[Death : 30 - 05 - 1972]
Watchman Nee (1903-1972) was a church leader and Christian teacher who worked in China during the first half of the 20th century. In 1922, he initiated church meetings in Fuzhou that may be considered the beginning of the local churches. During his 30 years of ministry, Nee published many books expounding the Bible, including The Normal Christian Life and The Normal Christian Church Life, traveled throughout China establishing churches, and held many conferences and trainings for Bible students and his fellow workers. Following the Communist Revolution, Nee was severely persecuted for his faith and spent the last 20 years of his life in prison. Nee was honored by Christianity Today magazine as one the 100 most influential Christians of the twentieth century and was recognized for his influence and contributions to Protestant Christianity in the first session of the 111th Congress.
BiographyNee’s Family and Nee’s Family’s Christian Origins Watchman Nee’s grandfather, Nga U-chen attended the first school offering Western-style education in Foochow. The school was opened by the American Board in 1853 and it was here that Nga U-chen was converted to Christianity. Four years later, in 1857, he was one of a group of four pupils baptized in the Min River. Eventually U-chen was trained to be an evangelist and was ordained a pastor, the first Chinese to be ordained in the three north Fukien missions. U-chen died in 1890 and was known for his gift for expounding the Scriptures. Watchman Nee (Nee Shu-tsu; original English name was Henry) was born to the Nee (Ni; or Nga in the Foochow dialect) family on November 4, 1903. He was the third of nine children: 1. Ni Kuei-chen, born 1900 (Mrs. H. C. Chan) 2. Ni Kuei-cheng, born 1902 (Mrs. P.L. Lin) 3. Ni Shu-tsu or Henry Nee (later Watchman Nee) 4. Ni Huai-tsu or George Nee 5. Ni Sheng-tsu 6. Ni Tek-ting (Mrs. L. H. Wong) 7. Ni Te-ching (Mrs. Chang) 8. Ni Hong-tsu or Paul Nee 9. Ni Hsing-tsu or John Nee Nee’s father, Ni Weng-hsiu (W. H. Ni, or Nga Ung-siu in the Foochow dialect), was born 1877 as the fourth of nine boys to Nga U-chen and became a well-respected officer in the Imperial Customs Service. He was known to be a quite man, grave and disinclined to scold. Though always approachable and he kept himself in the background with his official duties. Ni Weng-hsiu died in Hong Kong December 1941. Nee’s mother, Lin He-Ping (Peace Lin) was born in 1880 into a peasant family and was sold by her father during a famine to another family who intended to raise her up as a slave girl. However, He-Ping was sold again to a merchant named Lin whose concubine was barren and desired to adopt her as a daughter. At the age of six, Lin became ill with a mysterious disease that defied the skills of all the doctors. However, a business superior of Lin’s named Chang, who had become a Christian Methodist, suggested that Lin ask the Methodist pastor to come and pray for him. Lin agreed and soon had a dramatic recovery, after which he and his family sought Christian instruction. At a young age, He-Ping began to become fond of learning hymns and Bible stories. At the age of eleven, He-Ping attended the American-staffed Methodist Mission School for Girls and became near the top of her class. She then asked to be considered for medical school in the United States and was sent to the Chinese Western Girls’ School in Shanghai to improve her English. It was there that she met Dora Yu. Dora Yu (Yu Tsi-tu) was from a cultured background who had encountered Christianity through a Western-style school. Yu, who was successful in her studies, was sent to England to train for medicine but on her way was called by God to abandon her career and to return to China to preach Christ to her people. Years later, through He-Ping’s connection with Miss Yu, Watchman Nee would turn to Christianity. At the age of eighteen, Lin He-Ping was forced to give up her medical studies and to marry Ni Weng-hsiu, the son of a deceased Pastor Nga U-cheng. The couple moved to Swatow where Ni Weng-hsiu was engaged in taxation work. On November 4, 1903 Watchman Nee was born as the third child after two older sisters. Since Nee’s parents were Methodists he was baptized by a bishop of the Methodist Church as a child.
Early SchoolingIn 1916, after going through schooling at home, Nee entered the C.M.S. vernacular Middle School in Foochow to begin his western-style education at the age of thirteen. His schooling was part of an Anglican complex in Nantai which was composed of primary, middle, normal, high, and divinity school altogether known as Trinity college, Foochow. Nee proved to be highly intelligent, as well as highly ambitious, and consistently scored at the top of his class.
Salvation and TrainingIn the spring of 1920, when Nee was 17, evangelist Dora Yu was invited to hold ten days of revival meetings in the Church of Heavenly Peace in Fuzhou. After Nee’s mother, Lin He-ping, attended these meetings, she was moved to apologize to her son for a previous incident of unjust punishment. This action so impressed Nee that he determined to attend the next day’s evangelistic meetings to see for himself. According to Nee’s own account: On the evening of April 29, 1920, I was alone in my room. I had no peace of mind. Whether I sat or reclined, I could find no rest, for within was this problem of whether or not I should believe in the Lord. My first inclination was not to believe in the Lord Jesus and not to be a Christian. However, that made me inwardly uneasy. There was a real struggle within me. Then I knelt down to pray. At first I had no words with which to pray. But eventually many sins came before me, and I realized that I was a sinner. I had never had such an experience in my life before that time. I saw myself as a sinner and I also saw the Savior. I saw the filthiness of sin and I also saw the efficacy of the Lord's precious blood cleansing me and making me white as snow. I saw the Lord's hands nailed to the cross, and at the same time I saw Him stretching forth His arms to welcome me, saying, "I am here waiting to receive you." Overwhelmed by such love, I could not possibly reject it, and I decided to accept Him as my Savior. Previously, I had laughed at those who believed in the Lord, but that evening I could not laugh. Instead, I wept and confessed my sins, seeking the Lord's forgiveness. After making my confession, the burden of sins was discharged, and I felt buoyant and full of inward joy and peace. This was the first time in my life that I knew I was a sinner. I prayed for the first time and had my first experience of joy and peace. There might have been some joy and peace before, but the experience after my salvation was very real. Alone in my room that evening, I saw the light and lost all consciousness of my surroundings. I said to the Lord, "Lord, You have really been gracious to me." As a student at Trinity College, Nee began to speak to his classmates concerning his salvation experience. Later, he recounted of that time: After that conversation, I immediately began to deal with my sins by making restitution, paying debts, being reconciled with my schoolmates, and confessing offenses to others. I also entered in my notebook the names of about seventy schoolmates and began praying for them daily, mentioning their names individually before God. Sometimes I prayed for them once every hour, praying silently, even in class. When opportunity arose, I would bear testimony to them and try to persuade them to believe in the Lord Jesus. During these years, Nee became closely acquainted with a British missionary, Margaret E. Barber, who became his teacher and mentor. Nee would visit Barber on a weekly basis in order to receive spiritual help. Barber treated Nee as a young learner and frequently administered strict discipline. When she died in 1930, Barber left all of her belongings to Nee, who wrote: We feel most sorrowful concerning the news of the passing away of Miss Barber in Lo-Hsing Pagoda, Fukien. She was one who was very deep in the Lord, and in my opinion, the kind of fellowship she had with the Lord and the kind of faithfulness she expressed to the Lord are rarely found on this earth. Through Barber, Watchman Nee was introduced to the writings of D.M. Panton, Robert Govett, G.H. Pember, Jessie Penn-Lewis, T. Austin-Sparks, and others. In addition, he acquired books from Plymouth Brethren teachers like John Nelson Darby, William Kelly, and C.H. Mackintosh. Eventually, his personal library encompassed over 3,000 titles on church history, spiritual growth, and Bible commentary. He became intimately familiar with the Bible through diligent study using many different methods. In the early days of his ministry, he is said to have spent one-third of his income on personal needs, one-third to assist others, and the remaining third on spiritual books. He was known for his ability to select, comprehend, discern, and memorize relevant material, and grasp and retain the main points of a book while reading.
MarriageAs a teenager, Nee fell in love with Charity Chang. Their two families had been friends for three generations. However, after Nee turned to the Lord, Charity still had not. At the time she ridiculed the Lord in Nee’s presence and this bothered him. How could he who loved the Lord marry one who despised the Lord? Eventually, after much struggling, Nee felt of the Lord to give her up and thoroughly consecrated himself and his future to the Lord. Ten years later, after finishing her university education, Charity turned to the Lord and attended the church meetings in Shanghai in 1934. Though Nee loved Charity, her aunt despised Nee as a poor preacher and was strongly opposed to her niece’s marrying Nee. However, in 1934, during his fourth "overcomer conference" held in Hangcow, Nee’s mother, concerned that Nee was not yet married at the age of 30, caused the marriage to happen right after the conference. Nee chose Witness Lee to be the best man. Charity cared for Nee in his frequent sickness and was the only one who could visit Nee in his imprisonment. They had no children.
MinistryIn 1936, before a group of fellow workers, Watchman Nee outlined the commission of his ministry: From the time I was bedridden by illness until the time I was healed by God, I was being shown more clearly the kind of work God wanted me to do. This consists of the following four aspects: 1. Literary Work: Before I became ill, I not only visited various places to conduct special meetings, but I also had a great ambition to compose a good comprehensive commentary. I intended to devote much energy, time, and money in writing a large commentary consisting of about a hundred volumes. After completing The Spiritual Man, which I began in Nanking when I became ill, I realized that the task of expounding the Scriptures was not for me. However, since that time I have frequently met with temptation in this respect. After my illness, God revealed to me that the central point of the messages He gave me was not for expounding the Scriptures, preaching the ordinary gospel, paying attention to prophecies, or anything outward, but for laying stress on the living word of life. For this reason I felt I should resume publishing The Present Testimony to assist God's children in spiritual life and warfare. Each age has a unique truth especially needed in that time. For us, living in the last days, there must also be some truth which we especially need. By means of The Present Testimony the testimony for the truth of the present age was borne. I am profoundly convinced that the present is the preparatory period. Children of God will be reaped, but they have to become ripe first (Mark 4:29). The time for us to be caught up is full; whether or not the church is ready is the most vital problem. God's aim today is to expedite building up the Body of His Son, which is the church. As it is said in the Scripture: "That He might sanctify her, cleansing her by the washing of the water in the word, that He might present the church to Himself glorious" (Eph. 5:26-27), so that the enemy might be quickly destroyed to usher in the kingdom. I humbly hope that I may, in the hand of the Lord, have a little share in this glorious work. All that I have written has but one aim, which is that the reader will, in the new creation, give himself wholly to God and become a useful person in His hands. Now I wholeheartedly commit my writings, my readers, and myself to God, who preserves men forever, and hope that His Spirit will guide me into all His truths. 2. Conducting Overcomers' Meetings: God has shown me that in every local church a group of overcomers should be raised up (as those mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3) to be the Lord's witnesses. For this reason, every year an overcomer conference has been held to faithfully deliver the messages that God has given me. 3. Building up Local Churches: When the Lord called me to serve Him, the prime object was not for me to hold revival meetings so that people might hear more scriptural doctrines, nor for me to become a great evangelist. The Lord revealed to me that He wanted to build up local churches in other localities to manifest Himself, to bear testimony of unity on the ground of locality so that each saint might perform his duty in the church and live the church life. God wants not merely individual pursuit of victory or spirituality, but a corporate, glorious church presented to Himself. 4. Training Young People: If the return of the Lord should be delayed, it will be necessary to raise up a number of young people to continue the testimony and the work for the following generations. Many co-workers have already prayed concerning this matter with the hope of providing a suitable place for the purpose of training young people. My thought is not to establish a seminary or a Bible institute, but to have young people staying together to live the Body life and practice the spiritual life. In such a place they would receive training for the purpose of edification, by learning to read the Scripture, to pray, and to build up a good character. On the negative side, there would be training for the purpose of learning how to deal with sin, the world, the flesh, and the natural life. At a suitable time, the young people would return to their respective churches in various places to be tempered together with other saints to serve the Lord in the church. I have purchased over ten acres of land at Chenru, in the suburbs of Shanghai. Planning for building on that site is in progress, and before long, young people will be able to go there for training. In the future my personal burden and work will generally comprise these four aspects. May all the glory be to the Lord. We have nothing at all in ourselves, and though we have done something, we admit to being useless and unprofitable servants. Nee began to write and publish at a very early age. In 1923 he began to publish the magazine ‘’The Present Testimony’’ and in 1925 he started another magazine entitled ‘’The Christian.’’ It was also in 1925 when Nee was conscious of a new mission in life and changed his name from Ni Shu-tsu to Ni To-sheng, or in English, Watchman Nee. At the age of twenty-one, Nee raised up the first “local church” in Sitiawan, Malaysia on a visit to his mother who had moved there from China. In 1926, Nee raised up another local church in Shanghai which became the center of his work in China. The practice of meeting as the local churches as taught by Nee spread throughout China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia by 1932 and he endeavored to practice it till his imprisonment. In 1927, Nee wrote a three-volume book published a year later as ‘’The Spiritual Man’’ where he explains that, contrary to the common understanding of his day, man is made up of three parts: spirit, soul and body. In February of 1928, Nee held his first “Overcomer Conference” in Shanghai. (The second, third and fourth Overcomer conferences took place October 1931, January 1934, and October 1934, respectively.) In January 1934, Nee called a special conference focused on the topics of “Christ as the Centrality[note 1] and Universality[note 2] of God” and “The Overcomers.” According to Nee, this was a turning point for him in his ministry. He said that “my Christian life took a big turn from doctrines and knowledge to a living person, Christ, who is God’s centrality and universality.” In February of 1934, Nee gave a series of talks where he defined and expounded the practice of the local churches stating that, in the Bible, the church is never divided into regions and are never denominated based on a teacher or a doctrine. Those following Nee to practice to meet as the church in this way would later be known as the “Local Church” (LC) Movement in the United States or simply as the local churches. These talks were eventually published in the book ‘’The Assembly Life.’’ In May of 1934, Nee encouraged Witness Lee to move from Chefoo, where a local church was raised up, to Shanghai to join him in his work where Ruth Lee was already editing many of Nee’s publications such as ‘’Collection of Newsletters.’’ Ruth Lee was also responsible for getting most of Nee’s messages published in book form before Nee was imprisoned. Because of her, many of Nee’s messages are available today. Eventually, Witness Lee would become Watchman Nee’s closest co-worker. Upon arrival in Shanghai, Nee gave Lee the responsibility to edit ‘’The Christian’’ and his talks that would become ‘’The Assembly Life.’’ In 1937, Nee spoke what would eventually be published as ‘’The Normal Christian Church Life’’ that would benefit millions of Christians both in China and in the West. Nee then traveled to Europe in 1938-1939 and spoke messages in the United Kingdom as well as Denmark. Some of these messages were compiled, polished, and then published as ‘’The Normal Christian Life.’’ Upon his return, Nee gave a conference about the Body of Christ. According to Nee, this was the second turn in his ministry. Nee recounts, “My first turn was to know Christ, and my second turn was to know His Body. To know Christ I only half of what the believers need. The believers also must know the Body of Christ. Christ is the head, and He is also the Body.” In 1939, Nee got involved with his second brother’s failing pharmaceutical company. Although this was partly due to family pressure, Nee also saw this as an opportunity to support his many co-workers who were suffering great poverty during the Second World War and who had been contracting tuberculosis and dying. Nee took full management over the factory, reorganized it, and employed many local church members from Shanghai. At this time, some of the elders from the church in Shanghai misunderstood and questioned Nee’s involvement in business, causing Nee to suspend his ministry in 1942. Shortly after, the church in Shanghai stopped meeting altogether. In March 6, 1945, Nee moved to Chungking to better oversee the factory there and released a series of messages on Revelation 2 and 3 published as ‘’The Orthodoxy of the Church’’ as well as some message he had given on the Song of Songs. On September 9, 1945, the Japanese army surrendered in China, ending the Second Sino-Japanese War. Peace Wang, one of Nee’s co-workers, had remained in Shanghai with the purpose and expectation that both the church and Nee’s ministry would be restored. She and another co-worker, Chenghua Yu reopened the doors of the church in Shanghai. In the summer of 1946, Peace Wang invited Witness Lee to visit the church and through his ministry the condition of the church was greatly improved. In 1946, Lee decided to stay in Shanghai to work with Wang to rebuild the once closed down church and to restore Nee’s ministry. Lee was instrumental in restoring Nee’s ministry in 1948 in Fuzhou. With money he had made from his company, Nee purchased twelve bungalows on Kuling Mountain where he held trainings to train his co-workers in the Christian work. Later in 1948 a revival was brought to the church in Shanghai and Nee resumed his ministry there in April. When he returned, Nee handed his pharmaceutical factory over to the work as an offering to God, influencing many others to hand over their possessions to the work. Within a short time, the church in Shanghai grew to over one thousand members. With the escalation of the civil war between Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist army, and the foreseeable loss of Chiang Kai-shek, many of the local church members began moving to Taiwan. In May of 1949, Nee, with the unanimous agreement of all his co-workers, sent Witness Lee to work in Taiwan despite Lee’s resistance to leaving Nee and the other co-workers. One of the known times that Watchman Nee ministered was in Hong Kong in 1950, during which time Nee asked Lee to join him in Hong Kong and ministered together for one month.  Nee then returned to China where he would be imprisoned for the rest of his life. After Nee’s imprisonment, Lee would continue the work Nee began and followed Nee as closely as possible until the end of his own life.
Persecution and ImprisonmentAfter the rise of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, Christians came under great persecution.  False charges and arrests were also brought against many foreign missionaries. Through intensive propaganda campaigns and threats of imprisonment, believers were influenced to accuse one another. On April 10, 1952, Watchman Nee was arrested by the Department of Public Security in Manzhouli, Manchuria and charged with bribery, theft of state property, tax evasion, cheating on government contracts, and stealing of government economic information. Nee was also “reeducated.” On January 11, 1956, there was a nationwide weep targeting the co-workers and elders in the local churches. Some died in labor camps while others faced long prison sentences. On January 18, 1956, the Religious Affairs Bureau began 12 days of accusation meetings at the church assembly hall on Nanyang Road in Shanghai in which many accusations were brought against Nee in large accusation meetings. On June 21, 1956, Nee appeared before the High Court in Shanghai where it was announced that he had been excommunicated by his church and found guilty on all charges. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with reform by labor. Initially, he was detained at Tilanqiao Prison in Shanghai, but was later moved to other locations. Only his wife, Charity, would be allowed to visit him. On January 29, 1956, Public Security took over the Nanyang Road building, and many of Nee's co-workers were arrested, put into isolation, and told to repudiate Watchman Nee. Some co-workers joined in the accusation of Watchman Nee while others, such as Peace Wang, Ruth Lee, and Chenghua Yu remained silent and were punished with life imprisonment. Following this, mass accusation meetings were held across the country to condemn the “anti-revolutionary sect of Watchman Nee.” At least eight letters and other records of his activities have been documented. One prison-mate who converted to Christianity was told by Nee, “When you get out, find a brother by the name of Witness Lee, and let him know that I never gave up my faith... When you see him, you see me. And his word is my word.” One of the last letters Nee wrote was to his sister-in-law: I have been reassigned to Shan-Shia-Pu Group No. 14. It is ten [Chinese] miles away from the station and is separated from it by a mountain. It is very inconvenient for you to come. You do not need to come anymore. In my sickness, I still remain joyful at heart. Please do not worry. I am still doing my best to not allow myself to be grieved by my own illness. Pin-hwei’s ashes will be left to your care. I am trusting in you for everything. I give my consent to everything. This letter is short, yet my feelings run deep. I can only wish you well. One year before Nee’s death, his wife, Charity, became ill and died. Nee was not allowed to attend her funeral. Nee was scheduled for release in 1967 but was detained in prison until his death on May 30, 1972. There was no announcement of his death nor any funeral. His remains were cremated on June 1, 1972 before his family arrived at the prison. Nee’s grandniece recounted the time when she went to pick up Nee’s ashes: In June 1972, we got a notice from the labor farm that my granduncle had passed away. My eldest grandaunt and I rushed to the labor farm. But when we got there, we learned that he had already been cremated. We could only see his ashes... Before his departure, he left a piece of paper under his pillow, which had several lines of big words written in a shaking hand. He wanted to testify to the truth which he had even until his death, with his lifelong experience. That truth is—“Christ is the Son of God who died for the redemption of sinners and resurrected after three days. This is the greatest truth in the universe. I die because of my belief in Christ. Watchman Nee.” When the officer of the labor farm showed us this paper, I prayed that the Lord would let me quickly remember it by heart… My granduncle had passed away. He was faithful until death. With a crown stained with blood, he went to be with the Lord. Although God did not fulfill his last wish, to come out alive to join his wife, the Lord prepared something even better—they were reunited before the Lord.
BeliefsWatchman Nee fully believed in and taught the scriptural, fundamental faith held by all true Christians. He believed in the verbal inspiration of the Bible and that the Bible is God’s holy Word. He believed that God is triune—Father, Son, and Spirit—distinctly three, yet fully one, co-existing and coinhering each other from eternity to eternity. He believed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, even God Himself, incarnated as a man with both the human and the divine life, that He died on the cross to accomplish redemption, that he rose bodily from the dead on the third day, that He ascended into heaven and was enthroned, crowned with glory, and made the Lord of all, and that He will return the second time to receive His followers, to save Israel, and to establish His millennial kingdom on the earth. He believed that every person who believes in Jesus Christ will be forgiven by God, washed by His redeeming blood, justified by faith, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and saved by grace. Such a believer is a child of God and a member of the Body of Christ. He also believed that the destiny of every believer is to be an integral part of the church, which is the Body of Christ and the house of God.
Source: WATCHMAN NEE