Thursday, May 30, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember Watchman Nee and his “Local Church” Movement.

It is the 30th of May 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


There are certain names in the history of the Christian Church I have been gun-shy about discussing at times. There is Origen in the early church- a favorite to some and a heretic to others (I think he’s devout and delightful and a little strange, but his allegorical approach to Scripture can be helpful), and then there is Erasmus, a favorite of mine but a one time enemy of Luther and thus suspect by some. And just as the 20th century exploded the faith around the globe, there were some foreign names and movements that led to some consternation and confusion in the Western Church- one such character is the memorably named “Watchman Nee” a Chinese Christian and evangelist known for his imprisonment by the Communists and the proliferation of his “Local Church” ministry especially as espoused by his follower Witness Lee.  

The Watchman got a brief shoutout on the first season of this show- but in such a format that didn’t allow for a deeper look and examination.

Watchman Nee was born Ni Tusosheng in 1904 in Fuzhou on the east coast Of China between Shanghai and Hong Kong. The faith of his parents was the fruit of 19th-century missions to China, and Nee was baptized in the Methodist church. It was his mother's repentance over punishing him that caused him to look more deeply into their shared faith and how it might produce something he thought so unique. He attended Bible School and, by 19, preached at his own services, which rejected some of the practices of overseas missionaries. By 1928, he would have found his own church known as “the Little Flock”- a church that he believed to be beyond denominational squabbles and was able to unite all sincere Christians. You could see how that might ruffle some feathers, but his theology was only unique in the sense that it followed radical reformation doctrines about the ability of any Christian to serve and lead a service. He would be influenced by his study bible and missionaries from the Brethren who brought a particular form of dispensationalism and end-times teaching. This made the church known as “the Little Flock” or “the Local Church” unique but hardly outside the bounds of historic Christianity when it came to the essentials.

This “little flock” would grow amidst the Chinese Civil War, growing to 70,000 members in some 500 churches across China in 1949. But these were perilous times for Chinese Christians, and Nee, seen as a national leader, was slandered and painted as a tool of the West. He would be arrested in 1952 and for 20 years would be heard from, and then not, as the mystery of China’s Christian leader became the story of his martyrdom as Watchman Nee died on this, the 30th of May in 1972.

Part of the difficulty with Nee is separating fact from fiction about a Christian hero in China who suffered for his faith, but as is sometimes the case, the stories begin to grow beyond the scope of believability. His movement, while loosely guided by his sermons and book “The Spiritual Man,” conformed to its leadership- either his local successors or the man known as “Witness Lee,” who brought the movement to the West in the 1960s.

Just as the movement began to grow on the tails of the Jesus Movement, it was struck by the growing “counter-cult” ministries that criticized Nee and what was called “the local church”. Practices varied (a common criticism was overbearing discipleship akin to the shepherding movement), but there was an interesting coda to Watchman Nee’s ministry in America with the Christian Research Institute, a counter-cult ministry founded by Walter Martin. They had once written off Nee and the Little Flock, or “Local Churches,” until a 6-year study concluded in 2009 with the Institute publishing an entire journal dedicated to Nee and his church with the journal titled “We Were Wrong.”  While the research did find some practices curious and some language unhelpful, they concluded that what Nee preached in China and what his church was under Lee and globally was a thoroughly orthodox church when it came to the essentials of the faith. Trust me when I tell you how rare that is, unfortunately, in church history, to say, “We were wrong; they are one of us”- a feather in the cap of CRI and a fair assessment of one of the giants in the story of 20th century Chinese Christianity.

Watchman Nee, born in 1903 died on this, the 30th of May in 1972, he was 68 years old.



 The last word for today is from the daily lectionary and the first verses of Psalm 139 as rendered by the Scottish Metrical Psalter:


1  O Lord, thou hast me searched and known.

 2      Thou know'st my sitting down,

    And rising up; yea, all my thoughts

       afar to thee are known.


 3  My footsteps, and my lying down,

       thou compassest always;

    Thou also most entirely art

       acquaint with all my ways.


 4  For in my tongue, before I speak,

       not any word can be,

    But altogether, lo, O Lord,

       it is well known to thee.


 5  Behind, before, thou hast beset,

       and laid on me thine hand.

 6  Such knowledge is too strange for me,

       too high to understand.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 30th of May 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who, early in his ministry, tried to get “Guardian Gillespie” to stick- it sounded too much like a pro wrestler… he is plain old Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who has thought a lot about what his pro-wrestling persona would have been- easy, “El Scorcho, the masked Luchador” I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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