A. Caroline Macdonald of Japan

John Vaudry has served churches in Nova Scotia and Ontario and is currently minister of St. Andrew's Wingham ON, since 1987.

When Canadian diplomat Hugh Keenlyside came to write his memoirs he ranked Caroline Macdonald, a missionary he had met in Japan, alongside such people as Dag Hammerskjold, Lester Pearson, Wilder Penfield and Barbara Ward as one of the dozen or so "most remarkable men and women" he had ever known.

Annie Caroline Macdonald was born in 1874 in the small western Ontario town of Wingham. Her father, Peter Macdonald, whose parents had emigrated from Scotland, was a physician with a strong interest in politics. Elected to parliament as a Liberal, he served with Sir Wilfred Laurier and eventually became Deputy Speaker of the House.

Wingham is far removed geographically and culturally from urban Japan, yet it was here that the foundations of her remarkable ministry were laid. The Macdonald home was a vital centre of Presbyterian faith, theological discussion and missionary concern. Caroline's mother, Margaret, was one of the founders of the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society of the Wingham church, as well as the organizer of the Happy Gleaners Mission Band to encourage interest in overseas mission on the part of her own and other children.

Several interdenominational groups that fostered individual spiritual growth and social concern, such as the Christian Endeavour Society, the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Wingham Children's Aid Society, no doubt left their mark on Caroline in her formative years.

After attending school in Owen Sound and London, Caroline enrolled in Arts at the University of Toronto, choosing a major in mathematics and physics. In her second year she astonished her classmates by entering an essay contest sponsored by the department of political economy. The topic, "Banking," was one of which she knew nothing, but her careful research and writing produced the prize-winning essay, much to the chagrin of many of the men who thought economics a male preserve!

While in Toronto, Caroline became active in the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), which was at that time an interdenominational evangelical organization that encouraged educated Christian women to work for "the regeneration of society."

In 1901 Caroline Macdonald became general secretary of the Ottawa YWCA with responsibilities in personal evangelism and social service. Feeling a need for stronger spiritual awareness, she had the board meet for an hour of prayer every Tuesday morning. She also worked to improve the lot of girls working as telephone operators, office workers, domestics, and textile mill workers. She then spent a few months travelling on behalf of the Student Volunteer Movement, the body whose slogan was "the evangelization of the world in this generation."

These experiences prepared Caroline to respond in 1904 to an appeal from the World's Committee of the YWCA to begin an outreach to non-Christian women in Tokyo, Japan.

The first years were spent "grubbing at the lingo," as she put it, as well as seeking to understand the Japanese culture and mind. With the brilliant teacher Matsumiya Yahei as her tutor, Caroline immersed herself in the language that she eventually mastered.

The early years also involved opening her home to young women, teaching Bible classes to both men and women, and teaching English literature in a college. Caroline pioneered in establishing YWCAs in mission schools and colleges. She set up hostels for women students so that there might be a safe alternative to the cheap dormitories that often left women vulnerable to harassment.

In 1910 Caroline represented Japan at a YWCA conference in Berlin and then attended the historic World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh. Following this, she enrolled in theology at the United Free Church College in Aberdeen where David S. Cairns was principal. Cairns, a liberal evangelical who is remembered for his book on the miracles of Christ entitled The Faith that Rebels, was to become a lifelong friend. Caroline admired him as a theologian, but also retained a secret romantic interest in the Scottish widower.

Caroline Macdonald's ministry in Japan took a new turn when a young man, Yamada Zen'ichi, a member of her Sunday evening Bible class, murdered his wife and two small sons. Caroline felt some responsibility for this disturbing event as she had on two occasions failed to realize he needed help and had not taken time to talk to him.

After spending the night in prayer, Caroline arrived very early at the prison on a cold winter morning in order to meet with Yamada. Day after day she came to visit him and counsel him from the Scriptures. As he waited in prison to go to court, Yamada told her, "I am trusting in God's grace, but the dark days come over me…I can only keep trusting even then."

Caroline and Annie West, an American missionary, found Yamada an excellent lawyer who did not try to minimize the gravity of the crime in any way. "He rested his argument for clemency," says historian Margaret Prang, "entirely on the ground that Yamada's total repentance and changed life had already brought the reformation of character that was the true object of punishment, and therefore a severe sentence was unnecessary. To Caroline's ears this was "both good law and good religion, as fine a Christian sermon as she had ever heard, and one to which the three judges listened attentively."

To Caroline, who opposed capital punishment, it was cause for thanksgiving when Yamada was only sentenced to seventeen years in jail. In prison Yamada's "marvellous sense of God's forgiveness" (as she put it) astonished a number of prisoners and guards and led to several conversions.

This was the beginning of Caroline's venture into prison work. She resigned from the YWCA secretaryship in 1915 after ten years of service, and entered upon a freelance ministry trusting that God would supply her financial needs. For many years she was given support by the WMS of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, as well as that of the United Church, though not officially a missionary of either denomination. She regarded the whole debate over Church Union in Canada as "a frightful tragedy." Caroline identified fully with the Japanese Church and was ordained an elder in the Presbyterian Church of Japan.

Caroline always maintained that her concern was "not to reform prisons, but to reform prisoners." A major component of her work was personal witness to Jesus Christ. At the same time, she sought to probe the social conditions that contribute to the rise of crime, and she developed an interest in prisons. Her biographer, Margaret Prang, writes:

    She was convinced that she must learn more about prison work and services to ex-prisoners and their families elsewhere. Her reading and her contacts with Americans in Tokyo persuaded her that in the United States she would find the most advanced models of prison reform and other social services.

Thus, she travelled in the fall of 1915 to New York to meet and learn from leaders in the field of criminology, social work and prison reform. Her experiences led her to the belief that "the cause of crime is the neglect of children."

Caroline's life was varied and busy. We get some idea of the extent of her ministry (and of her sense of humour!) from a letter written about this time. She told of:

    making speeches in two languages on various and sundry topics, teaching English literature, holding audience with all and sundry in [my] own house, visiting friends (mostly gentlemen!) who find it inconvenient to come to see me, hunting up their wives and families and trying to straighten them up to be worthy of straightened-up husbands, giving advice on everything under heaven from the management of a husband and the bringing up of children (being a specialist along these lines!) to the interpretation of The Hound of Heaven to a group of college graduates, a lecture on prison reform to a group of rather elegant Japanese ladies who had probably until that moment thought it not quite proper to think there was such a thing as a prison.

Caroline's prison ministry brought her into contact with one of Japan's most notorious criminals, Ishii Tokichi, who had spent nearly half his life behind bars. Late in 1915, Ishii learned that an innocent man had been sentenced to death for the murder of a geisha. Ishii, the actual murderer, felt that he should come forward with the truth and so spare the man and his family any further suffering. He confessed that he had killed the geisha and that he had also murdered a man and his wife two months later in a robbery.

After his confession, Ishii began to be afflicted with spiritual anxiety: "Was there such a thing as a soul? I did not know, but if there were must mine not go to hell?" On New Year's Day, 1916, Ishii received an unexpected gift of food from two strangers, Annie West and Caroline Macdonald. Soon after, he also was given a copy of the New Testament. He read the story of Jesus and was convicted by the words, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Ishii later wrote of his experience:

    I stopped: I was stabbed to the heart, as if pierced by a five-inch nail. What did the verse reveal to me? Shall I call it the love of the heart of Christ?…I do not know what to call it. I only know that with an unspeakably grateful heart, I believed. Through this simple sentence I was led into the whole of Christianity.

Caroline continued for some time to visit the condemned man to share the comfort of the Scriptures with him. The short poem he left her testifies to his triumphant death:

    My name is defiled
    My body dies in prison
    But my soul, purified
    Today returns to the City of God.

Ishii had left Caroline "all he possessed — one sen, a copper coin worth a penny. For the rest of her life Caroline wore the coin on a chain around her neck."

Following his conversion, Ishii had written an account of his life and of his experience of the grace of God. Through Caroline's efforts, The Scoundrel Who Became a Saint was published in Tokyo on Christmas Day, 1918, less than six months after Ishii's death. In 1922 an English translation by Caroline Macdonald appeared entitled A Gentleman in Prison, with a foreword by a noted Scottish liberal evangelical minister, John Kelman. The book is a powerful testimony in which Ishii's simple trust in Christ shines through clearly.

As time went on, Caroline Macdonald became increasingly involved in social action. Midweek meetings in her home started to focus on the application of Christianity to social issues such as education, labour relations, the enormous gulf between rich and poor, and the role of women. She established a "settlement house" in Tokyo to provide the poor with better opportunities for education, health care, recreation and religious activities. In common with many others in her day who were influenced by the Social Gospel, she was critical of those missionaries who concentrated only on reaching individuals and failed to tackle the underlying problems of society.

Caroline combined concern for the salvation of the individual with concern for social change. She was never merely a secular reformer. As she looked at the problems facing Japan she wrote,

    Humanly speaking there is no way out of it all. If this nation does not come to know God soon, I do not know what the end will be…A nation without God is a spectacle which one shudders really to think on. [Japan] is civilized and educated, but she's materialistic to the core. But God can penetrate into life here and He must.

Caroline's concern for workers led her to intervene in a major strike in 1927, and took her to Geneva in 1929 where she acted as interpreter for the Japanese delegate to an International Labour Conference.

Caroline was awarded the Sixth Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Emperor of Japan in recognition of her social work. In 1925, she became the first woman ever to have conferred on her the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Toronto.

Caroline became ill with lung cancer early in 1931 and returned to Canada to be with her family. On July 17, the gifted and dedicated woman known as "the White Angel of Tokyo,"died a few months short of her fifty-seventh birthday.