THE GOFORTHS: The First Canadian Presbyterian Missionaries to China
Jonathan Goforth and his family left their comfortable Canadian lives in January of 1888 to serve as missionaries in China. They had no idea what lay in store for them, especially the terrible Boxer Rebellion of 1900, through which they barely survived. This article is a brief biography of Jonathan Goforth, his wife, Rosalind and their many children.
Jonathan Goforth was born on February 10th, 1859. Born and raised on his father’s farm near Thorndale, western Ontario, Canada. He was the seventh child of a family with ten boys and a girl. His father immigrated to Canada from Yorkshire, England in 1840. His father, John Goforth, barely had enough time with his children to cater to their growth in other areas besides farm work. However, Jonathan’s mother was present for her children most of the time.
At age five, Jonathan read the Psalms to his mother. She spent quality time with her children teaching them to read the scriptures and pray. That experience contributed a great deal to who he became. Jonathan wrote, in his biography, Goforth of China: “From reading aloud the Psalms came along the desire to memorize the scriptures which I continued to do with great profit.” Growing along that path, his heart was nudged to the Lord quite early. At age ten, he was convicted to turn to the Lord while he was waiting for his mother while she partook in a Communion Service. He recounts years later: “…I sat alone on the side seats. Suddenly it came over me with great force that if God called me away I will not go to heaven. How I wanted to be a Christian! I am sure if someone had spoken to me about my soul’s salvation I would have yielded my heart to Christ then.”
In high school, Jonathan encountered the man who finally led him to Christ. A Presbyterian minister at Thamesford, Rev. Lachlan Cameron, visited the high school he attended, organizing Bible studies meetings with the students regularly. Jonathan grew fond of Rev. Cameron and was determined to hear him speak at his church. In one of the services, Jonathan could not resist the passionate call of the reverend on his listeners to the cross. Without stepping out in response to the altar call, Jonathan quietly gave his life to Christ at the age of eighteen with his head bent in prayer during his third Sunday with Rev. Cameron. From that point he began to serve, teaching Sunday School, followed by the distribution of tracts, and in many other ways, he was led in the service of his Master, Jesus.
On October 25th, 1887, Jonathan married Florence Rosalind Bell-Smith. Rosalind was born in England near Kensington Gardens, London on May 6th, 1864. She was the daughter of an artist, John Bell-Smith. Her family moved to Montreal, Quebec when she was just about three years old and was educated partly by her mother and partly in private schools. She graduated from the Toronto School of Art in May 1885. At age twelve, she attended a revival meeting where Mr. Alfred Sandham was the speaker, where she gave her life to Christ. At the beginning of her walk with Jesus, she battled two difficulties: if she was certain to be received by Him, and if she wasn’t too young to be received by Him. Two scriptures settled those concerns: John 6: 37 and Proverbs 8:17.
In her early twenties, she was torn between two paths in her life; either art or her Master. In the early part of 1885, her prayer was for a husband who was “one wholly given to Him and His service.” Then one Saturday in June, when attending a meeting of the workers of the Toronto Mission Union, she met Jonathan Goforth. They both served the mission and were taken with one another. Jonathan’s proposal to Rosalind read: “Will you join your life with mine for China?” followed by: “Will you give me your promise that you will always allow me to put my Lord and His work first, even before you?” To these, she agreed for it was just what she had asked of the Lord.
The burden for foreign missions was laid on Jonathan’s heart when he was a high school student in Ingersoll. He was at a meeting where Dr. George Leslie Mackay spoke so passionately of the needs of his mission field, Formosa, to his listeners. Since that meeting, and for the rest of his life, Jonathan was filled with a passion for souls in distant heathen lands. Even before that meeting, he was given a book by his brother’s father-in-law—during one of his visits to their home—which inspired missionary ambitions. The book was The Memoirs of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. On his way home, in the woods, for hours, he consumed the text. The result: “All the petty selfish ambition, which he had indulged vanished forever, and in their place came the solemn and definite resolve to give his life to the ministry, which to him meant the sacred, holy calling of leading unsaved souls to His Saviour.” Rev. Cameron, delighted by his commitment, offered help to have him enrolled in pre-classes for Knox College, where he received training for missions. Yet again, in 1885 he was given a book by Dr. Randal, a worker of the China Inland Mission, which was founded by Hudson Taylor. The book was Taylor’s China’s Spiritual Need and Claims. The book left a great impression on Goforth, as his heart was set on a mission to China during his high school days when he would spend time looking at the maps of Africa and Asia.
When the Goforths were set to leave for China, his denomination had no mission there, and financing a mission there seemed an extra financial burden they were not prepared to bear. His fellow students at Knox College, who had earlier taunted him for his enthusiasm for foreign missions, turned out to be the ones who decided to facilitate the process of his being sent as their missionary. They took the appeal to an alumni meeting in 1886. First, it met with resistance, with the argument that Presbyterian Church already has numerous missions under its control. Jonathan was granted the podium amidst the argument and his passion won them over. Unrelenting, he mailed several copies of Hudson Taylor’s book and other books on China to the ministers of the church. In January 1888, shortly after he was ordained, he was sent to China by the church leadership, from the Knox Church. His departure was further hastened given the reports of great famine in China, so his arrival will provide some respite as he was sent with relief items.
Jonathan describes the journey to China in a sentence: “An ordinary winter voyage; bad enough; sick all the way!” Just before the entry of the Goforths into the Province of Honan, Dr. Huson Taylor sent a letter with the following words, part of which would later become a slogan of the North Honan Mission. “Brother,” Taylor wrote, “if you’d enter that Province, you must go forward on your knees.” Thus began the work in China. Goforth would later be joined by his longtime friend from Knox College, Rev. Donald McGillivray. His joining the team made Goforth’s work more effective. Rev. McGillivray brought practical benefit to them since he took to the native language much faster than Jonathan was able to. Therefore the work could then commence in earnest in the North Honan province.
It is recorded that Jonathan was never found speaking to an audience without his scripture at hand. The Word of God is true food for every soul. One time Jonathan was advised by an old experienced missionary not to mention Jesus to his Chinese audience in his first encounter with them for they held the name with contempt. Jonathan when recounting the experience to his wife said, “Never, never, never! The Gospel which saved the down and outs in Toronto is the same Gospel which must save Chinese sinners.” His confidence in the Word to save was also the answer when there came a time when the Roman Catholics were buying off the Chinese converts with enticing offers such as free schools for their children, financial aid, and employment. In a letter addressing the concern, Jonathan writes: “We cannot fight Rome by competing with them in buying up the people, but we will continue to preach the word and let the light shine in.”
Jonathan’s ministry began at home in Canada. Just as Jesus admonished the disciples in Acts 1:8 that having received the Holy Spirit they would become witnesses to the “ends of the earth”, starting from their hometown, Jerusalem. During the early years of his conversion, it was noted that Jonathan grew up in a family that was not accustomed to saying a blessing before meals. He felt a leading to conduct family worship. He was concerned as to what his father’s reaction would be, but To Jonathan’s amazement, his father remained silent. Jonathan maintained the family worship for as long as he was living at home. The practice yielded fruit, and Jonathan Goforth’s father was won to Christ. “Family worship continued for as long as I was home,” Goforth writes. “Some months later my father took a stand for Jesus”. His early days at Knox College in Toronto were spent for the most part in slum-ward evangelism. He visited brothels, gambling spaces, and jails. and was committed to door-to-door evangelism, presenting the Gospel as he went from house to house. Wherever he went his heart welled up in a passionate commitment to the saving of souls, and he was always watching and praying for every opportunity to share the good news.
In China, they were accessible to the people and would not allow even their possessions to create an obstacle to presenting the good news. At Changte, one of the mission stations where they worked in China, the Presbytery offered to build a modern house much better than what the natives had. This offer was made at the time when the missionaries were falsely accused of kidnapping children for rituals. The modern house would heighten the suspicions of the people. To avoid anything from being a hindrance to the work of his master, Jonathan and his wife agreed to make their house open to anyone. For a while, their house was like an open gallery where people would come and visit in large numbers. Some came just to try to confirm the kidnapping suspicions. God drew many to Himself as a result of the Goforths making themselves open and accessible to the people, even though it was trying and inconvenient.
In 1900, the Boxer Rebellion arose in China. All foreigners were seen as threats, especially the missionaries and even the Chinese Christians. According to an address by Goforth, the revolution was stirred by the greed of those he called the “big Christian nations.” These nations included Germany, Russia, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan; all of which made claims for themselves on portions of Chinese land. “What appeared in public print about these seizures and proposed seizures of the Chinese territory was known all over China. What were the poor Chinese to imagine? They no doubt thought the big Christian nations after all had no conscience—without right or reason they proposed to take our country from us.” This address was written in 1901 after the Goforths’ narrow escape from the Boxers with their children and other missionary friends serving in China at the time.
Following the Boxer Rebellion, Jonathan received a gracious gift from an old classmate, Dr. Margaret McKellar. She gave him a leaflet which contained excerpts from Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revival. Studying that material, he concluded that the spiritual principle of revival applies in many ways just as the natural law of the harvest. That revival is not just a function of divine intervention alone, but something that follows a directed cause. Jonathan applied himself to further study the subject of revival. He wrote: “If Finney is right, and I believe he is, I am going to find out what these spiritual laws are and obey them, no matter what the cost may be.” This study brought increased efficacy to his mission work and led him on revival tours to other places like Manchuria and Korea. The testimonies of the journeys are recorded in his book titled, By My Spirit. Jonathan Goforth became a revivalist.
His work was carried on with great cooperation with God. At times when they needed more resources, both human and financial, they learned to trust in God in prayer. To trust God through prayer became such a way of life, that it is little wonder his wife—who was their chief scribe—wrote a book entitled How I Know God Answers Prayer. They also decided to travel with their children, trusting God for their welfare.
In 1915, his alma mater, Knox College, in recognition of his work, awarded him an honorary degree as Doctor of Divinity.
Jonathan and Rosalind Goforth were steadfast, despite their losses, even five of their eleven children to the harsh conditions of China at the time. On March 30th, 1933, Jonathan was diagnosed with a dislodged retina of his left eye. This eventually turned into blindness. Yet, his blindness was no excuse to relax or rest from the work he had committed himself to for the Lord. His wife always remained a graceful companion, journeying alongside him. To meet the need posed by his loss of sight, he got a Chinese assistant who read to him the scriptures aloud, because he was determined to sustain his habit of reading the Bible. The large depository of the scriptures in him ensured he wasn’t short of responses to the seekers who needed guidance even in his blindness.
But for the Grace of God and his beloved wife, Jonathan would not have achieved so much as he did for the Kingdom of God. Charles G. Trumbull writes in the introduction to Goforth of China which supplied most of the resources for this article: ‘When Mrs. Goforth’s hearing was impaired, Dr. Goforth was ears for her; and she, in his blindness, was eyes for him.’
Dr. Jonathan Goforth passed away on October 8th, 1936, lying peacefully in bed. Mrs. Rosalind Goforth followed her husband Home in 1942.