Jonathan Goforth: An Open Door in China

Chapter 1
Twice Saved

Five-year-old Jonathan Goforth climbed proudly onto the wagon. He was about to accompany his uncle Tom to the market, where his uncle would sell the grain Jonathan’s father had painstakingly coaxed to grow during a particularly dry summer.

“You can’t sit there, lad. The slightest jolt and you’ll be sliding off the wagon,” said Uncle Tom as Jonathan was about to sit down and make himself comfortable on some sacks of grain. “Here, I’ll move a couple of these sacks aside, and you can nestle down in the hollow between them. You’ll be as safe as a tick in a blanket there,” he continued with a twinkle in his eye.

Jonathan snuggled down securely into the hollow his uncle had created for him, and with a crack of the reins they were off. The two old draft horses pulling the wagon ambled along through the countryside on the five-mile trip to London, Ontario, where the market was located. From his vantage point on the wagon, Jonathan could see farmers out in their fields harvesting wheat and corn.

As the wagon rolled along the dirt road, the horses picked up speed until they almost broke into a run as they descended a slope in the road. The wheels rattled over the rutted road. Suddenly the wagon lurched sharply to the right. Jonathan heard his uncle yell for him to hold on, but it was too late. In the split second it took for the wheels of the wagon to slip into a particularly deep rut, he was pitched from his safe spot between the sacks of grain and was flying through the air. He landed with a thud on the ground beneath the wagon. Searing pain shot up his right side. As he gasped for air, Jonathan noticed to his horror that the back wheel of the loaded wagon was about to roll over him. At the same instant, he felt his uncle’s large hand reach down and grab the back of his shirt. With a jerk of his powerful arm, Uncle Tom pulled Jonathan out of the path of the wheel just before it rolled over the spot where he was lying. As his uncle hauled him back onto the wagon, Jonathan felt his shirt rip in two. He didn’t care; he was alive, and a shirt could be mended.

It took several minutes for Uncle Tom to regain control of the frightened horses and bring the wagon to a halt. “Are you all right, lad?” he asked when he had finally done so.

Jonathan nodded slowly, too shocked to speak.

“It was a close call,” his uncle went on, ruffling Jonathan’s sandy blond hair. “Your shirt is a bit the worse for wear. Still we must be on our way to the market.”

Uncle Tom reset the two sacks, and Jonathan snuggled back into the hollow between them. For the rest of the journey, though, he held tightly on to the corners of the sacks.

Later that night back at the farm as the family gathered round to hear news from London, Uncle Tom recounted the story of how the wagon wheels had gotten caught in a deep rut and had flung Jonathan into the path of the back wheel. Jonathan watched his mother’s eyes widen as she listened.

“Do you hurt anywhere?” Jane Goforth finally asked in her lilting Irish accent.

Jonathan shook his head. “No, Ma,” he replied. “But I did rip my shirt.”

“That’s easily fixed,” she said, smiling down at her seventh child.

Jonathan smiled back. Of all the useful things his mother could do, the thing she prided herself on the most was her ability to make and mend clothes for her husband and eleven children. Indeed, Jonathan often heard his father say she was the best seamstress in all Canada. In a couple of days his shirt would be as good as new.

The next day, Jonathan had a large bruise on his right hip from the fall, and his father gave him a day off from farmwork. Jonathan stayed at home and helped his mother make soap. He and his brothers all took turns doing “women’s work” around the house, since there were ten boys in the family and only one girl.

After the beef fat had been cut up into cubes and placed in a large copper pot on the stove to be boiled down to tallow to make the soap, Jonathan’s mother beckoned for him to sit beside her at the table. She pulled down the family Bible from a shelf and opened it. “I think you’re up to Psalm 78,” she said to her son.

Jonathan began to read from the old Bible. “�‘Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old.’�” He read the entire psalm—all seventy-two verses—to his mother.

When he had finished reading, his mother hugged him. “You did a fine job, son,” she said.

Jonathan felt his chest puff out with pride. He was only five years old, and though he hadn’t started school yet, he could already read! He had learned through listening to his older brothers reciting their lessons after dinner each night.

“Next month is October, and you’ll be going to school with the big children,” said his mother.

Jonathan nodded. “But I’ll still read the Bible to you, no matter how much reciting I have to do at school,” he said.

Reading the Psalms and going to church on Sunday with his mother were the only religious activities Jonathan knew about. Jonathan’s father, Francis, was a hardworking farmer who had migrated from Yorkshire, England, with his father and two brothers. He had been only a teenager then, but by sheer hard work and willpower, now, twenty years later, he owned two productive farms. Working from dawn till dusk, though, left him with little time to think about religion. He never even said grace before a meal or prayed with the children at night. If it weren’t for his mother’s simple faith, Jonathan would have grown up knowing very little about God.

Jonathan did go to school, though not until November, when his father could spare the boys from the farm. Some aspects of school disappointed Jonathan. It felt to him like he was going to have to wait forever for the other five-year-olds in the class to catch up to his reading level. However, there was one thing he loved from the very first day. Beside the chalkboard was a map, which captured Jonathan’s attention. After class was dismissed for recess, he would stand in front of the map and study it. First he would find London, Ontario, the nearest big town, and then he would stand back and look at the whole world, trying hard to imagine what it was like in the other places named on the map.

The idea that millions of other people lived in these far-off places boggled Jonathan’s mind. The young boy was determined to learn all he could about these foreign locations. Indeed, he studied hard and was always near the top of his class.

Life in the Goforth home followed the pattern of the seasons. In June, when school was out for the summer, Jonathan and his brothers would help their father harvest the family’s crops. If they managed to get the job done early, Mr. Goforth would then often hire out his older sons to neighboring farms to help with the harvest. Most winters the children got to attend school, but when money was in short supply, they didn’t. During those years, the money normally spent on schooling was needed to buy fabric for clothing and extra provisions for the long, hard Canadian winter.

Everyone in the Goforth home, from the oldest to the youngest, was expected to pull his or her weight. It was no surprise to anyone when, in the spring of his fifteenth year as Jonathan finished elementary school, his father put him in charge of the family’s second farm called Thamesford Farm. The farm was located about twenty miles from the family’s main farm near Thorndale. Jonathan took over running the farm just in time to plant the seed for the summer crops. First, though, he had to get rid of all the weeds that had sprung up since the last harvest. This was a backbreaking job. The fields had to be plowed and then plowed again, exposing the roots of the weeds to the sun long enough to dry them out and kill them. Once this was done, the seed was sown by hand. And once the seeds turned into tiny seedlings, it was Jonathan’s job to nurse them along until they were tall, strong stands of wheat.

Although taking care of the farm took up most of Jonathan’s time that summer, like many other young men in the area, he made time to help a neighbor build a barn. Every person in the community helped at such times because they knew that one day it might be themselves needing help with a new barn. It was virtually impossible for one person to erect a barn alone.

While the men pulled solid beams of wood into place and hammered away, the women busied themselves preparing huge pots of stew for the men to eat at lunchtime. By midafternoon, the sides of the barn were up, and it was time to raise the roof beams into place. This task involved using ropes to lift the enormous timbers up and then maneuvering them into position, straddling the outside wall of the barn and the center ridgepole. Jonathan was on the floor in the middle of the barn pulling on one of the ropes when he heard a woman yell, “Look out! The beams are giving way!”

Jonathan jerked his head upward just in time to see the beams above him slam into one another and begin to fall. His first urge was to sprint the ten feet to safety, but there was no time. Yet the falling beams would kill him if he didn’t do something. In an instant he made a decision: Instead of running, he would stay where he was and try his best to dodge the falling beams. Keeping his eyes skyward, Jonathan watched the beams whoosh past him and thump onto the ground. With each beam that came tumbling down, he would dart to the left or the right to avoid it. Seconds later, all of the beams had fallen, and Jonathan was still standing! For the second time in his life, Jonathan Goforth had cheated death.

After this experience, Jonathan spent a lot of time thinking about what he should do with his twice-saved life. Finally he came to the conclusion that he should be a politician. During his time at Thamesford Farm, he had often walked into Wyton, the nearest town, to attend political meetings. He had become convinced that being in government was the way to bring real change to Canada.

Most nights after his chores on the farm were done, Jonathan would stroll down to the edge of a swamp on the farm. He would take his place atop a mound of dirt and practice giving speeches. He would imagine there were hundreds of people in front of him hanging on every word he said and cheering when they heard how he would improve their lives and do something about the plight of farmers. He yelled at the top of his lungs. Often, when he went into London to sell butter at the market, men would joke with Jonathan about hearing him from the highway that passed a mile to the east of the swamp!

Jonathan talked to his father about his new career plans. Although Jonathan had done a wonderful job with Thamesford Farm, Mr. Goforth could see that his son’s heart was not in farming. He agreed to send Jonathan to London, Ontario, to attend a short commercial course. This type of training, Jonathan hoped, would provide a good background for a politician.

When he got to London, Jonathan worked hard and did well in the course. When it was over, to Jonathan’s surprise, the teacher suggested he go back and finish high school. The nearest high school to the family farm was located in Ingersoll, close to where Jonathan’s brother Will and his wife now lived. Jonathan knew he would be welcome to stay with them while he attended school. Still, he struggled with taking what to him seemed like a backwards step. In the end, though, he decided to follow the teacher’s advice. It was a decision that would change the course of his life and ultimately take him halfway around the world.

A visiting teacher, the Reverend Mr. Lachlan Cameron, had a great effect on Jonathan while he was in high school. Mr. Cameron visited the school regularly to instruct the students in Bible study. However, it wasn’t so much what Mr. Cameron said that impressed seventeen-year-old Jonathan as it was his kind manner. The two of them became friends, and Jonathan decided the polite thing for him to do was to visit the Reverend Mr. Cameron’s Presbyterian church to hear him preach.

It was quite a walk to the church from his brother Will’s house, but Jonathan made the trek anyway, first one Sunday, and then the next, and the Sunday after that. On Jonathan’s third visit, the Reverend Mr. Cameron, as he always did at the end of each sermon, invited those who wanted to become Christians to bow their heads and pray. Throughout the sermon, Jonathan had been struggling with the idea of following God, and by the end of the service, he had settled the matter in his heart. Right there, as Mr. Cameron had suggested, Jonathan prayed a simple, quiet prayer giving his life to God.