“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11) 

Living in Blantyre for 36 years, I have inevitably learned much about David Livingstone. His courage and stamina, his adoption of tribal customs and his facility in learning local dialects and cultures earned him respect that lasts to this day in Africa. This summer I have been learning about another 19th century Scottish missionary whose work is largely unknown here but who is still celebrated and honoured on another continent: John Ross. It is only as recently as May 2022, with significant Korean interest, that the John Ross Memorial Centre opened in the repurposed Free Church building in his home village of Balintore, one of the Seaboard villages of the Black Isle. The 19th century seems replete with such confident, effective, nation-changing missionaries while our own Scottish landscapes are dotted with empty, decaying 19th century church buildings. 

              Ross’s first language was Gaelic, but he had a particular talent for languages, eventually gaining true fluency in eleven languages. There is a record of him home once on furlough preaching to a bemused congregation of Balintore farmers and fishermen: his son had to interrupt him to tell him that he was speaking in a Manchurian dialect and should revert to Gaelic, which he did seamlessly from his next breath onwards. 

              Ross took the view that the Word itself was the most effective evangelist and teacher, replete with its own authority and integrity. It just needed to be released. He immersed himself in the languages and local cultures of China and Korea. Drawn to Korea (Joseon as Ross’s generation knew it), he laboured to codify a Korean alphabet and began to translate the Bible into Korean. After thorough language preparation, he began with Luke’s Gospel but just two years later produced a full translation of the whole Bible into Korean, a monumental achievement.  

Within a few short years, using a kashgar, the traditional travelling Chinese merchant’s donkey-drawn cart, Ross had distributed his Korean bibles over a vast area. There is a direct connection between his vision and work, and the fact that 30% of South Koreans today self-identify as Christian and Korean churches currently send out over 20,000 missionaries. 

              “What’s your point, Steve?” Simply this: my own purely subjective concern that in seeking to excel at blending into 21st Century Scottish culture we may have lost our connections with the Word of God and our confidence that God’s Word can achieve the purposes God has for it. We anxiously struggle to defend it from those who class it as ‘hate speech’ while despairing of others who undermine it by side-lining it as ‘culturally irrelevant.’ 

As another 19th century character – Charles Spurgeon – once preached, “There seems to me to have been twice as much done in some ages in defending the Bible as in expounding it, but if the whole of our strength shall henceforth go to the exposition and spreading of it, we may leave it pretty much to defend itself…Open the door and let the lion out; he will take care of himself…The way to meet infidelity is to spread the Bible. The answer to every objection against the Bible is the Bible.” 

(Spurgeon, Speeches at Home and Abroad, his speech at the Annual Meeting of the British and Foreign Bible Society, May 5th, 1875)