A Man to Follow

Memories of China's pioneer missionary


Much has been written about Dr. Robert A. Jaffray’s last few years in Indonesia, before his death in a Japanese internment camp. Since I was interned in the same camp with Jaffray, with daily contact the last 26 months of his life, I may be able to add a little to the inside story.

Jesus’ words in Luke 9:57–62 describe Jaffray’s dedication to God and his zeal for the spread of the gospel. A sense of urgency that did not allow for postponement or more favorable circumstances propelled him from his comfortable home in Canada to an uncertain future in foreign lands. Jason Linn, a close associate, said of Jaffray: “He felt that soul saving is like fighting fire—it cannot be delayed.”


When the Japanese forces started their assault on Southeast Asia, Jaffray, his wife, Minnie, and their daughter, Margaret, were in Baguio, Philippines, taking a few days’ rest before leaving for Canada. The Jaffrays had a choice to make: go east to a ship that would take them home or return south to Indonesia (then known as the Dutch East Indies). Without hesitation, they returned to Makassar, Indonesia. I asked Jaffray why he did not return to Canada as planned, since the C&MA mission had Rev. Russell Deibler, an exceptional leader, as their field chairman. He replied, “My place is with my brothers in the Indies.” Jaffray thought, as I did, that the Japanese occupying forces might allow missionary work to continue.

Dr. Robert A. JaffrayThe Japanese set up an internment camp for men in Pare-Pare, about 150 miles north of Makassar. The camp for women and children was in Kampili, near Makassar. At first, the older men were housed in the women’s camp, but in June 1943, all the senior men, accompanied by a group of boys age 14 and older, were relocated to Pare-Pare camp. As Jaffray bid farewell to Mrs. Jaffray and Margaret, they must have wondered if they would see each other again in this life.

Keeping Busy

Jaffray was met at the men’s camp by Deibler and Ernie Presswood, also a C&MA missionary. I met Jaffray for the first time later that day. He and the other 23 older men were excused from work and housed separately and fairly comfortably. Jaffray kept busy translating into English the books and commentaries he had written in Chinese so that after the war, they could be translated into Indonesian. There were three Chinese gentlemen in the camp: the Chinese consul, Mr. Wang; the vice-consul, Lee Tsu Hwai and Mr. Wang’s son, Mi Fu. Since Consul Wang, being a diplomat, did not have to work, Jaffray often conversed with him in Chinese.

He looked forward to his afternoon walks around the camp with Deibler and Presswood. As often as I could, I was with him during the late evenings. The ministry he had had in China, French Indo-China and then Indonesia was new to me. He never tired of my countless questions. After Russell Deibler died of gastroenteritis on August 29, Presswood became Jaffray’s mainstay. I was out in the forests six days a week with the wood gang, felling trees and cutting them into firewood for the Japanese kitchen as well as ours. We were able to smuggle a variety of food items back into camp, secreted under the stacked firewood. Our most popular item was duck eggs, a welcome supplement to Jaffray’s diet.

On Sundays we had more time to be together. Presswood, Jaffray and I would talk while drinking tea and coffee, and Jaffray often quizzed me about what I saw during my daily six-mile walks for firewood. He was a man of humor, and one comment from a Japanese guard really tickled him. Most Sundays we were allowed to have religious services, but one week no permission was given. The guard explained in Indonesian, “Tidah boleh meow-meow!” (“No singing like cats!”)

A Goal to Pursue

Jaffray in IndonesiaBefore World War II, the Catholics and the Dutch Protestants in Indonesia were caught up in a war of words. There were 40 Catholic priests, 80 Catholic lay brothers and 40 Dutch Protestant missionaries in the camp, and friction continued during the first few weeks of internment. Then, a meeting was held. “Whose side are we on anyway?” someone said. “We have a common enemy, our Japanese jailers.” From then on, a truce prevailed. Jaffray said he wished all of life’s problems could be worked out so amicably and wondered why believers of all churches did not unite against their greater common enemy, Satan.

Jaffray spoke often of his next goal: opening up Upper Burma (now Myanmar) to the gospel. He felt that the C&MA mission in Indonesia was off to a healthy start, thus leaving him free to pursue his vision. I have no doubt at all, had he survived the war, he would have headed for Burma after recuperation.

In a civilian camp such as ours, there were professors, teachers and men from every occupation. The guards allowed educational classes to be taught after supper. Some of the teachers had textbooks, and some taught from memory. So many subjects were available, the choices were almost limitless. I took classes on philosophy, ornithology and poetry. Jaffray attended classes on ethnology. I am sure this interest was connected to his vision for Upper Burma.

Going Home

On October 19, 1944, Allied liberator bombers gutted our camp in Pare-Pare. The guards marched us some five miles south to some abandoned barns but allowed the older men to ride in the large trailer we used to gather firewood. The sanitary conditions at the new camp were more than deplorable. It wasn’t long before dysentery struck. At the peak, 400 of our 600 internees were ill. Both Presswood and I came down with it, but Jaffray did not.

In June 1945, the Allies were closing in on the northern islands of Indonesia, and the Japanese decided to move us inland. We were transported 30 to a truck from our coastal camp to the Toradja Mountains, a 16-hour trip. The older men were moved a few days later.

Our new camp was located in a ravine about a mile from the end of the road. It rained constantly, and the so-called trail was a muddy, slippery quagmire laden with stumps and rocks. The older men could never have walked in, so we constructed make-shift stretchers of bamboo and set out at night to fetch them. Because of the steepness, we tied the older men into the stretchers. Jaffray and the others were taken to a hastily thrown-up infirmary, a simple bamboo and thatch shack with an earthen floor. Blankets were nonexistent. Fortunately, Colonel Woodward of the Salvation Army had an overcoat that he sold to Jaffray for US$20, with payment to be made after the war.

Except for the seniors, the entire camp was on starvation rations. Often there was no food at all for 24, and sometimes 36, hours. The daily ration was one half cup of rice, no salt or sugar, vegetables infrequently and almost never any meat. Jaffray needed salt and sugar, but none was to be had. A few young men slipped out of the camp one night to try to find them at a nearby village. They returned empty handed, and the guards, who had performed a rare after-curfew roll call, beat them with clubs.

I had dropped to 98 pounds from a comfortable 150 but still had to work with the wood gang. I got dysentery again and was put in the infirmary about four beds from Jaffray. Day by day he grew weaker. The male nurse was instructed to call Presswood and me if he detected Jaffray slipping away. Jaffray went to be with the Lord in the middle of the night on July 29, 1945, just a few weeks before the war’s end. The nurse failed to call me until early in the morning. Presswood then came, and both of us wept at the bedside of one of God’s choice servants.

Presswood conducted the funeral service at 4 p.m. that cold and blustery day. A united Protestant and Catholic choir sang “Nearer My God to Thee” in three-part harmony arranged by a priest, Father Does. Then, on August 12, Presswood conducted a memorial service at the grave site. Mrs. Jaffray and Margaret did not know of their beloved’s death until we were released. After the war, Jaffray’s body was moved to a more fitting site in Makassar, where a memorial now stands.

The truth that Jesus set forth in Luke 9:57–62 aptly applies to Jaffray. Once he grasped the hands of the plow there was no going back, either spiritually or physically. He did not have a place to lay his head that he could call his own. He could not say goodbye even to his beloved wife and precious daughter. Through the providence of God, I am the only one of the four—Jaffray, Diebler, Presswood and me—yet alive. Through the influence of those three godly men, I returned to Indonesia in January 1948 with wife and family as a C&MA missionary. A man who follows the Lord closely and carefully, as Jaffray did, is a man to follow (1 Cor. 11:1).

Nathan Bailey
Although born into wealth and privilege, Dr. Robert A. Jaffray had the heart of a pioneer. His father, a Canadian senator, owned and published the influential Toronto Globe newspaper (now the Toronto Globe and Mail). After hearing A. B. Simpson preach, young Jaffray enrolled in the New York Missionary Training School (now Nyack College), and in 1897, a few months before his twenty-fourth birthday, he sailed for China. There, Jaffray and his group joined a party of Alliance missionaries that had been on the Chinese field for three years. Among them was Minnie Donor, whom he wed in August 1900.

During their long tenure in China, the Jaffrays and their colleagues led many people in the Guangxi province to faith in Jesus Christ and planted churches in the Wuzhou area. Jaffray made good use of the ink in his bloodline and established the South China Press, which published The Bible Magazine, a Chinese-language journal that made Jaffray’s name well-known in Chinese communities around the world.

In 1928, Jaffray felt God pulling him to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Pooling money he had inherited from his father together with donations from Alliance churches in the United States and Canada, Jaffray set out on a new venture to bring the gospel to the islands of Borneo (now Kalimantan) and Celebes (now Sulawesi). Minnie joined him some time later, after she had finished her work in China.

The Jaffrays were living in Makassar, the provincial capital of South Sulawesi, at the outbreak of World War II.

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