Spear-carrying cannibals setting his house afire, an irate chief stalking him for hours with a loaded musket, a native suddenly rising-up from a sickbed and holding him captive with a dagger to his heart—the life of John Paton reads at times like a lurid adventure story, with the hero saved at the last possible moment by his own death-defying heroics.
John Paton was born in 1824 near Dumfries, Scotland, to a humble, God-fearing family of the Reformed Presbyterian tradition. As the eldest of 11 children, he was forced to leave school at age 12 to work alongside his father in the family trade of stocking-making. Young John was influenced by his father’s prayers, which he said could be heard through the thin walls of the family cottage.
In 1857, when Scotland’s Reformed Church issued a plea for missionaries to the South Pacific, John went to his parents seeking advice. He felt the call of God on his life, and his parents confirmed that when they revealed to their son something they had never before disclosed—John had been dedicated to the mission field while he was in his mother’s womb.
John and his wife, Mary, sailed from Scotland, April 16, 1858, landing on the New Hebrides Islands in November. The Patons found themselves surrounded by “naked and painted wild men” who practiced cannibalism, witch doctoring, child sacrifice and idolatry. A few months after their arrival, Mrs. Paton gave birth to a son, but she suffered immediate attacks of fever and pneumonia. Tragically, Mary died three weeks after giving birth. Two weeks after her death, the little boy succumbed to the same sickness, and John Paton dug a second grave beside the little hut he had built upon their arrival.
Paton toiled on alone for the next four years, coming back to the graves of his wife and son whenever he needed comfort. “That spot became my sacred and much-frequented shrine,” he wrote in his autobiography, “during all the following months and years when I labored on for the salvation of the savage Islanders amidst difficulties, dangers, and deaths. But for Jesus, and the fellowship he granted to me there, I must have gone mad and died beside the lonely grave!”
For the first years, Paton had little success reaching the natives for Christ. But, he kept plodding writing, “I realized that my life was immortal until my Master’s work for me was done.” The turning point came when Paton decided to dig a well for the native tribes. The superstitious people were terrified at the thought of bringing “rain from below” and watched with deepest foreboding.
Paton dug until finally after 30 feet, he tapped into a stream of water. Opposition to his mission work ceased, and the wide-eyed primitives gave him their full respect. Chief Mamokei accepted Christ as Savior, then a few others made their commitment to Christ. On Oct. 24, 1869, nearly 11 years after his arrival, Paton led his first communion service. Twelve converted cannibals participated in the Lord’s Supper. Paton wrote, “As I put the bread and wine into those hands once stained with the blood of cannibalism, now stretched out to receive the emblems of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that well nigh broke my heart to pieces.” -DM
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997), October 24.