Religious Leaders of America

Nee, Watchman
Founder, Local Church

b. Nov. 4, 1903, Swatow People’s Republic of China
d. Jun. 1, 1972, People’s Republic of China

Watchman Nee, born Ni Shu-tsu, was the founder of a decentralized Evangelical Christian movement that came to be known as the Local Church. Born into a Chinese Methodist family, he rejected all religion while in college, but was reconverted in 1920 under the ministry of a Methodist missionary, Dora Yu. He studied for a while at Yu’s Bible school in Shanghai, and eventually returned to Fuchow to initiate his own ministry.

Nee began to use the name To-Sheng (Watchman), which had been suggested to him by his mother, and also began to rethink church structure in the light of what he perceived to have been the organization of Christian bodies during New Testament times. The basis of Nee’s vision of church structure was the notion that there should be one church per city, a decentralized organization that resulted in his movement’s informal designation as the “Local Church.” These autonomous churches would be governed by elders, strongly evangelical, and unstructured in worship. He began to find other people who accepted these principles, and eventually emerged as the leader of an independent Christian group.

Through an independent missionary, Margaret Barber, Nee had been introduced to the writings of one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby. Soon after the Local Church came into being, he was contacted by the branch of the Plymouth Brethren headed by James Taylor, who established fellowship with Nee’s movement. He traveled to England at their request, but while there broke bread with a non-Brethren group led by Theodore Austin-Sparks. This action, in combination with some comparatively minor divergences on points of belief and practice, caused Taylor to break off relations with Nee.

During World War II Nee took a job in a factory owned by his brother so as not to be a financial burden to his congregation. After the war he turned the factory over to the church, and other members followed his example. This church-business connection hurt the movement when the communists, who suppressed the movement because of its capitalist activities, seized control. Nee was arrested in 1952 and spent the remaining 20 years of his life in prison.

Melton, J. Gordon. Religious Leaders of America. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991: 407.