Saturday, February 14, 2015

The life and faith of John. A. Hewitt (1907-Martyred 1942)―a Northern Ireland missionary to Japan

Ever since Francisco Xavier (1505-1552, Spain) landed in Japan as a first Christian missionary, countless young men and women have dedicated their lives for the salvation of Japanese souls. The other day, as I was conversing with my fellow sister Sanae about the great role and sacrifice which missionaries have paid for us, an idea came into mind; why don’t we publicly express our gratitude to all the missionaries who have served in Japan for the past 500 years? We want to honor each one of them and give thanks to their sacrificial love and service.

Today, as a token of our deep gratitude, I’d like to make a special post about the life of John Hewitt (1907-1942), a Northern Ireland missionary to Japan during WW II.

He has been virtually “unknown” figure in the Christian history but he must be very known by our Lord. We feel obliged to introduce the life and faith of such a devout man in order to honor him and make him known in the world.


John Alexander Hewitt was born at Armagh, Northern Ireland, 1907. His father, Joshua was a farmer and John was the 5th of seven children in Hewitt family. 

red part; Armagh in Northern Ireland  source

Ever since his grandfather believed Jesus Christ during the Northern Ireland Revival (1859), Hewitt family had been active members in the local congregation. After he finished junior high school, he started to help his father’s farming. When he was in mid-teens, a certain evangelist called Moneypenny used to visit his village and preached the Gospel with power. As a result, many villagers, including 15-year-old John, sincerely believed Jesus Christ as their Savior. Out of abundant joy, young John started to witness Christ to his friends and distributed Gospel tracts wherever he went.

Missionary call to Japan

Brother R.J. Wright, a Northern Ireland missionary had been serving in Japan since 1931. Influenced by him, John also started to pray for going to Japan as a missionary. His father, however, opposed him initially and told him, “If you stay at home, you would receive our inheritance, but if go, I will give it your brothers.”  John did not yield.

“And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life (Matt 19:29).”

On the day of his departure, he confided to his old friend Johnston, telling him that “I sense I would never come back to Northern Ireland.” John also referred to his fiancee (Meta Stevenson) and told his friend as follows; “I am thinking of her but I don’t want to think about anything before things would be settled down in Japan.”

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold; I’d rather be His than have riches untold; 
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands. I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand than to be the king of a vast domain Or be held in sin’s dread sway. 
I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.


In 1938, John Hewitt left his beloved land for Japan. He was 31 years old at that time. After the Manchurian Incident (1931), Japan had gradually taken on militant and totalitarian character. Emperor was worshiped as a living god and people were suffering from poverty. Anti-western propaganda was everywhere. Did he know about all of these? Of course, he did. Like Apostle Paul he knew “the chains and tribulations await me (Acts 20:23).” 

But his heart was fixed on one thing; that is to preach the Gospel to the unsaved and suffering souls in Japan. “None of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24).”

Service and evangelism

John joined R.J. Wright and started to help him for open evangelism and distribution of Gospel tracts while learning Japanese at Kanda YMCA in Tokyo.

John Hewitt; left side in the back row

Hewitt and Wright stood firm and encouraged Japanese believers to not worship Emperor even it means prison and torture. The congregations which they were serving have got split into two over the very issue, unfortunately. It reminds us of the incident of King Nebuchadnezzar and the worship of the gold image (Daniel 3:5,6).”  Meanwhile, John kept preaching the Gospel in Shinjuku area under extreme poverty. His dairy diet was just tea, some bread and a jam.

In 1941, Hewitt and Wright were detained and interrogated by the government inspectors. The content of the interrogation was as follows; about their teachings regarding the Ise Shinto shrine. Whether it was all right for Christians to worship at Shinto shrine. About the divinity of the Emperor and so forth.

By the outbreak of the war, Wright was interned at Yokohama. Fortunately, a year later he was repatriated in a prisoner exchange program. Wright suggested John to go home together but he declined, saying that he cannot go back to his safe country while his Japanese brothers and sisters are suffering in prison because of their faith. He said, “I cannot leave them. I will remain in Japan.”

Prison and death

We don’t know the exact date but John was arrested and was detained in Sugamo prison in Tokyo. And then he was transferred to Matsuzawa mental hospital (we don’t know why he was transferred to the mental hospital. Some say because he did not stop witnessing Christ in prison, while others say because he could not make himself understood well in Japanese). His whole body was tied and he was ill-treated. Thus he soon became critically ill.

There is a precious witness record by a sister who could visit him at that time. Sister Kiyono Hirazawa testified as follows;

“,,when we entered the hospital room, we saw Mr. Hewitt lying on the ground. We were surprised that his hair had turned white completely and was now skin and bones. The officer called him, John! John!  But there was no response. Unable to contain myself any longer, I shouted, Mr.Hewitt! Mr.Hewitt! Recognizing my voice, his face flushed with joy and he opened his eyes,,,and he kept saying, “it is a vision. It is a vision” and he was so glad to see us again. I could never forget that scene. His joyous countenance has sustained me all through the war period and my spiritual life. Thanks to him, I could remain faithful to the Lord during that difficult time. Also, we could confirm that he was not mentally ill.” (chapter 7, kita-airurand no akai yuri, p.66-67)

Thus on 7th April, 1942, John Hewitt was drawn to the Lord in the mental hospital in Tokyo. Sister Kiyono who could attend his funeral witnessed that there were many bruises on his face (Ibid.,p.70). Some say that in order to hide the trace of violence, his corpse was burned to ashes without the permission of his family.

his last letter to his fiancee, Meta

John used to tell his Japanese believers; “watashi wa nihon no tsuchi ni naruI will become the soil of Japan.) Thus his words became true.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12:24).

He died alone in a foreign country as an obscure grain of wheat. It quietly fell into the ground without peoples’ notice. But we would not let his death lay in vain. We Japanese Christians publicly honor him and thank him for coming to Japan and served in the midst of us. We will take his banner and continue to run the race until our Lord returns.

Lastly I will write down the words which are written on his gravestone at Kilmore, Northern Ireland:

John Alexander Hewitt

Missionary, who died in Japan 7th April 1942
And his ashes are interred here