Testing the Diversity of the Presbyterian Church within Canada

Dr. Jonathan Dent is the minister of First Presbyerian Church, Nelson BC. He enjoys playing saxophone in Sunday morning worship and inter-church events, such as the upcoming outreach to Nelson on the main street called Christmaas on Baker.

At an interdenominational gathering in our small town, a missionary asked the congregation whether they had any sense of some of the most famous Canadian missionaries in our recent history. The speaker himself was an American. He noted that in his international travels, people often hear of foreign missionaries to foreign lands, but rarely can identify the national heroes of the faith in their own country. When he called on people to raise their hands in recognition of the Canadian Presbyterian Jonathan Goforth (1859-1936), 95% of the crowd had never heard of him. Even though I was one of the few to have heard of him, I still was woefully ignorant of what his accomplishments were and the challenges his legacy leaves us in the Presbyterian Church in Canada.

Jonathan Goforth was distinguished as a man of evangelistic fervour, commitment to ministry and missions as well as to the Presbyterian Church in Canada. He grew up in Thorndale, Ontario, near London, and felt the call to ministry, which was confirmed by his local Presbytery. He then went on to Knox College, where fellow students and professors acknowledged his heart for the lost. He spent time on the streets of Toronto, evangelizing, speaking out the clear gospel of salvation to be found in Jesus Christ alone. Jonathan not only believed Christian doctrine, but also worked it out practically with words and deeds of compassion. Through his time at Knox, and especially because of the challenge of Dr. George Leslie MacKay, he became increasingly aware of the great need of the gospel in Taiwan and China. He graduated from Knox College, married and was appointed by the Mission Board to China.

In China, Jonathan laboured faithfully but eventually came up against the prejudice and violence focused on foreigners, often referred to as "white devils," which was current during the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the nineteenth century. He and his family tried to flee, but he was badly wounded. He incurred head wounds by a sword, which his wife Rosalind thought would be fatal. By God's grace, he recovered and stood resolute in his missionary calling to China. He was convinced his life was spared for a special work of God in China. He became influenced by the works, lives, and ministries of Charles Finney and D. L. Moody. He believed, along with some fellow missionaries, that the Revivalist model of Rev. Finney and the evangelism of Moody could be successfully applied in China. His approach in the meeting was simple. He would pray, sing hymns, teach from the Word of God and then call for testimony to God's intervention in people's lives. He became awe-struck at the response of the people to the Word. Whole assemblies would come forward. Hours would be spent in the confession of sin and repentance. Forgiveness flowed. People turned away from their apathy, gossip and secret malice, which they exposed publicly. Rev. Goforth found that not only would school boys and girls stand up to confess their sins, and be saved, but also the school teachers, the headmasters, the principals of colleges, ruling elders, and pastors — all were coming forth to respond to the Holy Spirit's ministry. One person's testimony would often spur another person on to confess his/her sins and seek the forgiveness of God and of any others involved. In short, revival broke out where Rev. Goforth went. I would simply define revival as the salvation and fresh love of the Lord coming to hundreds and thousands, and the surrounding culture being deeply affected. This happened in Nanking and Kiangsu, for example, and according to my friends who have served in China in the late 1990s, Jonathan's legacy to the Christian church in China is still known in those areas today.

Rev. Goforth chose to stay in the continuing Presbyterian Church in Canada, even though the mission field in China was being divided up and many of the places in which he formerly ministered would become United Church territory in the last half of the 1920s. He stayed committed to China until his health and eyesight no longer allowed him to stay there.

Perhaps the most poignant commentary on his life comes from the above American missionary's interview with a Goforth family member of a later generation. She told of Jonathan Goforth's voyages back to Canada on some occasions following the thousands of conversions in China. He came back to Canada to share what he had found to be the amazing ministry of the Holy Spirit in China. To his horror, the ministers and elders in Canada forbade him to minister in the way he had been so successfully doing in China. "After all," they said, "we can't have ruling and teaching elders making a spectacle of themselves in the public confession of their sins."

I've not yet been able to validate in the literature available to me on the Goforths the truth of these anecdotes. I can only say that it rings true of some conversations I've had with Presbyterian leaders and members on the subject of revival, revival movements and ministries of the Holy Spirit. Some of my colleagues have all but written off the "Toronto Blessing" and similar movements. I know some people have been hurt, and a few congregations have felt pain and division in this area. Whether you believe the Airport Christian Fellowship is a movement of revival or not, it does contain many of the controversial elements that accompanied both Finney's and Goforth's ministries. People's response to a similar contemporary movement may be indicative of what happened years ago as well.

I still hope, however, that there is room today for the Spirit, evangelistic fervour, revivalist passion, as well as commitment to Presbyterian ministry and missions that Jonathan Goforth had. I fear there is not. It is my perception that the Presbyterian Church in Canada has written off or simply forgotten his spiritual legacy, which is desperately needed in the twenty-first century. Do these movements "only happen overseas?" Is revival the sort of dream that only charismatics and hyper-charismatics dare dream? Or is it simply too politically incorrect to talk about conversion to Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life?

What would revival look like in a Canadian Presbyterian context? I wonder if it would be suspiciously similar to the other moves of God from other Christian streams and traditions. I wonder if there is anyone reading this who has a deep passion for seeing the lost saved and the community, province and nation changed forever.

We will have to risk more than we have ever imagined to gain all that God has for us. We will have to risk our reputations, our comfort zones, our styles of worship, our openness to sinners in our communities and congregations, our sense of control and yes, our sense of order, our finances, in short, our security. But isn't God's sovereign move in revival worth it?

Jonathan Goforth's ministry has touched me. His legacy, original works and artefacts have been preserved in the Billy Graham Archives in Wheaton, Illinois. He only published one book, By My Spirit (Zondervan, 1937) to talk about what happened. Rosalind, his wife, wrote several others. She fills in more of the details in Goforth of China (Zondervan, 1937), How I Know God Answers Prayer (Zondervan, 1921), Climbing: Memories of a Missionary's Wife (Zondervan, 1940), and others. She speaks of the Lord's faithfulness to those willing to commit all to him. God's faithfulness was shown through financial gifts, material gifts, and relational grace and forgiveness. Story after story speaking of God's glory permeates the reading. We need these stories today to ask if this same God will again move in the ways that he has moved in the Goforths' lives. Having read these works, I am driven to the question: Does such a move of God still test the limits of diversity allowed within the Presbyterian Church in Canada?