The beauty and tranquility of the campus was part of Mackay’s intent: In his autobiography, From Far Formosa, he notes that in his time, Chinese people and officials similarly walked the campus grounds admiring its beauty. “Is such a part of mission work? Yes; most emphatically, yes,” Mackay wrote. “Our God is a God of order. He loves beauty, and we should see his handiwork in trees, plants, and flowers; moreover, we should endeavor to follow the order which is displayed so visibly throughout the God-created, star-studded universe.”
Mackay’s influence in Taiwan stretches far beyond the schoolhouse: In his 30 years in northern Taiwan, he brought the gospel to both the aboriginals and Chinese, planted more than 60 churches, set up a much-needed hospital, and started the first women’s school. While most Americans may never have heard his name, the “black-bearded barbarian” is the most famous foreigner in Taiwan’s history. The district of Tamsui named its main road after Mackay and erected a large bust of him and his grizzled beard in a small park. Yet his real legacy lies in his spiritual influence on Taiwan: converting the first generation of believers, whose descendants make up the Taiwan church today.
MACKAY, THE FIRST MISSIONARY sent out by the Canada Presbyterian Church, landed in Taiwan in 1872, while the island was still under the control of the Qing dynasty. The English Presbyterian Mission had missionaries stationed in southern Taiwan, so Mackay decided to serve the unreached north and settled in the trade port of Tamsui. He quickly picked up the difficult language of vernacular Taiwanese and started an itinerant preaching ministry.
His early students were educated young men who had studied Chinese classics and were interested in the gospel that Mackay preached. Mackay brought his students with him on his trips to different towns, teaching them the Bible under the shade of banyan trees and collecting plants and seeds to study.
At each town, he’d find an open area—usually by a temple—and sing hymns, preach a sermon, extract teeth, pass out medicine, then repeat. Many of the locals had severe dental problems due to the popularity of chewing betel nut, an addictive fruit similar to chewing tobacco, so the teeth extractions brought relief from their pain. Over time, some would convert to Christianity, and Mackay would set up a church with one of his students as their pastor. The converts would throw away their household idols and ancestral tablets (which the Chinese worshipped) and oftentimes faced rejection from their families and the community. In this way, Mackay planted churches in towns along the Tamsui River.
For instance, in From Far Formosa, Mackay recalls traveling with his students to the town of Sintiam (also called Xindian), 18 miles inland from Tamsui. Sintiam residents, who had never seen a foreigner before, angrily cried out, “Barbarian! Foreign devil!” The crowds initially threatened to kill him, but their attitudes changed after he helped dress the head wound of a young boy. Mackay’s medical aid to the residents made them more open to the gospel message, and soon a congregation gathered to hear him preach. Converts built a small stone chapel, and Mackay left one of his Taiwanese students to pastor the church as he went on to other towns.
In 1884, the French attacked northern Taiwan in the prelude to the Sino-French War, and the Chinese people grew suspicious of foreigners like Mackay as well as his Chinese converts. A mob entered the Sintiam church, took the communion roll, and set out to destroy everyone named on the list: The crowd set houses on fire, beat Christians, and plundered their homes. Some escaped, while others were tortured. The mob grabbed one couple and forced them to choose between renouncing their faith or drowning in the Xindian river. They chose to drown.
“There they suffered, martyrs for the faith, to whom death was nothing compared with dishonoring their Lord,” Mackay wrote. Afterward, the Christian believers rebuilt the demolished church, and their faith and numbers grew.
IN HIS FIRST EIGHT YEARS OF MINISTRY, Mackay focused his outreach on the Chinese in Taiwan. He even married a local woman, Tiu Chhang Mia, who became a vital part of his work by ministering to women. After a furlough to Canada in 1880, he started trekking to aboriginal villages in northwest Taiwan to share the gospel. The natives there, called the Kavalan people, lived in the plains and had largely submitted to Chinese rule (meanwhile, other tribes living in the mountains at that time still engaged in headhunting).
Along with his dental and medical practice, Mackay used music to bring the gospel to the aboriginals, said professor Cheng Yang-en of Taiwan Theological College and Seminary. Mackay learned aboriginal folk songs and changed the words to create hymns. After teaching the hymns to one village, he’d take some of the villagers to sing those hymns in the next village he visited. Often he’d convert the village chief, and the entire village would convert as well. Unlike the Chinese, the aboriginals did not worship their ancestors or Buddhist gods, so they more easily accepted the gospel. Mackay established 38 churches among the Kavalan people.