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Apostle to China: Griffith John

1 May 2012 | by Noel Gibbard

Apostle to China: Griffith John (1831-1912)

Griffith John was born in Swansea in 1831. When he was eight-years-old, he was accepted into membership at Ebenezer Independent chapel in the town, and by the time he was sixteen was known as ‘the boy preacher’. In 1850, Griffith John entered Brecon Congregational College, before proceeding to Bedford College to prepare for mission work overseas. His initial desire was to work in Madagascar, but eventually agreed with the London Missionary Society (LMS), to go to China. Before leaving, he married Margaret Griffiths, daughter of David Griffiths, former missionary to Madagascar. They left for China in 1855, spent six years in Shanghai, before settling in Hankow/Hu-han. After the death of his wife, Griffith John married Jeannette Jenkins, widow of an American missionary. Because of ill health he had to leave for London in 1911, after spending fifty six years in China, with only one furlough. He died in 1912, and was buried in Sketty cemetery, Swansea.


Griffith John faced the task of learning the language of the people, a ‘colossal task’ as he himself referred to it. He had to master six thousand characters that were in constant use. Characters conveyed ideas that were the same in all dialects, but sounds differed from dialect to dialect. Before the end of 1856, Griffith John, with the help of one of the natives, was able to preach in the language of the people, and by 1857 was able to venture out alone to preach the gospel, just two years after leaving Wales.

When he arrived in Shanghai, the city and the surrounding areas were threatened by the Taiping rebels, who were anti-foreign, and advocating social reform. Some of the leaders had been influenced by Protestant missionaries, but the influence was overshadowed by other vague religious principles. For some time Griffith John had sympathy with the rebels, because they wanted to get rid of the tyrannical Manchu dynasty, and wanted to uproot idolatry. The rebels were, however, plundering the cities, and their leaders were living in luxury. Griffith John acknowledged that he had been wrong in showing sympathy towards the rebels.

Another danger, more dangerous than the threat of the rebels, was that of opium smoking. After the opening of some Chinese ports to foreign trade, opium smoking increased, and individuals and families suffered terribly. In the church context, Griffith John would not receive an opium smoker into membership. He found it difficult, however, to deal with a church member that was an opium smoker. Such a person would be advised to enter the LMS hospital, and if he did not stop taking the drug he would be excommunicated.

Transport was another matter that Griffith John had to consider seriously. He was working in a vast country, with beautiful countryside and huge cities. His mission involved miles of walking almost every day, and it is no wonder that the missionary always had a stick in his hand. On his travels he could be carried in a sedan chair, or take a boat on the rivers and lakes, some of them stretching for as long as thirty-five miles. And travelling through gorges could be hazardous. Many times, Griffith John and his co-workers were in peril of their lives.

The word of God

Having mastered the language, Griffith John settled down to translate the scriptures. Pioneering work had been done by Robert Morrison and William Marsham. Griffith John translated from the original, most of the time alone, although the opinion was growing at the time that translation work should be done by a panel. When the matter of the best text was discussed, Griffith John suggested that the text of the Revised Version should be used. He presented two basic principles of translation. When it was difficult to translate ‘ad verbum’ (word by word), the literal version should be forgotten, and the ‘ad sensum’ (the meaning), that is, what was later called ‘dynamic equivalent’, should be adopted. The other consideration was that a translator should keep in mind the genius of the language in which the version was made.

The translated word had to be proclaimed. This was Griffith John’s main reason for going to China, ‘We are here, not to develop the resources of the country, not for the advancement of civilization; but to do battle with the powers of darkness, to save men from sin, and conquer China for Christ.’ At the centre of his message was the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, the only means of reconciliation with God. As to the method of preaching, Griffith John could follow the traditional pattern of the long sermon without interruption, but he could also preach briefly and invite questions at the close of the sermon. His advice to fellow missionaries was, ‘Preach, Preach, Preach’. When there were conversions, he would, as soon as possible, establish a church. He was church-centred in his thinking. There was need also for preachers to preach the gospel. He helped potential preachers personally, but was not satisfied until a ministerial college was set up in 1899, in which he himself taught the New Testament and Pastoral Theology. Before the end of 1903, a new Divinity College was built, and dedicated in 1904. Preaching and educational work went hand in hand with philanthropy, especially the work with the hospital, in which both his first and second wife played such an important part. It was also a joy for Griffith John to see a hospital for lepers opened in 1895.


Griffith John was a pioneer. In Hankow, he rejoiced at the first conversion in 1862; first chapel in 1863; first school in 1864, and the first hospital in 1866. He did not confine himself to Hankow, but itinerated in other areas. In 1868, in the company of Alexander Wylie, he journeyed for two thousand miles, preaching and distributing tracts on the way. The two provinces of Szechwan/Sichuan and Hunan, the most anti-foreign of the provinces, attracted Griffith John’s attention. During the first journey to Hunan, four hundred and sixty miles distant from Hankow, he and another missionary were bitterly opposed. During his journey in 1883, he was greeted with the cries of ‘beat’, ‘kill’, and was pelted with mud and stones, but Griffith John could rejoice, because he baptised thirteen converts. When he returned in 1899, 192 candidates were waiting to be baptised. His eleventh, and last visit was in 1904. He had persevered from 1883 until 1904, when Hunan was officially opened to the Christian faith. By this time, the LMS had three main stations with branches in thirteen counties, covering an area of thirteen thousand miles, with a population of four million. Griffith John had the privilege of not only sowing the seed but of enjoying the harvest as well.

Noel Gibbard is a member of Eglwys Efengylaidd Gymraeg, Cardiff, and author of ‘Griffith John: Apostle to Central China’ published by Bryntirion Press.