Early Years in the Netherlands and the United States
Verbeck was born Guido Herman Fridolin Verbeek on 28 January 1830 in the Dutch city of Zeist. Here he grew up speaking Dutch, German, French and English. As a young man, he studied at the Polytechnic Institute of Utrecht in hopes of becoming an engineer.
At the age of twenty-two, upon the invitation of his sister and brother-in-law, Verbeck traveled to the United States to work at a foundry. The factory, located outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, had been developed by a Moravian missionary to build machinery for steamboats. Verbeck stayed in Wisconsin for almost a year, during which time he changed the spelling of his name to "Verbeck" in the hope that Americans could better pronounce it.
Guido Verbeck went to Brooklyn looking for work, but soon moved on to Helena, Arkansas, where he was employed as an engineer. There, in the summer of 1854, he developed cholera and spent more than a month in bed. It was during this period that Verbeck is said to have vowed to become a missionary if he survived the illness.
Missionary Training for Japan
Upon his recovery, Verbeck decided to return to Green Bay to be near his sister and brother-in-law. Less than a year later, he followed them to Auburn, New York, when the brother-in-law moved there to attend a theological seminary. Guido soon thereafter enrolled as a student himself at the seminary.
At the time, upstate New York was a hotbed of foreign missionary activity, and one of the people Verbeck met there was Rev. Samuel R. Brown, who had previously served as a missionary in China from 1838 to 1847. It was through this acquaintance with Brown that Verbeck would eventually make his way to Japan.
While Verbeck was training to become a missionary at the Auburn Theological Seminary, events half way around the world in Nagasaki were unfolding in a manner that would greatly affect the young student's life. In September 1858, two Protestant missionaries residing in China, S. Wells Williams and Edward Syle, traveled to Nagasaki to ascertain what openings might be available for introducing Protestant Christianity into Japan after the port was opened to foreign trade and residence in July of the following year. While in Nagasaki, they met Rev. Henry Wood, chaplain of the U.S.S. Powhattan, which was in the harbor at the time. Williams, Syle and Wood then took it upon themselves to write to the directors of the Episcopal, Reformed, and Presbyterian mission boards in the United States, urging them to appoint missionaries to Japan.
In response to the letter sent to the Mission Board of the Reformed Church, Brown and Verbeck were selected to go to Japan and open a mission there. Brown was undoubtedly chosen because of his experience in China, while Verbeck was selected because of his language skills. As a later missionary/historian of the Reformed Church states, "Dr. Guido F. Verbeck . . . was commissioned by the Board of Foreign Missions of the Reformed (Dutch) Church, because, for one reason, he was a Hollander, and it was thought that this would be of decided advantage in inaugurating work in Japan, especially if he were stationed in Nagasaki...." The Dutch had been the only Westerners allowed in Japan since 1640, and even they had been confined to the tiny, man-made island of Deshima in Nagasaki Harbor. Since Nagasaki was to be one of the treaty ports open to foreigners as of July 1859, Reformed Church leaders assumed (correctly, as it turned out) that a missionary with both Dutch and English language skills would initially have an advantage. Verbeck met these qualifications, and was contacted by the Board in January 1859 to see if he would be interested in going to Nagasaki. After meeting with Board members in New York City, Verbeck decided to take up the challenge of conducting missionary work in Japan.
On 22 March 1859, Guido Verbeck was licensed and ordained an evangelist by the Presbytery of Cayuga, New York, and on the following day he was received as a member of the Reformed Church classis of the same city. He then left Auburn on 15 April for Philadelphia. There three days later he married Maria Manion, a young woman from Auburn that he had met while studying at the seminary.
Travel to Asia
After a short honeymoon, Guido and Maria Verbeck sailed from New York on 7 May aboard the Surprise destined for Shanghai. Accompanying them were the Rev. and Mrs. Brown and the medical missionary Duane B. Simmons and his wife.
The ship arrived on 25 August in Hong Kong, where, because of storms in the region, it was forced to stay for about a month before moving on to Shanghai. In mid-October, Verbeck met with S.W. Williams, Syle and Wood, the signatories of the letter which had led to his being sent out to Asia. Soon thereafter, Brown and Simmons left for Kanagawa to establish a mission there.
Arrival in Nagasaki
On 4 November 1859, Verbeck went alone to Nagasaki, arriving on the night of the 7th and coming ashore the following morning. His first impression of his new home was, indeed, a positive one:
With the first dawning of day I cannot describe the beauty that is before me. I have never seen anything like it before in Europe or America; suppose yourself to be on deck of a steamer within a port as smooth as a mirror, about sixteen neat vessels scattered about here and there, before you that far-famed Deshima, and around it and beyond, an extensive city with many neat white roofed and walled houses, and again all around this city lofty hills, covered with evergreen foliage of great variety, and in many places spotted by temples and houses. Let the morning sun shine on this scene, and the morning dews gradually withdraw like a curtain, and hide themselves in the more elevated ravines of the surrounding mountain, and you have a very faint picture of what I saw.
Upon coming ashore, Verbeck had two priorities: to find suitable housing and secure protection from the U.S. Consul. John Liggins and Channing Moore Williams, missionaries with the American Episcopal Church, aided Verbeck in his first task by allowing him to stay with them at their residence in Sokukuji Temple until he could find a place of his own to rent. Verbeck also received protection from the U.S. Consul, although officially he never became an American citizen.
Since housing in the foreign settlement had not yet been constructed, Verbeck was forced to look for a building in the native town. After some delays, he "finally succeeded in renting a good house of a suitable size, about a mile distant from the foreign quarter . . . ." Situated just below the quarters of Liggins and Williams, the building was ready for occupation on 5 December. With a house finally secured, Verbeck was able to write his pregnant wife to join him; she arrived 29 December.
Guido Verbeck was excited about the prospect of work in Nagasaki; especially in light of difficulties that his colleagues were facing in Kanagawa. He had easily found reasonable housing and a Japanese-language teacher, and would soon acquire the Chinese-language library of Liggins, who was on his way back to the United States. Even though initially there had been talk of moving to the Kanagawa station, Verbeck seemed pleased with his situation in Nagasaki.
Nagasaki combines all the elements of natural beauty more than any place I have seen, and next to its beauty is its importance; its harbor is visited by ships from all parts of Japan; from here roads radiate in various directions...but aside from all this its large population offers a rich field for missionary labor. The people of Nagasaki are very polite and friendly to foreigners, and entirely free from the shyness which they show at other places....
Verbeck went as far as to proclaim that ". . . Nagasaki appears to be the place best adapted for missionary operations at present in Japan . . . ."
Life for the Verbecks in Nagasaki became even more joyous with the birth of a daughter on 26 January 1860. In honor of being the first Christian child born in Japan since its reopening to the world, the girl was baptized Emma Japonica Verbeck. Joy, however, soon turned to sorrow with Emma's passing on 9 February. She was buried in the international cemetery at Inasa, across the harbor from the foreign settlement. The loss for the young couple was almost unbearable.
Our sorrow at this bereavement is deep indeed! How many hopes disappointed and prospective joys turned into mourning! The harder to bear in a heathen wilderness and solitude.
In his annual report to the Mission Board at the end of 1860, Verbeck noted that "During the remainder of the year nothing very remarkable took place." Verbeck described his work at this point as mainly preparatory.
Ours is not yet the delightful privilege of reporting preaching tours, schools, conversions, baptisms, etc. Preparatory work must be done. The Government and people must be convinced of the peaceableness and disinterestedness (not moral) of our aims. In our special case, those who once attempted to drown Christianity in the blood of the Christians' must, as it were, be conciliated; the language, which offers many difficulties, must be acquired; aids to learn the language with more ease in less time must be prepared for the use of future laborers of our own, or other Christian bodies; and the people's religions, institutions, habits, and sins of the country, must be studied attentively.
Since it was still prohibited to preach Christianity outside the foreign settlement and for Japanese to become Christians, Verbeck and the other missionaries were limited primarily to studying the Japanese language, preparing Christian materials for the day when the proscription of the religion might be lifted, and teaching the English language to very eager Japanese students. At the end of his first year, Verbeck lamented that his own language study was going slowly, because he spent so much time teaching English to Japanese interpreters. Of this English-language instruction to four Japanese students in his home, Verbeck noted that it "takes a good deal of valuable time, yet the general influence cannot fail to be good . . . ." This statement concerning the value of teaching English to Japanese students would prove very prophetic when ten years later former students would invite him to Tokyo to take part in the planning of the new government after the Meiji Restoration.
Family Life in Nagasaki
The tragically early death of their first born did not deter the Verbecks from attempting to create a family during their decade in Nagasaki. Their second full year in town began happily with the birth of their son William on 18 January 1861. With a child now to care for, concerns over the sanitary conditions of their residence led the Verbecks to look for a new house higher up the hill in the native town. They finally found one and moved into it in November.
In May 1861, Guido had asked permission of the Mission Board to rent a lot on the hill called Higashiyamate in the foreign settlement. C.M. Williams of the Episcopal Church had already rented lot No. 11 with the intention of constructing a church there, and Verbeck thought the Reformed Church should also have property in the area. Verbeck rented No. 3 Higashiyamate on 1 July 1861, but never built anything on the land and sold it two years later.
January 1863 saw the birth of a daughter, whom the Verbecks again named Emma Japonica. Their son William, almost two years old at the time, spoke Japanese better than English.
Political events in Japan made Verbeck fear for his safety and that of his family. The murder of a British visitor from Shanghai, Charles Richardson, by retainers of the Satsuma domain in September 1862, had set in motion a series of events that made it very dangerous for foreigners living in Japan at the time. Verbeck was warned by one of his students that his life was in danger, so he moved his family from the hills of the native town to the island of Deshima, which was more easily defended by Western ships in the harbor.
Even Deshima proved dangerous, however, and on the recommendation of the foreign consuls the Verbecks went to Shanghai in May. Here they stayed until mid-October, when conditions were deemed safe enough to return to Nagasaki.
After a long but pleasant trip of nine days, we safely reached our desired haven in Japan (13 October). I cannot describe our joy at again seeing and setting foot on this fair country. All things around looked very much as when we left, only there were a few new batteries, and more activity around and in them. Business had come nearly to a dead stop, and although there was no danger for the time being, yet the greatest uncertainty prevailed.
1864 saw the Verbecks changes residences again. In July, they moved to a house near the foreign settlement.
By the time of their departure in March 1869, the Verbecks were living in quarters at Daitokuji Temple. Three more children had also been added to the family between 1864 and 1868.
As discussed above, Guido Verbeck had been teaching English to Japanese students at his home since the early days of his stay in Nagasaki. In January 1864 (the 12th month of 1863, according to the Japanese calendar), in spite of concerns for his safety caused by samurai attacks on foreigners, Verbeck began to work more closely with local Japanese government officials in Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bugyo (commissioner) was so pleased with the English-language ability of his two interpreters who had studied under Verbeck, that he "proposed to the Shogun's government that a school of foreign languages and science be founded and that Mr. Verbeck be made the principal." The school, called Yogakusho in Japanese, was established in the native town at Edo-machi. Verbeck initially taught there two hours a day, five days a week for an annual salary of $1200. Soon there were more than one hundred students at the school.
Most of 1864 and 1865 were spent teaching English at the government school in Nagasaki. In the latter year, the school underwent a number of changes. Early in 1865, French and Russian were added to the curriculum, and the school was transferred to Omura-machi and renamed Gogakusho. In September (the 8th month according to the Japanese calendar), the school was moved to Shin-machi and given the name Seibikan. Here, Verbeck taught both German and upper-level English classes. The two documents that he utilized most frequently in the school were the U.S. Constitution and the New Testament, which he felt were the foundations of American civilization.
In 1866, Verbeck began to play another important role in the education of young Japanese men.
By June 10, 1866, the two nephews of Yokoi Heishiro, Ise' and Numagawa' were started to America, the first of a host, and the beginning of a procession of five hundred or more, who, with Mr. Verbeck's introduction, were helped in various ways, when in America, by the Reformed Church and Mission Board.
Ise and Numagawa were taken by a ship's captain to the office of Dr. Ferris, the Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Reformed Church in New York City.
The Japanese presented to Dr. Ferris a letter from the Rev. G.F. Verbeck of Nagasaki. They told him that they had come to America to study navigation to learn how to build big ships and make long guns to prevent European powers from taking possession of their country.
Ise and Numagawa studied at a grammar school in New Jersey for a few months before attending the U.S. Naval Academy. They were able to study at the Academy, because "on the recommendation of Mr. Verbeck, Dr. Ferris and Senator Freylinghausen, a bill was passed in Congress to admit Japanese to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis." The following year, Verbeck sent two students from Higo to New Brunswick, New Jersey to attend Rutgers College, "which was at that time regarded as the college of the Reformed Church in America."
By the fall of 1867, Verbeck's teaching had achieved such recognition that he could write that the daimyo of Kaga, Satsuma, Tosa and Hizen had all contacted him about establishing schools like the one in Nagasaki in their domains. He remained in Nagasaki for a little more than a year after this, however; long enough to witness one more change of schools there in the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration. The Seibikan was closed in 1868 and replaced by the Kounkan. At the same time, the daimyo of Hizen established his own school nearby. Verbeck taught on alternate days at each school. This gave him access to even more students who would play an active role in the new Meiji government.
A still more influential class of students now began to come under Mr. Verbeck's care. He had the immense advantage of having friends in both the old and new government, so that the transfer of ownership was made without the loss of a day.
It would be these students who would call Verbeck away from Nagasaki to the new capital city of Tokyo.
Even after his first year, missionary work for Verbeck proved to be mostly preparatory in nature. He continued to establish trust among the Japanese and to develop his Japanese language skills. Although in Verbeck's eyes progress was slow in 1861, there was good news to be found. He felt that it was a positive sign that Japanese government officials allowed him to perform his work undisturbed. His days, for the most part, were spent in his home studying the Japanese language from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and teaching English to a small group of students. Verbeck tried to incorporate Bible study into his teaching, "Yet among them all, there is only one who seems to take any interest at all in religion, and who regularly studies the Scriptures."
1862 was a better year for Verbeck in terms of measurable missionary success. Upon the request of two young Japanese students, Verbeck opened the first Bible study class in modern Japan. In a letter of 4 June 1862, Verbeck wrote:
A short time ago one of my English pupils surprised me by saying, that he had bought an English Bible, but found it difficult to understand. I told him I would come to his house the next day (Sunday) and would gladly help him read his Bible.
The book turned out to be a small religious volume from the American Tract Society, but Verbeck soon gave the student a real Bible and devised a strategy to teach the two young men.
For the two Bible students above mentioned, I am now preparing a kind of helps to the Scriptures' in English. I give it to them from week to week in single sheets, which they bring to their regular lessons, when I have a further opportunity to explain by means of English, Dutch and Japanese such points as still seem difficult for them.
From these beginnings, the Bible class grew even larger.
By the end of the year I had four Bible students, who came, and still come, to me at appointed hours two or three times a week. One of them . . . comes by himself and was my first pupil . . . . Another one I also had since the spring, but he was obliged to go (with the measles) to his home in the adjacent principality, from whence, however, he promptly returned in the fall, bringing two others with him.
Verbeck was wise enough to realize that the primary motive of the students was still instruction in the English language, but he was willing to reach them by any means that he could.
Every one of these Bible students has become so...in consequence of having become my pupils in English. Thus, teaching English, which I had sometimes considered as perhaps an unprofitable drudgery, and which often tried my time and patience, was under Providence turned to so good an account.
In other matters, C.M. Williams' Episcopal church at Higashiyamate was opened in September, making it the first Protestant church in Japan. Verbeck led the singing and played the harmonium at Sunday services there. With Williams' move to Higashiyamate, this left Verbeck and the old German physician Siebold as the only Westerners living outside the foreign settlement.
The first major achievement for Verbeck in his missionary work at Nagasaki came in May 1866, when he baptized Murata Wakasa-no-kami and his brother Ayabe from neighboring Hizen (Saga). Ayabe had been one of Verbeck's original Bible students, but after Verbeck returned to Nagasaki in October 1863, he discovered that Ayabe had been transferred from Nagasaki back to Hizen. All was not lost, however, as the Murata brothers used a retainer to convey questions about the Bible they had to Verbeck, who would then, in turn, relay his answers through the assigned messenger. This system, which involved a two-day journey each way by the messenger, was employed for two and a half years before the Muratas showed up at Verbeck's house in mid-May 1866. After hours of conversation, they asked for baptism, which took place in Verbeck's parlor six days later on 20 May. These baptisms were more than the entire Protestant missionary force had been able to achieve in Japan up to that time.
Anti-Christian feelings were still strong in some quarters, however, as is shown by the 1867 publication of a Japanese-language pamphlet in Edo. It was later translated into English as Tales of Nagasaki: The Story of an Evil Doctrine. The pamphlet argued that Protestantism differed little from Catholicism, and that both were evil. After reading the tract, Verbeck realized from the information provided that the author was an elderly Buddhist priest, who had often come to his house to discuss matters of philosophy. In fact, two of the priest's students still came to see Verbeck three times a week at his home. While Verbeck agreed that the information on the Catholics was "sadly true," he took great objection to what he considered the many lies told about the Protestants.
Verbeck was especially incensed by the charge in the pamphlet that his wife Maria had, in 1863,
. . . left her child at the breast and [gone] to China in a steamer. She went as far as Shanghai and Hong Kong for the purpose of getting priests residing there to come with her to Japan.
As mentioned earlier, the Verbecks were indeed in China in 1863, but primarily to escape the danger that existed for foreigners in Nagasaki at the time. According to Guido Verbeck, Maria had other reasons for being there that had nothing to do with recruiting more Protestant missionaries for a takeover of Japan.
As to my wife's going to China, as I wrote you at the time, the object was a change of air, a recruiting of physical health, not of missionary forces, and of weaning a baby that had been at the breast too long. Other ladies in the East, or most of them, have their babies attended and brought up by wet nurses. My wife nurses them herself and none less than ten or twelve months. And this wicked fellow must try to give a most natural event the looks of a violation of what he calls the social relations' or the five virtues.'
Verbeck, while upset at what he perceived as a betrayal and a personal attack on his family, dismissed the incident as minor, and countered it with the example of another Buddhist priest who in 1868:
. . . had actually given up his priestly office, emoluments, and duties with the set purpose henceforth to serve the Lord. He has already felt the hand of persecution on this account and yesterday left me to go and live a while with a friend in a retired island.
Departure from Nagasaki
As the bakufu collapsed in early 1868, Verbeck was making plans for his family to leave Nagasaki. In February, he wrote the Mission Board that he wanted to send his wife and two children (William 7 and Emma 5) back to New Brunswick, New Jersey the following year, but that he had no money. He also requested a leave of absence for himself, in order to travel to areas away from Nagasaki that might hold greater promise. He was instructed by the Mission Board to go to Osaka, and he did so on 18 October. Except for the escape to China in 1863 and one visit to Hizen, he had not left Nagasaki since his arrival in 1859.
What he discovered at the newly opened foreign settlement at Osaka, was that most of its residents were people who had once been in Nagasaki. They had come to Osaka in search of greater business opportunities. He also encountered some of his former students from Nagasaki who were holding important positions in the new Meiji government. Osaka was clearly a more active city than Nagasaki, and Verbeck was besieged by both Japanese and foreigners alike to intercede in matters such as the dispatching of Japanese students to the U.S. Naval Academy, the sale of an American ironclad to Japan, and the opening of a government school in Tokyo.
Verbeck returned to Nagasaki, but had not been there long, when on 13 February 1869, he received a letter from former students who were now in the Japanese government asking him to go the following month to Tokyo to establish a university there. While the details of the invitation were vague, Verbeck wrote to the Mission Board that he felt he should accept it.
You have no idea what emulation there is in this country . . . to get in with the men in power in the Imperial government; besides the Romanists exert themselves to the utmost for the same object, and under these circumstances it would never do to let such an opportunity as is now offered me pass by unnoticed or unprofited.
Verbeck quickly accepted the offer to go to Tokyo and prepared to leave Nagasaki on 23 March. In the meantime, he readied his wife and five children (aged eight months to eight years) for their voyage to California and arranged to host his missionary successors in Nagasaki, Rev. Henry Stout and his wife Elizabeth. The Stouts arrived considerably behind schedule on 10 March. Verbeck had written in February that if they were going to be any later they should go to Osaka and establish a mission there, since that city had surpassed Nagasaki in terms of importance. Whereas, a decade earlier Verbeck had touted Nagasaki as the best place for a mission, circumstances had clearly changed. Verbeck himself was leaving for Tokyo, and he was suggesting that his replacements be assigned to Osaka.
Verbeck put the Stouts up in the family quarters at Daitokuji Temple, where they witnessed his final hectic days in Nagasaki. Henry Stout wrote the following concerning Verbeck's preparations for departure:
For [Verbeck], those days were filled with engagements with officials and old friends . . . from which little time could be found for preparation for his going to his new position and for his family's returning to America. But the morning of the day the steamer was to sail, was spent, from immediately after breakfast till a late lunch, closeted with a Buddhist priest. The explanation given at the lunch was that the priest was eager to have certain questions with regard to the Truth answered before his teacher should leave . . . . A blanket was spread upon the floor of the sitting-room, and upon it went books, curios, a clock, cushions, shoes, a great medley of the last odds and ends of things, when the corners of the blanket were drawn together and tied, making a huge bundle, which was hoisted upon the back of the last man in the line of bearers hastening to the wharf.
Guido Verbeck thus ended his ten-year stay in Nagasaki discussing Christianity with a Buddhist priest and then throwing his belongings in a blanket for transport to Tokyo. It was indeed a hurried departure, without much opportunity to reflect upon the impact that he had made on the town in the preceding decade. Verbeck left Nagasaki not with sadness, but with the hope that his ten years of preparatory work there had readied him for the tremendous challenges that awaited him in the capital. Besides, many of the people that he had come to know in Nagasaki had already moved on before him to the metropolitan centers of Osaka and Tokyo.
Guido Verbeck spent more than ten years in Nagasaki during the early days of the foreign settlement period. He and his wife were the pioneer representatives of the Reformed Church in Nagasaki at a time when the propagation of Christianity to Japanese was prohibited. Because of these circumstances, he felt that his primary task was to develop a trust among the Japanese, in order to lay the groundwork for the future growth of Christianity once the prohibitions against it were lifted. He developed this trust by taking the time and effort to learn about Japanese language and culture, and by helping to educate young Japanese about things Western. His students were primarilyinterested in English, but he also taught Dutch and German. He helped send some of the first Japanese students to the United States, and was particularly influential in gaining access to the U.S. Naval Academy for a number of young Japanese. Though his most obvious achievements were in the field of education, Verbeck, through English-language instruction, was able to begin the first Bible class in Japan and to perform some of the earliest baptisms in the country.
The Nagasaki that Verbeck left in 1869 was quite different than the port city that he had come to a decade earlier. It never lived up to the promise that many (including Verbeck) envisioned for it early on, and by the beginning of the Meiji period it had clearly been surpassed by the likes of Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama. In the difficult days after arriving in Tokyo, Verbeck found himself longing for the quieter, more peaceful days of Nagasaki.
[Daily] I wish myself back to Nagasaki, which for several years to come will be the quietest port in Japan, because [it is] far removed from the restless political centres. You may say or think, why...do I not go back to my old post. Well, I should at once, if I could do so without disappointing some parties. But I am working with translators . . .; besides no less than thirty-six of my former pupils came after me to [Tokyo], and it would not be so easy for them to go back as for me. So I have made up my mind to go on to the end of the year . . . and then if matters have not improved by that time, to go back to my old station to work there permanently.
Verbeck did not go back to Nagasaki, however, as he found himself quite ably prepared by his ten years in that city to face the challenges of a new Japan that lay ahead for him in Tokyo. The capital may have been a "restless political centre," but it was also where the important decisions were being made.
Guido Verbeck left behind in Nagasaki a legacy of good will and quality education. He also laid the groundwork for the missionaries that followed in terms of churches and mission schools. As Henry Stout, his successor in Nagasaki, noted in a letter written to the Mission Board four days before Verbeck's departure:
We are pleased with the appearance of Japan. Our health is good and everything, so far as we can see, is favorable except Mr. Verbeck's legacy. It seems to me he is a wonderful man. In his simplicity and modesty he is a model and in his power a perfect wonder. Our church has reason to be proud of him. The half of his work and his influence has not been told.
In many ways, Guido Verbeck had made life much easier for Henry Stout than it had been for himself ten years earlier, but Stout was indeed correct in assuming that the shoes left by Verbeck would be hard to fill.
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