John Whiteford Stevenson was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on March 30, 1844. He was brought up in “the strict Sabbatarian” of Scottish Presbyterianism, but as a child he did not know Christ personally. Then a very dangerous illness when he was fifteen “turned his heart from mere formal religion to the real need of his soul, and he resolved, being spared, to live for God” (M. Broomhall 11). He began to read the Bible regularly and to pray, but he could not gain mastery over his sins, and lost hope of ever becoming holy in thought and deed.
Then a great revival broke out in Scotland, and he attended one of the meetings. The preacher assured them that God was able to keep those who trust in him from falling away. This was the first time he had really heard the gospel of God’s grace. He trusted in Christ then, the first of his churchgoing family to be soundly converted.
In 1863, Dr. John Paton, the famous missionary to the South Sea Islands, came to the town where he was attending school. Paton’s stories of missionary success, and his appeals for more laborers, “deeply stirred the young convert’s heart, and he resolved, should the way open up, to devote his life to the foreign mission field” (M. Broomhall 12). Immediately, he found a vocabulary of the languages of the South Sea Islands and began to study it. He read about missionary work in Madagascar, then India, but he was most impressed by articles and letters in a Christian magazine about the ministry of J. Hudson Taylor and James Meadows in Ningbo, China.
He finally communicated with Hudson Taylor, who warned him that service in China would be arduous and dangerous. “But it was not an easy berth that young Stevenson desired. His heart was on fire with devotion to Jesus Christ, and the strenuous and heroic therefore appealed to him… The stern realities of Christ’s call found an echo in the deepest and best places of the young Scotsman’s heart… It was not China, however, that fascinated him, but the need of China’s millions, and the command of Christ” (M. Broomhall 16).
He started reading everything he could lay his hands on about China. After a personal interview with Taylor, he decided to join his fledgling mission to Ningbo, even though there was no guarantee of a fixed salary. So, despite the accusations of his friends that he was being foolish, he headed for London in October 1864. While serving as a pastoral intern with a pastor named William Lance, he “transcribed the whole of the Ningbo romanized dictionary” and worked so hard at the language that before he left with Taylor for China, he was able to “read with understanding the romanized New Testament” of the Ningbo dialect that Taylor had helped to revise. He also transcribed for the printer Taylor’s enormously influential booklet, China’s Spiritual Needs and Claims (M. Broomhall 17).
John Stevenson married his wife Anne on September 14, 1865. A.J. Broomhall writes that he set aside “professional training” to go to China, but we are not sure what that was (6.314).
Early Years in China
Three weeks later, John and Anne boarded the sailing ship Antipodes for China. They were accompanied by Mr. Scott, another new member of the fledgling Foreign Evangelisation Society founded by Hudson Taylor and others. “Without any church behind them, without any guarantee of support other than the promises of God, and without the support of any experienced missionary… It was no small venture of faith, or ordeal to courage, to set forth to an unknown and distant shore in those early days” (M. Broomhall 21-22).
They reached Shanghai 126 days later and transferred to a small steamer that took them to Ningbo, where they were warmly welcomed by Dr. and Mrs. Lord of the American Baptist Mission. For the next six months, they stayed in the school building attached to their mission. Their firstborn son, Robert, was born during that time.
“Their first duty was naturally the acquisition of the language [Ningbo dialect], and to this end part of each day was devoted to study; while several hours daily were spent in visiting the city, the neighboring temples, and surrounding villages, in company with Evangelist Tsou, for preaching of the Gospel. In this way a good working knowledge of the language was speedily acquired” (M. Broomhall 23).
The pioneer spirit in Stevenson led him and his wife to the city of Shaoxing (then spelled Shaohing), about a hundred miles away. In May 1866 they rented property there. It “consisted of an old and neglected baker’s shop, supposed to be haunted,” and thus sold to them as the only possible buyers” (M. Broomhall 24). Though most unsanitary, the house stood at the junction of four roads, which made it strategically located for evangelism.
“The buildings were by no means commodious or comfortable, but pioneers are grateful for small mercies. In the upper story there were three low rooms, almost unbearably hot in summer, and these had to serve as bedroom, combined kitchen and dining-room, and study. Male visitors were received by Mr. Stevenson in the study, but all women guests had to be welcomed by Mrs. Stevenson either in the bedroom or the kitchen. The ground floor was reserved for a chapel, and from seventy to eighty persons could be comfortably accommodated there” (M. Broomhall 25).
Later, they opened a small school.
People came to the chapel from the beginning. They did not necessarily accept what the preacher said, and asked many penetrating questions, such as why evil came into the world. “Thus the meetings, far from being dull, were often enlivened by animated discussions” (M. Broomhall 25).
As was usual in those days and down to the present, the leaders of society spread all sorts of evil rumors about the Christian missionaries. Sometimes, stones came through the windows; occasionally, the school had to be closed. The missionaries did not let these demonstrations of official hostility stop their work, however. “We cannot take these things as any criterion of the people’s feeling towards us. In fact, in spite of every difficulty we are feeling very happy, and pray the Lord to condescend to use such weak earthen vessels as we are, and we shall then try through His grace to give Him all the glory” (M. Broomhall 26).
In addition to meetings in the chapel, they visited the tea-shops in the city, where they engaged the locals in wide ranging discussions. They also went into the surrounding countryside, not only to preach but also to distribute portions of the Scriptures in the romanized Ningbo dialect.
From these endeavors they eventually reaped some gospel fruit. Slowly at first, the converts came, one-by-one, but not without influence upon their families and friends. A baker who believed closed his shop on Sundays and posted a placard saying why. An uneducated boatman, after deciding to follow Christ, taught himself to read and eventually became a powerful preacher of the Scriptures. The wives of both these men, seeing the changed lives of their husbands, eventually believed also. A wealthy woman in her sixties got rid of her many idols and persuaded one of her friends to join her in being baptized. Ten people were baptized in 1868, to be followed by others in a steady stream.
In 1869 the city of Shengxian (then written Chenghsien), about seventy miles away, was opened as an out-station under the pastoral leadership of a converted shoemaker named Feng.
These advances were sometimes met with strong opposition, as the local officials incited the people to persecute the followers of the “new” religion. The believers persevered, however, and lasting churches took root.
A scholar named Ning, who had read some Christian literature, refused to believe the gospel until Stevenson said he would pray for him. This evidence of unselfish concern so moved Ning that he began reading the Bible and praying in secret. He was baptized in 1873; his wife and daughter received baptism the following year.
These and many other examples refute the oft-repeated charge that the missionaries sought only individual converts. In fact, they always encouraged new believers to share their faith with family and friends and to show by their transformed lives the power of the Risen Christ.
In 1874, forty-six persons entered the church by baptism.
From 1871, Stevenson had been afflicted with malaria, typhoid fever, and smallpox. At one point, he was laid up for nine months, but the churches he had planted flourished under capable Chinese leadership. Though he recovered, he was thereafter covered with deep pockmarks from the smallpox that had almost killed him, but he did not let this affect his mind. Instead, he continued to expand the ministries of the church. “The deep scarring of his face … was regarded by pagan Chinese as an asset, a sign of death-defying good luck” (A.J. Broomhall 5.380).
After three other missionary societies began work in Shaoxing, he gave “more time to the new churches “in Sheng Xian and Xinchang in keeping with the CIM’s policy to move onwards as others followed them” (A.J. Broomhall 5.376).
During these years, the Stevensons were blessed with five young children, all delivered by Hudson Taylor, with Jennie sometimes helping him. At least one almost died in childbirth. For their sake, as well as for the health of himself and his wife, Stevenson decided that they must return to Scotland on furlough, which they did in June, 1874. Indeed, Hudson Taylor considered that their return to Scotland was “a matter of life and death” (A.J. Broomhall 5.415). They left the church in the care of James Meadows, who served faithfully as pastor for the next forty years.
First Furlough; Return to Asia
While he was in England, Stevenson was approached by Hudson Taylor, who was recuperating from an injury. Taylor asked him to go to Burma to see whether he could open the way to approach western China from that direction. Though he did not want to abandon his Chinese friends in China, when he “though of Western China absolutely without the Gospel message; I decided that if it were the Lord’s will I would go” (M. Broomhall 37-38). Though he would be leaving Anne and the children at home, all of them were “enthusiastic about his venture” (A. J. Broomhall 5.432).
Accordingly, on April 6, 1875, he and Henry Soltau embarked on a ship for Burma. Their destination was Bhamo, nine hundred miles up the Irrawaddy River, but when they arrived in Burma in May, they discovered that the king of Burma had forbidden all foreigners from going to Upper Burma. After six months of studying Burmese for many hours a day, as well as the Chinese dialect of Yunnan, they - Stevenson, Soltau, and an American named Rose - finally received permission to proceed to Bhamo.
In Bhamo, they used medicine and kindness to win the friendship of the people. Here, they made friends with Chinese refugees from Yunnan, who readily received Scriptures from them. A year later, one of the chiefs of the “wild” tribes invited them to visit him in the hills. Thankful for this new open door, they made the journey and found that the people welcomed them openly. They “went from village to village, distributed medicine, and talk to the people. We carried no weapons. They all had their knives and spears with them, but we were protected and preserved by God, and were free from fear all the time. These wild men treated us kindly. They gave us the best they had. We slept on the floor the same as they did, and they shared their simple fare with us, and after six weeks on the hills they begged us to remain there to establish schools for their children, and said they would build houses for us” (M. Broomhall 48).
Back in Bhamo, they continued reaching out to Chinese from Yunnan. Stevenson learned the language of the tribesmen, but saw no conversions, because the people came through Bhamo on their way to Mandalay and then back to Yunnan. Still, interesting conversations took place; scriptures were circulated. In this way hundreds and thousands heard the Gospel, and scripture portions penetrated into West China.
After a six-month furlough in Scotland, Stevenson once again said “Goodbye” to his wife and children, who had remained at home for their education. He resumed working among the Chinese from Yunnan, always hoping that the door might open to enter China from the west. God protected them during those years. “They survived the cholera that took the life of the governor and Roman Catholic priest, and many visits to those bellicose hills. One night when Stevenson was unwell and stayed at home instead of going as usual to the clinic, a man was killed by a tiger on the road he would have taken, and another mauled. Fire destroyed the house next door but left their thatched house unscathed” (AJ Broomhall, 6.254).
Journey into China
In November 1880, a change in political conditions allowed him and Soltau to join a caravan of almost six hundred camels and four hundred Chinese, Shans, and Kachens on what would be an epic journey across China from west to east. On the way, they were introduced to mandarins by influential men who had visited Bhamo. In the hills near Zhaotong, “‘narrow tracks that skirted dangerous precipices, steep ravines, and narrow ledges cut in the face of the rock’ were too narrow for pack-loads to pass and too broken for travellers to stay mounted” (AJ Broomhall 6.257).
Outside of Wuhan, “they were surprised by a messenger from the city magistrate … [who] declared that a boat would attend them in the morning to bring them to breakfast in the yamen [official residence of the magistrate]. Sure enough they became his honored guests. ‘Throwing off all reserve, he chatted with us in the most friendly manner’ before returning them to their boat” (AJ Broomhall 6.257). This and many other similar incidents in the lives of CIM missionaries disproves the claim that they neglected the literati to focus only on the uneducated masses.
They reached Hankou, on the Yangzi River on March 25, after having traversed 1,900 miles. Along the way, they encountered only two mission stations, in Chongqing and Ichang, thus confirming the desperate need for more missionaries to come a share the gospel in the vast unreached areas of that land. In particular, they confirmed the opinion of other CIM explorers that Kunming would be a valuable base for outreach in Yunnan and that Dali “held the key to western Yunnan and the border tribes” (AJ Broomhall 6.258).
After a short stay on the coast, in July 1881 they returned to Bhamo where, once again, they struggled to see any results from their arduous and unremitting work. Stevenson was happy to host Archibald R. Colquhoun, and Indian government administrator and his companion Charles Wahab, who had traveled in China, when they arrived, sick and without money, in the company of a Roman Catholic priest in May 1878. “Mr Stevenson … immediately set about sharing everything he had with us. His house, his clothes, his food, and the last half-penny of the small stock in his purse, he placed at our disposal” (AJ Broomhall 6.265).
Finally, “the long and faithful labours of years were beginning to tell… [Writing in the summer of 1883, Stevenson reported that:] Today we have seen tangible answer granted by God to the prayers, labours, watchings, fastings, and tears of nearly eight long years. Two Chinamen, who had long evinced an interest in the truths of the Gospel, were today baptized in the Irrawaddy’” (M. Broomhall 54).
“The day after these baptisms, Mr. Stevenson, in response to a cable from home, left Bhamo for England, and thus closed another chapter in his missionary experience.” The years in Bhamo had tested him in a way he had not experienced in Shaohing, where “not a few persons [were] converted to God through his ministry” (M. Broomhall 55). These had been hard and lonely years of separation from his family: “the sense of solitude and isolation had at times been almost unbearable. So great was his longing for news that he would sometimes go down to the river’s edge and listen with his ear to the water, hoping to catch the sound of the steamer” that might be bringing mail (M. Broomhall 55). Illness had plagued him also, including jungle fever in 1881.
Furlough in Great Britain 1883 - 1885
Stevenson arrived back in Scotland in September 1883 after almost eight years of separation from his family and from the rest of the CIM. His return “synchronised with a period of rapid expansion and fuller organisation of the Mission” in the aftermath of the evangelistic and revival preaching of Moody and Sankey, “which found its climax in the outgoing of the Cambridge Band” – that is, the famous “Cambridge Seven,” a group of aristocratic and well-known men who responded to the call for more missionaries to go to China with the CIM (M. Broomhall 59).
“Into this great movement Mr. Stevenson threw himself both heart and soul,” doing all in his power to arrange meetings in Scotland and England for members of the Seven. “Reserved Scotsman as he was, he caught the flame of enthusiasm and received great blessing in his own soul, which affected the future of his ministry.” After attending meetings at Keswick with his wife and daughter Mary, he wrote to Hudson Taylor, “I have been experiencing a deeper peace and more power in my service. To God be all the glory” (M. Broomhall 60).
Events in China required Taylor’s speedy return. He felt he could leave Britain because John Stevenson was, “home from Burma, ‘filled with the Spirit’ in a way he had never experienced before, and proving to have a strong gift for administration.” Taylor now noticed Stevenson as a potential “lieutenant.” Previously, “Stevenson had been dour and withdrawn, until he put himself at God’s disposal,” but now he was ready to step into greater responsibilities. (AJ Broomhall 6. 350) He played a major part in arranging meetings for the “Cambridge Seven” at Scottish universities and then in England. These gatherings saw a huge groundswell of enthusiasm for missions in China and the CIM in particular, and proved to be immensely influential.
Return to China and New Responsibilities
In November, 1885, Stevenson once again said farewell to his wife and children and set off for China, expecting to proceed to Yunnan. When he arrived in Shanghai, however, he was met by CIM General Director J. Hudson Taylor, who asked him to serve as his Deputy Director in China. Constantly plagued by illness because of chronic overwork, Taylor had long wanted to delegate responsibilities to others.
Over many years of observation, he had found Stevenson to be “steady, reliable, indefatigable” (A.J. Broomhall, 5.344). “After years of being too taciturn to win the confidence of his colleagues, John Stevenson (who always had the ability) had become ‘a new man’. At the Keswick Convention, 1885, he had learned to submit himself to the will of God and be ‘filled by the Spirit’ and welling up with ‘the joy of the Lord’, his strong lead was welcomed at home in Britain as it would be no less in China. He could be brought at once to Taylor’s side and given a share in the administration” (AJ Broomhall 6.383).
Further, he and a few others “were the right kind [of men to help him] because they were examples to Chinese Christians and to younger missionaries” (A.J. Broomhall 5.391).
Taylor had earlier indicated his hopes to form a China Council, with area superintendents and a Deputy Director serving as China Director to visit places to which Taylor could not personally go and to lead the Mission in Taylor’s absence from China. Immediately after he agreed to Taylor’s decision, Stevenson was sent to distant outposts to call upon, learn from, and encourage the missionaries. In the process, he gradually earned the admiration and support of missionaries who had hitherto counted on direct access to Hudson Taylor.
In Shaanxi (formerly called Shensi), after several days of meetings with CIM missionaries, Stevenson wrote to Taylor:
“I am so overflowing with joy that I can scarcely trust myself to write to you. God has done great things for us up here. I do bless His Holy Name for the peace and joy that fills my joy, and also for the floods that have come down upon my beloved brothers and sisters at present in Hanchung [Hanzhong]. We had the full tide last night, and found it hard work to break up such a glory time. The Lord has given us all a wonderful manifestation of Himself these few days; but we are all satisfied that there are infinite stores of grace and power yet at our disposal” (M. Broomhall 62).
Concerning his new position as Deputy, he wrote, “The love and confidence the brothers and sisters lavish on me makes me feel humiliated and at the same time grateful to God. I do ask you to pray specially for me that I may not hinder the mighty working of God in me and through me by pride or self-will… I must confess that I have not been without some [doubts] as to fitness for such a weighty responsibility, [but] the Lord has confounded my fears and misgivings by the blessing He has vouchsafed to me and others here” (M. Broomhall 63).
From Shaanxi he proceeded to Shanxi, where he joined Taylor in visiting Pastor Hsi (Xi Shengmo). He had prepared a draft proposal for the course to be given new workers, including a very rigorous curriculum for Mandarin study, with which Frederick Baller had helped him. With very few changes, this course was adopted, and helped to set the standards for CIM missionaries very high and give them the reputation for excellence in language and culture acquisition for the next century.
Stevenson traveled with Pastor Hsi to visit the outstations that this outstanding Chinese leader had established. Of the Chinese believers he wrote: “They are warm-hearted and zealous disciples, and some of them are very joyful. I have learned many a lesson of simple trust and faith from them” (M. Broomhall 65). He was greatly impressed with what he had seen, but saw the crying need for more missionaries to come to evangelize the vast unreached population of China and train up Chinese workers. These two emphases: evangelization and equipping of Chinese Christians for ministry, remained hallmarks of the overall strategy of the CIM.
Returning to Shanghai, he attended the first meeting of the newly formed China Council, which then consisted of eight men plus himself. Taylor added oversight of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou to his overall duties until suitable superintendents for those provinces could be found.
At the close of the meeting, he wrote his first circular letter as Deputy Director. Among other things, he said:
“We cannot keep it too prominently before us that our great object is not the mere opening of stations or the multiplication of missionaries, but the salvation of Chinese men and women … We are sent by the Master to make disciple and to be fishers of men … and so, dear brethren, let us give ourselves to prayer and fasting that all unbelief may be cast out [from our hearts] by the mighty incoming of the Holy Ghost into our hearts” (M. Broomhall 66-67).
In this letter, he was the first to use the simile of the CIM being like “scaffolding to the building being erected, the Church in China” (AJ Broomhall, 6.386). When the building was ready in any location, the scaffolding could be taken down and removed to another place.
In this letter, he boldly urged the members to pray for God to raise up one hundred new missionaries in 1887. To the objection that the resources of the leaders where already stretched to the limit, he replied, “Yes, but with needs so great how can we ask for less?” (AJ Broomhall 6. 429). Gradually, not only Hudson Taylor but almost all the missionaries joined in this major new venture with enthusiasm.
A cable with that appeal was sent to the home churches. A year later, he could report, “He is answering our prayers for the hundred missionaries… The mighty Saviour is yearning with divine compassion over the lost and He has made by the gift of the Holy Ghost every provision to fit weak instruments such as we are to accomplish His purposes in saving the lost in China” (M. Broomhall 68).
In these words, we see his firm belief in the need for, and God’s promise of, the constant supply of the Holy Spirit to enable missionaries to serve him effectively.
The same spirit of reliance upon God shows up in a letter to Hudson Taylor’s wife: “The danger now is of being puffed up and a feeling of pride and self-satisfaction gaining a pernicious place, consciously or unconsciously. The feeling of independence is a serious danger and I do feel I need much prayer that I may really and truly every moment feel my absolute dependence upon God” (M. Broomhall 68).
Faithful Service from Shanghai
From this time on Shanghai became Stevenson’s place of residence and headquarters. He assumed his position at a time of unprecedented expansion of the CIM. Within ten years, the membership of the mission grew from less than two hundred to almost seven hundred. His administrative load increased accordingly. “Merely to welcome the new workers, and study their gifts and characters with a view of their future spheres of service, was no small task… And he did not welcome them merely as additions to the staff but as personal friends, not only on their first arrival in the field but whenever they subsequently visited Shanghai” (M. Broomhall 69).
“In August 1887 John Stevenson returned to Shanxi, to put before Pastor Hsi the suggestion that his opium refuges should be greatly in increased in number… [Funds were available from a generous donor] if Hsi would choose the places, run the refuges, find and train the staffs, and supervise the evangelism. Coming at a time when opposition to him was at its height, Hsi was encouraged… Reassured by Stevenson, whom Hsi admired, he accepted the challenge” (AJ Broomhall 6.412).
This major development highlights both the commitment of the CIM and Stevenson to indigenous Chinese leadership and the outstanding spiritual and leadership qualities of Stevenson, since Xi was himself a very strong personality and a spiritual leader of men. Always ready to see the work advance, he also spearheaded new stations in Sichuan.
As Stevenson matured into his role, he was never without the careful supervision and encouragement of Hudson Taylor, still very much in charge as General Director. He responded to Stevenson’s detailed business letters with sage advice and scriptural wisdom.
A man who worked closely with him for more than twenty-five years said, “Mr Stevenson had a great capacity for friendship… [B]y his kindly manner and friendly spirit he won many friends true and staunch, the enjoyment of whose fellowship any man might covet” (M. Broomhall 70).
As Deputy Director he kept up “a voluminous correspondence with the hundreds of scattered workers,” as he studied “the conditions and requirements of each station, [with] frequent demands upon sympathy, the giving of encouragement and counsel, the care and thought inseparable from the handling of personal and complex problems, the oversight of finance, and the thousand and one things connected with the daily care of the churches” (M. Broomhall 70).
In November 1888, his daughter Mary came to keep him company and assist him, but soon after her arrival “went out of her mind,” raving like a lunatic and tearing her bed clothes and sheets, being restrained only with great difficulty. Her condition ebbed and flowed, until she finally had to be taken home.
The Mission had grown greatly since 1890 by the infusion of new members, including those from associate societies, and the strain of administration told on Stevenson.
“On arrival in Shanghai [after a trip overseas] Hudson Taylor found John Stevenson utterly swamped with work and worn out although he had the very capable William Cooper [now Assistant Deputy director] and George Andrews to assist him. Stevenson was capable of more than most men, but although Hudson Taylor exhorted him to treat Cooper as a ‘junior partner’, he found it difficult to delegate to others” (AJ Broomhall 7.200).
Taylor feared for Stevenson’s health.
In September 1896 after a brief furlough he returned to China, again leaving his family. The strain was becoming too great for him. He “soon showed that he had been under heavy stress and was not really well enough to shoulder the burdens of his directorship in China. Before long he was at odds with Cooper” (AJ Broomhall 7.248).
In the summer of 1898, Taylor was urged by one of his advisers in England to appoint Dixon Hoste as his successor as General Director. His reason was Stevenson’s “brusqueness” and that “he is not liked” within the CIM (AJ Broomhall 7.276). Taylor thought highly of Dixon Hoste, who had assisted Stevenson and Cooper in Shanghai for some time, but “no one could work harder or keep his finger more efficiently on a myriad of matters at once” (AJ Broomhall 7.276). In addition, as the crisis in China intensified, “events were transpiring which would make the experience and ability of Stevenson irreplaceable” (AJ Broomhall 7.312).
Meanwhile, Taylor appointed Cooper as Visiting China Director, with power to act in Taylor’s stead in China. “Cooper, as an equal partner with Stevenson in responsibility in China, was to have supplied the personal touch, the sympathy and understanding that the dour Scotsman did not lack but found hard to show” (AJ Broomhall 7.341). When Cooper was away traveling, Dixon Hoste worked with Stevenson, who “welcomed and valued him” (AJ Broomhall 7.441).
William Cooper seemed to be the best man to replace Taylor, but he was later murdered during the Boxer Rebellion. Even before Cooper’s death, those close to him were anxious about Stevenson’s health.
During Stevenson’s long tenure as Deputy Director, there were “times of immeasurable stress, when riots and massacres and revolutions convulsed the country and endangered life and property” (M. Broomhall 70). Above all, the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in the summer of 1900 taxed his mental, emotional, spiritual, and administrative resources to the limit. Hudson Taylor was recovering from a stroke in Switzerland, but Stevenson did have the help of D.E. Hoste, whom Taylor had appointed to assist him, and of the China Council, who had assembled in Shanghai for a regular meeting early in July, unaware of the terrible chaos developing in the North.
He received “unbounded help and sympathy” from the acting British Consul-General. At the same time, “Consul-General Warren so valued and appreciated Mr. Stevenson’s counsel and conduct of affairs as to according him unusual powers and liberty in the giving of instructions to those [members of the CIM] who were in the interior” (M. Broomhall, History 248).
“John Stevenson lived until August 15, 1918, but never lost the sense of horror that he suffered day after day as the responsible leader in China during the Boxer rising – and for months afterwards, until everyone was accounted for” (AJ Broomhall 7.344).
Submission to Authority
One of the greatest challenges of Stevenson’s long career came suddenly upon him when Hudson Taylor, still very weak and recuperating in Switzerland after suffering from an apparent stroke, sent a telegram to him and to Dixon Hoste, announcing his appointment of Hoste “to act as General Director … during my incapacity” (AJ Broomhall 7.445). This “cable on August 6, 1900, struck both John Stevenson and Dixon Hoste between the eyes. Neither had any inkling of such a possibility,” partly because Hoste was much younger than Stevenson.
This decision had been made because, though Stevenson was “invaluable as senior administrator, the managing director in China,” he “lacked essential qualities required of a general director, the international leader and inspiration of the Mission … As William Cooper had already found, Stevenson was not good at working in partnership as equals,” so Hoste had to be promoted as General Director, at least provisionally (AJ Broomhall 7.446), In fact, Taylor intended for this appointment to be made permanent after everyone had adjusted to the sudden change.
Hoste sincerely felt that he was not qualified for the job, and declined to accept the appointment several times, but eventually had to bow to Taylor’s insistence that he was the right man to lead the CIM.
In a letter to Stevenson, Taylor affirmed his essential value to the CIM as Deputy Director; his duties, responsibility, and authority would not change. Taylor was sure that Hoste would do nothing to lessen Stevenson’s authority or diminish his standing in the eyes of others. “But not a few … have feared that [the Mission] would break up unless some change were introduced by which the members … could be bound to it by a uniform expression of sympathy that you are unable to show… Another thought in my mind … was the fear that you would break down under the long, heavy, strain, and that then no one would be empowered to act,” since Taylor was unable to return to China for the foreseeable future (AJ Broomhall 7.449).
After the initial shock had worn off, John Stevenson showed his true godly character. Hoste wrote to Taylor: “It … cost him a great deal, and I have been not a little impressed with the eminently Christian spirit and largeness of mind which he has displayed.” And a few days later, “Dear Mr Stevenson called me into his office a few days ago and, with tears in his eyes, told me that the Lord had given him not only peace about it but joy in the assurance that it was of God would be for blessing” (AJ Broomhall 7.451).
Another man close to the scene wrote, “I am deeply thankful (for) the manifest grace of God seen in (him). He has throughout shown himself to great advantage” (AJ Broomhall 7.452).
When Hoste’s appointment was made permanent in 1901, he and Stevenson, who greatly respected each other, had already learned to work well together as a team, and did so until Stevenson’s death.
John Stevenson dearly loved his wife and children, as his letters demonstrate. To his wife on the fiftieth anniversary of their wedding, he wrote:
Dearest Annie, Reviewing these years now past, I feel so grateful for all your steadfast faith in God and for the way you have put God’s claims and service in the forefront throughout the years, and also for the stimulus you have been to me to serve the Lord with my whole powers.
I recognise that in our married life your burden and self-sacrifice have been far greater than mine have been.
The toil and responsibility involved in connection with the upbringing our dear children has been very great – chiefly resting upon your heart and mind. Often, too, in weak health and not a little anxiety and perplexity, but with the Lord’s gracious help you managed nobly and with wonderful success, thus setting me free to give myself wholly to the Lord’s work in China.
I trust that you will have a happy day on this our golden wedding… I pray that God’s consolations will be with you now in your weakness, and also as you recall the sorrows and trials that He has permitted to come to you during these fifty years.
May God’s presence and love refresh you. With congratulations and thanksgivings. – Believe me, your affectionate husband. J. W. Stevenson.
On the same occasion, in response to a cablegram from his children and grandchildren, he wrote, in part:
I felt what a happy man I was to have such loving and devoted children and grandchildren. My inmost heart affections were stirred to their utmost depths in overflowing gratitude to the Giver of all good for the extreme happiness I had in those so dear to me. The cablegram is a very striking landmark on my pathway and will often be recalled with tender feelings and satisfaction as the shadows lengthen.
On the birthday to his oldest surviving daughter, he wrote:
“From earliest morning and all day thoughts and prayers for you have been affectionately occupying my mind and heart. How I have been thanking God for His goodness and mercy to you all these years.
A peculiar sense of tenderness, affection and solemnity comes over me as I think of you on this day.
And to the younger girl on her birthday:
I bless God for your birth and for all the years He has granted you to be a pillar of strength and comfort …
For myself, as the years go by, I feel increasingly my obligation to you, and words seem inadequate to express all I feel, and in my advancing years my lot is greatly softened by the regular weekly epistle which cheers and helps me to bear the loneliness and separation from my dear ones.
Clearly, he loved his family and longed to be with him. He wrote many letters to his grandchildren, also, filled with news of his life and details about what he saw on his travels.
Frederick Baller observed insightfully, “The official was largely swallowed up in the father, and to a very large number of friends he was a counsellor and guide” (M. Broomhall 83). In other words, his capacity for affection and love found expression in his dealings with fellow missionaries. That love was reciprocated.
One Scottish member of the CIM wrote to him shortly after her wedding, “This is not a formal letter to the Director of the Mission, but a little note of grateful love to one who has been as a father… What an enrichment it was to my life in friendship and in Christian love! Why should you have been so kind to a wee Scotch lassie? I cannot understand it, but I am deeply grateful all the same” (M. Broomhall, 84).
We cannot doubt Stevenson’s devotion to his wife and children or his heartfelt love for them. We read his letters, filled with piercing sorrow over the long separations from those he loved, with sadness. Clearly, he would only have tolerated such long absences from his family out of a conviction that he was doing God’s will. There is no question that God used him to bring blessing to the CIM and all who knew him.
A.J. Broomhall writes of his daughter Mary’s recurrence of “mania” in 1889. She had come out to help her father, but the stresses of life in China were too much for her. “Her brothers in Scotland had recovered, but the strain of work and sorrow were telling on their father. With his staff in Shanghai reorganised and strengthened, however, he agreed to stay on” (AJ. Broomhall, 7.146). Stevenson very reluctantly had to take Mary back to Scotland in March of 1890.
We might ask, why was Stevenson not allowed to go home and care for his wife and children in times of physical and mental illness? For his part, Hudson Taylor “had reached the dregs of endurance of seemingly interminable separations from Jennie and the children,” but “he feared lest John Stevenson break down completely, and must relieve him,” even if it meant another year away from his own family (AJ Broomhall, 7.148).
Considering the agony of Taylor’s own separations from his wife, we can only wonder that he would have requested Stevenson to be away from his wife and children for so long. What was it about the culture of Christianity at that time that would tolerate such violation of biblical teaching about a man’s responsibility to his wife and family?
At the same time, we must rightly honor Stevenson’s sense of duty and his utter self-sacrifice in following what he surely thought was God’s will for himself and his family.
“Though he had a large and understanding heart few men were less governed by sentiment than he. Strong convictions and practical considerations were the controlling forces of his life, and these were the secret of that steadfastness of purpose which always charaterised him. As a man he never spared himself, and was Spartan both in his spiritual and physical habits” (M Broomhall 84). When he became Deputy Director in Shanghai, he chose one of the smallest rooms in the CIM compound for himself and remained there even when others urged him to move to more spacious lodgings.
A man of few words, he was described as “taciturn” (A.J. Broomhall 5.232).
He fasted every weekend for several decades, until age and health considerations forced himself to relax that habit. “As a steward of all God gave him he was scrupulously careful in expenditure of money on himself, though he was generous in his ministry to others, his gifts often being anonymous” (M. Broomhall 85).
“‘Endurance’ can well be written across the whole of Mr. Stevenson’s career; a long and varied career, in which he has been ‘steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord’” (M. Broomhall, 4).
Nelson Bitton, a leader in the London Missionary Society, wrote of him:
Not many men have been gifted with a more striking bodily appearance than he. His Chinese robes were worn with an ease and dignity which stirred the Chinese to involuntary compliment as he moved among them. Yet he was obviously free from all self-consciousness as, both in matters of appearance and accomplishment. Through many years of friendship I heard no word of boasting or self-granulation regarding his remarkable travels… Though not an emotional man, there were no barriers to his heart, and for that reason many of us, men of other missions, found in him abounding Christian sympathy and wise counsel. He was characterized by charitable and wise judgement, sound knowledge, and a willing heart… Far above all he was a man of God. He prayed as do those who know God as an unfailing friend… Therefore he was, far more than he was aware, the succourer of many, and a source of strength to you struggling in Christian service” (M. Broomhall, xiii).
In a letter, Bitton wrote: “Once or twice he accompanied me on some of my wheelbarrow expeditions to the villages surrounding Shanghai, and the stolid way in which he walked on and on, and the wonderful friendship lines which he showed towards the Chinese, taught me many a lesson both in doggedness and adaptability” (M. Broomhall, 6).
Marshall Broomhall spoke of his “strength and resolution of character, fortitude and courage in the bearing of heavy burdens and of serious responsibilities” over many decades. “As Deputy to Mr. Hudson Taylor, and then to Mr. D.E. Hoste for the last eighteen years, he manifested without variation the same loyalty, and the same unswerving devotion to the cause to which he, as a young man, dedicated his manhood. Gifted with an accurate and powerful memory, he gained through his more than fifty years in China an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of missionary activities in the East … HIs mastery of facts was nothing less than surprising” (M. Broomhall 5).
He was intensely devoted to Hudson Taylor, who esteemed him a good friend. He was close enough to Taylor to see through his outward calm to “evidences of weeping” after Taylor lost his first wife Maria (A.J. Broomhall, 5.290).
His entire career was marked by “invincible resolution and unswerving devotion, and ‘plain devotedness to duty’ (M. Broomhall,7). This strength could become a fault, of course. In his earlier years, he was considered something of a “lone wolf” (A.J. Broomall 5.277).
And yet, this stern self-control and strict adherence to duty did not prevent him from expressing strong affection for others or for his Lord. Writing to CIM coworkers in 1916 in response to a letter from them congratulating hm on fifty years of service in China, he said:
My heart is deeply touched and humbled by all the love and appreciation manifested by my brethren both in and outside the Mission… Oh, to understand more of the infinitely compassionate heart of our Heavenly Father and of the wealth of privilege and grace He has bestowed on those who truly trust in Him… I have seen not only great changes during the past fifty years but have witnessed countless answers to prayer, and the guiding hand of God personally and especially in connection with the work of the China Inland Mission” (M. Broomhall 87).
M. Broomhall continues:
“Mr. Stevenson was never greater than during the closing months of his life. Though he had been blessed with a vigorous constitution, the evening of his days was clouded with pain, though this was made bright by his courage … These closing months were full of suffering nobly borne… He refused the drugs the doctor had ordered lest they might impair the clearness of his mind at a time when added responsibility rested upon him” (87-88).
John Stevenson died in Shanghai on August 15, 1918.
Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor & China’s Open Century. Book Five: Refiner’s Fire; Book Six Assault on the Nine; Book Seven: It is Not Death to Die. London: Hodder and Stoughton and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, 1985, 1988, 1989. Reprinted in two volumes, but without an index, as The Shaping of Modern China: Hudson Taylor’s Life ad Legacy. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library 2005. The original edition is cited in this article as, for example, “AJ Broomhall 1.121.”
Broomhall, Marshall, John W. Stevenson: One of Christ’s Stalwarts. London: Morgan & Scott, 1919. Cited as “M. Broomhall.”
_______________. The Jubilee History of the China Inland Mission. London: Morgan & Scott, 1915; reprinted by Ulan Press, Lexington, KY, 2012. Cited as “M. Broomhall, History.”