How I Kept Strong in Faith in a Chinese Communist Prison
By Harold King
ON May 27, 1963, a Chinese police officer walked with me toward the bridge separating Hong Kong from China. For over four and a half years I had been confined in the prisons of Communist China. During all this time I had not been allowed to visit with even one fellow Christian. All Bibles and Bible literature had been taken from my possession. But this was the day of my release! Across the bridge brother missionaries from the Hong Kong branch of the Watch Tower Society waited to welcome me. In a few moments I was in their arms, but speech was impossible. How grateful to God I was that I could again be among His people!
As we went on to the Society’s branch office in Hong Kong those who had come to greet me inquired anxiously about my welfare, and they were eager to know about their Christian brothers who are still in Communist China. As best I could, I poured out to them the account of what had happened.
It was back in 1954 that the authorities called Stanley Jones and myself, both of whom were missionaries, down to the police station and told us that we would have to stop preaching from house to house. If we wanted to do any preaching we were told to do it in our “church” and not outside of it. While they did not prohibit our conducting home Bible studies, they demanded the addresses of all those on whom we called.
This called for some adjustments in our preaching activity, in order to keep it going at least to some extent. Of course, the police had not told us that all of Jehovah’s witnesses must stop preaching from house to house; they said it only to us missionaries. So our Chinese brothers did not slow down in the ministry even a little bit, but were eager to press on, showing that Jehovah’s spirit was on them.
As for those with whom we conducted Bible studies, even when told that the police had demanded their names and addresses, the majority wanted their studies to continue. But pressures increased. As soon as a foreigner entered a lane of Chinese homes, he was spotted. He was not stopped from going in, but when he left, the “lane representative” would go directly to the home where he had been to find out what he had been doing there. This caused some to become intimidated. Pressures also built up from another quarter: there were political meetings that they were expected to attend. More and more of their time was taken, and some began to fall back. On the other hand, those with faith that Jehovah God would back them up continued to study and attend the congregation meetings regularly, refusing to get involved in the political sessions at the factories and schools.
TRIAL OF FAITH FOR CHINESE WITNESSES
Then direct action began to be taken against our zealous Chinese publishers of the Kingdom. Nancy Yuan was the first one of our Christian sisters to be arrested in Shanghai, being taken away from her four children, the youngest of whom was only a year old. Efforts on our part to intervene in her behalf were all repulsed. Where she was sent we did not know. But we do know that a letter to her mother about a year after her arrest showed that she was still strong in faith and had not wavered in her confidence in Jehovah’s power to deliver.
From 1957 onward the government operated what was called a “rectification” campaign. Every worker was required to write an autobiography and then attend special meetings, where he was criticized on his conduct and his outlook on life. Here our brothers ran into great difficulty. They had been preaching to their workmates, telling them of the end of this wicked world and the hope of a righteous new world under Jesus Christ. But now these workmates turned on them and charged that they had been preaching that the Chinese People’s Republic was going to be destroyed by God. Those who refused to accept the socialist view of things, as well as those who refused to attend such sessions, were soon arrested. One by one our brothers went to jail.
Up to this time there had been a peak of fifty-eight publishers in the congregation at Shanghai, and publishers who had moved had spread the “good news” to other centers throughout the vast territory of China. On Sunday there were 120 or more persons attending the meetings in Shanghai alone. But gradually the fearful ones left off their association with us. Nevertheless, the central core of the congregation became even more resolute, determined to continue in the work that God had given them to do. They were fearless, because they had full confidence in the almighty power of the true God.
MISSIONARIES TO PRISON
On October 14, 1958, when breakfast had just been spread in our missionary home, and Stanley Jones was about to offer prayer, a loud pounding came on the door. In a moment the police were in upon us, guns in hand, and we were put in handcuffs. At first Stanley protested that the guns and handcuffs were not necessary, because we were Christians, but to no avail. With the neighbors called in as witnesses, the house was searched from top to bottom. But nothing was found except our Bibles and Bible literature and the records we kept in the ministry. At noon we were hustled into two waiting automobiles and taken to the police station. That morning was the last time I had the freedom to speak to Stanley. He had been a fine partner in the Lord’s service. His heart was always tied in with the hearts of the Chinese brothers. He had a deep appreciation of spiritual things, and from what I have heard in roundabout ways, he is still strong in devotion to Jehovah God, though he remains in prison in Communist China.
At prison the interrogation began. At first it was three times a day. Later, twice a day. Then less often. No physical violence was used. Not a blow was ever struck. There was only the persistent questioning and the writing of summaries of what was said at these sessions. It was extremely trying. I knew what I had done while living in Shanghai; I knew what I had said. But I had not done and said things with the motive that the government attached to them. For instance, we had taught the people from the Bible that Satan is the god of this world, and that this wicked world is going to be destroyed at the battle of Armageddon. But for us to agree that this was subversive activity against the State was preposterous. Yet that is what the authorities wanted us to say. They were firm in their charge that we were agents of imperialism, but we were not. We found that what they call an “imperialist” is anyone who is not a Communist and whom they believe to be fighting against communism. Any refusal to admit to the charges made was viewed as failure to admit our “crimes.” It did seem to satisfy them to some extent, however, when I said that it was true that if everyone responded to the message we were preaching (which they obviously would not), then it could result in the situation they envisaged. Two full years, largely in solitary confinement, were spent in “preparing” me for trial.
The trial itself was very brief. Charges were read, and I was permitted to answer only Yes or No to questions asked; no explanations were permitted. I was sentenced to five years in prison, two of which I had already spent. Stanley, who had been in charge of the work, was sentenced to seven years. That is the last time I saw him, but even then we were not permitted to speak.
KEEPING STRONG IN FAITH
When I was first put in prison, the cell was infested with vermin, all of which seemed to be extremely hungry. There was no way I could get away from them. The attacks persisted all night, and I could not sleep. The rice and water I was given to eat gave me indigestion. The next morning when the warder came to my cell he realized that I was in a very bad state, and he sent me to the prison doctor. That day the cell was cleaned and sprayed, and my diet was changed. The cell itself was bare; only a covered wooden bucket being provided as a toilet. I had to sit on the floor and eat on the floor, and at night I slept on the floor, though some bedding was permitted and this I could spread under myself. No writing materials were permitted in my possession except to write the summary of interrogation sessions. Virtually the only reading matter I saw was a Chinese news review. I was not allowed to do any work beyond cleaning my own cell. I was left with no alternative but to sit and think.
Right from the start I realized that I would have to take steps to stay strong in faith. No sooner had I been locked in my cell on the day of my arrest than I got down on my knees to pray aloud, but almost at once I was interrupted when the guard swung open the inspection window and demanded to know who I was talking to. I explained that I was praying to my God as a Christian should. “Well, you can’t do that in here,” he ordered. So I sat down and continued to say my prayers less noticeably.
To keep alive my appreciation of spiritual things I arranged for a program of “preaching” activity. But to whom does one preach when in solitary confinement? I decided that I would build up some appropriate Bible sermons from the things I could remember and then preach to imaginary characters. Then I started out on the work, as it were, knocking on an imaginary door and witnessing to an imaginary householder, visiting several doors during the morning. In time I met an imaginary Mrs. Carter, who showed some interest, and after a number of return visits we arranged to have a regular Bible study. In the course of this study we covered the principal themes from the book “Let God Be True,” as I remembered them. All this I did aloud, so that the sound of these things would further impress them on my mind. I am sure that the warders thought I was going out of my mind, but it was really keeping me strong in faith and of a sound mind. It helped to keep me equipped to take up the ministry again when I should be released. I had confidence that Jehovah our God is able to preserve his servants and deliver them, if only they remain faithful to him. No, I did not feel that he had to get me out of prison to accomplish that; my expectation was of deliverance into the new world. I felt like certain faithful Hebrews of ancient times. When called to trial before the king because they would not forsake the worship of God, they said: “If it is to be, our God whom we are serving is able to rescue us. Out of the burning fiery furnace and out of your hand, O king, he will rescue us. But if not, let it become known to you, O king, that your gods are not the ones we are serving, and the image of gold that you have set up we will not worship.”—Dan. 3:17, 18.
After my trial, when I was transferred from the detention house to the Shanghai prison, my living conditions improved. Although I was kept in an isolated cell and not permitted to mix with the other prisoners, in time I was granted a bit more freedom of movement. I was allowed to spend time during the day out in the gallery by my prison cell; and, while there was no furniture in the cell, there was a small table and stool in the gallery that I could use. I was also given the use of writing materials, and these I immediately put to use.
SONGS OF PRAISE TO BOLSTER FAITH
I began committing to writing some Bible themes in such a form that they could be used as verses for a song, and then I would hum various combinations of notes until I found a little tune that would fit. In time I built up a sizable collection of songs designed to help me keep Jehovah’s purposes in mind. Some of the songs had only a few verses, while others had as many as 144 verses, tracing the promises in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. These helped me to review portions of the Bible and to trace the themes that run through the Scriptures. For example, I had songs entitled “Selecting the Seed,” “Answer the Call of Jehovah,” “The Memorial,” “The Greatest of These Is Love,” “More than a Million Brothers,” and “From House to House.” What strength these gave to me as I sang:
What power or force of old Satan
Ever could tear us apart
From a God whom we love
oh so deeply and true,
Yes, love with the whole of our heart.
Could you tear up Sinai’s mountain
And plant it in the depths of the sea?
‘Twould be an easier task, friend,
than ever to try
To tear us from Jah’s sovereignty!
But as we stand loyal to Jehovah
With unbreakable love as a tie,
The most desperate actions
of Satan, our foe,
We shall firmly and surely defy.
Should even he go to the full limit,
And slay us because of our stand,
There, by our side, stands Christ Jesus
With the keys of the grave in his hand.
Every morning before breakfast I would sing about five of my songs, and in the evening another four or five.
Although my initial endeavors at prayer in prison were rather roughly interrupted, I realized the importance of staying close to Jehovah. I might be isolated from my fellowmen, but no one could isolate me from God. When I was moved to the Shanghai jail I again determined to pray in a more open manner. I realized that this was one way that I could give a witness to those around me. So, open to the view of any who might pass my cell, I knelt in my cell three times a day and prayed aloud, keeping in mind Daniel, of whom the Bible speaks. Even when it was forbidden by law, “three times in a day he was kneeling on his knees and praying and offering praise before his God.” (Dan. 6:10) I prayed that God would grant me the wisdom to say and do the right things, to honor him. I prayed that his glorious purpose would be triumphant. Earnestly I prayed on behalf of my brothers in every part of the world. It seemed that on such occasions God’s spirit guided my mind to the most beneficial matters and gave me a feeling of composure. What spiritual strength and comfort prayer brought to me! And by this means all came to know me as a Christian minister.
Yet at times I was assailed with doubts about whether I had really done all I should have in Jehovah’s service before my imprisonment. At first I worried about it, but then I found that I was benefiting by reviewing the situation, seeing where I had fallen short and where I could do better in the future; and I resolved that I would be a much better minister in the future, if I should be given the freedom with which to do so. Making this a matter of prayer to Jehovah, I felt reassured, and the result was that my days in jail strengthened my conviction and my determination to carry on in Jehovah’s service.
Each year I arranged to celebrate the Memorial of Christ’s death in the best way I could. From my prison window I watched the moon grow full near the start of spring. I calculated as carefully as I could the date for the celebration. Of course, I had no way to obtain the emblems, the bread and the wine, and the warders refused to give such things to me. So the first two years I could only go through the motions, using imaginary emblems, even as I had preached to imaginary householders. Then the third year I found some tins of black currants in my Red Cross parcel, and from these I succeeded in making wine, while rice, which is unleavened, served for bread. This year I had both my wine and some unleavened water biscuits from the Red Cross parcel to use as emblems. I sang and prayed and gave a regular talk for the occasion, just as would be done in any congregation of Jehovah’s people. So I felt that each year I was united with my brothers all over the world on this most important occasion.
Though my activities in prison were extremely limited, I did endeavor to witness by example. I recalled the faithfulness of the Jew Nehemiah, who, while in captivity, performed so faithfully as butler to the king of Persia that he was granted leave to go to Jerusalem to tend to matters involving the worship of his God. Repeatedly I asked for an assignment of labor to perform, but this was denied. However, it was required of every prisoner that he clean his own cell, and I endeavored to make mine exemplary. Gradually I expanded my efforts, cleaning the area in front of my cell during the time I was allowed to be out, and then the empty cells near mine. In time I was even cleaning and polishing the warders’ desks. I was sincere in my desire to do something helpful, and in time this won the confidence of the warders. As one of them said to me: ‘Everything you do you do so well, whether it is cleaning the place or studying the language. I hope that when you get back to England you will use this zeal of yours to serve the people.’ I assured him that is exactly what I looked forward to doing.
I never felt any hatred for these men who were assigned to guard me. It seemed to me that they were much like the army officers that were given the job of nailing Jesus on the torture stake; they did not know what they were doing. So I prayed that God would forgive them, and punish only those who were really reprehensible and malicious in their hatred for him and for his people.
AGAIN WITH JEHOVAH’S PEOPLE!
When, at last, I was told that the time for my release was near, and five months early at that, how relieved I was! After being given tours of Shanghai and the surrounding territory, and being shown what communism has done for the people in a material way, I was finally sent across the bridge into the arms of my waiting Christian brothers on the twenty-seventh of May. What a wonderful thing it is to be back among the people of God!
The brothers in Hong Kong were so lovingly kind to me that it was indeed hard to tear myself away. But on June 1 I was put on a plane en route to my home in England. The first stop was in Japan, where a large group of Witnesses were on hand to greet me. They had not been notified of my travel plans, but they had been following the news of my release in the public press and they figured that I just might be on that plane. They wanted to be there to welcome me.
In New York I was overwhelmed with joy to see the Watch Tower Society’s president, Brother Knorr, at the airport to greet me, and he was the first to put his arms around me in a loving welcome. Great changes had taken place at the Brooklyn Bethel home and printing plant since I had last seen them in 1947, before leaving for China, but the same spirit of love is there, only on an enlarged scale.
Here, too, the brothers wanted to know of my experiences, and I was glad to relate them and to assure them with conviction that, in spite of the events of the last four and a half years, never in all my twenty-five years of full-time ministry has my faith been so strong as it is today. Why so? Because there are no guns, no walls, no prison bars that can keep the spirit of God from reaching his people! If we have applied ourselves to a study of his Word and allowed it to sink down deep into our hearts, there is nothing to fear. We do not stand in our own strength. But with God’s almighty power he is able to make even the most frail of us come off victorious in the face of persecution!
● How strong is your faith? Could you face up to such constant interrogation and years of isolation in prison and yet not falter? Remember, the Scriptures say that “all those desiring to live with godly devotion in association with Christ Jesus will also be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12) The time to fortify yourself is before persecution comes. How? By wise use of your time now, studying and meditating on God’s Word so it becomes deeply rooted in your heart, by regularly associating with Jehovah’s people, and by using what you learn in Jehovah’s service. Thus you will be among those “who through use have their perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong.” (Heb. 5:14) This perception is vital when confronted with opposition. But if you rely on Jehovah now, availing yourself of the spiritual provisions he has made, you will be in position to draw strength from him in time of crisis, and he will sustain you.—The Publishers.