Willfinger

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John Francis Willfinger

East Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia, 1938-1942

John WillfingerJohn Willfinger was born November 25, 1910, in Homestead, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. When he was ten his mother made her profession of faith in Christ and began attending the Alliance church. She faithfully prayed for her children’s salvation; but John did not receive Christ until he was nineteen. Almost immediately he sensed God’s call to service and enrolled at Whiteside Memorial Bible School in Pittsburgh and graduated in 1932. In 1933 he dedicated his life fully to the Lord for overseas service and entered the Missionary Training Institute (now Nyack College) in Nyack, New York, for preparation. After graduating in 1936, John pastored the Nadine (PA) Gospel Tabernacle of the C&MA for two years, during which time he became engaged to Mary McIlrath (later Mrs. Harold Catto of Irian Jaya, Indonesia).

Not yet having married, Willfinger left for Indonesia in early 1939 and was appointed by the C&MA to East Kalimantan (Borneo) where he first ministered among the Dyak tribe. With his ministry partner, Ernest Presswood, Willfinger often traveled through treacherous jungle terrain, climbing arduous mountains to reach remote Dyak villages. In a letter to A. C. Snead, then C&MA Foreign Secretary, John wrote: “I thank God and you who have been praying for me….I now have the Malay [Indonesian] language well enough to preach without the aid of an interpreter….I have had the joy of seeing many precious souls receive Christ as their Lord and Savior.”

When World War II broke out in 1941, a remarkable movement of the Holy Spirit was taking place. One Indonesian teacher reported his preaching centers had multiplied from two to eight. Another teacher estimated a thousand new believers and inquirers from non-Christian villages. Carrying a typewriter on the trail, John Willfinger translated many hymns into the Murut dialect. “…With a great sense of urgency,” John translated the gospel of Matthew and was principal translator for Mark’s gospel. Both Murut gospels were published later by the British and Foreign Bible Society. One of Willfinger’s fellow missionaries wrote: “I believe he knew he was going to suffer affliction for the Lord’s sake.”

On March 8, news was received by radio that Indonesia had surrendered to the Japanese. However, Willfinger along with several colleagues from other missions, continued holding Bible conferences in the interior for Murut workers. Orders came from the Japanese for the missionaries to come out and surrender, also stating that anyone who tried to help them would be punished according to military law.

Willfinger sent a letter to Mr. Makahanap, a Menadonese Christian official, saying “If I hide, naturally the saints will be forced to lie, to disobey orders if they hide me. In short, I would be forced to drag them into sin, whereas my intention upon leaving my country and my family was only to make mankind righteous and not to bring them into sin, even though I pay for it with my life.” To the C&MA Headquarters he wrote: “…We have decided to go to the enemy, trusting God as to the ultimate results…will you kindly send my love to both my family and sweetheart, Miss Mary McIlrath…”

Once he gave himself over to the Japanese, Willfinger was imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp for two months. On Christmas Eve in 1942, he was removed from the prison, and four days later executed.

A colleague wrote: “There was quite a revival…during this time, and John Willfinger’s translated hymns played a great part in this revival.”

Related Resources

Articles

Letters

  • J. Willfinger letter, September 24, 1942
  • C. Hudson Southwell letter, October 1955

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