Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion Scholars to Study the True Jesus Church in China

April 1, 2010

ISR associates receive grant from USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture

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Two non-resident research fellows of the Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) - Dr. Jiexia (Elisa) Zhai and Dr. J. Gordon Melton - have been named recipients of a Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative Grant from the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture. The grant will allow the ISR researchers to pursue a focused study of the True Jesus Church, the largest Pentecostal movement operating among Chinese Christians worldwide.

The grant, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, aims to investigate the global Pentecostal/Charismatic movement that has so altered Christianity during the last century. The Center for Religion and Civic Culture received more than 500 initial letters of inquiries following the original announcement of its Pentecostal and Charismatic Research Initiative in February 2009.

The grant to Zhai and Melton represented one of only 16 proposals that were funded. The researchers noted that China was a relatively neglected area for Pentecostal studies, as Pentecostalism has developed in a very different manner in the country largely due to its adaptation to Chinese culture and early instillation of indigenous leadership. It also is partly hidden by its existence within the larger Church of Christ of China, the inclusive official Protestant church in the Peoples Republic.

"When the Pentecostal initiative was first announced, we were immediately conscious of the lack of information on the Church," Zhai said, "and we saw fertile ground for testing the possibilities of fruitfully combining historical and sociological research."

"We are very proud that we were able to play a role in providing a context in which this collaboration could be formed and nurtured," said Dr. Byron Johnson, professor of sociology and co-director of the ISR at Baylor. "ISR exists to further the sociological and historical studies of religion and this grant is an indication that our plan of building and supporting a network of outstanding scholars is moving forward nicely."

"This research project will yield important scholarship on an important and understudied topic," said Dr. Thomas S. Kidd, associate professor of history and co-director of ISR's Program on Historical Studies of Religion (HSR).

"For years now, observers have recognized the enormous significance of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity worldwide, but the topic has never received the attention it deserves in the academy as a whole, and especially in teaching," said Dr. Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Senior Fellow at ISR and co-director of HSR. "Bringing together an acclaimed religion scholar like Gordon Melton and a rising young academic like Elisa Zhai is a 'can't miss' opportunity."

Zhai, a Chinese native, received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin and worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at ISR at Baylor from 2007-09. Zhai currently holds an assistant professor position at the department of sociology and gerontology and the Asian/Asian American studies program at Miami University.

Melton is the director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbra, Calif., and the author of more than 35 books and numerous scholarly articles and papers. He was named a ISR Distinguished Scholar in 2009.

Grants from this research initiative will support research centers in Nigeria, Russia, Indonesia, El Salvador, and potentially Brazil--where a proposal is still pending approval. In addition to documenting the growth of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity, a number of projects are focused on investigating its impact on civil society and politics.

Media contact: Lori Fogleman, director of media communications, (254) 710-6275

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