1819  — 1905

James Johnston

Early English Presbyterian Missionary

James Johnston’s stay in China was brief, but his impact on the English Presbyterian (EP) mission was significant. He was the third English Presbyterian missionary to arrive in Amoy (present day Xiamen) in Fujian Province, joining a small group of missionaries planning not only to spread the word of God, but also to set an educational foundation for the Chinese people of the Amoy area. The trajectory of Johnston’s mission changed over time, altering his priority from education to establishing a permanent church with a firm native base of converts. In fact, during his brief stay, between 1854 and 1855, the number of converts in Amoy was so great that Johnston proclaimed it was the most favorable Protestant mission in all of China. Johnston’s spiritual training, his mission in China, including its setbacks and successes, and his life after his untimely departure all paint a picture of a man deeply committed to the English Presbyterian mission in Amoy.

James Johnston was born in Roxboroughshire, Scotland, on December 18, 1819, and ordained a minister of the Gospel in Manchester, England on April 22, 1853, after receiving his theological schooling at the English Presbyterian College and studying methods of teaching at Glasgow Normal Seminary of the Free Church. He replied to appeals of the English Presbyterian Foreign Missions Committee (FMC) to be the third missionary in the field and agreed to join the Rev. William Chamber Burns and Dr. James Hume Young in Amoy.. His journey began on July 14, 1853, as he left South Hampton with the intention of attempting Duff-style educational work in China. Alexander Duff was a missionary in India, and had called out to the EP Synod with appeals for missionary work, which inspired Johnston to take up the work of EP missionaries in China. En route, Johnston stopped in Madras, India, to observe the Duff method first hand. He arrived in Hong Kong on November 12, 1853 and reached Amoy in the third week of December.

Amoy is an island off the SE coast of Fujian Province. The island was a major maritime center in the 17th century. The town of Amoy, named after the island, was the center of the EP mission. This mission, however, spread geographically to encompass more coastal localities in Fujian Province. This region was also known as Banlam. Upon his arrival, Johnston moved in with Dr. Young, who had recently lost his wife, and assumed responsibility for the educational objectives of the mission. Johnston continued the work of his predecessors, such as creating schools and teaching English. In April of 1854, in order to gain a broader perspective on education in China, he went to Shanghai to judge the readiness of the area for the type of educational work the EP Foreign Missions Committee wanted to begin there. Contrary to the Foreign Missions Committee’s plans, Johnston felt that China was not ready for the establishment of Christian educational institutes for the youth of China, either as a primary objective or even just as a prominent part of their missionary work. This revelation was strikingly different from his original intent for his mission. Even though his focus had shifted, Johnston still advocated education for the children of converts, but in their native tongue, as opposed to English language instruction.

When he rejoined EP work in Amoy, he set his sights on establishing a permanent church and ministry in the region. In mid- 1854, when Burns and Young departed, leaving Johnston as the head of the mission in Amoy, he started to widen its geographic reach. He began his language studies around this time, but always struggled with the ability to communicate in the local dialect. Despite these linguistic difficulties, Johnston made great strides in Amoy after the departure of his colleagues. He began to direct a significant portion of his efforts toward Pechuia in August 1854. Arriving in Pechuia on August 25, he quickly began work to reclaim the mission work in the area from the American (Reformed Church of America, RCA) missionaries, as it was originally a part of the English Presbyterian mission. He pushed this reclamation for many reasons. First, he believed that Pechuia was a success and the crowning jewel of their work in China. Secondly, he did not think that America had the right to a monopolistic claim over the area. The American missionaries did not resist the turnover, and Johnston assumed financial responsibility for the area. The American missionaries maintained a presence in Pechuia for pastoral duties, because Johnston lacked the ability to speak the language. Pechuia remained under EP control until Johnston’s departure. Then the American mission reclaimed the area until it was returned to EP control in 1856.

Pechuia became the cornerstone of Johnston’s efforts in area. Traveling between the two locations, however, became problematic. Johnston was intent on using his time as wisely as possible, and therefore, he obtained the “Good News Boat” as a solution. He had a crew of Christians that were unafraid of the thieves that populated the waters at night, enabling him to travel at night so that in the morning he could work right away in either Pechuia, Amoy, or a neighboring village. No one ever harmed the “Good News Boat,” also known as the “Gospel Boat.” Johnston wrote, “Even pirates respected her.” Thus, his trips to Pechuia became less troublesome and more frequent. In May 1855, he wrote that he had been spending nearly all of his Sundays there, leaving Amoy Saturday night, and returning during the day on Monday. He would spend most of his time leading Bible studies in the morning and evening, and holding informal discussions to answer questions and hear students memorize passages. While in Pechuia, he enlarged accommodations in order to increase membership, improved living conditions for individuals working there, and commissioned the building of a separate space for women to worship. Johnston also started a free school in Pechuia and hired a teacher for twelve to fourteen boys, who had been expelled from school previously because they refused to follow orders that contradicted their Christian beliefs.

During the week, when Johnston was back at Amoy, the Chinese took the work of Pechuia upon themselves. Johnston was ill during much of his time spent in China. This, combined with his weak language skills, left a considerable need for assistance in Pechuia. The Chinese natives filled the gap left by Johnston’s limitations and the space between the American missionary work and the EP missionary work. Johnston wrote:

I cannot speak too highly of the spirit of order and brotherly love manifested by that infant Church… [in which] each member seems to feel that the work of an evangelist is laid upon him; and, although not one has as yet been appointed to any office, or offered any reward for his work, they labour, out of love to the Saviour, as much or perhaps mores, than most paid agents would do.

The converts in Pechuia took up the work of the missionaries and helped expand the reach of the mission to nearby cities, notably to Chiobe, where Johnston was impressed by the number of applicants for baptism. During the first year of the church’s existence, converts were beaten, deprived of employment for keeping the Sabbath, and robbed of their fields, their harvest, and their cattle. Despite sufferings and material losses, the people of Pechuia never asked Johnston or the other missionaries for help. The work of Chinese Christians kept Pechuia running during the Johnston period, which encouraged Johnston’s desire to create a permanent church because of this type of local commitment. He worked diligently in Pechuia to convert more locals and individuals from surrounding areas.

Johnston’s missionary style largely characterized his efforts in Pechuia and Amoy. From his arrival, he held opinions on how the mission should operate. He wanted to enlarge the missionary work force, he said, because the “training and teaching of these new Churches [was] a most arduous and important task.” He was a part of the earliest planning to establish a church based on self-government, self-support, and self-propagation. Johnston believed in Chinese agency. Though he wanted the labor forces to be composed of natives, he still advocated supervision by EP missionaries. To achieve the perfect synergy of native labor and EP supervision, he supported the Planetary Method, in which Johnston explained, there would be “a centre or centres from which the Word may radiate, but not beyond the reach of influence of the central power. The radius may be long and reach far, provided that there are intermediate stations to support one another, and all should gravitate to the centre, as planets to the sun.” He believed this would create unity in missionary work, and this type of system called for much of the work on the ground to be completed by Chinese Christians.

Another indication that Johnston supported Chinese agency is the adoption of two sons while in China. When Kow-a’s family persecuted him for his Christian beliefs, Johnston intervened by taking him into his home and acquiring a parental agreement from the British Consul that allowed the boy to live according to his Christian beliefs and for him to attend the EP school. He also adopted a second son, Kwai-a from Pechuia. Kwai-a was a unique adoption because his father was also a convert. Johnston offered him room and board so that Kwai-a would not have to cease schooling and begin work at his father’s business. Johnston did not want to risk “losing such a youth to the future service of the Church.” He also wrote that he believed Kwai-a would “make an excellent evangelist or pastor…,” which further shows Johnston’s commitment to creating a permanent Christian foundation in the area using the local population.

Johnston adopted the American style of oral preaching and instruction as a part of his missionary style. He thought distributing text with instruction was much more effective than disseminating information without the oral guidance to accompany it. By the fall of 1854, Johnston had distributed fourteen hundred copies of the New Testament and had traveled to more than fifty towns and villages to proclaim the Gospel. He was committed to quality control when it came to church admission, stating that “the proofs of progressive knowledge and experience manifested” played a large role in admission. Missionaries feared that if procedures were not stringent, converts would not fully commit to the faith, lacking the instruction needed to properly inform their faith. They also wooried lest converts might triyd to continue their worship of traditional Chinese idols without this thorough examination by the missionaries.

Johnston’s declining health forced him to return to England in 1857. He intended to return to China, but was not able to gain medical clearance. His participation in the missionary work in China did not end with his departure, however. He wrote several missionary books about his experiences and raised a fund for a college in Amoy to educate a native ministry. Shortly upon his return, he married Margaret Corson, with whom he had two children, Jessie and Margaret. Jessie Johnston would later take up her father’s missionary work in Amoy in 1885, and Margaret served as a missionary in Damascus. In 1861, Johnston was living in Glasgow and had answered the call to be the minister at Free St. James Church. During the 1860s, he lost his wife Margaret and married Ellen Macfie of Liverpool, on January 6, 1869, at Dreghorn Castle in Scotland. Still a Presbyterian minister, Johnston had seven more children with Ellen in Scotland prior to their move to Surrey, England in 1880. Later, Johnston moved to St. Leonard on the Sea, Sussex, where he died on October 16, 1905. He was buried in Willerden Church yard.


  • Band, Edward. Working His Purpose Out: The History of the English Presbyterian Mission 1847-1977. London: Presbyterian Church of England Publishing Office, 1948.
  • Cheung, David. Christianity in Modern China: The Making of the First Native Protestant Church. Studies in Christian Mission. 28, Leiden: Brill, 2004.
  • Johnston, James. China and Formosa: The Story of a Successful Mission. London: Hazell,
    Watson, & Viney, Ld., 1898.

About the Author

Erica Mitchell

Erica Mitchell graduated from the University of Virginia in 2010 with High Distinction with a major in History.