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Jonathan Goforth (1859–1936), a passionate, tireless pastor-evangelist of the revivalist persuasion, was the first Canadian Presbyterian missionary to China, serving there for nearly forty-seven years. As a high school student, Goforth heard a gospel presentation by Presbyterian pastor Lachlan Cameron, and, true to Cameron’s custom, he concluded the message with an appeal for decisions for Christ.1 Young Jonathan was so captivated by the message that he visited Cameron’s church, and on his first visit he committed his life to Christ. Shortly thereafter, he was given a copy of The Memoirs of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, which the Lord used to call him to ministry. Upon hearing missionary G.L. Mackay expound the needs of Formosa (Taiwan), Goforth’s call was further clarified: from that moment he “became a foreign missionary” and eagerly began studying missions.2

His first stop in ministry was in 1885, serving with the Toronto Mission Union. There he met Rosalind Bell-Smith and soon proposed marriage to her by asking, “Will you join your life with mine for China?”3 She heartily consented, not fully realizing all that that commitment would entail. In lieu of buying her an engagement ring, he purchased books and pamphlets on China to distribute to his school, Knox College, Toronto.4

At the conclusion of his studies at Knox College, the 1887 General Assembly of the Canadian Presbyterian Church appointed Goforth to China and ordained him in October. That same month, he and Rosalind were married. Through his tireless promotion of foreign missions, particularly to China, the denomination steadily grew in its missionary vision. Rosalind Goforth recorded many years later that “churches, which formerly had barely given a thought to the foreign field, made themselves responsible for the support of missionaries.”5

In January 1888, the Goforths departed for China, arriving initially in Shanghai. Through the strategic coordination among ministries, the Canadian Presbyterian Church was given North Honan (Henan) as their territory to reach. However, tragedy struck repeatedly shortly after their arrival on the field. A house fire consumed all their possessions. A dysentery outbreak claimed the life of their newborn daughter. Less than two years later, their second child, a son, succumbed to injuries sustained in a fall from a veranda.6 (In all, only six of their eleven children survived to adulthood.)

Despite the heartache and challenges, they steadily labored on, proclaiming Christ constantly. True to his Presbyterian call, on December 5, 1889, the first presbytery of North Honan was convened by Goforth under the authority of the Canadian General Assembly.7

The Goforths eventually relocated to Changde, where their partnership in ministry immediately flourished. Many souls were won to Christ through the simple, steady preaching of the gospel. As many as fifty women per day gathered in their front yard where Rosalind taught the gospel, with Jonathan coming outside briefly to give her a break. He also met with the men who daily gathered at the chapel. Jonathan Goforth records in a journal, “None but the Holy Spirit could open these hearts to receive the truth, as we see some receiving it every time we speak. I never saw anything approaching to it in previous years. It cheers us beyond measure and makes us confident that God is going to save many people in this place.” In the first five months in this new location, twenty-five thousand people came to their home and heard the gospel proclaimed on average eight hours a day.8

The proclamation of the gospel in his life was always grounded in a consistent and deep study of the Word of God.

During their ministry in this location, a thirteen day evangelistic meeting was held with a Chinese general and his soldiers, eventually resulting in more than four thousand baptisms. The army that had once been the fear and dread of the citizenry of the region was now completely changed, with multiple regiments singing hymns and becoming known as “the soldiers of heaven.” The general eventually became the governor of Honan, and he himself called for an evangelistic campaign in hopes of ultimately reaching another thirty million people.9

Other regions of China began asking the Goforths for help, and they subsequently moved to Manchuria, where, as in Korea, they witnessed tremendous fruit. Hundreds were baptized every year as the church steadily grew in numbers and commitment. Eventually, Jonathan Goforth’s health deteriorated, including complete blindness. He continued to preach until, through the urging of friends, the Goforths made the difficult decision to return to Toronto in December of 1934.10

Once back in Canada, Goforth remained active in speaking. On Wednesday, October 7, 1936, after returning from speaking on “How the Spirit’s fire Swept Korea,” he retired for the night, and passed peacefully into eternity.11

Charles W. Gordon summarized Goforth’s life in a letter to Rosalind shortly after Jonathan’s death:

The characteristic features of Goforth were the utter simplicity of his spirit, the selfless charter of his devotion, and the completeness of his faith in God. As I came to know him better, I came more and more to honour his manliness, his humility, his courage, his loyalty to his Lord, and his passion to save the lost.12

This passion for the lost forever impacted China and the Canadian church that sent him.

From the life and ministry of Jonathan Goforth, we are reminded of the importance of the Holy Spirit for the conversion of souls. A key verse for him was Zechariah 4:6: “ ‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord.”

Second, we see that for Goforth, the true evidence of the working of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life is the conviction of sin. In other words, any true conversion should be accompanied by confession and repentance. It was the marker he looked for, even amidst the widespread conversions in the Manchurian revival of 1908.13

Third, the proclamation of the gospel in his life was always grounded in a consistent and deep study of the Word of God. He explains:

Since the New Version of the New Testament came out in Chinese, I will in a few days have gone over it thirty-five times in the Chinese text, comparing it with the Authorized and Revised New Testament. My method now is to go over each verse five times, but ever trying after the first time to repeat it from memory . . . As a result of this method, when I preach to the Chinese, the Scripture comes readily to mind and the Holy Spirit is able through me to compare spiritual things with spiritual. It is appalling how God and souls are defrauded because we know so little of His saving Word.14

By the time of his departure from China at the end of 1934, he had read the New Testament in Chinese sixty times and believed in keeping the sword of the Spirit “ever sharp through constant daily study of the Word.”15

Finally, we see the winning of souls to Christ to be of high priority in ministry. In reflecting with his wife on their many years in China, he declared his commitment to “aggressive evangelism.” He believed that the preaching of the gospel should be central to mission work.

This article is part of the Missionary Biographies collection.

  1. Rosalind Goforth, Goforth of China, Evangelical Revival Series, No. 153, www.revival-library.org, p.7.
  2. Ibid., 13.
  3. Ibid., 33.
  4. Ibid., 32-33.
  5. Ibid., 49.
  6. Ibid., 60, 71, 77.
  7. Ibid., 74.
  8. Ibid., 95, 98.
  9. Ibid., 239, 240, 244,
  10. Rosalind Goforth, 326-327.
  11. Ibid., 343.
  12. Ibid., 17.
  13. See, for example, Ibid., pp. 7-11, 18, 23, 25, 46, 96-97.
  14. Rosalind Goforth, 239.
  15. Ibid., 307, 70.