Dr. 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.
With those revealing words George Leslie MacKay, first missionary of the Canada Presbyterian Church, began his 1895 classic, From Far Formosa. MacKay not only a pioneer. He shaped the missionary vision of the Canadian Church, transformed and nurtured it.
His missionary career did not have an auspicious beginning. The first religious worker engaged in Christian ministry in the north of the island we now call Taiwan since the Dutch left two hundred years earlier, he experienced a chilly welcome when he arrived on New Year's Eve 1871. Three months later housing was secured — a horse-stable for military mandarins. "It was a filthy place," he would recall. In the dry season it was too hot, and in the rainy season flooded. His furniture consisted of the two wooden boxes he had brought with him, a chair and bed provided by the British Consul, and a pewter lamp courtesy of one of the locals. Thoroughly cleaned and whitewashed, windows curtained with red cotton, some of the walls covered with newspaper, it was the start of what would be a remarkable people movement which would have, and continues to have, profound influence.
That April 10, 1872, George Leslie MacKay wrote in his diary: "Here I am in this house, having been led all the way from the old homestead in Zorra by Jesus, as direct as though my boxes were labeled, "Tamsui, Formosa, China.' Oh the glorious privilege to lay the foundation of Christ's church in unbroken heathenism! God help me to do this with the open Bible! Again I swear allegiance to thee, O King Jesus, my Captain. So help me, God!" Neither circumstance nor adversity could dull the vision of this single-minded young man of 28 years.
There were three guides who helped MacKay find that road from the old homestead in Zorra in Oxford County, western Ontario, to Tamsui. The first of these was the man who baptized him. William Chalmers Burns has recently been described as "one of the most remarkable figures in the history of the Scottish Church." Twenty-four-year-old Burns, as a replacement for the absent Robert Murray McCheyne, had been God's instrument to bring a remarkable revival to St. Peter's Church, Dundee. The awakening spread and brought spiritual quickening to a polarized Church of Scotland soon to experience Disruption. Sent to Canada on behalf of the Free Church in 1844, revival accompanied his preaching, particularly in the area around Woodstock. Recent immigrants, such as George Leslie's parents, evicted in the notorious Sutherland Clearances, came into living faith. In gratitude Burns was asked to officiate as two-year-old George Leslie was baptized. A year later Burns would leave for China as its first English Presbyterian missionary. MacKay arrived too late to join Burns who had died of fever in a remote Chinese village in 1868. MacKay would always regard himself as the inheritor of Burns' mantle: "His name was cherished in the home, and something of his spirit touched my boyish heart." From the little church in Zorra over fifty men would enter the ministry, some of the fruits of the 1840s Oxford County revival. Revivalism (except for Lingwick in Lower Canada and Glengarry in Upper Canada) has not been a Canadian Presbyterian phenomenon.
The second influence on the road from Zorra to Tamsui would be the redoubtable Charles Hodge, President of Princeton Seminary where MacKay studied from 1867 – 1870. Already steeped from earliest childhood in Reformed theology, George Leslie would refer to "the iron of Calvinism." "It may be we heard much about sin and law in those olden days, but love and grace were not obscured." MacKay had taken the literary course at Knox College, in the mid-1860s in a state of academic turmoil, but like James Robertson a year later, he went on to Princeton. There "it was Dr. Charles Hodge that deeply impressed himself on my heart and life. Princeton men all loved him. No others knew his real worth. Not in his monumental work on systematic theology can Charles Hodge be best seen; but in the class-room , or in the oratory at the Sabbath afternoon conference. There you saw the real man and felt his power. Can any Princeton man forget those sacred hours?"
The third evangelist to accompany the young pilgrim would be the great Scots missionary statesman Alexander Duff. "Heroic Duff!" he would exclaim: "Let Scotland and India and the churches of Christendom bear testimony to the loftiness of thy spirit, the consuming energy of thy zeal, the noble heroism of thy service." On his 1870 graduation from Princeton, MacKay — who had already applied for overseas missionary service to a somewhat bemused Canada Presbyterian Church — would take a steerage passage across the Atlantic so that he could sit under the great missionary's instruction in Edinburgh. "He was specially kind to me. I spent many hours with him in his private room and at his house." Arguably the greatest missionary to come from the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, Duff's 1854 visit to North America "with a passion unequalled since Whitefield" meant he was well known in Canada. MacKay understood how privileged he was to be mentored by the first Professor of Missions in a Presbyterian theological college.
It had taken a year, but a letter from Canada received in April of 1871, called MacKay to be "the first missionary to the heathen world." Three countries were suggested. The General Assembly that year opted for China. MacKay was introduced to the fathers and brethren amid pity, disdain and dismissal as "an enthusiast," "an excited young man." "There was a great deal of apathy, and the church was very cold. It seems to me that was the 'ice age.'" He was unfazed. Ordained by the Presbytery of Toronto on September 19, 1871, he set off for Vancouver after he had said farewell to family, "What was said or what was felt need not now be told. God only knows what some hearts feel. They break, perchance, but they give no sign." A trip to China was a major undertaking. Two months later he would arrive in Hong Kong and begin the trip up coast to Swatow. From Swatow he crossed the Formosa Straits drawn by "some unseen influence." He first went to the English Presbyterians who had occupied the southern part of the island in 1865. From there, in the company of one of their number, Hugh Ritchie, he journeyed to the north, arriving in Tamsui. "MacKay, this is your parish," Ritchie told him on arrival. In almost thirty years of missionary service he would return home only twice. MacKay had given himself to the cause of Christ in Taiwan and there would be no looking back.
The story of those years is well known. MacKay soon immersed himself in the language, learning the Taiwanese dialect with its eight tones from boys herding water buffaloes nearby. His first convert, the famous A Hoa, approached him five months after his arrival with the words: "The Book you have has the true doctrine, and I would like to study it with you." A Hoa would become a leader in the north Taiwanese church with responsibility for sixty churches. Through his medical knowledge George Leslie opened doors into A Hoa's hostile family and soon the entire household acknowledged Jesus as Saviour and Lord. With A Hoa MacKay would go on itineration, greeted as they traveled with the taunt: "Foreign devil! Black bearded barbarian!" MacKay would reflect about his disciple: "A Hoa early learned that the path of duty in the service of Christ is sometimes rough and sore, as it was for Him who first went up to Calvary."
By 1873 five young men came forward at the invitation to be baptized. And the week afterwards they shared their first communion. "It was a memorable day for us all," MacKay reflected. A twenty-four-year-old carpenter broke down sobbing, "I am unworthy, I am unworthy." Only after prayer could he be persuaded to join the little group as they broke bread for the first time. A church had been established. Now leadership would be required.
The little band of men gathered around their leader became a people movement. Each introduced others to faith. "Beginning with A Hoa, I invariably had from one to twenty students as my daily companions. We began each day's work with a hymn of praise. When weather permitted we sat under a tree — usually the banyan or a cluster of bamboos — and spent the day reading, studying, and examining. In the evening we retired to some sheltered spot, and I explained a passage of Scripture to the students and others gathered with them. Indeed, whenever night overtook us, in all our journeyings, I spoke on a part of God's truth, ever keeping the students in view." All knowledge was sacred: geology, botany, anthropology, linguistics, were all part of the discovery of a Creator's purpose. When From Far Formosa appeared, the publisher Fleming H. Revell tried to eliminate the geographic and scientific descriptions without avail. MacKay insisted that all should be included as a part of the missionary vision.
A Taiwanese Christian once was asked for MacKay's greatest accomplishments. He responded with three things he most admired: MacKay's respect for the Taiwanese language, his respect for the Taiwanese people and his marriage to a Taiwanese woman.
It was an audacious act of complete identification with the people he had been sent to serve when, in May of 1878, MacKay married Tui Chhang Mia ("Minnie" as she would be known in the West) in the British Consulate in Tamsui. Crossing racial lines was a taboo among foreigners and received immediate disdain among the racist business community. As MacKay described her to his incredulous family — and as later events would abundantly prove — she was "a young, devoted, earnest Christian." She would be able to minister to other women. Her capacity for learning, her diligence in study, her gifts as a home-maker and as a soul companion to MacKay, were evident to all. Two daughters assimilated into the Chinese culture, while son George W. became a powerful missionary presence in Taiwan and was ordained by special order of the General Assembly in 1940.
His appeals to the church in Canada became immediate and insistent as the work grew. "Baptized eleven hundred more. Bought land. Send money. MacKay." He required $2,500 to build ten churches and wired: "For God's sake don't refuse and don't delay." By his first furlough in 1880, the five-year-old Presbyterian Church in Canada gave him and Mrs. MacKay a hero's welcome. Queen's University honoured him with a D.D. In Oxford County the locals raised $6,215 for a college to be named after them, and a further $3,000 was provided by a Mrs. MacKay of Detroit for a hospital in her husband's memory. These were the forerunners of significant institutions that made and make a powerful impact on the island: the Taiwan Theological Seminary, the Aletheia University and the MacKay Memorial Hospital. In 1884 the Canadian Women's Missionary Society would provide funds for a girl's school, now the Tam-Kang Middle School in Tamsui.
In 1895 he returned for his second and final furlough. This time the enthusiasm of the Canadian Church for the man that twenty-five years earlier they had dismissed as "the enthusiast" was dramatically demonstrated when George Leslie MacKay became the first missionary moderator of the General Assembly.
The MacKays would return that year to a very different island. The land of the rising sun had shed its rays over Taiwan and joined the West in the subjugation, dismembering and colonization of China. Endless reports, particularly about the church's educational institutions, were required. George Leslie MacKay, as with so many pioneer missionaries in later life, was desk-bound. But with the Japanese occupation the church increasingly became a guardian of Taiwanese identity, building on the foundation of respect and tolerance for the local culture which MacKay had expressed from the beginning and which stood in radical opposition to the attitudes of the new colonizers. As in Korea, the identification of the church with the nationalistic aspirations of a conquered race would greatly benefit the young Christian community. While in other countries Christianity and imperialism would be seen as going hand in hand, in Taiwan it was the exact opposite. This was perhaps the greatest legacy that George Leslie MacKay left the Taiwanese Church and why his memory on the island is still revered by Christian and non-Christian alike.
A malignant throat tumor snuffed out his life at fifty-seven on June 2, 1901. Looking back, it is amazing what had been accomplished in less than thirty years of ministry. His final report to the Canadian Church a few weeks before his death sounded the note of confident hope for which he was always known:
- "No matter what may come in the way, the final victory is as sure as God's existence. When we have that firmly fixed in the mind there will be but one shout: 'And blessed be His glorious name for ever: and the let the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen and Amen.'"