A masked friend said something like this to me just the other day. And if I hadn’t been biting my tongue, I would have told her, “Rubbish!”
The reason? I’d just finished reading The Story of John G. Paton, or Thirty Years among South Sea Cannibals (Compass Circle, 2019, originally published around 1892).
Born in Dumfries, Scotland, in 1824 and raised by devout parents in the Reformed Presbyterian church, John G. Paton became a passionate homeland evangelist in his youth. Then, as a young man, he was introduced to the pioneering missionary work of the Rev. John Inglis in the New Hebrides–a South Pacific archipelago now known as Vanuatu, with at least some of its islands once famously populated by tribes of cannibals.
Paton spent most of his adult life on two islands there, first Tanna and then Aniwa. In spite of disheartening disease and deprivation, terrifying attacks by violent and well-armed locals, and many narrow escapes from death, he managed to learn the native languages, to translate key parts of the Bible into these tongues, to teach many to read, and ultimately to lead many to the Lord.
Heartily recommended to our Bible study group by our favorite church historian Dr. David Saxon and his wife Jamie, The Story of John G. Paton is a remarkable book on many levels.
Most superficially, it’s astoundingly well-written—not at all what I expected from a 19th Century missionary whose only formal training appears to have been as a manufacturer of stockings. What’s more, it wasn’t at all graphic on the subject of cannibalism; thankfully, he left that abomination to the reader’s imagination.
Far more important, this missionary demonstrated beautifully how to live out Jesus’ instructions for the Christian walk: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23, NKJV). Paton’s passion was bringing these bloodthirsty pagans to Christ, whatever the personal cost; and indeed, by the end of his ministry, it was said that the entire island of Aniwa had claimed Jesus as Savior.
Through countless trials, Paton exhibited a level of agape love, patience and courage that could only have come from the indwelling Holy Spirit. It was his love of all men that attracted so many once-hostile natives, and his unrelenting patience and courage that allowed him to stay the course through personal tragedy and devastating illness.
How grateful I am that he lived to write about it all: What joy there is to read about the lives of these men and women as they became new creatures in Christ!
Some of Paton’s difficulties have been experienced by many missionaries over the centuries, and continue to this day for the bravest. Just consider such fundamental challenges as learning an unwritten language, transforming it into the written word and translating such foreign concepts as salvation and sanctification to people whose theologies revolved around hatred, revenge and fear.
But what fascinated me most about this story was Paton’s fearlessness in the face of circumstances that would have sent most of us packing. His explanation? “As I had only once to die, I was content to leave the time and place and means in the hand of God.”
Once, when a group of tribes had banded together for a great feast and decided to include Paton and his early converts among their victims, the Christians locked themselves in the mission house. For many hours, they listened to the rampaging natives tramping about the premises, whispering to each other, listening at window and door.
Terrifying? No doubt. But as Paton wrote, “Our safety lay in our appeal to that blessed Lord who had placed us there … He that was with us was more than all that could be against us. 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 glory and our own real good!”
And more: “All through that dreadful morning, and far into the afternoon, we thus abode together, feeling conscious that we were united to this dear Lord Jesus; and we had sweet communion with Him, meditating on the wonders of His person and the hopes and glories of His kingdom. Oh, that all my readers may learn something of this in their own experience of the Lord! I can wish them nothing more precious.”
I think John G. Paton would have been perplexed by the timidity of today’s followers of Jesus Christ. He took plenty of “stupid chances,” after all; what could be more reckless than planting yourself amidst tribes of men and women who would have enjoyed nothing more than executing, cooking and feasting on you?
As it turned out, Paton was perfectly justified in entrusting his life solely to the Lord. After completing his earthly duties, he died in the oh-so-civilized world of Australia at age 82.
His message to us?
“Reader, in your life, as in mine, one last Chapter still awaits us. By His grace, who has sustained me from childhood till now, I would work out that Chapter, and live through these closing scenes. With this book still open before you, I implore you to go alone before your blessed Saviour, and pledge yourself so to live, and so to die, in the service and fellowship of the Lord Jesus, that you and I, who have companied with each other through these pages, may meet again and renew our happy intercourse in our FATHER’S HOUSE.”
I can’t wait to meet this most inspiring brother in Christ. In the meantime, I join the Saxons in wholeheartedly recommending his autobiography.