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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: John Paton

Looking Back

Friday May 20 2014

Looking Back: John G Paton

An account of the life of the South Seas Missionary, published in May 1924 on the centenary of his birth.

Picture of John G Paton, taken from his autobiography



By the Rev. N. Macleod Caie

What David Livingstone was to Africa John G Paton was to the South Seas, a stately and picturesque figure and a missionary hero in the truest sense of the term, Paton toiled for upwards of forty years with amazing courage and endless self-sacrifice among the far-distant New Hebrides; and the comparative civilisation and the numerous evidences of Christianisation which are manifest throughout the thirty islands forming his Parish are the result of his prolonged and devoted labour.

John G Paton was born in a cottage on the farm of Braehead, in the Dumfriesshire parish of Kirkmahoe, on May 24th, 1824. His Autobiography records in most readable form many of his early struggles to gain an education and equipment for missionary work. From his home – which, he tells us, consisted of a “but,” a “ben,” and a “mid-room” – he bravely set out to walk to Glasgow, and was employed for a time as an agent of Glasgow City Mission, at the salary of £40 per annum. Meantime, he studied at the University and at the Reformed Presbyterian Divinity Hall; and in spite of some opposition from his friends, he decided to offer himself for foreign missionary service.

It was in 1858 that he sailed from Greenock for the New Hebrides, and four months and fourteen days later, under a tropical sun, he landed at Aneityum and began his great work. He made wonderful progress, and his noble character left everywhere a deep impression upon the people of the islands.

Some idea of the success which crowned his labours may be gathered from the reports he was able to give, when he returned home in 1900 and toured the British-speaking world in the interests of his beloved islanders. There were then nearly 20,000 converts, 300 churches with schools, and 300 native preachers and teachers. These last were superintended by twenty-five trained and educated Btisih missionaries and five British lay-helpers. To the suggestion that some of his converts might be what are called in India “Bazaar Christians” – Christians who are only out to get what they can from the missionaries – Dr. Paton indignantly replied that the native Christians of the New Hebrides were even more sincere than we are ourselves.

Missionary work in the New Hebrides was beset by constant perils for Dr. Paton, and at least forty attempts were made on his life. Scarcely an island in his great parish lacks its lowly grave, the mute memorial of some missionary’s wife husband, or child, who fell in the long fight. During the first twenty years of Paton’s residence, no less than seven missionaries were martyred, among whom was Bishop Coleridge Patteson.

Dr. Paton emerged, however, unscathed, and making Melbourne his headquarters, he continued to labour for his beloved islanders by lecturing and letter-writing, until his death at a venerable age. Of Robert Louis Stevenson’s words, written from Samoa, the result of John G. Paton’s labours forms an eloquent illustration: “I suppose I am in the position of many other persons. I had conceived a great prejudice against Missions in the South Seas. And I had no sooner come there than that prejudice was first reduced and then annihilated. Those who deblatterate against Missions have only one thing to do – to come and see them on the spot.”

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