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John Paton- King of the cannibals

January 2007 | by Jim Cromarty

John Gibson Paton was born on 24 May 1824 to Christian parents, James and Janet Gibson who lived at Dumfries, Scotland.
The day he was born his parents had made a solemn covenant to freely give him back to the Lord they loved and served.

The Patons belonged to Dumfries Reformed Presbyterian Church which they faithfully attended – even after a move to Torthorwald that meant a four mile walk each way every Lord’s Day.

Morning and evening, James gathered his family for worship. The Scriptures were read, psalms sung, and prayer made for the blessings of God to be poured out upon the family. Daily he would shut the door to his bedroom and pray. The family frequently heard him pleading with God that the children might become faithful citizens of the Kingdom of Christ.

Answered prayer

Early in life John learnt that his parents’ God hears the prayers of his people. On one occasion the school teacher, who knew John needed clothes, called with a new suit for him while the family were at prayer.

He slipped the parcel through the door and went away. At school next day John told him of God’s miracle during family worship. The teacher quietly replied, ‘John, whenever you need anything, God will send an answer to your prayers’.

On another occasion their mother found the flour barrel empty. The children went to bed hungry but they heard their mother cry out to God for help. The next morning a carrier arrived with a sack of potatoes, a bag of flour and a round of home made cheese (all from their grandfather).

As the children gathered for breakfast, their mother said, ‘O my children, love your heavenly Father. Tell him in faith and prayer all your needs and he will supply all your wants so far as it shall be for your good and his glory’.

Cannibals or worms

John attended school but later returned home to work in the family stocking factory. He loved his Lord and prayed for the day when he would serve God on the mission field. He declined a seven year contract with a company surveying Scotland, knowing that God might call him to leave for distant shores at any time.

He taught at a school for young adults before becoming a home missionary with the Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church. He taught Bible classes, catechism groups, gave singing lessons, distributed tracts and preached Christ in the streets. He suffered much opposition from the godless and members of the Roman Catholic community.

During this ten year period he studied medicine and divinity in his spare time. Eventually, following a stirring address by Rev. John Inglis at the church synod, he felt called of God to missionary service in the New Hebrides.

Some who saw the value of his work in Glasgow urged him to stay at home and not risk being eaten by the cannibals. To one kindly old man who told him he would end up as a meal for the heathens, he replied gently, ‘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 worms [i.e. in the grave]; and in the Great Day, my resurrection body will be as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer’.

Driven out

John and his friend Joseph Copeland were ordained and set apart for missionary service in the New Hebrides. With a new wife, Mary, he sailed for Australia and then to the New Hebrides. The island of Tanna was to be their sphere of service – where the cannibals were known for their violence and cruelty.

John and Mary soon discovered that they were unwelcome visitors. One war chief, Miaki, aimed to rid the island of foreigners, including missionaries.

Soon after their arrival on Tanna, Mary gave birth to a son – but within weeks first she and then little Peter died. John was distressed, but found his peace in the God he served.

Ably assisted by Abraham, a Christian native, John preached the gospel and worked with the islanders, who nevertheless continued in their old ways of war and violence.

They stole his property and continued to treat their womenfolk with utmost cruelty. On one occasion several women were killed and eaten to warn the other tribeswomen to toe the line and do what was demanded of them.
Despite the arrival and gunfire of several British ships, John and several other missionaries were finally driven from the island.

Return to Tanna

John travelled widely in Australia informing churches of the needs of the New Hebrides. He received donations sufficient to build the ‘Dayspring’, a sailing ship much needed by the mission.

Eventually the Presbyterian Church in the Australian colonies adopted John as their own missionary. He undertook a preaching and deputation trip to Scotland which concluded in 1864 when he returned to Australia with a new bride, Margaret.

A British warship accompanied him to Tanna. The captain had been ordered to warn the natives that they should treat British subjects with respect. While John opposed the action, one native village was destroyed by gunfire and several natives were killed when a shell they were examining exploded. This was a warning to the inhabitants of Tanna that Queen Victoria would take vengeance on any people who ill-treated her subjects.

In 1866 he and Margaret found themselves on the island of Aniwa. While John and Margaret found life precarious, the natives here listened to the good news of Jehovah and his Son, the Lord Jesus.

The God who opened the well

John and Margaret built a home and made good use of a printing press, but again there were no conversions until John one day announced that he was going to dig a well to obtain fresh water.

The natives were horrified. They were sure the sides would cave in, killing John – which would result in the visit of a British warship to revenge his death. Anyway, they knew that rain didn’t come out of the ground!

John dug on, and after much prayer announced that he would find drinking water the next day. When this happened, Chief Namakei knew in his heart that John’s God was all John claimed him to be.

On the Lord’s Day after the well had filled with water the Chief addressed his people: ‘We have laughed at other things which the Missi [missionary] told us, because we could not see them. But from this day I believe that all he tells us about his Jehovah God is true. Some day our eyes will see it.

‘For today we have seen rain from the earth … From this day, my people, I must worship the God who has opened for us the well, and fills us with rain from below. The gods of Aniwa cannot hear, cannot help us, like the God of Missi. Henceforth I am a follower of Jehovah God’.

The grace of God in action

Years later, faithful Namakei was dying. As he held John Paton’s hand he said, ‘O my Missi, my dear Missi, I go before you, but I will meet you again in the home of Jesus. Farewell’.

And so the old Christian Chief died. He was a converted cannibal, who became a lover of Christ. John and Margaret saw the grace of God in action when almost every islander was won to Christ.

John frequently spoke of God’s grace in converting the worst of sinners, especially when he sat at the Lord’s Table with men and women who had murdered others and eaten their flesh.

In his latter years, John travelled the world speaking out against the sale of alcohol and guns to the natives – as well as against the terrible trade which forced islanders to work in Queensland and elsewhere as slaves.

King of the cannibals

During a visit to England he was invited to the home of the great C. H. Spurgeon – who introduced John to those assembled as ‘John Paton, the King of the cannibals’.

Looking back over his hard life of service to Christ, Paton said, ‘Oh that I had my life to begin again! I would consecrate it anew to Jesus in seeking the conversion of the remaining cannibals of the New Hebrides. But since that may not be, may he help me to use every moment and every power still left to me to carry forward to the uttermost that beloved work’.

The Patons made their home in Melbourne, where Margaret passed away to be with Christ in 1905, followed by John in 1907. John had longed to return to Tanna to preach Christ again, but this was not to be. However, his son Frank took over where his father left off and spent many years preaching the Lord Jesus to the natives of Tanna.

John Paton devoted his life to the service and glory of Christ. His was a life of prayer, and all he achieved he
attributed to the power of God.

King of the Cannibals – The Story of John G. Paton