Watchman Nee - A brief history and appreciation

Watchman Nee - A brief history and appreciation

His writings and a post-script from the present day, 50 years on

A generation ago, the writings of Watchman Nee were very well known and appreciated in the Christian world of the West, though many of the readership who benefitted from his spiritual insights knew almost nothing of who he was. This in itself would have brought him much satisfaction!

The writings of Watchman Nee and probably of many others of the spiritual giants of our past however, may be far from well known today, so some introduction is in order. Some of the information below which had faded from my memory was gleaned from Wikipedia which in this case seems to be reasonably accurate.

Early days

Watchman Nee (in Chinese Ni Tuo-Sheng 倪柝声) was born in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China on November 4, 1903. He was a third-generation believer, his grandfather having been ordained in Fuzhou as an Anglican minister by the Church Missionary Society. Watchman was the third of nine siblings. Though his mother brought up all her children with the instruction of piety, Watchman by his own confession only came to faith in the Lord Jesus at the age of 17. A lady evangelist called Dora Yu had come to the Methodist church his mother attended, the “Church of Heavenly Peace” and was holding 10 days of meetings. It was 1920.

One evening his mother returned from the meeting, sat her son down and gave him her heartfelt apology for a previous incident of unjust punishment. This kind of action is almost unthinkable within normal Chinese culture, an elder apologising to a younger person, especially a parent to her own offspring. Watchman was so deeply impressed he resolved he must find out at the next meeting what had brought about this new humility in his mother.

After the meeting, he returned home and this is his testimony: --

“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 Savior. It seemed I could see the Lord's hands stretched out on the cross, 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."

Watchman was at that time still a student, within the middle school section of the prestigious Trinity College of Fuzhou. Much of the tuition of the school was in English. He was a very gifted student, with very high grades. He began to speak to his classmates of the Lord. Here again from his “Testimony”: --

“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”.

— Watchman Nee, Watchman Nee's Testimony.

Watchman aspired to be a worker for the Lord, and attended Dora Yu's Bible Institute in Shanghai, even while still a high school student. He was unable to keep up with the curriculum however and was eventually expelled for sleeping late and other breaches of discipline. These failures humbled him to seek help, and he was thus brought into touch with a British missionary living in Fuzhou, Margaret E. Barber. She became his teacher and mentor. He would visit her on a weekly basis to receive spiritual help. Miss Barber was a remarkable missionary in not being part of any society, not making any appeals for support, and spending much time in meditation on the scriptures, intercession and prayer without involvement in much “Christian activity”. Her faith, trust and also her gracious responses to those who criticised her for not being more “active” without doubt put a profound stamp into the young man’s life.

She had taken Watchman and several other young men under her wing to disciple them. He said of her life “I shall always remember Miss Barber as a “Christian living in the light”. She was very strict with him in various matters, especially “looking first at the beam in your own eye” before speaking of others. On her death in 1930, she left all of her belongings to him. He wrote:

“We feel most sorrowful concerning the news of the passing away of Miss Barber in Lo-Hsing Pagoda, Fujian. 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”.

She had written many hymns and poems. Here is one: --

If the path I travel

Lead me to the cross,

If the way Thou choosest

Lead to pain and loss,

Let the compensation

Daily, hourly, be

Shadowless communion,

Blessed Lord, with Thee.

Miss Barber had originally been an Anglican missionary with the CMS, resigning from the mission when she came into an understanding of believer’s baptism and “every believer a minister”.

She introduced her young men to the works of Robert Govett, D.M. Panton, T. Austin-Sparks and Jesse Penn-Lewis, who were all writing on the nature of the church as a mutually interdependent body with many members and on “the life of the overcomer”. This led to Watchman acquiring works by J.N.Darby and many of the “Brethren” classics, C.H.Mackintosh, William Kelly, J.G. Bellett. He was by all accounts a phenomenal reader and accumulated in his library over 3000 titles on church history, Bible commentary and the spiritual life. 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.

His understanding of the nature of the church led him into contact with different strands of the “Brethren” movement in USA and Britain and he made visits to USA, UK and Europe in 1932 and 1933. In the group sometimes labelled the “Exclusives” led by James Taylor he was initially well received, but they rejected him when they found he had broken bread with T. Austin-Sparks of “Honour Oak Fellowship” and indeed with some missionaries of “the denominations” in China.

There is an anecdote of Watchman sitting listening to a long discourse on doctrinal matters among the learned brethren going into tremendous detail, when he lost patience with them and exclaimed “Dear brothers, can any of you cast out demons in Jesus’ name?!”

As a young man (30??)


Watchman was severely tested in his love for Charity Chang, a young woman he had known from a childhood years. She ridiculed his faith when he was converted. There was a long struggle -- “If you let me marry that girl, I will go to Tibet!” he had said. It seems the Lord was not at all interested in his volunteering to go to Tibet with the gospel; and at last he surrendered her into the hands of the Lord, and gave himself to the work that had opened up to him.

Ten years later, however, after university graduation, Charity turned to the Lord. She began attending church meetings in Shanghai in 1934, and in the same year they were married.

In those days Watchman was frequently ill, and Charity cared for him. Later in prison she was the only visitor he was permitted during his imprisonment. They had no children. Charity suffered one miscarriage.

(Watchman and Charity at their wedding in Hangzhou in 1934)


(From Wikipedia) In 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: --

  • Literary Work: After my illness, God made it known to me that the primary purpose of His imparting messages to me was not for explaining the Scripture, nor for preaching the ordinary Gospel, nor for prophesying, but for laying stress on the living word of life (as per John 5:39-40)... All that I have written has 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 for ever, and hope that His Spirit will guide me into all His truths.
  • Meetings for the Overcomer: God opened my eyes to the necessity of raising up in churches at various places, a number of people who are victorious to be His witnesses... Therefore once every year a meeting for the victorious was held in which I faithfully proclaimed the messages which God has revealed to me.
  • 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 may 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 local churches so that each saint may 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.
  • Youth Training: If the return of the Lord be delayed, it will be necessary to raise up a number of youths to continue the testimony and work for the next generation... My idea is not to establish a seminary or a Bible institute but to have the young people live a corporate life and practice spiritual life, that is, receive training for the purpose of edification and to learn to read the Scripture and to pray in order to build up good character. On the negative side, to learn how to deal with sin, the world, the flesh, natural life, and so on. At a suitable time they are to return to their respective churches to be tempered together with other saints to serve the Lord in the Church...

In the future my personal burden and work will generally comprise these four aspects. May all the glory be to the Lord.

— Watchman Nee, Watchman Nee's Testimony.

I believe it may be seen that indeed the Lord enabled His servant to fulfill this calling, in some ways beyond his anticipation; though no doubt as we all will do at the end, he would have said “We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do”.

(Some facts here also from Wikipedia)

Watchman 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 changed his name from Ni Shu-tsu to Ni Tuo-sheng. The English translation of this is “Watchman Nee”, though actually the name means “Sound-of-the-bell Nee”. At the moment of his birth the watchman whose job it was to patrol the town through the night hours had been passing by. There were five “watches” in the Chinese night, and his mother had heard the watchman sounding one of these with his bell or clapper. He adopted this circumstance for his new name. At age 21, Watchman established his first assembly in Sitiawan, Malaysia while visiting his mother, who had moved there from China. In 1926, he established up another local church in Shanghai, which became the center of his work in China. By 1932, this example of meeting simply around the Lord’s table as local churches had spread throughout China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (The house churches which sprang up throughout the UK in the 70’s initially all followed this pattern “sitting together as family”, rather than as “facing-the-front-churches”).

(Still from Wikipedia) In 1928, Watchman published a three-volume book entitled The Spiritual Man. In February of the same year, Nee held his first "Overcomer Conference" in Shanghai. In January 1934, he called a special conference on the subjects of "Christ as the Centrality and Universality of God" and "The Overcomers". According to Nee, this was a turning point for him in his ministry. He said, "My Christian life took a big turn from doctrines and knowledge to a living person, Christ, who is God's centrality and universality."

In 1938, Watchman traveled to Europe and gave messages that were later published as The Normal Christian Life. Upon his return, Nee gave a conference on the Body of Christ. This he said “was the second turn in my ministry” -- "My first turn was to know Christ, and my second turn was to know His Body. To know Christ is 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."

We will add a little more later on recommended reading from Watchman.

The most controversial book he ever published was at first entitled (in Chinese) “Rethinking the Work” in 1938; then published in English in 1939 as “Concerning Our Missions”; later retitled “The Normal Christian Church Life”. The controversy here was the contention that the work of planting churches and preaching the gospel “in all the creation” in God’s economy was the full responsibility of local churches, and that missions and parachurch organisations formed in this intention came short of God’s fullness or purpose and indeed in certain ways hindered His purpose. He was very careful however not to say that God in His grace was not using these ways of working, or that He had done very much in China through the sacrificial labours of such mission groupings; indeed he maintained fellowship with many brethren who saw things differently, and had cooperative work with them. But the work was explosive in the storm of criticism it generated. Time however has validated so very much of what he has said; particularly on the soil of China itself where the growth of the church from 500,000 in 1949 to perhaps 50 million in 1990 took place substantially without overseas finance, aid, or “supervision”. One of the contentions of “Rethinking the work” was that each local church should be independent, responsible solely to the Lord as the Head to direct their labours. His thinking on “church” and the independence of each assembly before the Lord included the following principles: --

(i) “The church” in any location, as defined by the Lord and owned as His body in that location, is composed of all the believers in that locality (1Cor.1:1). Whether brothers and sisters recognise each other and receive each other or not, this is the one and only true identity of the church. (this teaching was later much distorted by the “Witness Lee” group’s “local church doctrine” -- see later).

(ii) Each local church should rely on the Lord for needed finances, not looking to some overseas organisation or group for the financing of a “pastor” or evangelists (though giving and receiving gifts is normal in fellowship between churches, the expectation should always be from the Lord).

(iii) Leadership of the local church should not be by a single “pastor”, but if possible be led by a plurality of elders. The commonly held structure of “pastor-elders-deacons” should be “elders-deacons” only; the qualification of each elder however given in 1Timothy and Titus effectively means that each elder must be a pastor by gifting and calling. If he is not a pastor in function, he should not be an elder. “Pastor” in the New Testament is not a title (Matt.23:8-11) but a function and gift. Brothers should not be calling anyone “Pastor”.

(iv) All believers are priests and have a ministry; churches and church meetings should be oriented and arranged such that each believer has the opportunity to exercise his or her gifting for the building up of the whole; without that liberty and opportunity the church will be unable to grow to full stature.

(v) Church structures where groups of churches are linked together with overall superintendence is maintained in a kind of “pyramid structure” were unbiblical.

(vi) The responsibility of the Great Commission of Matt.28:19 to preach the gospel to all the nations is incumbent on each local church; before the Lord each church must know its responsibility and part in the whole.

(vii) It should hardly need stating, but of course it must be stated, that Watchman along with the whole Brethren movement (this writer firmly included) that leadership (at least within the categories of elder and deacon) within the body of Christ is male.

(viii) Those who go forth preaching the gospel establishing churches are “apostles” (“sent ones”). After churches are established, the apostle does not maintain any kind of formal authority over those churches he establishes (see Paul’s letters to the churches in Corinth especially); the apostle chooses elders in consultation with the saints, and then they are the ones in responsibility.

Watchman would have abhorred the current usage of “apostle” as it is heard now in many Western churches; indeed his doctrine of “apostles” such as it is demolishes the NAR concept. An apostle in his definition could be simply substituted by the word “missionary” with no implication whatever of a man who is in receipt of new divine revelation. Indeed the only man who can be thus considered “apostolic” is one who has soaked and saturated himself in the “doctrine of the apostles and prophets” as foundation.

Those who go out preaching the gospel should follow the instructions of the Lord to trust Him for their supply (Luke 10:4, 22:35). They are not to make appeals except to the Lord. This of course was upsetting to many missionaries and many missionary groups who constantly appealed to the churches of the West for funds. Watchman appreciated the labours of the CIM founded by Hudson Taylor more than most (CIM was founded on the principle of making no financial appeals); but one of his key observations was from Paul’s words in Acts 13:36: --

For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep...”. Watchman’s perceptive comment was that “David served his own generation; he could not serve two”. To seek to perpetuate a work of God through large-scale human organisation was the reasoning of the tower of Babel “Let us make us a name…”, going beyond trusting God for His grace. Our present generation has certainly abundant evidence that large organisations and indeed large denominational structures with oversight over whole areas or groups of churches not only inevitably fail but in the end apostasize, leaving behind what can often only be described as pagan temples and priesthoods. On the other hand “apostolic teams” can operate flexibly as need requires on a small scale, and groups of churches can cooperate in outreach together.

These were some of the basic outlines of “Rethinking the work”. Ironically Watchman’s emphasis of “self-government” “self-support” and “self-propagation” (articulated it must be said also much earlier by some of the mission groups) was taken up by the so called “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” established by the Marxist regime in 1952 to act as a means of control of believers. However the meaning was completely changed -- here “self-government” meant government by the state, “self-support” meant no contact or support from outside of any kind, and “self-propagation” meant only keeping the message inside the four walls of the “TSPM” state-controlled churches.

That is still the general situation of the TSPM churches of China today, though local situations vary enormously, from men in TSPM pulpits fervently preaching the gospel to men putting forward basic Marxist propaganda in Christian disguise. In that respect it resembles something like the “Anglican” church, but with lots more state control. Probably 80% of China’s Christians meet entirely outside the regimen of the “TSPM” and will not join it in principle.

Into Business

In 1939, Watchman became involved with his second brother's failing pharmaceutical company. He was under considerable family pressure to use his abilities to help his brother. At that very time because of his encouragement many young men had stepped out into ministry, shepherding the flock and going out to preach the word. He was intensely burdened to see many of them in desperately sore straits financially, and this enterprise looked like a solution. If successful, he could support them in their time of need. Later he was to make the judgement in hindsight that this had possibly been an error, and that painful though it was, he had left the path of faith in so doing. No doubt we will hear the final verdict in eternity.

He took over full management of the factory, reorganised it, and began to employ many local church members from Shanghai. Some of the elders at Shanghai questioned his motivations and refused him their blessing and even their fellowship. To avoid controversy Watchman suspended his outward ministry activities in 1942. Ironically, at the very time he was being most heavily criticised, he was anonymously supporting some of the very brothers who were criticising him. Shortly afterward, the church in Shanghai stopped meeting altogether.

When the Japanese surrendered in China on September 9 1945, Watchman returned to Shanghai from Chongqing where he had been overseeing the pharmaceutical factory. He revived his spiritual work in Shanghai, purchased housing for some of his co-workers, sold the factory and business and donated all the proceeds into the Lord’s work. Within a short time, the church in Shanghai grew to over 1000 members.

Persecution and imprisonment

After the “Liberation” of China by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) on October 1st. 1949, great persecution began. 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 (Wikipedia). Part of the intimidation included the setting up of the state-run “Three-Self Patriotic Movement” (TSPM) church and pressurising all Christian leaders to join it. Wu Yaozong, a so-called Protestant minister, led the charge. Hundreds of brothers and sisters were subjected to “accusation meetings” and sentenced to jail. These included Allen Yuan (Yuan Xiangchen) and Wang Mingdao of Beijing, Moses Xie (Shanghai), Samuel Lamb (Guangzhou) and many other prominent leaders.

It seems in the beginning however that Watchman had counselled that those churches in fellowship with him should express their positive resolve to submit to the new government; he did not publicly oppose the “TSPM”. Was this a mistaken counsel to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves”? From his trial in 1952 onwards, his counsel would certainly have been different.

On April 10, 1952, he was arrested in Shanghai by Public Security officers and charged with bribery, theft of state property, tax evasion, cheating on government contracts, and stealing of government economic information. He was at that time pronounced "re-educated". On January 11, 1956, there was another nationwide sweep targeting the co-workers and elders in the many of the “Little Flock” local churches with more pressure to conform. Some died in labour camps, while others faced long prison sentences. On January 18, 1956, the Religious Affairs began twelve days of accusation meetings at the church assembly hall on Nanyang Road in Shanghai, in which many accusations were brought against Watchman in large “struggle meetings”.

On June 21, 1956, he was brought before the High Court in Shanghai, where it was announced that he had been excommunicated by his own elders in the church in Shanghai and found guilty on all charges. He was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment with reform by labour. These years were passed in different prison 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 his co-workers were arrested, put into isolation, and forced to repudiate him. Some co-workers joined in the accusations 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".

Watchman’s friends in USA and elsewhere had all besought him to take the opportunity while the door was still open to stay in HK (he was on a visit there in 1950) and emigrate to USA, but he had steadfastly refused, saying that the shepherd’s place was to remain with his flock.

Watchman’s remaining with the flock may be contrasted with a much later incident in 1997 when Hong Kong was officially “returned” to Chinese control. It is a matter of public record that over 50% of HK pastors and ministers purchased a foreign passport by one means or another and emigrated before the critical day of July 1st. (Many missions also in panic moved their offices to other locations in Asia). Of course all their anxieties as to an immediate clampdown were unfounded, but their emigration demonstrated what kind of shepherds these were -- not shepherds but hirelings.

These days Watchman Nee is often wrongly linked to a man who for some years was his co-worker, Witness Lee. Even before Witness Lee’s departure to Taiwan in 1949, there is some evidence of disagreement between them on the matter of authority and how it was to be exercised in the local assembly.

After 1949, from his time in Taiwan onwards, Witness Lee began to espouse many other aberrant teachings including modalism, (denying the Trinity) and promoting his own translation of the scriptures (sometimes called the “Recovery Bible”).

The disagreement between Watchman and Witness Lee is disclaimed however by Witness Lee’s group (sometimes called “Living Stream”) to this day. Initially they had both espoused the same definition of the “local church” which we gave above (we would too!). However Witness Lee went beyond that to say that unless believers in a locality submitted to elders which he or his people had appointed (as God’s “apostolic representatives” in the earth) then they were in rebellion against God’s appointed authority and under His chastisement. They could not indeed be considered as belonging to any church whatever.

Shades of some other doctrines we have heard before somewhere, someone will say!!

Witness Lee then sitting amid the perilous luxury of Taiwan began to send out a stream of instructions and exhortations to those who had espoused his teaching on the mainland, telling them in the face of all opposition they should march forth on the streets shouting “Hallelujah! Jesus is Lord!” at the top of their voice. Their meetings were also to be similarly conducted with prayer at maximum volume. Consequently they became known among the churches of China as “the Shouters” (呼喊派). Not surprisingly, many of these simple souls were very swiftly hauled off to the swelling labour camps.

Those who encounter the teachings of Witness Lee can benefit from Walter Martin’s analysis of their movement here: --

The helpful information below also is available on this Web page: --

Walter Martin’s analysis of “Living Stream” was repudiated by CRI after his death, but see the later article below which show that fundamentally nothing has changed.

“In late 2009, the Christian Research Institute (which is now headed by Hank Hanegraff, who is plagued with controversy and criticism and whose proper succession to Martin at CRI is disputed) published a special issue of the Christian Research Journal simply titled “We Were Wrong.” The whole issue is an apology to the “Local Churches” and an explanation of how CRI was wrong and how the LC are actually “soundly orthodox.” Norm Geisler and Ron Rhodes wrote a response to the CRI piece:

-- to which Hank Hanegraaff subsequently wrote a response in the latest issue of CRJ.

Later imprisonment and death

(Taken again from Wikipedia) One year before Watchman’s death in 1972, his wife, Charity, died due to an accident and high blood pressure; he was not allowed to attend her funeral. Her eldest sister then took the responsibility to care for her brother-in-law in prison. Though scheduled for release in 1967 he was still 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.

His grandniece recounts the occasion: --

“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 Watchman 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”.

As with many ministries which have been of blessing to the saints, Watchman’s personal integrity has been attacked. Two books in particular, one in US published by Amazon by Lily Hsu and another published in Chinese in HK by the head of a Bible seminary have done this. These distasteful attacks are largely based on the evidence brought against Watchman in 1952 and then in 1956 by the Communist regime (accusation amounting to 2300 pages!). If any reader wishes for the sordid details the present writer has dug into this material and can show it reflects on the lack of integrity of those who have penned these two works, rather than in any way on Watchman’s integrity.

The apostle John tells us “Demetrius has witness borne to him by all, and also by the Truth itself” (3John 12) and this writer believes that is true of Watchman -- not that he never made a mistake or that his teachings are without defect -- but that all who love Truth would know that this is a brother worthy of our high esteem.

“Out of the eater comes forth meat” however, and in the course of looking at this deprecatory, indeed accusatory material, I found this very charming testimony (translated here from Chinese): --

“Back in Shanghai, Watchman Nee spoke about the importance of prayer. He told the congregation that knocking on the door is not knocking on the wall, just as looking for a specific goal, so is prayer.

One afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Nee were invited to a tea party. A missionary there gave a wrapped gift to Pin Hui. She opened it and was surprised to find that it was their lost wedding gift: a Bible.

Asking her how she found it, the missionary told her a wonderful story:

The missionary had returned to Ireland for a holiday, and was preaching a message at a party. In the midst of her message, she said, "If someone here has a Chinese Bible, it will help me explain it more clearly." Someone handed her a Chinese Bible. When she opened the flyleaf, there in English were the words: "Reading this book will keep you from sin; sin will keep you reading this book." . In Chinese, however it reads: “From Tuo Sheng to Pin Hui”. Now the gift was returned to its rightful owner, the two were deeply moved and rejoiced.

It turned out that there was a British soldier serving in Shanghai, and when the Japanese army invaded setting houses on fire (sic) he also took advantage of the fire, entered a burning house hoping to get something. He saw the Bible and took it back to England, to give to his parents as a souvenir. Now, the “unfindable had become found”..”.

Watchman’s books and writings

As Watchman authored or was indirectly the “author” of over 150 books (many were put together from notes made at conferences where he was speaking) we only commend simply here a few. A fairly full list is found below: --

His best best-known book in English is The Normal Christian Life, which is based on talks he delivered in English during a trip to Europe in 1938 and 1939. This is a straightforward exposition of Romans for a new believer (and was a great help to this present writer as a young believer).

Other books which are simple to follow and very useful: --

  • Sit, Walk, Stand (1957) (exposition of Ephesians)
  • What Shall this Man Do? (1961) (a look at the different ministries of Peter, John and Paul)
  • Love Not the World (1968)
  • “Normal Christian Church Life” has already been mentioned

“The Spiritual Man” was a book he later said he regretted writing. Some have found parts of it mystical; it is written as a book of Biblical psychology, looking at man as body, soul and spirit. Certainly not a book recommended for new believers; my own view of it as a book was that it produced much introspection. One point in which I would qualify what our brother writes is that he places the three functions of will(power), emotions and thought/reason within the soul (psuche) of a man, and the three functions of knowledge, intuition and conscience within the spirit (pneuma). I would place the function of will(power) as overlapping into both. Now some will say I am being mystical!

One small book which I think deserves attention is “The Latent Power of the Soul” which was a kind of “addendum” to “The Spiritual Man”. This also appeared slightly rewritten as “Spiritual Obsession”. This book gives some very useful understandings (among other things) as to why some men of our present age have seemingly begin in genuine spiritual giftings and ended up in falsehood, deception and manipulation, even functioning in the demonic, by functioning in their own “soul-power”, not the true power of the Holy Spirit.

Watchman’s biography written by Angus Kinnear who spent two months with him before himself setting out for service in India as a medical missionary, is also very much worth the read: --

Kinnear, Angus (1973). Against the Tide. Fort Washington: Christian Literature Crusade.

On the overall history of the churches of China and the phenomenal growth over the last 60 years, readers who have not seen the 4-part series produced by “China Soul” on the history of the church in China, are commended to watch. Online links below. A mighty encouragement to the soul!

The original documentary “The Cross in China” was in mandarin but these are dubbed over into English.

They are about an hour each

English translation on Youtube — the four parts: —

Part II (Seeds of Blood) is the most moving of all, the interviews with the older brethren.

All of the heroes rightly celebrated in the hall of faith in Hebrews chapter 11 show in one way or another that they as we have feet of clay, and Watchman is no exception. But as a man among those who “have hazarded their lives for our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26) he commands the respect of every follower of the Lord. God give us such men of fire in our generation, and make us such ourselves!

Postscript 50 years on

Our Lord tells us concerning prophets and teachers that “by their fruits you shall know them”. One fruit of Watchman’s labours across China was that by 1949 some estimates say there were 500 (some say 1000) assemblies of the “Little Flock” as they came to be called, with perhaps 150,000-300,000 believers.

One of these was in a city in a very remote corner of China where this present writer had the privilege of spending some time. The assembly had been established there since 1941. They had moved there “lock, stock and barrel” as a group of families from another location, as was a common practice among the Little Flock to establish a work in a new area. The church was led by an elderly brother in his 80s whom everyone called “Uncle Hu”. There were 3-400 meeting in a private courtyard in the city each Sunday morning early, at a time when the government had made a kind of concessionary but unofficial allowance to house churches that meetings were allowed in homes with no more than 20 in attendance. The gathering was therefore under much pressure with so many present on a Sunday.

Uncle Hu himself had spent over 14 years in jail. This particular assembly had separated from another Little Flock congregation in the city over the issue of government registration (a sort of “half-way house” towards the “3-self” TSPM position). Uncle Hu and his eldership were firmly set against this.

I never got to meet Uncle Hu in person but one of the young men within their team of “co-workers” and with some responsibility for preaching would come visit me on occasion. Our conversation would always be solely taken up with the Lord and His word, and the task of spreading His word to some of the various ethnic minorities in the area.

I knew from many that brother Hu had a most powerful preaching and expository ministry, often continuing for about 2 hours each Sunday. His ministry often incorporated something very specific for some of his hearers, which we might call a word of knowledge. These were always very significant for the recipients and a great encouragement. There were healings both in and outside the meetings and other miracles. But what was impressive not only with this congregation but with other ministering brothers I met across north China at that time (early 90s) that the true miraculous workings of the Lord were accepted as “a matter of course”. I never saw anyone “make a big deal” out of it; the ministry of the word and the regeneration of souls was the priority. I am quite sure that this was the legacy of those “mighty men” of the 40s who set this tone in their own ministry for the generation to come in regard to a balanced view of spiritual gifts.

Though this was a “Little Flock” assembly, in fact my conversations with brother Z. hardly mentioned Watchman or his ministry. This was no man-centred cult, the Lord and His word were constantly at the centre. I am quite sure Watchman would have rejoiced to see that in one sense he had been forgotten or in another sense “left behind”. He will certainly have much joy in it one day if he does not rejoice in it even in the present.

Another aspect to many spiritual giftings I observed in operation within the church was what I can only call their “unrepeatability”. Nobody could ever have the foolish idea of imitating them.

Here was one. After one Sunday morning meeting I happened to meet a sister who had been present. She told me very much moved that a certain beloved brother had been taken from them the previous night at about 3 am, simply dying in his sleep. He was apparently in good health, but the family discovered at 3 am that he had gone.

Another sister had been in prayer late at night the evening before and related that the Lord had given her the revelation that this dear man would be taken from them that very night. She rose up to the matter and began to plead earnestly with the Lord for him to be allowed to remain with them. After some hours of intercession, at about 3 am she had said “I simply gave him into the hands of the Lord, and with complete peace I knew that this was His gracious will”.

At the morning meeting, when his family had stood to relate to the assembly the matter of his passing, this sister then rose with tears to tell the company what had transpired for her in her waiting upon the Lord. It was not an exaggeration to say that “fear came upon every soul”.

The assembly continued to grow week by week despite regular visits from the government to brother Hu and his eldership to warn them they would not tolerate this large unofficial Sunday meeting. One Sunday Uncle Hu rose and told the congregation “Do not think that it is the government who is pressing us to divide up into small groups for fellowship and ministry. This is the hand of the Lord; and now all of us, sisters included, must be ready to take up responsibility for the ministry to one another in small groups. It is time for us to be scattered”. I knew not a few brothers rejoiced to hear this, as many of the congregation had had this very conviction; but shortly afterwards it seemed Uncle Hu became fearful that the saints were not ready and backtracked on his plan. Some of the young men of the congregation went to plead with him, especially a group of about 5-6 very gifted young men who were seeing hungry people coming to their small meetings in the suburbs; many of those coming to listen were elderly people who found the Sunday journey to the centre of town very arduous, on buses jammed to the very doors, and in the winter in freezing temperatures of below -20˚C. Apart from everything else, they were so impoverished that they could not afford the bus fare of about 5 US cents equivalent.

Uncle Hu remained adamant, however. Despite their great respect for him, the young men saw their responsibility as shepherds of His sheep as a greater priority than their normal submission to him on many issues; and so (without his blessing, indeed in the face of his solemn warning) they began meetings in 3 or 4 locations on a Sunday around the city with groups of 20-40 people attending. It seemed like the sovereign Lord smiled on their decision and within the space of a further 5 years these small meetings had blossomed into 50 congregations across the whole region, and as far as this writer knows, are expanding still.

These very precious young men (actually now not so young!) continue in their ministry, with the firm hold on the new covenant principle of “the priesthood of all believers” which our brother Nee so thoroughly imparted to those God gave him 50 years before in Shanghai.

Let us not grow weary in well-doing; for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal.6:9).

The author is a UK born evangelist who also represents Moriel in Hong Kong.