Wholesome Words Home
Missionary Biographies

James Chalmers: Fiery Missionary of the South Sea Islands

by Galen B. Royer

Born in Ardrishaig, Argyllshire, Scotland, August 4, 1841.
Died a Martyr on Goaribari Island, South Sea Islands, April 8, 1901.

1. Early Years. In these days, when modern missions are a century old and acts of heroism and martyrdom appear so remote, it adds new interest to study the life of one who was killed and eaten by the cannibals so recently as within the present century.

James ChalmersJames Chalmers was the son of an Aberdonian Scotchman, a stonemason by trade, who went to Inveraray to do some work and never returned to his home town again. His mother was a Highlander, born at Luss on Loch Lomond. Besides this son two daughters were born to them. The parents were earnest, simple Christians; the father was faithful at church attendance, or as James in later years put it, "Blow high, blow low, rain or snow, sunshine or storm, all were alike, to church he would go, and I had to go with him." One of his earliest recollections is that of his mother taking him to school the first day and charging the teacher not to spare the rod. James accepted the rod until injustice showed itself, and then he resented; though he was rugged and strong, he was tender and sensitive. Once in anger his teacher whipped him, breaking several canes in the performance. Thirty years after, though a missionary now with large influence, Chalmers, while home, visited the teacher, even though he felt a sting in his heart. The master, now old, had long since discovered his mistake, and spoke his regrets with a quiver in his voice. Chalmers also was touched and turned the conversation to pleasanter things.

Strength, fire and tenderness made Chalmers well fitted for the venturesome life he was called to live. In his youth he was full of boyish pranks and deeds of daring. His home was near the sea, on which he delighted to exploit his fearlessness. He was quick to see danger. When about ten he saved a schoolmate from drowning; a little later he rescued a little child that had fallen into the sea and was being carried away by the current.

2. The Missionary Call. In his early teens, at Sunday-school one afternoon, Mr. Meikle, the pastor, read a letter, printed in a magazine, from a missionary in the Fiji Islands. The letter told of the power of the Gospel over the cannibals; and at the close the reader with tears in his eyes looked over his spectacles and said, "I wonder if there is a boy here this afternoon who will yet become a missionary, and by and by bring the Gospel to the cannibals?" Young Chalmers answered that simple appeal in his own heart, "Yes, God helping me, I will." Near the close of his long walk home that evening he knelt by the roadside and asked God to accept him and make a missionary of him. But, boylike, this sacred influence seems to have worn away, though not wholly lost in his heart; for he became irregular in the Sunday-school and avoided Mr. Meikle, though he loved him. His career in the office of some Inveraray lawyers opened his eyes to many injustices. For, while he was full of pranks, he was blamed for many with which he had nothing to do. During this period of trial and coldness Mr. Meikle and a Mr. Duncan had a strong saving influence over him, for both sought to keep his heart warm towards Jesus. In November, 1859, Chalmers and some other boys attended a revival meeting in the town, with the intent of making trouble. A friend, learning of the purpose, presented Chalmers with a Bible, and urged him to go in the right spirit. The message that night was the Spirit's "Come." Rev. 22:17. Chalmers was pierced at heart and felt lost beyond the hope of salvation. Dear Mr. Meikle the next day dealt gently with the trembling soul and light and joy came and he believed unto salvation.

3. Preparing for Service. Chalmers at once became a Christian worker. He addressed public meetings and conducted cottage meetings in the town. His promise to God to be a missionary now returned, and how to carry it out puzzled him. His parents were poor; his education had been neglected, and there were slender hopes of putting himself through school. Mr. Meikle again came to his help, taught him Latin, and encouraged him to unite with the Glasgow City Mission because it would give him support in his work. Through Dr. Turner, a well known South Sea missionary, who was home and carrying through press an edition of the Samoan Scriptures, he was led to offer his services to the London Missionary Society. After eight months' experience in Glasgow he entered Cheshunt College, worked hard to make up deficiencies in his early education, grew stronger in zeal for missionary service, continued to embarrass the institution with his practical jokes, made no reputation as a scholar, but after all made a very distinct impression of himself on the life of the place. Fellow students spoke of him thus: "He was a real man of God and a tender-hearted Christian disciple"; "What he did, he did with both hands earnestly"; "My most vivid memories of Chalmers are of him on the river, steering a raft or being upset and floundering in the water." His faith was simple, strong and enthusiastic; he was a giant in strength, yet gentle as a child and submissive as a soldier. He was not without faults; for he was too impulsive, strongly prejudiced, and most difficult to remove from an unreasonable position. It was a relief to him to quit college, for his untamable spirit of Christian adventure made him long to get to work. He left Cheshunt and spent nearly a year at Highgate with Rev. George Gill, studying Rarotongan, a language he afterwards used in his missionary labors.

4. Marriage. Miss Jane Hercus, a young woman well fitted to mate the adventuresome life of Chalmers, became his wife on October 17, 1865. He said she was "a whole-hearted missionary." Her companionship made him still more eager for the field. As he learned more and more of redeeming love he longed to spread the news in the darkest corners of the earth. Two days after marriage Chalmers was ordained, and on January 4, 1866, the couple set sail on the second John Williams for their new field of labor.

5. Voyage Incidents. The voyage to Sydney, Australia, was a happy one. His Bible classes and prayer meetings were a great blessing; inquirers for salvation and a great earnestness were the fruits of his labors. But from Sydney on once the boat was injured so that they had to return for repairs; and just before leaving Savage Island it was completely wrecked on the reefs. No lives were lost. Before leaving, the crew of the wrecked boat presented Chalmers with the ship Bible that had been saved; others made up a handsome purse, all an expression of appreciation of his life and labors among them. The last stage of the voyage was made on a 150-ton boat, having for captain "the bully of the Pacific." Under Chalmers' influence he was quiet and reasonable and actually wished that the missionary was with him always.

6. First Impressions. On May 20, 1867, Chalmers and his party landed at Avarua, Rarotonga. He was the first to be carried ashore, and in order that the bearer might call out his name he was asked, "What fellow name belong you?" The answer came, "Chalmers." The native called out, "Tamate," and ever after he was known mostly by that name among the natives. He settled down to the routine of getting the language with a feeling that God was with him. He was a little disappointed to find the island so well Christianized, thus not satisfying his irregular, daring nature, but soon learned there was much corruption of heart among the Christians and great need of work. First he made a strong attack on drunkenness. The relentlessness with which he tried to banish drink soon gave him a reputation for wonderful authority. He would surprise a party of drinkers in the bush, command them to pour their liquor away and then preach Christ to them.

7. Some Triumphs. At Rarotonga was a training institution under Chalmers' supervision. Many of these native students were anxious to bear the light to dark corners, and in order to extend the farthest good he started a monthly newspaper. While the natives had the English fairly well, this alone had not raised them from their degradation; and it was a serious reflection on the influences that were brought to bear on many natives when it could be truly said that when drunk they would swear in English so wickedly that the hardest English blasphemer trembled. Yet there were victories. When a Christian girl was dying a deacon asked her, "My child, do you hold firmly to Christ?" "He holds me, and I cling to Him" was the reply. Another old man said, "Jesus has a good hold on me and I have a good hold on Jesus." A native pastor who in earlier years cruelly caught, cooked and ate men, said on his deathbed, "I think the messenger has come to fetch me."

8. Among Cannibals. Chalmers' heart in spite of himself turned to the cannibal island of New Guinea. For he said, "The nearer I get to Christ and His cross, the more do I long for direct contact with the heathen." Whatever made savage life loathsome and fearful to the ordinary man made it attractive to him. The Board at home offered him a furlough, but he preferred going direct to New Guinea, and in May, 1877, his successors having arrived for his old station, he and his wife were off for their new field. The island, about three times as large as Great Britain, was practically unknown, full of terrors and human degradation beyond comprehension of civilized man. The common religion was a fear of evil spirits and belief in the deathlessness of the soul. The native Christians who had preceded him had been faithful to their charge and did not hesitate to correct unscrupulous foreigners who set a bad example for the natives, as well as correct the natives in their waywardness. A German had a store back of the mission compound and next to it a cookhouse. A Scotchman undertook to put an iron roof on this house on Sunday. The native preacher endured the noise as long as he could, dismissed his congregation and by moral force and reasoning from the Bible compelled the man to quit his work on Sunday.

9. Some Missionary Trials. Soon Chalmers had full satisfaction in seeing real savages. "Several of our new friends wore human jawbones on their arms," he writes. Once he had a conversation with an old cannibal, now a Christian. "Is man good to eat?" asked Chalmers. After declaring that pig and sheep were "no good," he smacked his lips and said, "Man he too much good." Once Chalmers' home was surrounded by a mob of painted savages demanding tomahawks, knives, hoop iron and beads, and giving him to understand that unless these were forthcoming he would be murdered. Chalmers coolly answered, "You may kill us, but never a thing will you get from us." He always refused to make terms with force. The mob retired to the bush and the next day the ringleader came back and expressed regret for their actions. He then received a present. This turned the tide; strange kindnesses were shown; invitations to many feasts, some cannibal ones, were received. Once Mrs. Chalmers was offered as a present a portion of a man's breast already cooked. She proved herself heroic amidst all this strain in which she joined her husband among these wretched people. Once it was necessary for him to be absent for several months. She was left alone with but a couple of native teachers and their wives, and could neither send word to her husband nor receive any. The natives were proud that Chalmers would place such confidence in them, and for every meritorious deed they did for her she was asked to report to her husband. On this trip he visited many villages and really learned the awful degradation of the natives. He traveled entirely unarmed. In one village a woman dug up the body of her husband who had been dead a few days and made a feast of it for her friends!

10. A Great Sorrow. The strain, in spite of her faith and bravery, began to tell on Mrs. Chalmers. Finally she went to Sydney for rest and recovery, and there, on February 20, 1879, she died. Chalmers knew nothing of his loss until he was shown an account of the death in a paper handed to him. There never was a brighter missionary heroine than Mrs. Chalmers, a constant companion to her daring husband. After reading the notice he said to friends, "Let me bury my sorrow in work for Christ, with Whom my dear wife is." No holiday for him. "I must to work. It would have a bad impression on our teachers were I to go home now. They have suffered, and some of them have lost their wives, and with them I must be. The Master is with us and all is well." Yet to his dear friend, Mr. Meikle, he wrote, "God help me to bear patiently my lot!"

11. Progress. Chalmers' work was indeed pioneering. He gladly superintended the first settlements of Christianity, then pressed on farther into the interior. He understood the friendliness of the natives to mean certain articles they desired. Strange, too, as it seemed to Christians at home, he used the tomahawk and butcher knife as an entering wedge for the Gospel of peace and love. Once he cabled home, "Send one gross tomahawks, one gross butcher knives, going east, try to make friends between tribes" He explained that "today's Gospel with the natives is one of tomahawks and tobacco; we are received by them because of these. By that door we enter to preach the Gospel of love." He never overestimated the outlook, and yet there are "a few who really pray and whose lives are working parallel to their prayers." If in 1878 the "death of heathenism reigned," in 1882 there were "no cannibal ovens, no feasts, no human flesh, no desire for skulls." Tribes who used to fight each other met as friends worshiping in the same house. In his tours to other islands he was usually cordially received and given heathen temples in which to preach. These temples were lined with the skulls of men, women, children, crocodiles, and wild boars, taken from bodies that had been eaten. The floors were glazed by the blood of the victims. Chalmers and his native helpers would preach all night and at the conclusion of one of these services the savages exclaimed, "No more fighting, Tamate, no more man-eating; we have heard the good news, and we shall strive for peace." When the British Government established a protectorate over these islands Chalmers was of inestimable value in getting the right understanding with the natives. High tribute was paid him by the officials.

12. Home on Furlough. Chalmers had been urged by his Society to come home on furlough, but he abhorred the idea. "Rather than go home engaged in deputation work I would risk climate, savages, and sea and land traveling, the former in open boats, and the latter carrying my owns swag in New Guinea." Yet on May 11, 1886 he started home, reaching London August 10. Soon he found himself the hero of the hour, one of the most popular missionary speakers that ever visited England. But he, "a bronze savage," was not at home addressing a ladies' meeting. During his short visit he became engaged to Sarah Eliza Harrison, who in 1888, followed him to the field and became his wife. They moved their home westward on the island to Motumotu, thus enabling him to carry the Gospel into the very heart of heathenism. Mrs. Chalmers proved herself equal to the occasion, though in the middle of life and not used to such scenes as heathen lands afford. Her sense of duty, devotion to her husband, and love for their common Savior so dominated her life that she endured hardship and conquered every repulsion nobly.

13. Visit to Rarotonga. Some time after locating in their new home, Chalmers and his wife visited the old station at Rarotonga which he had left thirteen years before. Wonderful was the reception! "At every house," says Mrs. Chalmers, "people came out to join us, many old people embracing him with tears rolling down their poor old faces, saying they had never thought to look upon his face again on earth." In May, 1891, they returned to Port Moresby. Chalmers at once began his touring in new fields. This left Mrs. Chalmers much alone. Once she was very sick and there was no one to attend her or give her medicine. She had the natives carry her to the medicine room, and there they touched bottle after bottle until they came to the aconite. Then they steadied her arm till she could drop a dose.

14. In England Again. Inasmuch as 1895 was the centenary of the London Missionary Society, Chalmers was asked to come home so that they could have the benefit of his heart-stirring addresses in behalf of missions. He remained till near the close of the year, and was cordially received everywhere. He found, however, that the climate did not agree with him as well as the tropics.

15. The Fly River. Before going on his furlough he had given attention to explorations and evangelization along the Fly River, a very tempestuous stream of New Guinea. He located native teachers and repeatedly visited and encouraged them. Tobacco, tomahawks, and calico were greatly desired by the natives and made them friendly, and by this he reached the hearts of all those whom the love of Christ could touch. While all did not accept Christ, still there were so many examples of faithfulness and enthusiasm that he never lost heart. He wrote of one place where he visited when they were dedicating a new church, "These people were savages when I came to New Guinea, and a couple of years before inveterate skull hunters. Now they have the finest church in all the New Guinea and Torres Straits missions, and built and paid for it themselves."

16. Closing Scenes. In 1900 Chalmers lost his second wife while they were living on Daru Island. For fourteen weeks she had been very ill. After her death he comforted himself in "the sweet will of God," and said, "I cannot rest and so many thousands of savages without a knowledge of Christ near us." To an invitation to come home he replied, "I am nearing the bar, and might miss resting amidst old scenes, joys and sorrows." On April 4, 1901, Chalmers sailed away on what proved his last journey. He visited the region of the Goaribari Island to make friends with the savages there. On Easter evening, April 7, the Niue anchored off the end of the island, and in a short time the natives came on deck and crowded the boat. Promising to come ashore the next morning, he succeeded in getting them to leave the boat. Next morning, all armed, they returned in greater numbers. Chalmers went ashore for an hour before breakfast. The boat waited all day but the missionaries did not return. What had come to pass was this: Upon coming to shore the men were invited into a long building, supposedly a feast hall. The native Christians were also urged in to receive food. Chalmers and Tomkins were struck from behind with stone clubs, knocked to the ground and their heads cut off. At once a massacre of all the party on land ensued. The bodies were cut to pieces and handed over to the women to be cooked and eaten that same day.

17. Afterthought. How like the death he desired to die! He wanted to be on duty and he was. He who never feared the savages, because he never feared death, gave his life at highest price for the redemption of the cannibals. Long, courageously and faithfully he spent his life by God's grace and sustaining power in leading poor, wretched, miserable, degraded, sinful savages into the light and liberty of Jesus Christ, and for this he received the terrible, though glorious, bloodstained crown of martyrdom as a reward for his labors.

Chronology of Events in Chalmers' Life
1841 Born In Ardrishaig, Argyllshire, Scotland, August 4.
1848-9  Family moved to Glengary, Scotland.
1851 Rescued a schoolmate from drowning.
1856 Hearing a letter read in Sunday-school, resolved to be a missionary.
1859 Converted in a November revival meeting in Inveraray.
1862 Entered Cheshunt College, September.
1864 Entered London Missionary Society college at Highgate.
1865 Married Miss Jane Hercus, October 17:
Ordained in Finchly chapel, October 19.
1866 Sailed from England January 4.
1867 Arrived at Avarun, Rarotonga, May 20.
1870 Reported having started a four-page monthly newspaper.
1877 Left Rarotonga for Port Moresby, May 21.
1879 Wife died at Sydney, Australia, February 20.
1886 On furlough May 11 to September, 1887.
1888 Married to Sarah Eliza Harrison in Cooktown.
1892 Appointed to locate on Fly River, May 17.
1894 On furlough May to January 20, 1896.
1900 Second Mrs. Chalmers died, October 25.
1901 Killed and eaten by cannibals. April 8.

From Christian Heroism in Heathen Lands by Galen B. Royer. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Publishing House, 1915.

>> More James Chalmers

about | contact us | terms of use | store

©1996-2023 WholesomeWords.org
"...to the glory of God."