Samuel E. Boyle (1905-2002) served as a leading Reformed Presbyterian pastor and missionary for much of the twentieth century. Robert S. Taylor has written a booklet-sized biography of Sam titled Whatever God Wants: The Life of Samuel E. Boyle. It is helpful but brief and is now out of print. Guests at our table recently inquired about the details of Sam’s life, but it was not possible to point them to an easily accessible biographical sketch. What follows is a revised version of remarks I made at his memorial service in 2002. A similar edition was also published in the Reformed Presbyterian Witness shortly thereafter. May we not forget those richly used by the Lord.
Reformed Presbyterian missions work in China had just begun a little over a century ago, and a dear woman in America with a missionary heart began to pray fervently, like Hannah of old, for a son for the Chinese field. In 1905, God gave her that son, whom she named Samuel following in Hannah’s footsteps. Sam Boyle's mother gave birth to him in the women’s dormitory of Geneva College where his parents worked. Thus began a full life of 97 years that was richly blessed by God.
Sam grew up in a poor but hardworking Christian family that loved the Lord Jesus Christ. Sam was a sharp-minded little rascal with an eye for good times and more than a few pranks. His career as an artist began in church in Topeka, Kansas; he drew pictures in the Psalters during the services. After a few weeks of drawing, an announcement was made from the pulpit asking the offender to erase his work. Sam’s mortified mother listened in utter humiliation.
In high school, Sam honed his abilities as a cartoonist through a correspondence course, and began a promising career as a political cartoonist with the Topeka Daily Capital. In later days, Sam would see God open doors for the gospel in foreign lands through his pictures, the Reformed Presbyterian synod would be entertained, and hundreds of children would always remember Sam’s ability to incorporate any line into a complete picture. But in his early days, Sam was full of himself as a cartoonist; it was a far from his mother’s secret prayer that he go to China.
Then, God broke Sam’s teenaged heart through the preaching of Will Robb, a missionary to China. He preached from Mark 8, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and loses his soul?” Sam turned to Jesus Christ that week and said in tears that he was willing to do “Whatever God wants.” Those words became the dominant theme of his remaining 79 years.
Sam was ready to do whatever God wanted, and he actively pursued God’s purposes for his life. He worked hard in every area of life, especially academically. He studied at Geneva College, the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, the University of Pittsburgh, and Wheaton College. He knew that the mission-field, home or abroad, was no place for a slouch and he took every opportunity possible for further learning. On top of that, he learned two foreign languages, laboring to learn Japanese in his mid-40s which are not prime language acquisition years. But Sam did it because he was willing to do whatever God wanted.
God put the nation of China on Sam’s heart in the early 1930s, and Sam went there by faith in 1934. As he prepared to leave for China, his mother finally told him of her secret prayer of over 30 years. Untold thousands have heard the gospel and responded through Sam’s faithful years of ministry there and later in Japan.
In order to translate reformed literature into Chinese, Sam founded the Reformation Translation Fellowship in 1948. Sam knew that the communists could kick missionaries out of China, but they could never rid the land of God’s word and its truth. In 1995, I heard the last sermon Sam ever preached. His text was 2 Timothy 2:9 and his voice will ring in my ears till I die: "God’s word is not bound!" I reminded Sam the night before he went to be with the Lord that God’s word remains unbound and it is still going forth around the world today. He couldn’t communicate much, but he shot a quick smile when I quoted 2 Timothy 2:9; it was the passion of his life. Reformation Translation Fellowship continues to produce amazing resources to help Chinese Christians. Sam’s belief in the power of the printed word also inspired the idea of the Covenanter bookstore in Kobe, Japan, which still serves the church in Japan today.
Sam loved to preach God’s word wherever he happened to be in God’s world. A favorite story of Sam’s preaching came when preaching through an unbelieving interpreter in Japan. It was not his preference to use an non-Christian interpreter for preaching, but it was only option on that particular day. Speaking of Jesus, Sam proclaimed “On the third day, Christ rose from the dead!” The interpreter responded back in English, “They’re never going to believe this.” “Say it anyway,” replied Sam. Sure enough, that man himself was converted soon thereafter. He boldly preached the gospel of King Jesus to princes in Washington D.C. with the Christian Amendment Movement, and to paupers, the world’s poorest on the mission field. God gave Sam grace to be firm in his convictions and tactful in his approach as he preached the whole counsel of God and the Kingship of Christ over men and nations. He preached it in season and out of season. Without a doubt, God used Sam as one of the greatest influences for good in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in the twentieth century.
God blessed Sam richly through three marriages, though he obviously grieved the death of two. Sam did some research and found that he was indeed the only Covenanter minister to have ever been married three times. God also gave Sam six children, one dying in infancy. His family also made sacrifices on the mission field, but Sam did not forget them. I lived with Sam and his wife Orlena one summer and was always impressed to hear Sam pray Isaiah 54:13 for his children and grandchildren every night in family worship, “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children.”
Of course, those of us who knew him remember the little things about Sam: his characteristic smile, his artwork, his love for ice cream, his love for Hershey’s candy bars, and his famous sense of humor.
Sam also lived a difficult life. He fought giants. He fought against great odds in China, Japan, and Washington, D.C. It was sometimes discouraging. No doubt it was in these tough times that his sense of humor developed even more. However, what really kept Sam going when conditions were discouraging was his walk with God. If his sense of humor grew in the tough times, his walk with his Lord Jesus Christ did all the more. Recently, an excerpt was found from his personal journal from March 19, 1938. As this time, Sam would have been in China for about four years.
It is titled MY COVENANT:
Because I believe life is to be lived on facts and by decisive choices rather than by feeling or fears I, surrender my whole will and life to Almighty God, asking Him to accept what I have so often withdrawn because of fear or disobedient pride, and take me as a yielded vessel for breaking, moulding, cleansing and glorifying. This is an agreement covering every phase of my ego, involving (without reserve) all that concerns me and mine. I quietly dare now to throw everything, once for all, into His fire. Let come what may I shall never erase this decision. Failures will not retard but spur me on to keeping this tryst. So help me God. In Christ’s Name. Amen.
God gave Sam grace to be faithful all the days of his life. He was willing to do whatever God wanted, and he did.
Sam is now with the Lord. Yet, the testimony of what God did in and through his life still speaks clearly today. That testimony quietly challenges mothers of this generation to fervently pray for children whom they can give back to God. It challenges us to proclaim the supremacy of Jesus Christ over every man and nation. It challenges young people to consider the claims of Jesus Christ, to give up every aspiration to earthly fame, to give up every love for earthly comfort and laziness. His testimony calls young people to submit to King Jesus, to throw everything into His fire, to give themselves as yielded vessels, and be ready to do “whatever God wants.”