Meet Watchman Nee

"O Lord! How can we forget your grace?" Watchman Nee wrote in 1927. "Instead of resting and getting rusty, why not labor and trust? The strength of promise in time of need is never decreased." The sentiments expressed in this prayer were central to the life and ministry of this great 20th-century Chinese spiritual leader. Prolific writer, tireless teacher, and respected church founder, Watchman lived the life he wrote about, a life fully devoted to Christ.

Born of Christian parents on November 4, 1903, Watchman was trained in Chinese classics and Christian studies. However, because of his hostility toward Christianity, he cheated on a Bible examination and consequently was denied entrance to the university. This humbling experience forced him to face his own sinful nature, and he committed his life to Christ in 1920.

At the time of Watchman’s conversion, the country was plagued by political turmoil. Mao Tse-tung was beginning the career that would one day lead him to the top position in China’s Communist party. Watchman was also a revolutionary, but of the spiritual type. Instead of working with traditional Protestant denominations, he created local indigenous Chinese churches. This grassroots movement later became known as the Little Flock and continued to thrive despite Communist persecution. From 1923 to 1949, membership numbered more than 70,000.

Some have expressed concern because of certain points of prominence in his teaching. These areas had to do with an emphasis on authority and submission, and an increasing tendency to dichotomize the material and the spiritual, or the ideal and the real. Others have explained that these characteristics are best understood within his eastern context.

Nee battled various illnesses, including tuberculosis which nearly took his life. During this time of trial, Watchman wrote The Spiritual Man, one of his most famous works. In 1934, he married his childhood sweetheart, Charity Chang. They were childless, but enjoyed many happy years together in spite of the demands of Watchman’s pastoral responsibilities.

As World War II ended, the Chinese Communist Party began its rise to power. The Party stepped up its efforts to crush the Christian church, and Watchman Nee was arrested in April of 1952 on a series of false charges. As he was taken to jail, he embraced his beloved Charity for the last time. She was arrested shortly afterward, and they would not see each other again.

Originally sentenced to 15 years, Watchman endured tremendous hardship in prison. He suffered extreme cold in winter and unbearable heat in summer. He lost so much weight that his six-foot frame was skin and bones. Yet his faith remained unconquerable. He sang hymns in his cell and preached the gospel to everyone he met.

Watchman’s sentence was complete in 1967, and Charity, now released from prison, awaited him at their home in Shanghai. But the Communist government extended his prison stay. In 1972, he received word that Charity had gone home to the Lord, and later that year, Watchman joined her. "The path of every Christian has been already marked out by God," he wrote. "If at the close of a life we can say with Paul, ‘I have finished my course,’ then we are blessed indeed." Watchman Nee has blessed us through the shining example of his life and the remarkable insights contained in the writings he left behind. (Quotes and information taken from Watchman Nee: Man of Suffering, by Bob Laurent.)

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