WATCHMAN NEE (1903-1972) - Chinese Pastor and Preacher
Born into a nominally Christian family, Nee was converted at the age of eighteen while still a student at Trinity College, an Anglican high school in Foochow. Abandoning any prospect of a university education, he gave himself to Bible study and evangelism, and many students were won to Christ.
Before long he began to display two gifts which were to mark out his ministry as something special, and he became well-known both as a preacher and a writer. His gift as a preacher lay in his ability to make the gospel clear and simple for his listeners, and as a Bible expositor, his teaching was lively, full of anecdotes and humour, that led his hearers back to the fundamentals of the New Testament.
In his early days he produced a magazine called Revival, later changed to The Christian, which mostly carried his own sermons plus extracts from other devotional writers. His books, based on his own sermons, included The Spiritual Man, The Normal Christian Life and Sit, Walk, Stand, regarded by many today as Christian classics.
In 1928 Nee moved from Foochow to the treaty port of Shanghai, which was to be the centre of his ministry for the remainder of his life. Here, in the international settlement, he established a small meeting on a lane called Wen Teh Li. As the work expanded, the premises were extended to include offices and hostel accommodation.
When in 1930 Nee met a British business man, Charles R Barlow, associated with the ‘London Group’ of Brethren, links were forged between them.
This resulted in Nee travelling to England in 1933 to seek their advice and support, unaware that they were ‘Exclusive’ and under the leadership of James Taylor of New York.
During his stay, Nee took the opportunity to visit the Christian Fellowship Centre at Honor Oak, south London, where he broke bread with the believers there. When the London Group discovered this, they wrote that he had ‘compromised the fellowship’ and felt obliged to withdraw from him. His relationship with Honor Oak, however, continued and he found their pattern of worship helpful.
Nee was not happy with the denominational Chinese churches that he had so far encountered, and wanted to build a fellowship based on a less rigid pattern. Influenced by a number of Open Brethren writers, he established a Sunday evening act of worship around the Lord’s Table where anyone present was free to offer individual prayers of adoration and praise to God. He felt this was closer to the New Testament ideal.
The numbers in the Shanghai congregation grew and it became necessary to make further changes; the church was divided into fifteen ‘families’ (house groups), meeting three times a week, for the breaking of bread, for prayer and for teaching. Each family consisted of up to two hundred believers and was sub-divided into sections of fifteen or so members. In this way, fellowship and the use of spiritual gifts were encouraged.
Under Nee, the church was ruled by a number of elders and each ‘family’ was cared for by a brother or sister. There were full-time apostles—as many as two hundred at one point—who travelled to the unevangelised parts of the country to win converts and plant new churches. In the 1940s there were four hundred and seventy groups in fellowship with the Shanghai church; they were nicknamed ‘The Little Flock’, after the title of the Brethren hymn book that they used in their worship.
The Little Flock was one of several movements in China—including the Jesus Family, the Spiritual Gifts movement and the True Jesus Church—which preferred to develop independently of foreign missions, aiming to return to New Testament origins. For them, the denominational churches were too westernised and tended to divide rather than unite the body of Christ.
One special feature of the Little Flock churches was the emphasis on evangelism; every believer was expected to do the work of an evangelist, and was encouraged to witness to at least one person a day. Another form of evangelism, for which they found a principle in the Acts of the Apostles, was migration, which they developed in the 1940s. Groups of believers, selected to represent a cross-section of trades, moved into remote areas of the country and were supported by the church for an initial three months. Their purpose was to win converts and establish churches; and although the scheme was not a complete success, some new fellowships were started.
With the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1941, the church came under severe pressure; restrictions were placed on members and funds were reduced, placing some of the apostles under great hardship. To meet the need, Nee felt that God was leading him to set up a business, and with the help of his brother, a chemist, he established a pharmaceutical company. The business flourished, but it took Nee away from his church; his elders were puzzled and eventually asked him to discontinue his preaching at Wen Teh Li.
Nee continued to minister in various other places and after the war was able to plough back some of the company’s profits into the church at Shanghai; later the church became prosperous as he and other members handed over their businesses for the benefit of the work. But it was not until 1948 that Nee was at last reconciled with the elders and welcomed back into the fellowship.
When in October 1949 the Communist Party overthrew the Nationalist government and set up the People’s Republic of China, it was clear that the church’s commercial activities would attract attention. At first they were hopeful that they might be able to enjoy limited co-operation with the new regime, but after two years, the situation began to change when the Communists unfolded plans to take the Chinese Church under its control.
Through the Three Self-Reform Movement, the government aimed to make the Church self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating; it was placed under the Bureau of Religious Affairs which brought pressure on the Church to persuade missionaries to withdraw from the country, thus getting rid of all ‘imperialists’. Christian schools, hospitals and other properties were confiscated.
During this period, the Little Flock and the Jesus Family house churches strongly resisted joining the National Christian Church, regarded as a puppet organisation, and thousands of their members were either killed or imprisoned. All churches were forced to hold meetings, often infiltrated by Communist stooges, to encourage self-criticism and reform. Pastors and leaders were accused of being ‘timing dogs’ of the foreigners and Nee was charged with being the leader of a large secret system disseminating anti-revolutionary poison.
He was arrested in 1952 and for four years was subjected to harsh treatment and attempts to ‘re-educate’ him, by means that can only be imagined. At his trial in 1956, many false accusations were brought against him, including some by believers who had gone over to the other side. Together with other church members he was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, which he served in the First Municipal Prison in Shanghai. Little is known of his years in prison, except that his physical condition deteriorated and he continued faithful to the Lord.
Instead of being released after his time, however, his sentence was extended. He should have been allowed out in 1967, but it was the year of the Cultural Revolution when there was another furious attack on the Church; services were discontinued and all religious buildings were to be ‘secularised’. The Communists offered to release Nee if he was prepared not to resume his preaching, but it was an assurance he could not give; even the idea of a ransom refused to change his mind. Nee was moved to another prison inland where he died in his sixty-ninth year.
Many missionaries spoke warmly of Watchman Nee’s excellent Bible teaching and of the true Christian fellowship they found among his members, though the movement was criticised for setting up what appeared to be another denomination, and there was a tendency towards an authoritarian control over the church. Nevertheless, Nee was an outstanding Christian leader whose vision of an indigenous Church in China prepared believers for the onslaught of Communism and the fiery trials which followed.
Hanks, Geoffrey. Seventy Great Christians. Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1994: 295-298.