Missionary Stories

John G. Paton: Working Among the Cannibals

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Written by McKenna

Born in Scotland in 1824, John G. Paton was a Christian missionary to the cannibals on the New Hebrides Islands of the South Seas until he died in 1907. His life was filled with many trials, as his first wife and their child soon died after their arrival on the island of Tanna, and Paton had to flee for his life almost on a daily basis from the natives.

Paton’s faith withstood testing and he continued to work among the Aniwan people and preach the gospel for several years while also raising support for missionary work and writing his own story. He would later be known fifty years later by Charles H. Spurgeon as the “king of the savages”.

Who is John G. Paton? John G. Paton (1824-1907) was a Scottish Christian missionary for 49 years to the former cannibals in the South Sea Islands. He was alone on an island for four years with the hostile natives and his life hung in the delicate balance of constant danger. However, John trusted that he was immortal until God saw fit for his work to be done. Today, the impact of his life and dedication to faith in Jesus Christ can be seen in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu.

This is the fifth blog in the series of 10 Christian Missionaries Every Christian Should Know, where we are discovering missionaries such as John G. Paton who brought the gospel to unreached people groups and made an impact on the world as we know it today.

John’s Early Days

John Gibson Paton was born to James and Janet Paton on May 24, 1824, near Dumfries in South Scotland. When he was five years old, his parents moved to another village and lived in a small cottage where they would remain for the next forty years. His parents owned very little but were blessed with eleven children—five sons and six daughters—of whom John was the eldest.

John attended a parish school until the age of twelve when he started learning the trade of his father, who was a manufacturer of stockings. For fourteen hours a day, John operated one of the six stocking frames in his father’s workshop, while taking the two hours assigned for mealtimes to devote himself to serious study.

Wanting to continue his education, John saved enough out of his small earnings to attend the Dumfries Academy for six weeks. Later, he served under the surveyors for the ordnance map of Dumfries. He also hired himself at the local fair as a farm laborer and taught in schools when he got the opportunity.

John grew to have a profound reverence for the Word of God from his father, who shut himself in his ‘prayer closet’ three times a day after every meal and twice a day led his family in devotions. The eleven children knew that the smile their father wore on his face was often a reflection from the Divine Presence, in the consciousness of which he lived, and thus revered the spot.

Their father, having a strong desire to become a minister of the gospel, saw that it was not in the Lord’s will for him in his younger days, and resigned to find means of supporting his family through his workshop. Yet, that did not stop him from teaching his own children from the Bible and seeing them as his given mission field by the Lord. By the grace of God, three of his children would later become ministers of the gospel.

John recalls several times where he found his father on his knees, tears streaming down his face, as he prayed for his children to know and love Jesus Christ and become ministers of the gospel. Hence, it was not some minister or evangelist or Sunday School teacher, but his own father who led John G. Paton to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior at a young age.

His Father’s Prayers

His father’s prayers had an immense impact on John that carried throughout his whole life. John writes in his Autobiography,

“Though everything else in religion were by some unthinkable catastrophe to be swept out of memory, were blotted from my understanding, my soul would wander back to those early scenes, and shut itself up once again in that Sanctuary Closet, and, hearing still the echoes of those cries to God, would hurl back all doubt with the victorious appeal, “He walked with God, why may not I?” (p. 11-12)

John learned early on that prayer was to be involved in every aspect of life. Before John was ever punished for an act of disobedience, his father first got on his knees and prayed. This taught John and his siblings the importance of inviting God into every area of life.

Later, John writes about how he learned to know and love Jesus as his friend through his father’s intercession.

“How much my father’s prayers at this time impressed me I can never explain, nor could any stranger understand. When, on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in Family Worship, he poured out his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the Heathen world to the service of Jesus, and for every personal and domestic need, we all felt as if in the presence of the living Savior, and learned to know and love him as our Divine friend.” (p. 34)

John Paton was also greatly influenced by the faith of his mother when she prayed. In one particular year, there was a severe crop failure and the family had run out of food. Amidst all their struggles in rearing a family of eleven, this was the hardest time they had ever had.

Seeing that there was no food, John’s mother encouraged all the children to rest, telling them that she had told God everything and that He would send them food in the morning.

The next day, being moved by God and not knowing anything about the family’s circumstances, John’s grandfather sent a present to his daughter. He sent her a bag of new potatoes, ground meal, and some homemade cheese–plenty of food for the large family to survive. John’s mother, seeing the children’s surprise for how God answered her prayers, had them kneel with her on the ground to thank God for his goodness, and said:

“O my children, love your heavenly Father, tell Him in faith and prayer all your needs, and He will supply your wants so far as it shall be for your good and His glory.”

This phrase, “so far as it shall be for your good and His glory,” would stick with John until his dying breath.

The Call of a Missionary

During his youth, John Paton felt called by God to serve overseas as a missionary. Before he was twelve years old, Paton says,

“I had given my soul to God, and was resolved to aim at being a missionary of the cross, or a minister of the gospel.” (p. 34)

John heard the voice of the Lord saying,

“Go across the seas as the messenger of My love; and lo, I am with you always.”

Many have received such a calling, but John was determined to act upon the command of Matthew 28:20, which had a great bearing on the young soul, who kept this precious promise close to his heart all the days of his life.

In his early twenties, having a great mind for study and knowing that he was called to be a minister of the gospel, John prepared himself for the mission field. He applied for a paid position in Glasgow, where he would be a district visitor and tract distributor, while also receiving one year’s training at the Free Church Normal Seminary, that he might be qualified in teaching and work towards ministry. He was surprised when he was accepted and prepared to leave his family two days after receiving the letter.

Upon leaving home, John tied up all of his earthly possessions, including his Bible, in his pocket-handkerchief. He did not count himself to be in poverty for the Lord was with him. He would be walking forty miles on foot to Kilmarnock, where he would then take a train to Glasgow. His father walked with him for the first six miles of the way. This account could not be more beautifully written than by John G. Paton himself nearly forty years later after this event took place:

“My dear father walked with me the first six miles of the way. His counsels and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene. For the last half mile or so we walked on together in almost unbroken silence,– His lips kept moving in silent prayers for me; and his tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain! We halted on reaching the appointed parting place; he grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly and affectionately said: “God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!”

Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted. I ran off as fast as I could; and, when about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me, I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I had left him–gazing after me…I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as he had given me…it is deep gratitude, which makes me here testify that the memory of that scene not only helped to keep me pure from the prevailing sins, but also stimulated me in all my studies, that I might not fall short of his hopes, and in all my Christian duties, that I might faithfully follow his shining example.” (p. 40-43)

The Beginning of a Fruitful Ministry

Upon arriving in Glasgow, John busied himself by attending seminary classes. However, before the first year was complete, his health broke down due to the grueling work, and he had to journey home to recover.

Shortly upon returning to Glasgow, he enrolled in college. Before the semester was over, he ran out of money and could not pay his tuition. He was nearly torn with grief to give up his career and seek outside work, and almost sold his books so that he could stay, but he could not make himself give up so easily.

Through a series of events, knowing that it was only the Lord who could have guided his steps, he found an advertisement for a position as a teacher at Maryhill Free Church School and immediately secured the job.

John was warned that the school was a wreck and that the students who attended evening classes were notorious for getting into trouble. He arrived early the next morning and was given a cane whereupon he was encouraged to use it frequently. He, however, only used the cane once, and that was his last resource. Although the following weeks were extremely difficult, young Paton made it known to the school and his students that he wanted to bring order and obedience by love and not terror. This brought a great transformation to the school which caused it to flourish and grow.

After teaching for a season, John launched his career as a city missionary in the lower end of Glasgow, which was unoccupied by any minister. He also carried on his theological studies at the University of Glasgow and the Reformed Presbyterian Divinity Hall and began taking medical classes at Andersonian College.

John G. Paton realized that going overseas would not automatically turn him into a missionary, and that to be a missionary means to win lost souls for Christ. Thus, for the next ten years, John faithfully sought the lost souls around him and studied the Word of God. Within those years, many within what seemed at first glance a hopeless division came to Christ, and John Paton had a fruitful ministry that would prepare him for the years to come.

Wailing in the South Seas

While pursuing his missionary career in Scotland, John kept hearing the wailing of the perishing heathen in the South Seas. For the past two years, the church he had been attending and was a member of had been advertising for a missionary to go to the New Hebrides to join a Rev. John Inglis in his work among the natives, yet no missionary was to be found.

At the age of thirty-two, John Paton’s heart was burdened for the people living in the South Seas because he saw that few were caring for them. He knew that many in Glasgow would be ready to take up his mission work in the district, yet he told no one what was on his heart, and for days he sought the Lord’s will.

“The Lord kept saying within me, ‘Since none better qualified can be got, rise and offer yourself!’” (p. 86-87)

John was afraid that he mistaking his own emotions for the will of God by going overseas as a missionary. Yet when he thought about how the people he worked with now had Bibles, and the people in the South Seas did not, he came to the conclusion that this was the Lord’s will for his life.

“I saw them perishing for lack of the knowledge of the true God and His Son Jesus, while my Green Street people had the open Bible, and all means of grace within easy reach, which, if they rejected, they did so willfully, and at their own peril.” (p. 87)

When Paton offered himself for this service, Dr. Bates, secretary of the Heathen Missions Committee, cried for joy. They had almost given up all hope of there ever being any missionaries sent out to the pagan world, since nineteen years earlier, on November 30, 1839, John Williams and James Harris, two missionaries, were martyred and eaten by cannibals in the South Seas. The task of reaching these people was a dangerous undertaking, yet the church in Scotland knew that these people were responsive to the gospel, as only a few years later after the missionaries deaths, one of the murderer’s sons was building a church and the other was preaching the gospel.

“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.”

– John G. Paton

Facing Criticism

John Paton was scrutinized by many for leaving a fruitful ministry in Glasgow and moving overseas to bring the gospel to the unreached. This caused anxiety and drove him close to God in prayer. However, one respected elder exclaimed,

“You will be eaten by cannibals!”

To which 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.”

While it seemed that everyone was against him, John’s parents remained supportive the entire time. This encouraged him to remain faithful and obedient to the calling He had received from the Lord, especially after receiving a letter that was written to him by his parents:

“Heretofore we feared to bias you, but now we must tell you why we praise God for the decision to which you have been led. Your father’s heart was set upon being a Minister, but other claims forced him to give it up. When you were given to them, your father and mother laid you upon the altar, their first-born, to be consecrated, if God saw fit, as a Missionary of the Cross; and it has been their constant prayer that you might be prepared, qualified, and led to this very decision; and we pray with all our heart that the Lord may accept your offering, long spare you, and give you many souls from the Heathen World for your hire.” (p. 57)

In response, John wrote,

“From the moment, every doubt as to my path of duty forever vanished. I saw the hand of God very visibly, not only preparing me before, but now leading me to, the Foreign Mission field.”

That sense of duty and calling produced in him undaunted courage that would never look back again.

Setting Sail for the New Hebrides

John Paton was ordained by the Reformed Presbyterian Church on March 23, 1858.

On April 2, John G. Paton married Mary Ann Robson. Fourteen days later, they set sail together to the mission station on Aneityum, an island near Vanuatu, which they reached on August 30. The pair were soon sent on to establish a new station on the island of Tanna, the natives of which were then entirely untouched by Western civilization, except by sandalwood traders.

Thus, the young Scotchman and his wife were the first white residents on an island full of naked and painted wildmen–cannibals–who had no idea of right or wrong, worshipping and fearing numerous gods, living in a continual dread of evil spirits, constantly fighting among themselves, and always eating the bodies of the slain. They had little regard of the value of even their own lives and lacked any sense of mutual kindness and obligation towards others.

Such was the task set in front of Paton and his wife who hoped to bring the knowledge of the gospel to these people.

During this time, John G. Paton wrote:

“On beholding these natives in their paint and nakedness and misery, my heart was as full of horror as of pity. Had I given up my much-beloved work and my dear people in Glasgow, with so many delightful associates, to consecrate my life to these degraded creatures? Was it possible to teach them right and wrong, to Christianize or even to civilize them? But that was only a passing feeling. I soon got as deeply interested in them, and all that tended to advance them, and to lead them to the knowledge of Jesus, as ever I had been in my work in Glasgow.”

On February 12, 1859, John and Mary had a son, whom they named Peter Robert Robson. However, on March 3, Mary Paton died of a sudden attack of pneumonia and was later followed by their baby boy on March 20th. Unaided and alone, John buried his beloved wife and their infant son with his own hands, covering their graves with beautiful white coral. That place was his most frequented spot whereupon he prayed and claimed for God the land in which he buried his dead with faith and hope that his labor there was not in vain.

“Feeling immovably assured that my God and father was too wise and loving to err in anything that he does or permits, I looked up to the Lord for help, and struggled on in His work.”

After grieving for his wife and child, Paton began to work hard for the next four years to proclaim the gospel to the island natives. He was in constant fear for his life, yet over and over his faith sustained him in the most threatening and frightening situations. While there was a missionary on the other side of the island, John was inaccessible and alone to persuade the Tannese towards Christ as he moved from one savage crisis to the next.

Working Among the Cannibals

Over the next four years on Tanna, John encountered some hair-raising episodes. He himself was attacked fourteen times with severe fever and ague, leaving him weak. He had to be constantly on guard, usually sleeping with his clothes on, never knowing when his house would be surrounded or ambushed next.

John Paton knew that Jesus had promised suffering and martyrdom to some of his servants (Luke 11:49; 21:12–18). Thus, John’s courage came through prayer in claiming the promises of God, having peace in even the most terrifying circumstances, such as when he ran in the middle of contending parties in order to prevent war or was surrounded by armed natives. Often he calmly confronted the natives on their behavior towards him and contrasting it with his conduct towards them. Paton’s faith and assurance in the Lord during many of these situations kept him thriving on the mission field.

“I assured them that I was not afraid to die, for at death my Savior would take me to be with Himself in Heaven, and to be far happier than I had ever been on Earth…In Jesus I felt invulnerable and immortal, so long as I was doing his work…I then lifted up my hands and eyes to the Heavens, and prayed aloud for Jesus…either to protect me or to take me home to Glory as He saw to be for the best.”

In his extremity, J. G. Paton threw himself upon the promise of Matthew 28:20, and through the eventful years that followed, the text was his constant companion. He faced death in a hundred forms, yet his faith remained firm.

“During the crisis, I felt calm and firm of soul, standing erect and with my whole weight on the promise, ‘Lo, I am with you alway.’ Precious promise! How often I adore Jesus for it and rejoice in it! Blessed be His name.”

In addition, the natives were not receptive to the gospel save for one chief, who often warned John when angry tribesmen were on their way to kill him. John writes of one story when this chief, Nowar, came to him in the middle of one night and told Paton to climb up in a large chestnut tree. John later writes about his experience in his autobiography.

“Being entirely at the mercy of such doubtful and vacillating friends, I, though perplexed, felt it best to obey. I climbed into the tree and was left there alone in the bush. The hours I spent there live all before me as if it were but of yesterday. I heard the frequent discharging of muskets, and the yells of the Savages. Yet I sat there among the branches, as safe as in the arms of Jesus. Never, in all my sorrows, did my Lord draw nearer to me, and speak more soothingly in my soul, than when the moonlight flickered among those chestnut leaves, and the night air played on my throbbing brow, as I told all my heart to Jesus. Alone, yet not alone! If it be to glorify my God, I will not grudge to spend many nights alone in such a tree, to feel again my Savior’s spiritual presence, to enjoy His consoling fellowship. If thus thrown back upon your own soul, alone, all alone, in the midnight, in the bush, in the very embrace of death itself, have you a Friend that will not fail you then?”

After four years on Tanna, John was forced to leave the island because the natives had redoubled their attacks. As John and his trustworthy Aneityumese believer friend, Abraham, were about to make it off the island, they were surrounded by raging natives who kept urging each other to strike the first blow. He writes,

“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 I was immortal till my Master’s work with me was done. The assurance came to me, as if a voice out of Heaven had spoken, that not a musket would be fired to wound us, not a club prevail to strike us, not a spear leave the hand in which it was held vibrating to be thrown, not an arrow leave the bow, or a killing stone the fingers, without the permission of Jesus Christ, whose is all power in Heaven and on Earth. He rules all Nature, animate and inanimate, and restrains even the Savage of the South Seas.”

In the end, through a series of breathtaking events, John and the other missionaries were rescued by a mission ship in 1862. John lost all of his property except his Bible and some translation work that he had done in the island language.

When Christians in Scotland heard that John had left the island, he was criticized for leaving the field even after much opposition and 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.”

Later Ministry

From Australia, Paton went to Scotland. He went straight to work on pleading the cause for missions and raising funds. In was also during this time that the idea of a mission ship began to take root in Paton’s mind for spreading the gospel among the unreached. Despite all that he had gone through on Tanna, John G. Paton still felt called to reach the people of the South Sea Islands.

In 1864, two years after his missionary career on Tanna, John Paton married Margaret Whitecross, a woman of great piety and strong character, who assisted her husband up to her death on May 16, 1905. They had two daughters and eight sons. One daughter and two sons died in infancy, and one son died at age 2 1/2. Later, two sons became missionaries in the New Hebrides, and one daughter married a missionary there.

In 1866, John and his wife settle on Aniwa, a small island near Tanna. Nowar, the friendly chief who had often warned John of danger, urged John to come back to his island. However, seeing that this was impossible, Nowar took from his arm the white shells, the insignia of chieftainship, and bound them to the arm of a visiting Aniwan chief, saying,

“By these you promise to protect my missionary and his wife and child on Aniwa. Let no evil befall them, or by this pledge I and my people will avenge it.”

This act of the old chief did much to ensure the future safety of Paton and his family.

Upon arriving on the island, John went about the usual business of purchasing a plot of land and building a house. He and his family were received by the Aniwan people with much more welcoming arms than the former Tannese natives.

In building the house, an incident occurred which afterward proved of great benefit to Paton. One day, having need of some nails and tools, he picked up a woodchip and wrote a few words on it. Handing it to an old chief, he told him to take it to Mrs. Paton. When the chief saw her look at the chip and then get the things needed, he was filled with amazement. From that time on, the chief took great interest in the work of the mission, and when the Bible was being translated into the Aniwa language he proved to be an invaluable aid.

John also helped treat the Aniwan’s with proper medicine for their illnesses and dug a well in the middle of the island so that the people could have fresh water. At first, the people thought he was crazy, but when they saw that it was indeed fresh water and that their friend had not fallen into the sea by digging into the island, an old chief exclaimed:

“Missi, what can we do to help you now?”

This was the beginning of a new era on Aniwa that helped John gain trust with the people. The following Sunday the chief preached a sermon on the well. In the days that followed multitudes of natives brought their idols to the mission, where they were destroyed. Henceforth Christianity gained a permanent foothold on the island.

Christianity on Aniwa

The first convert on Aniwa was the chief Mamokei. He often came to drink tea with the missionary family, and afterward brought with him chief Naswai and his wife. All three were soon converted. Mamokei brought his little daughter to be educated in the mission. Many orphan children were also put under their care, and often these little children warned them of plots against their lives.

In the next fifteen years, John and Margaret Paton saw the entire island of Aniwa turn to Christ. Years later he wrote,

“I claimed Aniwa for Jesus, and by the grace of God Aniwa now worships at the Savior’s feet.”

Paton admitted that at times his heart wavered as he wondered whether these people could be brought to the feet of Jesus and realize their need for Him their lives. But, he took heart from the power of the gospel and from the fact that thousands on Aneityum had come to Christ.

John G. Paton built orphanages and eventually used them to train young people for Jesus. His wife taught a class of about fifty women and girls, and they became experts at sewing, singing and weaving hats, and reading. Together they also trained teachers, translated and printed the Scriptures, ministered to the sick and dying, dispensed medicines every day, taught the people the use of tools, and held worship services every Lord’s Day while sending native teachers to all the villages to preach the gospel.

In 1884, John returned to Scotland to secure £6,000 for a mission ship. He succeeded in getting not only the £6,000 required but £3,000 beyond what he needed. He returned to Aniwa in 1886 and continued his work. However, on January 6, 1873, the mission ship, called the Dayspring, was wrecked upon a reef. This was a great loss to Paton, who had dreamed of reaching other islands and spreading the gospel by means of the ship in the future.

When John was seventy-three years old, he continued to travel around the world for 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. To the day of his death, he was translating hymns and catechisms and creating a dictionary for his people even when he couldn’t be with them anymore.

Near the end of his life, John wrote about the joy that carried him through his ministry and about his hope that his own children would undertake the same mission and find the same joy:

“Let me record my immovable conviction that this is the noblest service in which any human being, can spend or be spent; and that, if God gave me back my life to be lived over again, I would without one quiver of hesitation lay it on the altar to Christ, that He might use it as before in similar ministries of love, especially amongst those who have never yet heard the Name of Jesus. Nothing that has been endured, and nothing that can now befall me, makes me tremble — on the contrary, I deeply rejoice — when I breathe the prayer that it may please the blessed Lord to turn the hearts of all my children to the Mission Field and that He may open up their way and make it their pride and joy to live and die in carrying Jesus and His Gospel into the heart of the Heathen World!”

John Paton lived to be eighty-three, and the Lord’s promise never failed him. His last years were mainly spent in Melbourne, Australia. He died there on 28 January 1907 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery.

John G. Paton’s Legacy

In this attempt to sketch out the life of John G. Paton, I have only given a brief account of the work done by this great missionary. If I would have written anymore, I could have published a book.

However, that is not needed since during his years of labor on the islands Paton kept a journal and notebooks and letters from which he wrote his Autobiography in three parts from 1887 to 1898. The book owes much of its literary skill to John’s brother, Rev. James Paton, who encouraged John to write his story. You can read the book here: John G. Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides. An Autobiography.

No adequate idea can be given of John’s untiring zeal, his forgetfulness of self, and his simple faith in God. It is probable that no one has ever visited America in the interest of foreign missions who has made so deep an impression of the triumphs of the gospel among vicious and degraded peoples as has the eminent missionary.

John began his Autobiography with the words, “What I write here is for the glory of God.” That is true. God gets the glory when His Son, Jesus, is lifted high, and Jesus is exalted when we love Him above all things. That is what this story is about.

I will end with this quote from John G. Paton himself, which tells of how the peace of God kept John’s heart strong during those days of deadly danger. He writes,

“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!”

May we have that same peace and confidence knowing that our life is held in the hand of our Creator, and that we can rest in Him until He is content to be finished with our work here on earth.

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