Watchman Nee (November 4, 1903 – May 30, 1972), was a Chinese church leader and Christian teacher who worked in China during the 20th century.
During his thirty years of ministry, Nee published many books expounding the Bible. He established churches throughout China and held many conferences to train Bible students and church workers. Following the Communist Revolution, Nee was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith and spent the last twenty years of his life (April 10, 1952 – May 30, 1972) in prison.
Early Life And Ministry
Watchman Nee was born on November 4, 1903, the third of nine children of Ni Weng-hsiu, a well-respected officer in the Imperial Customs Service, and Lin He-Ping (Peace Lin). In 1916, at age 13, Nee entered the Church Missionary Society Vernacular Middle School in Fuzhou, Fujian province to begin his Western-style education. He then went on to the middle school at Trinity College in Fuzhou, where he demonstrated great intelligence and ambition, and consistently scored at the top of his class.
On 28th April, 1920, Nee received Jesus into his life as his Lord and Saviour. On his salvation testimony, he recounted:
On the evening of 28th April, 1920, I was alone in my room, struggling to decide whether or not to believe in the Lord. At first I was reluctant but as I tried to pray I saw the magnitude of my sins and the reality and efficacy of Jesus as the Saviour. As I visualized the Lord’s hands stretched out on the cross, they seemed to be welcoming me and the Lord was saying, “I am waiting here to receive you.” Realizing the effectiveness of Christ’s blood in cleansing my sins and being overwhelmed by such love, I accepted him there. Previously I had laughed at people who had accepted Jesus, but that evening the experience became real for me and I wept and confessed my sins, seeking the Lord’s forgiveness. As I made my first prayer I knew joy and peace such as I had never known before. Light seemed to flood the room and I said to the Lord, “Oh, Lord, you have indeed been gracious to me.”
As a student at Trinity College, Nee began to speak to his classmates concerning his salvation experience. Later, he recounted:
Immediately I started putting right the matters that were hindering my effectiveness, and also made a list of seventy friends to pray for daily. Some days I would pray for them every hour, even in class. When the opportunity came I would try to persuade them to believe in the Lord Jesus… With the Lord’s grace I continued to pray daily, and after several months all but one of the seventy persons were saved.
Recommended: List Of Books and publications By Watchman Nee
Watchman Nee saw an undeniable vision and received a definite commission from the Lord concerning the church, and he suffered greatly due to his faithfulness, including rejection, opposition, and condemnation. Nevertheless, he was willing to pay the price for following the Lord, even to the point of the cost of his life. His profound revelation combined with his sufferings issued in a rich ministry of life.
Watchman Nee endured much suffering for the sake of the New Testament ministry. Due to his absoluteness in following the Lord and his faithfulness in fulfilling the Lord’s commission, he underwent frequent mistreatment as well as lifelong hardships. As he fought the battle for the Lord’s move, he was under constant attack from God’s enemy, Satan. At the same time, he was also under God’s sovereign hand. He recognized the sovereign arrangements of God in his environment not merely as a divinely apportioned “thorn in the flesh” but, more importantly, as a means by which God was able to deal with him. Due to both Satan’s attacks and God’s faithful environmental dealings, Watchman Nee lived a life of suffering. The majority of his sufferings came from five sources: poverty, ill health, denominational opposition, dissenting brothers and sisters in the local churches, and imprisonment.
In the early years of Watchman Nee’s ministry, the economic situation in China was desperate. Nevertheless, he lived purely and singly by faith in God, not only for his living but also for every aspect of the Lord’s work. Hence, he steadfastly refused employment from any person or organization. In the early days of his ministry in Shanghai, there were times when he had only a little bread to eat for the day.
Watchman Nee was also frequently afflicted with serious illnesses. For the first eleven years of his ministry, beginning in 1922, he suffered alone, with no wife to support him. During this time he contracted and suffered from tuberculosis for several years. In 1934 at the age of thirty, however, Watchman Nee married a true “help meet,” Charity Chang. In later years he was also stricken with a chronic stomach disorder as well as angina pectoris, a serious heart ailment. He was never cured of the heart disease; thus, his ministry was sustained by the resurrection life, not by his physical strength.
His firm stand for the oneness of the Body of Christ was a testimony against the divisions created by denominational practices. Consequently, he was often criticized and opposed. He was the frequent subject of false rumors, and the misrepresentations of his ministry were so strong that he once responded to them, saying, “The Watchman Nee portrayed by them I would also condemn.”
A number of brothers and sisters meeting with the local churches became another source of suffering to Watchman Nee through their dissention, immaturity, and ambition. Two years after the church life began to be practiced in Watchman Nee’s hometown in 1922, he was even temporarily “excommunicated” by some of his co-workers because he protested the ordination of some leading co-workers by a denominational missionary. Although most of the believers meeting with them sided with Watchman Nee, the Lord would not allow him to do anything to vindicate himself. That was a deep suffering to his natural man.
Following the takeover of China, Watchman Nee was arrested in March 1952 for the sake of the gospel. He was falsely condemned, judged, and sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment in 1956. He died in confinement on May 30, 1972.
Marriage And Family
As a teenager, Nee fell in love with Charity Chang. Their two families had been friends for three generations. When Nee became a Christian, Charity ridiculed Jesus in Nee’s presence. This bothered him. Eventually, after much struggling, Nee felt he needed to give up on their relationship. Ten years later, after finishing her university education, Charity became a Christian. She began attending church meetings in Shanghai in 1934. In the same year, during Nee’s fourth “Overcomer Conference” in Hangzhou, the two were married. Charity cared for Nee in his frequent illness and was the only visitor Nee was permitted during his imprisonment. They had no children.
Charity, died due to an accident and high blood pressure, a year before Nee’s death in 1972. Nee however, was not allowed to attend her funeral.
Persecution, imprisonment And Death
After 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 in Shanghai by Public Security officers from Manzhouli, Manchuria and charged with bribery, theft of state property, tax evasion, cheating on government contracts, and stealing of government economic information. On January 18, 1956, the Religious Affairs Bureau began twelve 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 the elders in the church in Shanghai and found guilty on all charges. He was sentenced to fifteen 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, was 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 forced to repudiate Watchman Nee. Some co-workers joined in the accusation of Watchman Nee while others, such as Peace Wang, Ruth Lee, and Yu Chenghua 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”.
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 Nee 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.