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Immortal Till His Work Was Done

John Paton (1824–1907)

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

When John and Margaret Paton landed on the New Hebrides island of Aniwa in November 1866, they saw the destitution of the islanders. The native people were cannibals and occasionally ate the flesh of their defeated foes. They practiced infanticide and widow sacrifice, killing the widows of deceased men so they could serve their husbands in the next world. “Their whole worship was one of slavish fear,” Paton wrote. “So far as ever I could learn, they had no idea of a God of mercy or grace” (Autobiography, 72).

In the next fifteen years, the Patons saw the entire island of Aniwa turn to Christ. Years later, Paton would write, “I claimed Aniwa for Jesus, and by the grace of God Aniwa now worships at the Savior’s feet” (Autobiography, 312). When he was 73 years old and traveling around the world trumpeting 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 (Apostle to the New Hebrides, 238). Even to his death, he was translating hymns and catechisms and creating a dictionary for his people even when he couldn’t be with them anymore.

The sacrifices and the legacy of the missionaries to the New Hebrides are stunning, and John Paton stands out as one of the great ones. In telling his story, we will focus on one of the most inspiring aspects of his character: his courage.

Cannibals and Criticism

Paton had courage to overcome the criticism he received from respected elders for going to the New Hebrides. A certain Mr. Dickson exploded, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!” But to this 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. (Autobiography, 56)

This is the kind of in-your-face spiritual moxie that would mark Paton’s whole life. It’s a big part of what makes his story so invigorating.

Dreadful Loss

Paton originally arrived in the New Hebrides on November 5, 1858, when his first wife, Mary, was pregnant. The baby was born February 12, 1859. “Our island-exile thrilled with joy! But the greatest of sorrows was treading hard upon the heels of that great joy!” (Autobiography, 79). Mary had repeated attacks of ague, fever, pneumonia, and diarrhea with delirium for two weeks.

Then in a moment, altogether unexpectedly, she died on March third. To crown my sorrows, and complete my loneliness, the dear baby-boy, whom we had named after her father, Peter Robert Robson, was taken from me after one week’s sickness, on the 20th of March. Let those who have ever passed through any similar darkness as of midnight feel for me; as for all others, it would be more than vain to try to paint my sorrows! (Autobiography, 79)

He dug the two graves with his own hands and buried them by the house he had built.

Stunned by that dreadful loss, in entering upon this field of labor to which the Lord had Himself so evidently led me, my reason seemed for a time almost to give way. The ever-merciful Lord sustained me. . . . But for Jesus, and the fellowship he vouchsafed to me there, I must have gone mad and died beside the lonely grave! (Autobiography, 80)

The courage to risk the loss was remarkable. But the courage to experience the loss and press on alone was supernatural.

Mortal Enemies

The most common demand for courage was the almost constant threat to Paton’s life from the hostilities of the natives. This is what makes his Autobiography read like a thriller. In his first four years in the New Hebrides, when he was all alone, he moved from one savage crisis to the next. One wonders how his mind kept from snapping, as he never knew when his house would be surrounded with angry natives or whether he would be ambushed along the way.

One of the most remarkable things about Paton’s dealing with danger is the gutsy forthrightness with which he spoke to his assailants. He often rebuked them to their faces and scolded them for their bad behavior even as they held the axe over his head.

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 towards them. . . . 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.” (Autobiography, 115)

As his courage increased and his deliverances were multiplied, he would make it his aim to keep warring factions separated, and he would throw himself between them and argue for peace. “Going amongst them every day, I did my utmost to stop hostilities, setting the evils of war before them, and pleading with the leading men to renounce it” (Autobiography, 139).

The list could go on as to how Paton displayed courage through his decades on the mission field. But we turn to the question, Where did this courage come from? The answer Paton would want us to give is that it came from God. But he would also want us to see what precious means God used and, if possible, apply them to ourselves and our situations.

God of Sovereign Goodness

Just months after arriving on the field, Paton wrote over his wife’s and child’s grave: “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” (Autobiography, 85).

Over and over this faith sustained him in the most threatening and frightening situations. As he was trying to escape from Tanna, another island of the New Hebrides, at the end of four years of dangers, he and his native friend Abraham were surrounded by raging natives who kept urging each other to strike the first blow.

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. (Autobiography, 207)

After getting away with his life and losing everything that he had on earth (“my little earthly All”), instead of despairing or pouting or being paralyzed with self-pity, he moved forward expecting to see God’s good purpose in time — which he saw in the ministry that opened to him, first of missions mobilization and then of work on Aniwa.

Prayer That Claims God’s Promises

The prayer that made all the difference was the kind that submitted to God’s sovereign wisdom. How do you claim the promises of God for protection when your wife was equally faithful but, rather than being protected, died? How do you bank on God’s care when the Gordons, missionaries on another island, were equally trusting in God’s care and were martyred? Paton had learned the answer to this question from listening to his mother pray, even before he learned the theology that supports it.

When the potato crop failed in Scotland, Mrs. Paton said to her children, “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” (Autobiography, 22). This is what Paton trusted God for in claiming the promises: God would supply all his needs insofar as this would be for Paton’s good and for God’s glory.

His courage, when he was surrounded by armed natives, came through a kind of praying that claimed the promises under the overarching submission to God’s wisdom as to what would work most for God’s glory and his good.

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. 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. (Autobiography, 164)

That was how he prayed again and again: “Protect me or . . . take me home to Glory as you see to be for the best.” He knew that Jesus had promised suffering and martyrdom to some of his servants (Luke 11:49; 21:12–18). So the promises he claimed were both: either protect me, or take me home in a way that will glorify you and do good for others.

A Friend Who Will Not Fail

Where did the joy of John Paton most deeply repose? The answer, it seems, is that it rested most deeply in the experience of personal communion with Jesus Christ mediated through the promise, “Behold, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).

The power this promise had to make Christ real to Paton in hours of crisis was unlike any other Scripture or prayer: “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” (Autobiography, 117).

One of the most powerful paragraphs in his Autobiography describes his experience of hiding in a tree, at the mercy of an unreliable chief, as hundreds of angry natives hunted him for his life. What he experienced there was the deepest source of Paton’s joy and courage.

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. (Autobiography, 200)

Paton leaves us with a question: “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?”