The life story of Dr. John C. Paton is one of the most stirring of modern times, and none can make its acquaintance without being made better in mind and heart.
Dr. Paton was born in a humble home in the south of Scotland, of parents who were marked for their sterling Christian character. Though poor in this world's goods they were rich in heavenly treasures. Their great aim in life was to pass on this wealth to their children, and in this they did not fail. The influence of their life and devotion was ever around their family, keeping them from many snares and pitfalls, and bringing them into touch with Heaven's King.
Young Paton was the first of eleven children; and, to lessen the family burden, was early sent to work as a farmer's boy. At the age of twelve he settled down to learn his father's trade of stocking-making. For fifteen hours a day he toiled at the loom, using his meal-hours and spare moments for the improvement of his mind. He had an ambition to be well fitted for the battle of life. Like the great Livingstone, he always had lesson-books within easy reach.
In the spring and autumn he hired himself out as a gardener and harvester, and even in this he was unconsciously fitting himself for the arduous labours which, in after years, he was called upon to perform in distant lands. By hard work and strict economy he succeeded in saving as much money as covered his expenses during six months' study at Dumfries University; and his brief term of study there greatly increased his thirst for knowledge.
During all his toilings and efforts at self-improvement he was not unmindful of his higher nature. Heavenly influences seemed always around him. The good seed sown by his parents soon bore fruit. He was early led to give himself to Jesus Christ, and to consecrate his all wholly and fully to His service.
The time came when he had to leave home. An opening as a mission worker occurred in Glasgow for him. With a small bundle, containing his Bible, under his arm, he set out to walk to the great city. His father accompanied him for the first six miles. On parting from the lad, he took his hand saying, "God bless you, my son! Your father's God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!" Years after Dr. Paton declared that these words, in the hour of temptation, had been as a guard about his path.
For a time he managed to attend an educational seminary in Glasgow, where he ultimately became a teacher. Then, having saved the sum of ten pounds, he entered Glasgow University, and later settled down to work as a city missionary.
Speaking in later days of his life's battles during those years of struggle he said that "he committed his way and his future to the God of his father, and was not disappointed." Darknesses were dispelled, obstacles removed, and crooked-looking ways made straight before him.
For ten years he went out into the closes and wynds of Glasgow, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of heaven. It was up-hill work for a time. Romanists, infidels, publicans and sinners combined against him. But with God on his side he had no fear. Success came and many were blessed by his mission. Drunkards were reformed, infidels burned their books, Romanists renounced their creed, and hundreds were led into the light of heaven.
Alongside of his mission work, Mr. Paton continued his studies in arts and divinity, and succeeded in obtaining training in the practical branches of medicine. All the time his heart was going out to the perishing heathen, and at the end of ten years he offered himself to the New Hebrides Mission and was accepted. For a time, with all the ardour and strength of his being, he devoted himself to special training, including several trades.
His parents, on hearing of his determination, lightened his heart by informing him that they had long ago given him up to God, and were satisfied that his going was right.
In the spring of 1858, along with [his wife], he set out for the New Hebrides, and ultimately settled down in Tanna. Here commenced a series of trials, which only one with a boundless love for men and an unfaltering faith in God could have endured. The people were living in gross darkness and barbarism. Deeds of bloodshed, violence and dishonesty were witnessed on all hands. Every conceivable obstacle seemed to be put in his way, and he was called upon to endure untold sufferings. In four months his wife and child were taken from him, and he had to dig their graves with his own hands. Soon after he was struck down with fever of unusual severity. On recovery he turned to his beloved work with admirable heroism, and in a short time had built up a station, and printed the first book in the language of the people.
Troublous times now arose. After three years' arduous toil, stirring adventure, and many hairbreadth escapes, he was driven from Tanna. With a breaking heart he said farewell to his "beloved cannibals," yet in the darkest moment he wrote, "I never doubted that ultimately the victory there, as elsewhere, would be on the side of Jesus." The victory did come, and to-day the dark island is wholly changed.
To make mission-work a success, Mr. Paton believed that a mission-ship was a necessity. With the object of raising funds for the purpose of procuring such a ship, he visited several countries, including his native land. Success attended his efforts. Wherever he went his story touched the hearts of men and roused an interest in missions such as had never before existed.
He floated the Dayspring, and returned to the islands in 1864. The new mission-ship visited island after island, and planted missionaries where others had failed or fallen. The Mission Synod of Australia, which had adopted Mr. Paton as the first missionary from that country, constrained him to turn aside from Tanna and to settle in Aniwa. Here for the next fifteen years the indomitable Scotsman toiled earnestly and lovingly. Houses were built, wells were sunk, and other improvements made, which had far-reaching influences. After incessant labour, the first Aniwa hymn-book was brought out, the first church raised, and schools established. The tide of victory had now set in, and it was a grand day for John G. Paton when he held the first communion in that heathen land. Many were turned from darkness to light in the course of a few years, to worship the true and living God.
Aniwa was won for Christ, but not without much suffering and many perils. Councils were held and decisions to put the missionary to death come to. The missionary station was frequently surrounded by savage men thirsting for his blood. But the Lord delivered His servant out of all his perils, and caused him to rejoice because of victory over sin and Satan.
One of the most remarkable answers to prayer in the history of Christian missions is recorded in connection with the sinking of a well in the face of these savages of Aniwa. In a time of great dearth, when the gods had been appealed to in vain, the brave missionary made the startling announcement: "I am going to sink a deep well down into the earth to see if our God will send us fresh water up from below."
They stood around watching him digging with unceasing labour, thought him mad, and, like the priests of Baal at Carmel, waited to see whether Jehovah would help His servant. For a long time he toiled apparently in vain, and across the eye of his faith came clouds of doubt, for he was working on a coral reef, and there was the possibility that when he did reach the water it might be salt. At last, when at his weakest, the answer came—a little moisture of the sand was to him as the cloud the size of a man's hand; the fresh spring came bubbling up, and he bade them come and drink, saying, "Jehovah, my God, gave it out of His own earth in answer to our labour and prayers."
The idols of the people were burned, prayer and praise were heard in the homes, and a new social order soon prevailed.
The old Dayspring was wrecked, and the missionary tore himself away from his loved work to get another. A new ship was obtained, and this further extended the Kingdom of God. Later on he visited Australia, Britain, and America to raise £6,000 for a steam auxiliary ship for which the missionaries of the islands had pleaded as an absolute necessity. In less than eighteen months the price of the steamship was secured, and a fund of £3,000 to the good. For a number of years we find him visiting the churches in different lands, and creating an interest in missionary work.
The great dream of his life was to see a missionary and a band of well-trained native teachers on every island of the New Hebrides. To this end he devoted the declining years of his life, and in this he was wondrously blessed. On every hand are seen the results of his sacrificing labours. His day of sowing in tears has changed to a reaping with joy and thankfulness, because " the little one has become a thousand, and the small one a great nation."
Not always—perhaps, it might even be said, not often—is it given to those who devote their lives to the work of foreign missions, to see such fruit of their labour as did Dr. Paton. In this branch of Christian service it seems specially true that "one soweth and another reapeth." But here, at least, is one instance in which, even in this life, God permitted His servant to see the result of his toil, and to rejoice over those whom he had been instrumental in bringing to a knowledge of the truth.
The one great motive power in this good man's life was faith in and loyalty to God, and love to man. Herein lies the secret of his success. Having made sure that he was in the right, he went forward, believing that God would carry him through. As the engineer lays hold of the forces of nature and drives his engine through even the granite basis of an Alp, so John G. Paton took hold of God and faced all opposition, difficulty and suffering. Realizing that one man with God on his side was in the majority, he did not fear the issue. In this he has set an example which all of us will do well to follow.
From Missionary Heroes: Stories of Heroism on the Mission Field edited by Charles D. Michael. London: S. W. Partridge, [1905?].
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