Whitfield Guinness was an Englishman, born in Paris in 1869. His father, Grattan Guinness, was a preacher who had once spoken at the tabernacle established by the great 18th century evangelist George Whitefield. When his son was born, he took the opportunity to name the boy after him. When France declared war on Prussia in 1870, the Guinness family hastened to return to England. During the tumult as thousands of people fled Paris, the little Whitfield was trampled under the feet of horses, yet miraculously he survived without injury.
From 1883 to 1886, while he was still a teenager, he and his sister Lucy lived with relatives on the Australian island of Tasmania. Just before they commenced the long voyage around the world, he was baptized upon his profession of faith in Christ on 11 September 1883. Once in the Antipodes, after hearing Hudson Taylor speak at a meeting, Guinness decided to become a missionary. He sailed back to England and from 1886 to 1891 attended the prestigious Cambridge University, followed by five years’ study and work at the London Hospital, all to prepare him for service as a medical missionary. Finally, in 1887 he arrived in Henan Province, where his sister Geraldine – Mrs. Howard Taylor – was already stationed.
She was later to have the honour of writing her brother’s biography. In it, she describes the huge task that faced him as he started work as one of just two missionary doctors in an area of thousands of square miles:
Including Kaifeng, there were in Henan, south of the Yellow River, no fewer than eighty capitals of counties – each one representing an average population of over 350,000 – in which no witness for Christ was to be found. There was, moreover, only one medical missionary in the same region – larger than the whole of England… Imagine thirty millions of people in this southern part of the province, suffering from all the ills that flesh is heir to, practically without the succour of trained physician, surgeon, dentist, or nurse, without provision of any kind for their sick, blind, crippled or mentally afflicted – what a mass of unrelieved human misery! And when to this is added the heart-hunger and need of these multitudes “without Christ…having no hope, and without God in the world” it was enough, indeed, to make the new arrival thankful beyond words for life and professional skill, and above all for the saving message he had to bring.
Guinness had been brought up in a strong Christian home, where the word of God was honoured and godly behavior respected. In his early years of ministry he struggled to come to terms with the brutal reality of life in China. During one visit to Sheqi in the south of Henan, he wrote:
It is awful to see the power of the devil here. I came out from home rather wondering whether there is much difference between its manifestations in China and in our own land. But now I have no doubt about it. The power of evil is much less fettered here and consequently more apparent. Personal temptations are certainly greater – we all find that; and the exhibitions of demonic rage that we witness are terrible in the extreme. The man I am caring for bares marks of other attacks by the same nephew. One ear is sliced in half, and his back and arms are cut about dreadfully.
During the Boxer uprising of 1900, Guinness, along with three other missionaries and a baby, miraculously escaped martyrdom at the hands of the rebels, despite being surrounded by bloodthirsty men for sixteen fearful days. Somehow their would-be murderers failed to see them as they hid in various rooms and lofts adjoining the mission premises at Sheqi. As the missionaries huddled in concealment just a few feet from the men who sought their lives, Guinness managed to write some dramatic letters and notes, thinking they would be the last memorial of him and his colleagues in this world. One day, he scribbled this good-bye on a dirty piece of paper:
Dear Home Ones,
This may be the last time I can write to you. I sit in dust and dirt on the floor of a barn. For three days we have been rioted, and have fled to three different spots to escape the awful wrath of the people. They little know what they do. We have had to lie down in order to be hid… We lay still and prayed. We are tired, yet rejoicing… We shall meet yonder in heaven.
Weeks later, the fugitives managed to get away to safety by boat. God had spared their lives. After this dramatic escape, there is no doubt that Guinness never saw things in the same way again. The world had no attraction for him, and he spent the rest of his life wholeheartedly for eternal purposes. He served the Chinese faithfully and energetically, and always put the needs of others before his own.
Kaifeng, in the north of Henan, was a location that early Protestant missionaries prized. This ancient and important city was the capital of the province (though it later lost the honour to Zhengzhou). Foreigners were not even permitted to enter its gates until 1898, when Robert Powell of the China Inland Mission spent a night there. It was not until 1902 that he was allowed to rent a house and begin evangelistic activity. Guinness joined him later that year, and in due course was appointed to the role of chief doctor at the CIM hospital in Kaifeng. A mere three years after the Boxer onslaught, he declared that the city had given access to the gospel:
The blessing is coming. China is being opened up. The last provincial capital has flung wide its gates – the messenger of the gospel has entered in. Today, any city in China may be entered without any let or hindrance. The walls of conservatism are tottering to their fall; the barriers of seclusion are broken down. China yields at last – “the Rock” has opened! (He was referring to the famous prayer of Francis Xavier.)
During a furlough in Europe in 1905, God brought Guinness together with Miss Jane Af Sandeberg of Sweden. They were married in Shanghai on September 22, and had a brief honeymoon in Japan before returning to the work in Kaifeng. However, the harshness of Chinese society was difficult for his new bride to cope with. She came from a well-heeled family and had attended a finishing school in Paris in preparation for adult life. She later expressed some of her burdens in a comment that became famous around the world:
A great “without” has been written upon heathenism. Men and women are toiling without a Bible, without a Sunday, without a prayer, without songs of praise. They have rulers without justice and without righteousness; homes without peace; marriage without sanctity; young men and girls without ideals and enthusiasms; little children without purity, without innocence; mothers without wisdom or self-control; poverty without relief or sympathy; sickness without skilful help or tender care; sorrow without any to bind up the wounded hearts; sin and lying and crime without a remedy; and worst of all, death without hope.
To the tired missionaries, testimonies of people’s lives being transformed by Christ were like living water. One Sunday in 1919 a woman named Pan appeared at the morning church service and told Guinness she had come to “worship God and follow the Doctrine.” When he asked her how she had come to believe in Jesus, she told him how here husband had been aboard a ferry in the Yellow River when a swift current overturned it. He found himself struggling to survive in the water along with about a hundred others. In his desperation, he cried out: “If there be a true God, save me! Save me from drowning!” The man felt a sudden surge of energy and strength, and was one of the few who reached the safety of the shore.
Pan knew he owed his life to God’s intervention and was determined to become a Christian, having heard the gospel at the Kaifeng Christian hospital some time before. She and her husband frequently walked the six miles (10 kilometers) into Kaifeng to attend the church service on Sundays. They managed to lead some other families in their village to Christ, and remained consistent followers of Christ for the remainder of their lives.
The year 1927 was to be Guinness’s last in this world. Lawlessness then reigned, with gangs of bandits (one as much as 10,000 men strong) roaming throughout the country, terrorizing, raping, and killing. Guinness caught typhus while he was treating wounded and sick Chinese soldiers. He was already critically ill when anti-foreign mobs decided to attack the hospital. His friends could not bear to see this servant of God left behind helplessly to die, so they smuggled him – still lying in his bed – out of the building to the railway station. They squeezed his bed into a crowded wagon heading for Beijing, where they assumed he would be protected from harm. However, two bumpy days and nights in that unventilated box proved too much for the weakened missionary doctor, and he died on 12 April 1927, soon after the train reached the capital.
Although he did not come to a violent end, like most martyrs in China, his life and death were nevertheless those of a martyr for Christ. His sacrificial service to the King of kings expedited his demise and ushered him into the glorious presence of the Master. Tributes came flooding in after the news of his death spread about the world. A Swedish friend remembered him with these words:
My chief impression of Dr Guinness was that Christ had been formed in him to an unusual degree. His whole life radiated Jesus…and his whole life was glowing with love to the people of China. I well remember how naturally he spoke of spiritual things and how trustful his prayers were. There was nothing strained or artificial about his Christianity. He lived an overflowing life, for he knew how to receive of the fullness of Christ, not to keep it for himself, but to share it with others, making many rich.
A Chinese Christian from Zhoukou, who had been trained as a doctor by Guinness, said:
Dr Guinness, with a burning heart, sought to save men. Except at such times as he was treating patients, he was constantly giving himself to bring them the gospel. His object was not only to save their bodies but their souls. Whenever there was a baptismal service, seven or eight of every ten received into the church would be sure to be ex-patients, converted in the hospital.
Whitfield Guinness was survived by his wife and two children, a son and a daughter, who were attending school in England at the time of his death. It is said that a man’s family is the best judge of his life. Some weeks after the funeral, a beautiful letter arrived in Kaifeng, written by his daughter, Mary Geraldine, before her father had fallen ill. It said:
You are just the best father anyone could have, and I thank God for you and mother, and all you mean to me, every time I lift my heart to Him in prayer. I would so like to come and bring you my love myself, but that cannot be… God bless you richly, daddy darling, especially on the 25th and may His protecting care keep you safe from all harm and danger until we meet again, either on earth or in heaven – this is the earnest prayer for your own little girl who loves you more and more as the years go on.
Taken by permission from Paul Hattaway, Henan: The Galilee of China. Fire & blood: The Church in Volume: Volume 2. Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, 2009, 70-73.