Timeline of Witness Lee’s Life

Witness Lee’s life is like his ministry—epic, inspiring, and vast. His work of preaching, teaching, and establishing churches spanned multiple continents, just like his printed works span multiple bookshelves. His collected works, not including his biblical commentaries, include 138 volumes. But while many have a passing acquaintance with his name or a single book of his, few know the story of his life.

In many ways, the stories of the saints of the past—the cloud of witnesses—strengthen us to faithfulness in a way that their teachings can’t quite match, no matter how much light they provide. As someone once said: “A message moves your heart, a testimony moves your feet.” Augustine’s dramatic conversion in the garden, Luther’s unwavering stance at the Diet of Worms, and Barth’s thunderous “No” to theological liberalism are compellingly told in plenty of books. Lee’s story, however, remains largely unknown, although like Augustine, Luther, and Barth it is highly dramatic in both context and content. It takes place during a time of great upheaval—the Second Sino-Japanese war that bled right into the rise of communism in China and then the countercultural movement of the 1960s in the U.S. He was at the center of one of the greatest religious awakenings in the history of Christianity. His life and work were played out on the stage of the world like a Wagner opera—full-scale and fervent—not in the quiet confines of a lecture hall. Both of his primary contexts (China and the U.S.) were ones of conflict, revolution, and change. To a certain extent this is fitting, since his theological project itself involved conflict and change, working in the spirit of Luther to revolutionize the church’s life and practice in light of God’s word.

Although he recounted aspects of it numerous times in messages or fellowships, an official biography has never been published in English. Below is a timeline of the major events of his life that I put together for those who want to understand him in his context and get an overall impression of his life and work. You can download it as a PDF too.

Timeline

1807

Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary, arrives in China

1899

M.E. Barber moves to Foochow as a missionary

1900

The Boxer Rebellion to rid China of “foreign devils” begins; 32,000 Christians killed; Lee’s mother hides her Christian books and escapes to the mountains to survive

1905

5 August: Lee is born near Chefoo, China to Lee Kuo Chung and Lee Sun Lian Chi; grows up in a poor, Christian family, the sixth of seven children; attends Sunday school in the Southern Baptist church

1920

Studies writings of Confucius and Mencius; at 15 begins to despise Christianity, stops attending the Baptist church; loves soccer and Chinese operas

1922

Watchman Nee establishes the first local church, in Foochow

1923

Father, a farmer, dies in Changchun, Manchuria

1925

A local pastor visits him for a few months; begins meeting with the Chinese Independent Church (February)

25 April: saved through Peace Wang’s preaching on Satan’s usurpation in the world (Exodus 1); walking home, devotes his life to the Lord to preach the gospel from village to village, “even if I must live on tree roots and drink from mountain brooks”

Summer: reads the Bible in two months; discovers Nee’s writings in a local Christian paper; subscribes to Nee’s magazine The Christian (1st issue published in Nov); begins correspondence with Nee about his Bible questions

1925-26

Attends junior college run by American Presbyterians (for 1.5 years); studies English, writes thesis on imperialism, graduates; works as an accountant in a large, foreign firm

1925-32

Begins meeting with the Brethren (Newton branch) to study the Bible, seven times a week for 7.5 years; mainly typology and prophecy

1927

Delivers first spoken message, in the Chinese Independent Church; at the end of the year, elected to be a board member, but declines and leaves the denominations

1928

Marries first wife, Yung-hsiang; they have eight children together

1930

M.E. Barber dies (February); Nee’s library has grown to 3,000+ Christian classics

Baptized with the Brethren

1931

August: convicted by the Lord that, despite his knowledge, he is cold, dead, and fruitless; prays on a mountain by his house every morning for seven months to be revived

1932

July: Nee visits Chefoo to give a conference at Lee’s invitation; first meeting with Nee; Lee is profoundly affected; leaves the Brethren; raises up a local church in Chefoo, increases from 11-100 in first year; regularly speaks four messages per week

1933

August: leaves job to preach full time after a 21-day struggle; Nee writes him a letter from a ship in the Mediterranean asking him to consider this very thing, postmarked August 17; “this letter became a turning point in my life”

October: visits Nee in Shanghai for four months; Nee gives him Darby’s Synopsis of the Books of the Bible and Alford’s New Testament for English Readers, helps him know church history and the Lord in the way of life, asks him “What is patience?”; Lee preaches on John 16:8-11 with Nee listening behind the door

1934

Moves to Shangai to begin working with Nee; sees the “one flow” in Acts

1937-45

Japan invades China (July 1937); Second Sino-Japanese War begins

1937

October: returns to Chefoo to move his family from the war zone; temporarily trapped there in Japanese-occupied territory

1938

Preaches in various places in northern China; a sister gives him a large sum of money to go to the U.S.; Lee has no intention to go; she tells him to save it for when he does

1939-40

Has a vision of the Body of Christ at Nee’s Shanghai conference (August); Nee tells Lee “we have the blueprint” (April); doesn’t see or hear from Nee for six years after this

1942

December: 100 day revival in Chefoo from practicing Nee’s blueprint—“the whole Body serving,” “the practicality of the church life,” one-on-one shepherding

1942-48

Nee forced to stop his ministry for six years

1943

May: imprisoned, tortured, interrogated for a month by Japanese Army on political suspicion; spiritual dream of “a broad highway, a rising sun, and a boundless horizon”; “the real story started from that dream”

1944-46

October: escapes to Tsingtao to recover from tuberculosis developed from imprisonment; has a vision of the tree of life, new central focus of his ministry (age 40)

1945

April: mother dies in Chefoo

1946-48

October: reunites with Nee in Shanghai; works to recover Nee’s ministry (March 1948)

1949

May: sent out of China by Nee so that their vision and work will survive; lives with family of ten in 280 sf Japanese-style house; experiences depression and insomnia

August: starts the work in Taiwan; prevailing gospel preaching

Mao Zedong forms the People’s Republic of China (October)

1950

February: last meeting with Nee; they work together for 1.5 months in Hong Kong

1950s

Spends four months per year ministering in the Philippines; raises up 100 churches

1952-72

Nee is imprisoned by the Communist party until his death (May 30, 1972)

1952

Officially assumes the ministry of the word from Nee; begins to hold comprehensive trainings on truth, life, the church, and the gospel; “the best training was in 1953”: a 16 week training that included The Experience of Life and The Knowledge of Life

1955

Churches in Taiwan grow from 400 to 40,000 in first five years

1955 / 57

T. Austin-Sparks visits Taiwan twice; on second visit, disagreement over view of the church

1958

April-October: round the world trip to observe state of Christianity; first visit to U.S.; wife needs serious medical treatment in NYC (July); visits T. Austin-Sparks in London

1959

24 April: wife dies from a liver illness

1960

February: marries second wife, Pao-ye; second trip to U.S.

1961

Writes 85 hymns in Chinese in two months

1962

Moves to the U.S.; December: prays with two brothers from 8:30-noon for 21 days for the Lord’s move in the U.S.; first major conference in the U.S. last ten days of the year in a house living room: The All-Inclusive Christ; “during that conference, the Lord’s work exploded”; begins traveling around the country to speak

1963-64

Writes 200 hymns in English

1965

Establishes Living Stream Ministry

1965-70

Elden Hall era; pray-reading and calling on the Lord take off; “in spirit, on the ground”

1970-73

Launches strategic migrations across the U.S. to spread the church life to ten cities

1974-95

Begins 21 year study of the Bible called Life-Study in Anaheim: Genesis (April) and Romans (December); 100-day preparation for 10-day trainings, three messages per day

1977

Opposition from Christian Research Institute and Spiritual Counterfeits Project

1980-85

Lawsuits over libel

1984

Speaks messages on God’s New Testament Economy: “the consummation of what the Lord has shown us in His recovery”; returns to Taiwan to study “God-ordained way” to meet and serve (October); finishes Life-Study of the New Testament with Acts (December)

1985

Publishes the New Testament Recovery version with footnotes; revised 1991

1986 / 88

Establishes full-time training centers in Taiwan and U.S.; door-knocking; 40,000 people baptized

1989

Culminates study on God-ordained way with The Advance of the Lord’s Recovery Today

1991

Sends workers to Russia for the gospel after Soviet Union collapses; 65 churches planted by 1997

1992

Begins speaking on “the vital groups” as the way to carry out the God-ordained way

1994

February: writes a new hymn, “What Miracle! What Mystery!”; begins speaking on “the high peak of the divine revelation” and “the new revival”

August: begins “crystallization-study” of the Bible with Romans

1995

July: finishes Life-Study of the Old Testament with Song of Songs

1997

February: last public conference

9 June: dies (age 91) in Anaheim

1999

Text only edition of Holy Bible Recovery Version is published

2003

Holy Bible Recovery Version with footnotes is published

2004-18

The Collected Works of Witness Lee are published (138 volumes)

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