The Revd Dr John Ross
Korean Missionary and Elder in Mayfield United Free Church
The Revd Dr John Ross (1842 – 1915) was born on 6th July 1842 on a farm in the parish of Chapelhill, Nigg in Easter Ross. The son of a tailor, he studied at the United Presbyterian Divinity Hall in Edinburgh 1865 – 1869. He was licensed in 1870. Though attracted to the Gaelic ministry, he accepted the call of the UP Church’s Foreign Mission Committee to serve in Manchuria. At the time of decision, a friend said to him, ‘Better to be a spark in China than a flame in the Highlands.’ Ross took the advice of his friend. Portree Parish Church, Isle of Skye, was his last parish in the Highlands.
Ross’s work involved itinerancy and the training of an indigenous evangelistic and pastoral ministry. Significantly, he held that Christian teaching did not conflict with Confucian (his first school provided free teaching, using only Chinese classics), asserted the existence of a monotheistic strand in ancient Chinese religion, denied that Chinese ancestral rites were idolatrous (while insisting that adjudication on traditional customs was the local church’s province) and believed Buddhist ascetics to be the most earnest seekers and, when converted, the most dynamic evangelists. Ross commented, ‘The role of the missionary was not to change customs but to renew the heart.’
In 1874, he saw the possibilities of Christian mission in the closed neighbouring land of Korea. Persuading Korean visitors to Manchuria to be his first teachers, he worked at the language, produced a primer in 1877 and a grammar in 1882. He directed the first Korean translation of the New Testament. Not permitted to travel into Korea himself, a Korean friend and Korean traders carried the Scriptures over the border. Ross chose to translate the Bible into the language of the common people rather than Chinese, which was the language of the educated and upper classes. It has been argued that Ross’s ‘decision to use only the language of the common people was the most important event in the entire history of the Korean Church.’ Produced at a time when no standard Korean grammar was available, the Ross translation ‘seems to have formed the basis of a new vernacular literature.’ Ross himself noted that, ‘the translation goes to the women of that country, and to the lowliest and illiterate poor, to speak to them plainly, in the language which all understand and employ in daily life, of the wondrous love of Him who is Saviour of the world.’
John Ross retired in 1910. He came to Edinburgh and became an Elder in Mayfield United Free Church (now Mayfield Salisbury). In addition to his translation of Scripture, Ross also wrote on East Asian history and culture: Chinese Foreign Policy (1877), History of Corea (1879), The Manchus (1880), The Boxers of Manchuria (1901), Mission Methods in Manchuria (1903), The Original Religion of China (1909) and the posthumous Origin of the Chinese People (1916). He received the DD from Glasgow University in 1894. Ross died in 1915 and is buried in Newington Cemetery. A plaque in his honour was unveiled in 2006 at this church. The service of dedication was attended by staff and students of New College, including several Korean postgraduates and their families.
There is also a plaque in Portree Parish Church on the Isle of Skye
South Korea has a population of 40 million and a Christian Church numbering over 12 million members. The dramatic growth of the Korean churches over the past one hundred years is directly linked to the spread of the Scriptures in the language of the people. John Ross was not permitted to enter Korea yet over 12 million Korean Christians know his name.
The John Ross Scholarship Fund provides a bursary for a Korean candidate undertaking postgraduate studies at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh.
Rethinking Mission March 2008 - John Ross and Bible Women in the early Protestant Mission of Northern Korea and Eastern China by Christine Sungjin Chang.
Edinburgh Evening News
Unveiling of the plaque in 2006
Directions to the Grave
If you want to find the grave of Revd Dr John Ross at Newington Cemetery, Dalkeith Road, Edinburgh. Directions from Mayfield Salisbury Church. Head east on West Mayfield towards Minto Street, cross the traffic light controlled junction to East Mayfield and carry on to the next traffic light controlled junction with Dalkeith Road. (0.3miles). Turn right and travel southeast for (0.2miles) and just past the junction of Prestonfield Avenue the gates to Newington Cemetery are found on the right (west side of Dalkeith Road). Once in the gates of the cemetery turn to the path on your left and follow this path for about 290 paces in a south easterly direction. At this point you will be opposite the dwelling number 295 Dalkeith Road (on the other side of the cemetery wall) Turn at right angles to the path and take approximately 20 paces (not on the path) to the south west. The gravestone will be facing the path you come to.
There is an interesting video of Korean visitors visting Mayfield Salisbury and the grave of Revd Dr John Ross at Easter 2016 which may be viewed here -
A map to guide you to his grave may be find here - files/JohnRossGraveLocationPlan.pdf
East Gate Church, Shenyang
The photographs below, courtesy of Neil Sinclair, 2013, are from the East Gate Church, Shenyang, Manchuria. It was here that Revd Dr John Ross was the Minister when he carried out the translation. One shows the panel in the church which includes a section about him, the other a plaque in Korean and Chinese which marks his work.