1829  — 1893

John Nevius

Helen Nevius (1833-1910)

Evangelist. Author. Trainer of Chinese Christians leaders.

John Nevius was an American Presbyterian missionary in China who engaged in itinerant preaching most of the year and intensive discipleship training for the remaining months. He is best known for the Nevius method of church planting that shaped the growth of the Protestant church in Korea.

Early Life

John Livingston Nevius was born March 4, 1829, near Ovid, in Seneca County, New York. His family attended a Presbyterian church. A devout Christian, Benjamin Nevius taught Sunday school and was known as a man of prayer. After only four years of very happy married life, his father died when John was only eighteen months old. Of his mother, Nevius wrote, “I am sure that nothing but strength from God supported my mother under this affliction. She has told me so. She wrote a diary at the time which portrays her feelings most touchingly. I have often read it with tears – tears of gladness that I had such a father and mother; tears of sorrow that I lost such a father.” She later remarried, and he spoke of his stepfather as “a kind father” (Life 27).

He did not accompany the rest of the family when his mother remarried and moved to New England for a year, but remained to live with his grandparents. He remembered his grandfather with great affection. “He was so good, so amusing so instructive, so unostentatious” (Life 27). He was chiefly taken care of by his aunt Ellen who, he recalls, “indulged” him, especially at night, when he was terrified of being left in the dark, a fear that lasted many years.

“I have been told that when I was four years old, I could read very cleverly,” he recalled later, but, he added, “I do not think I ever in my life had the advantage of the instruction of a really judicious teacher” (Life 29). He remembered, too, that he was “willful and envious,” but that he was “a peculiarly thoughtful boy. Since my earliest recollection I have had fits of melancholy” (Life 29).

When he was nine, he was sent to the academy in Ovid village, where the instruction was “a tiresome task for the memory, without sufficient explanations on the part of the teachers to make it interesting… One advantage of my going to school at Ovid was the walk. To this I attribute my habit and fondness for exercise” (Life 30). In his free time, he would take long walks in the woods with his gun, hunting along the way. He liked to work on the farm, too, “and it was my fault that I usually overdid it… I think I have injured my constitution by overtasking my strength,” he recalled. In these recollections, we see signs of his later life, with its endless itinerations in China, his development as a teacher who tried to help his Chinese students understand, and his tendency to push himself too hard, which ultimately led to a relatively early death (Life 33).

After seven years at Ovid Academy, at age sixteen, he and his brother Reuben entered Union College, Schenectady, New York, in 1845, as a sophomore. While in college, he often wrote to his mother, telling her all the news, and making inquiries about methods of cultivating fruit trees, a passion with which he continued all his life. Her replies sometimes contained reminders that she often prayed for his conversion. As often as he could, he took long walks; he also became “something of a gymnast” (Life 39). Soon after entering the college, he received an invitation to join an elite secret society, Kappa Alpha, the activities of which he enjoyed immensely.

In 1846 he took a year off to teach, mostly for “self-improvement” (Life 40). In May of 1847, he returned to college and graduated in 1848. He begins to mention Helen, who was from his home town, during this time.

In her biography, his wife Helen (1833-1910) states, “I am sure nothing had more influence in the formation of the character of John Livingston Nevius than the beautiful scenery of his early home” in Seneca County, New York (Life 46). “Many highly educated, intellectual people” lived there in “beautiful homes, where he was always a welcome guest. Books of the best sort were abundant, yet not too many. They were read, criticized, appreciated, and poetry was committed to memory. John would, on occasion, fifty years later, recite it in a delightful way peculiarly his own” (Life 47).

Like many other enterprising young men, he sailed for Georgia in October 1849, “to seek his fortune.” “It was a bitter trial to his mother that neither of her sons had avowed his intention of living a Christian life” (Life 49). Just before his departure, “as she clasped him in a loving embrace, she said: ‘John, if you were going away to be a missionary to the heathens, and I should never see you again in this world, that I could bear; but this I cannot!’” She didn’t know that he was even then in the midst of an agonizing spiritual struggle. It was on this Southern trip that he began to keep a journal. Shortly afterward arrive in South Carolina, his journal records that he tried to live a religious and moral life, but could not.

His journal records his amazement at seeing upper-class white and “negro” children playing together, showing “an attachment for each other which I had not expected to find,” and his surprise at the warmth of the famed “Southern hospitality” with which many whites extended to him (Life 53-54).

On November 27, 1849, he wrote the letter that his mother had longed to receive, in which he said, “I now know that I am not capable, of myself, of the first holy thoughts or aspiration; that I am indebted for everything to God…” (Life 57). And to his brother, he confided, “In a word, I am changed… I now feel my utter inability to take the first step in the Christian life without divine aid… My only hope is in God’s mercy through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” (Life 58). A return letter brought the happy news that Reuben had been similarly converted from nominal Christianity to a living faith.

In his journal, he wrote of the first time he received the Lord’s Supper: “My trust is in him [Christ]. My prayer is for faith; for the influence of the Holy Spirit; for humility; for more correct ideas of God’s character and the relations which this world sustains to eternity; that I may have a heart full of love to God and my fellow-men, and also to the Bible as the revealed Word of God, and have true views of the depth of my own sinfulness” (Life 60). Surely, it was such sincere piety that would make his later ministry among Chinese so singularly fruitful.

While his brother Reuben had become an Episcopalian, John became more and more convinced of the doctrines held by Presbyterians, including election.

In December 1850, sensing the leading of God to become a minister of the Gospel, he left Georgia and entered Princeton Theological Seminary. Up to now, he, like other young men, “had been ambitious for wealth and distinction,” and wanted to be a lawyer. A month after arriving in Princeton, he wrote, “I have now an object in life – the glory of God and the salvation of my own soul and the souls of others” (Life 73). He experienced a temporary period of spiritual coldness, during which “I hardly dared to lift my eyes to heaven. At an unexpected moment God has seen fit to baptize me anew with his Spirit; to give me the spirit of adoption, and to shed abroad his love in my heart, making me desire to consecrate myself wholly and entirely to him, to do or suffer all his righteous will” (Life 74).

He soon drew up a list of rules for his life, one of which was: “Trusting the future entirely to God with full confidence, and exercising humble submission to all his righteous will, to pray that he will direct me in the course which will best promote his glory, and enable me every day to spend my time so as best to prepare myself for the station which he has allotted for me” (Hunt 191). He also resolved to allow himself only six hours of sleep a night; if he continued this practice, it may have contributed to his later tiredness and, perhaps, his premature death. Another resolution was “to make the Bible my chief study,” which he did for the rest of his life, though he loved literature and all fields of knowledge.

The future course of his life reflects a journal entry in January 1851: “I have now an object in life – the glory of God and the salvation of my own soul and the souls of others” (Life 73).

Marriage and Missions

He had met Helen Coan in 1848. The two began to develop a closer relationship during the summer of 1852. She wrote, ‘It was then that we exchanged brotherly and sisterly friendship of long-standing for something much dearer” (Life 83). He began writing long letters to “Nell” about his studies, their future life together, and suggestions of books for her to read.

He also confessed problems he was having in imitating the love of Christ. Already at this early stage in his life, he was aware of his limitations and how to overcome them: “I know I am no genius, but I have unbounded confidence in strenuous, uniform, persevering, and systematic exertion” (Life, 66). More importantly, he was aware of his character flaws, which he candidly shared with Helen in his letters: Selfishness, pride, “want [lack] of order and neatness.” The remedy was to rely on “the principle of grace in the heart… May God make our hearts, cleansed and purified, fit temples for the Holy Spirit t dwell in” (Life 92).

He told Helen that he wanted a wife as “some one to lean upon, some one to advise me, some one to sympathize with me, to encourage me, to scold me and whip me, and keep me in the path of duty” (Life 97).

Though still a new convert, John Nevius gives abundant evidence in his journal of a man seeking to be fully dedicated to God and his service, a quality that surely presaged fruitfulness as a missionary. He also records several instances of being filled with the Holy Spirit, giving him a new sense of God’s love for him and a stronger desire to consecrate himself “wholly and entirely to him, to do or suffer all his righteous will” (Life 74).

An address at the seminary by Walter Lowrie, Corresponding Secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, caused him seriously to consider becoming a missionary. In March 1853, he wrote Helen that he intended to become a missionary to Siam [Thailand] or China, if God willed. After Helen consented to go with him, John applied for assignment to the work in Ningbo, one of five treaty ports open to foreigners at the time.

When Helen wrote to him saying that a mutual acquaintance had charged that “one motive which actuates missionaries is the desire of getting ‘merit’ for their self-sacrifice,” he replied that he had searched his heart and, “I believe I have been driven to the determination to be a missionary by a solemn and increasingly oppressive sense of duty taught me by God’s Word, and the call of providence and the church and God’s spirit. I feel that few have been so much blessed and are so much indebted to God as I am, and I desire to consecrate my all to him” (Life 109).

After being accepted by the Board, he was ordained. They were married at Helen’s home in Seneca County, New York, on June 15, 1853. Though Helen’s father, a physician, did not forbid her to marry John, he was not happy that she was marrying a missionary. Nonetheless, their marriage was a happy one from the beginning. We can assume that Chinese who stayed in their home in later years absorbed a great deal from their marital example. They sailed for China from Boston in September 1853, arriving in Shanghai six months later.

Early Years in China

In Shanghai, they met several pioneer missionaries from various societies and backgrounds, including J. Hudson Taylor. After a short stay, they sailed to Ningbo, where they immediately began studying the local dialect.

With the aid of a method for writing the Ningbo dialect in Romanized letters, they were quick learners. Perhaps being musical helped in learning a tonal language. Helen wrote that he played the flute and she the guitar, and that “in those days we both sang; John had a capital bass voice,” though both he and Helen later injured their voices through over-exertion (Life 116). Still, Helen records that his “progress, which was certainly unusual, was due to unremitting hard work. He denied himself all recreation except such as he believed absolutely necessary for his health of body and mind. He gave up…Hebrew and Latin, and read but little Greek and, with the exception of theological works and Bible commentaries, he did not read one English book for ten years!” (Life 128-129).

Helen wrote that she read a great deal in a variety of literature, and during meals often “entertained him with the resume of a story, or a choice bit of history, or anecdotes; and thus, in a second-hand way, he had some drops from the great sea of literature, into which it would have been such a delight to him to plunge, could he have felt it right for him to do so” (Life 129). Here we see both John’s self-discipline and Helen’s immense usefulness to her husband.” (For more on Helen Nevius, see her BDCC article.)

Unlike J. Hudson Taylor, Nevius did not adopt the Chinese dress. He didn’t object to others wearing Chinese clothes, but he found the long skirts too restrictive for his active personality and thought that wearing foreign clothes did not hinder his ministry among the Chinese. “The look of love and sympathy which beamed from his face; the kind, strong arm thrown round the shoulder of a native friend, or, it might be, a stranger; and the deed of kindness which ‘make the world akin,’ need no change in apparel to win the natives to him” (Life 137).

Nevius began his lifelong habit of going on preaching tours in the areas around the city. When possible, he took along “an older and more experienced missionary. He was always ready to learn and willing to take advice, which made his society pleasant to older men, and was of the greatest advantage to him” (Life 138). He also distributed books as an auxiliary to preaching. In general, he found the people friendly and receptive, though sometimes he met an indifferent or even hostile response.

These itinerations show that Nevius, like Hudson Taylor and some other missionaries, did not want to confine his ministry to the port cities where he lived. These were more like bases from which he extended the reach of the gospel into the interior. On many occasions, their journals record the lovely scenery that could be enjoyed in much of eastern and southern China. (Urbanization and industrialization have since turned most of these areas into ugly wastelands.)

In about a year, Nevius “was carrying a normal load of preaching and teaching in Chinese” (Hunt 192).

Helen seems never to have enjoyed robust health. In 1856 she experienced a breakdown that obliged them to move her to a cooler place about twenty miles from Ningbo. Both she and John “had frequent and severe attacks of fever and ague, which, however, was not thought a matter of great importance; it was so common there [southern China], so much a matter of course, though I am sure Mr. Nevius never fully recovered from the effects of it. He had ever afterward occasional seasons of great physical depression and tendency to fever, from which nothing but a few doses of quinine could relieve him” (Life 145-146).

The rest did not restore Helen’s health, however, so she returned to the United States in December 1857. Friends believed that John should go with her, but both of them were convinced that he should remain in China. At the time, Nevius considered it likely that she would die before him, but in the end she outlived him long enough to write his biography.

During the year 1857, John began writing a series of articles on the “religions and superstitions of China,” which were later incorporated into his book, China and the Chinese. He took the time and the trouble to study his audience thoroughly so that he could understand them and know how best to introduce the truths of Christianity to them.

He also composed his first book in Chinese, The Disciple’s Guide, written first in the Ningbo Romanized dialect and later in Mandarin, the literary language. In her biography decades later, Helen said, “It has been very useful, and is one of the most valued of the works made especially for the native Christians.” She continues, “He then translated Abbott’s Mother at Home in the Romanized system” (Life 151).

While Helen was away, the first outstation was opened by a Chinese convert named “Zia,” sent by Miss Aldersey, headmistress of a school in Ningbo. The success of this initial outreach by a native preacher convinced Nevius of the potential of well-trained Chinese evangelists and pastors; this became the core of his later “Nevius Method” of planting churches in China. When he visited the converts, he was especially pleased that they had put away their idols, worshiped on the Lord’s Day, knew their Bibles well, and made real sacrifices to follow Christ.

He examined several for baptism, receiving seven of them and requiring the others to wait until they were more ready. Here we see his commitment to quality in converts, not quantity. This same insistence of signs of genuine conversion marked his later ministry and his “Method.” Two of the Chinese who served as pastors were graduates of their school in Ningbo. One asked him to “tell Mrs. Nevius that she is still teaching music in China, through us. I am teaching our men, and my wife the women” (Life 156).

Helen returned to the United States in 1857 for a year and a half. While she was gone, Nevius engaged in itinerant preaching, wrote articles on China for new missionaries, and a simple catechism for Chinese believers.

Helen returned in 1858. The next year, because of the constant threat posed by the Taiping rebels, they took refuge in Japan for eight months. While there, he spent his time “committing to memory parts of the Chinese classics and learning to form with a camel’s-hair pen a few thousand characters.” He also worked on material for a “Compendium of Systematic Theology” and learned enough Japanese to be able to converse with the locals (Life 202).

In 1858-1859, they lived for a while in Hangzhou, where they found a warm welcome among the Chinese, including the highest officials, but anti-foreign feelings aroused by the Anglo-French war with China forced them to return to the relative safety of Ningbo. Soon after they left Hangzhou, the Taiping rebels captured and sacked the city, killing thousands and wreaking destruction everywhere.

Move to Shandong Province

They sailed back to Ningbo in early 1861. In May, however, political turmoil and the severity of the weather in Ningbo led them to re-locate to Shandong Province. Nevius continued his itinerant ministry, attempting to visit twice a year - spring and fall - all the churches assigned to his care for instruction, discipline, and encouragement as well as evangelism.

A devastating flood in August 1863 ruined much of their home and the rooms for the girls’ school. It took months before they thoroughly dried out. An outbreak of cholera and renewed Taiping incursions prompted them to move to the south of China and then back to America in the fall of 1864. Helen rested well, but John worked hard revising and printing the books he had written and spoke at many churches and conferences. Almost everywhere, his preaching met with a very warm response. In Washington, D.C., the audience included the President. In 1869 Nevius was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity (DD) degree by Union College.

Away from home on one such trip, he wrote to Helen: “I only half enjoy my visits anywhere without you. This is a greater trial to me than you can imagine” (Life 264).

After three and a half years in the United States, they returned to China in 1869. John taught at the newly opened theological college in Hangzhou for seven months. Helen wrote, “This extended separation” was “one of the heaviest trials” of their lives (Life 282). Though they usually met with friendliness, in 1870, anti-foreign feeling grew so intense that their Chinese friends urged them to leave and seek safety elsewhere, which they did. While in Shanghai, Nevius was chosen to be Moderator of the first Synod of the Presbyterian Church in China.

To Yantai (Chefoo)

In 1871, they moved to Yantai (Chefoo) and built a house, where they lived for the rest of their time in China. Nevius designed the complex of buildings and did much of the work himself. He also dug a deep well through rock, to the amazement of the Chinese, who considered the project impossible and the site unlivable because of the lack of water. Always deeply interested in the cultivation of fruit trees, Nevius planted species of American fruit trees on their property. Soon, the yield was so bountiful that he had to hire Chinese Christians to manage the growing business.

In response to criticisms that missionaries live too luxuriously, enjoying large houses, he described the intended use of the buildings for their girls’ boarding schools, the twice-yearly residential training institutes for Chinese church leaders, their servants, and the steady stream of guests, including tired and ailing missionaries and visitors from overseas. Former President U.S. Grant visited them once in 1879.

From 1872 to 1881, Nevius engaged in itineration. He traveled on horseback to sixty preaching points as far as 300 miles south and 200 miles west of Yantai. He was sorry to leave Helen alone so much of the time but felt that he had “a special fitness for this kind of work. I can live and thrive on Chinese food, and the rough life I have to lead rather agrees with me” (Life 306).

Especially in the earlier years, before new churches were formed, he devoted most of his efforts to evangelism, which he regarded “as second in importance to none other” (Life 345). When Helen asked what success he’d had, he would say, “Nothing especial as yet,” but always added, “but in God’s own time, we shall see results” (Life 346). “Results” came slowly, but in time he saw more and more converts, and churches were formed.

He generally worked too hard. In 1875 he had to return from one trip with an illness that “was more serious than he supposed. For months – perhaps years – he never quite recovered from it. A dull heaviness in the back of his head, and difficulty in lying long on his back, and inability to use his mind as he had before, continued permanently” (Life 311).

When a great famine broke out in 1877, like many missionaries, Nevius became heavily involved in famine relief. The crisis made him see that “his duty [was] to lay aside all other work for the time being and give himself up to the one great effort to save lives and relieve physical suffering” (Life 318). This practical demonstration of love for the Chinese opened up new doors for the gospel. When he was about to return home, the town officials gave him a huge feast and a banner expressing their gratitude. By the time he left, he had been able to distribute funds to more than thirty thousand people in almost four hundred villages.

Not content with attending only to the material needs of the people, Nevius made sure that they heard the gospel also. His Chinese assistants attended morning and evening prayers and special Sunday services. “Much preaching was done, and many books distributed” (Life 329). The obvious love which motivated these efforts led to many openings for the message of Christ in later years. He often preached to hundreds at a time. Many stayed behind or came later to hear more, including women and scholars.

As groups of believers formed, he carefully examined candidates for baptism to see whether they understood the gospel and had experienced a radical change of life. He insisted on a solid commitment to Christ. Sometimes, candidates for baptism had to wait as long as a year. To aid in teaching, he used a simple catechism to be memorized. Never seeking large numbers of converts, he preferred to spend more time with a few people in quiet talks with individuals. He also encouraged new believers to share their faith with unconverted family and friends as a way to deepen their own faith and spread the gospel; in this, they would be far more effective than a foreign missionary.


Helen’s poor health necessitated yet another return to America for her in 1879. He joined her the next year. When on furlough, “he spoke with great power” about God’s work in China and the cause of missions in general (Life 395). He always gave the Chinese credit for their intelligence and physical strength and expressed confidence in the ability of the men whom he had trained to be effective evangelists and pastors.

At the same time, “he never withheld the darker, sadder truth that as a people they are degraded…and that nothing but the gospel of Christ can save them as a nation or as individuals” (Life 396).

Return to China

Both of Helen’s parents died in February 1882. When the Neviuses returned to China, they took with him Helen’s cousin and close friend since childhood, Miss Lisle Bainbridge. She went not as a missionary but as a member of the family, and was a great comfort and help to Helen after John’s death. In 1882, Miss Mindora L. Berry came to live with them for two years.

Not long after returning to China, Nevius set out on an itineration that would last the winter. He found that though the outstations had mostly prospered, many knotty problems awaited his attention. Protestant Christians wanted to imitate the Roman Catholics in bringing lawsuits against those who had, they thought, wronged them, and expected the missionary to help them. Though Nevius sometimes did lend assistance, he was in general most reluctant to become involved, preferring, rather, that the believers learn to suffer injustice.

He resumed his itineration, which he continued for the next eight years or so. “From January to May, usually with another missionary, he preached, taught, visited, baptized, counseled, and pastored. From June till August, thirty to forty men came from rural areas to the Nevius home, where they spent five hours each day in systematic Bible study. Then from September to December, Nevius traveled again” (Hunt 193).

When he was at home, his day was filled with study, composing books and tracts, correspondence, preaching in the street chapel, an hour’s exercise in the afternoon, and a multitude of tasks required of him as a leader in the mission and just for living in China.

Nevius was invited to speak about his missionary methods at the second general missionary conference of China in Shanghai. On their way home on furlough in June 1889, they stopped over in Korea to tell Presbyterian missionaries there about his method of growing indigenous Chinese churches. His principles so shaped the Protestant church in Korea that much missionary work, as well as local church leadership and organization, follow his original design to this day. (See “the Nevius Method” below.)

They returned to China in 1892, planning to resume their previous work. The day before, he was to set out on another round of itineration (October 19, 1893), but then Nevius suffered a fatal heart attack. He was sixty-four.

Bible and Theology Classes

Nevius worked methodically, looking to God to transform Chinese by the careful study of the Word of God and the inner transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit. Starting in the spring of 1884, another missionary, J. H. Laughlin, joined him on these itinerations, reducing his workload and providing much needed encouragement and companionship. Though they often passed the hours in silence, sometimes they read books of history and current literature to each other. After Nevius died, his friend said that when he spoke to new missionaries, he charged them, “‘Get into full sympathy with the Chinese; love them.’ His own life, I afterward learned, was this charge in execution” (Life 419).

Laughlin added:

“The affairs of the stations he managed with painstaking care, patience, and skill. His knowledge of his parishioners was remarkable. He was personally acquainted with each of them, knew their special foibles, weaknesses, and virtues. The multitude of his cares did not long weigh on Dr. Nevius’ spirits. A most cheerful religion was his. The journey between the stations was always beguiled by conversation, recitation of poems or orations, singing, and reading”

which Laughlin did for him (Life 419-420).

Nevius also cared for the physical needs of his people. Laughlin wrote, “Many were the seeds, grains, trees, and vines he imported and strove to introduce,” along with some Western products (Life 421). He and Helen bought a barren piece of land adjacent to their property and turned it into a garden that produced a variety of foreign fruit trees so superior to local fruits that the Chinese soon adopted them. He thus greatly improved the agricultural economy of Shandong. Helen wrote that this endeavor “illustrated to his people that it is a missionary’s duty to seek, in every possible way, not only the spiritual and eternal good of the people he lives among, but also their temporal and physical good” (Life 432). After his death, she did her best to carry out his plans for fruit cultivation.

Despite failing health, Nevius resumed his annual itinerations in 1886, but resigned his care of the country stations n 1887, though he stated his intention to visit new locations. Not long before his death, Helen wrote his mother, “His has been a very useful life, and an uncommonly happy one… His spirits are never depressed, and he is quite as merry and full of fun as ever he was… I know of no other missionary, old or young, who is so uniformly cheerful and contented” (Life 434).

When another famine struck Shandong in 1888, which lasted into 1889, he once again took money to relieve the distress of the believers in his country stations. Though he could not visit them all personally, he supervised the distribution of funds. More importantly, he penned powerful letters to the foreign community in China, begging them to contribute as much as they could. Almost all the missionaries in the province went personally to the most affected places to help out.

In 1889 Nevius spent a great deal of time and labor on a book showing the differences between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, to counter the inroads that Roman Catholics had begun to make in Shandong. He shrank from this very unpleasant work but felt compelled to it: “We are driven to the necessity of appearing before the heathen as two branches of the church of Christ in opposition to each other” (Life 440). He also prepared a book for his theological students entitled Analysis of Romans, with Questions.

During the winter of 1884, Nevius was not well, though still “able to accomplish a great deal of literary work” (Life 421). In that year, Nevius decided to take only one tour to the outstations, and after that, he stayed home and let other younger men take his place. He concentrated on his literary work instead. For example, he prepared a book on “Questions on the Acts of the Apostles” in Chinese for the country churches.

When the second general conference of missionaries was convened in Shanghai in 1890, Nevius received the high honor of being appointed as one of two permanent presidents of the gathering, which lasted two weeks. Helen wrote: “Many who attended the conference have told me how beautifully he presided – with what grace and dignity; with an equal blending of firmness and kindness, and his habitual and never-failing deference to the opinions of others” (Life 446). For this strategic meeting he prepared a paper: “A Historical Review of Missionary Methods, Past and Present, in China,” and spoke on a half a dozen other subjects.

This paper distilled the essence of two books he had published, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (1885) and Methods of Missions Work (1886), in which he explained the principles of what later became known as the “Nevius Method” of missionary work. “The text became required reading for most Presbyterian missionaries to China and Korea for over fifty years” after its publication (Chao 418).

On their way home to America in 1890, they stopped in Korea, where Nevius had been requested to share with the younger missionaries his now-famous “method.” Helen writes, “It was touching to see how the young missionaries clustered around him as round a father, with affection and deference, asking his advice on many questions” (Life 447-448).

They later put into practice these principles so well that the amazing growth of the church in Korea is often traced to this plan.

Literary Work

When not traveling or teaching, Nevius spent all his spare time either writing books or editing the work of others. Helen writes, “In every book which I myself have written he has taken great interest, and given me the advantage of his criticisms and corrections; and for many other persons he did the same in the kindest and most unselfish spirit” (Life 413).

For the Christians in the outstations, he wrote a Manuel for Inquirers. This included “General directions for prosecuting Scripture studies; forms of prayer; the Apostles’ Creed, and select passages of Scripture to be committed to memory; with a large selection of Scripture stories and parables, and directions as to the way in which they are to be recited and explained.” The Manual also included “rules for the governance of stations; duties of the leaders and rules for their guidance; …a form of church covenant; Scripture lessons for preparing for baptism” and other services; “a short Scripture catechism; and a short essay on the duty of every Christian to make known the gospel to others.” Appendices included questions to help the readers learn better and a selection of hymns (Life 414-415).

Other works in Chinese were: a “Guide to Heaven,” a tract on ancestral worship; Mark, with Notes; The Assistant’s Manual; and three volumes of a projected four-volume systematic theology.

While on furlough in the United States in 1891, Nevius spoke about missions constantly. When not thus engaged, he poured his energies into his book on Demon Possession, which he treated extremely thoroughly. After a very pleasant (but not sufficiently restful for Nevius) stay at home, they sailed for China in September 1892. On the voyage, Nevius spent hours answering questions from the missionaries bound for China who were on board.

Soon after they returned to Chefoo, Nevius experienced many symptoms of heart trouble, though “his general health remained good, and he was bright and cheerful,” and hoped he could make another journey to the outstations. The presbytery meeting in November tired him so much that Helen advised him not to attend the annual missions meeting. In his last letter to the mission board at home, he said, “I have plenty of important work to do of a literary character, and am constantly tempted to go beyond my strength. With my wife’s help, however, I think I am getting on pretty well” (Life 460).

This new literary work included his participation in the translation of the Mandarin version of the New Testament that the Conference of 1890 had authorized. He was responsible for Luke 8-23 and James 3:1 to Revelation 2:29. In English Nevius wrote San-Poh (1869), China and the Chinese (1869), Methods of Mission Work (1886), and Demon Possession and Allied Themes, published in 1894 after his death.

John Nevius died on October 18, 1893, just as he was preparing for another journey to visit the country stations.

Women’s Ministries

Nevius always valued and spoke highly of the work and lady missionaries, “but he never believed that their work was superior to or more important than that of men.” In particular, in contrast to Hudson Taylor, he strongly disagreed with the idea that “women can never be reached except by women. His own experience…proved the contrary. He knew that fathers, husbands, and brothers, when themselves filled with the love of Christ, must be constrained [that is, inwardly compelled] to preach him to their mothers, wives, and that there could not possibly be more effective missionaries to the women of China than these converted men” (Life 397).

Furthermore, while he considered the work of lady missionaries, including his wife, to be “of very great importance,” and that “there was scarcely one department of missionary work from which they ought to be excluded,” including “schools, women’s classes, house-to-house visiting, and even some kinds of evangelistic work” (Life 397-398). At the same time, he held to the traditional understanding of the priority of men as ministers – a view which Helen reported with obvious agreement.

Like J. Hudson Taylor, he believed strongly that laymen should be sent out from the home church for evangelism: “I think our church has made a mistake in shutting out from the ministry all who have not had a full classical and scientific training, though they may have other qualifications just as important, and may be specially gifted for some positions of influence” (Life 441).

His Character

Nevius was not sinless, as he well knew. While engaged to Helen, he wrote frankly of a major fault in his character: “The cause of all my illnesses which have not been epidemic has been violent and excessive physical exercise… Distinct from this inherent and inherited propensity in my physical nature, there is another, but analogous, tendency in my mental constitution. It is the same impulsive, impetuous, hurrying, driving, reckless spirit, manifesting itself in all intellectual enterprises” (Life 102-103). While we may assume that he moderated these tendencies as he matured, we can also believe that the tendency to do too much and to over-tax himself contributed to his apparently premature death.

Helen wrote that when speaking about their ministry, “It was a noticeable feature…how little attention was attracted to himself and how much to the cause he represented and the people of whom he spoke” (Life 395) When her father became very ill in February 1882, John was “constantly at [his] side. As a nurse, he had few equals; for, together with excellent judgment and ready tact and skill, he had the strong steady arm and hand which” are needed to comfort the terminally sick (Life 401).

A fellow missionary wrote to Helen, telling her how much he admired Nevius’s “strong, loving, beautiful character, so kind and deferential to the opinions of others” (Life 285). In dealing with fellow missionaries with whom he strongly disagreed, with his beautiful charity and toleration to all who differed from him, he did not seek to impose his views or his plans of work upon others” (Life 404).

While at home, he and Helen would read the Bible and pray together for half an hour after breakfast. He rarely had the leisure for private times of reading the Bible and prayer, but when itinerating, he would walk by himself for hours at a time, “when he felt God especially present, and talked with him as a friend talketh with friend.” As he walked far ahead of the others, “the listening angels often heard him singing his favorite hymns… He lived in an atmosphere of prayer, and it seemed to me [Helen] that the communion of his soul with God was so unbroken that it scarcely needed words to express it” (Life 406-407).

Helen, who knew him better than anyone, wrote, “No one who knew my husband would need to be told that he was far removed from being a recluse or ascetic. Still, for long years, he was, I believe, entirely dead to the sinful pleasures of a sinful world…and even many things which in themselves were good and beautiful had, as he neared the bound of time, comparatively little attraction for him, because of his clear realization of the ‘glory that excelleth.’ To use his own words, ‘Time seems so short, and the other world, with all its glories and eternal realities, do dwarfs and overshadows these little things with which our relations are so transient,’” that he only reluctantly entered into some forms of entertainment (Life 427).

The “Nevius Method”

Nevius believed that the “primary and ultimate work of the missionary” was “that of preaching the Gospel,” though he also believed in seeking to meet physical needs, as his famine relief demonstrated (Hunt 193). Unlike many others, he thought that “it is principally by the instrumentality of the living teacher that God will save them that are lost” (Hunt 193). After people have received a knowledge of Christ, they could be given Bibles and taught from the Scriptures, with a reliance on the Holy Spirit to unfold the truths of the Bible to their hearts and minds. In other words, preachers must first introduce the truths about Christ “among the natives first and principally by oral instruction in their mother tongues; by acts of kindness and sympathy; by lives embodying and illustrating the Gospel which they preach” (Hunt 193, quoting Nevius, China and the Chinese, pages 358-359, 367, 369).

From June through August each year, between thirty and forty men would come to their home for systematic Bible study. He emphasized especially the importance of establishing self-propagating, self-governing, and self-supporting churches; Bible study; strict discipline for believers; cooperation with other Christian groups; and “general helpfulness where possible in the economic life problems of the people.” He created a Manual for Inquirers, setting forth rules and regulations for believers; these were also mounted on placards in the chapels. The manual included Bible study methods, how to pray, the Apostles’ Creed, and passages of Scripture to be memorized.

He was a “born teacher.” He often used the lecture form, requiring a student to reproduce his lecture the next day. He taught three or more hours in the morning and two to four hours in the afternoon. Nevius did most of it, though Helen also taught singing. They would invite some of the students to their parlor in the evenings, when “we would have music and conversation, pictures, and any sort of amusement which seemed suitable” (Life 412). After Miss Berry came to live with them, she played the piano and Helen the violin together to entertain the students.

The classes lasted from six weeks to two months, after which the students returned to their churches to teach others.

“As a result of extensive itinerant evangelism in…Shandong for fifteen years, Nevius had established sixty rural outstations by 1885. Now perhaps the most important question facing him was this: What was the most effective way to shepherd these new converts to Christ?” (Chao 418-419). There would never be enough foreign missionaries for this essential task, so “Nevius developed a plan under which local Christian leaders helped oversee new believers” (Chao 419). Though he preached often, Nevius used a teaching style that accorded more with Chinese pedagogical methods.

Nevius’s plan called for local leaders to teach new believers, who were “required to memorise the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and a few other important passages of Scripture. They also had to commit to memory a simple catechism which contained a summary of Christian doctrine. This class instruction took place during the probation period for new converts which could last anywhere from six months to two years, during which “they were expected to attend church services regularly and perform the religious duties of all professing Christians” (Chao 419).

To help the Chinese teachers, Nevius produced “a manual that guided the leader through a systematic teaching programme and supervision of catechumen classes,” the Manual for Inquirers (1885; Chao 419). This manual included “nearly everything a new believer needed to know to embark on the Christian journey,” including prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, Bible stories; how to organized and run the rural outstations; leading worship services; and how to use the material in teaching others. “His guiding principle was ‘Each one teach one’” (Chao 420-421).

This plan, which evolved over many years, had several elements. The following summary comes from C.A. Clark, The Korean Church and the Nevius Methods, as summarized by Hunt (194). It is worth quoting at length (Roman numerals have been replaced by Arabic numerals):

1. Missionary personal evangelism through wide itineration.

2. Self-propagation: every believer a teacher of someone, and a learner from someone else better fitted…

3. Self-government: every group under its chosen unpaid leaders; circuits under their own paid helpers; …circuit meetings to train the people for later…leadership.

4. Self-support: with all chapels provided by the believers; each group, as soon as founded, beginning to pay towards the circuit helper’s salary; even schools to receive but partial subsidy, and that only when being founded; no pastors of single churches provided by foreign funds.

5. Systematic Bible study for every believer under his group leader and circuit helper; and for every leader and helper in the Bible Classes.

6. Strict discipline enforced by Bible penalties.

7. Co-operation and union with other bodies, or at least territorial division.

8. Non-interference in lawsuits or any such matters.

9. General helpfulness where possible in the economic life problems of the people.”

Samuel Chao has listed several other principles (421-422):

1. Each new convert should remain in his place of work and bear witness there. Converts should not be employed by missionaries as their assistants.

2. From the beginning, Chinese evangelists and pastors should be supported by local churches, not by missionaries. Otherwise, they will expect to be paid forever – a prophecy that proved painfully true in the twentieth century!

3. “Let new converts preach the Gospel, without remuneration, if they are gifted, while carrying on their normal life occupation.”

4. New converts are to “live out their Christian walk in their everyday life,” and not “leave the world,” as Buddhists teach.

5. Take advantage of the zeal and enthusiasm of new converts to reach their family and friends.

6. “Do not try to overprotect them financially when they make mistakes” or get involved in lawsuits.

Other principles identified by Chao were:

1. Neither street preaching nor the distribution of Christian literature often resulted in conversions. Instead, he emphasized evangelism and lay witnessing.

2. Local believers should meet in homes and form house churches rather than building church buildings. Nevius did not see church buildings as aids to worship. Instead, he delighted in the beauties of God’s creation and of his redeemed people.

3. “Let laymen conduct Sunday services” after suitable instruction.

6. “Set high standards for church membership.”

As a result of these methods, “his work produced over 1,800 baptisms in his field alone” (Chao 423-425).

He believed strongly that Chinese Christians, suitably trained, would be the most effective evangelists and pastors. Too many barriers prevented foreigners from effective evangelism, even after years of costly training. His own experience confirmed these views: “There has not been a case in which the native has proved unworthy of the confidence placed in him. On the contrary, they have generally far exceeded our expectations” (Life 234). In this conviction, he agreed with Hudson Taylor, though in practice, he was more consistent in equipping Chinese preachers and pastors, and he surpassed all other missionaries in forming Chinese churches that were self-governing, self-propagating, and self-supporting.

Missionaries in Shandong were not as receptive as those in Korea had been. Calvin Mateer, noted for being stubborn, seemed to resent the introduction of new ideas by a younger man, and he severely criticized Nevius and his program.

When considering the later history of the church in China, we are struck by how much gain would have come from using such a plan, and how much trouble would have been avoided!

John Nevius never relied on his efforts or his methods to produce lasting spiritual fruit. “With God’s rich blessing, no result is too great to be hoped for… I am learning more and more the lesson that of myself I can do absolutely nothing, and that when God works everything is easy” (Life 356). “It seems all God’s work; I feel that I have nothing to do with it except as God’s instrument in carrying it on” (Life 362).bdcconline.net/en/stories/jonathan-goforth


Samuel H. Chao, “Conversion Methods: Theory and Practices,” Handbook of Christianity in China. Volume Two: 1800-Present, edited by R.G. Tiedemann. Leiden: Brill, 2010, 417-427.

Everett N. Hunt, Jr., “John Livingston Nevius,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, edited by Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.

Everett N. Hunt, Jr. “John Livingston Nevius,” in Gerald H. Anderson, et al., eds., Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994.

Helen Sanford Coan Nevius, Our Life in China. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1969; 1869.

____________, The Life of John Livingston Nevius: For Forty Years a Missionary in China. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1895. Reprinted by HardPress Publishing, Miami Florida.

John L. Nevius, China and the Chinese. New York: Harper and Row, 1869.

____________, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, 4th ed. Grand Rapids, MI: 1958. First published as Methods of Mission Work, 1886.

____________, Demon Possession and Allied Themes, 2nd ed. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1896.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.