Book Review: Goforth of China

Goforth of China by Rosalind Goforth is a book I have read many times, and I recently felt an urge to revisit it. It has taken me a while to talk about it, though, because I have so many places marked in it, it would be impossible to share all of them.

Jonathan Goforth grew up as the seventh of eleven children on a farm in Canada. Though an excellent farmer, he felt the call of God to go to China as a missionary after hearing someone speak on Taiwan. Jonathan’s mother was an excellent seamstress, but Jonathan was marked for teasing by his more urban classmates at college due to having home-made clothes and being somewhat naive and unpretentious. His fellow dorm mates went so far as to take new fabric he had bought to have new clothes made, cut a hole in it, put it over Jonathan’s head, and made him run up and down a hallway through a number of other laughing students. He felt afterward that this kind of behavior should be reported, but was told by the college authorities that it was just a harmless prank. It hurt him, not so much that this had been done to him, but that it had happened at a Christian college. Rosalind writes, “That night he knelt with Bible before him and struggled through the greatest humiliation and the first great disappointment of his life. The dreams he had been indulging in but a few days before had vanished, and before him, for a time at least, lay a lone road. Henceforth he was to break an independent trail. It is not hard to see God’s hand in this, forcing him out as it did into an independence of action which so characterized his whole after life” (pp. 31-32). By the time he graduated, he had the honor and support of the whole school, and many came to apologize for their actions that year. One particular student prayer meeting at a much-needed time helped make a definite change in his ability to use the Chinese language (told here).

College not only honed his intellect and forged his character, but it also was saw the beginnings of ministry as he reached out in various ways to lost people. He was a missionary long before he left the shores of his home country. He met his wife, Rosalind, as a fellow mission worker. Once when Jonathan left his Bible on a chair, Rosalind picked up his Bible. Finding markings throughout and the book itself falling apart, she thought to herself, “That is the man I would like to marry” (p. 49).

The Goforths headed to China at a time when the Chinese were greatly suspicious of “foreign devils.” Some of the stories circulated about the foreigners (such as the one that their medicine was so effective because it had the eyes and hearts of children in it, leading the people to fear the foreigners would kidnap their children) seem so ridiculous to read now and to think that anyone actually believed them, but suspicion was a great hindrance to their efforts to reach the Chinese. In an effort to counteract this, they held frequent tours of their home to let the Chinese see whatever they wanted to see (and sometimes the Chinese saw whatever they wanted to see by touching a dampened fingertip to the paper windows, making a peephole!) The result of one such incident I shared earlier near the end of this post.

The Goforths not only had to deal with everyday frustrations, but also major, heartbreaking trials. Four times in their ministry they lost nearly all their possessions, once by fire, once by flood, once during the Boxer rebellion (a harrowing time with a miraculous deliverance in itself), and lastly while on furlough when a new inexperienced missionary moved some of their belongings into an unlocked “leaking, thatched cowshed” (p. 211). After the last time, “when, in the privacy of their own room, the ‘weaker vessel’ broke down and wept bitter, rebellious tears, Goforth sought to comfort her by saying, ‘My dear, after all, they’re only things and the Word says, ‘Take joyfully the spoiling of your goods!’ Cheer up, we’ll get along somehow.'” He wasn’t being calloused: he had a generally faith-filled, buoyant spirit, while his wife had…one rather more like my own. The worst loss of all, though, that even shook Goforth himself was the loss of several children.

Despite and sometimes even through the trials they endured, God used them to bring many to Himself. Describing one of their evangelistic meetings, Rosalind said, “Oh, friends, who wrote in those days pitying us, would that you could have experienced, as we did day by day,…the keenest joy a human being can I believe experience, [seeing] men and women transformed by the message of God’s love in Christ” (p. 168).

Besides Goforth’s spirit mentioned above, one of his other major characteristics was his firmness of doctrine. Modernism was creeping into the church and eventually into its seminaries and missions, undermining its foundation, and Goforth saw firsthand the devastation it could wield on a person’s faith. He wasn’t afraid to speak out where he saw wrong, even if it wasn’t well-received and even (especially) when it infiltrated the church.

It was during such a time on furlough when some were even closing their pulpits to him that this was written, blessing my women’s-ministry-loving  heart: “Many times as he went throughout the churches he remarked on the blessed and powerful influence of the Women’s Missionary Society. When inclined to be depressed at the general deadness of the church, cheer and comfort would often come from the warmth of receptions given by the women” (p. 340).

God greatly used the Goforths not only in various countries in their own time, but ever since then as well through Rosalind’s writings. A few years ago Lifeline Ministries reproduced the original unabridged version of Goforth of China, and I was so glad to get it. Some years back Bethany House produced an abridged version titled Jonathan Goforth (which sadly doesn’t appear to be in print any more, but used copies can be found, or perhaps you can find it in a church or Christian school library). I’m afraid I’ve misrepresented that version in the past by complaining that the point of view switched from third to first person, but as I reread the original version, I saw Mrs. Goforth did that herself: overall she acted as narrator telling their story, but in some parts she slipped into the first person as she described particular incidents, especially those involving herself directly. It’s not as hard to follow, though, in the original: maybe some of the transitions didn’t make it to the abridged version. In many ways the abridged version is easier to read: the unabridged lists a great many names and places that wouldn’t mean as much to people not living at the time of the writing. My particular copy of the reproduction of the original has what appears to be some ink level problems: on some pages the print is very light, but on others it is very heavy, almost bleeding through the page. Hopefully they fixed that in subsequent printings.

Mrs. Goforth also wrote Miracles Lives of China (which I haven’t read), How I Know God Answers Prayer, and Climbing, one of my all-time favorite books. Jonathan wrote By My Spirit, telling of the revivals God sent to China. Another book which I haven’t read but which I think is geared toward children is Jonathan Goforth: An Open Door in China by Geoff and Janet Benge, part of the Christian Heroes: Then & Now series.

In an earlier post about why I love missionary biographies, I said, “There are heroes of our spiritual heritage who inspire us in love and dedication to God and to greater faith in remembering that the God they served and loved and Who provided for and used them is the very same God we love and serve today and Who will provide for us and use us.” The Goforths are such heroes, though they might balk at such a designation. Reading about them not only inspires faith but encourages us to follow in their footsteps of dedication. I hope you’ll read more about them.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

18 thoughts on “Book Review: Goforth of China

  1. Wow… This is a truly amazing story. Stories like this surely put things into perspective.

    I agree — they sound like heroes. This week I read Hebrews — the Goforths belong among the great cloud of witnesses.

  2. One aspect of Rosalind Goforth’s writings that I really appreciate is her frankness concerning her less-than-spiritual attitude at times. I can’t remember which book that records the incident where she disobeys her husband, but she openly describes her feelings, rebellion, and God’s working in her heart. (She turns around half-way to her destination and comes back begging her husband’s forgiveness.)

    You also might be interested to know that the Goforths were in one of the northern provinces (Henan–old spelling) during the warlords period. The warlord that was in that area was Feng Yuxiang, also known as “Christian General.” He would make his troops sing Salvation Army songs every morning. I read that Goforth held revivals in his camp; thousands got saved and were baptized with a water hose. During the warlords period, life was very difficult for the average Chinese, opium was prevalent, and crime was rampant. Because the warlords would fight against each other for supremacy, no one was really safe. Mission work today is much easier (living-wise) than in the 1800’s.

  3. This books sounds so interesting. I have friends who are missionaries in China so reading about this always peaks my curiosity. Have you read “City of Tranquil Light”? It also is about a missionary to China.

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