Eighty five percent of the population of Vanuatu considers themselves Christian. The transformation of the pagan, cannibalistic people of the New Hebrides Islands into the Christian people of Vanuatu is a fascinating story of missionary perseverance and trust in God’s divine call. The New Hebrides Islands had no Christian influence until missionaries John Williams and James Harris from the London Missionary Society landed there in 1839. Both of these missionaries were killed and eaten by cannibals on the island of Erromanga on November 20, 1839, only minutes after going ashore.
A young Christian man from Scotland, a man named John G. Paton, was deeply affected by the news of the deaths of John Williams and James Harris. He himself began to feel a divine call to go to New Hebrides. John Paton’s entire missionary story can be found in John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebredes, An Autobiography Edited by His Brother (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, orig. 1889, 1891). All quotations from the journal below are taken from this book with appropriate page numbers.
John Paton describes an exchange he had with a Mr. Dickson when John expressed his desire to take his wife and son to New Hebrides to minister among aborigine cannibals. Mr. Dickson exploded,
"The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!"
John Paton responded:
“Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer” (p. 56)
John Paton sailed for the New Hebrides (via Australia) with his wife Mary on April 16, 1858, at the age of 33. The first four years of work on the island of Tanna were full of severe hardships. Both Paton’s wife and son died of fever. Except for the joy of a few conversions, including an old cannibal chief, the work on Tanna was difficult and dangerous. Eventually Paton was driven off the island by the cannibals in February 1862, a mere four years after leaving England. For the next two years Paton traveled around Australia and Great Britain, encouraging the Christians there to support his work in the New Hebrides. John Paton eventually remarried and took his new wife, Margaret, back to the smaller island of Aniwa (two miles wide and seven miles long). They labored together on Aniwa for forty one years until Margaret’s death in 1905. When John and Margaret arrived at the island of Aniwa in 1862, John discovered the natives to be of the same character of those on the island of Tanna, of whom he had written:
Their worship was entirely a service of fear, its aim being to propitiate this or that Evil spirit, to prevent calamity or to secure revenge. They deified their Chiefs . . . so that almost every village or tribe had its own Sacred Man. . . . They exercised an extraordinary influence for evil, these village or tribal priests, and were believed to have the disposal of life and death through their sacred ceremonies. . . . They also worshipped the spirits of departed ancestors and heroes, through their material idols of wood and stone. . . . They feared the spirits and sought their aid; especially seeking to propitiate those who presided over war and peace, famine and plenty, health and sickness, destruction and prosperity, life and death. Their whole worship was one of slavish fear; and, so far as ever I could learn, they had no idea of a God of mercy or grace.
Paton admitted that he wavered as he wondered whether there would be any gospel success. He poured himself into learning the language of the Aniwa people and reduced it to writing. He built orphanages where he and Margaret trained young people for Jesus. Margaret taught a class of about fifty women and girls and they became experts at sewing, singing and plaiting hats, and reading. . They "trained the Teachers . . . translated and printed and expounded the Scriptures . . . ministered to the sick and dying . . . dispensed medicines every day . . . taught them the use of tools . . ." (p. 378). They held worship services every Lord's Day and sent native teachers to all the villages to preach the gospel.
Within fifteen years, John and Margaret Paton saw the entire island of Aniwa turn to Christ. He would continue to minister to the people of Aniwa for another twenty-five years and would write in his journal toward the end of his life, "I claimed Aniwa for Jesus, and by the grace of God Aniwa now worships at the Savior's feet" (p. 312). Even in his old age, when John would leave New Hebrides and travel around the world championing the cause of missions in the South Pacific, he continued to minister to his beloved Aniwan people and "published the New Testament in the Aniwan Language" in 1897. Paton outlived his second wife by two years and died in Australia on January 28, 1907. Until the day of his death he was translating hymns and catechisms and creating a dictionary for the Aniwa, even though his health prevented him from being on the island.
There are three things that strike me about the character of John Patton and seem to me to be the mark of all great missionaries.
John Patton often spoke directly and forcefully to his cannibal assailants, trusting in God’s divine Providence that whether he lived, or died, it was all in God’s hands.
One morning at daybreak I found my house surrounded by armed men, and a chief intimated that they had assembled to take my life. Seeing that I was entirely in their hands, I knelt down and gave myself away body and soul to the Lord Jesus, for what seemed the last time on earth. Rising, I went out to them, and began calmly talking about their unkind treatment of me and contrasting it with all my conduct towards them. . . . At last some of the Chiefs, who had attended the Worship, rose and said, "Our conduct has been bad; but now we will fight for you, and kill all those who hate you" (p. 115).
[Once] when natives in large numbers were assembled at my house, a man furiously rushed on me with his axe but a Kaserumini Chief snatched a spade with which I had been working, and dexterously defended me from instant death. Life in such circumstances led me to cling very near to the Lord Jesus; I knew not, for one brief hour, when or how attack might be made; and yet, with my trembling hand clasped in the hand once nailed on Calvary, and now swaying the scepter of the universe, calmness and peace and resignation abode in my soul (p. 117).
Shortly before his death, John Patton wrote to his family the following words regarding his joy in serving Christ on the mission field and his desire that his children and their children follow him.
Let me record my immovable conviction that this is the noblest service in which any human being, can spend or be spent; and that, if God gave me back my life to be lived over again, I would without one quiver of hesitation lay it on the altar to Christ, that He might use it as before in similar ministries of love, especially amongst those who have never yet heard the Name of Jesus. Nothing that has been endured, and nothing that can now befall me, makes me tremble - on the contrary, I deeply rejoice – when I breathe the prayer that it may please the blessed Lord to turn the hearts of all my children to the Mission Field and that He may open up their way and make it their pride and joy to live and die in carrying Jesus and His Gospel into the heart of the Heathen World! (p. 444)
The island of Tanna, during Patton’s first four years of missionary work, saw little fruit. Following those initial four years of missionary service on Tanna, the entire island population rose against Paton, blaming him for an epidemic, and came against him and his little band of Christians. There were some spectacular life and death close calls and one remarkable, even miraculous deliverance from fire by wind and rain and finally a wonderful answer to prayer as a ship arrived just in time to take him off the island. (page 215).
In response to this, after four years of risking his life hundreds of times and losing his wife and child, he recounts this incident:
Conscious that I had, to the last inch of life, tried to do my duty, I left all results in the hands of my only Lord, and all criticisms to His unerring judgment. Hard things also were occasionally spoken to my face. One dear friend, for instance, said, "You should not have left. You should have stood at the post of duty till you fell. It would have been to your honor, and better for the cause of the Mission, had you been killed at the post of duty like the others." (p. 223)
Most Christians would quit under the withering criticism of Christian friends. Paton not only did not quit, he returned to the same island chain two years later to continue his missionary effort for another four decades.
Listen to Paton’s own explanation for the four years of hardships on the island of Tanna and the unprecedented missionary success on the island of Aniwa afterwards:
Oftentimes, while passing through the perils and defeats of my first four years in the Mission-field on Tanna, I wondered . . . why God permitted such things. But on looking back now, I already clearly perceive . . . that the Lord was thereby preparing me for doing, and providing me materials wherewith to accomplish, the best work of all my life (page 222).
May God raise among Southern Baptists more missionaries like John Paton.
In His Grace,