Every Sunday, when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) meet in the conference room of a blue-glass skyscraper in downtown Shanghai, one person always takes a seat right at the back, by the doors.
They are there to intercept the wrong person coming in. This is not to protect any religious mysteries; Mormonism is not a particularly secretive faith and usually seeks out new converts, but because if a Chinese passerby were to join the service, it could mean all those taking part were breaking the law.
There are only five state-sanctioned religious associations in China, all under the tight control of the Communist Party. Others walk a delicate legal tightrope, with the threat of a crackdown always hanging over their heads. While the government tolerates foreigners practicing their religion and attending services together, it takes a hard line against anything approaching proselytising or missionary work, a prohibition the Mormon Church takes seriously.
“We have to ask to see if they have a foreign passport to attend,” said Jason, a lifelong member of the Church who worked in Shanghai for almost a decade until relocating back to the United State in 2018. “I have frequently been this person watching the doors and on many occasions I have sadly had to turn away Chinese citizens who wished to worship with us.”
And that is during the good times. In recent years, the Chinese government has increased its regulation of religious worship, launched crackdowns against underground churches and instituted new restrictions on those faiths which operate in the grey area of only catering to foreigners.
So the Church’s announcement on April 5, that it plans to open a temple in Shanghai, the first ever in mainland China, was seen by some as a bold decision.
The Church claims it won’t change anything, but the idea that a US church with expansion in its DNA could open an official temple in China is likely to be controversial – and may not be allowed by Beijing. Already, authorities in Shanghai have suggested that the announcement was made without their prior approval, even as experts said the Church would likely never have revealed the plans without a clear go ahead.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, the spiritual headquarters of the US-based Church, Jason “could hardly believe” the news.
“I couldn’t have imagined that we would ever have a temple in Shanghai at this time,” he said. “Immediately, my WeChat started lighting up as we were all expressing joy and excitement with our China friends.”
Jason is a pseudonym. Like several other current members of the Church interviewed for this story, he requested anonymity to speak about its functioning in China without the permission of Church leadership.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined multiple requests for an interview for this story, referring CNN to a website about its operations in China and President Russell Nelson’s statement on April 5.
In the beginning
Founded in upstate New York by Joseph Smith in 1830, it took the Mormon Church some 117 years to grow from six initial members to its first million. Today, it claims more than 16.5 million members globally, with most outside the US.
While the true size of the church is debated (some say they include members who are no longer active) one thing is clear: the massive growth of the Church has been achieved through the work of thousands of missionaries.
Smith said he received a revelation in February 1831, in which God told his followers to “go forth in my name, every one of you” and “build up my church in every region.”
That is how the Church arrived in China over a century and a half ago.
Its start in the country, however, was less than auspicious. In 1853, its then-leader Brigham Young dispatched three missionaries to British-controlled Hong Kong, then a common staging ground for those seeking to spread the gospel in China.
When they arrived, however, they realized that China was in the midst of a bloody civil war, making travel outside of Hong Kong exceptionally dangerous. Their reception in the city was not much better, as the English-language press ran lurid articles about the Mormon faith and accused the faith of blasphemy. Their funds running out, they struggled even to find a Chinese teacher.
“Our staying here to learn the Chinese language without one friend or one possible recourse to us appears totally impractable (sic),” the missionaries wrote in a letter to church leaders as, less than two months after they had arrived in Asia, they boarded a ship bound for California, historian Stephen Prince recounts in his biography of one of the missionaries, Hosea Stout.
It was not until 1949 that the Church established a permanent presence in Hong Kong, with the intention again of using the city to get a foothold into China.
“Nearly one billion of our Father’s children live in China,” then-President Spencer Kimball said in 1978. “If we could only make a small beginning in every nation, soon the converts among each kindred and tongue could step forth as lights to their own people.”