Seven Lessons for Missionaries from the Ministry of John Paton

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: November 2011

Foreign Missions

Also in this issue

Between the Times: A Review Article

Fractured Light: A Review Article

Pied Beauty

As I began church planting in the mid-1990s, I was profoundly inspired and instructed by the autobiography of missionary John G. Paton, missionary to what then were the New Hebrides (Vanuatu).[1] The substance of this article was presented to a local ministerium, made up largely of home missionaries from several different Reformed communions, in 1997.

1. Have Faith in the Power of the Gospel

John Paton was an ordinary man with extraordinary faith in the power of God and the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was born on the farm at Braehead in the parish of Kirkmahoe, Scotland, on May 24, 1824. His father was a stocking manufacturer "in a small way" (3). From about age five, Paton was raised in the Reformed Presbyterian Church at Dumfries (15). The Reformed ministry and preaching of "genuine, solemn, lovable Covenanter" Pastor John McDermid, nurture in the Shorter Catechism, and the example of a pious father—"we were ruled more by love than by fear"—provided the soil in which a deep desire to spread the gospel grew (15-18). After taking a teaching position, he matriculated in the College in Glasgow, but had to leave due to poverty before completing his first year (28).

After another stint at teaching, Paton began working for the Glasgow City Mission (32). After gaining only seven church goers in one year, the directors were about to send him to another district, but he pleaded for six months more because he "had an invincible faith that the good seed sown would soon bear blessed fruit" (34). They agreed, and by the end of the allotted six months, five to six hundred attended regularly. Paton learned early on in his ministry to endure much hardship in the inner city. His central task buoyed his spirit.

The hearty singing of hymns by my Mission Choir gave zest and joy to the whole proceedings. Of other so-called "attractions" we had none, and needed none, save the sincere proclamation of the Good Tidings from God to men. (40)

I was sustained by the lofty aim which burned all these years bright within my soul, namely, —to be qualified as a preacher of the Gospel of Christ, to be owned and used by Him for the salvation of perishing men. (51)

During this period of mission work Paton attended the University of Glasgow, the Reformed Presbyterian Divinity Hall, and medical classes at the Andersonian College, to complete his education. He was also ordained an elder in the church that oversaw the mission (51).

In 1858, at age thirty-four, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland's Heathen Missionary Committee sent Paton to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), east northeast of Australia. "The wail and the claims of the Heathen were constantly sounding in my ears" (53). He responded to the call by first going to the island of Tanna from 1858-1862. Then, forced to leave under threat of death, he and a fellow missionary couple were rescued by a ship from the London Missionary Society (217-19) and brought safely to the nearby island of Aneityum. From there he was persuaded to go to Australia and Scotland to raise support for the mission.

He was not able to return to the New Hebrides until 1866, when he went with his second wife, Margaret "Maggie" Whitecross, to the neighboring island of Aniwa, where they would remain and eventually enjoy the fruit borne by John's early sufferings. They would witness the profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ by the entire island of Aniwa. They would remain until 1883, when they would move to Victoria, Australia, where Maggie died in 1905, and he in 1907. Further details, which I will only give a sampling of in the remaining topical survey of lessons for missions, will require the reading of this almost 500-page account.

In 1885 (two years after his return from the mission field in 1883), Paton was feted at a garden party by C. H. Spurgeon as "The King of the Cannibals" (435). He also met two presidents—Harrison and Cleveland. But for Paton all the glory went to his Savior. His autobiography closes in 1897 when he was age seventy-three. He died on January 28, 1907, at age eighty-two.

2. Imitate Our Crucified Savior

John Paton exhibited the self-denial of the cross of Jesus Christ in his life and ministry in a variety of ways. He was called to endure the slights, opposition, and calumnies of fellow Christians. He was even criticized for leaving Tanna and going to Australia (223-24).

Even before he was sent, the Lord had formed a faithful determination in him. His predecessors John Williams and James Harris were clubbed to death and eaten minutes after landing in 1839 (75). Mr. Dickson, a fellow Christian in Glasgow, warned, "The Cannibals! You will be eaten by Cannibals!" The cannibals not only ate enemies but their own widows (121). Paton responded, "If I can live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms" (56).

He always responded with kindness, but also realistically. In responding to ill-treatment Paton records:

Having no means of redress, and feeling ourselves entirely at their mercy, we strove quietly to bear all and to make as little of our trials as possible; indeed, we bore them all gladly for Jesus' sake. All through these sorrows, our assurance deepened rather than faded, that if God only spared us to lead them to love and serve the same Lord Jesus, they would soon learn to treat us as their friends and helpers. That, however, did not do away with the hard facts of my life—being now entirely alone amongst them, opposed by their cruelty at every turn, and deceived by their unfailing lies. (101)

On one occasion the natives told "Missi," as they called Paton, that one of Queen Victoria's men-of-war had sailed into the harbor, and they feared that the captain was a kind of god and would punish them for stealing Paton's things. Paton agreed, and shortly stolen items began to appear on his door step (101-2).  

Unlike the myth of the noble savage, still alive today, Paton found, that though these South Pacific islanders were dressed like Adam and Eve in Eden, they were "exceedingly ignorant, vicious, and bigoted, and almost void of natural affection" (86). But the white men with whom they had regular contact in Port Resolution, instead of improving them made them worse.

The Sandalwood Traders are as a class the most godless of men, whose cruelty and wickedness make us ashamed to own them as our countrymen. By them the poor defenceless Natives are oppressed and robbed on every hand; and if they offer the slightest resistance, they are ruthlessly silenced by the musket or revolver. (86)

Paton experienced many betrayals at the hands of these traders, but worse was the desire for revenge that they instilled in the natives, making his mission work all the more difficult. His commitment to love the natives stood in sharp contrast with the profit motive of the traders (115). Paton proved to be a very different kind of white man.

Paton's response to extreme hardship is truly remarkable. In 1859, shortly after his arrival on Tanna, he lost his wife, Mary Ann Robson, and three month old first born son, Peter, to tropical fever.

Let those who have ever passed through any similar darkness as of midnight feel for me; as for all others, it would be more than vain to try to paint my sorrows... . Oh, the vain yet bitter regrets, that my dear wife had not been left on Aneityum till after the unhealthy Rainy Season! ... We incurred this risk which never should have been incurred; and I only refer to the matter thus, in the hope that others may take warning.

Stunned by the dreadful loss on entering the field of labor to which the Lord Himself had so evidently led me, my reason seemed for a time almost to give way... . But I was never altogether forsaken. The ever-merciful Lord sustained me. (79)

Despite overwhelming grief, he carried on under constant threat of his life from native animosity and disease, eventually losing everything and escaping with his life in 1862.

My earthly all [sic] perished, except the Bible and the translation into Tannese... . Often since have I thought that the Lord stripped me thus bare of all these interests, that I might with undistracted mind devote my entire energy to the special work soon to be carved out for me, and of which at this moment neither I or anyone had ever dreamed. At any rate, the loss of my little Earthly All, though doubtless costing me several pangs, was not an abiding sorrow like that which sprang from the thought that the Lord's work was now broken up at both stations, and that the Gospel was for the time driven from Tanna. (220-21)

It is important to note that Paton did not glorify his suffering, only his faithful Savior. He was certainly more like the Apostle Paul than most.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Phil. 3:7-8)

Few are called to suffer such loss. None should seek it or glory in it as a kind of martyrdom; but each of us must be willing, should the Lord call us to experience what Paul and Paton did. When criticized for leaving Tanna in 1862, Paton responded:

I regard it as a greater honour to live and work for Jesus, than to be a self-made martyr. God knows that I did not refuse to die; for I stood at the post of duty, amid difficulty and danger, till all hope had fled, till everything I had was lost, and till God in answer to prayer sent a means of escape. I left with a clear conscience, knowing that in doing so I was following God's leading, and serving the Mission too. To have remained longer would have been to incur the guilt of self-murder in the sight of God. (223)

3. Be Steadfast in the Ordinary Duties of Ministry

John Paton was steadfast in the ordinary duties of his ministry. He preached and taught the Word everywhere he went. He steadfastly kept the Sabbath, promoted the means of grace, and taught the Bible and catechisms.

Paton also learned several native languages from scratch and translated the Bible into them. During the four years that Paton was away from the New Hebrides, he tirelessly raised funds for the mission, often against strong opposition.

4. Exercise Patience, Since the Fruits of Ministry Often Take Time to Appear

The fruits of John Paton's ministry came slowly at first, but eventually became a great harvest.

One of the early fruits of the New Hebrides Mission was Abraham, a converted cannibal of Aneityum, faithful unto death (106-107, 151, 171). The reality of his conversion was demonstrated in many ways. When circumstances became dangerous on Tanna, Paton suggested that Abraham and his wife should consider going back to their island. Abraham would not hear of it: "Missi, I remain with you of my own free choice and with all my heart. We will live and die together in the work of the Lord. I will never leave you while you are spared on Tanna" (151). Shortly after this, Abraham prayed passionately for Paton, his wife, and the ministry. Paton records the prayer and then comments, "In this manner this great simple soul poured itself out to God; and my heart melted within me as it had never done under any prayer poured from the lips of cultured Christian men" (171).

5. Develop a Wide Circle of Co-laborers and Supporters

John Paton developed a wide circle of co-laborers and supporters in a truly catholic spirit. He was not alone in his mission because he understood himself to be part of a worldwide visible organization—the church. The Lord enabled Paton to use his time away from the mission field to lay a foundation of spiritual and financial support that would last for decades. His son Frank, one of six who lived, would carry on the work.

Support came not only from Australia and Britain, but also from America.

6. Learn from Past Mistakes

John Paton learned from past mistakes. For example, on a very practical level, he learned that living too low and near the ocean on the islands exposes to disease, especially during the rainy season. So after a fatal mistake, he built up higher, where there is a breeze, to avoid the "ague and fever" (78).

After the loss of several missionaries' lives and the near loss of his own due to no means of escape during times of danger, Paton raised money to buy a missionary supply ship. First was the Dayspring in 1863 (229); the second Dayspring (Paragon) in 1874 (387); and the Daylight in 1897 (441).

7. Demonstrate the Power and Love of God in Contrast to Idols

John Paton sought to demonstrate the power and kindness of the true and living God in contrast to the idols of the New Hebridians. So he leaned much on his God in prayer. The son of an old "Inland Chief" fell sick. In good pagan fashion, the chief blamed it on "the Worship," reminding us of the need for Augustine's The City of God, with its apologia for Christianity not being at fault for the fall of Rome. The chief threatened to murder the missionaries if his son died. With much prayer and suitable medicine the boy recovered. The chief became devoted to the Patons (320).

In sum, the very return of Paton to the islands where he came so close to losing his life testified to the natives that he sincerely loved them and desired their everlasting welfare.

One especially poignant instance of the demonstration of God's power was in the digging of a well on Aniwa. This, Paton records, "broke the back of Heathenism in Aniwa" (345). The lack of mountains on the flat coral island of Aniwa meant there was little rain. Thus, there was little potable fresh water. So, Paton proposed to the old chief and his fellow chief, who seemed to be earnestly inquiring about the religion of Jesus, that he would dig a well, and see if God would bless them with fresh water (346). From a human perspective it was an almost impossible task to dig so deep. The natives thought this foolish, since rain never comes up from the earth (348). "And the phrase 'living water,' 'living water,' kept chiming through my soul like music from God, as I dug and hammered away" (349). As the water came bubbling out of the ground, Paton declared to the amazed people that this was Jehovah's gift to them (351). On the next sabbath the chief gathered the people and declared that Jehovah who brought water from the earth had done what the chief's gods could never do, so he would now be a follower of Jehovah God. (354-55).

Let every man that thinks with me go now and fetch the idols of Aniwa the gods which our fathers feared and cast them down at Missi's feet. Let us burn and bury and destroy these things of wood and stone, and let us be taught by the Missi how to serve the God who can hear, the Jehovah who gave us the well, and who gave us every other blessing, for He sent his Son Jesus to die for us and bring us to heaven. (355)

Thus, a new era of salvation had dawned on that remote island in the New Hebrides.

Paton's tale is a great adventure story, but an adventure, unlike so many modern exploits, with a grand purpose: to bring good news to some of the most culturally and spiritually impoverished people on earth. It is a tale every missionary, at home and abroad, must read.


[1] John G. Paton, D.D., Missionary to the New Hebrides: An Autobiography, edited by his brother, Rev. James Paton, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891). This is the edition reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust and is still in print in hardcover, $24.00. All page numbers refer to this edition. Fleming H. Revell published a two volume set, and two volumes in one.

Ordained Servant Online, November 2011.

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Ordained Servant: November 2011

Foreign Missions

Also in this issue

Between the Times: A Review Article

Fractured Light: A Review Article

Pied Beauty

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