John Paton: A Pioneer Missionary In God’s Keeping
[Editor’s Note: Although we printed portions of the following material in 2012, we are sharing this story again as a reminder of the confidence we can have in the Lord, even in the most difficult of circumstances.]
The following account is taken from the autobiography of John G. Paton, “Pioneering In The New Hebrides.” Dr. Arthur T. Pierson says in his introduction to the book, “This biography is not surpassed for stimulating, inspiring, and helpful narrative, by any existing story of missionary heroism.” Humbly reluctant at first, Paton (born in Scotland in 1824) was finally persuaded to write his autobiography by the conviction that there was much in his experience which the church of God ought to know. He wanted to convey to readers the deep and certain confidence which he had that in God’s hand is our breath, and all our ways (see Daniel 5:23).
The South Seas island on which Paton went to labor in 1858 was Tanna. Many of the inhabitants were cannibalistic natives. During the first four months on the island his young wife and infant son died of the fever. Although stunned by that dreadful loss, Paton continued to minister on Tanna for the next four years. He wrote, “I felt [the] loss beyond all conception or description...but 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.” The following is a brief glimpse of God’s care for the brave missionary laboring to make Him known in the New Hebrides. John G. Paton writes:
One morning at daybreak, I found my house surrounded by armed men, and a chief intimated that they had assembled to take my life. Seeing that I was entirely in their hands, I knelt down and gave myself away body and soul to the Lord Jesus, for what seemed the last time on earth. Rising, I went out to them, and began calmly talking about their unkind treatment of me and contrasting it with all my conduct toward them. I also plainly showed them what would be the sad consequences if they carried out their cruel purpose. At last some of the chiefs who had attended the worship, rose and said, “Our conduct has been bad; but now we will fight for you and kill all those who hate you.”
Grasping hold of their leader, I held him fast until he promised never to kill anyone on my account, for Jesus taught us to love our enemies and always to return good for evil! During this scene, many of the armed men slunk away into the bush, and those who remained entered into a bond to be friendly and to protect us.
But again their Public Assembly resolved that we should be killed, because, as they said, they hated Jehovah and the worship; for it made them afraid to do as they had always done. If I would give up visiting the villages and praying and talking with them about Jehovah, they intimated that they would like me to stay and trade with them, as they like the traders but hated the missionaries. I told them that the hope of being able to teach them the worship of Jehovah alone kept me living amongst them, that I was there, not for gain or pleasure, but because I loved them…and sought their good continually by leading them to know and serve the only true God.
One of the chiefs, who spoke English, replied for all the rest, “Our fathers loved and worshiped whom you call the devil, the evil spirit, and we are determined to do the same, for we love the conduct of our fathers. Missionary Turner came here and tried to break down our worship, but our fathers fought him and he left us. They fought also Peta, the Samoan teacher, and he fled. We killed the last foreigner that lived in Tanna before you came here. We murdered the Aneityumese teachers and burned down their houses.
“After each of these acts, Tanna was good, and we all lived like our fathers.... Now, our people are determined to kill you, if you do not leave this island, for you are changing our customs and destroying our worship, and we hate the Jehovah worship….”
After many such speeches, I answered all the questions of the people fully.... They were willing to remain quiet, and allowed me to talk of spiritual things and of the blessings that the Sabbath and the Bible brought to all other lands, and to conduct in their presence and hearing the worship of Jehovah.
But my enemies seldom slackened their hateful designs against my life, however calmed or baffled for the moment. Within a few days of the above events, when natives in large numbers were assembled at my house, a man furiously rushed on me with his axe, but a Kaserumini chief snatched a spade with which I had been working, and dexterously defended me from instant death.
Life in such circumstances led me to cling very near to the Lord Jesus. I knew not for one brief hour when or how attack might be made. Yet, with my trembling hand clasped in the hand once nailed on Calvary and now swaying the scepter of the universe, calmness and peace and resignation abode in my soul.
Next day, a wild chief followed me about for four hours with his loaded musket, and though often directed toward me, God restrained his hand. I spoke kindly to him, and attended to my work as if he had not been there, fully persuaded that my God had placed me there, and would protect me till my allotted task was finished. Looking up in unceasing prayer to our dear Lord Jesus, I left all in His hands, and felt immortal till my work was done.
Trials and hairbreadth escapes strengthened my faith, and seemed only to nerve me for more to follow; and they did tread swiftly upon each other’s heels. Without that abiding consciousness of the presence and power of my dear Lord and Savior, nothing else in all the world could have preserved me from losing my reason and perishing miserably.
His words, “...Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20), became to me so real that it would not have startled me to behold Him, as Stephen did, gazing down upon the scene. I felt His supporting power, as did Paul, when he cried, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).
It is the sober truth, and it comes back to me sweetly after twenty years, that I had my nearest and dearest glimpses of the face and smile of my blessed Lord in those dread moments when musket, club or spear were being levelled at my life. Oh, the bliss of living and enduring, as “seeing Him who is invisible!” (Heb. 11:27).