31 Days of Missionary Stories: John Paton, Missionary to Cannibals

John Paton is the source of one of my all-time favorite missionary quotes. After a struggle, “dreadfully afraid of mistaking my own emotions for the will of God,” he offered himself and was accepted as a missionary to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Most, including his pastor, were dead set against his “throwing his life away among the cannibals.” In a classic exchange, one “dear old Christian gentleman repeatedly exhorted me, ‘The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!’ At last I replied, ‘Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is to soon 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 arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.’”

John and his wife, Mary Ann , arrived on the island of Tanna in 1858. The Tannese were curious about them and the Patons had to learn to communicate by gesture and trial and error until they learned the language. They found the people scantily clad, friendly but deceptive, thieving, glorying “in bloodshed, war, and cannibalism,” superstitious, and worshiping nearly everything. When the Patons began to teach them that God wanted them to ”throw away their idols and stop their wrongdoing,” persecution began.

Mrs. Paton and their baby boy died in the same month in 1859. “But for Jesus, and the fellowship He gave me there, I would certainly have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave.”

After a time some men came, like Nicodemus, at night to talk to John. A few believed, but persecution was the norm. John was in danger of his life many times. Sometimes he was led to hide somewhere, but other times, while men were facing him with spears, he kept on about his work as if he didn’t notice them, and God restrained their hands. Once he even directly challenged them to go through their rituals by which they curse people by making incantations over a piece of food from which that person has eaten, to prove that his God was greater than theirs, and God prevailed. He did have to leave the island eventually, escaping for his life. He went to Australia and Scotland to report to churches there. He came back with a wife and many new missionaries. The islanders were amazed that missionaries would return after the way they had been treated, and said, “If your God makes you do that, we may yet worship Him too.”

John and his new wife settled on the island of Aniwa. Though they faced some of the same problems as in Tanna, the Lord did bless them with a fruitful harvest there. Amazingly “the sinking of a well broke the back of dark religion on Aniwa.” The island did not receive much rain and much of the drinking water was not good. John decided to try to sink a well; the islanders thought he was mad. “Rain comes only from above. How could you expect our island to send us showers of rain from below?” The chief was afraid that Paton’s “wild talk” would cause the people to never listen to his word or believe him again. They were also concerned that he would die in the hole he was digging, and then the next English ship that came by would hold them accountable. He was able to persuade them to help him by offering fishing hooks for labor. They gladly labored, though they still thought he was going mad, until one side of the well caved in; then they were afraid and worried and would help no longer.

John was able to shore up the side of the well and take precautions against another cave-in. He had prayed about the location of the well and struggled with the fear that they might find salty water rather than fresh.

Finally the day came that he broke through and found good, fresh water. He filled a jug, climbed out of the well, and called the people over to taste it. They were amazed at the water he found and grateful that he would share the well with them. They offered to help him finish it in earnest. Later the islanders tried to sink several wells in various villages, but they either came to coral rock they could not penetrate or to salt water.

Chief Namakei asked if he could “preach” one Sunday. The book records one of the most beautiful sermons I have ever read. The essence of it was that, though they laughed and disbelieved when “Missi” (teacher) said he would find “rain coming up through the earth,” yet Jehovah God answered his prayers. “No God of Aniwa has ever answered prayers as the Missi’s God has done….The gods of Aniwa cannot hear, cannot help us like the God of Missi.” He felt that since what the Missi had said about the invisible water under the earth was true, then what he said about the invisible God was true, too, and he would worship Him. “He (Jehovah) will give us all we need for He sent His Son Jesus to die for us and bring us to heaven. This is what the Missi has been telling us every day since he landed on Aniwa. We laughed at him, but now we believe him.”

There followed a great burning of idols of many of the islanders and many were converted. They began to come to the church services and were baptized. John wrote, after a communion service, “At the moment when I put the bread and wine into those hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism, now stretched out to Jesus, I had a foretaste of the joy of heaven that almost burst my heart in pieces. I will never taste a deeper bliss till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus Himself.”

PatonJohn wrote his autobiography in three parts at three different times in his life. Benjamin Unseth used about one-fifth of the material in the three parts written by Mr. Paton to form a shorter biography simply titled John Paton, part of the Men of Faith Series published by Bethany House.

(You can see other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

6 thoughts on “31 Days of Missionary Stories: John Paton, Missionary to Cannibals

  1. Pingback: 31 Days of Missionary Stories | Stray Thoughts

  2. Pingback: 31 Days of Missionary Stories: Pedestals? | Stray Thoughts

  3. My great grand father is a high chief in the area of Port Resolution in Tanna NH.And my grand mother and father use to work with John Paton visiting the outer islands in Tafea Province.Has we growing up my mothers always telling us the stories of John Paron works.
    May God Bless

  4. Pingback: 31 Days of Inspirational Biography: Margaret Paton, Missionary Wife to Cannibals in the South Sea Islands | Stray Thoughts

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