Celebrating Our Cross-cultural Evangelistic Missionary Heritage: The Centenary of James Ira Dickson

Don MacLeodThe Rev. Dr. MacLeod is the minister of St. Andrew's Church, Trenton, Ontario, and a Board Member of the Renewal Fellowship.

As the year 2000 begins, standing at the threshold of a new millennium, in a church that at times is not sure it has a future, recalling the story of one the great Canadian Presbyterian missionary leaders of the past century can be a salutary experience. On February 23, 2000, we will mark the centenary of the birth of James Dickson. What better time to remember who he was and what he has to say to us as a church?

James Ira Dickson was born on February 23, 1900, in the small South Dakota hamlet of Dalzell. Being of Presbyterian persuasion he went to the denominational college for the area: Mcalester in St. Paul, Minnesota. A well rounded and hard working farm boy, he combined social skills, athletic ability (track and hockey) and academic ability (a major in history and a minor in religion and English literature).It was there that he first heard the call to go overseas through the Student Volunteer Movement. Mcalester was also life forming because here he met the incomparable Lillian Ruth Vesconte, later known as "Typhoon Lil."

Following graduation in 1924 Dickson enrolled in Princeton Seminary. His choice of Princeton had a lot to do with its reputation as a centre of Reformed orthodoxy. But there was more than that: already set for missionary service, and with a strong commitment to evangelism, Jim chose a school that was deeply committed to missions. In the Class of 1927 there were many who were to become missionary luminaries in the years to come: Clarence Duff in Ethiopia, Karl Bowman in India, Austin Fulton of the Irish Church in Manchuria, Kenneth Landon (married subsequently to Margaret Mortenson of The King and I fame) in Thailand (then Siam), Victor Peters in Korea, Albert Sanders in the Philippines, Kirk West and my father in China and Charles Woodbridge in the French Cameroons.

In the middle twenties Princeton was being torn apart by the modernist-fundamentalist controversy then raging in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Pitted against the controversial, but much loved "Das" Machen was the more temporizing Charles Erdman. A lot of the polemic of that tempestuous time was lost on Jim Dickson. By taking a church in Lakehurst, New Jersey, he was somewhat removed from all of the arguments for the reorganization of the seminary. Here was a pattern that was set for the rest of his life: though an Evangelical himself, Jim Dickson would remain above the theological fray and involve himself in what to him were more essential tasks. At Lakehurst — where the Zeppelin was to go up in smoke in 1935 — he could be immersed in evangelism and pastoral work. He was always the activist.

After his first year in seminary Jim's life took a sudden and fateful turn. At the urging of Dr. Machen many Princeton Seminary students identified themselves with the continuing Presbyterian minority in Canada. In the summer of 1926 he was appointed to serve the minority cause in Markham, Ontario, which by a narrow vote had lost their building. As an appointee of the Mission Board he came to know the secretary, Dr. Andrew Grant. While the Presbyterian Church (USA) had too many missionary applicants in 1927, there was a desperate need in Canada to fill depleted ranks overseas. He applied, was accepted, and appointed, not to Korea (which had been his original choice), but to the Canadian Presbyterian field in North Formosa.

The day after graduation from seminary, in the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton, Lillian and Jim were married by veteran missionary hero Dr. Will Macilwaine of Japan. Since her graduation from Mcalester, Lillian — who shared the same vision — had been training for missionary service in New York City. Ordained by the Presbytery of Toronto immediately before departure, Jim and his bride set out on the long journey by rail and steamer for Formosa which had been since 1895 a Japanese colony.

The north Formosa field was assigned to the continuing Presbyterians after church union. It had been, since the arrival of George Leslie MacKay in 1872, one of the most successful enterprises of the Canadian Church. Like the Honan field (which had gone to the United Church) the missionaries were divided. Jonathan Goforth had left Honan, but Hugh MacMillan, who had been in favour of church union, had stayed on in Formosa. Hugh was the principal of the Theological College, then in Tamsui, and had considerable influence. Theologically he was broad church, ecumenically oriented and open to biblical higher criticism. At the Middle School, which was also in Tamsui, Rev. Mackay, son of George Leslie, was Principal. In 1929 Hugh MacMillan left for a year's furlough and before he came back, the Mackays had departed for theirs. With only two years of studying the local Formosan dialect (now called Taiwanese) Jim found himself thrown in at the deep end as principal of both schools. Jim would retain leadership of the Theological College — with the exception of the war years — until his retirement in 1965.

In addition to his administrative duties as Principal of the Theological College, Dickson retained his love for evangelism. During term time he would initiate outdoor meetings. On weekends he would go out visiting country churches and preaching. Vacations he would be away for a longer period. One of these trips, on the East Coast, brought him into contact with Chi-oang whom he placed in the Women's Bible School. That contact would later prove decisive in the only mass movement to Christianity that the island of Taiwan has ever seen. In addition to Chi-oang there were some thirty all studying the Bible. Several lived with the Dicksons and would become, as Lillian later noted, "the seed of the underground movement of Christianity in the mountains during the war."

The Theological College moved to Taipei (then called by the Japanese Taihoku) as increasing pressure was placed on the Canadian missionaries by the colonial authorities. The site of the school, on North Chung Shan Road, was strategic for Japanese police watching the Chinese consulate across the street. "Would you mind if we stationed a policeman in your building?" Jim was asked. It soon became clear that the police were not only watching the building opposite, they were carefully observing Mr. Dickson. The report went back "That while he could find no fault with Mr. Dickson he felt that in his heart he was not in sympathy with the war in China." In the Spring of 1940 he resigned and the Synod appointed Mr. Ohkawa as his replacement. With the escalation of tension a decision was made by all the missionaries that they could no longer serve the purpose for which they were sent. The church would be helped by having its association with foreigners removed. By late summer all missionaries, both Canadian and English Presbyterian, had left the island.

In his 1940 report to the Presbyterian Church in Canada on his return Jim Dickson wrote: "In regard to the work of the Mission in Formosa, let no one consider for a moment that it has collapsed or has been destroyed. It is more correct to say that it has been brought to fruition." He noted that a ten-year plan by which all the churches in Formosa would be self-supporting had been put into effect three years earlier. Mission grants had been reduced. A board to manage properties, with skilled Christian businessmen, had been put in place. "Whatever the future holds, the Church in Formosa will forever look with gratitude to the Mother Church in Canada. Her sacrifice has not been in vain. Her prayers have been answered. Her vision is being fulfilled, as the Church she has launched moves steadily forward to accomplish its work in God's Kingdom." A 1940 Presbyterian Record would reflect: "Thus ends an epoch in the history of one of the most fruitful of missionary enterprises under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church in Canada." How little we knew what was ahead!

"For the duration" — a Second World War expression anticipating an end to hostilities — the Dicksons were sent by the Canadian Church to British Guiana. In 1925 British Guiana had been granted as a consolation prize to the continuing Presbyterians to compensate for the loss of the Trinidad mission. As Lillian recalled years later the brief given them in Toronto before they left, the couple was told that "unless you go we will close that field." At the time they arrived, following a circuitous route to avoid German submarines, there were only two single ladies in the colony. Jim busily recruited missionaries for the country, among them three who, like them, were seconded from Formosa. Again Jim Dickson was tireless. Every weekend he would be away up the coast visiting little Presbyterian churches, performing marriages and baptisms and celebrating communion. As gas was severely rationed his vehicle of choice was a motorbike that had killed the previous two owners. He saw immediately the need for Guianese leadership if the work was ever to prosper. He set up a training college for evangelists and saw the first indigenous pastors ordained. Subsequently a Presbytery was formed and the foundations of the Presbyterian Church in what is now known as Guyana were laid. As Lillian recalled it, by 1945 and the end of the War, "the Canadian Presbyterian Board said it was their most promising field — and all that in a period of five years. That was because we had the experience of working in Taiwan first."

At the conclusion of hostilities Dickson was champing at the bit to get back to China and what was now its province of Taiwan. He met up with another Canadian Presbyterian, Hildur Hermanson, in Shanghai and then took a boat from Foochow across the strait loaded with relief supplies. On arrival what should meet his amazed eyes but Chi-oang, his mountain Bible student, and thousands of other Christians from the mountains. She and her friends had carried on evangelism against tremendous odds throughout the war, sustaining an underground movement in spite of continual harassment by the Japanese.

There followed one of the most exciting sagas of Canadian Presbyterian mission work that our church has ever witnessed. Jim Dickson's contribution to Christian witness in Taiwan would begin with his strategic work of planning the advance of the mountain churches. He would say that over those years of travel he "walked almost one hundred miles." As a fifteen-year-old I was enthralled by the map in his home in downtown Taipei (where our family in common with many others had found an initial haven on entry to Taiwan). The map had pins which marked all the mountain churches, with different colours designating each tribe. Jim Dickson had vision, energy, and tremendous enthusiasm. He became a propagandist for the work in the mountains, never tiring to tell the story of what God had done in spite of every effort of the Japanese gestapo to halt the spread of the gospel. His pamphlet He Brought Them Out told the story to an enthusiastic church in the homeland.

It was at the end of the war, and as a result of their shared vision for the mountain people and their great needs, that Jim and Lillian's ministry began to separate. Each in their own way strong personalities, often separated by distance, Lillian began to use her enormous gifts and energy to publicize the needs of Taiwanese aboriginals for sturdy church buildings, adequate child care, orphan protection and vocational training. Lillian would often say that her own concerns (institutionalized eventually as "The Mustard Seed Mission") were an inevitable outcome of Canadian Presbyterian missionary policy at the time. Only the husband (or, in the case of the WMS, a single woman) was regarded as the official missionary. Unlike other missions, such as the American Presbyterian, the wife did not have a separate and equal appointment. So Lillian pursued her own separate course. During the Korean War, as he was founding World Vision, Bob Pierce discovered her work and the legend about "Typhoon Lil" was born. Dan Poling and the Christian Herald publicized her and the book of that title made her a living legend. Her quips were famous. "Is your Board behind you?" Lil was once asked. "Yes, but they don't know how far behind," was her immediate response.

The high visibility that Lillian Dickson gained was at a cost. The significant and long-lasting contributions of her husband could easily be lost amid the glamour and excitement of her work. Theological education and ecclesiastical administration are never as headline-grabbing as sponsoring orphans and building stone churches. The verdict of history has still to be made about Jim Dickson's lasting contribution to Christianity in Taiwan. With the collapse of Kuomintang government on the mainland of China and the arrival of Chiang Kai-shek to a beleaguered anti-Communist bastion, the Canadian Presbyterian presence soon became a vital component in the deployment of thousands of Christian workers that flooded into Taiwan in the first three years of the 1950s.

Prior to 1949 and the expulsion of missionaries from China, Taiwan had been (at least as far as Protestants were concerned) a Presbyterian island, with the English in the South since 1865 and the Canadians from 1872. Roman Catholics now sent large numbers and (it appeared at times) inexhaustible financial resources into the Island. And there were no less than seventy Protestant denominations and agencies who flooded Taiwan — among them fundamentalist churches with little sensitivity to national feeling who were sometimes crude American chauvinists. Add the racial mix exacerbated by the tragic massacre of Taiwanese by the Kuomintang in 1947 (something that has only recently become public knowledge) and the resulting hatred between mainlanders and those who had occupied the Island for hundreds of years previously and you have an incendiary combination. Through it all Jim Dickson was the anchor, providing cohesion, smoothing ruffled feelings, navigating choppy waters and enabling ministry to proceed. The Taiwan Evangelical Fellowship, founded by Dickson in 1950, brought these groups together and coordinated all their efforts. For many years James Dickson was its President.

Missionary coordination was not his only concern. From Taipei Rotary to the founding of the Taipei American School Jim's hand was always in the organization. Nor did he neglect either the Seminary or the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan. At one time he was on fifty-eight committees. Knowing his temperament as a man of action he was once asked: "How can you get any work done if you belong to fifty-eight committees?" His reply was simply: "Perhaps my most important contribution has been working with these committees."

In 1965, because of the tragic affliction with polio of his only son Ronny, James Dickson retired to California to fulfil responsibilities as a parent he would, on reflection, feel he had neglected. His daughter Marilyn, who had met and married a US serviceman (Vernon Tank) stationed in Taiwan, had given him two grandchildren. Another adopted daughter Dolly stayed on the Island with Lillian. In March of 1967, during a routine medical checkup in La Jolla, California, cancer was discovered. On Easter Monday he was informed that he had only a short time to live. Lillian, on the other side of the world, joined him the following day. A second opinion sought at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto confirmed the earlier diagnosis. In the mean time he was saying farewell to many of his Taiwanese friends in North America. He was urged by them to return to Taiwan.

There in his home on Yang Ming Shan, where he had relocated the Taiwan Theological College, in what he described as "the most beautiful spot in which I have ever lived" surrounded by "my beloved wife who gives me every possible care," he slipped away quietly into the nearer presence of his Lord just after midnight on June 15, 1967. When he had retired, a classmate from Princeton Seminary, had said to my father, "What? He was Mr. Taiwan!" At the end Bunun tribespeople were praying for him at four in the morning, and in over a thousand places prayers were being offered on his behalf, in thanks for his life and ministry.

Memorial services were held all over the world: in Taipei three days later (curiously at a Mandarin-speaking church) tributes were brought by missionaries from a widely diverse group — Quakers, Lutherans, the Holiness Oriental Missionary Society, and my father as Princeton classmate who had known Jim the longest. Canadian Presbyterian James Sutherland provided the obituary. In Toronto, the Dickson's sending congregation for thirty-eight years, Knox Church, hosted another packed and emotional memorial service. Coordinated by Senior Minister Dr. William Fitch on June 25th the Presbytery of East Toronto and the General Board of Missions gathered to honour James Dickson in Knox Church. For the first time in its history the congregation had withdrawn its usual evening service that Sunday for the occasion.

In an age — and in a country — which deprecates human achievements, creates its own antiheroes, and is embarrassed by its foreign missionary heritage, Canadian Presbyterians can look back on that day one hundred years ago when James Dickson was born in a South Dakota farm and see in him one of the great missionary heroes of all denominations and all countries during the twentieth century. James Ira Dickson was a man of vision, integrity, and boundless enthusiasm. Perhaps today when cross-cultural evangelistic missionary efforts have dwindled and the confidence of an earlier generation of Christians has evaporated we can recover some of our flagging zeal by an attentive listening to James Dickson. As he would say: "Make your plan and then carry it out." The Canadian Presbyterian Church desperately needs that "can do" Spirit as a new millennium dawns.