: rs in
meetings in Shanghai's Intemational Settlement, and he drew freely on ideas he had
encountered in the writings of a variety of Christian writers and leaders in the West, a
number of whom he corresponded with. In addition, Nee made two visits to the UK, in
1932 and 1938-39, during which he attended and spoke at a number of evangelical
meetings and conventions. The history of Nee and the Little Flock therefore should be
viewed in a transnational context, and this paper will examine some of the transnational
connections that helped to shape the movment and its impact.
The missionary who was quoted at the start of this paper was a member of the Brethren, a
small evangelical denomination that originated in the United Kingdom during the
nineteenth century. Her enthusiasm reflected how she saw in Nee's ministry something
familiar to her own tradition. Historians of the Brethren have often noted that the
Brethren had an influence on Watchman Nee, and it is arguably true that the Brethren
influenced Nee more than any other single group. But it remains unclear what the precise
nature of that influence was. ® Nee grew up far from the regions where Brethren
missionaries in China operated, and when he did meet them, their encounters were often
far from harmonious. But, nevertheless, Nee became familiar with Brethren writings and
to a large extent modelled his ministry upon them. How did this come about, and what
was the effect of the Brethren influence on Nee? And in what ways did Nee in tum have
an influence on the wider Brethren movement around the world?
Nee's early encounters with the Brethren
Watchman Nee was bom in 1903 and grew up in a Protestant family in Fuzhou, The city
had been one of the first in China to be opened to missionaries, following the First Opium
War, and by the time of Nee“s birth a notable Protestant community had become
established. ® As well as having the same religion, the Chinese Protestants in Fuzhou
Q Robert Dann hm made the most recent, and perhaps the most extensive, attempt to place Nee in a Brethren context,
in The Primitivist Missiology of Anthony Norris Graves: A Radical influence on Nineteenth-Century Protestant Mission
(Victoria, Canada: Trafford Publishing, 2007). However, Darm's approach was to examine Nee's Writings in order to
gauge the extent to which they might have been inspired by A. N. Groves, who is Baun's subject. Dann does not
examine the historical relationship between Nee and the Brethren.
Ø For a history of the early decades of Protestant missionary work in Fuzhou, sec: Ellsworth C. Carlson, The Foochow
Missionaries, 1847-1880 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).
- -m. n.. a._. ... ... a--t. ... ... -., ç.. -mmywq _ 7 -,
shared a number of other characteristics. First, many of them had had Westem-style
educations in missionary schools. This was the case for both Nee's parents, and for
Watchman Nee, who attended Trinity School, run by the Anglican Church Missionary
Society. A second characteristic of Fuzhou's Protestants, resulting from their high levels
of education, was that they had a disproportionate presence in the modem professional
sector in the city. ® This again was retlected in Nee”s family, as his father worked in the
Chinese Maritime Customs Service? Finally, Fuzhou°s Protestants were also actively
involved in movements for political and social reform. Again, this was true for Nee's
family: during the 19103 and 19205 his father sat on the board of the Fuzhou Young
Men's Christian Association (YMCA), an organisation with a strong emphasis on social
activism; and his mother formed a Women°s Patriotic Society to provide support for the
new Chinese republic, established following the revolution of l9ll. ®
So Protestantism in F uzhou, at the start of the twentieth century, was a religion closely
associated with the rise of the modern Chinese middle-class, and with an active interest in
the social and political reform of China. @ But Watchman Nee came to reject this
particular model of Christianity, and he did so under the influence of the Brethren. Nee
first encountered the Brethren through Margaret Barber (1866-1929), an English
missionary in Fuzhou. Though originally a worker with the Church Missionary Society,
Barber had left this missionary scoiety, and had begun operating an independent ministry
on the edge of Fuzhou, where she carried out local evangelism and provided training for
young Chinese Christians, who she hoped might become church leaders? Barber was
not a member of the Brethren. However, she was associated with Surrey Chapel, an
independent chapel in England, whose pastor, David Panton, was very influenced by
G) For the development of the Protestant community in Fuzhou, see: For a history of Protestantism in Fuzhou up to
1927, see: Ryan Dunch, Fuzhou Protestants and the Making of a Modern China 1857-1927, (New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 2001). For missionary education in China more generally, see: Jessie Lutz, China and the Christian
Colleges 1850-1950, (Ithaca, NY: Comell University Press, 1971); Daniel H. Bays and Ellen Widmer (eds. ), China's
Christian Colleges: Cross-Cultural Connections, 1900-1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).
Q Kinnear, Against the Tide, pp. 24-26. The Chinese Maritime Customs Service was established in 1854 in order to
oversee the collection of taxes and duties in the newly-created trealy ports. For a recent study of the Customs Service,
sec: Hans ven de Ven, Breaking with the Past: The Maritime Customs Service and the Global Origins of Modernity' in
China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
@ Dunch, F uzhou Protestants, p. 195; Kinnear, Against the Tide, pp. 41, 46.
ø For the rise of the middle class in republican China, see: Marie-Claire Bagere, The Golden Age of the Chinese
Bourgeoisie 1911-1937 (French edition: Paris, 1986; English edition: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
G' Barbefs independent status has meant that very little documentary evidence of her time in Fuzhou has survived. The
archives of Surrey Chapel, held in the Norfolk Record Office, contain just a few, briefmentions of her, and the nature
of the support she received liom them seems to have been very infonnal.
, and for
ed in the
t for the
: erest in
: ct this
: ed by
Brethren ideas and writings. Panton passed that influence on to Margaret Barber, and she
now in tum introduced Watchman Nee to the Brethren vision for the Church.
So what was this Brethren influence that had such a significant influence on Nee? lt can
be summarised as the Brethren effort to follow the practices of the primitive church. The
Brethren movement first emerged at the start of the nineteenth century in the United
Kingdom. It consisted of groups of Christians who left their different denominations and
instead began gathering together in small meetings. Thse groups, who referred to
themselves as Brethren', believed that the church of the apostles reflected the normative
pattem for all Christians. They read the accounts of the early Christians in the New
Testament very closely, and tried to recreate the practices they found there. They
consequently rejected the various church traditions and institutions that had been
developed since the time of the New Testament. They believed that the primitive church
represented the ideal model that should be adopted and followed by all Christians,
everywhere in the world, and at every point in time.
Nee now began to follow a path that in many ways mirrored that of the key figures of the
early years of the Brethren movement in the UK. In 1921 he underwent baptism by
immersion, as he saw this, rather than the infant baptism practiced by Fuzhou”s Methodist
church, as representing the correct practices of the primitive church. ln 1922 he went a
step further, and removed his name, along with those of his family, from the membership
of the Methodist church in Fuzhou? instead, he participated in inforrnal communion
services with a small group of Chinese Christians. Such small, simple gatherings were
what characterised the Brethren movement, as they saw this type of meeting as most
closely reflecting the fomr and character of the primitive church. Disagreements meant
that Nee leñ this initial group in Fuzhou, but he moved eventually to Shanghai, in 1928,
and went about establishing a new group along the same Brethren primitivist principles.
In fact, as well as reading about the Brethren movement, Nee had started to correspond
with some of its members. By the early twentieth century, the Brethren movement had
Ø Xi, Redeemed by Fire, p. 160; Kinnear, Against the Tide, p.67.
divided into two main branches, known most commonly as “open” and “exclusive. °@ Nee
had begun corresponding with the largest group within the exclusive branch, known as
the Taylorite Brethren. ln 1932 he received a small delegation of Taylorites from Britain,
who were keen to investigate this apparent emergence of an independent witness in China.
Atter observing the meetings of the Little Flock, the delegation felt able to accept Nee
and his movement into fellowship with them, and they invited him to Britain and North
America on a retum visit, which he embarked upon in 19339 The Taylorites were a
closely circumscribed group, which insisted on a strict separation from other Christian
groups. However, Nee, unknown to the Taylorites coordinating his tour, visited churches
both in London and in Canada that were outside of the Taylorite circle. At both of these
he joined the members in their communion services. The Taylorites discovered this
following Nee”s retum to China, and a furious exchange of letters commenced, in which
i the Taylorites tried to persuade either Nee to renounce his actions, or the Little Flock to
l renounce Nee. ® No resolution was reached, with the Little Flock asserting their freedom
å to have fellowship with whoever they deemed fit, and the Taylorites asserting obedience
to their ministry as the sole basis for deciding matters of fellowship. In 1935, the Little
V, Flock were infonned that their association with the Taylorites had been ended.
i However, despite this failure to link his movement with those of the Taylorite Brethren,
Nee's ministry continued to reflect their influence. Over the course of the 19305 the Little
l Flock grew and spread to the towns of China's south-eastem coast, and Nee sought to
organise his expanding movement along lines that bore striking resemblance to the
Exclusive Brethren model. According to this model, developed originally in the UK by
J. N. Darby (1800-1882), each separate meeting should operate independently, but there
should nevertheless be an overarching, and visible, unity to the church as a whole?
Nee°s own application of this was to appoint elders with full authority over each separate
G” For a Comparative history of both the Open and Exclusive branches of the Brethren in the twentieth century, see
Roger N. Shuff, Searching jbr the True Church: Brethren and Evangelicals in Mid-Twentieth-Century England (Milton
l Keynes: Patemoster, 2005).
l ® For more on Nee”s time with the Taylorites, see Kinnear, Against the Tide, pp. 138-152. For an account from the
Taylorite perspective, see A. J. Gardiner, The Recovery and Maintenance of the Truth (second edition,
Kingston-on-'lhamesz Stow Hill Bible and Tract Depot, 1963), pp. 272-288.
G' Some of these letters are reproduced in: Gardiner, The Recovery and Maintenance of the Truth.
G) For Darby, see: Timothy C. F. Stunt, “Darby, John Nelson (l800-1882)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
(Oxford University Press, 2004) <http: ⁄/www. oxforddnb. com/ view/ article/7l4l> [accessed 5 Sept 201 1]. For Darby's
influence on Nee, see: Xi, Redeemed by Fire, pp. 168-169, 173.
meeting, while at the same time employing a group of “apostles” to oversee the work of
the overall movement.
What was it about Brethren primitivism that proved s0 attractive to Nee? The Brethren
historian Robert Dann has Suggested that a primitivist ecclesiology, that is, an insistence
on using the New Testament as the sole source for inforrning church order and practice,
has often been embraced enthusiastically by indigenous church leaders. This, he argues,
is because it provides a tool with which they can challenge missionary authority, and
establish a basis for an independent, indigenous church movement? This seems to have
been the case with Nee. As his movement spread, he began to speak out in opposition to
many missionary churches. These churches, he argued taught a Christianity that had
departed from the biblical model that the Little Flock represented. In particular, he
claimed that the denominational labels of the missions prevented the unity that was
supposed to characterise the local church. Consequently, many Chinese Christians in
missionary churches left these churches in order to join the Little Flock, and resentment
built up against Nee among missionaries, including many from the Brethren?
However, other Brethren greatly admired what Nee was doing. Although he had broken
off his association with the Taylorites, Nee's correspondence with other Brethren figures
in Britain continued. One of these, the speaker and writer GH. Lang@, expressed his
admiration for Nee°s ministry:
It is refreshing to find saints so far from this land as China s0 enlightened and
definite upon these matters; and I cannot but think it significant that Christians in
China should, after one hundred years, be found setting forth these truths to
Christians in this land who have largely surrendered theme)
Lang had become critical of the Brethren movement in the UK. In 1925 he published a
book entitled Departure, in which he attacked what he saw as centralising tendencies
Ø Robert Bemard Dann, The Primitivist Ecclesiology øf Anthony Norris Graves: A Radical influence on the
Nineteenth-Century Protestant Church in Britain (Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2007), p. 220.
a' Xi, Redeemed by Fire, pp. 170-171.
Q For the life of Lang, see his autobiography: G. H. Lang, An ordered Life: An Autobiography (London: Patemoster,
ø” Letter from Lang to Watchman Nee, 24 September 1935 (Papers of G. H. Lang, Correspondence 1930-1954).
among the Brethren, and called for a retum to the movemenfs founding, primitivist
principles? Lang saw Watchman Nee as someone who was adhering more closely to the
original Brethren vision, than the Brethren themselves were.
Lang's reaction to the rise of the Little Flock was echoed by others from the Brethren. For
example, in China in 1934, GC. Shepherd disassociated himself from Echoes of Service,
the Brethren missionary organisation he had been working for, and began operating as an
independent missionary. In a circular letter he outlined the reasons for this move, in
which he repeated many of Lang°s criticisms of the Brethren. However, as the letter
continued, it was evident that an encounter with the Little Flock had helped to shape his
Failing to see in the numerous representations of Christianity in China anything
near akin to the New Testament pattem, they [the Little Flock] have boldly set out
to follow the teaching and example found therein. All believers not scripturally
disqualified are received among them. .. I am fully convinced that this movement
is the work of the Holy Spirit, and that we would do well to adjust our own
methods by the light of Scripture and thus be found working shoulder to shoulder
with our Chinese brethren, who at present with good reason consider our position
to be unscriptural and sectarian. ®
Shepherd argued that the Little Flock's close adherence to the New Testament pattem had
exposed the departure of the Brethren themselves from the biblical principles on which
they claimed to draw their identity, and it inspired him to strike out independently. 1t can
be seen, then, that Nee was not simply taking Brethren ideas and using them in China. He
was extending them, and inspiring Brethren from the UK to follow his own example. But
Nee's influence outside of China was beginning to spread beyond the Brethren. In 1938
he embarked on a second visit to the UK, and this visit would serve to confirm and
extend the transnational character of his influence.
ø For more on Lang's attacks, and in particular those that were directed at Echoes of Service, Tim Grass, Gathering to
his Name: The Story of Open Brethren in Britain and Ireland (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), pp. 345-349.
ø Circular letter from G. C. Shepherd, February 1934 (Papers of G. H. Lang, Correspondence 1930-1954).
êfêltiláüü PBSÅEFCEIJIÆWTE? ?
Nee°s visit to BritainL1938-1939
Nee°s trip lasted just under a year, during which time he attended a number of evangelical
meetings around Europe? Most notably, Nee attended the Convention for the Deepening
of Spiritual Life in Keswick, in the Lake District. The Keswick Convention had been
running annually since 1875, and had become the main focus of the holiness movement
in Britain? lt also had a strong missionary focus, with a meeting devoted to missionary
concems being one of the conventions most well-attended events. At this meeting during
the 1938 Convention, which was led by W. H. Aldis, the Home Director of the China
Inland Mission, Nee was invited to pray for China. Over tive thousand people were
reported to have attended the main meetings at the 1938 Convention, and so Nee was
commanding a large audience? The occasion was noted with some enthusiasm in the
commemorative volume for that year°s Convention;
But for many the crowning moment of vision was undoubtedly reached when Mr
Aldis invited a Chinese Christian, Watchman Nee, to lead us in prayer. We had
just been hearing of the war havoc, and of the unspeakable sufferings of China.
The opportunity to unite in prayer was accordingly eagerly welcomed. No one
who was privileged to be present can forget these moments. For the very Spirit
of our Lord Himself breathed through that prayer. “The Lord reigneth. He is
reigning, and He is Lord of all. Nothing can touch His authority. It is the
spiritual forces that are out to destroy the interests of the Lord in China and in
Japan. We do not pray for Japan. We do not pray for China. But we pray for the
interests of Thy Son in China and in Japan. We do not blame any men. They are
only tools in the hand of the enemy of the Lord. Lord, we stand in Thy will. Lord,
shatter the Kingdom of Darkness. Lord, the persecution of Thy Church is
persecuting Thee. ”
Ø For an overview of Nee's visit, see: Kinnear, Against the Tide, pp. 187-195.
Ø For the Keswick Convention, see: John C. Pollock, The Keswick Story: The A utharized History of the Keswick
Convention (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964). For Keswick in the context of the holiness movement, see: David W.
Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modem Britain: A History from the 1730: 10 the 19805 (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989),
pp. 151-180; Bebbington, Haliness in Nineteenth-Century England (Carlisle: Patemoster Press, 2000).
@ A report in the Cumberland Evening News stated: “At the opening meeting on Saturday night the large tent, the
largest in the world, seating with its wooden annexe about 5000 people, was full' and that 'The attendance was
increased by latecomers on Sunday and Monday, and was further added to by the many who now motor into Keswick
day by day for two or three days to attend the meetings. ” (Anon, “Five Thousand at Opening of Keswick Convention',
Cumberland Evening News (18 July 1938), p. 4). The missionary meeting took place on Friday moming in the main
tent, and was considered one of the highlights of the Convention, so it is likely that it attracted similar numbers.
So he prayed. And every heart amongst us was united in the Spirit to say,
“Amenf and 'Amenf
How deeply moved and glad must every missionary and helper who had
wrought in the work in China have been! How truly these men and women have
Nee°s prayer displayed the primitivist influence of the Brethren. He drew the audience°s
attention away from the contemporary concems about the conflict between China and
Japan, and instead asserterd a Church that transcended national political allegiances. As
this account shows, Nee's prayer was enthusiastically received by those attending the
convention. It should be noted that this took place at a difficult time for Protestant
missions. Nationalist movements around the world were putting pressure on missionaries,
and the threat of war in Europe further damaged confidence in the idea of a united
Christian mission to the world? In this context, Nee's prayer spoke powerfully to those
at Keswick, and beyond. During his time in Britain, Nee was given several invitations to
speak, and was also entreatcd to translate some of his earlier talks into English for
Concerning Our Missions
The series of talks that Nee set about translating had been given to some of his coworkers
in Shanghai. In these talks he sought to provide a primitivist blueprint for missionary
work in China. The talks had been transcribed and published already in Chinese, as Il/ E
Eilñrål (Rethinking the Work). ® The title of the English version was Concerning Our
Missions and it was Nee's first English-language publication?
® Anon (ed. ), The Keswick Convention 1938 (London: Pickering & lnglis Ltd, 1938), p. 245.
Q” Brian Stanley, Missions, Nationalism and the End of Empire (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ,
2003), pp. 1-1 l.
® Xi, Redeemed by Fire, p. 174.
O The English version was reprinted by Living Stream Ministry in 1980, under the title The Normal Christian Church
Life, in order to accompany another of Nee's books with the title The Normal Christian Life.
. ..__, ... ... r.. -.. .,.
êfåliihüëiTüfjiiiftPå üåâääââllâllåmârtix i?
ln the introduction, Nee set out the basis for his ideas:
Conditions in the Church today are vastly different from what they were then, but
these present conditions could never be our example, or our authoritative guide.
We must retum to the beginning. Only what God has set forth as our example in
the beginning is the eternal will of God. It is the divine standard and our pattem
for all time. ®
Nee appealed to primitive Christianity, that is, to a universal and normative model for
church practice that was set out in the New Testament. This model, according to Nee, was
to be followed regardless of time or place, and the sole function of and motivation for
missionary work was to be the application of this model.
Nee addressed many aspects of church practice, but what concerned him particularly was
the lack of unity within churches in China and around the world:
Today in the large Cosmopolitan cities of the world there are churches for the
whites and churches for the blacks, churches for the Europeans and churches for
the Asiatics. These have originated through failure to understand that the
boundary of a church is a city. God does not permit any division of His children
on the ground of difference of colour, custom, or manner of living. No matter to
what race they belong, if they belong to the same locality, they belong to the same
church. God has placed believers of different races in one locality, so that, by
transcending all extemal differences, they might in one church show forth the one
life and the one Spirit of His Son. ®
Nee emphasised the local character of church meetings. The New Testament, Nee argued,
contained one church that was divided into different meetings according to the localities
of the believers. The local church, therefore, was simply the group of Christian believers
who happened to be living in the same locality. This, according to Nee, was a timeless
(DWatchman Nee, The Normal Christian Church Life (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1993), p. 92.
› Q Nee, The Normal Christian Church Life, p. xvi.
his faith in the possibility and power of a primitive Brethren vision? Like Lang,
Patterson saw the Little Flock as holding more truly to Brethren ideals than the Brethren
themselves. Bull and Patterson were inspired by the Little Flock to continue their
missionary work independently in westem China.
Patterson°s recollections also serve to demonstrate how the Brethren character of the
Little Flock was being maintained, even as it underwent such a rapid and large-scale
expansion. ln Gods Fool he described how, in 1948, while visiting the Little Flock
meeting in Chongqing he was asked to give a talk on the topic of “the recent historical
development of New Testament principles. ” He was surprised to find that the members
were familiar with the many Brethren authors he mentioned. ® This was, according to
Patterson, a result of the translations and summaries of Brethren writers that Nee included
in his joumal that was circulated to the assemblies. ® Even in this far and
recently-established Little Flock outpost, the influence of Nee meant that Brethren ideas
were still central in shaping the beliefs and practices of the members.
In 1951, as the last missionaries were preparing to leave China following the Communist
Revolution of 1949, Echoes Quarterly Review, a Brethren missionary magazine, printed
an extract from an article from China's Millions, the China Inland Mission magazine. It
opened with the following:
The greatest indigenous movement in China today is popularly known as the
'Little Flock' movement. In some respects, especially in its church doctrines, it
resembles the Exclusive Brethren movement. Yet, recently at least, it places a
strong emphasis on evangelism. The spiritual teachings of the man who originated
the movement, even though sometimes extreme or one-sided, have had a wide
influence on the whole church in China, and have attracted to the movement a
large following. Frankly, with its uncompromising denunciation of
'D Gads Fool (London: Faber & Faber, 1956), pp. 89-92.
° Patterson, God 's Fool, p. l77.
@ Interview with George Patterson, 3"* May 2011.
$531 ÆZZJEETWÆREP 'å lüâisâëätä liziiüiiââ
denominational Christianity, it is a divisive movement. At the same time it is also
a spiritual movement, and the spiritual life of the churches connected with it is
usually a sharp contrast with that of many of the older churches?
This extract shows how, even among missionaries not connected to the Brethren, the
influence of that movement on the Little Flock was recognised. That influence was
viewed in both positive and negative terms, but it was clearly perceived, nonetheless.
What was it about Brethren primitivism that appealed to Nee? There are a number of
possible factors. Growing up in an environment where Christianity was closely tied to a
group°s educational and social background, the Brethren emphasis on separation from the
world took on a more potent and relevant meaning. ln addition, the strong anti-imperialist
feeling circulating in China at this time heightened the desire of Chinese Christians for
greater control of their churches. Nee shared in this sentiment, and Brethren primitivism
took on a greater appeal in this context, as its emphasis on the authority of the Bible
above church leadership provided him with a basis to advance the cause of an
independent Chinese Christian movement.
But, as this article has argued, this was not simply a story of Brethren influences
travelling from the UK to China. Nee in tum reshaped Brethren ideas, and this had an
influence on the Brethren themselves. Certainly, many rejected Nee°s interpretations of
primitivism as too extreme. But Nee also received enthusiastic support, particularly from
those, such as Lang, who were at the fringes of the Brethren and somewhat at odds with it.
Disillusioned at what they saw as the movement°s retreat from its uncompromising,
primitivist origins, they saw in the Little Flock a fresh and true expression of the Brethren
vision, and were encouraged in the particular stands they subsequently took. This was
also the case for Geoffrey Bull and George Patterson, when they came to China as
Furthermore, Nee had a wider influence on Christians in the West. As was shown earlier,
Nee was enthusiastically received at the Keswick Convention in 1938. As a result of this,
9 'An indigenous Movement in China”, Echoes Quarterly Review (April-June, 1951), p. 63.
: is also
lth it is
: d to a
. a as
interest in Nee remained strong in the UK, even following his imprisonment and arrest.
Further translations of his writings were produced, and Nee°s primitivist vision gained
wider currency among evangelicals in the West. The Little Flock, therefore, should not
purely be viewed as a Chinese Christian movement, nor even as a Chinese Christian
movement that has influenced Christians in the West. Rather, it was from the start a
transnational phenomenon, engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the global Brethren
movement. Nee took on and adapted Brethren primitivist ideas, and Christians in the
West in tum responded to Nee°s rethinking of primitivism and its application for the