In a prison cell: A matter of conscience

After the Communists liberated Shanghai in 1949, the government was more interested in rooting out corruption than in planting Communist Party ideology. While it was rounding up “capitalist dogs,” prostitutes, gangsters, and drug offenders, it was too busy to worry about religion. In fact, proselytizing, while officially banned, was not only permitted, but encouraged, and naturally, Christianity spread. In the early 1950s, the Seventh-day Adventist Church became Shanghai’s fastest growing denomination. During the 1950s and 1960s, a young man named Robert Huang, son of an American-born Chinese, joined Adventism and entered the ministry.

Not long after Chairman Mao Zedong ushered Shanghai down the socialist road, the government cracked down on “superstition.” Unfortunately, other Christians, jealous of the Adventist Church growth, encouraged the Party to allow the Adventists to initiate the Accusation Movement in the city. Sadly, spouses began accusing each other and members denounced their leaders.

A little persecution strengthens the church, but too much can destroy it. After a while, all denominations died out almost completely in Shanghai. Many Adventist leaders compromised with the government on even fundamental matters of belief and practice, like breaking the Sabbath, the fourth commandment in Exodus 20. To Huang’s dismay, these leaders demanded that he follow their example. He refused and was shunned by his fellow clergy. Here is his testimony.

Adventism became a church led by fewer and fewer pastors as they were arrested one by one. I became one of the last, if not the last, Adventist pastor able to minister to the remaining Adventists in Shanghai. Because proselytizing was illegal in the new China, I went underground, secretly conducting private services in church members’ homes, beside hospital beds, or on park benches. I soon became a marked man and was followed by members of the secret police. In 1964, I was arrested and without trial was thrown in jail. When I remained unwilling to confess to crimes I had never committed, the guards told me to cooperate or sit on the floor until it rotted. I had one consolation: When I explained to the guards that Seventh-day Adventists follow the diet in Leviticus restricting unclean meats, especially pork, they granted my request for Muslim halal food.

While awaiting my sentence, I looked for opportunities to witness. I needed a Bible, but Bibles were illegal in prison. The story of how I got a pocket English Bible is a miracle. You can read about how it happened in an earlier issue of Dialogue [“The hidden Bible,” 14:3, 2002]. Hiding the Bible within the pages of Chairman Mao’s Quotations, I secretly taught my cell mates about God.

I might have been able to continue witnessing had I not decided to try to tell the outside world about my success. Because my family had been able to slip a Bible past the guards, I believed I could clandestinely pass my story to them. They had hidden the Bible in a bar of soap, so I hid my story in a medicine bottle. Sadly, I was caught slipping the bottle into my sister’s hand. Now the guards had evidence against me, and I was selected for torture.

After months of being forced to stand in contorted positions for hours while being slapped, beaten, and kicked by fellow inmates, my health weakened. Then the guards began testing me by altering my menu, serving me rice with pork, a food I had given up for biblical reasons when I became an Adventist. At first I fasted, but when I began coughing, I knew my tuberculosis was returning.

Every day my fellow inmates yelled, “Join New China! Leave your superstition behind!” Their cries beat against my soul even harder than the blows that struck my flesh. Outwardly I stood firm, but inwardly I doubted. Should I compromise? I worried about my health. If I didn’t eat, I would grow weaker. Surely God didn’t want me to suffer from tuberculosis needlessly. Wouldn’t God want me to do everything in my power to be healthy and strong? Eating pork was no mortal sin, I thought. It wasn’t like breaking one of the commandments. I cannot be saved by works, but by faith in Jesus Christ. Aren’t clean thoughts more important to God than clean meat? If I ate the pork, I reasoned, my mind would be clearer, and I’d be better able to resist my daily torment.

The next day, fearing that I might die of tuberculosis and lacking the faith to believe that God had a thousand ways to deliver me, I ate pork. Chinese love pork, and I’m no exception. It tasted wonderful in my mouth, but it was soon bitter in my stomach. My wishful idea that prison life would be easier after compromising proved terribly wrong. Having seen me take one step in their direction, my tormentors relentlessly prodded me to take another. I wanted to quit eating pork, but the guards kept serving it to me. Having once gone against my conscience, I found it nearly impossible to ask the guards to change my diet. I tried to tell them, “Adventists don’t eat pork,” but they sneered, “You’re not Muslim. That diet is served to our Muslim prisoners. You eat pork!” Soon I was eating it regularly and thinking nothing of it.

My tormentors forced me to read lists of prisoners who’d been executed. Many were Christians. I took it to mean, “If you don’t change, you’ll face the firing squad, too!” I worried about my Bible. If it were discovered, the guards would know that my family had smuggled it to me. Suffering daily, I momentarily forgot that if God could keep the guards from finding it when it was smuggled in, He could prevent them from discovering it now. Instead, I feared that if it were found, my family would be arrested. Wanting to protect them, I determined to be rid of my precious Bible. You can learn more of its fate in the book Prisoner for Christ.

Not long after I‘d solved my problem with the Bible, I was walking down the prison hall trying to forget my cellmate’s daily demands that I give up my God. As I turned toward my cell, I saw a former inmate with whom I had once studied the Bible. He yelled, “You’re not a true Christian, Robert. If you were, you wouldn’t be eating pork!”

On the one hand, I was happy because he had remembered the biblical dietary principles I had shared with him, but his harsh judgment informed me that I was being closely observed. Eating pork had reduced my credibility and thus my influence. The Apostle Paul had said that eating food offered to idols was no sin, but he had worried about the influence it had upon weaker church members. I didn’t want to be responsible for an inmate’s spiritual downfall simply because I ate pork. I decided to request a new menu, but procrastinated.

Six months after my torture sessions began, they ended—almost as abruptly as they had begun. I remained unrepentant, except on the matter of pork. As I struggled with my conscience, I found it impossible to witness. As long as I behaved contrary to my convictions, I had neither the will to teach about Jesus, nor to be a Daniel and request simple vegetables. I mustered up the courage to ask for simple vegetables occasionally, but was rebuked. “You ate pork before, what’s wrong with it now?” the guards yelled contemptuously. Still weak in faith, I would eat it again, and soon I quit asking.

When my family visited me one day, I learned that my younger brother had been arrested because he was a doctor and a Christian. It heartened me to know he was standing up for his beliefs. Back in my cell, I felt ashamed. How could I face him? How could I say, “It was too hard for me in prison, so, under pressure, I compromised”? I should be an example, yet a fellow inmate felt I wasn’t a Christian because I ate pork. I had not only failed my younger brother, I had also failed in my witness. My example was shouting louder than my words. I concluded that sometimes a person’s life is the best sermon, and decided that with God’s help, I’d preach it with my might!

The next time pork was served, with God’s help, I refused it, asking for simple food. At first the guards were uncooperative. In time, when they saw that I meant what I said, they stopped serving me pork. With my new diet, I felt that my spiritual strength also increased. Having won my battle with my conscience, I sensed God’s presence near me in prison. Growing ever closer to God, I felt bold enough to witness again. Soon, with God’s help, I brought a thief to Christ.

In 1979, I was released from prison, was reinstated, and reissued a ministerial license. I took a trip to the newly opened American Embassy in Beijing and was permitted to emigrate to the U.S. Today I travel the world sharing my story, witnessing to Chinese everywhere.

Stanley Maxwell teaches at Lake Michigan College in South Haven, Michigan. He is the author of The Man Who Couldn’t Be Killed and The Man Who Lived Twice. For more about Robert Huang, read his latest book, Prisoner for Christ. The books may be purchased online at He is currently working on his fourth book.