David TorranceDavid Torrance studied in Basel, Switzerland, under Karl Barth and Oscar Cullmann. He served in the Church of Scotland from 1955 until his retirement.

Rev. Torrance recounts how God led him into ministry.

Edited transcript

Missionary life in China

J. Michael Feazell: I wanted to ask you about your childhood, your story, how you came to be interested in ministry, how that came about, and what it was like to be in the Torrance household.

David Torrance: I was born into a very privileged home in the sense it was a very committed Christian home; both parents that were missionaries. My grandfather was a small-dairy farmer. But father, as it were, broke away. He went into the ministry. He went to China, and he there was a minister evangelist for 40 years. Mother went out also as a young missionary, and they met in China and married in China. So my family, six of us, were all born in China. I’m the youngest of six.

Those were turbulent days in China. West China was ruled by warlords. One might also call them brigand chiefs, because each had their own army, they fought, they plundered, they killed. Life was turbulent. But in that context of missionary serving, father served. His base was Chengdu, 1500 miles upriver from Shanghai, and from there he worked up into the mountains toward Tibet.

It was a life of faith, tremendous commitment to Christ, and we always had family worship. I never remembered a time in my life when we didn’t have family worship — when the family came together, they were reading from the Bible, they prayed, and that carried us on through our childhood, through our student days, until finally we married and went our separate ways. We still continue, when we come together, but there’s only two of us left in my family now. We still would meet and pray together.

Prayer was an important thing in our household. We always had it. I don’t suppose our family would have survived, literally, without prayer, because, as I mentioned, these were very turbulent years when the family was in China. When the family left, there had been severe rioting. A missionary friend of my mother was beheaded in the street near the home. They rioted, wanting to break into our home. But we were wonderfully protected…there was a tremendous faith in God.

The Bible was central in our family life. When I had reached my sixth birthday, Mother showed me the calendar and said there’s seven days a week, there’s 52 weeks in the year. If you read three chapters of the Bible every day, five on Sunday, you’ll read it through in a year short of a week, you’ll read it by Christmas. She said that when you take the Bible, always pray and ask God to speak to you through it. When you hear God speaking to you through it, you’ll know that this is the word of God.

She said, form that habit, because when you grow up many people will say all sorts of terrible things about the Bible and dismiss it, but when you have heard God speaking to you through the Bible, you’ll know that that is God’s word. Nothing will shake it. So the Bible played an important part in our whole upbringing. I was never given any doctrine of Scripture – I was simply told it was the word of God, and if we prayed and asked God to speak, he would speak.

In addition to our family prayers, books played a big part of our family life. My youngest brother, Tom, always called my father the evangelist of the family, and he called my mother the theologian of the family. They guided us in our reading so that they introduced us to a lot of Christian works in our school days and discussed the Scripture, discussed doctrine, theology, in a simple way. It was very much part of our upbringing and family life.

JMF: What was it like for you as a child and with your siblings living in China? Under the circumstances of the dangerous conditions politically, what sort of freedom did you have to go far from the house or to be in the city alone, or what was it like?

DT: I was too young when I came home from China – I was three. The older members of the family remember it vividly because they went to school there. Apart from the turbulence, it was a marvelous country in which to grow up. There was a freedom which people didn’t enjoy here. Father had a mule and a horse, and that was part of the family, so the family went to school on horseback. Father used to complain. He said that once Tom got on that mule, he would no longer walk – that mule insisted on galloping. Now, not many children go to school on the back of a mule and a horse.

JMF: Especially a galloping mule.

DT: Tom was mischievous. He was called by the Chinese a mischief. It had its dangers, but it had its freedom and its excitement.

JMF: There must have been a number of people who were glad you were there … You mentioned that there were riots later on. Where did the animosity come from?

DT: On one hand, as people came to Christ, they were friendly and loyal. Dad, for the last 25 years of his ministry, he was agent for the American and British Bible Society. Not that he looked after printing or anything of that sort (the Chinese did that), but he was superintendent (when he retired there were many tributes to father written in Chinese…I have some at home on the wall) …and one of the things that means a lot to me is that in his last year, he and his co-laborers distributed over a million portions of Scripture in West China. When he retired, the church said that no one had done more to forward the gospel in West China.

On the other hand, you had these brigand chiefs, and it was their way of life. But after 1917, the Communist revolution in China, the Communists began pouring in rifles, weapons, and communistic, atheistic literature. The weapons came into the hands of these brigand armies, and also the literature. That aroused a tremendous or increased an antipathy to foreigners and the Christian faith. That’s what led up to the final rise, when the family came home.

They took a difficult decision. Father was fluent in Chinese. He had quite a knowledge. After he came home, Father and I were invited by a Chinese noble, an emperor, if we would have a meal at his home. His parents had come over and fled from Communist China. The mother had no interest, and the father very little, so this noble wanted them to meet my father. He said to me he could not get over my father. He said when his back was turned you would not know that he was not Chinese. He had quite a remarkable knowledge.

He went back alone, for seven years; that was quite a sacrifice for the family. We remembered him and he kept in touch…we wrote every week. Mother insisted that each one of us write to him, and he wrote to us, so that despite the gap, it was still, you might say a remarkably close family, and once again there were great answers to prayer.

For example, just after father went back, the family settled for a short period near Glasgow in the west of Scotland and then moved to Edinburgh. Mother went to the local church, attended a local prayer meeting of about 27 led by one of the elders. She said she didn’t know anyone there, but the elder said, are there any subjects for prayer tonight, any people you would like us to pray for? Mother said yes, her husband was a missionary in West China and she had a deep feeling that he needed prayer at that moment. She said it was lovely that one after another in that room prayed for my father though they didn’t know him.

Mother wrote to father and told him, and he wrote back and said, could you tell me the day of that prayer meeting and the time of day? It so happened on that particular day and the very time of day, his life was spared, in the sense that a communist army… (I say communist; I don’t know how much communism they really do, but they were influenced by their atheistic literature and nationalism)…came up to this mountain village to search for my father and a fellow missionary, and they searched every house in that village bar one. They walked past the door at the same time as that prayer meeting in Glasgow. The family saw many answers to prayer like that. Prayer was very much part of the family life of all of us.

JMF: How long was he separated from the family during that period?

DT: Seven years. It was difficult… Father opened the Christian work in West China up among the tributaries of the Yangtze River, the Min was one of the main ones, and among people called the Qiang [Sichuan province, west of Chengdu]. I suppose he would be the first Western missionary ever to enter those parts. He had the language, he had the dialect, there was no one else to take over. He felt that God wanted him to continue this work and to establish it, so he went back. The church there was smaller perhaps than in other parts of China, but it nonetheless became deep-rooted.

Shortly after he came back, he received a parcel. He opened it (and I was there in the room with him), and he was a bit astonished at first. It was a Chinese Bible, but he had several Chinese Bibles. When he opened it and he looked at what we would say the back cover…but that is the beginning — they start in what we would say is the back and work forward — there was a story of that Bible. This Communist had come up to this mountain village, it was a Christian village. They would take the grain, the food, and they’d burn it – tragic things – to try to wipe them out. They would burn every Bible. The Christians had forewarning, and they took the Bibles and buried them in a cave, and when the Communists passed over, they dug it up again and sent one of the Bibles to my father. The story was inside the cover with the words that just as this Bible has been resurrected, the church in China will be resurrected, which I found moving.

I had that Bible in my possession for a number of years, but when my brother Tom went back on one of his visits to West China and up to those villages where my father worked, he took it with him because of the shortage of Bibles, and he gave it to the son of the man who sent it to my father. I was sorry to part with the Bible, but they needed the Bibles and that was the right thing to happen.

Moving into ministry

JMF: How did you then begin to or become oriented toward ministry after your father came back?

DT: I believed in the Lord all the days of my life. A living presence of Christ was real to all of us in the family. Prayer was real. I read the Bible every year (but nowadays I read it three times a year). The faith was real to all of us. The Christian life was real. The turning point for me was the army. I did a year at university, did classics for a year, and then joined the army in the end of 1942. I felt I would say yes, I would enter the ministry, but I didn’t want to be a minister.

I moved through different units in the army – in wartime you’re shifted around according to where you were needed. I was part of special assault troops doing beach landings. We did a lot of rock climbing, explosives, and on and off boats. We were the British Army and they were Americans. We were due to go to the Channel Islands, because that was the only part of Britain that was occupied by Germany. We were on standby, so we knew that it tomorrow, next week, we may be sent over…

I remember saying to myself, many people were not going to come back, and I hope I don’t come back, because if I come back, God will put me in the ministry. Quite mad, absolutely mad when I was young, and I felt no, I’d rather not come back than be put into the ministry. I had a deep feeling underneath that by hook, by crook, God would make sure I came back, because he was determined to put me in the ministry. That hung over me as a tremendous cloud.

JMF: Why did you not want to go into ministry?

DT: I suppose it was an anomalous situation, because the Lord meant a lot to me. I continued to read the Bible; I carried a Bible in my pocket in my army uniform and had it with me all through the army life. A passage which really troubled me was Acts 2, that here the disciples, Peter and the others, were preaching, and some in the multitude thought they were drunk and laughed and scorned at them. Somehow or other that horrified me. I didn’t want to be up there on a platform and be mocked. Perhaps I was strange. I lived in this anomalous situation where I read the Bible, I prayed every day, the Lord meant a lot to me, but I was afraid to let go.

There were a number of incidents that happened that spoke powerfully to me. We were in a training scheme in the hills north of England. I was in a tent with another three lads. In that type of army exercise, you don’t get into pajamas, you lay down in your uniform, your coat, you’re allowed to take off your pack. When I thought they were asleep, I pulled out my Bible and started reading it, and one of the lads who wasn’t asleep said, “Dave, are you reading a Bible?” I said yes. “Why not read it to us all?” I knew God was speaking to me. They weren’t Christian folk, they didn’t go to church; one of them was a hard swearer. They listened attentively, and I felt very humble. I felt God saying, you are called to speak the gospel.

In this assault brigade where I had said I’d rather not come back than go into ministry, there was a church three miles away. I walked down there, and came back. I had a letter to my parents, and I hunted around for a postbox. I asked another soldier where there was a postbox. He said, “I’ll show you.” He took me, and we got chatting, and he asked, “You want a cup of tea?” So we had a cup of tea. He said, “What have you been doing?” I said, “I’ve been to church.” I didn’t say anything more. We were in the same assault brigade but in a different unit. He had done about two years at university and we got chatting away. We finally agreed that we both had a Saturday afternoon off, next Saturday, so we would meet and go sailing.

When we came in, he said to me, “When I saw you last week you had been to church. Are you going to church tomorrow?” I said yes. He said, “Can I come with you?” That happened for three weeks. We went out on Saturday afternoon sailing, went to church, and when we were coming back the three miles, he suddenly turned to me and said, “Dave, you’re a Christian.” I said yes. He said, “You’ve never talked to me about Christ.”

That shook me. I felt God was saying I put you here, this is what you’ve got to do. That spoke heavily to me. He was one of those remarkable men who you shared the faith and he simply accepted…he believed. He was a university man. I had to give him a Bible. I don’t think he had ever in his life been to church before. Yet you just shared the faith and he believed, and he entered the Christian faith in the mildest way. I felt very much the hand of God in me.

There was a third incident… I went to India and met on the boat a man I was very attracted to. He had been at university for four years. He was an atheist, or I should say an agnostic. We had many vigorous discussions on his humanism, which I felt was wrong. Apart from his humanism, we got on well together and we shared a tent together when we arrived in India. In the tropics it’s noisy — all sorts of insects and creatures, and I was lying in my bunk in the tent and he came in. He saw me, and I knew he took a swipe at me and he said, “Oh this marvelous world we’re in.”

I was a bit, to use an army term, browned off. He disturbed the peace of my evening, and I said, “Shut up.” I said, “You’re talking dunces and you know it. Sit down.” Very blunt, very rude. He sat down and was quiet. Then he suddenly said, “I’d like to become a Christian.” That shook me. For weeks we had discussed and not a single suggestion that he wanted to, was open to the faith. We knelt and we prayed. He committed his life to Christ.

I felt that God’s hand was on my shoulder and said this is what you’re called to do, and you’ll do it. It should have filled me with joy. It troubled me. There were other experiences. At the end of the war I had a marvelous leave climbing up in the Himalayas, came back, picked up smallpox, which wasn’t very helpful.

JMF: In the Himalayas?

DT: On the way back. In smallpox, your temperature goes up, it dips down, and it goes up a second time. The second time is usually fatal. It’s an interesting experience. I was in the jungle division, and I was put in a little hut by myself. It made me feel like a leper, all isolated, no one came. It didn’t bother me in the slightest, and I wasn’t downhearted in the slightest. I never thought I would die, although I knew I was pretty ill. I had the most incredible experience of the presence of Christ — sheer joy and thanksgiving. Maybe I was delirious, but I knew the closeness of Christ. I was filled with a sense of thanksgiving that I’d never had before.

I recovered, went back to my unit, because although the war was over, this was maybe October ‘45, the east was in a turbulent state, so the armistice, if you call it that, didn’t mean a great deal to some of us. India was in uproar… To split India/Pakistan, two million people perished in those riots, never reported. Malaysia, Indonesia, the east was in turmoil.

I began to think, by the end of the year, the time is going to come when I’ll leave the army. What am I going to do? I knew God was saying the ministry, and I said no. I’ll be a medical missionary. Didn’t want to be a doctor – anything rather than a minister. I was quite happy to go out. I’d seen enough of the poor and the destitute to spend my life with the poor and the destitute. For three days I was in total turmoil. I don’t think I could talk civilly to someone. I might punch someone in the nose, which I didn’t do, you’d be court-marshaled in the army if you tried that.

I had a tent to myself. I approached that tent, I can’t put it into words, I knew God was there. As I entered that tent, I knew God was saying the ministry, and I said no. Hard to put into words, I felt physically that God had caught me by the scruff of the neck and said all right, you’ll never again have any peace of mind, and no joy. I knelt down on the ground and said, “All right, Lord, I’ll be a minister, it’s your lookout.” That was my words. It was the most disgruntled prayer I’ve ever prayed.

Something incredible happened. That whole cloud that hung over me vanished. It was like the birds were singing, and the ministry, I couldn’t get over this, became very attractive. I was staggered that whereas I had hated the thought of the ministry, I now really looked forward to ministry and wanted to be a minister.

When I left the army I came back to university. I did four years of philosophy degree, then on to theology. I felt that God was with me in the ministry. I’ve often looked back to that because there are times in the ministry I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding than the life in the ministry. What could be more rewarding than to see people come to faith in Christ and be converted, to see people helped, comforted, filled with the joy and freedom of the Lord? It’s been a marvelous life, a marvelous calling. It’s a tremendous privilege, but at times difficult. Many a time I’ve said to the Lord, you made me a minister, and it’s up to you to do something about it.

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Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 1:16 PM