I’m fairly certain that most of us had never heard of Wuhan before early 2020. By now, of course, it’s a familiar name – for the wrong reasons. But what’s the connection between Wuhan and Swansea? The answer is to be found in the story of one remarkable Welshman.
We’ll begin with Wuhan, a city of over eleven million people in central China. It’s the capital of Hubei province and a very important centre of industry, education and transport. The name of Wuhan has come to prominence because of the city’s link with the pandemic disease Covid-19. It was there that the virus first came to light. There is much debate concerning the date and even more dispute concerning the cause but what is certain is that the name of Wuhan is now recognized throughout the world.
Perhaps the same can’t be said of Swansea although it is nevertheless a city of much interest. Not far from High Street railway station stands Ebenezer Chapel. Originally built in 1804 for a congregation of Welsh Independents, it is now the home of the evangelical Ebenezer Baptist Church. On the wall of the chapel stands a plaque commemorating Griffith John, who was born in one of the streets behind the building in 1831. He was converted in Ebenezer when he was nine years old. In his teens he began to preach and there was much demand for his powerful ministry.
But it was not to Swansea, nor to Wales, that God had called this Welsh-speaking Welshman. After a period of instruction at the Brecon Memorial College, in 1855 he and his wife set sail under the auspices of the London Missionary Society to preach the gospel in China. Despite the upheavals and dangers of the Opium War, the Taiping Civil War, wars with Japan and the Boxer Rebellion, not to mention the almost unbearably oppressive summer heat, he faithfully persevered in pointing the people of China to his Saviour.
By 1911 however, he was suffering from senile dementia and with the increasing threats to missionaries following political changes in China, it was decided to send him back to Britain. He sailed from Shanghai over fifty-six years after his first arrival there. He spent the last months of his life in a nursing home in London. But when he died in 1912 he was buried back where his life had begun – in Swansea, in the cemetery at Bethel Chapel, Sketty. There is a bust in his honour in Swansea Museum and a street has been named after him in the Greenhill area, near his birthplace.
After reaching China in 1855, Griffith John set about learning the native language and within six months he was preaching in the streets. In 1861 he moved to Hubei province in central China. He was the first Protestant missionary to settle in this area – eight years before his friend, the famous Hudson Taylor, ventured there.
For strategic reasons he decided to live in Hankou (or Hankow), an important cultural and commercial centre standing at the confluence of the rivers Yangzi and Han. Hankou was one of three large cities facing one another on the banks of these rivers. In 1861 it had over two million inhabitants and there were over a million in each of the other two, Wuchang and Hanyang.
The extent of his labours there was incredible. As well as preaching and planting churches, he wrote a large number of gospel tracts and translated the New Testament into two Chinese languages. He established primary and secondary schools, a training college for teachers, a Bible college and two hospitals. From Hankou, Griffith John travelled regularly to remote areas to preach the gospel. In Hunan province he experienced much hostility and persecution, but in due time saw remarkable fruit as a result of his labours there. By the time he left China in 1911, there were hundreds of churches in the provinces of Hubei and Hunan, with a total membership of over 10,000.
Yesterday and today
The story of Griffith John’s pioneering labours is quite thrilling. But it is more than just something in the past. The former cities Hankou, Wuchan and Hanyang have been combined to form one vast conurbation – now called Wuhan! The first hospital founded by Griffith John grew to be Union Hospital, Wuhan; it is now one of the largest hospitals in China, providing 5,000 beds and treating three and a half million patients every year. This is the hospital that received the first victims of Covid-19. Near the entrance stands a bust of Griffith John, commissioned by the Chinese authorities. A copy of this bust, presented by the hospital to commemorate the centenary of Griffith John’s death in 2012, is the one that stands in Swansea Museum. For some years the hospital at Wuhan has been collaborating closely with Swansea Medical School. And in 2016 an agreement was signed between Swansea and Wuhan with the aim of promoting further cooperation between the two cities in business, culture and education.
We can be fairly sure that Griffith John would be amazed at all these developments. He would probably welcome many of them, especially the valuable ties between Wuhan and Swansea. But we must note something else that would be much more important to him. The church founded by Griffith John in Hankou, now Wuhan, is still there and continues to flourish. In 2006 Meirion Thomas, minister of Malpas Road, Newport, went to China and met the church’s minister. More recently, in 2014 a group of Christian pastors from Wuhan who were staying at Bryntirion visited Ebenezer in Swansea – without realizing beforehand that this had been Griffith John’s spiritual home!
For some years the church in Wuhan was called the Griffith John Memorial Church but following the Communist takeover the commemoration of western figures was forbidden and the name was changed to Glory Church. According to one website over 1,500 people worship there regularly on Sundays. And that is far from being the only church in the city. Indeed, with the growing tendency by the Chinese state to persecute Christians, the last few years have seen a rapid increase in the number of ‘house churches’ in Wuhan meeting outside the ‘official’ regulations.
The witness established by Griffith John is alive and flourishing in the city which has been the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic. The gospel that he preached still offers life and hope to millions there who have found themselves in the shadow of sickness and death. In the light of all this, it’s heartening to remember his original aim in going there. He wrote:
We are here not to develop the resources of the country, not for the advancement of civilisation; but to do battle with the powers of darkness, to save men from sin and conquer China for Christ.
Further information may be found in two excellent books: Griffith John by John Aaron, Evangelical Press, 2016, Griffith John – Apostle to Central China by Noel Gibbard, Bryntirion Press, 1998.)