During his long ministry in China, Griffith John helped lay the foundation for a solid church. A powerful preacher, he emphasized the central message of the New Testament - “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He supplemented preaching with the written word by rendering English hymns into Chinese, writing many tracts, and translating the Bible. John also founded a hospital, a school, and a theological seminary for the training of Chinese Christian workers. Griffith John was one of the outstanding pioneer missionaries in China.
Griffith John was born in Swansea, Wales, on December 14, 1831. In a cholera outbreak in 1832, John’s mother died, leaving his father with four children. When John was eight years old, he experienced deep religious impressions and became a member of his father’s church, Ebenezer Independent Church. He also started preaching at a young age, and by the time he was sixteen years old, he was known as the “boy preacher.” In 1849, John lost his father to cholera. The pastor at John’s church helped him prepare for school, and he entered Brecon Independent College in 1850.
During his time in college, John developed a desire to work overseas. Two factors that furthered that aspiration were his reading of Isaiah 6 and the visit of David Griffiths, a former missionary to Madagascar. His Welsh college principal from Brecon recommended him to the London Missionary Society (LMS), saying of John: “He is a strangely winning and affectionate little creature, overflowing with kindness and sociableness, and a universal favourite…beyond comparison the most popular preacher in Welsh we ever heard…In intellectual power he is far, very far above the average of young men…” (Broomhall II, 291) John attended Bedford Academy in England for further training, and afterwards, he was accepted by the London Missionary Society. He initially wished to serve in Madagascar, but the directors asked him to go to China, and John agreed.
In 1855, Griffith John sailed to China with his new wife, Margaret, the daughter of David Griffiths. The journey took four months, but John spent his time preparing for his work in China. His regular course of study included the biblical languages, mathematics, natural philosophy (science), animal and vegetable physiology, and chemistry. His reading was wide-ranging and developed his convictions concerning God, creation, and salvation.
Many outstanding London Missionary Society missionaries were already stationed in Shanghai when Griffith John arrived, including Walter Medhurst, William Muirhead, William Lockhart, Joseph Edkins, and Alexander Wylie. Upon his arrival, John also met Hudson Taylor, who was to become a close friend of his over the years. Shanghai itself was not an ideal city in which to live for a long time, however. It had been opened to foreign trade in 1842, resulting in a crowded population, filthy streets, and a great deal of noise.
John’s first task was to tackle the difficult language, which was absolutely necessary for mission work. Within six months, he was beginning to converse in the temples and streets and distribute tracts. By the end of nine months, he was preaching in the chapels for half an hour or more “with considerable ease and fluency, well understood by his hearers.” (Broomhall II, 293) His skill in picking up the Chinese language was almost incredible; most foreigners took three to five years to attain the same facility John possessed in such a short time. Having grasped the essentials of Mandarin, John was ready to take on his second duty: taking the gospel into the interior. He visited a number of places, traveling as far as the Grand Canal with William Muirhead, but not without experiencing strong opposition. He also enjoyed some success, however. In the previously resistant city of Hangzhou, John was able to distribute six thousand New Testaments.
John was also determined to travel to the headquarters of the Taiping rebels in Nanjing, in order to share the Christian gospel with them, find out what they believed, and discuss religious liberty. Griffith John visited the Taiping camp on two occasions, first in April 1860, and later in November of the same year. John originally had sympathy for the rebels, but his encounters with the leaders slowly changed his mind. He realized that their beliefs were far from being Christian, especially concerning the person and work of Christ, and while the rulers were living in luxury, the people were dying of starvation.
In 1860, the city of Hankou was opened to foreign trade, and John realized there was an opportunity to engage in pioneer mission work there and even expand from that center. He and Robert Wilson, another London Missionary Society missionary, arrived in Hankou on June 21, 1861. John settled down quickly and was out preaching on his first day in the city. His early successes reveal his devotion to mission work, as he baptized his first convert on March 16, 1862; opened the first chapel on July 19, 1863; opened the first school on February 26, 1864; and opened the first hospital on September 3, 1866. John built a strong church in Hankou, which served as a nucleus for widespread evangelistic itineration into the surrounding provinces.
As in Shanghai, preaching was at the center of John’s work in Hankou, where he gathered the converts together and formed them into a church. John questioned candidates for membership himself, and if he was satisfied, he presented their names to the local church. He divided inquirers into three groups: those with pure motives, those with false motives, and those with mixed motives. Although some missionaries in China had a propensity to allow “rice Christians” to join the church for its material benefits, this was not true of John’s practice in Hankou. Opium smokers and “renegade Roman Catholics” were refused admission, while a person could be disciplined for non-attendance.
Griffith John was not hesitant to ask for financial support. He collected a monthly offering from the church, and between 1861-62 they had received enough funds to buy a piece of land for a cemetery and help two or three poor members of the congregation. Griffith John was angry when the LMS directors suggested lowering the wage of Chinese colleagues. John himself gave liberally to the work in central China, including about one thousand pounds to establish a theological college.
The tract was a well-known means of instruction in China, so missionaries made full use of it. Initially, they created tracts individually, but in 1875, The Hankou Tract Society (later called the Central China Tract Society) was established, made possible by a gift of fifty pounds from the Religious Tract Society in London. Griffith John was the president of this society, and they named their building, completed after John’s death, the Griffith John Memorial Building.
In writing his booklets, Griffith John depended on the help of his pundit, Shen. Their tracts addressed a variety of subjects; some were doctrinal and/or evangelistic, while others contained more practical teachings on morality. John attempted to relate Christian doctrine and science. He also wrote a Child’s Catechism, “Leading the Family in the Right Way,” which was a significant work. It appeared in 1882, one of the earliest attempts of missionaries to write this kind of literature in Chinese.
John devoted much of his writing to social and political causes as well, exemplified by such tracts as “Religious Toleration” and “Against Opium.” He was strongly opposed to the opium trade and was appalled that Britain was making huge financial gains while the Chinese were suffering, physically and mentally. He chaired a committee to present a memorial to the Royal Commission on Opium and published his responses to their questions.
After returning from Britain in 1882, John decided to produce a Wenli version of the New Testament (a literary style of Chinese which is more condensed than the Mandarin). He completed this version in 1885, and went on to publish a revised Mandarin version of the New Testament in 1889. By 1890, John had also completed the Psalms and Proverbs. He continued to translate other portions of the Old Testament into Mandarin.
One obstacle missionaries had to wrestle with was how to engage the various belief systems they encountered in China. Missionaries differed in their response to these faiths. Griffith John’s approach was to seek to “acknowledge what is true and noble” in another religion before dealing with what he believed to be its errors. He said that he did not remember a time when missionaries in China “regarded the non-Christian Faiths as absolutely wrong to be condemned in toto,” but rather they sought to present Jesus Christ as the “one Savior.” He regarded Confucianism as too conservative. Its moral emphasis could never change a person and make him a new creature. Mohammed was a remarkable man, but could not offer a Risen Savior or life in a glorified body in a new heaven and new earth. Laozi’s Dao De Jing, with its emphasis on reason, could never lead to a real knowledge of God.
John’s advice to his fellow missionaries was, “Preach, Preach, Preach.” He was convinced that preaching was God’s ordinary way of reconciling people unto himself. Although there were occasional declarations in the temples, the sermon was unknown in China. For John, preaching the gospel was the greatest possible kindness to the Chinese, because it meant “dispensing the bread of life to perishing men.” (John, 59)
John adapted his preaching method to various situations. During the week, he spent his time in the street preaching and distributing tracts. Sometimes, he would enter shops, gathering people around him to speak to them. Other times, he would sit outside the preaching center and speak to those who were willing to listen. The preaching center was open five afternoons a week, and people would come and go during these hours. John could choose to address the people briefly or he could continue for a long time. Reports refer to John preaching for two hours, and one mentions a sermon lasting three hours. At the end of the first hour, the listeners asked him to continue, and did so again at the end of two hours, but after three hours, John had to stop because he was exhausted.
John’s aim was to reach the common people in China. He found that the scholars were much more hostile to Christianity. He wrote of them: “It is impossible not to displease them. To preach is to insult them, for in the very act you assume the position of a teacher. To publish a book on religion or science is to insult them…This is the way that the literati think and feel with respect to foreigners and everything that is foreign…The spirit of this class is the resisting medium in China.” (Broomhall IV, 379)
Often, John would come down from the platform to join the people. He would throw out a question like, “Who is God”? Depending on the response from the crowd, he would continue to expound Christian doctrine. This method of “familiar conversation” appealed to him. If persons showed real interest, John would take them into the vestry, expound an aspect of the gospel, and pray. On Sunday, he concentrated on the believers.
A visitor described John’s preaching:
Dr. John keeps his Bible in one hand, with a sheet of notepaper containing an outline of his sermon; with the forefinger of the other hand he enforces his points. Sometimes he forgets his book and notes, and in the fire of his earnestness he speaks with vehemence, pacing to and fro on the platform; yet always carefully repeating and illustrating and applying his lessons in every possible way. It is a grand and impressive sight to see his power over these people. (Thompson, 183)
John could be scathing in exposing sin, but he did so in love. He knew his people personally—all their trials and temptations. The visitor mentioned above marveled at the fact that he was preaching in Chinese: “We forget that we are listening in Chinese. We feel the speaker is as grandly eloquent as ever he could be in his native Welsh or adopted English tongue.” (Thompson, 183)
John delighted in the opportunity to travel and preach the gospel. Describing his itinerating experiences, he wrote:
Its reflex influence on both the missionary and the mission is most healthful and stimulating. It tends to enlarge ideas, deepen the longings, intensify the ardour, and brace up the nerves of both pastor and people. One often feels at the end of a hundred or two hundred miles’ tour, having spent a fortnight or three weeks in preaching from town to town and village to village, that he could dare anything and endure anything. (Thompson, 221)
Spread of foreign commerce opened the way for John to extend the Christian faith to other stations. He built a house in Changsha, and soon a chapel and Theological College opened there. John taught courses in New Testament Studies and Pastoral Theology. He also oversaw the work of mission schools, where Bible teaching was a central feature. John’s first wife, Margaret (died in 1873), and his second wife, Jeannette (married in 1874, died in 1885), helped tremendously in the opening and maintaining of hospitals.
The greatest challenge that John had to face was taking the gospel into the bitterly anti-foreign Hunan province. Having played an important part in suppressing the Taiping rebellion, the people of Hunan were proud and renowned for their courage. John knew that it would be difficult to enter any place in Hunan, especially the walled cities. He persevered, however, and over the span of twenty-four years, he visited Hunan on eleven occasions.
Although his early visits met with strong opposition, he finally found a measure of success. A native of Hunan, Wang Lien-king (Lianjing), heard John preaching during a visit to Hankou and became a Christian. On his return to Hunan, he shared the gospel with others, and a small fellowship of Christians formed at Hangzhou. Wang, who became a self-supporting evangelist, shepherded the little fellowship in Hangzhou, but he wanted John to baptize the new believers. In 1897 John baptized twenty to thirty believers there, and by 1899, he had baptized 192. This was the beginning of the London Missionary Society’s work in Hunan.
Griffith John returned to London due to ill health at the end of 1911. He died in 1912, and was buried in his native Swansea. He had contributed substantially to the growth of Christianity as a pioneering missionary in central China and the founder of the London Missionary Society work in that area. During his ministry, he planted numerous churches. By 1904, one hundred London Missionary Society chapels had been built in Hankou and thirty-seven in Hunan. During the same year, the Central China Tract Society issued 2.5 million publications. The present-day hospital and college at Wuhan are clear reminders of his lasting legacy. John was highly regarded by missionaries and Chinese as an outstanding preacher, and deserves to be thought of as the “Spurgeon of China.” Many were influenced by his strong faith and enthusiasm for his work. He served his Savior with untiring zeal, and during his ministry, he sowed and reaped an abundant harvest.
- Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century. 7 vols: Barbarians at the Gates(1981); Over the Treaty Wall (1982); If I Had a Thousand Lives (1982); Survivors’ Pact (1984);Refiner’s Fire (1985); Assault on the Nine (1988); and It Is Not Death to Die (1989). London: Hodder and Stoughton and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship.
- Gibbard, Noel. Apostle to Central China. United Kingdom: Bryntirion Press, 1998.
- Gibbard, Noel. Chapter on “Griffith John” in Builders of the Chinese Church, edited by G. Wright Doyle (forthcoming).
- John, Griffith. China; Her Claims and Call. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1882.
- John, Griffith. A Voice from China. London: James Clarke & Co., 1907.
- Thompson, R. Wardlaw. Griffith John: The Story of Fifty Years in China. New York: A.C. Armstong & Son, 1908.