To “Live and Die Serving and Honoring the Lord Jesus”: Missionary John G. Paton

John G. PatonJohn G. Paton (1824-1907) served as a missionary in the South Pacific’s New Hebrides islands. Less than twenty-five years earlier, natives clubbed to death the first two missionaries to visit the island, just fifteen minutes after they landed on the beach. The natives then cooked and ate the murdered men in sight of the ship that brought them there. No one dared return to the islands, until Paton did. His first weeks there, illness took his young wife; one week later, their infant died. He suffered intensely. But note Paton’s perspective as he looked back on this years later:

Oftentimes, while passing through the perils and defeats of my first years in the Mission field on Tanna, I wondered, and perhaps the reader hereof has wondered, why God permitted such things. But on looking back now, I already clearly perceive... that the Lord was thereby preparing me for doing... the best work of all my life: the kindling of the heart of Australian Presbyterianism with a living affection for these Islanders of their own Southern Seas... and in being the instrument under God of sending out missionary after missionary to the New Hebrides, to claim another island and still another for Jesus. That work, and all that may spring from it in time and Eternity, never could have been accomplished by me, but for first the sufferings and then the story of my Tanna enterprise! [1]

Because of Paton’s story, nearly one in six Presbyterian ministers in Australia left to serve God as missionaries. Only in eternity will we know the full effect of his sufferings.

Years earlier, as a successful young Scottish preacher, Paton determined to leave Glasgow to minister to this unreached people group. But most of his Christian friends urged him to do something more sensible with his life. Paton wrote,

Amongst many who sought to deter me, was one dear old Christian gentleman, whose crowning argument always was, “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 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 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. [2]

Paton suffered much in his forty-three years in the New Hebrides, where he buried his wife and child, and endured grave illnesses, shipwreck, the betrayal of friends and some converts, and grief over martyred co-workers. On the other hand, John Paton lived to see Christ transform an entire culture, and to witness hundreds of missionaries follow behind him.

When he died, Paton could anticipate hearing words that would compensate for every evil and suffering he endured, words spoken by Jesus in Matthew 25:21: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”

[1] John Gibson Paton, John G. Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1898) 359–60.

[2] Paton, John G. Paton, 91.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries