Of all the missionaries who served in East Asia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, perhaps no one witnessed greater immediate response than did Jonathan Goforth, who, according to J. Herbert Kane, was China’s most outstanding evangelist. China was Goforth’s base, but he also ministered in Korea and Manchuria, and wherever he went, revival followed.
Goforth, the seventh of eleven children, was born in western Ontario in 1859. He dedicated himself to ministry after reading the Memoirs of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, but his call to missions did not come until later when he heard a traveling missionary give a powerful appeal for workers in China: “As I listened to these words, I was overwhelmed with shame.… From that hour I became a foreign missionary.”
After graduating from Knox College, Goforth conducted city mission work in Toronto, where he met Rosalind Smith, a talented and sophisticated art student—an unlikely prospect for a missionary wife. But she looked beyond “the shabbiness of his clothes.” For her, it was love at first sight: “It all happened within a few moments, but as I sat there, I said to myself, ‘That is the man I would like to marry!’ ”
Later that year they became engaged, and at that time Rosalind got her first taste of the sacrifice she would encounter the rest of her life.
Her dreams of an engagement ring were dashed
when he told her that the money he would have spent for a ring must instead go for Christian literature.
Goforth initially applied to the China Inland Mission because his own church, the Presbyterian Church of Canada, had no missionary work in China. But before he received a response from the CIM, Presbyterian students from Knox College rallied to his cause and vowed to raise the money themselves to send him to China. Prior to his sailing, he traveled through Canada, speaking out for missions. His messages were powerful, as the report from a student illustrates:
I was going up to the Alumni meeting in Knox College, Toronto,
determined to do everything in my power to frustrate the crazy scheme
which the students of the college were talking about, i. e., starting a mission field of their own in Central China. I also felt that I needed a new overcoat; my old one was looking rather shabby. So I thought I would go to Toronto to kill two birds with one stone.
I would help sidetrack the scheme and buy an overcoat.
But this fellow here upset my plans completely. He swept me off my feet with an enthusiasm for missions which I had never experienced before, and my precious overcoat money went into the fund!
In 1888 the Goforths sailed for China to serve in Honan province, where they began
a life of hardships and lonely separations.
They both suffered frequent illnesses, and five of their eleven children died. They endured fire and flood and barely escaped with their lives in a harrowing thousand-mile flight to safety during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
The Goforths’ efforts to reach the Chinese were unconventional by most missionary standards,
particularly their “open-house” evangelism.
Their home, with its European interior design, and their furnishings (including a kitchen stove, a sewing machine, and an organ), were objects of curiosity to the Chinese, and they decided to relinquish their privacy in order to make contacts with the people of the province. Visitors came from miles around, once more than two thousand in one day, to tour the house. Before each tour began, Goforth gave a gospel message.
He preached an average of eight hours a day, and during a five-month period
some twenty-five thousand people came to visit. Rosalind ministered to the women, speaking to as many as fifty at a time who were gathered in their yard.
This type of evangelism paved the way for his future ministry of traveling from town to town conducting revivals, but not all of his colleagues approved: “Some may think that receiving visitors is not real mission work, but I think it is. I put myself out to make friends with the people and I reap the results when I go to their villages to preach. Often the people of a village will gather around me and say, ‘We were at your place and you showed us through your house, treating us like friends.’ Then they almost always bring me a chair to sit on, a table to lay my Bible on, and some tea.”
The Boxer Rebellion in 1900 interrupted their mission work, and after they returned to China their family life changed to accommodate his new plan for a broad itinerant ministry. Goforth had developed his idea before Rosalind returned, and soon after her arrival he confronted her with the scheme: “My plan is to have one of my helpers rent a suitable place in a large center for us to live in, and that we, as a family, stay a month in the center, during which time we will carry on intensive evangelism. I will go with my men to villages or on the street in the daytime, while you receive and preach to the women in the courtyard. The evenings will be given to a joint meeting with you at the organ and with plenty of gospel hymns. Then at the end of a month, we will leave an evangelist behind to teach the new believers while we go on to another place to open it in the same way. When a number of places are opened, we will return once or twice a year.” As Rosalind listened, her “heart went like lead.”
It was not suited to a family. Exposing their little ones to the infectious diseases that were so prevalent out in the villages was too risky, and
she could not forget the “four little graves” they had already left behind on Chinese soil.
Although she objected, he went ahead with his plan, convinced it was God’s will.
Rosalind frequently had reservations about her husband’s dedication to the family.
As a wife she felt less than fully secure in her position. Before she and the children returned to Canada alone in 1908, she probed him concerning his commitment to her:
“Suppose I were stricken with an incurable disease in the homeland and had but a few months to live. If we cabled you to come, would you come?”
Goforth obviously did not want to answer the question. An outright “no” would have been too harsh, but Rosalind persisted until he gave his answer—in the form of a question to her: “Suppose our country were at war with another nation and I, a British officer in command of an important unit. Much depended upon me as commander as to whether it was to be victory or defeat. Would I, in that event, be permitted to forsake my post in response to a call from my family in the homeland, even if it were what you suggest?” What could she say? She had no choice but to sadly reply, “No.”
The itinerant ministry that Goforth began in the early years of the twentieth century was a stepping stone that led to the great revivals he conducted in the years that followed. This ministry began in 1907 when he and another missionary toured Korea and initiated a revival movement that swept through the churches there, resulting in an “amazing increase of converts.” From there they ministered in Manchuria with similar results.
As he traveled through China and Manchuria in the years that followed, the revival ministry grew. Some within the mission were wary of what they deemed to be “fanaticism” and “Pentecostalism,” but Goforth disregarded the criticism. In 1918 he conducted a two-week campaign with Chinese soldiers under the command of General Feng Yu-Hsiang, himself a Christian. At the end of the campaign nearly five thousand soldiers and officers took part in a communion service.
An issue that Goforth continually faced with his own mission board related to authority.
He regarded the “Holy Spirit’s leading” above the “hard-and-fast rules” of the presbytery under which he served.
Thus, according to his wife, “with his convictions concerning Divine guidance of himself, he naturally came often into conflict with other members of the Honan Presbytery,”
making him “not easy to get along with.”
He insisted that each missionary should have “freedom to carry on his or her work as each one felt led.”
It was a difficult issue, and he often “found himself hampered and held back from following fully what he deemed was the Holy Spirit’s leading.”
In the years that followed the problems did not diminish. Confrontations continued and friction increased, particularly in the 1920s when the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy found its way to China.
New missionaries, steeped in higher criticism, were arriving on the field, and Goforth “felt powerless to stem the tide.”
His only recourse was to “preach, as never before, salvation through the cross of Calvary and demonstrate its power.”
Goforth’s ministry continued on into his seventies—even after the onset of blindness. At the age of seventy-four he returned to Canada, where he spent the last eighteen months of his life traveling and speaking at nearly five hundred meetings. He carried on to the very end, speaking four times on the Sunday before he died.
Tucker, Ruth A. From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004.