Saturday 12 September 2015

15 Missionary Dr Griffith John

15. Dr Griffith John (photos: bust, memorial garden, Griffith John) – 12 September

After the First World War a young woman from London worked as a parlour-maid in Swansea, before later becoming famous as a missionary in China.  Was Gladys Aylward influenced by hearing of Griffith John, who had spent 50 years there as a missionary?

Born in 1831, Griffith John lost both his parents to cholera when he was still a child.  A Welsh speaker, he became a member and later a deacon of Ebeneser Welsh Congregational Chapel (now Ebenezer Baptist Chapel) near the Railway Station, as is stated on a plaque inside.

At the age of 16 he began regular preaching before training for the ministry at Brecon Congregational College.  He joined the London Missionary Society in 1853 as he felt called to missionary work in Madagascar, where his wife Margaret, a missionary’s daughter, had been born.  But when that country was closed to Christian work Griffith John turned, initially reluctantly, to China.  After two years' training he sailed from Gravesend on the four-month voyage to Shanghai in 1855 (today you could fly there in 13 hours).  He managed to become fluent in both spoken and written Chinese – a daunting task since unlike a mere 26 characters in the English alphabet, Chinese has as many as 6,000 in regular use!

Griffith John was challenged with people enmeshed in idolatry and indoctrinated by the teaching of Confucius, and encountered widespread addiction to opium smoking.  Rather than concentrating on learned members of society, as some missionaries did, he spent much energy among the illiterate poor people.

Griffith John made a major contribution to the Christian Church in China as author, translator, and preacher.  He translated the New Testament and much of the Old Testament into more than one Chinese dialect, and compiled a Mandarin translation of the New Testament and Psalms.

A powerful and eloquent speaker, he was usually popular with the Chinese, who would gather in great numbers to hear him.  On occasions when threatened he might state boldly that he was “An Englishman” – since affirming his Welshness would not achieve the desired deference!  He became well-known for extensive missionary journeys into the Chinese interior to establish mission stations, and was successful in training and mentoring numerous Chinese evangelists. 

He was no stranger to tragedy - after much ill health his wife Margaret died in 1873, and though he married the widow of an American missionary, she also died twelve years later.  Griffith John was elected chairman of the Congregational Union, but declined the honour in order to remain among the Chinese people whom he loved.  He supported Anti-Opium Societies, and in 1889 was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity by Edinburgh University, in recognition of his service to the Chinese.  Throughout half a century of missionary work, Griffith John left China only three times, finally returning to Britain just before he died aged eighty in 1912. 

Following a funeral in Ebenezer Church, he was buried in the cemetery of Bethel Welsh Congregational Chapel in Sketty. 

He is remembered by Griffith John Street in Dyfatty, and with the bi-lingual blue plaque unveiled in 2013 on the wall of Ebenezer Church.  This states: “Reverend Dr Griffith John 1831-1912 Pioneer Missionary in Hankow, China, worshipped and was ordained here”.  To mark the centenary of his death, a delegation from the Union Hospital, Wuhan (a conglomeration of Hankow and two other cities), which has a programme of co-operation with Swansea University's School of Medicine, visited Swansea to present the bust of him which is displayed in the Museum.  The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth holds letters that he sent from China, with an original manuscript of his biography.      

If Gladys Aylward heard about Griffith John during her time in Swansea, his example
may well have inspired her to contemplate missionary service in China.

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