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Greatest Preachers

Jonathan Goforth

Jonathan Goforth

JONATHAN GOFORTH
1859 - 1936

Jonathan was the seventh of the eleven children born to Francis and Jane (Bates) Goforth, farmers in Thorndale, Ontario, Canada. His formal education was often interrupted by the seasonal needs of farm work. At the age of fifteen, he was put in charge of a second farm his father owned. He was brought up in the Presbyterian Church and committed his life to Christ when he was eighteen and shortly thereafter he joined the church. He read the autobiography of Robert Murray M'Cheyne, an evangelist to the Jews, and felt called to become a minister. While listening to a sermon by G. L. MacKay, a Presbyterian missionary to Formosa, he felt another call--to be a missionary. He had already taken a course in business in London, Ontario, in addition to his high school courses in nearby Ingersoll. Now he enrolled, at the age of 23, in Knox College in Toronto. Despite early traumatic experiences when he was mocked as a hayseed by more sophisticated classmates, he eventually won the respect of faculty and students because of his enthusiasm for evangelism and his personal piety. He often preached at rescue missions in Toronto or visited prisons or went door-to-door to witness to families. During summers, he participated in home missions work. It was while he was assisting at the Toronto Union Mission in 1885 that he met Rosalind Bell-Smith, his future wife.

Rosalind was born in London, England. Her family moved to Montreal, Canada, in 1867. Her father was John Bell-Smith, founder of the Royal Academy of Art in Canada. At the age of twelve, she had been converted at a revival meeting. She attended the Toronto School of Art, graduating in 1885, and before going to London to continue her studies, she became involved in the work of the Toronto Mission Union and met Jonathan. In the autumn of the same year they became engaged and were married in 1887.

Jonathan had early decided that China would be his mission field. The Presbyterian Church in Canada had no field in China, so he applied to China Inland Mission. He never received a reply, but his fellow students at Knox College raised funds so that he could go out under the Presbyterian Board. The Board appointed Jonathan and J. Fraser Smith to China. In October of 1887, he was ordained.

The Goforths left Canada for China in February, 1888. They arrived in Chefoo (or Yantai in the Pinyin romanization) in Shantung (or Shandong in Pinyin romanization) province and stayed to study the Chinese language and prepare themselves for work in the northern part of Honan (or Henan in the Pinyin romanization) province, which was the field assigned to the Presbyterian Church of Canada . The Goforth's first child, Gertrude Madeline, was born in August. The Goforths eventually had ten more children: Donald, Paul, Florence, Helen, Grace, Ruth, William, [Amelia] Constance, Mary, and [John] Frederick. Gertrude, Donald, Florence, Grace, and Constance all died as babies or very young children. Ruth married D. I. Jeffrey, a missionary to French Indochina; Helen married Dr. George Van Gorder, and Mary married Rev. Robert Moynan.)

Toward the end of 1888, more recruits began arriving from Canada and Jonathan, together with Smith, took a trip through North Honan. In December, the Presbytery of North Honan was formed (Jonathan was the first moderator) and the next year Goforth began to go on preaching tours through the field. For two years, the mission base was in Linching, Shantung, but in 1890 a home was secured in Chuwang in Honan. In 1894, the mission moved to Changte (Changde in the Pinyin romanization). For the next several years, Jonathan's time was spent on preaching tours, with small but growing results. The family's first furlough back to Canada took place during 1894-1895. After their return, Jonathan continued his tours. Rosalind stayed in Changte and had Bible classes for local women in addition to running the home. The Goforths began to hold "open house" for Chinese visitors, since many were intensely curious about western life style and this provided a good opportunity for evangelizing. Thousands were led through the home between 1894 and 1899. There was some criticism, however, by other missionaries of this policy, as they felt it lowered the Chinese opinion of westerners.

In 1900, the so-called Boxer Rebellion broke out. All foreigners in China were in great physical danger from Chinese infuriated by the years of insults and humiliation their nation had suffered from the West and Japan. In June, the missionaries in Changte received word from the American consul in Chefoo to flee south. The party set out for Hankow. On July 7, outside of Hsintien, the party was attacked by a mob, all their property taken, and Jonathan was beaten almost to death. They found refuge in a village of Moslems. After many more adventures, the missionaries reached Hankow. They went from there to Shanghai and from Shanghai returned to Canada.

Jonathan returned to Honan in 1901, as soon as it was feasible, and in July, 1902, Rosalind and the children left Canada to join him. The work of the field had been revised and Jonathan had received the area northeast to northwest of the city. He decided to attempt a different method of evangelizing. He would take his family with him, rather than leave them in Changte. He would not have to return to the mission base for months at a time. The family would move to a village and stay for a month while Jonathan and his helpers preached to the men and Rosalind preached to the women. After about a month, they would move on. Rosalind at first strongly opposed the plan for fear that the conditions would be too unhygienic for the health of the children. She finally acquiesced, however. (They had lost five children by 1901. All of their other children survived.) Other missionaries, however, doubted the wisdom of Jonathan's methods. The Presbytery finally allowed him to put them into practice on a three-year trial basis and he had to finance the work at his own expense. The trial proved successful and from February to June and September to December each year the Goforth family went on evangelizing tours. As the children grew older, they were sent to the boarding school at Chefoo and then to Canada for their higher education.

About 1904, Jonathan received a copy of Charles Finney's Lectures on Revivals. He became convinced that there were laws which, if followed, would bring great spiritual awakenings. He was also excited by the stories he began to hear about the Welsh revival. He began to spend many hours in Bible study and prayer studying the nature of revivals. In 1907, Jonathan was chosen to accompany the foreign mission secretary of his Board, R. P. MacKay, on a trip to Korea. They arrived in Korea to find themselves in the midst of a revival that stirred them deeply. They returned to Honan through Manchuria and, as Jonathan described the Korean experience to crowds at Manchurian mission stations, he received invitations to hold evangelistic meetings in that province. With difficulty, he received permission from the Honan Presbytery to go. The few weeks he spent in Manchuria in February, 1908, were a turning point in his life, for he preached to large crowds in many places and became closely associated with the religious enthusiasm that was manifesting itself in the province. From this time forward, Jonathan was known throughout China as an evangelist.

In 1908, the Honan Presbytery gave Goforth permission to go virtually full-time into evangelism all through China. Because Jonathan would be constantly traveling, Rosalind returned with the children to Canada in July to await his next furlough, when they would be reunited. Jonathan preached in many towns, especially in the province of Shansi (Shanxi in the Pinyin romanization). He also helped train Chinese evangelists and was one of the prime movers behind the formation of a Presbytery of Chinese believers in 1909. By 1912, eight Chinese men had been ordained as ministers.

Also in 1909, Jonathan left for furlough. He returned to Canada via London, England, where he preached about the revivals in China. After a brief time in Toronto, he attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. There he again described the revivals in China and Korea and he emphasized the need of Canadian church leaders to renew their faith and to give more active support to evangelism. The speech won him enemies and he began to acquire a reputation among some as a fanatic, difficult to get along with. Jonathan was appointed a delegate to the World Missionary Conference, held in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. He and his family went to Britain where, in addition to attending the conference, Jonathan held revival meetings and spoke at Spurgeon's Tabernacle and the Keswick meetings.

By August, 1910, Jonathan, Rosalind, and their children were back in Honan. Goforth was required by the Home Board of his church to spend less time preaching at revival meetings. He and Rosalind were assigned to Weihuifu. In 1914, they returned to Changte. Jonathan gave part of his time to helping start churches in Honan and part of his time training Chinese evangelists.

In 1915, Knox College awarded Jonathan an honorary Doctorate of Divinity. Jonathan and Rosalind,in that same year, went on a tour of China Inland Mission stations south of the Yangtze River, during which Jonathan preached at many revival meetings. By the end of the tour, his health, which had been precarious before the tour, was much worse. The Goforth family returned to Canada in 1916 and the next year was spent in rest. The Goforths were back in China by the fall of 1917 to face a serious personal and professional crisis. Jonathan had felt for some time that some missionaries coming to the field were not fully committed to the Christian faith as he understood it and were not preaching the full Christian Gospel. This was a part of the greater fundamentalist-modernist conflict which was gaining impetus throughout Protestant churches in North America. Because Jonathan could not accept a Presbytery decision to allow both fundamentalists and liberals to preach as they felt led, he sent his resignation to the Home Board. The Board allowed him to remain a member of the mission, but removed him from any responsibility for the Changte field. He was now free to evangelize where he chose in China. A family home was built in Kikungshan (Jigongshan in the Pinyin romanization), but Jonathan and Rosalind spent most of the next few years traveling.

In 1919, the Goforths received an invitation from the warlord Feng Yu-hsiang to hold meetings for his troops. Feng had himself been converted at a meeting led by John R. Mott. He was called, especially by missionaries, the Christian General. Besides his faith, he was also known for the orderly conduct of his troops and his efforts to supply his men with a vocational education as well as training as soldiers. Both Jonathan and Rosalind became friends and strong supporters of Feng. Jonathan preached to his troops several times in the coming years.

In 1920, Honan and other parts of north central China faced severe famine. Rosalind wrote articles for western magazines and newspapers and helped administer the funds that were raised to buy relief supplies. The Chinese government later gave her a medal in recognition of her efforts. Later the same year, she and Jonathan went on a speaking tour of south China, and then spent time working with Feng's army in Honan. At about the same time, Rosalind published two books, Chinese Diamonds for the King of Kings (1920) and How I Know God Answers Prayer (1921). In 1923, Rosalind had to return to Canada because of poor health. In the spring of 1924 Jonathan joined her there on furlough.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada was debating whether to unite with other churches in the country. Partly because he feared that the liberal tendencies in the proposed union would be very strong, Jonathan voted against it. The Presbyterian Church in Canada was maintained as a separate organization. The North Honan field as a mission, however, went into the Union. Consequently, the Goforths were without a mission field. Jonathan was commissioned by the church to find a new field of service for their missionaries. He returned with Rosalind to China in early 1926. Their daughter, Mary, returned with them along with her husband, Rev. Robert Moynan. However, the Moynans had to return to Canada in 1927. After many false starts and dead ends, Jonathan received a letter from Rev. James McCammon suggesting that he consider Manchuria. In January, 1927, Jonathan, Rosalind, and three other missionaries traveled to their new field, the territory west of the Southern Manchurian Railway. The major station for the field was established at Szepingkai on May 1, 1927. The next eight years were extraordinarily busy. Jonathan continued to hold evangelistic meetings in addition to establishing churches and helping to train new missionaries. He and Rosalind wrote a book about their experiences entitled Miracle Lives of China, which was published in 1931. With the help of his son Fred, he prepared another book, By My Spirit, which was about Christian revivals in China and which was published after Jonathan's death. Rosalind, as she had been doing for many years, wrote articles about the work for western magazines and newspapers and sent hundreds of letters to supporters. She also did evangelistic work among women. By 1935, there were two resident missionary stations (Szepingkai and Taonan) and 30 outstations. There were seven western missionaries (including Jonathan, Rosalind, and their son Paul) and 61 Chinese evangelists and Bible women. Besides the work among Chinese and Manchus, there was a Mongolian evangelist who preached to his people. Jonathan's principle associate and eventual successor as head of the mission was Allan Reoch.

The Goforths had a furlough to Canada in 1930. During the furlough, Rosalind had a successful operation for cataracts. However, Jonathan also developed cataracts and the operation on his right eye was not successful. By April, 1931, he was completely blind in his right eye. In May, Jonathan, Rosalind, and Paul returned to Manchuria, where the work was hampered by shortages of workers and funds. However, the growth in the number of converts and baptisms continued. (By 1934, there had been 2,554 people baptized and a community of 3,261 Christians was served by the mission.) Jonathan became completely blind in March, 1933. With the help of a Chinese companion, he continued to preach at evangelistic meetings and direct the mission. However, his health continued to decline and when Rosalind, too, became ill in December, 1934, they decided the time had come to return to Canada for good.

Through much of 1935 and 1936, Jonathan led evangelistic meetings throughout Canada. But many ministers in the church denounced his preaching as emotional or reactionary and would not let him preach in their pulpits. The controversies and the extensive speaking tours took their toll of his strength. On October 8, 1936, he died in his sleep.

Rosalind continued to live in Toronto, where she and Jonathan had settled on their return from China. She spoke and wrote to help raise money for the mission in Manchuria. She also wrote two books based on the work of her husband and herself: Goforth of China (1937) and Climbing (1940). The latter was her autobiography. She died May 31, 1942, of angina.

 



 
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