Friday, April 1, 2022

Today on the Almanac, we tell the story of the missionary who invented the rickshaw.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 1st of April 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.

So, finally. It is time to look at the fascinating history of Christianity in Hawaii- it’s a fantastic story about Protestant missionaries and corporations and some tragedy.

It was on this, the 1st of April in… wait. The first of April? As in…?

A very happy April fool’s day! A first here on the Almanac. We will once again not tell you the history of Christianity in Hawaii. But trust me, this story is wild.

A few months ago, we talked about Samuel Seabury- a fascinating character who also has a bit part in the musical Hamilton. Today I will tell you the story of another figure- an American missionary who had a cameo in Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Pacific Overtures” (Sondheim is the king of the American Musical- it’s not close- this one, about western Japanese relations, is interesting but not his most accessible).

This American Missionary- Jonathan Goble, is the character I’ve always thought deserved a more thorough biographical treatment. The first time I came across him was through the 1990 biography from Calvin Parker entitled: Jonathan Goble: Marine, Missionary, Maverick (he has an updated version- Icon and Outcast from the 2000s)

Let’s break down this man’s life who was significant enough to make a cameo in a Stephen Sondheim musical.

Goble was born in 1827 in the Finger Lakes District. The Finger Lakes district is in upstate New York, and this is in the middle of the 1800s, which puts him right in the middle of the Second Great Awakening, its collapse, and the famed burned-over-district which we have seen on this show is the original American Petrie dish for experimentation in new religious movements and ersatz American “Christianities.”

His family belonged to a tough core group of Baptists- closed communion, Sabbatarian, anti-Mason, and abolitionist. When Goble’s father died when Jonathan was 11, it led to a period of petty crime and isolated physical violence. He spent 30 months in the Auburn prison before his 22nd birthday, and it was in prison, he claimed a spiritual experience that would lead him into missionary work.

But an ex-con can’t just sign up to be a pastor or missionary (this is the Golden age of American missions- this was his ultimate goal). Around 1852, Goble enlisted with the Marines and volunteered to join the first American naval expedition to Japan with commodore Matthew Perry. He was assigned to Perry’s ship, the USS Mississippi, and went ashore with that delegation when the first Japanese treaty was signed with the US. His swarthy look- a larger man with a giant black beard, made an impression on the Japanese artists who painted him and noted his name.

Heading back home, Goble decided that missionary work in Japan would become his life goal. He enrolled at Madison College (which had been called Hamilton College and was soon renamed Colgate University in central New York).

In 1856 he was married to Eliza Weeks. In 1859 he was ordained and appointed a missionary to Japan with the small American Baptist Free Mission. As a staunch abolitionist, he would be affiliated with the smaller abolitionist baptist groups- this would hamper his ability to raise the money other missionaries could.

On the 1st of April in 1860, the Gobles arrived in Kanagawa to live in a Buddhist temple and serve as Christian missionaries.

He would be a popular, if not a sometimes fiery and independent sort, of missionary. HIs small role in the musical Pacific Overtures comes from his ingenious approach to helping his now invalid wife get around Nagasaki in 1869. It was like a two-wheeled baby stroller- but it was pulled instead of pushed. This “jinrikisha” is hailed as one of, if not the first, of the famous rickshaws which would dominate Japanese streets for a century.

He would work in Japan as a cobbler, a bookseller, a church planter, an inventor… he didn’t have support like other missionaries, and his violent outbursts made him a pariah with many other missionaries who saw his temperament as unfit. In the 1870s, he worked independently after being dismissed by the missionary society for his violence. He would find work as a colporteur (which, I know- Cole Porter!) that is an independent bookseller in Japan for the American Bible Society (he had once translated the Gospel of Matthew in Japanese).

Eliza died in 1882. He came back to the states and lived in obscurity- in his last years, he was kicked out of a home for retired baptist missionaries and died in a sanitarium in 1896. Jonathan Gobles was 69 years old.

The Last Word for today comes from Isaiah 43:

You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
 my servant, whom I chose,
 so that you would know and believe me
 and understand that I am the one.
Before me no god was formed;
 after me there has been no other.

I, I am the Lord,
 and there is no savior besides me.

I announced, I saved, I proclaimed,
not some stranger among you.
You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
 and I am God.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 1st of April 2022, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who wonders if Commodore Matthew Perry had a first mate, Matt LeBlanc, or Lieutenant David Schwimer. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who makes no promise- ever again- about the upcoming content of shows… except Hawaii… we’ll get there. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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