William Hugh Chisholm was born February 1, 1894 in Emerson, Michigan to Godly parents, Hugh and Mary MacLennan Chisholm, who had immigrated here to the United States from Scotland, bringing with them their Scottish Presbyterian background. Hugh Chisholm was a man of considerable initiative. He and his brother owned the main store in their town of Breckinridge, selling “Dry Goods, Groceries, Boots, Shoes, Furniture and Undertaking”! Later on Hugh Chisholm was elected to the State Legislature and the following incident gives a picture of the Reformed and Puritan morality visually portrayed in young William’s life as a Covenant Child, Soon after father Hugh had been elected to the legislature, as the custom was then, the railroad sent a pass to each member of the legislature. Dr. Chisholm’s father quickly put that pass back into the envelope together with a curt note, “I will not be bought”, and sent it back to the railroad!
Dr. Chisholm’s father had asthma. Yes, this was a great problem, but it was also used in God’s Providence to be a blessing, for it required the family to move all over the West looking for that ideal climate where father, Hugh, could work and live more comfortably. The year of his graduation from High School, when Will had hoped to enter college, his father was so ill that he had to stay home and work the farm, An apparent set back…but this was the time used richly of God to build young Will’s faith. He evidently was concerned with questions about the certainty of the Christian faith. He spent much of his free time up in the hay loft reading God’s Word and praying. During this year he had a deep spiritual experience, and after considerable searching, he knew God’s Word was true. (“Ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” Jer. 29:13)
The next year he started out for college—but with no money for tuition! He found a job stoking coal, having to rise very early to get the building warm by morning! This was heavy work requiring a lot of strength and discipline. Later on while young Will was still in college, his father became very ill again. Immediately relatives and friends insisted that Willie be told and brought home. And here enters a first “nobody”, a lovely lady who was very much a “somebody”, who changed the course of Will’s life. His older sister, Ellen, a mild mannered girl, sternly told them all, “Willie will not come home.” She did the farm work herself so Willie could stay in school!
Another “nobody” in the eyes of the world enters the life of Dr. Chisholm, a man named Mr. Stout. A number of students would go to his home for Bible study and prayer. They loved and respected this man for they could see he was mighty with God, a man of prayer whose prayers God heard. One day the thought passed Will’s mind, “I bet Mr. Stout is praying that I will be a medical missionary.” He felt quite indignant and his first impulse was to go and ask Mr. Stout to stop praying! Then, on second thought, he said to himself, “I can’t call myself a Christian and ask a man to stop praying for me.” Knowing the power Mr. Stout had in prayer he then said to himself almost dejectedly, “I just wonder if I won’t end up on some mission field because of this man!”
Through the fellowship of this wonderful man, Bill learned to pray. He started praying for his pastor, an unbeliever in a modernist church. Some weeks later this man received Christ as his Saviour, openly rejected the unbelief he had been preaching, and came out totally for Christ and the Word of God. Other wonderful answers to prayer were experienced at this time.
Another move was made because of his father’s health, and now we find Bill in California attending the University of California at Berkeley and then the University of California Medical School. While in medical school he became acquainted with some young men who were very active at San Francisco’s “City Mission.” There he started preaching to the “down-and-outers” and joined the Mission’s Street preaching efforts. From these experiences he developed a great love for street preaching and sharing the Gospel with all he met. This was to develop into a way of life for Bill Chisholm and in the many years to follow he was always busy “in season and out of season” to give the Gospel of God to all he would meet.
At this time World War I was raging and the government decided to draft young men out of medical school to go to war. Bill Chisholm was ordered to Camp Lewis. And it is here we come to a most important spiritual experience which God used mightily to affect the rest of his life and ministry. He was confronted with a struggle against sin and temptation, the struggles against the world and the prince of this world. While being confronted with this struggle, and searching the Word pf God for help, the great verse of the Reformation came to him in new light and power, “And now the just shall live by faith.” (Heb. 10:38). He realized right there that the battle was not his but the victory was his! His life was transformed; he experienced a new power which was never to leave him. Shortly after this the government changed its mind and ordered the medical students back to school!
A number of months had passed from the time that Bill was drafted to the time he was able to return to medical school. He had to study hard to catch up to the other students who had remained in school. At this time there was a Jewish professor who knew of Bill’s Street preaching with the City Mission and of his Christian testimony;—and he did not like it! He wanted Bill out of the Medical School. Again we see prayer so magnificent in the life of Bill Chisholm. Bill Was ordered to face an oral examination the next day before the Dean of the medical school. The examination could contain anything within the whole corpus of medical knowledge they had studied to date. How could Bill study for this? How could he review everything? Bill went to prayer and asked God to guide his study. He set upon a plan to study in depth a few areas and really be competent in them. He crammed and crammed and studied. The next day he faced the Dean with the Jewish professor at his side. The Dean walked up to a patient in the ward and began to ask Bill questions about the patient’s condition. And it “just happened” this patient had the very disease about which Bill had studied so hard the previous day! As the Dean asked questions, Bill answered with confidence and accuracy. After some time of this the Dean turned suddenly to the Jewish professor and said, “This man certainly knows all that you would expect at this stage of training, doesn’t he?” The Jewish professor answered meekly, “Well, yes, sir.” Bill was never again troubled by that man but became quite friendly with the Dean! Once again he experienced, “The just shall live by faith.”
In 1921 he graduated from Medical School and did his internship and residency in San Francisco, specializing as a surgeon. By the summer of 1923 he had been appointed as a missionary to Korea (Mr. Stout’s prayers were answered!) under the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. He was to go to the Board headquarters in New York and to take a brief course in linguistics. Bill spent a day or so studying the linguistics course but decided that this was not for him. He decided, instead, to go to Philadelphia to hear the report of the great Dr. Clarence Macartney about the General Assembly. This was the time of the Auburn Affirmation dispute. There was great division in the church over the matters of liberalism, supernaturalism, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the Virgin Birth, and the Deity of Christ. These issues were raging.
And so Bill went with an old California friend, Hall Griffiths, to the Tenth Presbyterian Church to hear Dr. Macartney’s report. Bill happened to notice in front of him a lovely young lady wearing a most attractive hat! And after the meeting he was introduced to this young lady wearing the hat, by his friend, Hall. She was none other than Bertha Cowell—the wonderful woman who would soon be his wife and be a vital part of his testimony and ministry throughout these many decades.
In September 1923, Dr. and Mrs. Chisholm sailed for Korea, and in October they arrived in the small city of Sun Chun near the Manchurian border where they were to labor for many years in medical missionary work. It was not long before Bill realized that he had come to an impasse. The senior missionary did not believe in any Gospel preaching in the hospital; instead, good works were to lead the patients to God! Again Bill went back to prayer saying, “Lord, open up a way to present the Gospel to these patients.” Shortly thereafter the senior missionary came down with an acute pain that could not be diagnosed and lie had to return to America. Thus this obstacle was removed and Bill had free course to give out the Gospel! ____ —Some ugly accusations began to arise in his ministry—questions about his professional competency. After all, could anyone so interested in evangelism be a good doctor? Bill sent some of the cases that he had worked on, along with photographs, back to the United States. His work was found to be so excellent that in 1932, really as a very young man, he was admitted as a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. Later, he was to be admitted to the International organization as well, speaking thus to his professional competence as a first class surgeon whose work had to be reckoned with. All criticism of professional competence stopped!
What were some of his missionary methods? Well, his week went like this:
They would work hard all week in the hospital, and then when the weekend would come a group would take off for the country—Dr. Chisholm, an evangelist, and a mechanic, because the car kept breaking down! There is an interesting Story about their going over a bridge—just after the car reached the other side, the whole bridge collapsed! They had all kinds of exciting experiences! Bill would not start his medical work in these rural areas until the people first heard the Gospel message. The Gospel message was especially directed to those who had never heard of God, Jesus Christ, of the Bible. The interest and response was amazing. After the meeting he would attend to their medical needs. He would then leave the Evangelist in the area to tell more of the Gospel. Between forty and fifty groups and churches were formed in this way. At that time when the doors were so wide open to give out the Gospel, Dr. Chisholm felt compelled to work as hard as he could. The verse in John 9:4 often came to him, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day; the night cometh, when no man can work.”
There was opposition. His life was not easy. The life of the family was not easy. There were basically two opposing forces: political opposition and ecclesiastical opposition. Politically, this was the time of the Japanese occupation of Korea. The Korean people were ordered to bow at the Shinto Shrine. The Christians objected to this, knowing that this was a violation of the Second Commandment. The ecclesiastical opposition came from his own church. When the whole Shinto Shrine question became so strong, Bill sent a telegram to the Mission Board asking for advice on this difficult problem. The Board replied that he should send his hospital staff up to bow to the Shinto Shrine—it was only patriotism! But Bill knew it was not patriotism; it was a religious matter, and he would not cause his Korean brethren to sin against God. He closed the hospital and resigned from the USA Presbyterian Mission Board, joining The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions, and, later, World Presbyterian Missions.
Life was in danger at that time, and they constantly had to bank on the protection of God. One night he was called down to the hospital and on his return two thugs (at the instigation of political forces) tried to hit him on the head with a huge club. He ducked, was hit on the shoulder, and turned around yelling, “Thief, thief!” The thugs became rattled and began to run, and he began to chase them! The verse came to him, “The wicked fleeth when no man pursueth”! As the political situation grew more and more precarious, the U.S. Government finally ordered its citizens back home. Even in leaving Korea, we see the protective and sovereign hand of God. Bill Chisholm was a strict Sabbatarian. As they planned their departure from Korea during these very tense days when their lives were in danger, Bill would not travel on the Sabbath. And so all arrangements were changed so they would leave two days earlier and thus avoid Sabbath travel. If the original arrangements had stood, he would have been apprehended by the police and incarcerated! But be-cause of his desire to keep the Sabbath even in times like this, the police got there one day too late!
Just as they were to board their ship in Japan to return home, God led Bill in a most amazing way. At a missionary prayer meeting in Japan, Bill met a Mr. Opper, an India missionary, recognizing him as the author of an article he had read some years before in the “Sunday School Times.” Bill told this man a little about their precarious position, asking him to pray for their protection. The missionary accompanied Bill to the ship to say goodbye. As they were ready to get on Board, Bill turned to Bertha saying, “You know, we have some money that may be frozen anyway outside of the Japanese Empire. Why don’t we give it to Mr. Opper?” Bertha agreed. Some of the other missionaries became interested and increased the amount. Some months later (because of war-time mail delays) they received Mr. Opper’s side of the story: He was taking a band of younger missionaries to India. The ship upon which they were to sail had been cancelled. They were forced to stay in Japan with bills rising daily. Mr. Opper had run out of money. He prayed that God would somehow meet this need, and each time the Devil would come to him saying, “You really are out of luck now. No one can help you here!” That afternoon at shipside he was given just enough money to pay his bills, and suddenly an opening was granted to sail to India—the last ship out before the war cancelled all shipping!
Bill Chisholm was a patient man. One of the great leaders of the Conservative Presbyterian Movement was very critical of this missionary doctor in Korea who stayed in the liberal church and wrote him up unceremoniously in his religious newspaper. When the family became upset and asked Bill what he was going to do about this, he answered, “If what he says is right, it is God speaking. If what he says is wrong, it is only a man speaking and it does not matter.” What a tremendous attitude!
When Dr. Chisholm returned to the United States during the war years, one of his former professors pressured him to join his lucrative medical practice. However, as Bill prayed about this, he felt God would have him continue on as a missionary—this time as Field Secretary for The Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions. He traveled all over the United States presenting the Gospel and the need for conservative foreign missions.
After World War II he returned to Korea, in the Pusan area, staying there from 1948 to 1955. His ministry now seems even larger than it was in the former days in North Korea. The Lord opened up a radio ministry where he was able to speak over the whole Korean network, never paying a penny for it! This reached into Communist occupied North Korea as well as all of South Korea. He was active in the starting of a large Conservative Bible School and Seminary. Syngman Rhee, the president of Korea, was his friend and he was able to talk with him about the things of the Lord. When the Korean War started in 1950, his ministry enlarged again. He was given free access to give the Gospel to literally hundreds of thousands of North Korean POWs (sometimes he would find among them former patients on whom he had operated!). He was active in giving the Gospel to South Korean troops on the way to the front as well as the wounded who had returned from battle. Also, Bill and Bertha worked among the U.S. troops and opened their home to them. These were terribly busy days and richly rewarding in God’s service.
Dr. and Mrs. Chisholm returned to the United States in December 1955 because their youngest daughter, Mary, had contracted polio while in Korea. After returning to the States he again represented foreign missions around the country. He also helped out as an ad interim pastor to churches. He was always eager to give out the Gospel of God in any way possible. At gas stations, restaurants, barber shops, anywhere he was, he was always alert for every opportunity to give out a Gospel of John, tell the recipient about God’s offer of salvation, and urge him to read and re-read the little Gospel he had given him.
Dr. Chisholm undertook the representation of World Presbyterian Missions on the West Coast. His health was failing but he still joyfully accepted the opportunity to become Visitation Pastor at the Valley Presbyterian Church in California. He loved people and loved most the opportunity of ministering to them the things of God. Because of Bertha’s constant help, he was able to continue on in this work until 1973. For the last year and a half he was very sick. But even from his convalescent hospital bed, he radiated the love and joy of the Lord. On September 17, 1977 his earthly ministry ended and he entered into the glorious presence of his great Lord and Saviour. “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord. . .that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.” (Rev. 14:13). The Just shall live by faith!
Remarks made by Rev. Louie M. Barnes, at the funeral service for Dr. Chisholm, September 20, 1977 at Valley Presbyterian Church, Sepulveda, California.