From the time China was opened to western visitors in 1973 we have heard a growing stream of reports increasing in their excitement, about house churches there. At first, visitors claimed that, against all odds, the house church movement was still intact after 25 years of persecution.1 After several years, however, the reports became more sanguine. Estimates appeared claiming that there were 30 million authentic Christians meeting in house churches.2 Later estimates went higher still to 50 million and beyond.3
We can appreciate these figures when we contrast them to the estimated total number of Christians before the revolution of 1949. Most authorities estimate that there were less than one million evangelicals, but certainly, no more than two million before the communist takeover.4
These reports are amazing because during the past 30 years the Chinese church has lived under acute persecution, probably as harsh as that of any church in the world. Estimates of those killed go into the millions.5 In addition, virtually the entire evangelical Chinese-Christian intelligentsia was destroyed or silenced. Therefore, by even the most conservative estimates, the Chinese church must be considered one of the most victorious in the world. During a thirty five year period when the church in the developed countries has not experienced any significant growth at all, and in many places has decreased in size, the Chinese church has grown at least twenty, and perhaps fifty-fold.
It seems today that most of the ferment of growth in China is occurring, not in the Government sanctioned "Three-Self Patriotic Movement" (TSPM) churches, but in less organized and illegal house churches.
Standing at the headwaters of much of this spiritual ferment is a shadowy figure to western eyes. He is an enigma, and a paradox, but unquestionably one of the great Christian workers of this century-- Watchman Nee.
Watchman Nee was born Ni Shu-tsu or Henry Ni in Swatow, November 4, 1903. He was later renamed Ni Ching-Fu, and finally, after his commitment to Christian work, Ni To-sheng--that is, Watchman Nee.
His father, Ni Weng-hsiu or Nga Ung-siu of Foochow, born in 1877, was the fourth of nine boys. He served as officer in the Imperial Customs Service and died in Hong Kong in 1941.
Like so many well known servants of God, Watchman Nee had a family heritage of Christian Service. The first school in Foochow offering western-style education was opened in a suburb of the old city in 1853, and it was here that Watchman Nee's grandfather Nga U-cheng heard of Jesus Christ and was won to Him.
Four years later in 1857, the year in which the first Christian church in Foochow came into being, he was one of a group of four pupils baptized in the Min River. He progressed so well that the missionaries trained him as an evangelist, and soon he was proclaiming the gospel in this city of half a million souls. Eventually he was ordained a pastor, the first Chinese to be so honored in the three north Fukien missions. He had a gift for expounding the Scriptures for which, after his death in 1890, he was long to be remembered.
The strongest influence in Nee's early ideological development seems to have been his mother Lin Huo-ping.6 Her early experience included being sold as a slave to another couple in Foochow by her parents who could no longer afford to feed her. These in turn sold her to a wealthier merchant as an adopted daughter.
Huo-ping is portrayed by Kinnear as a strong-willed woman who became belatedly, but deeply committed to Christ and the Scriptures.7 She seems to have been mentally gifted, easily excelling the other students in the western style school in which she studied-- the Chinese Western Girls School in Shanghai. She had been deeply influenced by Huo King-en, who was at that time only the second women in China to have graduated in medicine in the U.S. Huo-ping prevailed on her father to work towards sending her to the U.S. to study medicine as well. Another gifted woman who affected Huo-ping at this time was Dora Yu, who had also been selected to study abroad, but had felt called of God to return from Europe to preach in China instead.
Before Huo-ping could carry out her plans, her mother accepted a marriage contract with Nga Ung-siu (Nee's father, who was later renamed Ni Wheng-hsiu by the civil service). It was inconceivable at that time for her to violate an agreement entered into with full parental authority. With bitterness of heart, she submitted to the inevitable.
Her marriage, which seems to have turned out alright after all, issued in nine children. While raising them, Huo- ping became active in patriotic activities associated with Sun Yat-sen. She was a tireless political organizer and agitator, forming the Women's Patriotic Society and often speaking publicly. When Sun Yat-sen came to Foochow in 1913, she was given an official role in the reception. Eventually she was awarded the order of the Second Class for Patriotism by the Kuomintang government.8
When, in 1919, she committed her life to Christ, she became active in evangelistic preaching, and her political activities diminished.
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