The memory of Reginald Heber McIlwaine should never be lost to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. To know him was to know one who went to a distant part of the world with the gospel on behalf of our Church even before it was born. To know him was to know one in whom the Spirit of God dwelt richly. He was at once the gentlest and strongest of Christian men, kind but fearless in presenting Christ to both lost and saved sinners. He was born in Kobe, Japan, on July 7, 1906, and went to be with Christ on November 15, 1998, in Quarryville, Pennsylvania. He was the last survivor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church's original foreign missionaries.
Heber, as he was known to family and friends, was reared in Japan, the son of Southern Presbyterian missionaries and a believer in Christ as his Savior as long as he could remember. He must have had sharp ears and a keen sense of language, for he learned the Japanese language as a child and never lost it. God was preparing him even as a child to serve him in Japan.
Hearing and seeing him speak and preach to Japanese in his adult years, one would think that he was Japanese. Numbers of Japanese people have told this writer that he spoke their language "like a Japanese." And one person who had been converted to Christ years before through his ministry said recently to our missionary David Moore, "He may be American on the outside, but he's Japanese inside!"
Mr. McIlwaine was not only a missionary, but also a wise counselor to the pastors of the Reformed Church in Japan after its founding in 1946 following World War II. In this he had the blessing of fellowship with an older brother, William, who served as a missionary in Japan with the Southern Presbyterian Mission.
His missionary parents named him after Reginald Heber, a missionary to India, who wrote many hymns, including some that are in Trinity Hymnal, such as "Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!" and "The Son of God Goes Forth to War."
He graduated from Davidson College in 1927 and from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1932, in the school's first class to have had its full three-year course there. Upon graduation, he was chosen by the Rev. Clarence Macartney, the famous preacher and pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a member of the Board of Trustees of Westminster Seminary, to be his assistant. He served there for two years and was then appointed by the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions to serve in Japan.
Mr. McIlwaine was in Japan from 1934 to 1936, but those were turbulent times in the world as well as in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., of which he and many of us were members. He joined the new Presbyterian Church of America in 1936, and was sent by the Independent Board to Harbin, Manchoukuo. After a year, on September 16, 1937, Mr. McIlwaine was one of the first foreign missionaries appointed by the Committee on Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church of America (renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1939). The other original missionaries were the Rev. Egbert W. Andrews and the Rev. and Mrs. Richard B. Gaffin. He continued to serve in Manchoukuo for another year.
In 1938, our Committee sent him to Japan, but from then until 1951 the clouds of war, and then war itself and its aftermath, made him a displaced person. He left Japan in 1940, served as a home missionary in Baltimore, Maryland, for two years, as a U.S. Army chaplain for two years, and as a temporary pastor for one year in Aurora, Nebraska. From 1947 to 1950, he served in a mountain area of Taiwan on loan to the Presbyterian Church of Canada among Japanese-speaking aborigines. Finally, in 1951, he was able to return "home" to serve full-time in Japan as a missionary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which he did until his retirement in 1976.
Meanwhile, at the age of 41, after his minister friends (and others) had long given him up as a confirmed bachelor, he surprised us all by marrying Eugenia Cochran, whom he had apparently met in Japan more than ten years earlier, on March 4, 1947, and who was almost as "Japanese" as he was. Their first missionary service together was in Taiwan, and she was his gracious and effective colaborer during their twenty-five years in Japan. It was this writer's privilege, as general secretary of our Committee on Foreign Missions, to serve and observe them in their work during those twenty-five years.
Both Mr. and Mrs. McIlwaine were in frail health in recent years, and they sought to prepare themselves for the time of separation that would come. Yet recently Mr. McIlwaine told a friend that though they had thought that they were prepared, he "didn't think it would be anything like this." In God's grace, they were separated for only five months. Mrs. McIlwaine went to be with Christ on June 16, 1998 (see New Horizons, October 1998, p. 20), but not before they had celebrated their fifty-first wedding anniversary.
One final word must be said about the McIlwaines' ministry in Japan. Most of their service was in Fukushima, a small city north of Tokyo. Throughout their years there, their home was the center of their work. They even held Sunday worship services there. As their ministry progressed, the membership reached about twenty at one point, but it was usually between twelve and fifteen. We were asked more than once by people at home why we continued this work that seemed to be "so fruitless."
This illustrates rather graphically that things are not always what they seem. As a matter of fact, Fukushima became a kind of highway from paganism to Christ to membership in other Reformed congregations and to Christian service in other cities and even other lands. Many of those—and there were many—who were converted to Christ were young people in high school and university. When they finished their training, they moved to other locations for employment or service, taking their Christian faith and commitment with them. Even though statistics did not show it, the Reformed Church in Japan and the church at large were greatly enriched by the McIlwaines' ministry in Fukushima, and it continues to bear fruit even today in that church.
Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. "Yes," says the Spirit, "that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them" (Rev. 14:13).
John P. Galbraith is a retired OPC minister. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 1999.
© 2023 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church