John Paton (1824–1907) was raised in Scotland by devout Christian parents who had dedicated him to foreign missions before he was born. He was the eldest of the 11 children of James and Janet Paton. He left school at age 12 to undergo apprenticeship, working 16 hours a day and studying fervently in the few hours left for him after that. He later studied at the Free Church Seminary and worked at the Glasgow City Mission. The area assigned to him around Green Street in the Calton district was one of the worst. Drunkenness, prostitution, gambling and every other kind of vice and shamelessness prevailed. John Paton secured a hayloft for Sunday evening services and, through diligent literature evangelism, teaching and labouring, within a few years, the number of people attending this service increased from six to over 600.
Surrounded by Savagery
Paton wrote of being encircled by cannibals “in a deadly ring and one kept urging another to strike the first blow. My heart rose up to the Lord Jesus; I saw Him watching all the scene. My peace came back to me like a wave from God. I realized that my life was immortal till my Master’s work with me is done.”
Fruitfulness Despite Fever
Any natural disasters or tragedies were automatically blamed on the missionary. He constantly suffered fever. Yet, soon a school and Church building had been erected and a printing press brought in from Glasgow. After struggling tirelessly over the technique of printing, John was overjoyed as the first pages of Scripture in Tannese were printed.
Mobilising the Support Needed to Evangelise the Islands
Paton travelled from coast to coast, preaching to all the war factions inland. Soon 40 people were attending regular worship services. But then John was forced to flee Tanna to escape attempts on his life. John then visited Australia to raise money from the Presbyterian Churches for the New Hebrides mission and for the building of a new ship. Most of the support he obtained came from children and Sunday Schools wanting to have a part in the great missionary enterprise.
Called to the Pacific Islanders
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland struggled to find a missionary to send to the New Hebrides. John was blinded by tears of disappointment that there was no-one to meet the need. He resolved to offer himself. Three weeks after he was ordained, in March 1858, John Paton and his young wife, Mary Ann, set sail from Scotland for the South Seas.
John’s heart sank at the sight and sound of the inhabitants of the islands. Their nakedness and endless violence was distressing. The victims of one battle had been cooked and eaten the night that they died. This did not seem to disturb the boy who was making tea for the missionaries. However, what did upset him was the fact that the blood of these victims had polluted the water and so he was unable to provide the tea! Most shocking of all was the news that the widow of one of those who had died had been strangled so that she could accompany her husband to the next world, there to continue serving him!
Tragedy and Despair
Four months after arriving in Tanna, John lost his wife after childbirth. Their new-born son was buried alongside his mother 17 days later. Only his great love for the Saviour sustained John. The cheapness of human life and the horrifying extent of cannibalism on the islands became more and more obvious. On one occasion three women were killed in a human sacrifice to secure the recovery to health of the chief!
From Australia, John was encouraged to return to Scotland to recruit more missionaries. During the voyage, the ship was struck by lightning in a ferocious storm. Part of the journey he had to take strapped to the mast of the ship because of the violent weather, and he suffered frostbite in the foot. However, the deputation tour back in Scotland was filled with blessings, reunion with his devout parents, his Church appointed him Moderator, four new missionaries volunteered and he found a new wife.
Overcoming Obstacles, Obstructions and Opposition
Within the hour of landing at Sydney, John faced numerous problems. The new mission ship, Dayspring, had arrived, but he was not allowed to take possession of her because of taxes and duties demanded. Some ministers actually suggested selling the ship, but John trusted God and by the end of Sunday, the Lord had remarkably met their need. Paton then suffered a flood of criticism from a false report in an Australian paper, linking him to some killings on Tanna. Paton was one of the most detested men in Australia until a Naval Commodore cleared the missionary of the false accusations.
Despite All Dangers
In 1866, John went to Aniwa, where numerous dangers awaited him. Frequently he had to evade a swinging club or musket aimed at him as he sought to bring the Gospel to these cannibals. When John asked one of the chiefs about two large baskets of human bones that he had gathered, the chief responded with pride: “Ah, we are not Tanna men! We do not eat the bones!”
Conversions to Christ
Paton built a mission house and two orphanages. The first convert on Aniwa was chief Namakei. His brother, who had tried to shoot Paton, also became a Christian. Other astounding testimonies followed. Murderers of their own children were brought to Christ. One man was brought to Christ by his second wife, for whose sake he had murdered his first wife. One young boy, who was converted, expressed his regret that now he would be denied the honour of becoming a murderer!
Water from the Ground
When John informed the islanders of his intention of providing water by digging a well, they declared him insane. After preaching on Christ the Living Water, he got to work and 30 feet down his hopes were realised. The people were astounded. The well and the sermon “broke the back of heathenism on Aniwa”. The villagers flocked to hear the Gospel.
Now the Lord’s Day was observed with zeal. The first communion on Aniwa, on 24 October 1869, had a great effect. “At the moment when I put the bread and the wine into those dark hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism, but now stretched out to receive and partake the elements and the seals of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that broke my heart to pieces. I shall never taste a deeper bliss, till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus Himself!”
Discipling Nations and Protecting Converts
In 1884, Paton returned to Britain to mobilise more prayer and support for the New Hebrides. During this visit he met such well known Christian leaders such as F.B. Meyer, George Muller and C.H. Spurgeon. He returned to the South Seas with £9000. As his evangelism and education work continued, Paton had to spend more and more time seeking to prevent the exploitation of the islanders at the hands of traders who corrupted them with the sale of drugs and intoxicating liquor. It was also necessary to eliminate the slave trade amongst the islanders.
In 1898, John Paton returned to Aniwa with his translation of the New Testament into the Aniwan language. In 1902, he delivered the first Hymn book in Aniwa and his translation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Sacrifice and Service
John Paton reflected on the fact that his forefathers were Covenanters, who had faced severe persecution and suffering in their fight for the Faith. They understood the connection between sacrifice and service, martyrdom and maintaining the truth.
Following in His Father’s Footsteps
Paton’s son, Frank Paton, followed in his father’s footsteps to the New Hebridian island of Tanna. Thirty-four years before, John Paton had to flee Tanna for his life. In 1894, two women and a man were killed and eaten on Tanna. In 1896, Frank Paton went to Tanna, and during his lifetime he was to see the whole population of Tanna won for Christ.
“Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping bearing seed for sowing shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.” Psalm 126:5-6
Dr. Peter Hammond
This article was adapted from a chapter of The Greatest Century of Missions book (224 pages with 200 photographs, pictures, charts and maps), available from: Christian Liberty Books, PO Box 358 Howard Place 7450 Cape Town South Africa.