1884  — 1953

John Gillespie Magee

Missionary in China who captured film documentation of the Nanking Massacre.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Magee finished high school in Connecticut, then graduated from Yale (B.A., 1906) and from Episcopal Theological School (B.D., 1911) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ordained in the Episcopal Church, he went to China in 1912, where he worked most of his career in Nanking (Nanjing). In 1921 he married Faith E. Backhouse, an English missionary from the China Inland Mission. They had four sons.

Magee played an important role in saving thousands of Chinese from being murdered by the Japanese army during the occupation of Nanking in 1937-1938. He established a refugee hospital to take care of wounded soldiers and refugees, served as chairman of the Nanking branch of the International Red Cross, and was a member of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone.

Films taken by Magee in Nanking and sent to the West were among the first available visual documentation of the Nanking Massacre. After the war, Magee was a witness at the Tokyo War Crimes Trial (1946). Jiro Takidani’s Witness to the Nanking Incident (1993) documents Magee’s work during the Nanking Massacre.

When Magee returned to America in the summer of 1938, after 28 years of service in China, he made an extensive tour to speak about the Nanking Massacre. He died in Pittsburgh.


This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.


  • Films of the Nanking Massacre made by Magee are in the Special Collections of Yale Divinity School Library. See the Historical Register of Yale University, 1937-1951 (1952).

About the Author

Martha Lund Smalley

Curator, Day Missions Collection, Yale Divinity School Library, New Haven, Connecticut, USA