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John G. Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas by Paul Schlehlein

Gregory E. Reynolds

John G. Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas, by Paul Schlehlein. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2017, xix + 186 pages, $11.00, paper.

The “King of the Cannibals,” John Gibson Paton, was born in Scotland on May 24, 1824. His autobiography was first published in 1889, edited by his brother James, eighteen years before John’s death on January 28, 1907. The most complete edition was published with a third part covering the years 1895–1907. My copy was published in 1907 by Fleming H. Revell, totaling 869 pages. I first read this autobiography in the Banner of Truth edition, based on the 1907 three-part edition, which they still publish.[1] The firsthand account of Paton’s pioneering work among the cannibals of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu in the South Seas) is riveting. I felt that I was accompanying the author on this frightening and grand adventure that brought countless lost souls to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing can replace his detailed and unique account. But in our age of shortened attention spans a much briefer treatment is welcomed. And it is briefer with a difference: half the book deals with lessons from Paton’s life and work.[2] Also many personal aspects of Paton’s life, not present in Paton’s autobiography, are brought into Schlehlein’s account based on the newly republished letters of Paton’s second wife, Margaret Whitecross Paton (55–64).[3]

The book is usefully divided into two equal parts: “Paton’s Life” and “Lessons from Paton’s Life.”

The seventy-five-page account of Paton’s life outlines the best of the Scottish Covenanter tradition of zeal for spreading the gospel through the whole counsel of God. Paton had an uncanny sense of the urgency of his mission to the perishing (12). This is especially poignant given the fact that the field to which he was called, the New Hebrides in the South Seas (present day Vanuatu), was inhabited by cannibals, who had claimed the life of missionary John Williams two decades earlier (19). When warned of this danger, Paton famously replied, “I confess to you, that if I can but 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” (19). A year after arriving on the island of Tanna, his nineteen-year-old wife and newly born son died of malaria (27). From this point on, the story is one of God’s sustaining grace and strength enabling Paton to endure countless trials. But along the way Schlehlein writes frankly of Paton’s frailties, including discouragement that lead him to wish that he had died with his first wife (38). Such realism is more inclined to encourage real trust in God than are the rose-colored success stories often required by missionaries for fundraising. When the struggles are covered up, rookie missionaries are ill prepared to meet those challenges and often leave the field in discouragement. It was decades before Paton saw real fruit, but by his life’s end he was blessed to see thousands come to Christ (74).

Part two, “Lessons from Paton’s Life,” is comprised of six chapters. “Paton’s Godly Home” looks at the strong spiritual influence of his parents. Daily Bible-based devotions were lived out in the simple piety of his parents.

“Paton’s Clear Calling” impresses the importance of the clarity of a call to mission work: “the impetus to world missions is complex not simple. Correct motives in missions are vital, as they will lead to greater endurance and less discouragement” (90). The clarity of the call, is a call to the clarity of the message that warns men of the coming judgment, of the realities of hell, and of the magnificent mercy of God in the crucified and risen Christ as the only means of escape (92–93). Such a calling must not be taken lightly.

“Paton’s Undaunted Courage” makes clear that only those with a high degree of trust in the Lord venture upon dangerous mission fields (104). Schlehlein’s discussion of cannibalism as revenge, rather than normal diet, is illuminating (108–10).

In “Paton’s Pensive Risk” Schlehlein helpfully discusses the nature of thoughtful risk, offering an alternative to what he calls “Camp Caution” and “Camp Courage” (120). Paton refused to give in to either extreme. Schlehlein sums this up nicely, “Faith is the root of pensive risk, presumption is the root of thoughtless chance” (124).

“Paton’s Gospel Strategies” enumerates the methods of the early church, which focused on the power of preaching and the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of sinners. There were four paths to reach this goal: language study, church planting, financial aid, and social reform (136). Paton was skilled at learning a language that had no written documentation. He worked feverishly at translating the Bible into the native language from what he learned. As a student of Nevius’s three-self principles (self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating, 143), he found that establishing strong indigenous leadership was a constant challenge, but a goal from which he never wavered (143).

“Paton’s Relentless Evangelism” movingly documents Paton’s passion to spread the good news. “Paton’s belief in a sovereign God, coupled with his resolve to win the natives to Christ no matter the cost, no matter the sacrifice, no matter the loss, and no matter the penalty, is in the end what brought the whole island to faith” (164). There is no more inspiring example of faithful mission work than Paton’s life and work. This little book is a wonderful introduction to it.

This book should serve as an instructive motivation for genuine missions, coming as it does out of our Reformed tradition. Schlehlein’s first goal for his book is “to infuse in the reader the kind of unflappable courage and indefatigable moxie for which Paton was known” (xvi). For freshman missionaries, it would make a good companion volume to John L. Nevius’s The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches,[4] a book it appears Paton certainly read (65, 143). It would also make an excellent text for an adult class on missions. It goes to the heart of the matter and the heart of the reader.

Endnotes

[1] John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides (1907; repr. as The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965, 2016).

[2] See, Gregory Edward Reynolds, “Seven Lessons for Missionaries from the Ministry of John Paton,” Ordained Servant 20 (2011): 20–24.

[3] Margaret Whitecross Paton, Letters and Sketches: The New Hebrides (1894; repr. as Letters from the South Seas, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2003).

[4] John L. Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches (Manchester, NH: Monadnock, 2003).

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, April 2019.

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