31 Days of Inspirational Biography: Margaret Paton, Missionary to Cannibals in the South Sea Islands

Margaret PatonI wrote last year about John Paton, a missionary to the New Hebrides in the 1800s and a great man of God, who is the source of one of my all time favorite missionary quotes. Before he went to the field, some regarded him as foolish for going to minister where there were cannibals. To one man’s warning about his potential fate, he replied, “Mr. Dixon, you are advanced in years 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 my body is eaten by cannibals or by worms.”

Some time ago I happened upon a book titled Margaret Paton: Letters From the South Seas, which, as its name implies, is a collection of letters that John Paton’s wife sent out over the years. The letters were written primarily to family back home, though there are a few to other individuals. They are quite long, but that is because they did not have the opportunity to send and receive mail very often. Since they were written to family, they contain more personal glimpses and anecdotes than a prayer letter to supporters would, and Margaret (or Maggie, as she signs herself) often had an amusing way of telling them. But there were also times of tragedy and perplexity that they experienced, and Maggie’s letters convey the situations and the wrestlings of heart they had in trying to discern the Lord’s will and His grace through every trial.
Rather than trying to summarize the whole book, I just want to give you a few excerpts here and there.

Maggie was John’s second wife: his first wife and son had died of malaria on the island of Tanna. When Maggie first came to the island with John, he pointed out “that Sacred Spot [the grave of his wife and child], so indelibly photographed on his memory. Oh, how I longed to spend a quiet hour by the grave of her whose footsteps I feel so unfit to follow, and who met her trials so unshrinkingly and alone — alone, so far as regards female companionship and sympathy!”

They were going to another island to labor and dropping off fellow missionaries at their respective islands on the way. On one island, “Great crowds of people came to look at us, as I believe we are the first white women who eve landed on Fotuna. The ladies were, in consequence, very curious to have us examined properly; and they went about it in a business-like way, as I can testify from the pokes and thumps received. They always felt themselves at the same time, to see how far we were alike. Poor things, they had yet to learn that we were sisters, resting under the same penalty and equally in need of and entitled to the same Saviour.” Then she mentioned having to “escape” when “their examinations” became “rather too minute.”

One thing that some missionaries struggle with, especially in primitive areas, is whether their living arrangements should be just like the natives or closer to what they are used to. There is no one right answer: it depends on the place, the people, health issues, and the leading of the Lord in each circumstance. The Paton’s home would have been nothing really like European homes, but Maggie writes, “I am trying my best to make it the prettiest and most inviting home I know — as refined, as civilized, and as nearly what we have been accustomed to, as our limited resources will permit. We must not let ourselves ‘down’ because we are among Savages, but try rather to lift them up to our Christian level in all things. One’s home has so much influence on one’s work, and on life and character; and it is due to our two wee boys to make it a bright one…it is no part of my creed to believe that…everything pleasant in sinful.” She then writes that, before she left for the field, one lady told her, “that missionaries’ wives were expected to live and dress in the most primitive way, and to set an example of great gravity and solemnity, else they would get to be talked about.” After wrestling with the “old Adam” in her, Maggie “controlled myself to retort, that in my Bible there was no separate code of rules for missionaries’ wives, any more than for other Christian gentlewomen.” She then wonders “that any one can be blind to the fact that our kind Creator has given us such wealth of beauty in Nature.” He could have made everything just useful, yet He chose to scatter beauty and charm throughout creation. This could probably be a separate post, but it all comes back to balance: I’ve read other stories of missionaries trying to find the right balance. I’m thinking of Isobel Kuhn in particular, who had some nice things from her wedding in her new home in a primitive area of China only to have them ruined by such practices the people then had of blowing their nose in their hands and then wiping them on the (new!) furniture, or letting babies use the bathroom on the beloved rug. She had to learn that though it isn’t wrong to “nest” or have nice things, it’s wrong to let them have priority over people’s souls or the work they were called to. I don’t think Maggie went too far the other way, but I’m just offering the other side of the balance for perspective.

In struggling to learn the language, she writes, “How the Apostles must have appreciated the gift of tongues on the Day of Pentecost! I wonder if it was accorded to their wives as well!” She writes how “provoking” it s to think you’ve mastered enough to converse a little, only to see them “looking at each other wonderingly.” “I got Mr. Paton’s help in any great difficulty — though he did not at all times enjoy the interruption, especially if the point in question turned out to be only about a needle and a thread, while he had been called away” from his work.

To some children who had given toward the Dayspring, the mission ship that transported people and supplies to the islands, she wrote, ”Now, if I tell you how really grateful all the missionaries are to the children who give their money so willingly to keep the Dayspring in nice order, and how the little vessel actually helps to keep the missionaries alive, as well as those so dear to them, by bringing them food and medicine and all they require, I am sure you will not grudge having denied yourselves many little gratifications to help in so important a work.”

There is a section I wish I had space to include answering some who criticize a missionary having a family. “The life of the Christian home is the best treatise on Christianity — a daily object lesson, which all can…’read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.’” She also has a good section answering the comments some make that “ seem to grudge a man of burning enthusiasm and magnetic eloquence going to the foreign field, as if it were so much power and genius being wasted.” She argues convincingly for sending our best to the field.

I’ll forewarn you that there is a bit of perspective that’s not what we would think of as politically correct by today’s standards but I think is probably common for the times.

All of this comes just from the first third of the book! There’s so much more I wish I could include. I hope I’ve inspired you to read it for yourself.

photo 3(2)

For the 31 Days writing challenge, I am sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in the series here.

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

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.)