Watchman Nee was born in Swatow, Fukien province, China in 1903. He was converted at the age of 17. From the beginning his consecration to the Lord was without reserve. At age 18 he met Miss M. E. Barber who was a freelance missionary sent by Surrey Chapel, Norwich, a church which owed much to the great Robert Govett. Miss Barber was to have a meaningful influence on Watchman Nee, first by matured spiritual advice and secondly by introducing him to the best Christian literature; lending him Christian classics. Watchman Nee was a serious student of the bible, his wanting to see and do God’s will and desire led him to have a Bible rooted ministry.
Beside the Bible, he read unceasingly, especially the classics by the Christian mystics (he translated madame Guyon’s little book on prayer into Chinese), Andrew Murray, Robert Govett, G. H. Pember, D. M. Panton, G. H. Lang, J. Penn-Lewis and others. He had a large collection of the Brethren writings (J. N. Darby, W. Kelly, C. H. Mackintosh…), he also read Bible expositions, biographies and had an acute knowledge of church history.
He was in close fellowship with Theodore Austin-Sparks and the brothers who were at Honor Oak Christian Fellowship, London. In fact Watchman Nee considered brother Austin-Sparks as his spiritual mentor, their fellowship was rich and fruitful.
Watchman Nee’s ministry lasted for about thirty years. He was the divinely chosen vessel through whom hundreds of churches were raised up and cared for, not only in China but throughout the Far East. His understanding of the Christian life and of the expression of the church was as close to the biblical revelation as could be. One has just to read and study such books as The Normal Christian Life and The Normal Christian Church Life to be convinced.
He was helped in his work by gifted co-workers like Witness Lee, Stephen Kaung, Faithful Luke, Simon Meek, James Chen and others who saw to it that the work was strengthened through rich ministry.
Watchman Nee was arrested and imprisoned by the Communists in 1952, he was never released and died in prison in 1972.
His ministry has had a significant impact not only in the Far East but throughout the world. We can still greatly benefit from him today through his many books (which are all nearly transcribed messages) readily available, thanks to some of his co-workers who have made it a point to publish his ministry for the greater benefit of worldwide seeking saints.
Shortly after Watchman Nee was saved, he began to love the Lord and was intensely burdened to preach the gospel to his schoolmates and countrymen in season and out of season. Through his preaching nearly all his schoolmates were led to the Lord, and a revival was brought into his school and spread extensively to the people of his hometown in 1923. Hundreds were saved and had their lives changed. Watchman Nee did not attend a theological school or Bible institute. Most of what he learned concerning Christ, the things of the Spirit, and church history was acquired through studying the Bible and reading the books of spiritual men. Watchman Nee was not only an excellent student of the Bible; he was also a studious reader of spiritual books. He was brilliantly gifted in being able to select, comprehend, discern, and memorize appropriate material. He could easily grasp the points of a book at a glance.
Because of overwork and lack of adequate physical care, Watchman Nee became sick with tuberculosis of the lungs in 1924. It became so serious that rumors were spread that he had died. During this time of illness, he was greatly exercised to trust in God for his existence, and God faithfully cared for him. God graciously healed him of tuberculosis, but sovereignly left him with angina pectoris. He could have died at any moment. This spontaneously ushered him into a full trust in the Lord for his existence. Moment by moment he existed by faith in God, and all through the years God sustained him with His gracious care and resurrection life until he died. Through such physical hardship, he experienced and enjoyed God much more than would have been possible if he had not had such an entangling and exhausting disease. The kind of divine healing Watchman Nee experienced was not merely a miraculous act of God; it was the working out of the resurrection life through the procedure of grace by the exercise of living faith in the faithful Word of God for edification and growth of life. It was not merely a miracle of divine power; it was absolutely a matter of grace and of the divine life.
Life and Work
Whenever Watchman Nee was asked a question, his answer was always practical, to the point, clear, full of anointing, and filled with light. His manner was very normal and open, and he was easy to approach. He had a great capacity and a broad heart. In spiritual matters, he climbed to the heights and touched the depths. Concerning God's principle and purpose, he was very rich in understanding and experience. He always left a very sweet impression, yet one did not lose the sense of respect. His attitude was gentle and meek, and his words were full of anointing. In conversation with him, there was no sense of distance but a sense of being watered and supplied. The impression left by his words and manner are unforgettable. Watchman Nee saw that the important thing regarding our work is not its quantity but its quality. The real work is the outflow of life.
In February of 1949 after much prayer and consideration, Watchman Nee made the decision to remain in Shanghai because of his burden for the churches, the co-workers, and the Lord's testimony on the mainland. On the one hand, he fully trusted in the Lord's sovereignty; on the other hand, he realized the risk and was prepared to be sacrificed for the Lord's testimony. In the spring of 1952, he was arrested and imprisoned for his faith; and in the summer of 1956, after a long trial, he was sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment. He was, however, never released. During his imprisonment, only his wife was allowed an occasional visit; She passed away on November 7, 1971. His wife's death was a great sorrow, and it cut him off from any contact with the outside. Not long after her death, on May 30, 1972, Watchman Nee also came to the end of his pilgrimage on this earth and rested with Christ, whom he served at the cost of his life. He left a piece of paper under his pillow, which had several lines of big words written in a shaking hand:
"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."
"It is important to receive God's arrangement in the circumstances. This arrangement is the discipline of the Holy Spirit. To escape God's arrangement just one time is to lose an opportunity to have our capacity enlarged. A believer can never be the same after passing through suffering."
"When I began to serve the Lord, I was somewhat anxious about the question of my livelihood. Since I was to walk in the Lord's way, I would only rely upon Him to support me. In the years 1921 and 1922, very few preachers in China lived in sole reliance on the Lord. Yet when I looked to the Lord, He said to me, 'If you cannot live by faith, you cannot work for Me.' I knew that I needed living work and living faith to serve a living God. God has supplied all my needs and has not failed me once."