While visiting Scotland in 2019 my wife Leeta and I were treated to a half-day “wee ecclesiastical tour” of several noteworthy sites in the eastern Scottish Highlands area by William and Carine Mackenzie of Christian Focus Publications. One of our first stops that day was at an unpretentious monument overlooking the Moray Firth in the village of Balintore.
The monument memorializes John Ross, a once-prominent, now little-known Scottish Presbyterian missionary. The monument reads: “John Ross (1842-1914). A native of this place, minister, missionary in China and Korea, and the first to translate the New Testament into Korean.” (Ross actually died in 1915.)
During our visit to Scotland I was told that a biography on Ross was then being written, and I have looked forward to its publication ever since, desiring to learn more about Ross’s life and ministry. Late last year Christian Focus published that biography, the first-ever extensive work on Ross. Written by a contemporary minister-missionary, John Stuart Ross, who happens to share the same first and last names as the individual about whom he has written, the book is entitled The Power and the Glory, John Ross and the Evangelisation of Manchuria and Korea.
Ross served as a missionary with the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. His missionary career spanned the better part of four decades, from 1872 to 1910, and was characterized by diligent service, not a little sacrifice and a number of significant accomplishments.
Shortly after arriving in China, Ross and his newlywed wife Mary Ann Stewart settled in the port city of Newchwang in Manchuria, to help establish a beachhead for missionary enterprise in that northeast region of China. Only five days after their first wedding anniversary, Mary Ann died unexpectedly of an unspecified chest ailment, leaving Ross a grieving widower with the care of their son Drummond, who had been born just a few weeks earlier.
Eight years later, while on furlough in Scotland, Ross married Isabella Macfadyen. They served together in Mukden, the capital city of Manchuria, 120 miles from Newchwang, for nearly thirty years. Of the eight children born to them, four died in infancy.
Ross actively discipled and recruited Chinese converts to help carry out and advance evangelistic and teaching ministries in Manchuria and northern Korea. Such training and utilizing of native Christians to advance Christ’s Kingdom work became one of the hallmarks of Ross’s ministry career. His philosophy of ministry was a key factor in the indigenous churches in Manchuria and northern Korea becoming largely self-directing and self-supporting.
Ross carried out a few itinerations to spread the Gospel and build up new Christians in Korea. He formed a team of Korean believers to assist him in translating the New Testament gospels and epistles into the common Korean dialect. This led to the publication of the first-ever complete Korean New Testament in 1887. Through the powerful work of God’s Spirit, thousands of Koreans came to saving faith in Christ Jesus and numerous Christian congregations were formed.
In addition to his extensive Bible translation endeavors, Ross was a prolific writer of other works throughout his career. His published volumes included language primers on Mandarin Chinese and Korean, as well as books about Chinese and Korean history and religion. He also penned many articles and scholarly papers.
Ross and his fellow missionaries helped guide and care for the Manchurian Christians and churches throughout the tumultuous decade of 1894-1905. Those years saw the region ravaged by two wars involving foreign occupations by Japan and Russia, as well as China’s anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion. In those conflicts countless thousands of Chinese, including numerous indigenous Christians, were attacked, had their property destroyed or were killed. The missionaries, to the full extent of their abilities, provided spiritual and medical care, along with food, clothing and lodging for local residents trying to rebuild their lives and for a flood of refugees. Through those horrific trials the Church in Manchuria was both purified and strengthened. It grew to have 20,000 or more official followers of Jesus Christ.
During the closing several years of his missionary career, Ross primarily devoted himself to establishing a theological college in Mukden, to offer advanced training and education for Chinese Christian leaders, evangelists and Bible women. He served as the theological college’s first and primary full-time instructor.
One interesting feature of this biography is that only about half of it is about John Ross himself. That is because relatively little detail was preserved by Ross or his contemporaries concerning his boyhood, college and seminary years, family, specific ministry events, final decline and death. The author, John Stuart Ross, has done exhaustive research and presents all there is to know from available resource material about his biographical subject. The other half of John Stuart Ross’s extensive volume presents a wealth of information that fills out the historical, cultural, ecclesiastical and political backdrop of John Ross’s life and ministry. The book also introduces the reader to a number of the significant individuals from Scotland, China, Korea and elsewhere whose ministries intersected with Ross’s.
In recommending this overall-fine volume, I do feel compelled to mention one aspect of it which from my perspective is most unfortunate. Chapters 19-20 of the book present a prevailing negative portrayal and analysis of Jonathan Goforth and his role in the revival that took place in Manchuria in 1908. (John Ross was on furlough in Scotland at that time). Because of Goforth’s appreciation for some of Charles Finney’s teachings on revival and some emphases of the Higher Life Movement, he is misrepresented in this book as being suspect, misled and unbiblical in some of his revival perspectives (especially his marked emphasis on the need for repentance as an essential part of revival) as well as in certain other aspects of his theology.
But when one reads the biography Goforth of China and Goforth’s accounts of various God-wrought revivals he had the privilege of playing a part in (“By My Spirit” and When the Spirit’s Fire Swept Korea), the serious accusations leveled against him in the John Ross biography are simply not borne out. Rather than automatically accepting the negative characterizations of Goforth found in the Ross biography, Goforth deserves to be evaluated on the basis of his own beliefs and practices as revealed in the books on his life and ministry just mentioned. The latter provide a balanced, positive perspective on Goforth that has been generally affirmed by evangelical Christians from his day to our own.
Copyright 2023 by Vance E. Christie