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John G. Paton, to Cannibals on Pacific Islands

by Thomas John Bach

John PatonLess than one hundred years ago [written in early 1950s], the islands of the New Hebrides were occupied by cannibals. The Christian Church was stirred by reports, on the one hand, of the shedding of martyr's blood, and, on the other, of the work of the grace of God in the hearts of these savages. For instance, John Williams was murdered on November 30, 1839. Only a few years later, one of the murderer's sons was building a church and the other was preaching the gospel.

May 24, 1824, in a humble, straw-thatched cottage near Dumfries in South Scotland, a child was born. He was called John Gibson Paton. About fifty years later, Charles H. Spurgeon introduced him to the audience of the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London as the "king of the savages."

The parents had little of earthly belongings. John was brought up in a deeply religious home, with a profound reverence for the Word of God. From that humble home came three ministers of the gospel. John in his youth accepted Christ as his personal Saviour. He attended the parish school and learned stocking-making, the trade of his father. Out of his small earnings he saved enough to attend the Dumfries Academy for a short period.

As a young man, John Paton enjoyed the highest reputation for his loyalty to Christ, his noble efforts to secure an education, and his devotion to his parents. The West Campbell Street Reformed Church in Glasgow appointed him district visitor and tract distributor. At that time he also attended the Free Church Normal Seminary. He married a spiritual young lady, and together they offered their lives to the Reformed Church of Scotland for missionary work among the cannibals on the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides, not far from the island of Eromanga.

On April 16, 1858, Mr. and Mrs. John G. Paton sailed from Scotland. They landed on the island of Tanna on November 5, 1858. On March 3 of the following year, Mrs. Paton died. The task of learning the language and gaining the confidence of the people of Tanna Island required much patience and God-given wisdom.

After living on that island for almost four years, the missionary was driven out by the natives, who hated the Christian teaching. He went to Australia and back to Scotland for a visit. There he married Margaret Whitecross. His society appointed the Patons to settle on the island of Aniwa, only a short distance from Tanna.

A Well of Water

At that time, drinking water was extremely scarce. When the missionary began to dig a well, the heathen became frightened. They could not understand that water could be found by digging down. Had he not struck water, his missionary efforts on Aniwa might have ended as they did on the island of Tanna. But, after going down thirty feet, he found an abundant vein of good water. From that day, the great opposition to his missionary work disappeared. The first one to accept Christ as Saviour on the island of Aniwa was the chief, Mamokei. The first communion service was held there on October 24, 1869. Twelve converted cannibals took part in the Lord's Supper.

In 1884, John G. Paton was again in Britain. His principal purpose was to present to the Christians at home a picture of the transforming power of the grace of God among the people of the New Hebrides and to raise money for a larger ship to sail among the islands.

Work on the island of Aniwa progressed rapidly. Churches and schools were established, and the native Christians themselves became messengers of the gospel.

John G. Paton was unusually effective in his deputation work, both in England and Scotland and in America. His presentation was a vivid description of his mission field. He was both scriptural and spiritual in his appeal and never failed to recognize with gratitude those who helped him in his missionary work.

Through his lectures and his autobiography (written at the insistence of his brother James), he was able to turn many Christians from indifference toward missions to both interest and faith in the power of the gospel to transform even the worst of the heathen.

When he was seventy-nine years of age, he and his wife returned to his beloved Aniwa for about a year. Because of failing health, they had to return to Australia. There she died in 1905, and there he died on January 28, 1907, at the age of eighty-three.

The continuation of his missionary work was placed in the hands of the "John G. Paton Missionary Fund."


"Nothing so clears the vision and lifts up the life, as a decision to move forward in what you know to be entirely the will of the Lord."—Paton.


"This is strength; this is peace: to feel, in entering on every day, that all its duties and trials have been committed to the Lord Jesus—that, come what may, He will use us for His own glory and our real good!"—Paton.


"Life is God's great gift, to be preserved for Him, not thrown away... For I have ever most firmly believed, and do believe, that only when we use every lawful and possible means for the preservation of our life, which is God's second greatest gift to man (His Son being the first), can we expect God to protect us, or have we the right to plead His precious promises."—Paton.


Criticized by some for leaving the field after much opposition and with failing health, he answered: "I regard it as a greater honour to live and to work for Jesus, than to be a self-made martyr. God knows that I did not refuse to die; for I stood at the post of duty, amid difficulty and danger, till all hope had fled, till everything I had was lost, and till God, in answer to prayer, sent a means of escape. I left with a clear conscience, knowing that in doing so I was following God's leading, and serving the Mission, too. To have remained longer would have been to incur the guilt of self-murder in the sight of God."


Only the peace of God kept his heart strong during the days of deadly danger, for, he writes: "They encircled us in a deadly ring, and one kept urging another to strike the first blow or fire the first shot. 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 was done."


"...the instincts of humanity, however degraded, prompt man to worship and lean upon some Being or Power outside himself and greater than himself. Whether savage or civilized, man must either know the true God, or must find an idol to put in His place."—Paton.

From Pioneer Missionaries for Christ and His Church by Thomas John Bach. Wheaton, Ill.: Van Kampen Press, ©1955.

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