Witness Lee's Life and Ministry

God's Saving Work

Witness Lee was born in 1905 in the Shantung province of northern China. His early childhood testifies to God's loving provision in giving him a wise and caring mother who was a third-generation Southern Baptist raised in a thoroughly Christian home. His father, a farmer, died in 1923. To provide her children with the proper education in Chinese and English, his mother sold her only inheritance in order to raise enough money to send them to school. Such courage and foresight in her circumstances was rare in those days. Thanks to his mother's sacrifice, Witness Lee was able to study in the Southern Baptist Chinese elementary school and in the English Mission College operated by the American Presbyterians in Chefoo.

After Witness Lee's second-oldest sister experienced the Lord's salvation, she began praying for him and introduced him to the Chinese Independent congregational church in his hometown, Chefoo. A few months later, in April 1925, at the early age of 19, he personally received the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior through the preaching of a sister in the Lord, Peace Wang. At that time he was extraordinarily ambitious regarding his education and future. But on the day of his dynamic salvation everything changed, as described below in his own words:

I still remember the experience of the God of glory appearing to me for the first time. That was on the afternoon of the day I was saved. When I walked out of the meeting hall into the street, I felt that everything was different. I stopped by the road and prayed to God, "God! I don't want anything else anymore. I only want Yourself." (The Glorious Vision and the Way of the Cross, p. 11)

On that day Witness Lee was called by Christ and consecrated himself to serve Him for the rest of his life. He became a true follower of his Master and never turned back from his vow. From that day on, he loved the Bible and collected as many Bible expositories as possible. He soon began meeting with the Brethren Assembly (the Benjamin Newton branch) in Chefoo and was attracted by their knowledgeable expounding of the Bible. In His search to know the Bible, he also noticed in Christian periodicals some outstanding articles on biblical truths by Watchman Nee.

In the spring of 1927, Witness Lee delivered his first spoken message, "Behold the Lamb of God," at the Chinese Independent Congregational Church in his hometown, Chefoo. At the end of that year he was elected to serve on the board, an unusual distinction for such a young man. However, he declined the position, left that denomination, and began meeting regularly with the local Brethren assembly. He attended each of their seven weekly meetings, earnestly absorbing all their doctrines. In 1930 he was baptized by immersion in the sea by their leader. Witness Lee continued to attend the Brethren meetings for seven and a half years.

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Turned from Knowledge to Life

The greatest help Witness Lee received in the matters of the divine life came through his reading of Watchman Nee's articles and books, beginning from 1925, the year he was saved. He purchased all of Watchman Nee's books on the divine life and began to correspond with Watchman Nee, asking him questions about the Bible. In the meantime, he continued to study the Bible with the Brethren and received much scriptural knowledge from them concerning biblical types, prophecies, and parables. Although those teachings helped him to forsake worldliness and to avoid drifting from the Lord's pathway, they provided little help in the matters of life, the Spirit, and the church. He realized that he had "received a great deal of knowledge from their teachings, but very little life." (Watchman Nee, A Seer of the Divine Revelation in the Present Age, p.284)

Then in August 1931, Witness Lee had a real repentance:

I considered how much knowledge I had accumulated and yet how dead I was. True, I never returned to the world, yet, though I attended seven meetings a week, I was utterly cold and fruitless. At this time I experienced a deep and real repentance.

The next morning at an early hour I climbed to the top of a small mountain near my home. I cried to the Lord and wept in desperation. Morning by morning I went there to pray. From that day on I cared little about talking; I only wanted to pray. This experience lasted for several months, from August until February or March of the following year. (Watchman Nee, A Seer of the Divine Revelation in the Present Age, p.286)

In the summer of 1932, Watchman Nee was invited by Witness Lee and other Christians to visit Chefoo. As soon as he met Watchman Nee, they began to have excellent fellowship concerning the Lord's interest. As was characteristic of Watchman Nee's ministry, he emphasized to Witness Lee the need to experience the divine life. This intimate fellowship caused Witness Lee to have a fundamental turn from knowledge to life. Describing this time with Watchman Nee, Witness Lee said:

My time with Watchman during those days deeply impressed me with the sweetness, loveliness, attractiveness, and newness of the Lord. Those days provided a new start for me in following the Lord and caused me to have a basic turn from knowledge to life. Because of those days with Watchman Nee, I began to have fellowship with the Lord in a more intimate way. The Lord became more precious to me. That experience was even greater than my experience of salvation. Those days with Watchman affected my pathway in the Lord throughout all the following fifty-nine years, since 1932. For eternity I can never forget those days! What a mercy and grace it was to me. (Watchman Nee, A Seer of the Divine Revelation in the Present Age, pp. 288-289)

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Called to Serve

From the day he was saved in 1925, Witness Lee desired to spend his life preaching the gospel. After he graduated from college and then helped his younger brother to graduate, the Lord reminded him of this matter. Although he knew that his destiny was to give his life to serve the Lord, he did not yet have sufficient faith to respond to the Lord's call.

During the time of his first personal contact with Watchman Nee in 1932, when Nee had been invited to speak at the Chinese Independent Congregational Church in Chefoo and the Southern Baptist Seminary in Hwang-Hsien near Chefoo, Witness Lee deeply sensed that the Lord was calling him to serve. He described this experience as follows:

...I stayed in my room to have some time with the Lord. I read Isaiah 44:22 and deeply sensed as I read, "Return unto Me, for I have redeemed you," that the Lord was calling me to serve Him. I deeply felt that the Lord gave me verse 21 as a promise: "You are My servant; you will not be forgotten by Me." Also verse 23 seemed to be a clear word to me concerning the goal of His calling: "Jehovah has been glorified in Israel." The Lord's presence was very real to me there, and I was thoroughly anointed, refreshed with His Spirit, and filled with joy and encouragement. (Watchman Nee, A Seer of the Divine Revelation in the Present Age, p. 288)

After Watchman Nee left Chefoo, the Lord sovereignly brought several believers to Witness Lee. As more were added, a church was raised up in that city. The church first met in his mother's living room. Later, as the number grew, the church secured a meeting facility.

As Witness Lee's fellowship with the Lord increased, the call to give himself full-time to the Lord's service became stronger and stronger. He struggled for a time about taking this step of faith. In August 1933, the struggle became intense. Witness Lee realized that he could not go on with the Lord until he honored the vow he had uttered to the Lord eight years before. In tears Witness Lee responded to the Lord's call and left his job to serve Him full-time. The sixty-five years of faithful service which followed that struggle have confirmed that God was fully behind that momentous call, which Witness Lee describes below:

During the three weeks between August 1 and August 21, I struggled much with the Lord. I deeply sensed that He was calling me to give up my occupation and serve Him by faith, but I dared not take definite action because of the lack of faith....

After three weeks of struggling with the Lord, I simply could not go on; so in the evening of August 21, following the prayer meeting, I explained my situation to the two leading ones and asked them to pray for me. After eleven o'clock that night, I went to the Lord and knelt before Him in my reading room....Tears filled my eyes. Finally I said, "All right, this is it." There was no other way. The next morning both of the two leading ones came to me and told me that after praying they felt it was of the Lord that I should leave my occupation and give my full time to serving the Lord. (pp. 290-291)

Some time later Witness Lee received a short letter from Watchman Nee encouraging him to drop his job and serve the Lord full-time:

Upon returning to my hometown, a letter was awaiting me from Watchman Nee. I looked at the envelope, noticing it was mailed from Shanghai. I opened it and read it. It was dated August 17, exactly in the midst of the time I had been struggling with the Lord. The letter said "Brother Witness, as for your future, I feel that you should serve the Lord with your full time. How do you feel? May the Lord lead you." It is impossible to tell what strong confirmation I received by receiving that short note from him. (Watchman Nee, A Seer of the Divine Revelation in the Present Age, p. 291)

The day after receiving this letter, Witness Lee resigned his position and decided to go to Shanghai in order to fellowship with Watchman Nee.

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Entering the Work

Beginning in October 1933, Witness Lee visited Watchman Nee in Shanghai for about four months. During this time Watchman Nee began perfecting Witness Lee for his service to the Lord. Watchman Nee had much fellowship with Witness Lee about four matters: knowing Christ as life, the Lord's move in China from Watchman Nee's salvation to the present, church history, and knowing the Bible in the way of life. Watchman Nee emphasized Christ as life and the church as the issue of His life.

From this point on, Witness Lee labored closely with Watchman Nee in the work of ministering Christ for the building up of the Body of Christ. Later, when Watchman Nee was no longer able to carry on the work, Witness Lee continued to labor according to the vision and pattern that he had observed in Watchman Nee's life and work. Certainly Witness Lee would continue to develop the ministry entrusted to both of them, but this development would simply be an enlargement upon the basic vision of the enjoyment of Christ as life for the building up of His Body through the local churches.

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Building in China with Watchman Nee

In 1934 Witness Lee moved his family to Shanghai to join Watchman Nee and was entrusted with the responsibility for Watchman Nee's publishing work. Specifically, he was assigned to be the editor of the magazine The Christian, which was published from 1934 to 1940. He also became acting editor of Collection of Newsletters. Through this responsibility, Witness Lee became thoroughly acquainted with Watchman Nee's ministry.

In 1934 Witness Lee began to travel throughout China, ministering the Word to believers and establishing local churches. In Chekiang province, many local churches were established as a result of his ministering there. From the end of 1935 until the summer of 1937, Witness Lee labored to establish churches in Beijing and Tientsin. He also traveled to the far northwestern provinces of Suiyuan, Shanghai, and Shensi to preach the gospel and establish the believers. Because of the Japanese invasion, Witness Lee returned to Chefoo in November 1937, and until 1943 spent most of his time caring for the church there as well as the church in nearby Tsingtao.

At the end of 1942 a great revival occurred in Witness Lee's hometown of Chefoo through his personal shepherding of the believers and his faithfulness in closely following Watchman Nee's ministry. Beginning on January 1, 1943, the church met continuously for one hundred days. As a result, over 800 believers consecrated their all to the Lord, some even offering to migrate to remote northwestern China for the gospel. Toward the end of that time, in May 1943, Witness Lee was arrested by the Japanese army and was imprisoned for one month. Shortly after his release he developed tuberculosis, his health having been greatly weakened by the imprisonment. In order to rest and fully recuperate, he moved to Tsingtao in 1944 and remained there for two years.

After the Second World War, his health fully recovered, Witness Lee resumed his labor in the work, spending most of his time in Shanghai and Nanking. In 1947 the Lord raised up a revival in these places also. In December 1947, he and a few other co-workers visited a number of local churches in the southern provinces including Hong Kong, Canton, Swatow, and Amoy, and labored there to help these churches enter into the revival sweeping through China. During his visit to Foochow on this trip, Witness Lee met with Watchman Nee and was instrumental in recovering the latter's ministry, which had been suspended for six years due to several misunderstandings. Watchman Nee traveled back to Shanghai with Witness Lee in April, and the two brought in a further revival there. By 1949 more than 400 churches had been raised up in more than 30 provinces of China through the ministries of these brothers. The building up of the Body of Christ had greatly advanced.

In May 1949, due to the sudden change in the political situation, Watchman Nee directed Witness Lee to leave the mainland and go to Taiwan to continue the work of building up the Body of Christ. He also charged Witness Lee to continue the publication work of the Shanghai Gospel Book Room. Through the strategic move of sending Witness Lee to Taiwan, the Lord was able to begin to spread the local churches internationally.

Watchman Nee and Witness Lee met one final time in 1950 in Hong Kong. For over a month the two of them ministered together and brought in a revival in the church in Hong Kong. Watchman Nee then entrusted to Witness Lee the responsibility of overseeing both the work and the church in Hong Kong. He charged Witness Lee to instruct, teach, and lead the elders, and to make arrangements concerning the service and the deacons' offices, as well as the purchase of land for a meeting facility. He also charged Witness Lee with the responsibility for the publication work outside of China, which at that time was being carried out by the Taiwan Gospel Book Room in Taiwan and by the Hong Kong Church Book Room in Hong Kong.

A short time later Watchman Nee returned to mainland China. It was the last time these two co-laborers would see each other and the last time they would communicate directly. From that point on, Witness Lee faithfully carried on the ongoing work of building up the Body of Christ through establishing local churches that Watchman Nee had begun in China.

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Building in Taiwan

In May 1949 Witness Lee moved to the island of Taiwan and began the work there in August of that year. Although they began with few believers and very few churches, through his diligent labor and unceasing ministry of the Word, the number of believers increased over thirtyfold within the first year. Within five to six years the number increased to over 40,000. It was a time of revival and rapid increase in the churches in Taiwan.

Witness Lee also began conducting annual conferences and trainings for the churches in Taiwan. Beginning from 1951, Witness Lee held trainings for full-time Christian workers. In 1953 he also held a formal training for his co-workers. Such trainings raised up a number of young workers who eventually carried on the work in Taiwan and the Far East over the next four decades.

Beginning in 1950 Witness Lee also traveled yearly to the Philippines, staying three to four months each time, to establish the churches there. Through his labor and ministry, eventually over a hundred churches were raised up there.

In response to Watchman Nee's charge concerning the publication work, Witness Lee began to publish ministry books through the Taiwan Gospel Book Room, which in time became familiar to the public as the publisher of Watchman Nee's work outside of China. Witness Lee also faithfully published a magazine called The Ministry of the Word, producing a total of 415 issues from 1950 until 1986.

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Building in the West

From April to October 1958, Witness Lee was invited to conduct conferences in London, England and Copenhagen, Denmark, initiating his work in the West. Later, from 1958 to 1961, Witness Lee visited the United States three times. In 1962 he was led by the Lord to move to Los Angeles, California, and in December of that year he held his first conference in Los Angeles, in English. Those messages were eventually published as a book entitled The All-Inclusive Christ.

In the following years the Lord opened many doors, and Witness Lee received numerous invitations throughout the country to speak to a wide variety of Christian groups. Through these visits many people were gained and became precious materials for the building up of the local churches in the United States.

Throughout the 1960s, Witness Lee held a number of short conferences and longer informal trainings both in Los Angeles and in other cities across the United States. His messages were printed in a small quarterly magazine, The Stream. He also founded Stream Publishers in 1965, which later became Living Stream Ministry.

Beginning in 1964, believers from different areas of the country moved to Los Angeles to enjoy Witness Lee's rich ministry and the glorious church life. In 1970, over 400 of them felt led by the Lord to migrate to ten cities throughout the United States to begin meeting as the church there. This migration continued for two years and laid the groundwork for further spreading. As a result, the number of local churches in the U.S. grew from 7 in 1969 to 27 in 1973, and then to 50 in 1977.

In 1974, Witness Lee moved to Anaheim, California and began to expound comprehensively on the Bible, book by book, concluding two decades later in 1994. This series of messages, entitled, Life-Study, constitutes his major ministry work. During this time Witness Lee also wrote extensive outlines, footnotes, and cross references for the entire New Testament. These were incorporated into a new translation of the New Testament, the Recovery Version, which was published in Chinese in 1987 and in English in 1991.

  Books in the Bible No. of Messages No. of Pages
Old Testament 39 865 7,787
New Testament * 27 1,361 13,432
Total 66 2,226 21,219

*Including Conclusion Messages

In addition to his ministry of the Word, Witness Lee also traveled extensively during the 1960s and 1970s, visiting many places in the United States and Canada. He also returned to the Far East on many occasions to strengthen and perfect the churches in Taiwan. In the 1960s he made frequent visits to the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan. In 1965 he also visited Brazil and other South American countries. During the 1970s Witness Lee visited Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Israel and many European countries. Such tireless labor produced the building up of the Body of Christ throughout the entire globe. By 1980 there were 70 local churches in the U.S. and 426 worldwide.

In the fall of 1984, Witness Lee began helping the churches to practice a "small group" church life that centered on home meetings for prayer and for the study of the truth. The churches were also encouraged to preach the gospel from door to door, to nourish and teach new believers individually, and to help the members speak for the Lord in the meetings. Such practices helped to draw out and develop the function of many members of the church to build up the Body of Christ, a direct fulfillment of Ephesians 4:11-16. As a result, the enjoyment of Christ and the vitality of many of the members greatly increased, as did the number of members. By 1985 the number of believers meeting in the local churches in the U.S. had grown to 10,200, and there were 98 local churches in the U.S. Worldwide, there were 129,000 believers meeting in 605 local churches.

In order to perfect more young believers to know the truth in the Bible and to participate in the Lord's building up of His church, Witness Lee established international Bible Truth and Church Service Training centers for those serving the Lord full-time.

Many of the graduates of these trainings have continued to serve the Lord full-time and to help spread the Lord's testimony throughout the earth.

In addition to establishing full-time trainings during the 1990s, Witness Lee continued to minister the high truths from the Bible for the nourishment of the Body of Christ. He also continued to encourage the practice of the small "vital" groups locally along with the practice of the blending together of the co-workers and churches globally. The churches continued to multiply. By 1996, the year before Witness Lee went to be with the Lord due to cancer at age 91, there were approximately 250 local churches in the U.S. and 2,300 local churches worldwide, not including mainland China.

Just as the Lord used the early apostles to minister Christ for the building up of His church, He has greatly used Watchman Nee and Witness Lee in our day. They were faithful to continue the New Testament ministry, which produces the Body of Christ. Through their ministries the churches grew to a total of 400 in China by 1949 and to 2,300 worldwide by 1996. Watchman Nee was indeed a seer of the divine revelation in the present age, and Witness Lee was just as certainly a wise master builder according to this same divine revelation in the present age.

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