Dispatches from the desk of John MacMillan

Archive for the ‘The Covert Missionaries’ Category


For several months I have searched for the short wave radio station where my grandfather, Dr. Hugh MacMillan, broadcasted propaganda to the Japanese during the latter part of World War II.

Recently my friend, John Bracken, loaned me a old paperback called “Room 3603” by H. Montgomery Hyde.  This book, published in 1962, chronicled British espionage activities in North America during the war, focusing on the propaganda, intelligence and counter intelligence efforts of Sir William Stephenson (a.k.a. his codename “Intrepid”).

Hyde’s book included the following sentence, which interested me greatly:

“…Station KGEI, owned and operated in San Francisco by the General Electric Company [was] the only station broadcasting to the Far East at this time…material put out by Stephenson and broadcast by KGEI…was picked up and rediffused by the Malaya Broadcasting Company in Singapore and the Australian Broadcasting Commission…”

Naturally I looked up the station’s call letters on the Internet and found a link to the Bay Area Radio Museum, where I found a photo of the KGEI transmitter circa 1960. The building still stands, though it now houses a church. Incidentally, “KGEI” stands for “General Electric International” [the “K” is the standard first letter for all radio and t.v. stations broadcasting in the western United States]. That link also led me to a lot of other information on wartime broadcasting  in Japanese to civilian and military audiences across the Pacific, with which Hugh was involved directly.

Without going into the messy bureaucratic mechanics of military intelligence (which I will unravel in my book) Sir William Stephenson, a Canadian, recruited Hugh to join the team of British/Canadian and American experts who were waging “psychological warfare” against the Japanese. This involved a variety of strategies and tactics (including military deception, pamphlet drops, analysis of enemy messages and broadcasting news and commentary to Japanese listeners).

I’ll have more on this in the manuscript. For now, this is one of those little victories that make writers and researchers excited.


He went to the fights & a meeting broke out…

Here’s another bit of text I’ve written from the book I am researching about the lives of my missionary grandparents, Rev. Hugh and Donalda MacMillan.

First, however, some brief context: In 1925, three churches merged to become the United Church of Canada. The Presbyterian Church in Canada was one of them, but that caused a schism in the Presbyterian Church; several congregations chose to stay in the old church, despite the fact that the church’s leaders had committed to union. The unionizing process included transferring most of the Presbyterian foreign mission fields to the responsibility of the new United Church of Canada (such as missions in Japan and Korea). But the mission in north Formosa (today’s northern Taiwan) stayed with the existing Presbyterian Church in Canada. For two years my grandparents and the other missionaries in Taiwan waited for the dust to settle from the unionist merger, even as the months of delay bled staff to other places. And so we move on to the first meetings of the North Formosa Mission Council in January, 1927:

The minutes of the North Formosa Mission Council meetings were written in a factual but never fulsome manner. Much, however, can be gleaned between the lines of the hundreds of carbon copied, onion skin pages. For example, at the January, 23, 1927 meeting the minutes said that the home church’s Foreign Mission Board was sending a Commission to investigate the needs of the mission. The Council responded that it “records pleasure in anticipation, but expresses its hope that the Board will not wait for the report of such commission before making provision to fill vacancies being created by withdrawals.” The minutes, delicately written though they were, indicated the palpable suppressed frustration as well as not a small amount of anxiety about the continued hemorrhaging of 3/4 of the staff to Korea, Japan, southern Formosa and other places.

When the home church’s three-person Commission finally arrived in the fall of 1927, it held a surprisingly frank meeting on November 23 with Hugh, Dr. George Gushue-Taylor and Miss Mabel Clazie. Hugh chaired the discussion and opened by saying that he and his colleagues had “waited impatiently for this visit for guidance as to new plans, policy etc., and now await [a] message from the home base.”

The commission consisted of Mr. C.S. McDonald, Mrs. Daniel Strachan (of the Women’s Mission Council) and Dr. McOldrum. The chair of the commission, Mr. McDonald was a retired businessman who had served as the defacto administrator and fundraiser of the anti-union movement within the Presbyterian Church. He stated rather bluntly (which seems to have been his habitual style) that “speaking for the three and [for] many of his church… they would not have felt antagonistic if all the mission fields had gone to the [United Church of Canada].” He further stated, “Foreign workers are not so easily provided… he was glad that the United Church missionaries were carrying on for a time and would hope that they might do so permanently if possible.” This latter message was aimed directly at the three in the room, who had expressly supported union but who had also indicated their intention to stay in the Presbyterian field of North Formosa. The home church was clearly uncomfortable with having ‘Unionists’ running their mission, but finding replacements for those who had left had become a challenge. McDonald went on to add further insult to injury, advising the mission council not to “use up manpower in Theological College work and sacrifice evangelism”; this despite the fact that the whole reason for establishing the theological college, of which Hugh was the Principal, was to increase the numbers of indigenous clergy to do the work of evangelism!

McDonald’s colleague, Dr. MacOdrum, tartly urged the missionaries on the mission council to “forget unpleasantness and get at constructive work”, adding that he “would want even more workers than ever to go to the savages…” Dr Gushue-Taylor rose to this bait complaining of “bitter and misleading remarks by Presbyterian Church leaders…”.

The minutes note blithely that the meeting ended with a benediction from Hugh.

Much more drama to come…

Eyefuls of mud

…Every point was a point of no return

for those who had signed the Covenant in blood.

Every fern was a maidenhead fern

that gave every eye an eyeful of mud…

Paul Muldoon, from his poem “The Old Country”


In Scotland you encounter the legacies of the Covenanters as often as tartan knickknacks.

As far back as the 16th century groups of people, inspired by John Knox’s Calvinist preaching, bound themselves under a series of written covenants. These covenants denounced “Popery” and decried the exigencies of episcopal religions (this included Anglicanism, along with Roman Catholicism), maintaining that Presbyterianism was the only doctrine right for Scotland.

St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. If the “Covenanters” had a shrine, this would be it.

St Giles Cathedral along the Royal Mile in Edinburgh echoes with Covenanter history. John Knox preached here in the 1560s, and in 1637 it was in this church that Jenny Geddes threw a stool at the minister; his crime was introducing the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to that place of worship. Geddes’ actions against the imposition of episcopal religion on the Presbyterian laity resulted in riots that led to the signing of the National Covenant in 1638 (it is on display in the narthex of St Giles) and the creation of a Covenanter-led government for Scotland. This, in turn, led to the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s seizure of English authority.

Ultimately, after the restoration of the English monarchy, the Covenanters were defeated and the King’s religion was restored. Not surprisingly (to anyone who studies history) vicious reaction followed the Restoration. Covenanter preachers and followers alike were persecuted with intense barbarity, during a period mythologized in songs and stories as the “Killing Time”.

Peden’s Cove, along the River Ayr, where Alexander Peden preached clandestine sermons to his Covenanter followers.

As you travel around Scotland you see frequent memorials to Covenanter heroes and martyrs. For example, in Greyfriars Churchyard there’s a large stone memorial to Covenanter martyrs. Meanwhile, on the Finlaystone Country Estate west of Glasgow (the “seat” of the Clan MacMillan) you can see the “John Knox Tree”, a large Yew under which the old man preached in secret to his faithful. As well, along the Ayr Gorge nature trail in Failford, Ayrshire, you will find Peden’s Cove. This series of steps carved into the sandstone riverbank leads to a primitive pulpit where Alexander Peden preached clandestinely to fellow Covenanters gathered on the opposite bank. My people come from this area and seeing Peden’s Cove made me wonder whether my family history featured examples of this fervor.

Contemporary “Covenanters” march down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, accompanied by security forces and curious tourists.

You can also see more recent examples of the Covenanters in action. On a quiet Saturday morning while staying in Edinburgh, I awoke to the sound of a fife and drum procession along the Royal Mile. At first I imagined it as the Armed Forces Day parade, but quickly realized that it was a group of militant Protestant marchers, broadcasting their defiant message to the tourist masses. Ornate embroidered banners hailed the spirit of Jenny Geddes and the martyrs of the Killing Time; others denounced “creeping Popery” (last year’s UK visit by Pope Benedict still stuck in some peoples’ craw…). The parade, such as it was, dwindled toward Edinburgh Castle, under the watchful gaze of a squad of public security officers.

A few days later, as I rode a commuter train out of Glasgow, a trio of young Glasgow Ranger sots bellowed anti-Catholic ditties in between sips of “Bucky” (a.k.a. ‘Buckfast Tonic Wine’ a noxious potable containing equal slops of alcohol and caffeine; produced, ironically, by Benedictine monks). Fortunately no equally drunk Glasgow Celtic supporters rode the train, or we would have witnessed a bloody, sectarian fight.

I found myself depressed by these examples of the contemporary Covenanters.  Both echoed worse things I’d seen during my time in Northern Ireland. I had thought, naively or hopefully, that public expressions of sectarian bellicosity were now either limited to West Belfast, or had petered out entirely after the Good Friday Accord. I suppose both incidents, though particularly the latter bit of nastiness on the train, explain why the current session of the Scottish Parliament is debating anti-sectarian legislation.

So, while the Covenanters might seem merely a mention in tourism books and or a historical anecdote for walking tours, the Covenanters’ defiance continues to inspire, or perhaps to define, parts of Scottish society. To coin Paul Muldoon, many eyes are still getting an eyeful of mud.

Leaves and Roots

[Note: This post has been edited thanks to comments received from readers. Many thanks for your corrections.]

Anyone who has managed the affairs of a deceased relative knows that, even as the dead rise to the afterlife, papers flutter down to the executor’s attention. Some papers vex (unpaid bills, income tax arrears, unwitnessed holographic wills…) but others excite. I came across the latter when rooting through my late father’s papers, namely a few pages from the MacMillan family bible.

Family bibles often contain not just religious texts but also secular records. The leaves of the Bible that I found—yellowed, dog-eared but still legible—included the birth dates of my namesake great-grandfather and his six siblings, as well as a page titled “Marriages”, which contained a single entry – “Hugh McMillan (sic.) and Margaret Muir, Married at Blackhill, parish of Tarbolton, Ayrshire, Scotland. May 28, 1855”. [Note: Hugh’s brother, George, was married on the same day, and both couples emigrated to Canada shortly after their nuptials. As one of my relatives puts it “talk about a honeymoon!”.]

Tom Hill, “Beadle” of the parish of Tarbolton, Ayrshire, where my great-grandparents lived in the 19th century.

Ayrshire is Robert Burns country. For many years Burns lived in the village of Tarbolton, and met Mary Campbell (Burns’ great love “Highland Mary”) in the village church, the same church where the MacMillans very likely worshipped. I introduced myself and my mission to the acting “Beadle” (church caretaker) Tom Hill, and he gave me a tour of the church.

Mr Hill also permitted me to wander through the rows of sandstone and granite gravestones that ringed the old church. He apologized for the state of the cemetery, where I found three empty bottles of vodka. “It’s tarrable,” said Mr. King. “People hop tha’ faynce and utz pairty tame in the graveyard.” [The next day, after I said I had visited Tarbolton, I was told by someone “Aye, that’s a wee bit o’ a rough playce, Tarbolton. Tarrable problems wi’ drink. Friendly enough, though. They’ll beat ya silly an’ steal yer money, but thain call yuz an ambulance…”]

Gabriella and Mrs. Candlish, outside “Blackhill”, the house where the MacMillans once lived.

Mr. Hill directed me to “Blackhill”, in the hamlet of Failford now owned by a Mrs. Candlish. I met her outside her home as she returned from walking her dog, Tig. Mrs. Candlish  epitomized a lovely elderly Scottish widow: warm, inviting and chatty; Mrs. Doubtfire, without the doubt. She noted that her husband’s family had lived in the house since the early 20th century, but did not know of the MacMillans. She did, however, note that “Blackhill” was both the name of her house, as well as the general name by which Failford was known. “This wae very mutch tha meetin’ playce for the village,” she said in her soft Ayrshire accent. “If that’s where tha’ said they were married, then this’d be tha’ place.”

A set of steps just behind Blackhill led to a tall granite monument that cast its shadow over the Water of Fail (a creek that flows into the River Ayr at Failford). The monument, built in 1921 by Robert Burns’ fellow Freemasons, commemorates the spot where Burns became betrothed to Highland Mary. As I looked over Blackhill from the vantage of the monument, I imagined all that had happened on this ‘sacred’ Scottish ground.

Ayr River Gorge, in Failford, Ayrshire

I crossed the road and hiked into the Ayr Gorge Woodlands a vast nature reserve and area of special scientific interest. Like so much of Ayrshire, the area reminded us of southwestern Ontario—the same trees, flowers and rolling countryside as the place to which the MacMillan’s emigrated. Did the Scots find or choose that part of the Canada as home? Was it a perfect match or did they craft it, through aching labour, in the image of the old country? Or was it just an accident of latitude, the residue of ancient continental drift, that fostered similarity? As I climbed out of the gorge I found I could answer none of these questions. I brushed through the leaves, both foreign and familiar, and trod on a knuckle of gnarled roots that clung to Blackhill.

Finding Hugh’s thesis

I spent two days reading my grandfather's thesis in the Funk Special Collections room of the New College Library, University of Edinburgh.

Before I arrived in Edinburgh, I arranged with the lovely folks at the New College Library (in the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh) to locate my grandfather, Hugh MacMillan’s, PhD thesis for me to read. Suffice it to say, this heavy, black, 260 page, typed, double-spaced document bore equal amounts of research value and emotional meaning.

The thesis, titled “The Influence of Foreign Missions on The Modern Ecumenical Movement” was published on May 4, 1948. Its central thesis is relatively banal (the 20th century’s Christian ecumenical movement grew out of the work of those who imaginations had been captured by foreign missions) but the text also excites with subtle phrases culled from my grandfather’s missionary experience. In many ways the thesis is a synechdoche: the sum of the text is my grandfather’s life and the sum of his life is this text.

The cover of Hugh MacMillan's 1948 PhD thesis, at the New College Library.

The thesis starts with my grandfather’s extensive research (much of it done during World War II) on the life of the 18th century missionary pioneer William Carey. It then moves on to document the growth of ecumenism through the creation of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the expansion of missionary efforts into Africa and the Orient and the ongoing development of the ecumenical movement through a series of world missionary conferences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also peppered with the story of burgeoning Christian youth movements, my grandfather’s area of particular interest. The thesis culminates in a contemporary analysis of how missionary and youth enterprises laid the groundwork for the creation of the World Council of Churches (which happened shortly after the document’s publication).

While the thesis features (with apologies to John Bunyan) an ecumenical ‘pilgrim’s progress’, it also contains a subtle sense of Hugh’s own history as a Christian missionary. Carey, particularly, seems to be a proxy for Hugh’s missionary and ecumenical zeal. He shared my grandfather’s background along with many of his attributes —a rural upbringing, a desire to travel abroad, a belief in “a concert of fervent and united prayer”, and above all a new break with old thinking that led Carey (and Hugh…) to “join with dissenters and bear the reproach of Christ as they did…”. In this sense Carey and Hugh–two centuries apart–shared a struggle within their respective churches for ecumenical unity within denominational quiddity.

There’ll be more about this in my book on my grandparents’ lives (which may be a synecdoche of its own…) but for now, I know that I am the only member of my family to have read this document, and hence to have felt its literal and figurative “weight”. Ironically, having done so, makes me feel much lighter.

Filling the void

I spent much of the 2011 Easter weekend at the Yu Shan Theological College and Seminary, one of three seminaries that serve the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan. Yu Shan is the Taiwanese name for the island’s highest mountain, which looms some 20 km away. The name fits, since this seminary focuses on theological education for the island’s aboriginal leaders, many of whom are people of the mountains.

The entrance to the cave where aboriginal Christians, led by the famous Chi-Oang, worshipped clandestinely during the 1930s and 40s.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, Taiwan is home to more than a dozen aboriginal tribes and some three quarters of the aboriginal people identify themselves as Christian. After Taiwan became a Japanese colony (1895-1945), aboriginal languages and religious practises were banned, often brutally, in favour of Japanese and Shinto. Murray Garvin is a retired missionary who now teaches at Yu Shan, and he says that the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, left a spiritual void among aboriginals, which Christianity filled.

By no means, however, was this the first time that aboriginal people had been exposed to Christianity. European influence had been felt on the island since the 17th century when Portuguese and Dutch merchant colonies formed on the island’s west coast. It wasn’t until the mid 19th century, however, that Christian evangelism truly began to influence Taiwan. British missionaries traveled from the mainland to southern Taiwan and set up churches and seminaries in and around the ancient capital of Tainan.

Later, in the 1870s, Rev. George Leslie MacKay from western Ontario, marched into the mountains of northern Taiwan brandishing a Bible and dental forceps, confronting “pagan” head-hunting warriors with his unique brand of dental evangelism. MacKay became the visionary founder of the Northern Formosa Presbyterian mission. Armed with his faith (and considerable financial support from the good folks of his native Oxford County in Ontario) he established churches, seminaries and schools in and around the northern treaty port of Tamsui, including the island’s first school dedicated to educating women.

When the Japanese took over Taiwan in 1895 their culture of education and health meant acceptance if not encouragement of missionary-run schools and hospitals. The colonial authorities, however,  opposed efforts to convert Taiwan’s aboriginal people. Even so, some aboriginals managed to slip past the Japanese barriers and become Christians.

One such convert was a 58 year old Tyal woman named Chi-Oang. In his history of the Taiwanese Presbyterian church, Hugh MacMillan wrote that Chi-Oang met a Presbyterian missionary named Jim Dickson in the late 1920s while Dickson was touring coastal mission churches. Her face was tattooed with tribal markings, which I am told was partly aboriginal custom, but also aimed at deterring Japanese officials who sought “pleasure women” among the aboriginals. Dickson persuaded Chi-Oang to take a two-year Bible course at one of Mackay’s mission schools in Tamsui; both Dickson and Hugh MacMillan served as her teachers, among others in the mission. Then Chi-Oang headed back to the mountains where she went on to preach and convert some 4,000 of her people to Christianity.

Chi-Oang’s brand of aboriginal evangelism was not without its dangers. She often preached to her followers in a cave for fear of being found out and killed; Japanese officials had put a price on her life during World War II. That cave is now marked by a memorial church that bears her name on the main road into the magnificent Taroko Gorge National Park.

I visited that cave along with some Yu Shan aboriginal seminarians on Easter weekend, 2011. More about that in later posts.

The doctor’s visit

Here’s a bit from Chapter One of the book I’m writing about my missionary grandparents:

Hugh MacMillan as a baby circa 1893 (noted as "HAM in curls" in his handwritten diary). The photo is credited to Mr. E. Kaake, a "photographic artist" from Lucknow, Ontario.

Hugh was the eldest of four boys, all born in a log house on the family farm in the south part of Bruce County, Ontario. He grew up in an environment of hard farm work and good farm food, and, aside from a brief childhood illness, he seems to have grown into a strong, healthy young man.

That illness bears some mention. Late in his life, in his unpublished and incomplete autobiography, “Straws in the wind”, Hugh wrote about lying in bed one winter night, fraught with fever and evidently close to death. He recalled:

“My mother was bending over me. My father stood near the partly open door with his hand on the latch. I seemed to be leaving them. My memory is of a swirling light. It was coming as if out of the stratosphere. But it did not succeed in lifting me beyond the coloured picture-papered ceiling of the old log house bedroom.”

His father, John (the author’s namesake), harnessed the horse and cutter and rushed six kilometers to the town of Lucknow to rouse the doctor. As the doctor approached the farm house, however, Hugh’s temperature began to drop, and by the time the doctor had taken Hugh’s pulse any notion of serious illness seemed to have faded. This childhood memory remained with Hugh, a near-death experience that spoke to his earthly experience of the metaphysical.

Yet something else seemed to have lingered with Hugh from this night: Even though the doctor had been roused from his sleep on a cold, snowy evening, and despite having to have hitched his stallion to a cutter for the long ride to the farm, Hugh remembered the doctor saying that the trip had been a good outing for his prized race horse. “Ranger,” the doctor had said, “needed such a spin in preparation for the pending turf meet in the spring.” Whether the doctor’s story was true or whether it was a polite response to embarrassed parents, Hugh noted that the story became a family treasure, highlighting the importance of kindness and gentility when faced with vexatious challenges. This likely became an important early lesson for someone who would later enter the ministry, and particularly for a young person who would become a missionary, where every day was filled with trying situations!

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