Looking Back From the Sunset Land

In the twilight of his life, Reformed Presbyterian pastor Nathan Robinson Johnston (1820-1904)  [according to our author, the 'n' in Robinson was silent] wrote a fascinating autobiography which touches on a wide variety of people, places and topics. Looking Back From the Sunset Land: Or, People Worth Knowing (1898) was a popular read in its day, and it is worth taking up again today to learn more about the experiences and recollections of this interesting pastor, with a heart for Chinese missionary efforts in California, and those who intersected with his life's journey. 

Lineally descended from a Scottish Covenanter martyr "Sir Archibald Johnston, or Lord Warriston [(1611-1663)], whom the Scotch Covenant-breakers hung in Edinburgh" (p. 569), our Nathan Johnston makes known his interest in the family genealogy (see p. 274). The story of his ancestors (his great-grandparents were killed by Indians, and his grandfather himself killed an Indian), and his own early years and entry into the ministry is told, along with the effect of the Fugitive Slave law of 1850 on his Reformed Presbyterian abolitionist convictions. Also noted are his contributions to the publishing efforts of the leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (an 1860 letter from Nathan to Garrison can be viewed here) and Frederick Douglass. Nathan would go on to serve as the publisher of The Free Press and Our Banner.

His older (by 18 years) brother, the Rev. John Black Johnston (1802-1882), who founded Geneva College, is discussed, along with his departure from the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter) Church (RPCNA) to join the United Presbyterian Church of North America (UPCNA). Nathan remained in the RPCNA, and the ecclesiastical division within his family took a toll. Nathan also served as president of Geneva College (1865-1867). The lesson he learned from this experience helped him in life to show grace to others with whom he might disagree theologically. (For a a remarkable example of this, see pp. 569-570, in which our exclusively Psalm-singing RP pastor recounts his "pleasant conversation" with Ira D. Sankey, known to some as the "father of modern gospel music.") 

Nathan at various points in his life served as a missionary to the "contrabands" (freed slaves) in Port Royal, South Carolina; served briefly as a professor at Geneva College; and started a mission school among the Chinese in California. His biographical sketch can be pieced together from William Melancthon Glasgow's History of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in America and The Geneva Book; and Owen Foster Thompson's Sketches of the Ministers of the Reformed Presbyterian of North American From 1888 to 1930. But the tale of his life, his travels, and the ministers, celebrities and ordinary people that he met along the way, fleshes out a remarkable life story told by a humble Covenanter pastor.