John Williams was happier with a hammer in his hand than a pen. When he was 14 he went to work in an ironmonger’s shop. It was with great reluctance that he allowed himself to be persuaded by his employer’s wife to go to church. Moorfields Tabernacle was closely associated with George Whitefield’s ministry. The visiting preacher that Sunday night in January 1814 preached: “What is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16: 26. That night John Williams realised what a bad bargain he was making and a woman’s persistence and prayer gained reward beyond measure.
Tahiti for Christ
John became a member at the Tabernacle and joined the London Missionary Society. He was ordained, September 1816, at Surrey Chapel, London, alongside another destined to be a great missionary, Robert Moffat, whose sights were set on Africa. In November 1816, the newly-married young missionary sailed with his bride, Mary, bound for the other side of the world – Tahiti. Their first home was a house that had been built on the island for Captain Bligh, made famous by the Mutiny on the Bounty. Missionaries had already been working at Tahiti for 20 years. The Tahitian language had been reduced to writing and the Gospel of Luke was already being translated. By 1815, King Pomare of Tahiti had been baptised.
On the neighbouring island of Eimeo, a chapel had been built. John Williams determined to take the Gospel to as many islands as possible. Here he used his practical gifts of carpentry to good effect, and within 8 days, had produced a ship. The first attempt at launching her was a disaster, but undeterred, Williams spent 2 days rectifying the boat and then he had the opportunity to put into practice the many months spent on board ship, learning from sailors en-route.
At each island he worked at acquiring their language, teaching and preaching. His main emphasis was teaching literacy and evangelising. His goal was to lift the scattered communities from centuries of savage cannibalism to literate people - by missionary education and evangelism.
He also sought to elevate their standards by persuading them to recognise the right to life and property, to due process of law, trial by jury, and by rejecting such destructive habits as cannibalism, drunkenness and immorality. Williams also persuaded the islanders to transform their housing living conditions, so that living quarters were divided into separate rooms, instead of consisting of one communal room. He tried to encourage the islanders to become industrious. He instructed them in boat building and introduced the cultivation of sugar cane. He translated the Gospel of Luke into the local languages and produced numerous educational books in their languages.
Responding to Criticisms
Inevitably, the dramatic improvements effected by Williams brought severe criticisms that he was imposing foreign standards upon unwilling communities living in “primitive bliss.” He noted that missionaries would always be easy prey to such allegations, but that it needed to be remembered that these same communities were societies where laziness, promiscuity, human sacrifice and the burial alive of infants had shortly before been commonplace.
Compelled to Preach the Gospel to the Unreached
It is sometimes noted that missionaries are often restless people. And John Williams possessed restlessness to an unusual degree. No sooner had he seen the Gospel take root and bear fruit on one island than he was eagerly off to plant the Gospel on another island. His evangelistic spirit seems to have also infected and inspired the native islanders and they formed their own missionary societies, to take the Gospel to other islands.
Historian, Stephen Neill, comments: “Few marvels in Christian history can equal the faithfulness of these men and women … many watered the seed with their own blood, but the Churches grew, and far more widely than if reliance had been placed first and foremost on the European missionary.”
John then visited Sydney to use an inheritance from his mother to buy his own ship, The Endeavour. John first evangelised two previously unreached islands. His passion was unquenchable and his vision grew, but the directors of the London Missionary Society were slow to respond to his challenge and example. He wrote home to them: “A missionary was never designed by Jesus Christ to gather a congregation of 100 or 200 natives, and sit down at his ease, as contented as if every sinner was converted, while thousands around him … are eating each other’s flesh and drinking each other’s blood, living and dying without the Gospel. For my own part, I cannot content myself with the narrow limits of a single reef; and if means are not afforded, a continent would, to me, be infinitely preferable; for there, if you cannot ride, you can walk; but to these isolated islands, a ship must carry.”
Ruinous Confiscatory Taxes Steal Mission Ship
However, to his dismay, his ship, The Endeavour, had to be sold to pay for heavy taxes and customs duties required by the authorities. More restrictions were imposed upon him. So he chartered a ship to Rarotonga and there (in 15 weeks) constructed and launched The Messenger of Peace, a vessel of 70 to 80 tonnes. Amongst the many islands that he visited in The Messenger of Peace was Samoa, in 1830, which saw many of its inhabitants converted to Christ. He left behind 8 Tahitian teachers, who succeeded in evangelising and discipling the entire population of Samoa.
Perseverance Despite Tragedies
In 1834, he returned to England with his wife and 3 children. Seven of their other children had died in the field! It was a busy furlough, with Williams addressing large crowds and producing a book “Missionary Enterprises in the South Seas Islands”, which was published in 1837 (the year in which Queen Victoria ascended the throne – and she was one of the first to read his amazing account).
Cannibals for Christ
By 1838, the London Missionary Society had purchased the Camden, which set sail for the exotic islands of the South Seas. John determined to take the Gospel to the New Hebrides, which had a particularly vicious reputation for savagery and cannibalism. Amongst Mary William’s last words to her husband were: “Do not land on Erromanga, John!”
The Blood of the Martyrs - Seed of the Church
However, John felt compelled to go to the New Hebrides. John first visited Fotuna and Tanna, but when he finally landed on the New Hebridian island of Erromanga, the reception was violent and savage. John Williams, and his colleague James Harris, fell under the clubs. At a later date, when their remains were recovered, all that was left was a collection of bones. John Williams had died for the Gospel and been eaten by cannibals.
The Gates of Hell Cannot Prevail
What he left behind were scores of islands transformed by the Scriptures he had translated, schools he had established, churches he had built, great social improvement and many thousands of islanders brought to salvation in Christ. True to the verse he had heard on the night of his conversion in 1814, John Williams had found his life by losing it for Christ. The London Missionary Society successively operated seven missionary ships in the Pacific which were named after John Williams.
“Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.” Revelation 2:10
Dr. Peter Hammond
This article was adapted from the first 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,
Tel: 021-689-7478, Fax: 086-551-7490,
Hi Dr Peter Hammond greeting to you in the name of our lord Jesus Christ.
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