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John G. Paton's Life Text

by F. W. Boreham

"Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." Matthew 28:20

John PatonI can see him now, as, stately and patriarchal, he walked up the desk-room of the old college to address us. As that impressive and striking figure appeared at the door, every student instinctively sprang to his feet and remained standing till the Grand Old Man was seated. I thought that I had never seen a face more beautiful, a figure more picturesque. A visitant from another world could scarcely have proved more arresting or awe-inspiring. When it was announced that Dr. J. G. Paton, the veteran missionary to the New Hebrides, was coming to address the college, I expected to hear something thrilling and affecting; but, somehow, it did not occur to me that my eyes would be captivated as well. But, when the hero of my dreams appeared, a picture which I shall carry with me to my dying day was added to the gallery which my memory treasures. This was in London many years ago. I little thought that afternoon that the apostolic form before me would one day sleep in an Australian grave, and that my own home would stand within half an hour's journey of his lovely resting-place.

In preparation for the task to which I now address myself, I paid a pilgrimage to the Boroondara Cemetery this afternoon, and read Dr. J. G. Paton's text bravely inscribed upon his tomb. It is not the kind of text that is usually engraved upon such monuments, but it is in every way appropriate to him. 'In his private conversation,' writes his son, the Rev. F.H.L. Paton, M.A., B.D., 'in his private conversation and in his public addresses, my father was constantly quoting the words, Lo, I am with you alway, as the inspiration of his quietness and confidence in time of danger, and of his hope in the face of human impossibilities. So much was this realized by his family that we decided to inscribe that text upon his tomb in the Boroondara Cemetery. It seemed to all of us to sum up the essential element in his faith, and the supreme source of his courage and endurance.'

'Lo, I am with you alway!'
The secret of a quiet heart!
The secret of a gallant spirit!
The secret of a sunny faith!
The text so often on the tongue! The text upon the tomb!
'Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end!'

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The text is the tincture of miracle. Edna Lyall once wrote a novel—We Two—to show the wondrous magic that slumbers in those sacred syllables. We Two is the story of Erica Raeburn. Erica is the daughter of Luke Raeburn, the sceptic; and she has been taught from infancy to despise all holy things. But as life, with its stress and struggle, goes on, she finds that she cannot satisfy her soul with denials and negations. 'At last,' Edna Lyall says, 'Erica's hopelessness, her sheer desperation, drove her to cry to the Possibly Existent.' She stood at the open window of her little room, looking out into the summer night. Before she knew what had happened, she was praying!

'O God,' she cried, 'I have no reason to think that Thou art, except that there is such fearful need of Thee. I can see no single proof in all the world that Thou art here. But if Thou art, O Father, if Thou art, help me to know Thee! Show me what is true!'

A few days later the answer came. Erica was at the British Museum, making some extracts, in the ordinary course of her business, from the Life of Livingstone. All at once she came upon the extract from Livingstone's Journal, in which he speaks of his absolute reliance upon the text, Lo, I am with you alway. 'It is the word,' says Livingstone, 'it is the word of a gentleman of the strictest and most sacred honor, and there's an end of it!' The words profoundly affected Erica. Lo, I am with you alway! They represented, not a Moral Principle, nor a Logical Proposition, but a Living Presence!

'Exactly how it came to her, Erica never knew, nor could she put in words the story of the next few minutes. When God's great sunrise finds us out, we have need of something higher than human speech; there are no words for it. All in a moment, the Christ Who had been to her merely a noble character of ancient history became to her the most real and vital of all living realities. It was like coming into a new world; even dingy Bloomsbury seemed beautiful. Her face was so bright, so like the face of a happy child, that more than one passer-by was startled by it, lifted for a moment from sordid cares into a purer atmosphere.'

All this is in the early part of the book; but even in the last chapter Erica is still rejoicing in her text, and in the deathless treasure which it had so suddenly unfolded to her. God's great sunrise had come to stay.

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God's great sunrise broke upon J. G. Paton amidst the sanctities and simplicities of his Scottish home. He was only a boy when he learned the sublime secret to which the text gives expression, and it was his father who revealed it to him. In a passage that has taken its place among our spiritual classics, he has described the little Dumfriesshire cottage, with its 'but' and its 'ben,' and the tiny apartment in which he used to hear his father at prayer. And whenever the good man issued from that cottage sanctuary, there was a light in his face which, Dr. Paton says, the outside world could never understand; 'but we children knew that it was a reflection of the Divine Presence in which his life was lived.'

And, continuing this touching story, Dr. Paton describes the impression that his father's prayers in that little room made upon his boyish mind. 'Never,' he says, 'in temple or cathedral, on mountain or in glen, can I hope to feel that the Lord God is more near, more visibly walking and talking with men, than under that humble cottage roof of thatch and oaken wattles. Though everything else in religion were by some unthinkable catastrophe to be swept out of memory, my soul would wander back to those early scenes, and would shut itself up once again in that sanctuary closet, and, hearing still the echoes of those cries to God, would hurl back all doubt with the victorious appeal: He walked with God; why may not I?'

Why, indeed? J. G. Paton resolved that his father's religion should be his religion; his father's God his God. He pinned his faith to the sublime assurance on which his father rested with such serenity. During all his adventurous years in the South Seas, he relied implicitly upon it, and, as a result, he says that he felt immortal till his work was done. 'Trials and hairbreadth escapes only strengthened my faith and nerved me for more to follow; and they trod swiftly enough upon each other's heels. Without that abiding consciousness of the presence and power of my Lord and Saviour, nothing in the world could have preserved me from losing my reason and perishing miserably. His words Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end became to me so real that it would not have startled me to behold Him, as Stephen did, gazing down upon the scene. It is the sober truth that I had my nearest and most intimate glimpses of the presence of my Lord in those dread moments when musket, club or spear was being levelled at my life.'

Thus, then, J. G. Paton, as a boy in his Scottish home, learned the unutterable value of the text. Lo, I am with you alway. Thus, too, twenty years later, he went out to his life-work, singing in his soul those golden words.

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He very quickly tested their efficacy and power. It was on the fifth of November, 1858, that the young Scotsman and his wife first landed on Tanna. It was purely a cannibal island in those days, and the white man found his faith in his text severely tried. 'My first impressions,' he tells us, 'drove me to the verge of utter dismay. On beholding the natives in their paint and nakedness and misery, my heart was as full of horror as of pity. Had I given up my much-beloved work, and my dear people in Glasgow, with so many delightful associations, to consecrate my life to these degraded creatures? Was it possible to teach them right and wrong, to Christianize, or even to civilize them?' But this, he goes on to, say, was only a passing feeling. He soon reminded himself that he and his wife were not undertaking the work at their own charges. They were not alone. The transformation of the natives seemed impossible; but his son has already told us that the text often braced him to face the apparently impossible. It did then.

If ever a man seemed lonely, J. G. Paton seemed lonely when, three months later, he had to dig with his own hands a grave for his young wife and his baby boy. In spite of all pleas and remonstrances, Mrs. Paton had insisted on accompanying him, and now, the only white man on the island, he was compelled to lay her to rest on this savage spot. 'Let those,' he says, 'who have ever passed through similar darkness — darkness as of midnight — feel for me; as for all others, it would be more than vain to try to paint my sorrows. I was stunned: my reason seemed almost to give way: I built a wall of coral round the grave, and covered the top with beautiful white coral, broken small as gravel; and that spot became my sacred and much-frequented shrine during all the years that, amidst difficulties, dangers and deaths, I labored for the salvation of these savage islanders. Whenever Tanna turns to the Lord and is won for Christ, men will find the memory of that spot still green. It was there that I claimed for God the land in which I had buried my dead with faith and hope.'

With faith and hope! What faith? What hope? It was the faith and the hope of his text! Lo, I am with you alway! 'I was never altogether forsaken,' he says, in his story of that dreadful time. 'The ever-merciful Lord sustained me to lay the precious dust of my loved ones in the same quiet grave. But for Jesus, and the fellowship He vouchsafed me there, I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave!' A few weeks afterwards, George Augustus Selwyn, the pioneer Bishop of New Zealand, and James Coleridge Patteson, the martyr Bishop of Melanesia, chanced to call at the island. They had met Mrs. Paton — then the picture of perfect health — a few months previously, and were shocked beyond measure to learn the story of the missionary's sorrow. 'Standing with me beside the grave of mother and child,' says Dr. Paton, 'I weeping aloud on his right hand, and Patteson sobbing silently on his left, the good Bishop Selwyn poured out his heart to God amidst sobs and tears, during which he laid his hands on my head and invoked heaven's richest consolations and blessings on me and my trying labors. The virtue of that kind of episcopal consecration I did, and do, most warmly appreciate.' To the end of his days, Dr. Selwyn used to speak of Dr. Paton as one of the bravest and one of the saintliest men he had ever met.

It was thus, at the very outset of his illustrious career, that Dr. Paton discovered the divine dependability of his text.

'Lo, I am with you alway!'
'I was never altogether forsaken!'
'The ever-merciful Lord sustained me!'

'But for Jesus, I must have gone mad and died!'
'Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end!'

In his extremity, J. G. Paton threw himself upon the promise; and the promise held.

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Through the eventful years that followed, the text was his constant companion. He faces death in a hundred forms, but the episode invariably closes with some such record as this:

During the crisis, I felt generally calm and firm of soul, standing erect and with my whole weight on the promise, Lo, I am with you alway. Precious promise! How often I adore Jesus for it and rejoice in it! Blessed be His name!

or this:

I have always felt that His promise, Lo, I am with you alway, is a reality, and that He is with His servants to support and bless them even unto the end of the world.

From many such instances, I cull one as typical of the rest. In 1862, the whole island was convulsed by tribal warfare. In their frenzy the natives threatened to destroy both the mission station and the missionary. Nowar, a friendly chief, urged Dr. Paton to fly into the bush and hide in a large chestnut tree there. 'Climb up into it,' he said, 'and remain till the moon rises.' He did so, and, concealed in that leafy shelter, saw the blacks beating the bushes around in their eager search for himself.

'The hours that I spent in that chestnut tree,' writes Dr. Paton, 'still live before me. I heard the frequent discharge of muskets and the hideous yells of the savages. Yet never, in all my sorrows, did my Lord draw nearer to me. I was alone yet not alone. I would cheerfully spend many nights alone in such a tree to feel again my Saviour's spiritual presence as I felt it that night.'

About the hour of midnight a messenger came to advise him to go down to the beach. 'Pleading for my Lord's continued presence, I could but obey. My life now hung on a very slender thread. But my comfort and joy sprang from the words Lo, I am with you alway. Pleading this promise, I followed my guide.'

The crisis passed. 'I confess,' Dr. Paton says, 'that I often felt my brain reeling, my sight coming and going, and my knees smiting together when thus brought face to face with a violent death. Still, I was never left without hearing that promise coming up through the darkness and the anguish in all its consoling and supporting power: Lo, I am with you alway.'

Some years later, Dr. Paton married again, and settled at Aniwa. But, on a notable occasion, he revisited Tanna. Old Nowar was delighted and begged them to remain.

'We have plenty of food,' he assured Mrs. Paton. 'While I have a yam or a banana, you shall not want.' Mrs. Paton said that she was sure of it.

'We are many!' he cried, pointing to his warriors; 'we are strong; we can always protect you!'

'I am not afraid,' she smilingly replied.

'Then,' says Dr. Paton, 'he led us to that chestnut-tree in the branches of which I had sheltered during that lonely and memorable night when all hope of earthly deliverance had perished, and said to Mrs. Paton, with a manifest touch of genuine emotion, "The God who protected Missi in the tree will always protect you!"'

The Form in the Furnace — the Form that was like unto the Son of God — was seen by Nebuchadnezzar as well as by the Three Hebrew Children. And the Presence of Him who had said Lo, I am with you alway was recognized by the barbarians of Tanna, as well as by Dr. Paton himself. Their sharp eyes soon detected that the white man was never left to his own resources.

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Dr. Paton lived to be eighty-three, and his promise never failed him. Even when he was weakest, Mr. Langridge says, his heart never doubted for a moment, and, whenever any one came to see him, he rejoiced to tell them how unclouded was the peace within, and how intensely real and sustaining he found the promises of God's Word. He used often to say, 'With me there is not a shadow or a cloud: all is perfect peace and joy in believing.' A moment after his last breath had been drawn, the lines of pain were smoothed from his fine face, as by an invisible hand. He had actually gazed upon the Saviour, whose vivid presence had been the radiant reality of his life. God's great sunrise had broken upon him with even richer splendor; and, as the clouds reflect the afterglow of sunset, so his pale face reflected the afterglow of that beatific vision. He was laid to rest next day in the grave that I visited this afternoon; and now every pilgrim to his sepulchre sees his text boldly inscribed upon his tomb.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from A Casket of Cameos, or, More Texts That Made History by F. W. Boreham. Philadelphia: Judson Press, ©1924.

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