Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Autobiography by John G Paton

In 1858, a young Scotsman left his beloved family and thriving city mission to travel with his bride to the other side of the world. The cannibal islands of the New Hebrides, known today as Vanuatu, were among the most dangerous missionary destinations in the world: just twenty years prior, in 1839, two missionaries landed on the island of Erromanga had been clubbed to death, cooked, and eaten as soon as they reached the shore. Warned that he would be eaten by cannibals, Paton--with the calm audacity that characterised him--responded that his interlocuter would undoubtedly be one day eaten by worms, and what difference did it make?

The Patons settled on the island of Tanna. Within the first few months, Mrs Paton and their newborn child had died of fever. By the end of four years, the natives had determined to kill their missionary and drive the worship of Jehovah out of their land, blaming Paton for bad weather and illness. On Erromanga, a missionary couple were murdered and natives from that island travelled to Tanna to stir up the natives there to similar deeds. After a year of constant vigilance and many close shaves, Paton finally escaped with his life, in the company of two other missionaries whose health was so ruined by their experiences that they died within months. Paton, however, went to Australia and Scotland to raise support and money for a mission ship, the Dayspring. In 1866, Paton returned to the New Hebrides with his second wife and settled on the smaller island of Aniwa, where in a few years he led the entire population to profess Christianity. They also began to wear clothes, observe the Lord's Day, and entirely cease from killing, strangling, and eating one another.

The Paton grave in Boroondara Cemetary
The name of John G Paton is not often remembered or recognised. Christians who grew up on short popular biographies of David Livingstone, or Mary Slessor, or Hudson Taylor, or occasionally even George Muller or Adoniram Judson, have often never heard of Paton. In recent years, since the reprinting of his once-famous Autobiography by Vision Forum under the title Missionary Patriarch: The True Story of John G Paton, some Americans have made his acquaintance. I, however, heard of him as a young teen when my parents joined the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, of which he was a member for much of his life, and which still keeps an echo of his legacy alive. The PCV Sunday School mission periodical, for instance, was called Dayspringers in his honour, and many years ago I read a child’s biography of Paton, King of the Cannibals, by a local minister, Jim Cromarty.

My interest in Paton was revived when I was involved in organising the Australian Building a God-Centered Family conferences with Scott Brown and Kevin Swanson. We were keen to show these men around some notable historical sights in Melbourne, especially from a Christian perspective. Being a young country, however, Australia has precious few John Knoxes or Alfred the Greats to honour, and we racked our minds in vain. Then I remembered--wasn't John G Paton buried in Melbourne? Sure enough, his grave is in Kew, in the Boroondara cemetary (corner of High Street and Park Hill Road).

Our guests were even more thrilled than we expected, and you can watch their excited speeches at Scott Brown's website here. Suffice it to say that after having witnessed their excitement, and listened to John Piper's excellent talk, You Will Be Eaten By Cannibals! Lessons From the Life of John G Paton I decided I really should buy the autobiography.

It is a magnificent book. Paton writes engagingly and well. His hair-raising adventures--both in the New Hebrides and in the more "civilised" lands of Scotland and Australia--drag you in, often with white-knuckle tension. His later account of the evangelisation and transformation of the Aniwan cannibals is thrilling in a different, more uplifting way. Meanwhile his personality shines through saintly and kind, but uncompromisingly, tenaciously courageous with an added helping of what can only be called cheek. From his short way dealing with bullies as a young schoolmaster to the many occasions on which, having just foiled an attack on his life in the Cannibal Islands, he lay down and enjoyed the sound sleep of the righteous, Paton shows a delightful pluck, or moxie, as John Piper calls it!

John G Paton and family
The book is interesting on many fronts. It is interesting as a yarn of danger and adventure in the South Seas. It is interesting as the life story of a remarkable saint. It is interesting as a snapshot of Christian missions in the mid-1800s. It is interesting because he records his travels through my own country, including studying Aboriginal religious customs, and falling into a bog not far from the home of a friend of mine! Especially in the section dealing with the conversion of Aniwa, it is full of fun and laughter. Still, for many Paton fans, it is the story of his family life as a young man that is most inspiring. John Piper says:
The tribute Paton pays to his godly father is worth the price of the Autobiography, even if you don't read anything else. Maybe it's because I have a daughter and four sons, but I wept as I read this section, it filled me with such longing to be a father like this. 
While this is not the major focus of the book, Paton also left an impressive family legacy behind him. By the end of the Autobiography he mentions a "Mr Frank H L Paton" settled in mission work on Tanna; too modest, perhaps, to mention that this was his third son. Paton had ten children and many grandchildren, most of whom settled in Australia. Among his children and grandchildren are numbered 7 ministers, 4 ministers' wives, 1 Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, missionaries into the second and third generations, 1 or 2 medical doctors, a Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, and an influence reaching from my little rural home town to Canada and Korea.

In the Publisher's Introduction to my beautiful Vision Forum hardcover edition of John G Paton's Autobiography, it is called "the greatest missionary story ever written." I could not say whether this is true. But it's the best I have ever read.

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