Jonathan Goble of Japan
Marine, Missionary, Maverick
by F. Calvin Parker,
University Press of America, 1990, 337 pages, hard cover, $39.75
Jonathan Goble was one of many nineteenth century New Yorkers who played a minor role in major historic events. This man from the Finger Lakes was a participant in or a witness to the earliest contacts between the United States and Japan that resulted in the birth of modern Japan. He accompanied the first naval expedition that opened Japan in 1853-54, returned to Japan in 1860 as the first Baptist missionary, translated and published the first portion of the Bible printed in Japan, is credited by many as the inventor of the jinrikisha, and made a plea for religious freedom in Japan when he found himself on the same ship as the first Japanese diplomatic mission to the West.
Goble was born in the town of Wayne in Steuben County and his personality was shaped by the circumstances of his early life. Left fatherless at the age of eleven, he grew up as a strong-willed, quick-tempered youth who rebelled against the strict discipline of his grandfather and the sectarian disputes of the local Baptist church. His hot temper led to threats that landed him in Auburn prison for two years. The harsh routine there broke many men but for Goble it led to a religious experience and the determination to become a Christian missionary. He also learned the trade of shoemaking which was useful to him in later life as a means of supporting himself and his family in Japan.
After the prison experience, he returned home with no family financial backing, little formal education, and a bad reputation as an ex-convict. The opportunity to get a start toward his ambition to become a missionary and to prove the sincerity of his conversion came when a call went out to join Commodore Matthew C. Perry's expedition to Japan. Goble enlisted as a marine and was assigned to the USS Mississippi, the fleet's flagship. Here he discovered a shipmate from the neighboring village of Pulteney, Francis C. Pollay, who had joined the navy to escape harsh treatment by his father.
Goble also became acquainted with a young Japanese nicknamed "Sam Patch" who was being returned to Japan after being rescued from a shipwreck. Goble began to learn the Japanese language from "Sam Patch" and brought him back with him to New York State when the expedition was over. He was part of the marine guard that went ashore when the first treaty between Japan and a Western country was signed and was the only enlisted man to be noted by name by the Japanese artists who recorded the event. His experience convinced him that Japan would be his chosen mission field.
The book, Jonathan Goble of Japan, Marine, Missionary, Maverick by F. Calvin Parker tells the story of this remarkable person. Parker, a missionary-teacher in Japan himself who speaks and reads the language, spent many years of research in every available source in Japan and the United States. His search for material included such local records as those in the courthouse in Bath, at the Wayne Baptist Church, Colgate University, and the American Baptist Historical Society in Rochester to document Goble's early life in New York State.
Goble was very much a product of his time and the region known as the "Burned-over District." His effectiveness as a missionary was diminished by some extreme local prejudices that he held as essential virtues. He was perhaps no more ethnocentric than other missionaries but he carried his observance of the Sabbath and Temperance principles to an extreme, never got over his suspicion of Masons fostered by the Anti-Masonic movement, and was so strong an Abolitionist that he could not cooperate with other missionaries from the South.
Parker's well-written biography presents a complete and unbiased picture of Goble including the "Maverick" part of his life. Goble's temper resulted in outbursts of violence against Japanese workmen and even his long-suffering wife. He brought his ministry to the lowest classes and outcasts of Japanese society but was also involved in schemes to promote his self-interest. He sought recognition for the invention of the jinrikisha, the "man-pull-cart" that appeared first in Yokohama in 1869 or '70. There seems to be little question that he did design a small cart or carriage by which his invalid wife could be transported. Parker devotes a whole chapter to the various versions of the origin of the rickshaw including Goble's claim, the claims of some Japanese entrepreneurs recognized in Japan, even mentioning the local version involving Frank Pollay of Pulteney.
The book is documented by 73 pages of Notes and Bibliography testifying to Parker's exhaustive research. It is an important contribution to local New York history as well as to the early history of United States-Japanese relations and the introduction of Protestant Christianity to Japan.
© 1990, Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.