Servants, who says he has divine powers, was arrested last summer along with scores of associates. Mr. Xu was suspected of having ordered the execution of religious enemies, police officers said.

Xu Shuangfu, who the authorities say was born Xu Wenkou, is a religious entrepreneur. Now in his 60’s, he founded Three Grades of Servants in Henan Province in the late 1980’s and oversaw its growth despite serving time in custody.

The sect’s hierarchy is based on what Mr. Xu argued is the theme of a trinity that runs through scripture, including three servants of God (Moses, Aaron and Pashur, the ancestor of a priestly family) in the Old Testament, and three friends of Jesus (Martha, Mary and Lazarus) in the New Testament. Mr. Xu occupies the top grade and maintains that he, as Moses did, talks to God.

The group is millenarian. Mr. Xu, followers say, predicted that Jesus would return to earth and eliminate nonbelievers in 1989, then again in 1993. When this did not happen, Mr. Xu explained that even God misjudged how long Abraham’s descendants would stay in Egypt. He did not set a third date for the Second Coming.

Though he failed to divine the future, Mr. Xu did reach deeply into the lives of his peasant followers. The sect played a guiding role in Ms. Yu’s life not unlike the way the Communist Party, in its heyday of molding people according to Maoist and Marxist doctrine, shaped her father’s life.

Ms. Yu reported to a “fellow worker” in Three Grades of Servants, a woman who went by the code name Xing Zhi, or Fortunate Aspirations. Xing Zhi coordinated prayer sessions, collected donations and taught Ms. Yu what to wear, what to eat, when to wake up in the morning. She even matched Ms. Yu with another of her young charges, Zhang Qinghai. Ms. Yu and Mr. Zhang read the Bible together, discussed their goals and fell in love. They married a decade ago, six months after meeting.

“You are not required to marry within the group,” Ms. Yu said. “But Xing Zhi said if you find someone you love who is also in the group, then that is the ideal.”

Christian sects form and mutate in the countryside, vying to attract the same disadvantaged classes.

“Cults are thriving among those the government has abandoned,” says Kang Xiaoguang, a political scientist at Qinghua University in Beijing. “They provide social services the government no longer does. They give people a sense of belonging,” he said.

There are the Shouters and the Spirit Church, the Disciples Association and White Sun, the Holistic Church and the Crying Faction. Many are apocalyptic. A few are strongly anti-Communist. Three Grad

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First published (or major update) on Sunday, March 19, 2006.
Last updated on July 07, 2024.

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