Goforth to China, With Love

By Ruth Gulbranson

If you were to send someone on an important, dangerous mission, what kind of person would you send? At the turn of the twentieth century, the field of pioneer missions in China posed this question. The times were precarious, yet God faithfully sent men and women into those harvest fields—men and women like Jonathan and Rosalind Goforth.

Shifting Values

In the winter of 1885, the course of Rosalind Bell-Smith’s life was set: competition for a gold medal at the Toronto School of Art, graduation, and then travel to England to attend the Kensington School of Art. Rosalind could not imagine how much her life was about to change.

Falling ill with a serious case of inflammatory rheumatism in February, Rosalind was bedridden. In the season of pain and suffering that followed, Rosalind’s grip on earthly things loosened. Her goals began to shift as she recalled earlier nudges toward a life of Christian service. Instead of dreaming about her upcoming studies in England, she began to pray for a Godly husband, “that one wholly yielded up to the Lord and His service might be led to me.”1

Rosalind did not broadcast her changing hopes, but she watched to see what God would do. In the summer, she became involved in the Toronto Union Mission, where she worked alongside a young man named Jonathan Goforth. He was preparing to go to China as a missionary, and in Jonathan, Rosalind recognized the caliber of Christian manhood she had prayed for in a spouse.

Shortly after the couple became engaged, Rosalind caught a glimpse of what her life as Mrs. Jonathan Goforth would entail. Jonathan asked if she minded forgoing an engagement ring. He wished to invest the funds in literature on missions in China, which he was distributing throughout Canada. Rosalind later referred to this experience as her “first lesson in real values.”2

Found: One Yielded to God and His Service

Jonathan Goforth was born on February 10, 1859, near Thorndale, Ontario. The seventh of eleven children, he grew up working diligently on his father’s farms. At the age of 18, Jonathan responded to a presentation of the Gospel, and he immediately began to invest in the church. Teaching a Sunday School class, distributing Gospel tracts, and leading family devotions at home helped deepen his faith and develop his gifts.

Early on, Jonathan was drawn to politics, but after reading The Memoirs of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, he decided to devote his life to evangelism. He took up Latin and Greek classes and prepared to enter Knox College in Toronto. At this time, Jonathan was also deeply moved by the presentation of a missionary. Up to that point, Jonathan had thought of working only in Canada, but he recalled, “From that hour I became a foreign missionary.”3

In the course of his years at Knox College, Jonathan went from being a naïve farm boy who took the brunt of many jokes to a man respected for his sterling character, earnest faith, and dedication to missions at home and abroad. At the time when Jonathan graduated, the Presbyterian Church of Canada did not have a branch of missions in China. However, Jonathan had won such a place in the hearts of his fellow students that they committed to support him and establish a branch in China.

A Path Set With Sacrifice

The Goforths sailed to China in 1888 with a call to work in the Honan province. When Hudson Taylor, founder of the China Inland Mission, heard of Jonathan’s plans to work there, he sent this advice: “Brother, if you would enter that Province, you must go forward on your knees.”4 These words became the theme for the work in Honan.

Shortly after settling into a routine of language study, the Goforths’ home caught fire and burned before their eyes. Jonathan rescued a few belongings, but they lost many treasured items. This event brought a deeper severing of home-ties for Rosalind, whom Jonathan comforted by saying, “My dear, do not grieve so. After all, they’re just things.”5

Not only did Jonathan and Rosalind sacrifice “just things” in the course of their ministry in China. Out of their eleven children, five died in childhood, including their first-born daughter and second-born son, who were buried before their second birthdays.

Fresh Means of Evangelism

Jonathan Goforth was a man unbound by convention. He was willing to use new means to spread the Gospel, even when fellow missionaries did not approve. For example, when the Goforths built a home in Changte, they maintained an “open house” policy. Because of the Western interior design—and furnishings such as wooden floors, glass windows, and an organ—the Chinese were intensely curious about the house.

Jonathan and Rosalind led groups through their home daily, always preaching to the crowds before taking them on the tour. In this way, thousands of people heard the Gospel. When Jonathan traveled to villages to preach, he found his ministry greatly enhanced when people recognized him from the house tours.

Answers to Prayer

The Goforths experienced remarkable answers to prayer, including healing on many occasions, help with language studies, and protection from danger. The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 occurred in the midst of their ministry in Changte, and they had to flee from their home and make the dangerous journey to the coast.

They endured many threats along the way, and more than once they heard crowds chanting “Kill! Kill!” Once they endured a vicious attack in which Jonathan was nearly killed, but God provided a refuge for them. They eventually made it to Shanghai, and then back to Canada.

Faithfulness and Fruitfulness

On returning to China, Jonathan began bringing the Gospel to a new field. He felt led by God to take up a touring life—with the family. They would stay about a month in one location, carry on intense evangelism, and then move to another village to repeat the pattern. Rosalind disapproved because of the threat it would bring to the children’s health, but she later agreed to it and trusted God to care for them as they labored on behalf of his kingdom.

In this season, the Goforths rented whatever housing they could find in each village, often a one-room Chinese dwelling. In this setting, with the family about him, Jonathan continued his daily routine of study and prayer before going out for long days of evangelism. When space allowed, they curtained off a corner of the room for his “study.” If there was not space for this accommodation, Jonathan set his books on a windowsill, stood with his back to the room, and studied in this position. Years later, Rosalind could not recall Jonathan expressing impatience with the children or annoyance at the noise. “Mr. Goforth’s habits of study and prayer were as regular under these conditions as when at home in Changte.”6 At the time of his death, Jonathan had read through the Bible seventy-three times.7

God used Jonathan’s investment in these disciplines to lay a firm foundation for the next phase of his ministry. Longing for a fresh spark of the Holy Spirit’s work, Jonathan was impressed when he read of Charles Finney’s revival crusades. Jonathan began to study the Bible’s references to the person and work of the Holy Spirit, and soon he experienced a breakthrough in his ministry. He traveled in Korea, Manchuria, and China to lead revival meetings and present the Gospel to thousands.

Diligent to the End

In the final decades of their lives, Jonathan and Rosalind continued to invest themselves in ministry. They returned to China again and again, working as much as their health allowed. When Jonathan was 65 years old, he wrote in a letter, “Oh, how I covet, more than a miser does his gold, twenty more years of this soul-saving work.”8 He and Rosalind were opening another new field, where they helped establish more than forty churches.

At times when they were ill or faced recovery from surgery, the Goforths wrote about their experiences in China. Even after going blind in 1933, Jonathan continued to preach at evangelistic meetings with the help of a Chinese companion. Jonathan and Rosalind returned to Canada in 1934 and maintained a full speaking schedule until Jonathan passed away in his sleep on October 8, 1936. Rosalind continued to write and share the beautiful stories of what they had seen God do. She died on May 31, 1942.

It is evident that God equipped Jonathan and Rosalind to build his church in a special way. By his grace, they followed him with abandonment and endured many hardships in order to preach the Gospel and minister to the Body of Christ. Their qualification for this work did not lie in their own abilities, but in their dependence on the all-sufficient, all-powerful God to complete the good work He began.

Ruth Gulbranson lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she is a ministry assistant in the Family Discipleship Department at Bethlehem Baptist Church. She loves to read biographies and learn from the example of men and women who have found their greatest joy in knowing and loving God.

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Spring 2011.

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