Ten Reasons to Appreciate the “Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission” (6th of Ten)

The story of John Paton, part 2

When we last met John Paton, here, he had pledged to sail to the New Hebrides Islands (Vanuatu) and take the place of two missionaries who had been killed and eaten by cannibals. John and his father walked the first miles from their home in Scotland, and at their parting both men wept for grief at their separation. John climbed a hill that he might watch his white-haired father walk out of sight. John walked to Glasgow, where he was ordained by the Reformed Presbyterian Church on 23 March 1858. To become a missionary he joined the London Missionary Society, as had the missionaries who went before him. On April 2 he married Mary Ann Robson and 14 days later, accompanied by Mr. Joseph Copeland, they sailed from Glasgow for the South Pacific. They landed on the island of Tanna. There he suffered unspeakable loss:

My dear young wife, Mary Ann Robson, landed with me on Tanna on the 5th November 1858, in excellent health and full of all tender and holy hopes. On the 12th February 1859 God sent to us our first-born son; for two days or so both mother and child seemed to prosper, and our island-exile thrilled with joy! But the greatest of sorrows was treading hard upon the heels of that joy! My darling’s strength showed no signs of rallying. She had an attack of ague and fever a few days before; on the third day or so thereafter, it returned, and attacked her every second day with increasing severity for a fortnight. Diarrhea ensued, and symptoms of pneumonia, with slight delirium at intervals; and then in a moment, altogether unexpectedly, she died on the 3d March. To crown my sorrows, and complete my loneliness, the dear baby-boy, whom we had named after her father, Peter Robert Robson, was taken from me after one week’s sickness, on the 20th March. 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![1]

Paton then wrote:

But I was never altogether forsaken. The ever-merciful Lord sustained me, to lay the precious dust of my beloved Ones in the same quiet grave, dug for them close by at the end of the house; in all of which last offices my own hands, despite breaking heart, had to take the principal share! I built the grave round and round with coral blocks, and covered the top with beautiful white coral, broken small as gravel; and that spot became my sacred and much-frequented shrine, during all the following months and years when I labored on for the salvation of these savage Islanders amidst difficulties, dangers, and deaths.

Paton describes his life with the natives on the island of Tanna. He writes of their practice of cannibalism; I found myself unwilling to read it, as it upset me a great deal. The men lead cruel lives, and the women are the victims of many abuses. Paton writes:

Oh, how sad and degraded is the position of Woman where the teaching of Christ is unknown, or disregarded though known! It is the Christ of the Bible, it is His Spirit entering into humanity, that has lifted Woman, and made her the helpmate and the friend of Man, not his toy or his slave.

British ship captains would prowl the waters of the South Sea islands to seize native people and transport them to sugar plantations in New Zealand or to work in other parts of the British Empire. This cruel practice was called Blackbirding. John Paton strenuously opposed this form of enslavement. It would continue into the 1880s, when public outrage in England finally pressed the British Parliament to enact legislation forbidding the practice. Paton instructed the native population in the craft of making hats, and in this way enabled the islanders to trade with merchant ships for manufactured goods.

In 1886 John Paton remarried and moved with his second wife to the island of Aniwa. There they built a house, and later built a church and an office for a printing press. The cannibal culture on the island of Aniwa was the same as on Tanna. After many years, his faithful ministry bore fruit; the entire island population of 200 turned to Christianity. All adults were baptized. Paton later wrote , “I claimed Aniwa for Jesus, and by the grace of God Aniwa now worships at the Saviour’s feet.”

He lived to an old age and is buried in Australia. Four of his children by his second wife died in infancy. Some of the six children who survived to adulthood became missionaries to farther islands in the South Seas.


[1][1] https://www.wholesomewords.org/missions/paton/paton4.html