Early in his ministry, Chinese pastor Samuel Lamb often kept a small bag with clothes, shoes, and a toothbrush near his front door. The travel case wasn’t for weekend getaways: The leader in China’s underground church movement stayed ready for police to arrest him for his Christian activities.
Lamb didn’t resent it. His life spanned the remarkable surge of Christianity in China over the last half century—and he often said he could summarize his life and ministry in one principle: “more persecution, more growth.”
Lamb, who encountered both persecution and growth in extraordinary ways during his lifetime, died on Aug. 3 at age 88.
Lamb was born in a mountainous region near Macau in 1925. His father was a Baptist pastor, and Lamb began preaching his own sermons when he was 19 years old. By the mid-1950s, Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong began the first waves of persecution against many Chinese citizens, including Christians.
When Lamb refused to register his house church with the government, authorities arrested him in 1958. The sentence: Twenty years of hard labor. Lamb spent most of the next two decades working in brutal coal mines, but he also taught Christianity to others suffering in the camp.
After his release in 1979, Lamb returned to leading a house church in Guangzhou. Attendance swelled, and today some 4,000 people attend four services at the church.
‘My dear wife died while I was in prison. I was not allowed to attend her funeral. It was like an arrow of the Almighty until I understood that God allows the pain, the loss, the torture, but we must grow through it.’
Authorities repeatedly pressured Lamb to register his church with the government. In one 1998 visit to his home, they told him his Sunday school was illegal. He reminded them China was a signatory to UN conventions allowing children to follow the faith of their parents. He also told them he was prepared to go to prison—again—for his faith.
The church remains unregistered to this day, with local authorities allowing it to continue—a dynamic repeated in other parts of China.
In some regions, local authorities still crack down on illegal Christian activity. International Christian Concern (ICC) reported multiple raids against churches in northwestern China in July.
Christian leaders say persecutions have helped fuel the growth of the church over the decades. OMF International (formerly China Inland Mission) reports the number of Christians in China in 1949 was 1 million. Today, the group estimates the number at 70 million.
Lamb’s church network helped distribute some 200,000 pieces of Christian literature in China over three decades, according to Open Doors. The pastor said being prepared for suffering was key to his ministry. “I can understand Job’s victories and Job’s defeats,” Open Doors quoted Lamb as saying. “My dear wife died while I was in prison. I was not allowed to attend her funeral. It was like an arrow of the Almighty until I understood that God allows the pain, the loss, the torture, but we must grow through it.”
Ryan Morgan of International Christian Concern met Lamb last year, and called his death “a momentous occasion” for the church in China. “His life and work are testament not only to the indomitable spirit of our Chinese brothers and sisters,” said Morgan, “but to the miraculous ways in which spiritual revival has sprung from what once seemed an almost impenetrable darkness.”