“Far Formosa is dear to my heart. On that island the best of my years have been spent. There the interest of my life has been centered. I love to look up to its lofty peaks, down into its yawning chasms, and away out on its surging sea. I love its dark-skinned people – Chinese, Pepohoan, and savage – among whom I have gone these twenty-three years, preaching the gospel of Jesus. To save them in the gospel I would gladly, a thousand times over, give up my life” (13).
Thus begins From Far Formosa, the closest to an autobiography that this remarkable missionary left for posterity. Like its author, From Far Formosa grasps our attention, rivets our mind, stirs our heart, and evokes our admiration. It is a volume not easily put down, and worthy of close attention.
Note: This beautiful island has always been called “Taiwan” by the Chinese. “Formosa,” meaning “Beautiful,” was the name given by the Portuguese who first sighted the island.
George Leslie Mackay (pronounced Mc EYE) entered the world on March 21, 1844, as the youngest child of George MacKay, a Scottish Highlander, and his wife Helen Sutherland, who had emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1830. “They made their home in what was then the wilds of Upper Canada, and on their farm in the township of Zorra reared their family of six children” (Formosa 14).
These hardy pioneers carved a home out of the forested wilderness, but they did more: “They worshiped and served the eternal God, taught their children to read the bible and believe it, listen to conscience and obey it, observe the Sabbath and love, and to honor and reverence the office of the gospel ministry. Their theology may have been narrow, but it was deep and high” (Formosa 15).
His parents inculcated in him their hard faith, as expressed in the Bible, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, Boston’s Fourfold State of Man, Samuel Rutherford’s Letters, and the Memoirs of Robert Murray MacCheyne.
“From his earliest years George opened his heart to eternal realities. If you had asked him when he began to love his Saviour, he could not have told you… From his childhood he was deeply impressed with things divine,” under the influence of their church’s pastor and of his parents (Macleod 52). Far from being boring, the Scottish Presbyterian sabbath was a delight to him. “The Bible was to him a constantly open book. To him the ancient prophets were real… He was a great lover, too, of the Psalms, which, with many other passages, he learned by heart. Before reaching his teens, he had also committed to memory the Shorter Catechism” (Macleod 53).
After completing elementary education quickly and with distinction, he went to high school in Omemee. “Mackay never shared in the sports. He preferred a book and the quiet byways and green meadows to the playground” (Macleod 53). At the age of sixteen, he earned a first-class teacher’s certificate, but he was already sensing that God might be leading him to serve overseas. He had heard about the progress of the gospel in India through Dr. Alexander Duff when he was only ten, but then William Burns, the famed missionary to China, turned his heart toward Taiwan. Afterwards, “Burns, of China, and China’s millions were in his mind day and night” (Macleod 55).
While serving as a school teacher, he spent his spare time reading about theology and medicine, in conscious preparation for his future ministry. He spent a year at Knox College in Toronto, doing what was called the “Preparatory Literary Course.” He did not graduate, but went directly to Princeton Seminary. “The only thing memorable about him was his devotion to his work,” as he became known for his “intense application and a determination to succeed. That habit of close, careful study was never discontinued… He had a [passion] for accurate information in every department of accessible knowledge,” including the natural sciences, as is evident on many pages of From Far Formosa (R.P. MacKay, Life, 5-6).
After completing his basic degree in theology, MacKay sailed for Edinburgh, where he studied under famous Scottish theologians, especially Alexander Duff, by then a white-bearded veteran, who was lecturing on foreign missions. When Duff toured Scotland again to mobilize young men for overseas missions, MacKay followed him around, drinking in his message. Finally, he made up his mind to become a foreign missionary.
Returning to Canada, he applied to the Committee for Foreign Service of the Presbyterian Church of Canada. The General Assembly accepted his offer and assigned him to China as his mission field. He was ordained on September 19, 1871, in Toronto. In the month before his departure, he spoke in different churches, but his youthful zeal and enthusiasm met with a cold response from most pastors and Christians. He did not allow himself to give in to discouragement, however. Clutching the Bible given to him by the Foreign Mission committee, he held to its words of commissioning as a missionary and, saying farewell to his friends and family, set sail for China.
“As the ship moved out, and later as it left the mountain tips on the horizon, a sense of deep loneliness, such as he had never before experienced, swept over him… ‘Sooner or later,’ he writes, ‘one enters Gethsemane; I found mine that day, and in the little cabin the soul was staggered for awhile’” (Macleod 59).
While on the voyage, he spent many hours studying a map of China, in addition to several missionary books.
First missionary term in Formosa (Taiwan)
After visiting with British Presbyterian missionaries in Hong Kong and Swatow, where he was urged to come and help out, Mackay sailed to Taiwan. From December 1871 to March 1872, he spent time with missionaries of the English Presbyterian Church in southern Taiwan. He studied conditions throughout Taiwan and decided, despite requests to remain in the south to assist the missionaries there, to go to the north, where he felt led by God.
He and another missionary, Hugh Ritchie, landed at Tamsui on Marth 9. Immediately, Mackay sensed God saying, “This is your parish,” which was what it came to be for the next twenty-nine years. He and two other missionaries from the south made an exploratory trip, after which he settled into life in Tamsui.
Almost from the beginning, he met with hostility and resistance. Before he arrived “wild rumors were in circulation about the ‘Jesus doctrine.’ It was reported that the foreign missionaries plucked out the eyes and hearts of all the converts after death to make medicine, that they sent men to the market-places to throw poisonous drugs on meat and vegetables. These, and other stories still wilder, were freely circulated. An idea that was prevalent, over which the people were much excited, was that foreigners came with the purpose of taking possession of the island” (Macleod 64-65).
We should note that rumors like this were spread about missionaries throughout China also, mostly initiated by the literati, who sensed that the new religion, if adopted by many of the people, would supplant their grip on the loyalty and obedience of the populace.
Soon after his arrival in Tamsui, and before he had learned much of the language, Mackay wrote:
I am shut out from fellowship with Christian brethren, yet I am not lonely or alone. I feel my weakness, my sinfulness, my unfaithfulness. I feel sad as I look around and see nothing but idolatry and wickedness and all the abominations of heathenism on every hand, and, alas! alas! for those from Christian lands [that is, Europeans living in Taiwan]. I can yet tell little about Jesus, and with stammering tongue. What can I do? Nothing; but, blessed thought, the Lord Jesus can do all things. He alone can comfort a poor worm of the dust. Jehovah is my refuge and strength. (R.P. Mackay, Life, 18-19)
His first task was to learn Taiwanese, which he found to be extremely difficult. To begin with, he avoided the company of foreigners as much as possible. At first, he asked his servant to teach him, but that did not work, so he went out into the country and made friends with boys who herded livestock. Spending hours with them each day, he developed fluency in the colloquial spoken language of the dominant and most numerous people group on the island. Later, along with colleagues, he developed a system of writing Taiwanese in romanized script, which was easy to teach and easy to learn. This written form of Taiwanese is still used by the Taiwan Presbyterian Church.
Mackay also studied Chinese characters on his own. He subsequently not only became a fluent speaker of Taiwanese but also compiled a 10,000-word dictionary, which was still in use fifty years later. In addition, he spent many hours studying the Confucian classics, so that he might refute the objections of the literati who challenged his new doctrine. He eventually became an expert in Chinese religion and culture.
First converts and helpers
While on the ship to China, Mackay had prayed for God to “give him as his first convert a young man of such gifts and graces as would make him effective in preaching the gospel.” Not long after he had settled arrived in Tamsui, a young man appeared at his door who seemed to be a direct answer to his prayer. Giam A-hoa “developed into a man of singular ability in every line of Christian work. He was a good teacher, and preached with clearness of thought and language… He acquired a remarkable knowledge of church law and order, and seemed to have minute acquaintance with all the affairs of mission work. Mackay put absolute confidence in A-hoa, and made him his lifelong companion” (Macleod 65).
Before long, A-hoa was joined by three other new converts, including Tan He, who became the first pastor called by a church to a settled pastorate. Another was Go Khoan-ju, who preached in North Taiwan for forty years. In February, 1873, five converts were baptized in the presence “of an astonished and frenzied Chinese mob” (Macleod 65). The next Sunday, with Mackay, they celebrated the first observance of the Lord’s Supper together.
Developing ministry, marriage
Mackay ministered to the bodies of the people to whom he preached as well as to their souls. He became an expert in extracting diseased teeth, which gained him much favor with Chinese and aborigines of all classes. Believing strongly in the value of medical work for the spread of the gospel, he asked the Foreign Missions Board to send a qualified physician to assist in the work. The Rev. J.B. Fraser, M.D., arrived in January of 1875, but had to return to Canada in 1877 after the death of his wife. Others were sent over the years, however, leading to the establishment of a strong medical component to the Presbyterian mission in North Formosa.
In May 1878, Mackay married a Chinese slave girl, 張聰明; Tiuⁿ Chhang-miâ, who was known in the West as Minnie. Explaining his unusual action to friends (and critics) at home, he wrote, “She is a young, devoted, earnest Christian who will, I believe, labor until death for the salvation of souls. My great motive in this is that I may be more instrumental in the salvation of souls” (Life 34).
“From her earliest years [Minnie] possessed a strong and attractive personality. Upon Christians who constantly came to their home she exercised a wholesome influence. Patient, humble and winsome, she was always a friend to the poor, and those in trouble never failed to find in her a helper” (Macleod 70).
“Training a native ministry”
“Mission work in North Formosa is dominated by the idea of a native ministry. The purpose is to evangelize the people, to enlighten their darkness by the power of divine truth, and to drive back the mists of error and the black clouds of sin that have through the past obscured their vision of the City of God. That is the purpose of all mission work. But in the carrying out of that purpose methods must be adopted suitable to the circumstances of the case” (Formosa 285). (“Native” here means “local,” as distinct from foreign; more specifically, it referred to both Chinese and aboriginal peoples.)
For Mackay, the main method of pursuing his evangelistic goal was the training of local believers. From the beginning, he had several reasons for making this his major priority. Locals knew the language and the culture; they were used to the climate and environment; they were quite capable of ministering the Word of God; and they were much more economical than foreign missionaries.
Mackay’s goal was the formation of a self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating church in Taiwan.
But the leaders must be thoroughly trained. “Let it be clearly understood that the [Presbyterian] mission stands for a trained ministry. Whatever good an uneducated minister may accomplish in Christian lands, he is next to useless among the heathen.” Be it foreign or native, the ministry that will command the respect of the people and will endure must be intelligent as well as zealous” (Formosa 286-287. Note that this policy differed from that of Hudson Taylor in his early years, though Taylor later began to require more formal theological education for new workers).
Such a training program did not require large buildings, libraries, and endowments, however. In the early days, Mackay met with his students – numbering from one to twenty - outside, usually sitting under a banyan tree. They spent the morning reading, studying, and examining. In the evenings, they went to some sheltered spot, where he would expound some passage of Scripture to the students. “They took notes, studied them, and were prepared for review on the following day” (Formosa, 287). Sometimes, they sailed north to the rocks near Keelung and spent the day studying and catching fish or collecting oysters for their meals.
As chapels were established we remained at each a day, week, or month, studying daily till 4. P.M. All were trained in singing, speaking, and debating. After four we made visitations to converts and heathen in the vicinity. Students were frequently invited to dine with their friends, and thus they had golden opportunities for presenting the truth. Every evening a public service was held in the chapel where we were.
A fourth method, and by no means the least profitable part of their training, was on the road in our traveling together. All manner of subjects were discussed – the gospel, the people, the way to present the truth, and God, the Author of all…
In all these ways, during the early years, and sometimes even since the college buildings were erected at Tamsui, the students were trained to become efficient workers fluent speakers, skilful debaters, successful preachers. The college is now [after 1882; see below] the center of our work, but whatever helps to develop the faculties of the students, to inform their minds, or chasten their hearts, is pressed into service. (Formosa, 288)
Two things from this passage strike us: The similarity between Mackay’s method of training and that of Jesus and Paul, and the later change to a residential form of education. Who can doubt which method was more likely to produce effective ministers of the gospel? One striking feature of Mackay’s autobiography is the frequent mention of having his students with him as he visited chapels or reached into fresh areas for evangelism. They saw him at work and at leisure, surely learning as much from his example as from the curriculum.
These trips accomplished two other major goals: They allowed Mackay to encourage and to supervise the native preachers in charge of the new chapels, and they took him to new areas for fresh evangelism and church planting (Rychetska 10).
Mackay’s curriculum included the natural sciences. Every day, students were required to collect samples of rocks, plants, flowers, small sea creatures, insects, etc., for inclusion in the museum at Tamsui, which became a major teaching resource for this all-around training program. He loved to show how the created order pointed to the existence of a wise and all-powerful Creator.
In 1880, Mackay returned to Canada on furlough. After he had rested a bit, he began receiving calls from churches inviting him to visit them. Writing forty years later, one of his biographers described Mackay’s impact on his hearers:
It is safe to say that never in the history of our Canadian missions has there been a missionary who could rouse the emotions of his hearers as could Mackay of Formosa. Few could rise to such a high pitch of missionary enthusiasm and genuine eloquence. “We heard Mackay of Formosa and will never forget him” is the testimony to this day of men who were thrilled by his appeals. His presence on the platform, his characteristic gestures, his black, piercing eyes, his passionate utterance and his complete self-abandonment moved people intensely. The burning fire within his own soul kindled many hearts. (Macleod 73)
Another records: “He went through the Church like a whirlwind, and his reception was everywhere an ovation” (Life 9).
A brilliant “scholar”
Recognizing his multifaceted intellectual accomplishments, Queen’s University conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity. (In those days, this honorary degree was usually given only to those who had produced publications of outstanding academic value or had otherwise demonstrated unusual theological knowledge and insight.)
Mackay certainly deserved this honor. Reading From Far Formosa, one sees the results of his powerful intellect, meticulous observation, detailed notes, and Christian insight. He writes with the eye of a naturalist, describing and categorizing dozens – perhaps hundreds – of species and varieties of plants and animals. Clearly, he remembered the geology, geography, botany and biology he had studied in school.
Long years of travel and close association with the residents of Taiwan furnished him with abundant materials to record in great detail the lives of the Chinese Pepohoans, and mountain “savages.” (Though considered highly offensive today, the term “savages” referred to tribal people who were headhunters and who engaged the grossest forms of violence towards those outside their immediate clan; they were entirely uncivilized.) We learn about their social organization and government, religion, dress, food, agriculture, manufacture (by the Chinese), history, warfare, marriage and burial customs, the life of women – and much more.
That much, perhaps, a highly trained anthropologist could have told us. What Mackay adds opens our mind’s eye to the heart and soul of these varied peoples. Clearly, he bemoans their hard life – especially that of the mountain headhunters, and particularly of their women – but even more their spiritual darkness. His heart breaks over their ignorance of truths that would bring them new life now and eternal life hereafter. After finishing his chapter “With the Head-Hunters,” this reader broke down and wept, feeling the compassion of Mackay’s great heart for the multitudes who did not know God.
As a writer, Mackay excels. His book, which was taken from masses of notes and diaries given to the editor, is a very personal, powerful, and passionate narrative. We come away unsurprised that he produced a profound impact upon those who read his letters and From Far Formosa or heard him while on furlough.
While on furlough, Mackay had been planning to establish a training institution for Chinese Christian workers. The Mackays sailed for Taiwan in November, 1881. Within six months after Mackay’s return from furlough, the building opened with the name Oxford College, after Oxford County in Canada, where his friends had raised money for the new school. The opening ceremonies included the presentation of twenty-four sewing machines for the wives of Mackay’s trained helpers, a gift from a Christian in Canada. It was also announced that money had been donated for the construction of a hospital in Tamsui and a chapel in Bang-kah.
The building contained classrooms, a library, a museum, and accommodations for fifty students, two faulty, and their families. Perhaps influenced by his memories of the beautiful campus at Princeton University, around the college building and the girls school that was not far away, Mackay planted evergreen trees and oleander bushes. On the low wall that surrounded the grounds, he planted flowers of many varieties.
My evenings at Tamsui are sometimes spent walking round and round the paths among the trees and groves, exercising, superintending, meditating. The order and beauty are refreshing, and the fine appearance of things is a help to the college. Chinese people and officials visit, wonder, and admire; converts walk around and rejoice. Is such a part of mission work? Yes; most emphatically, yes. I, for one, went among the heathen to try to elevate them by making known to them the character and purposes of God. Our God is a God of order. He loves beauty, and we should see his handiwork in trees, plants, and flowers; moreover, we should endeavor to follow the order which is displayed so visibly throughout the God-created, star-studded universe. (Formosa, 293)
(The writer of this story had a similar experience on a visit to a theological college in India. The grounds were so neat, orderly, and adorned with flowers that local school teachers would bring their students to enjoy this place of calm and loveliness.)
As for the contents of study, he records: “The Bible is our great text-book. Biblical geography and history are studied with special reference to Judea, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Syria, Arabia, Jerusalem, Rome, Babylon, Nineveh, Corinth, Ephesus. Courses of study are followed in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. A study is made of the lives of the great men of the Bible. Attention is given to the zoology, botany, and minerology of Bible times. Nor are modern sciences neglected. Due prominence is given to all the important subjects in the curriculum of a Western college. Special attention is given to the systematic study of the doctrines of God’s Word” (294). In addition, students had to memorize large portions of the Bible, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Psalms and hymns in the hymnal.
Mackay and his colleague (if he had one at the time) lectured from one to six times a day. Evening meetings featured not only a lecture on the Bible, but much singing, with lessons on how to read and music and to sing led by the students, who also gave five-minute talks that were critiqued by their classmates. Constant review, recitation, and critique kept the students attentive. Mackay “was always animated and impatient of dullness in the class-room” (Life 29).
Mackay’s joy in hearing these young people sing knew no bounds: “Would that some echo of those soul-stirring songs of praise – many of them mountain airs [tunes] – could reach my native land! In the midst of care, sickness, and toil, what an inspiration to hear those converts from heathenism, many of the preparing to carry Christ’s blessed evangel into the darkness from which they have been led, ring out on the midnight air ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’” (Life 206).
The Girls School
Mackay somehow found out about the unhappy and extremely circumscribed life of the average Chinese woman in Taiwan. Hobbled by their little bound feet, secluded with other women in their homes, they were mostly uneducated, ignorant, and oppressed. They were also captive to superstitions and idolatry, not to mention often disease-ridden. Confined to the interior rooms of their homes, they were almost impossible to reach with the gospel.
Mackay believed strongly that most foreign women would not be able to survive in the climate and malaria-infested plains of Taiwan. In addition, he describes in detail how foreign women would take many years of language study before they could share even the rudiments of the gospel with Chinese women, and even longer to become acquainted with Chinese customs and etiquette. For these reasons, he discouraged his mission board from sending married missionaries to Taiwan. Instead, he planned to rely on the Chinese and tribal men whom he was training, and on Chinese Bible women to reach their female counterparts.
For the latter purpose, he founded a Girls School to train future Bible women, funded by donations from the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Its building was the same size and shape as Oxford College, and was located not far from it on the same grounds. Usually, a Chinese pastor and his wife lived on the campus, along with one or two mature Chinese Christian women. Together with advanced students in the school, they taught the younger women and girls. Within a short time after the school opened in early 1884, graduates were bringing the good news of Christ into homes, bringing light and new life to women in Taiwan. Sometimes, these new converts were able to bring their entire families to Christ.
The curriculum was based on the romanized version of the Taiwanese colloquial Bible. This alphabet could be easily learned, whereas Chinese characters were beyond the reach of most women. They were “taught reading, writing, and singing, bible history and geography, the Scripture catechisms” (Life 306). They also attended lessons at Oxford College during the day and took part in recitations and other exercises in the evening. They were instructed also in teaching methods, preparing them to instruct other women in the Scriptures. As they joined the ministry at chapels around northern Taiwan, the graduates greatly assisted the preachers there.
We should note that, unlike Presbyterians in southern Taiwan and elsewhere, Mackay did not consider education a primary means of evangelism. He aimed, rather, to train both men and women as evangelists, preachers, and pastoral workers.
Mackay found that his colleague Mr. Junor had managed mission affairs quite well while he had been gone, but in December of 1882, Junor, who had contracted malaria, was “broken down nervously and physically,” and had to return to Canada.
Medical work and the hospital
“From the very beginning of our work in Formosa heed was given to the words and example of the Lord, and by means of the healing art a wide door for immediate usefulness was opened. No part of my preparatory training proved more practically helpful than the medical studies pursued in Toronto and New York. I found the people suffering from various ailments and diseases, and the power to relieve their pain and heal their diseases won for the mission grateful friends and supporters” (Life 308).
Note that Mackay’s primary impetus for treating illnesses was to imitate Jesus Christ; the secondary effect was gaining interest in the gospel message.
Having acquainted himself with the most common ailments in Taiwan and with Chinese medicine, Mackay believed even more in the value of even the simplest remedies from the West. Malaria caused more suffering than any other disease. In addition to quinine, Mackay found that a drink made from dried lemons, plus “a liquid diet, exercise, and fresh air,” if continued for a long time, brought substantial relief.
The other malady that presented the most opportunities for rendering immediate relief was an almost-universal presence of toothache, from severe cases of malaria or from chewing betel-nut. At first, Mackay had had only primitive, hand-made instruments, but he could still extract teeth quickly and easily, to the delight and astonishment of Chinese, who were then most willing to listen to a gospel presentation. Later, the finest instruments from New York made his work even more effective. When From Far Formosa was written (1895), he had taken out over twenty-one thousand teeth; his students and native coworkers had pulled an equal number.
Though the mission treated patients in all the places they visited, the headquarters of the medical work became, after 1880, the Mackay Hospital in Tamsui. It was so named at the request of a Mrs. Mackay of Detroit, who provided the initial funding for the project as a memorial to her husband, Captain Mackay. Foreign doctors resident in Taiwan, including missionaries from Canada, provided Western medical expertise and leadership.
Not all patients were cured, of course, nor were all who heard the message of Christ while at the hospital converted, but “large numbers were cured … many more were relieved, and the services rendered made them much more kindly disposed toward the mission. Many became converts themselves, and their example told with their relatives and friends. The reflux influence of all this medical work cannot be estimated” (Life 317).
Interestingly, unlike some missionaries, including some Presbyterians in the south of Taiwan, Mackay did not attribute healing to God’s intervention, but to the use of “means,” that is, scientific medical treatment.
In 1882, there was a mass movement to Christ of Pepohoans on the Gira Plain of the east coast of Taiwan. Mackay sent an urgent request to the Mission Board in Canada for money to build two chapels, which was immediately done. The Pepohoans there were fast dying out, or being assimilated by the Chinese, so this seemed to be God’s timely act of mercy to them.
Mackay did not himself destroy idols or the paraphernalia of idol-worship. Upon hearing of the one true and living God, individuals, families, and entire villages spontaneously burned or otherwise disposed of their former “gods.” On at least one occasion, a temple that had been built at considerable expense for the worship of a pagan god was turned into a chapel for Christian worship.
In 1886, Mackay made a ten-day trip with a Hoa to the east coast, where he had a standing invitation to preach. “Multitudes were assembled to hear him, and he challenged them to give up their idols there and then. Boys were sent around with baskets to gather up their idols, mock money, incense sticks, etc., for a bonfire. They vied with each other in kindling the pile. One chief took special delight in poking the burning objects of worship” (Life 45).
After they took possession of Taiwan, the Japanese required the tribal peoples to take Chinese-style surnames. When the Kavalan people (噶瑪蘭) adopted Christianity, many of them took Mackay’s Taiwanese surname “Kai” 偕 (or Kay) as their surname.
Developing a Chinese ministry
In 1883, the Rev. John Jamieson and his wife reached Taiwan as replacements for the Junors, just at the time when Mackay was turning his attention even more intentionally toward the development of a native ministry, something he had always thought was preferable to relying on missionaries. In the spring of 1884 he ordained two preachers, Giam A-hoa, his first convert, and Tan He, one of the first five who had been baptized in 1873.
After their ordination, Mackay wrote to the Foreign Mission Board not to send any more missionaries, since he “longed to see a native church self-supporting” (Macleod 80). Though his associates agreed with him, they did not think that this goal could be quickly attained without the help of more missionaries, which proved to be the case.
At the close of From Far Formosa, Mackay did what many, perhaps most, missionaries failed to do (Hudson Taylor being an exception, as he so often was): He credited by name the Chinese and tribal preachers whom he had trained and set in charge of the sixty chapels spread throughout northern Taiwan. Clearly, he valued each one and wanted each one to be personally recognized.
The French attack on Taiwan
France and China had been in conflict for some time. In August 1885, French warships appeared off Keelung. In October, they came to Tamsui harbor, which they blockaded. The British Consul advised that Mrs. Mackay and the children, the Jamiesons, and two English ladies proceed immediately to Hong Kong for safety. Mackay would not leave his converts in such a crisis, but while the French were bombarding the fort and town of Tamsui, he suffered an attack of cerebral meningitis, which rendered him unconscious for several days. He heeded medical advice and sailed to Hong Kong.
Because of the French blockade, he could not return to Taiwan as soon as he had recovered. This grieved him deeply, especially as he learned of the destruction of mission properties and chapels and the killing of many inhabitants of Taiwan: “O, to be there and die, if need be, with the poor people for whose salvation I have had the privilege of laboring so long!” (Life, 39).
After the blockade was lifted, he quickly returned, finding that the buildings of the mission had suffered considerable damage, not just in Tamsui but elsewhere. He sent a request to the senior Chinese official, General Loo, and was granted $10,000 as an indemnity. With these funds, he rebuilt the old buildings and built new chapels in three places. The work of the mission surged forward. “After the smoke had passed away, he wrote home, ‘Nec tamen consumebatur’ (‘But [the bush] was not consumed,’ referring to Exodus 3:2)” (Macleod, 82). The fires of affliction did not destroy God’s church, but purged it for greater advance.
“His energy and powers of endurance seemed almost preternatural. While superintending the work of 200 men, employed on the erection of these [new] churches, he dispensed medicines to hundreds, preached daily, taught the students at night, and in the three months traveled 1,600 miles on foot” (Life 41). He also reviewed progress reports from the preachers at different chapels.
“His teaching from the living Word was living, always nourishing. Busy from daylight to dark, when did he make his preparation? Much of it was made when others slept. He required but three or four hours’ sleep out of the twenty-four” (Life 43).
After Mr. Jamieson died in 1891, Mackay wrote to the Foreign Missions committee asking for someone to come help him. William Gauld had heard Mackay speak when he was sixteen and immediately said to his brother, “I’m going to be a missionary.” The Committee approved him for work in Taiwan.
Upon the arrival of the Gaulds, Mackay and his wife prepared to return to Canada for their second furlough. The Taiwanese Christians sent them off with a huge fanfare, eliciting these words from Mackay: “Wonderful! Wonderful! The changes these eyes have seen in twenty-one years!” (Macleod 83). He was referring to the hostility with which he had been received in earlier years, compared with the affection and honor demonstrated by converts and others, including high officials who had previously spurned him, when they left for home this time.
By now the Mackays had three children: Mary “Tan” Mack, Bella “Koa” Mackay, and George William Mackay. They took a Chinese student of Mackay’s with them, Koa Kau, who later married Bella and served for several years in the hospital Mackay had founded.
“Now in the prime of life, Mackay maintained all the splendid vigor and intensity of his young manhood. Very reserved and extremely sensitive, to many ministers at home he was a mystery, but though they might consider him eccentric or peculiar, they admired him” (Macleod 85). During this second furlough, which ended in October 1895, Mackay was elected moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
In the following year, he travelled about Canada, telling the story of his mission in Taiwan and seeking support for it. This activity highlights one of Mackay’s major goals in writing From Far Formosa: to “foster interest in missions within Canada. Thanks to his approach and his book, foreign audiences supported not only Mackay’s mission but also that of other missionaries in Asia” (Macleod 85).
During his furlough, war broke out between China and Japan, the result being that Japan took possession of Taiwan in 1895. The Mackays returned to Taiwan in the fall of that year, very thankful to find that the Gaulds and the Chinese pastors and elders had managed the churches well in their absence. The Japanese “were friendly disposed towards the Christians, and the work was allowed to go on unhindered” (Macleod 85).
The Gaulds went on furlough in 1899. During their absence, Mackay became ill with cancer of the throat, the disease that would eventually take his life. Physicians in Hong Kong whom he consulted declared that his condition was incurable.
To the very end, he fought the disease like a lion recently caged. Those who were privileged to see him in those days claimed they had never seen such vitality displayed in any human being. He could not speak plainly, but he had the lectures read to the students in his presence. One day Dr. McClure gave him a hint that there was a possibility of the disease doing rapid work and that the end might be near. Leaving him, he went over to Mr. Gauld’s house. From there, looking toward Mackay’s house, they saw the dying man on the verandah, pacing up and down, waging the final, desperate fight with the last enemy.”
Mackay died on June 2, 1901.
He left behind a mission in northern Taiwan that included “one foreign missionary and his wife, two native pastors, sixty preachers, twenty-four Bible women, nearly eighteen hundred communicants and sixty chapels, of which more than half were established n Pepohoan villages… This fruitage is the more remarkable when one remembers that it was the fruitage mainly of the labors of one missionary, together with his native helpers” (Macleod 90).
When he spoke in Canada, the United States and Scotland in 1895, “everywhere and on all occasions the impression made was that of a great man and a hero” (Mackay 3). The grandson of a man who had fought with Cromwell against Napoleon at Waterloo, “George Leslie Mackay all his life carried with him, not only the bearing of a Highland solder, but the authority of a Highland chieftain” (Macleod 51).
People urged him to write a biography, but he shrank from the task. “To a man of his ardent temperament and active habits prolonged literary work is the most irksome drudgery. He would rather face a heathen mob than write a chapter for a book” (Mackay 4). His “autobiography” issued from a huge number of notes, diaries, letters, etc., that he gave to Macleod to forge into a coherent narrative.
The editor of From Far Formosa wrote of “the vigor, the boldness, the Celtic enthusiasm, so characteristic of Dr. MacKay’s public speech” (Mackay 4). After spending several months in close association with Mackay, he described him as a “man of indomitable energy, unflinching courage, and iron will” who nevertheless shrank “from anything like self-assertion. To see his modest self-effacement, and to know how real his faith is, how personal God is to him, is to grasp the secret of his success. Few men in any age of the church have had a vivider sense of the divine nearness. The God he serves is a pavilioning presence and a prevailing power in his soul. Such a prophet is Christ’s greatest gift to his church” (Mackay 5).
During his first furlough, a church journal called The Record reported: “Doctor Mackay is a prince among missionaries, possessing, in a marked degree, self-denial, tact, courage and enthusiasm beyond most men” (Macleod 74).
One of his biographers wrote:
Dr. Mackay was not more nearly perfect than many others. His zeal many times overcame his judgment; he saw wonderful things where many others saw only the ordinary; he had a graphic way of telling stories and describing events; he loved the mountains and gorges and disliked the plains and the common places. His fiery temperament sometimes led him into difficulties, but he could never retrace his steps or accept defeat. He was a soldier by nature, a commander who seldom consulted his subordinates. He never displayed organizing gifts, for his own inspiring personality was strong enough to be the sum total of the organizing factors of his whole mission work. He created, perhaps, more awe than affection, more admiration than appreciation but this was inevitable in a character so reserved and so far removed from the close companionship of others. (Macleod 91)
“Mackay seldom, if ever, met a person on whom he did not leave a lasting impression, many of which are on record.”
“High over all other features of his character, redeeming him from littleness, ennobling his nature, adding force to his faith and making his life a factor in the Church’s history, was his simple trust in God, his unquestioning belief in an evangelical Gospel, his deep-cut conviction as to his own life work, and as to the mastership of Jesus Christ in the lives of men, unreserved enthusiasm, passionate surrender of himself to Jesus as Redeemer and King. Brave little man…”
“He was a little man, firm and active, of few words, unflinching courage and one whose sound common sense was equaled only by his devotion to his Master.”
“To me, Dr. Mackay shines out as one of the greatest missionaries of any age” (Macleod 92).
“From the absence of any reference to Mackay’s sense of humor, one is led to conclude that he did not possess too much of this wholesome virtue. He always appeared serious, not only in the presence of foreigners, but also among the Chinese. He was very sensitive” (Macleod 92).
As for his appearance and personality, one biographer wrote:
He was rather under the medium height, compactly built, deep-chested and of swarthy complexion. His eagle eye was mild and benevolent except when kindled with righteous indignation, as when, for example, discussing the treatment accorded to the Chinese by so-called Christians in America. Then his intensity was unrestrained. He sometimes lost control of himself and became painfully violent. He inherited a hardy, healthy constitution, which was never weakened by irregular habits and proved capable of extraordinary endurance when severely tested” (Life 4).
“The words that move men are the words of burning conviction, the whole-hearted and unwavering faith in the central verities of the gospel. That appeared in every utterance from Mackay, whether by voice or pen” (Life 8).
That biographer further described his personality thus:
Social qualities: He could scarcely be described as social. Reserved even among his friends, among strangers he was often silent… He life work might have been enlarged, had he been able to give the benefit of his personality and experience more freely to other equally faithful, if less gifted, fellow laborers. But he was not so constituted. He had an affectionate nature… He was an intense Canadian and devotedly loyal to the British flag. Yet he married a Chinese wife, identified himself with the Chinese people and loved them as his own…He had a tender, transparently sincere and lovable nature, and he was most loved by those who knew him best. (Life 9-10)
One of his biographers records Mackay’s point-by-point description of how God had answered his prayers, one by one, and comments, “Mackay had found the key to the missionary problem” (Life 48).
Some have charged Mackay (and other missionaries in China and Taiwan) with being primarily agents, even tools, of Western imperialist powers. It is true that they benefited from the treaties that granted freedom of religion to Christians and certain rights for missionaries. Sadly, sometimes they appealed too readily or often to Western consular authorities for protection.
Mackay’s base was in Tamsui, one of the treaty ports opened to foreigners, and was in some sense under the protection of Great Britain, but he rarely took advantage of his British citizenship, nor did his work in any way promote colonial rule in Taiwan. In fact, the “colonizers” were the Chinese immigrants whose exploitation of the aborigines Mackay frequently criticized, and later the Japanese, under whose rule (after 1895) missionaries generally enjoyed freedom, though not special privileges.
Nor was he a racist, as has been claimed. His marriage to a Chinese woman and his praise for the preachers whom he trained should make that clear. He only criticized Chinese or aboriginal people for the conduct that transgressed Christian norms, and he demonstrated that true conversion and maturity in Christ produced believers equal in character to any others.
At the end of From Far Formosa, looking back, he wrote: “I am prepared to affirm that for integrity and endurance, for unswerving loyalty to Christ, and untiring fidelity in his service, there are today in the mission churches of North Formosa hundreds who would do credit to any community or to any congregation in Christendom” (Mackay 338).
George Mackay left behind a thriving church of sixty congregations led by Chinese and aboriginal preachers; Oxford College, which became what is now Aletheia University and the Taiwan Seminary; the Tamkang Girls School; the Tamkang Middle School (now High School), of which Mackay’s son George was appointed principal; Mackay Hospital; and a strong presence of the Canadian Presbyterian mission. This later became the North Taiwan Presbytery and later merged with the southern presbytery to become the Taiwan Presbyterian Church. He had greatly enhanced the lives of the women whom his ministry touched, and set a pattern of treating women with respect for later generations.
For these and other reasons, George Leslie Mackay has been hailed as one of the greatest missionaries to China in the nineteenth century.
Mackay, George Leslie, D.D., From Far Formosa: The Island, its People and Missions. Edited by the Rev. J.A. MacDonald. Third edition. London: Oliphant Anderson & Ferrier, 1900.
Mackay, R.P., D.D. Life of George Leslie Mackay, D.D. Board of Foreign Missions, Toronto, Canada, 1913.
Macleod, Duncan, The Island Beautiful: The Story of Fifty Years in North Formosa. Toronto, Canada: Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1923; reprinted by ForgottenBooks; www.forgottenBooks.com, 2021,
Rychetska, Magdalena (b. Masláková), “Thirty Years of Mission in Taiwan: The Case of Presbyterian Missionary George Leslie Mackay.” Religions. 12:190, 2021.