Our Mission to China

Don MacLeodDr. Don MacLeod is minister at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Trenton ON, and has written many articles for history and other publications. He is also the author of a book on George Murray and is currently writing a book about Dr. Stanford Reid.

The first overseas field of the Canada Presbyterian Church was Taiwan, then called Formosa, and at the time a province of the Chinese Empire. By sending out George Leslie MacKay in 1871 the so-called "Free" Church, in what had been until 1867 Upper Canada, committed the merging Presbyterian Church in Canada to overseas mission. But following the 1875 union of the four Presbyterian denominations internal consolidation rather than international expansion was the primary concern.

By 1880, with the home visit of George Leslie MacKay from Formosa, all that was to change dramatically. And in the mid-1880s the cause of foreign missions was becoming a dominant concern for many young people, galvanized by the example of the so-called "Cambridge Seven" who had left their secure and comfortable positions in the English upper-class to travel to China. Students caught their vision. With the formation of the Student Volunteer Movement following evangelist Dwight L. Moody's summer conferences in Northfield, Massachusetts, there was tremendous momentum.

The brightest and best throughout North America's universities and colleges volunteered to go overseas, especially to China. Their watch cry, "The evangelization of the world in this generation," enlisted thousands of eager volunteers for cross-cultural witness.

Urged on by student groups at Queen's and Knox theological colleges, the General Assembly of 1887 appointed Jonathan Goforth of Knox and James Fraser Smith of Queen's (Smith with degrees in medicine and theology) to open a second Canadian Presbyterian field in China. Goforth had a special burden for Honan, a province legendary for its anti-foreign feeling. Smith was supported by the Students Missionary Society of Queen's College, Kingston. The two men — Jonathan with his bride Rosalind — arrived on the China coast (in Chefoo, for language study) in 1888. Not lingering they made their way as pioneers into the interior and on to Honan.

Literally, Honan in Chinese means "north of the river." The Canadian field, contested sharply by Hudson Taylor for his China Inland Mission in a handwritten letter to Goforth on file in the United Church Archives, was actually north of the Yellow River. By June 2, 1892, the Presbytery of North Honan of the Presbyterian Church in Canada was formally organized. The eight who constituted the Presbytery were an impressive group and their names were all later to have great significance for the church in China: Goforth, Grant, MacGillivray (the famous linguist and editor), MacKenzie, MacVicar (the son of the Principal of Presbyterian College, Montreal), Malcolm, McClure (the father of Dr. Bob) and Smith. They were an outstanding gathering of Canada's finest and brightest young men, deeply committed to the spread of the gospel in China.

That vision was tested by the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when the missionaries were forced out to the coast, fortunately without any martyrdoms. On return, the mission, which had been centered in Chuwang, spread out over the Honan plain, establishing stations and medical facilities in cities such as Weihwei (where Dr. McClure operated a hospital) and Changte, where the Goforths located. In 1908 revival touched the Canadian field after Jonathan Goforth visited Korea and experienced what had happened there. "Manifestations of the Spirit's presence, especially in the conviction of sin, were experienced at every point where meetings have been held." During the years 1908, 1909 and 1910, thousands of baptisms were celebrated.

This early progress was soon to be challenged by political turmoil without and religious doubts within. The 1911 Revolution ended the Chinese Empire and there was chronic civic unrest and banditry. At the same time the North Honan field was experiencing some of the theological turbulence of the Presbyterian Church in Canada as younger missionaries arrived on the field and questioned some of the old orthodoxies. The First World War exposed the moral collapse of the Western powers. Bandits roamed the countryside and James Menzies, an outstanding medical missionary, was shot while running to protect some of the single women in their residence in Hwaiking. It was a dangerous time. Goforth was released by his Presbytery to wider ministries, one of which was to serve as Chaplain to a war lord and baptize thousands of military personnel. As church union became an ever livelier issue, the North Honan Mission, growing more theologically inclusive, felt more and more pulled to the Unionist position. In 1925 the field joined the United Church of Canada and two years later the North Honan Presbytery became a founding unit of the Church of Christ in China, an organization which brought together most of the main-line Protestant mission churches in China.

In the redistribution that followed Church union in Canada, the continuing Presbyterians retained the north Formosa field, whose missionaries (led by George Leslie MacKay's son George W.) were generally theologically more conservative than North Honan. Jonathan Goforth, who remained Presbyterian, at the age of 70 went to Manchuria and there with Allan Reoch and E. H. ("Ted") Johnson joined with an existing Irish Presbyterian mission to establish a new China field. All of this ended as Goforth returned home and the Japanese invaded first Manchuria (1931), then China (1937), and finally Pearl Harbor. Attempts to open a new field in Yunnan, where "Mac" Ransom was sent in 1946 after the Second World War, were aborted by the Communist "liberation" three years later.

The Canadian Presbyterian Church made a profound impact on China, both in Taiwan and on the mainland. Today, Henan — the current spelling of Honan — is one of the more Christianized of the thirty provinces that make up the People's Republic of China. The majority of believers appear to have identified with house churches, rather than the government sponsored "Three-Self Movement." Many of the revival principles espoused by Jonathan Goforth seem to have deeply penetrated the Henan church. As one traveling evangelist recently noted after spending some weeks in the province: "The prayers of the young Christians were particularly powerful. The Holy Spirit descended in great power and everyone experienced Pentecost. Once again my fellow-workers were filled with the great love of the Lord. They knelt down to pray and praise the Lord without ceasing."

It has been over a hundred years since those first missionaries from Canada entered North Honan. They came from a quickened church, afire with missionary zeal, to a land of terrible darkness. Perhaps the receiving church needs now to rekindle the fire that the sending church once had.