Richard B. Gaffin, Sr., 1907-1996

John P. Galbraith

New Horizons: May 1996

Into All the World

Also in this issue

Into All the World

Presenting the Gospel to Muslims

An historical memoir in appreciation of a faithful servant of Christ and his church, whose ministry was inextricably intertwined with the beginning of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and of its ministry to the nations.

Richard B. Gaffin, bearer of the glad tidings of Jesus Christ, entered glory on the Lord's Day, February 4, 1996, in his eighty-ninth year. We can almost hear the Lord saying to him, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of thy Lord." Mr. Gaffin had been preceded into glory by Pauline, his wife of fifty-eight years, in 1989. He is survived by their four children, Margaret (Pope), Richard, Jr., Harold, and John, eight grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. He was, with his wife, a missionary to the Chinese people from 1935 to 1976, at first on the Chinese mainland, then on the island of Taiwan. Before he left Taiwan in 1976, a first-ever indigenous Reformed denomination had been established there.

Mr. Gaffin was a delightful person, good-humored, with an almost mischievous sparkle in his eyes, and a gentleman. Visitors, including this writer, could be thankful, too, for his interest in food, for he could always find the best, but not most expensive, Chinese food. Even at home he had his own culinary predilections—like dipping a tasty ripe Taiwanese banana (with that mischievous look in his eye) into a dish of chopped peanuts, sometimes to the distress of his diet-conscious and watchful wife.

But far above such things was his mission in life: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. It stood him in good stead in the early years of his ministry, when ecclesiastical and geopolitical disasters obstructed his path. He held to that mission while in Hampden-Sydney College, and perhaps long before, having been reared in a godly Christian home. It was in his plans when he married Polly in 1931, and he continued to pursue it when he went to Westminster Theological Seminary, from which he was graduated in 1935. He finally grasped it firmly when he accepted an appointment by the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions to serve as a lifetime missionary to China, though not yet ordained to the gospel ministry.

Those were troublous and tumultuous times in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., when the careers of pastors and missionaries and teachers were being tossed about as liberalism in 1936 consolidated, once for all, its control of the Church. But he and his wife together never lost sight of their now joint goal: to proclaim the gospel to a God-forsaking world. So when the Church forced him to choose whether or not he would preach that gospel alongside others who preached another gospel, which was not the gospel, he did not hesitate. So they went to China not under a corrupt Church, but under the Independent Board, to pursue their long-sought goal.

For the Gaffins and for most of us in 1935, an independent board was only a stopgap, awaiting the day when a church wholly committed to the one and only gospel would take them under its wing. That church arose, not in a reforming PCUSA, but in the formation of a new body just one year later, in 1936. It was the Presbyterian Church of America (soon renamed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church). This church could not start foreign missionary work in the first year of its life, but it did so the very next year, in 1937—and the Gaffins, while still in China with the Independent Board, said, "Count us in!"

On September 16, 1937, the Committee on Foreign Missions appointed (the term used in those days) our first missionaries—the Gaffins to China, the Rev. Egbert W. Andrews to Harbin, Manchuria, and the Rev. R. Heber McIlwaine to Tokyo, Japan. They had not asked, Can you do it? or, How much will you pay us? They just committed themselves. Figure out how munificent their salaries were when the Committee on Foreign Missions, after the appointment of an additional couple in January 1938, paid out a total of $3,365 in missionary salaries in the entire year from June 1937 through May 1938.

The Gaffins studied language in Peking (Beijing) and then began an evangelistic ministry in what was then Tsingtao. It was during this time that Richard, Jr., became the first child of Orthodox Presbyterian missionaries to be born on foreign soil. He is now a minister in the Church, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary (in Philadelphia) and, appropriately, president of the Committee on Foreign Missions. (Two other sons of former Orthodox Presbyterian missionary parents are also ministers and members of the Committee on Foreign Missions—Donald J. Duff and John W. Mahaffy. Both of their mothers are still living.)

But by now another tumult was arising. The world was getting ready to explode into what became World War II. In 1941, just months before the war began for the United States in the Pacific, the Gaffins came home on furlough after six years on the field. Mr. Gaffin could not return to China until 1947, and Mrs. Gaffin never did. In 1942, Mr. Gaffin, having finally been ordained to the gospel ministry, became the pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Mr. Gaffin's return to China was arranged in 1947, but he had to go without his family because of the dangers of the developing Communist revolution. Only two years later—1949—he was forced to leave again as the victorious Communists swept into the south, threatening Shanghai, where he, along with Mr. Andrews (who had also been sent there by the Committee), had established a witness among university students.

It was then that the Church turned its eyes and its resources to Taiwan for a forward-looking ministry to the immense Chinese population in the Orient. It was there that the Gaffins would spend the remainder of their foreign labors, chiefly in the central city of Taichung, until their retirement in 1976. Their work was church planting, and when they left for retirement, there were not only many believers, but also indigenous congregations that would carry on the witness to Christ. Even more importantly, the first indigenous Reformed denomination in the island—the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Taiwan—had been formed through the concerted work of our missionaries with other Reformed missionaries. The RPCT now has two presbyteries. (There was then, and is now, a Presbyterian Church of Taiwan, but it has not had a Reformed witness, and it has been oriented to the World Council of Churches.)

Before we close, we must illustrate the intensity of Mr. Gaffin's purposefulness in his ministry. We were taking a train from Taichung to Taipei. At one station, a Taiwanese man got on and moved past us to a seat farther back in the car. Soon Mr. Gaffin turned and saw that the man was sitting by himself, whereupon he said to me, "Do you mind if I leave you and go talk to that man?" And that is what he did, sitting in the aisle seat with the man against the window and no place to go, for an hour and a half until we arrived in Taipei.

He told me then that the man had known nothing about Christ, but before they parted he had asked for something to read about him. Mr. Gaffin gave him a portion of Scripture that he had with him and promised to send him a New Testament (of course, getting the man's address in the process). Within a few weeks, Mr. Gaffin told me later, the man had read the entire New Testament and asked Mr. Gaffin to visit him. He was ready to accept Christ as his Savior. Mr. Gaffin gave him a whole Bible and took him to a Reformed church that had been established in Taipei.

Mr. Gaffin kept track of him for a period of years, and the last that this writer heard about him from Mr. Gaffin was that he had become a ruling elder in that Taipei congregation. A man was drawn out of raw paganism into the kingdom of Christ—all because the Spirit of God had called a man into the ministry of his Son, had endued him with knowledge, zeal, and a spirit of obedience to labor while it is still day, and had opened a man's heart.

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has now lost three of its four pioneer missionaries, who first tested the waters of the new church, believing that a call from this church was a true call from God—Mr. Andrews (who went to be with the Lord in 1982), Mrs. Gaffin, and now Mr. Gaffin. The fourth pioneer missionary, Mr. McIlwaine, now lives with his wife, Genie, at the Quarryville Presbyterian Retirement Community, as does Mrs. Betty Andrews, and as did the Gaffins and Mr. Andrews.

History has confirmed the belief of these missionaries, as we have gone on to carry that same witness to other nations and continents. It was a great day in Orthodox Presbyterian history when these missionaries went to their fields of service. For the first time in many years, we who wanted only the truth of the gospel preached by our representatives were sure that this would be done. We had been members of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which came to the place that it would hear nothing of an exclusive gospel, and sent out "missionaries" accordingly. We were now thankful to be able to say that we did not simply tolerate those who would preach the one and only gospel—we required it. These four missionaries would have had it no other way. They rejoiced in it. And they set an example and a goal for those who would follow after.

We said that Mr. Gaffin's goal was to preach the gospel. To reach that goal, he went to college and then seminary, struggled through the Presbyterian conflict, persisted through the turmoil of World War II and the Chinese Communist onslaught, pursued a lone traveler on a train, and led new believers into fellowship and service as one body in the church. Above it all, his overarching purpose was to live in the presence of Jesus and to glorify God. He did that. And that is what he is doing now. And forever. Praise be to God.

Mr. Galbraith has served the OPC in many capacities, including general secretary of the Committee on Foreign Missions. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 1996.

New Horizons: May 1996

Into All the World

Also in this issue

Into All the World

Presenting the Gospel to Muslims

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