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Jonathan Goforth, Radiant Soul-Winner of North China

by Thomas John Bach

Jonathan GoforthJohn Goforth of Yorkshire, England, immigrated to Canada in 1840 and settled near Thorndale in western Ontario. Jonathan, his seventh child, was born February 10, 1859. The parents, as pioneer farmers, were exposed to many physical hardships and had to practice the utmost economy.

The mother was faithful in teaching the Scriptures to her children, and when Jonathan was seven years of age he received a Bible from a neighbor lady. At ten, he came under deep conviction of sin and the need of salvation; but no one asked him to make a decision for Christ.

Opportunely, there came to the community a Presbyterian pastor by the name of Lachlan Cameron, who was faithful in preaching the Word of God. Jonathan Goforth dated his conversion from a service which he attended when he was eighteen years of age. Cameron was preaching, and he responded to the appeal for decisions. He joined the Presbyterian Church.

Through much hardship and noble effort, he obtained his grammar and high school education. During the years of his youth he often debated within himself whether he should be a teacher or a politician. His pastor, the Rev. Mr. Cameron, invited Jonathan to his home for instruction in the Scriptures and in Latin and Greek, and thus helped him prepare to enter Knox College, Toronto.

One day, while he was in college, he heard Missionary George Leslie Mackay of Formosa present the claims of Christ for that mission field in a most forceful way. Jonathan described that meeting in a few words: "I heard the voice of the Lord saying: 'Who will go for us and whom shall we send?' and I answered: 'Here am I, send me.' From that hour I became a foreign missionary." He lost no opportunity to prepare himself for the mission field and to declare the claims of Christ and the needs of the unevangelized multitudes.

APPOINTMENT TO CHINA

In the year 1885, Goforth received a copy of Hudson Taylor's book, China's Spiritual Need and Claims. He was deeply impressed and from that time on, with renewed dedication, he began to pray that a door would be opened for him to go to China. At the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Canada in June, 1887, a new missionary vision came to that body of Christians with the result that Jonathan Goforth was appointed their pioneer missionary to North China.

On October 25 of the same year Goforth was ordained, and the same month he was married to Florence Rosalind Bell-Smith. On February 4, 1888, they sailed for China. By the middle of September of the same year they were looking over their new mission field in the Province of Honan.

It was soon evident that Goforth was "a man sent from God." He was untiring in his evangelistic services and efficient in the training of national workers and the establishing of churches under the leadership of Chinese Christians. It was there that the grace of God was revealed in a special way, as the Lord sustained and comforted Jonathan Goforth and his family in their manifold trials, sufferings, and sorrows.

Goforth had a passion for winning souls for Christ. He was outstanding as a conservative theologian. He required that at his public prayer meetings the one who took part should be definite in petition, and that the prayer should be accompanied by thanksgiving and confession.

He visited eight of the principal mission centers in Korea in 1907, the year the great revival was passing over that country, and wrote the booklet, When the Fire Swept Korea. His book, By My Spirit, has enjoyed world-wide circulation.

Dr. Charles G. Trumbull, late editor of the Sunday School Times, wrote: "Dr. Goforth was one of the most radiant, dynamic personalities that ever enriched my life. God's missionary program of the past half century would not have been complete without him."

The last few years of his life Jonathan Goforth was totally blind. Nevertheless, the fragrance of thanksgiving and holiness accompanied the distinguished missionary until he died in Canada, October 7, 1936. His life's motto was: "By my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts."

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Having read aloud to his wife from Finney's booklet, Lectures on Revival, Mr. Goforth said to her: "It simply means this: The spiritual laws governing a spiritual harvest are as real and tangible as the laws governing the natural harvest." Then he added solemnly, as though he were making a vow: "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." Goforth did obey these "laws of revival," as he said he would, and God made him a channel of blessing to many Christians in China as well as a mighty winner of souls.

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Goforth was convinced that it was the simple gospel message that was "the power of God unto salvation," and he was eager to share this conviction with others. He said, "Oh, that God would give me an opportunity before I pass on to demonstrate to missionaries and to the home church what results would follow if we but GAVE GOD A CHANCE by broadcasting this wonderful message of salvation by every possible means in our power. I am convinced the simple Gospel story has never had a chance in China."

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Goforth was known among the other missionaries as well as the Chinese workers for his detailed knowledge of the Scriptures. Concerning the importance of memorizing the Bible, he wrote: "It is well to be able to repeat Scripture, but it is of very great importance to remember where it is in the Bible. My ideal has always been (though I cannot say I have always attained unto it), that it would be a shame for me, a missionary, to have to go to a concordance to find a portion of Scripture that a Chinese brother might ask me for. My wife seems to regard me as her walking concordance and my Chinese fellow-workers seem to think that I know everything in the Bible, but I am ever wishing I could spend several hundred years at the Bible.

"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."


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from Pioneer Missionaries for Christ and His Church by Thomas John Bach. Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, ©1955.

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