Encyclopedia of American Religions, 5th Edition
by J. Gordon Melton

The (Local) Church

The group that is variously known as the Little Flock or the Local Church was founded in the 1920s in China by Ni Shu-tsu, popularly known by the English translation of his name, Watchman Nee (1903-1972). Nee was born into a Chinese Christian family, his grandfather serving as a Congregationalist minister and his parents faithful Methodists. He changed his given name, Ni Shu-tsu (Henry Nee) to To-Sheng {Watchman), as a constant reminder to himself that he was a bell-ringer whose purpose was to raise up people for God.

From a nominally religious youth, he was converted by Dora Yu, a Methodist evangelist, and soon afterward began working with Margaret E. Barber, an independent missionary through whom he discovered the writings of John Nelson Darby and the exclusive Plymouth Brethren. He adopted Darby's nondenominational approach to church organization and soon emerged as the leader of a small band of evangelical Christians. By the end of the decade he had made contact with that branch of the Brethren led by James Taylor and at their invitation visited England in 1933. They, however, soon broke relationships with Nee because of his unauthorized fellowship with the Honor Oak Christian Fellowship, a non-Brethren group headed by T. Austin Sparks.

From its modest beginning in Foochow, Nee's movement spread through China. During the 1930s, he traveled wide and founded congregations based upon his idea that there should be only one local church (i.e., congregation) in each city as the basic expression of the unity of Christianity (in the face of divisive denominationalism). More than two local churches were raised up by his ministry between 1922 and 1952 (when the Chinese revolution ended the spread of Christianity). Nee also authored more than 50 books, mostly on Christian life and church life. His mature view of the church is found in his most famous book, The Normal Christian Church Life. He also authored The Spiritual Man, in which he developed his understanding of the tripartite nature of human beings as body, soul, and spirit.

The new People's Republic of China, following its rise to power in 1949, accused Nee (and by association the churches affiliated with him) of being a spy for the Americans and the Nationalist government. He was first exiled from Shanghai and then in 1952 imprisoned. He died in prison in 1972.

During the 1930s, Nee gained a follower in the person of Witness Lee, a former Protestant minister who founded, established, and became an elder of the church at Chefoo. He joined Nee in the ministry in 1932 and within a few years was among Nee's most valuable assistants. After a three-year absence fighting tuberculosis, Lee rejoined Nee in full-time work in 1948, on the eve of the Chinese Revolution. Nee sent Lee to Taiwan where the church was to flourish and spread around the Pacific Basin.

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Source: Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedia of American Religions, 5th Edition. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996: 500.

Watchman Nee




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