Immortal Till His Work Was Done

John Paton (1824–1907)

The sacrifices and the legacy of the missionaries to the New Hebrides are stunning, and John Paton stands out as one of the great ones. In telling his story, we will focus on one of the most inspiring aspects of his character: his courage.

 

When John and Margaret Paton landed on the New Hebrides island of Aniwa in November 1866, they saw the destitution of the islanders. The native people were cannibals and occasionally ate the flesh of their defeated foes. They practiced infanticide and widow sacrifice, killing the widows of deceased men so they could serve their husbands in the next world. “Their whole worship was one of slavish fear,” Paton wrote. “So far as ever I could learn, they had no idea of a God of mercy or grace” (Autobiography, 72).

In the next fifteen years, the Patons saw the entire island of Aniwa turn to Christ. Years later, Paton would write, “I claimed Aniwa for Jesus, and by the grace of God Aniwa now worships at the Savior’s feet” (Autobiography, 312). When he was 73 years old and traveling around the world trumpeting the cause of missions in the South Seas, he was still ministering to his beloved Aniwan people and “published the New Testament in the Aniwan Language” in 1897 (Apostle to the New Hebrides, 238). Even to his death, he was translating hymns and catechisms and creating a dictionary for his people even when he couldn’t be with them anymore.

The sacrifices and the legacy of the missionaries to the New Hebrides are stunning, and John Paton stands out as one of the great ones. In telling his story, we will focus on one of the most inspiring aspects of his character: his courage.

Cannibals and Criticism

Paton had courage to overcome the criticism he received from respected elders for going to the New Hebrides. A certain Mr. Dickson exploded, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!” But to this Paton responded:

Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer. (Autobiography, 56)

This is the kind of in-your-face spiritual moxie that would mark Paton’s whole life. It’s a big part of what makes his story so invigorating.

Dreadful Loss

Paton originally arrived in the New Hebrides on November 5, 1858, when his first wife, Mary, was pregnant. The baby was born February 12, 1859. “Our island-exile thrilled with joy! But the greatest of sorrows was treading hard upon the heels of that great joy!” (Autobiography, 79). Mary had repeated attacks of ague, fever, pneumonia, and diarrhea with delirium for two weeks.

Then in a moment, altogether unexpectedly, she died on March third. 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 of 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! (Autobiography, 79)

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