Sketches from Formosa

G. Wright Doyle, Ph.D. Review of: Sketches from Formosa, by William Campbell. SMC Publishing Inc, Taipei, Taiwan, 1996. Reprint of original 1915 edition by SMC Publishing Inc.

As the author indicates in his preface, these short chapters were intended for young people in his home churches in Scotland. Thus, these brief sketches make for lively, easy reading.

Dr. Campbell begins with his arrival in Tainan (what he calls Taiwan-fu) in the summer of 1871. He notes at once that “the brick wall which surrounds [Taipei] is about fifteen feet in thickness, twenty-five feet in height, and some five miles in circumference. Lofty watch-towers are built over the four main gateways...”

After commenting upon the “large spaces within the city which are given to the principal temples and yamens—or quarters occupied by the civil and military mandarins” he dryly observes that “there is much need in Taiwan-fu for the carrying out of a City Improvement Scheme.”

From there he moves some observations which will strike us as both familiar and strange: The beggars covered with leprous sores; the large number of Buddhist monks (“Poor effeminate creatures”); the numerous literati with their "deep seated hatred of the foreigner”: the ”extreme civility of the common people;" and, finally, “how much need there is for Divine grace for us to live and labor so that many of them may be brought into the glorious light and liberty of the sons of God!”

The rest of the book flows quickly over the course of this remarkable man’s more than forty years of service in Taiwan. In his company, we cross raging streams; climb lofty mountains; penetrate dense jungles; seek to elude fierce head-hunters. We watch as he labors incessantly among the people he loves so much. At the time, the tribal folk expressed more openness to the Gospel, so Campbell concentrates upon them.

He writes of worship services in simple chapels spread throughout the island, with earnest inquirers gathering to hear about the new religion, while the new converts seek to live consistent Christian lives among them. Always conscious of training Chinese to reach their own people, he regularly engages in what we would call theological education for suitable young men.

Everywhere his love and admiration for Chinese Christians shines through. Of one Chinese minister, he says, “The preacher displayed a remarkable fullness of knowledge regarding the beliefs, the customs, and the needs of the people before him. Whilst listening to him, one could not but feel the importance of having an educated native ministry in every part of China. Men like Pastor Iap are able to adapt themselves in a way a missionary can never do, and to overcome difficulties which must always hamper any mere sojourner in the country.”

In contrast to some modern pastors and preachers, Campbell and his associates insisted upon a credible profession of faith before administering baptism. On the one hand, he writes with joy of a man “who brought no small trouble upon himself by refusing to open his shop on Sunday."

Another candidate for baptism “has been under our eye for more than a year; and what we have seen of him…is all in his favor (sic) and constrains us to believe in the sincerity of his profession.” Of two women, he writes that “it was apparent that their knowledge of Scripture indicated a very fair amount of diligence upon their part.”

On the other hand, he sadly reports that they had to refuse a man who “wished to be received [for baptism], but whose knowledge of spiritual things was most painfully defective. He appeared to have no conception of the Scriptural meaning of sin, and of his need for pardon through the merits of Another.” In one place, they could “select only one person from the five candidates who came forward.” He lamented, too, “the almost superstitious way in which baptism is still regarded” by some.

In any case, he had his priorities clear: “The enlargement of our Membership Roll is not the only way by which true progress can be indicated.” How many of us can say the same?

Many times he records a journey of fifteen, sixteen, or more miles of walking in a day. Open air preaching, distributing literature, examining candidates for baptism, teaching prospective preachers, offering medical help, educating the believers and their children – Campbell and his team employed many methods to achieve their goal of planting a self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating church. He believed in relieving the misery of the blind and the poor, and praised the Roman Catholics for their “extensive work” “among orphans and castaway infants.”

The reader admires not only his hard work, but his obvious delight in the task. Often we meet sentences like this: “What a privilege to be engaged in such work, and what abundant cause we have for gratitude to our Heavenly Father!”

He was not unaware of what he calls “worldly notions regarding our work and everything connected with it.” He knew that some embraced the new religion for non-spiritual reasons, and others rejected the Gospel for similar causes.

Campbell learned as much as he could about the history, geography, languages, customs, and peoples of “Formosa.” He spared no personal effort in reaching out to its people with the Good News. He obviously relied upon God daily for strength, wisdom, protection, and provision.

Reading such an account, which was intended to inform and encourage young people back in faraway Britain a hundred years ago, will have the same effect on anyone blessed enough to obtain this lively and inspiring volume of “sketches from Formosa.”