Jonathan Goforth was the seventh child of an immigrant from Yorkshire who lived on a farm outside Thorndale, Canada. His father was too busy to attend to any sort of religion, but his mother’s simple piety impacted Goforth deeply. Reading Psalms to her and going to church on Sunday were the only religious activities of his early years.
At school he would spend hours gazing at the large map of the world on the wall and wondering about the lives of the people who lived in various parts of the world. Later, in high school, he was deeply influenced by the Rev. Mr. Lachlan Cameron, who led a Bible study for the students, so he walked the distance to Cameron’s church the next Sunday, and every Sunday after that. Eventually he decided to commit his life to Christ.
Encouraged by the experience of persuading his teacher and classmates to trust in Christ, he decided to become a Presbyterian minister. He was deeply moved by the eloquence and zeal of George Leslie Mackay, who issued a challenge for young man to become missionaries among the Chinese. Immediately, Goforth sensed that he was meant not for a pastorate in Canada, but to evangelize the far-off Chinese. He was soon reading everything he could about missions in preparation for his future career.
While a student at Knox he volunteered at the Toronto City Mission; he distributed tracts in brothels, evangelized gambling dens, and prayed for street children. For four years he sought to visit every home in the Ward, a slum district, going places that policemen feared to enter.
When he first entered Knox College his fellow students scorned and jeered at him for his unsophisticated country dress and ways, and for his evangelistic passion. Gradually, however, they came to respect and admire him, keenly moved by his dedication to evangelism, and apologized for their cruel hazing.
During his third year at Knox College Goforth met Rosalind Bell-Smith, a talented young artist from a well-to-do and prominent family. After working with her on the Toronto Mission Union, he realized that he wanted to marry her, but feared that the social and class gap between their families would hinder his prospects. She accepted his proposal, however, but Rosalind’s widowed mother expressed strong opposition, for she had promised her dying husband to send their daughter to England for further training in art. Rosalind was forced to choose between submission to her parents or expulsion from the home. Rosalind chose to remain in Canada, whereupon she moved into her brother’s house. Her mother finally softened and received her back into their home.
Goforth thought it would be impossible to be a Presbyterian missionary to China since the Presbyterians had no work there at the time, but his classmates surprised him with the promise that they would undertake to support him as a Presbyterian missionary themselves. They had been affected by an unprecedented surge of commitment to foreign missions among students in Canada and the United States which had begun at Dwight L. Moody’s East Northfield Conference in 1886. The students at Knox College had to overcome resistance to Goforth’s going to China first from the alumni of the college and the denomination, but their zeal and persistence melted all opposition.
After a miserable journey, during which they were almost continuously sea-sick, the Goforths landed in Shanghai. The various mission societies decided that the “North Honan (Henan) field” be assigned to the Canadian Presbyterians, so Jonathan and Rosalind set off for “Chefoo” (now Yantai) in Shandong, to commence language study.
On August 12, amidst a cholera epidemic, Gertrude Goforth was born. A veteran missionary, Dr. Arthur H. Smith, offered to take them on an exploratory tour of the North Henan where they were to begin working. While reading Isaiah 55:10-11 Goforth sensed that God had promised to prosper the preaching of his word. J. Hudson Taylor wrote him a letter, which contained this exhortation: “Brother, if you would enter that Province, you must go forward on your knees.” Those words became the slogan of the North Honan Mission.
The Goforths moved to Pangchwang (Pangzhuang), a village closer to Henan. Not long thereafter, Goforth’s best friend while at Knox College, now Dr. Donald McGillivrary, arrived from Canada. Their happy association would last until McGillivray died more than thirty-five years later. Goforth had to struggle hard to gain the language, but as soon as he could say a few sentences he was sharing the essentials of the Christian message with anyone who would listen. He used the very words of the Bible as much as possible to convey the gospel of “Christ crucified” for sinners, refusing to rely on his own eloquence, and from the beginning Chinese responded to this simple biblical evangel with confession of sin and professions of faith in Christ. In later years he would tell younger missionaries, “My only secret in getting to the heart of big sinners is to show them their need and tell them of a Saviour abundantly able to save.”
In the spring of 1889 they moved to Linching (now Linqing), which was even closer to Henan. That summer little Gertrude came down with dysentery, and died within a week. The grief-stricken father wrote home to his friends and family: “‘All things work together for good.’ [quoting Romans 8:28]. The Lord has a purpose in taking our loved one away. We pray that this loss will fit us more fully to tell these dying millions of Him who has gained the victory over death.”
Goforth and McGillivray plunged into full-time study of the language. Once more Goforth made slow progress. He was about to give up in despair, but cried out to God to work a miracle of tongues. Almost immediately, he found that words and phrases that had eluded him now came easily. Later, he learned that a special prayer meeting “just for Goforth” had been held at the very time that he was looking to God for a breakthrough.
In December, 1889, Goforth established the first presbytery in North Henan. Linqing was their home base, from which they made evangelistic journeys into surrounding towns. More than once they narrowly escaped angry mobs intent on doing them harm, for anti-foreign feeling was rising throughout the region.
In December, 1889, their son Donald was born (named after Donald McGillivray). Six months later, however, “wee Don” fell off the veranda of the house into which they were preparing to move. He died on July 25th and was buried with his sister. They moved to Chuwang (now Chuwangzhen ), a village in Henan, where Rosalind bore another son, Paul. He was joined by a girl, Florence Evangeline, January 3, 1893.
From this new base Goforth and his Chinese helpers would go “touring.” In order to set an example of humility and frugality he chose to walk rather than ride on a donkey or in a hired wheelbarrow; the latter he used for books and other supplies.
Finally, in 1895, the Goforths were given permission to move to Changte, in Henan. Before they left Chuwang, a flood devastated the area and ruined almost all their belongings. From the first, their mission compound in Changte was thronged by people eager to hear the gospel, so that both of them were constantly employed in preaching to crowds of listeners. Fearing that their strength would give out, they prayed for God to send them a Chinese evangelist. The next day, Wang Fulin, a converted opium addict, showed up looking for a way to serve God. Thrilled at this answer to prayer, they immediately set him to work preaching to the thousands who filled the chapel and all available rooms. A professional storyteller, Wang, sensing that his time was short, “spoke as a dying man to dying men.” Many were converted through his ministry.
While Goforth spoke to the men, his wife addressed women, until he came to preach to give her time to rest. In the fall of 1897, the Goforths moved out of their Chinese dwelling into a new foreign-style house. Fearing lest this strange building erect a wall between them and the Chinese, the Goforths decided to open their house to guests. Naturally, the Goforths used these visits as opportunities of sharing the gospel to people who might never come to the chapel.
In 1898 their daughter Gracie died of complications resulting from malaria. Her brother Paul came down with measles shortly afterward, and then both parents, exhausted from constant nursing of their children, succumbed to illness and nearly died. In June of 1900 their daughter Florence was taken by meningitis.
Later that summer, the Boxer madness engulfed the entire region. The Goforths and a few other missionaries made a harrowing journey through Boxer-infested territory towards a river where they could get a boat to safety. They lost all their belongings, and suffered wounds, but finally escaped, thanks to the courageous efforts of officials who had come under the influence of Christianity. Only God’s providence could account for their miraculous deliverance when so many others fell before the enraged rebels.
The Goforths were sent home to Canada for a much-needed rest, but soon he was receiving invitations to speak on missions and what God was doing in China. He discovered that German Higher Criticism had influenced the churches, bringing skepticism towards the Scriptures and sapping missions motivation, and longed to be back in China where he could participate in the great works of the Holy Spirit. Thus, when he learned of preparations being made for missionaries to return, he left his wife and family and headed off to the mission field. Shortly thereafter, however, Rosalind received a message that her husband had contracted typhoid and she must join him quickly.
Goforth was filled with joy at the prospect of carrying out a new plan for evangelizing the northeast part of Henan, which had just been assigned to him. The only problem, from his wife’s standpoint, was that he envisioned a peripatetic lifestyle. Rosalind was terrified at the thought of exposing the children to the danger of disease in rural China, but she consented to take her remaining children with them.
This incident highlights Goforth’s personality. On the one hand, when he thought that God had guided him to a certain course of action, he would persist in his opinion until his wife and his fellow missionaries agreed to let him follow his sense of leading. In that sense, it was hard to live and work with him. On the other hand, his wife testified to his kindness, gentleness, and willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others. When he took them into places of difficulty or danger, he spared no effort to protect and provide for them, always trusting God to preserve them.
His daily habits reflected his single-minded devotion to God. He rose early and spent almost an hour poring over the Scriptures. Breakfast was followed by a Bible study with his Chinese co-workers, then evangelism and teaching, either in the courtyard and chapel or out in surrounding villages. After supper Goforth and his evangelists would preach to the crowds, while Rosalind played the organ as the Chinese co-workers taught the people hymns.
Returning to China in the fall of 1901, despite “success” which would have satisfied most missionaries, Goforth longed to experience more of the work of God in his life and in the lives of the Chinese, and set his heart to seek the Lord for greater fruitfulness.
In 1906 he witnessed the revival in Korea, and learned that missionaries there had prayed together for months for God to do a new and mighty work. On the way back through Manchuria, wherever he told the story of the Korean revival he was asked to return and hold special meetings. At a gathering in Peitaho, he spoke to a large body of missionaries, who were deeply moved. For the next several days, they discarded the program of addresses and devoted themselves entirely to prayer, with many of them breaking down in tears and openly confessing their sins to each other.
He went to Manchuria in February, 1908 to begin a series of meetings issuing from the invitations the previous year. As Goforth preached, pointing out God’s abhorrence for specific transgressions, the congregation came under conviction of sin, and one after another cried out, or came up to confess wrongdoing. The deacons and elders resigned their positions, confessing their sinfulness and stepping down. Finally, the pastor rose and tearfully admitted that if he had been a better shepherd his flock would not have descended to such a deplorable condition. The entire congregation began to cry out, “You are worthy. We appoint you as our pastor, elders, deacons. We are unworthy!” The revival fire spread rapidly to other towns and villages. Many outsiders, struck by the humility and sincerity of the Christians’ repentance, were themselves pierced to the heart and surrendered themselves to God.
In one location after another, missionaries were astounded as their congregations responded to Goforth’s preaching with repentance and fervent requests for God to deal with them graciously. In almost every service individual prayers would be turned into one loud corporate cry for mercy.
To Presbyterians, these phenomena were quite strange, for many of them were (and are) “cessationists,” believing that supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit and possession by evil spirits were things which ceased after the apostolic era.
Goforth’s evaluation of the revivals
Writing later about these revivals, Goforth said, “My conviction is that the Divine power, so manifest in the church at Pentecost, was nothing more nor less than what should be in evidence in the Church today. Normal Christianity, as planned by our Lord, was not supposed to begin in the Spirit and continue in the flesh. In the building of His temple it never was by might nor by power, but always by His Spirit.”
Furlough and beyond
In 1909, Goforth joined his family in Canada for furlough. When he spoke to the General Assembly of the Holy Spirit’s work in China, some received his message with open hearts; most, however, considered him a fanatic, and refused him their pulpits. When the Goforths went to the British Isles to attend the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, the same would have happened, except that Walter Sloan, a widely respected leader of the China Inland Mission, guaranteed him and obtained invitations for him to speak at several large gatherings, including the Keswick convention. The leaders of Keswick even invited him to remain in Britain for a full year to hold more meetings, but he was ordered back to China by the mission board.
Returning to China, Goforth discovered that the inroads of German Higher Criticism were now also evident among some of the younger missionaries being sent to China. He was also told that any new work which he began outside of Changte must be financed by himself; the Presbytery would not fund such “extra-curricular” activities. Turning to God in prayer, Goforth discovered that God would supply all the financial needs involved in opening new stations and hiring more evangelists through other means.
Finally, the strain of constant travel and preaching took its inevitable toll, and in 1916 he was ordered home by physicians who insisted that he give himself a period of complete rest. Returning to China in 1917, Goforth refused to compromise with liberals (“modernists”) in the Presbytery. He was allowed to remain a member of the North Honan Mission, but told he must leave his current home and move elsewhere. The Goforths then built a new home at Kikungshan, several hundred miles south of Changte, and commenced a period of extremely demanding itinerant preaching, with Rosalind accompanying him on almost every trip. They changed locations on average about every five days. Several other mission societies asked Goforth to address special meetings, and the “Christian” General Feng Yuxiang asked him to speak to his officers. Later, he spent a full year ministering to the soldiers in that army, with dramatic results. In every place, the response matched what they had seen before.
After another furlough in 1924, Goforth, nearing seventy, was nevertheless allowed by the mission board to return to China, find a new field, and commence his work afresh. Receiving invitations to Manchuria, they and three others set out in the dead of winter for Changchun. Settling in Szepingkai, they soon discovered that the millions of immigrants who had flooded into Manchuria were hungry for the gospel of Christ. They were overwhelmed by the need, and wrote to the Canadian Presbyterian Church for more recruits and funds.
To their immense disappointment, their plea fell on deaf ears. After a time of intense prayer with his little band, Goforth “rose from his knees, … drew himself up and with passionate earnestness exclaimed: ‘Our home Church has failed us, but the God of Hudson Taylor is ours. He will not fail us if we look to Him.’” He appealed to Dr. John Hayes, founder of a Bible training school in Shandong, for students to come and help, and received the reply that the civil war in his region had closed all churches, so that the students had nowhere to serve! Several of them arrived soon after, and unsolicited funds for them came in from all directions, confirming Goforth’s faith. Three years later, thirty evangelists were working with them, completely supported by unsolicited gifts.
Again, constant travel and work wore him out, and in 1929 Goforth was laid aside by illness for several months. During that time, he dictated to his son Fred the stories of the great revivals, published later as By My Spirit. The next year, his eye required repeated surgeries, so he once again had to rest. This time, he recounted stories of Chinese whose lives had been transformed to Miss Margaret Gay, his nurse; these were issued under the title, Miracle Lives of China. These, along with Rosalind’s books, are still in print. In 1933, Goforth’s other eye failed, and more painful surgeries could not keep him from going completely blind. Eventually he recovered enough to resume giving sermons, drawing upon the Scriptures which he had stored away in his heart through repeated readings of the Chinese Bible.
Finally, several prominent ministers in Canada wrote him separately urging him to return and help rekindle the missionary fervor of churches there. When his wife’s health completely collapsed in 1934, he accepted this as God’s leading, and they went back for the last time. Immediately, he was deluged with invitations to speak in churches. At seventy-six, he found the grueling itinerary which had been arranged for him exhausting, but the old fire kept burning within him and spurred him on. On October 7, 1936, after another strenuous day of speaking, he fell asleep and never woke up.
At his funeral, the Rev. Dr. John G. Inkster, pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church, whence they had been sent out as missionaries many years before, said of Goforth.
“He was a God-intoxicated man - fully surrendered and consecrated. Above all, he was humble. . . He was filled with the Spirit because he was emptied of self — therefore he had power which prevailed with God and man.”
Taken from “Jonathan Goforth,” by G. Wright Doyle, in Builders of the Chinese Church: Pioneer 19th century Missionaries and Chinese Christian Leaders, edited by G. Wright Doyle: Wipf & Stock, 2015.
- Goforth, Jonathan. By My Spirit. Nappanee: Evangel Publishing House, 2004.
- Goforth, Rosalind. Goforth of China. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishers, 1937.
- —. Jonathan Goforth. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986.