This was the phrase echoing in John Gibson Paton’s ears as he prepared to travel to the islands of the New Hebrides (now called Vanuatu) in 1858. Mr Dickson, described as a kind Christian gentleman, was one of many who tried to dissuade Paton from travelling to these islands in the South Pacific Ocean, where in 1839, two missionaries had indeed succumbed to this fate within hours of stepping on to the island. John Paton’s response was, ‘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 honouring 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.’
Why did a stocking maker from Scotland commit so fully to a people with such an opposition to the gospel? In his autobiography, John Paton writes vividly about his experiences living among the people of the New Hebrides, the highs and the lows, his struggles with death, fear and fleeing for his life, but through it all he maintains complete confidence in the God who called him to preach the gospel to this far-away people.
Confidence in the transforming power of the gospel
John Paton and his wife set sail from Scotland and arrived on the island of Tanna in 1858. A great work was already being seen on the nearby island of Aneityum, where many hundreds had already been saved, but nothing had yet been seen among the people of Tanna. In fact, after the cannibalism of 1839, two further missionaries had attempted to bring the gospel to Tanna but had been driven off in fear seven months after arriving. The native chiefs refused to give protection to the Patons, and they frequently witnessed tribal fights, with the cooking and eating of defeated warriors a common sight. Life was cheap, and widows were slaughtered so their spirits could be joined to their husbands’. The people feared and worshipped their spirits in equal measure.
However, despite the evil that he saw and felt all around him, Paton saw in the people a desire to find God. Their word for heaven was ‘aneai’ which was also the name of the highest and most beautiful village on their island. Paton was struck with the fact that they named the best bit of their earth ‘heaven’ and saw in that hope that once he could speak their language and convey the gospel truth to them, he could show them the ‘aneai of the gospel hope and faith’.
Paton had seen how the gospel had transformed the natives of Aneityum. They had no Scriptures in their language, so they determined not to eat their precious crop of arrowroot, but to give it all up to sell. After fifteen years, they had enough to fund the publication of the Aneityumese Bible through the Bible Society. John Paton saw the power of the Word of God to lift these people out of their ‘slavery to evil and up to the feet of God.’ Despite many people doubting that such people could ever truly be saved, he witnessed the powerful changes in their lives. Indeed, some of these native Christians accompanied him in his work on Tanna and were prepared to die for their new-found faith.
Confidence in the face of suffering
Just four months after arriving on Tanna, John’s wife and newborn son succumbed to malaria and died, leaving him alone. The loss of his family weakened him considerably. He wrote, ‘But for Jesus, and the fellowship He vouchsafed me there, I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave.’ However, Paton’s confidence that God would sustain him kept him on the island, despite suffering from regular bouts of malaria himself.
Paton suffered much while on Tanna, his possessions were often stolen, and tribal leaders blamed him for difficulties with the weather and the crops. He wrote, ‘We were ever conscious that our Lord Jesus was near us, and all trials that lead us to cling closer in fellowship with our Saviour are really blessings in disguise.’
Confidence that his life was in God’s hands
Life in Tanna was precarious. On many occasions, warring tribes would come and demand his life. He writes, ‘Life in such circumstances led me to cling very near to the Lord Jesus; I knew not, for one brief hour, when or how an attack might be made and yet, with my trembling hand clasped in the hand once nailed on Calvary, and now swaying the sceptre of the Universe, calmness and peace and resignation abode in my soul.’ As time went on these attacks increased and would sometimes occur daily. Despite this, he remained sure that he was to continue faithfully bringing the gospel to this people. With each danger, he would take time to use the situation to explain something of the Lord, and of God’s desire they should follow him. ‘I left all in His hands and felt immortal till my work was done.’
Confidence to persevere
After learning the language, Paton always took time to speak of the ‘story of the life and death of Jesus Christ.’ One chief came at night to speak with him, out of the sight of his people, but he refused to commit as he did not want his people to laugh at him. Women often came to beg him to intervene and save their lives, as many were murdered, but Paton had little influence over the men of the island. He writes that it was ‘uphill, weary and trying work’ but still he persevered through the dangers. Over time, some attended worship services, but the only converts were natives from Aneityum who had come to live and work in mission stations in Tanna. On occasions, tribal leaders promised to give up their customs and follow God’s ways, but these were but weak professions and hardly real at all.
Eventually, having had all his possessions stolen, witnessed fellow workers die and spending several months running from men certain to kill him, with no gospel fruit John Paton left the island in 1862. It would have been easy for him to return home, but after a little while in Australia, a newly-married Paton returned to another New Hebridean island called Aniwa where during the next fifteen years he witnessed the conversion of the entire island. By 1887, nearly 12,000 people from the New Hebrides islands had been converted.
Although John Paton did not see any fruit during his time on Tanna, his experiences there awoke an interest in the people of the New Hebrides and galvanised many to pray and labour on the islands, the effects of which are still felt there today. John Paton’s story shows that faithful service, even when there is little fruit, is honoured and used by God in a way that cannot always be seen at the time. We can be encouraged by his story and put our confidence in the same God he served.