Against the Tide. By Angus J. Kinnear. Earlbourne: Victory Press, 1973. 256 pp.
Watchman Nee was a man of God who made a great impact on the Christian church in China. His thinking, as recorded in various books of messages, has been carried around the world. He had a unique gift for teaching profound truths simply with illuminating illustrations. This biography introduces him as a person to his many readers. It is accurately documented and well-written, a moving story of a great man in God’s kingdom.
Watchman was born on November 4, 1903, in Swatow, China. He was the third child and the first son of the family. His parents were Christians and his mother, like Hannah, had promised him to the Lord.
His father was a customs official for the government and Watchman was given a good education in the Chinese classics. At thirteen he entered the C.M.S. school in Foochow to begin his Western-style education. When he was eighteen his mother was restored to the Lord and confessed wrongdoing to her family. Because of this Watchman turned to the Lord and made a complete committal from the start. He left all to follow Jesus. There was no turning back.
In school he now began witnessing and carrying his Bible everywhere he went. Several boys were converted through his witness and began to meet for prayer and Bible study. They also began an aggressive witness in the town, handing out leaflets and carrying placards. They put up posters proclaiming the Gospel. They were determined to preach Christ to all.
This early zeal and enthusiasm were to characterize Watchman’s life. He was gifted as a teacher and an organizer, planning evangelistic campaigns and outreach. However, he never really identified with the foreign missionary program, feeling instead the need of an indigenous Chinese church. He constantly studied the New Testament for principles to guide these churches.
Watchman was influenced by various sources in his thinking. He read widely in scholarly works such as Alford and Westcott, and also read many Christian biographies. He read many of the Exclusive Brethren writers: Darby, Kelly, Bellett, Coates and others. For a while he associated with the Exclusive group dominated by Taylor. However, when he refused to limit his fellowship to their circle they excommunicated him. It was a traumatic experience for him and one could wish that he had contacted more open brethren. T. Austin-Sparks also influenced him.
Nee did adopt Exclusive views on having only one local church for each city. He translated many of the hymns from the Little Flock hymnbook. Because of this, others began to call the movement, “Little Flock,” a term which they rejected, however.
Some of Nee’s views on eschatology are not commonly accepted. One might question some of his details on Biblical psychology and yet profit spiritually from his writings. In a practical way his views on the organization of their full-time workers are unfortunate. There was a strong stress on the authority of a senior “apostle” over the other workers. Here there was too much organization and dependence. Witness Lee, his fellow-worker, in later years was to carry these ideas to further extremes, exercising his authority with an iron hand.
Yet there was much that was Scriptural in these assemblies that began to spread throughout China. There was zeal and fervor in the Gospel and simplicity in their meetings. Many Chinese converted through other missions were attracted to their meetings. As a result, some resentful missionaries called them “sheep stealers.”
But you must read the book. There are lessons for us to learn today if we too are concerned to recapture the zeal and form of the early church. Those who refuse to read history are destined to repeat its mistakes. Yet it would be folly to deny it was a movement of God. Today it still survives with the remnants of other mission work as the underground church of China, and it has taken root in other parts of the world.
Watchman Nee was married but had no children. He refused to leave China as Communism took over, choosing to stay with God’s “little flock.” At forty-eight years of age he was arrested in Manchuria on April 10, 1952. After interrogation and a rigged trial he was sentenced to prison. He was never to be free again. Only God knows the torture of mind and body he endured during those years. Scattered correspondence was received. The authorities had him translate English scientific textbooks into Chinese as part of his reform. He probably was never allowed to have a Bible.
Glimpses of him as received through letters and from reports of visits reveal that he never compromised his faith and lived in the joy of the Lord. His wife died in 1971. This was a heavy blow to him; he had hoped for release after twenty years in prison and a reunion with her. On April 22, 1972, he wrote to his sister-in-law stating that his health was not good, “But,” he said, “I maintain my own joy, so please do not worry.” There was no further word from him. Relatives were later notified that on June 1, 1972, he had died.
I believe the Lord Jesus stood to welcome him Home as He did Stephen. Another disciple had been faithful unto death.
— Donald L. Norbie