Pastor Samuel Lamb (1924-2013) – a Tribute

Article featured in 2014 GCM March

If you had been in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) last August, you might have witnessed an extraordinary sight. Some 30,000 people were blocking the streets and heading for the cemetery. Was it to attend the funeral of some Communist Party big-wig because, as is often the case, they had been told to go? No–it was largely Christians flocking to pay tribute to a great man of God who had just passed away.

That man was Lin Xiangao, better known in the West as Samuel Lamb. When he was released from labor camp in 1978 and returned to Guangzhou, he was alone (his wife had died while he was in prison) and virtually unknown. So what had caused so many people to express their love and admiration for the last 35 years of his life? It is an extraordinary story.

Lin Xiangao was born in 1924, the son of a Baptist preacher. He attended Bible college in Guangxi on the eve of World War II and narrowly escaped death when the Japanese bombed the city. In those difficult years, he learned to live by faith for his preaching ministry. These were the turbulent years of the civil war, which swept the communists to power in 1949.

In 1955 he was one of a select band of evangelical Chinese Christian leaders (the most notable of whom was Wang Mingdao) who refused to accept growing Communist Party domination of the church. He refused to join the state-controlled Protestant Three-self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), not on political grounds, but because then it was largely controlled by modernists who denied the very basic beliefs of the Christian faith (i.e. the true resurrection of Jesus, the absolute reliability and authority of the Bible and the centrality of the cross for salvation).

Nevertheless, in 1955 he was accused of being a “counter-revolutionary” and sent to prison for his faith. Although he was released for a short period, he was re-arrested in 1958 and jailed for 20 years. As has been amply demonstrated by documentation in recent years, the TSPM then had been set up as a tool to infiltrate, restrict and ultimately liquidate the church. (Ironically, some TSPM churches today are evangelical.)

For many years Pastor Lamb slaved away in the coal mines in North China. He later estimated that he had coupled together some 2 million coal trucks in the semi-darkness underground. Many men were seriously injured or even killed, but he emerged without a scratch.

After Mao’s death and the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping, China turned its back on Mao’s extreme policies. In 1978 Lamb was released and returned alone to Guangzhou. His English was good, so he took to teaching young people English, as that was popular then. Through this means he led many to faith in Christ, and soon a house church was established at Damazhan (Big Horse Station) in the center of the old city. He tells the story of God’s remarkable blessing on the house church in his own words:

“In 1955, on the eve of my imprisonment, the congregation at our Sunday worship did not exceed 400. After I was released in 1978 it increased from four to more than 900 people in the space of just three meetings. Then, in 1990 the police confiscated all our Bibles and Christian books, but soon after, in the space of four meetings, numbers passed 1,600. By 1993 we had a total number of 2,000 attending four services a week, but sometimes some people still can’t come in. Praise God! The more we are persecuted, the more people come to our church.”

Pastor Lamb’s ministry centered on gospel preaching. He preached the Bible from cover to cover, focusing on the death and resurrection of our Lord and the need for conversion. A typical Sunday morning saw people sitting on the narrow wooden stairs and in every nook and cranny of the rickety house in Damazhan, as well as spilling out into the courtyard. As ceiling fans turned the humid, sub-tropical air, everyone sat glued to their narrow benches transfixed by his preaching. On one occasion when I recorded the time, he spoke for one hour and 40 minutes!

The numbers brought to Christ under his ministry were no less astonishing. His church certainly experienced what many would call revival, or, at the very least, extraordinary church growth. Again, in his own words:

“In 1988 on April 30, 30 people were baptized at our 88th baptismal service. On May 28, 60 were baptized at our 89th baptismal service. On July 9, 65 people were baptized at our 90th baptismal service. On August 13, 121 people were baptized at our 91st baptismal service. On September 17, 74 were baptized at our 93rd baptismal service. In 1998 we had six baptismal meetings, with altogether 428 people baptized … ” And so it went on, year after year, with an average of 300-400 new converts baptized annually.

Damazhan became a spiritual power house, not only for Guangzhou but for the whole of South China and beyond. Pastor Lamb mimeographed huge numbers of his sermons and gospel tracts, which were printed and stapled together by a team of young volunteers and widely distributed.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Christians from Hong Kong and elsewhere brought in large numbers of Bibles and Christian books which were then in great demand, and Damazhan acted as a conduit for distribution to remote towns and villages inland.

Not surprisingly, the local authorities were not amused. In the late evening on February 22, 1990 some 50 policemen pounded up the stairs of Damazhan and confiscated a huge amount of Bibles, Christian literature and equipment. Pastor Lamb was taken away and interrogated overnight but released the following day. The meeting place was banned. However, Pastor Lamb continued to “share” (sitting down!) and a brave few souls crept back, kneeling on the worn wooden floor and crying to God to open up a way, just like the children of Israel before the Red Sea. God heard their prayer. Within a few weeks meetings were as well-attended as ever, and the authorities thereafter largely turned a blind eye.

By this time Pastor Lamb’s fame was well-known overseas. Billy Graham attended one of his meetings and President Reagan sent him a pen. Lamb was even invited to attend the White House Presidential Prayer Breakfast, but refused. Although these high-level contacts undoubtedly made the Chinese government think twice before persecuting him too severely, Pastor Lamb was unwilling to get involved in politics. Like the vast majority of house-church Christians in China, he looked to God alone, and always kept a bag packed in the modest room he lived in at the back of the meeting hall, just in case, as he said, he should suddenly be hauled off to prison again.

Pastor Lamb was not without his faults. Some Western visitors were aghast at his extreme premillennial views on prophecy, and for his liking for rather dubious biblical numerology. His dismissive views on the Back to Jerusalem Chinese mission movement, as it was being marketed in the West as a money-making business, also upset some. However, the overwhelming majority of house-church leaders in China at the time shared his views.

Although there was some danger of a cult of personality growing up around him, Pastor Lamb himself remained humble. Throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century he trained up a team of a dozen younger full-time co-workers who learned to live by faith. Young people were attracted to his meetings and received good biblical training. By robustly proclaiming the gospel, he saw immense blessing and spiritual fruit throughout his 35-year ministry after his release from prison.

Pastor Lamb’s death undoubtedly marks the end of an era. There are still dwindling numbers of elderly, lesser-well-known house-church leaders who suffered for the Lord in prison and continue in ministry. But, in general, we may say Pastor Lamb’s passing is symbolic of the passing of the leadership of China’s house churches into younger hands. This is no doubt what brought out so many into the streets of Guangzhou in a spontaneous outburst of respect and affection.

If, as government and academic sources in China now admit, that there are more than 50 million house-church Christians in China, Samuel Lamb made a significant contribution to their growth and the training of a younger generation of leaders. The house-church movement in many ways has reached maturity, especially in the cities. However, even if there are over 100 million Christians in China now, that still leaves the vast majority—1.3 billion—without Christ and without hope. Let us pray that the house churches throughout China will continue to know the anointing which so clearly rested on Pastor Lamb and see similar spiritual fruit.