Ten Reasons to Appreciate the “Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission” Theory (5th of 10)

The Story of John Paton: “You will be eaten by cannibals!”

Augustine arrives in England from Rome at the invitation of King Aethelbert and Queen Bertha.

The history of the advance of Christianity is the history of those occasions when missionary bands went to the wild places, to “the regions beyond” (2 Corinthians 10:16) Queen Bertha of Kent, England asked for missionaries to convert her husband king Aethelbert and her Saxon subjects, Pope Gregory sent Augustine, who would become known as “The Apostle to the English,” along with 40 missionaries from the monasteries of Rome. King Aethelbert welcomed them to Kent. Some of them died within a year of arriving on the coast where the city of Kent now lies. On Christmas Day 597 AD 10,000 Saxons were baptized in the Medway River.

Boniface was an early missionary to the Germanic and Frisian peoples, Anskar to the Swedes, Cyril and Methodius to the Slavs. All these missionaries were sent from monasteries. Other monks became missionaries, including: Coumbanus and twelve other Irish monks who sailed from the monastery Bangor to the coast of France in 590, and Francis Xavier, a Jesuit, who arrived in Japan in 1594. Thousands of Japanese were baptized. The story of how all was lost, beginning a generation later, is one of Christianity’s great reversals in Asia.

Two structures of God’s redemptive mission: 1. churches (what we normally call churches), for the ongoing teaching and nurture of Christians and the ongoing conversion of non-Christians, and 2. mission agencies for sending missionaries to plant churches among unreached peoples. Small bands of men and women pledge themselves to one another to leave home and go, converting unreached peoples to Christianity. This is the way of the New Testament and history. As long as there are unreached peoples, the Holy Spirit will send missionaries to convert them. Such a missionary was the Scotsman John Paton. What tears he cried when he parted from his father and his people to be take the place of two missionaries who had been eaten by cannibals.

John Paton, Missionary to Vanuatu: “You will be eaten by cannibals.”

John Paton (1824-1907) believed in Psalm 105:1 O give thanks to the Lord; call on his name. Make known his deeds among the peoples.” By the time he was twelve, Paton had been greatly influenced by the devoutness of his father who would go three times a day to his “prayer closet” and who conducted family prayers twice a day.

As a youth John heard the voice of his Lord saying, “Go across the seas as the messenger of My love; and lo, I am with you.” It was hard to leave the happy home, but at length the day of separation arrived. It was about forty miles to Kilmarnock, where he would take a train to Glasgow. The journey to Kilmarnock had to be taken on foot, because he could not afford to travel by stagecoach. All his possessions were tied up in a large handkerchief, but he did not think of himself as poverty-stricken, for he had with him his Bible and his Lord.

His father walked with him the first six miles. The old man’s “counsels and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey” were never forgotten by the son. At length they both lapsed into silence. The father carried his hat in his hand and his long yellow locks fell over his shoulders, while hot tears flowed freely and silent prayers ascended. Having reached the appointed parting place, they clasped hands and the father said with deep emotion, “God bless you, my son! May your father’s God prosper you and keep you from all evil!” Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears they embraced and parted. Continuing down the road past a curve, John climbed the hill for a last look and saw that his father had also climbed a hill, hoping for one more glimpse of his boy. The old patriarch looked in vain, for his eyes were dim, then climbed down and started for home, his head still bared and his heart offering up fervent supplications. “I watched through blinding tears,” says the son in his Autobiography, “till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as He had given me.” In times of sore temptation in the years that followed, the father’s form rose before John’s eyes and served as a guardian angel.[1]

Paton was ordained by the Reformed Presbyterian Church on 23 March 1858. He was accepted as a missionary with the London Missionary Society. But a man named Dickson warned John Paton, “You will be eaten by cannibals.” To which John Paton replied, “Mr. Dickson, you will be eaten by worms.”

In fact, Dickson had reason to issue this warning. In 1839 John Williams and James Harris from the London Missionary Society arrived on an island in the South Seas called Erromango. Both of these missionaries were killed and eaten by cannibals on November 20 of that year, only minutes after going ashore, the men on the ship that had transported them as near to the shore as possible watched in horror. John Paton wrote later, “Thus were the New Hebrides baptized with the blood of martyrs; and Christ thereby told the whole Christian world that he claimed these islands as His own.”

On 2 April, in Coldstream, Berwickshire, Scotland John Paton married Mary Ann Robson and 14 days later, on 16 April, accompanied by Mr. Joseph Copeland, they both sailed from Scotland to the South Pacific.  

More about John Paton in a later blog. Or you can buy his autobiography.

Discuss: Do churches plant churches among unreached peoples?


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