“It’s the Indiana Jones of missionary stories.”
With that recommendation from my pastor-dad, I picked up an autobiography of John Paton in the summer of 2000. He was right. Paton’s life story contains many harrowing moments reminiscent of an action film, like the time he fled for his life and spent the night in a tree with the yells of cannibal “savages” below. Or the time Paton convinced the captain of a steamer to tie him to the mast during a storm.
Yet it wasn’t the Indiana Jones-like details that stuck with me over the years. It was a quote from Paton about God’s sovereignty that went into my quote book and carried me through many fearful moments.
A nineteenth-century Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides islands of the South Pacific, he said,
I realized that I was immortal till my Master’s work was done. The assurance came to me, as if a voice out of heaven had spoken, that not a musket would be fired to wound us, not a club prevail to strike us, nor a spear leave the hand in which it was held vibrating to be thrown, not an arrow leave the bow, or a killing stone the fingers, without the permission of Jesus Christ, whose is all the power in Heaven and on Earth.
I absorbed the belief that no one can hurt me without the permission of my Master. In that sense, I’m safe. I’m invincible.
“I absorbed the belief that no one can hurt me without the permission of my Master. In that sense, I’m safe. I’m invincible.”
Years later, I was invincible when I moved to Central Asia, invincible when terrorism hit my city, and invincible when I feared the threats of assault, terror, earthquakes, and plane crashes. Whenever and however I die—whether by violent or natural causes—it will be only by the permission of my loving Savior.
Faithfulness, Church Planting, and Risk Assessment
Because of the enduring influence of Paton’s quote in my life, I was excited to see Paul Schlehlein’s John Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas. Details from Paton’s life story have faded over time, so this biography is a wonderful opportunity to reintroduce him to a new generation.
Schlehlein—a modern-day missionary and church planter among the Tsongas in rural South Africa—draws on multiple sources to paint an overview of Paton’s life and ministry. He primarily uses Paton’s autobiography, his second wife Margaret’s Letters and Sketches, and his son Frank’s Later Years and Farewell. The book is divided into two parts—biography of Paton’s life and lessons learned.
Schlehlein explores the controversies surrounding Paton’s ministry. Some criticized him for putting his family in danger. His first wife and infant son died from illness only six months after their initial arrival. Schlehlein engages in a helpful reflection on the matter of risk-taking in missions.
Ultimately, though Paton was willing to take radical risks for the gospel, he drew a line at foolishness. Paton said, “I regard it as a greater honour to live and work for Jesus, than to be a self-made martyr.” The loss of his first family and the subsequent loss of children in his second marriage were a well of anguish for Paton. Yet through it all, he seemed to balance wisdom, trust, and obedience.
The challenges—and importance—of language learning, Bible translation, and church planting in new environments aren’t diluted in Schlehlein’s account of Paton’s life. Bible translation lapsed for years because there was no adequate word in the local language for faith. One day, however, Paton leaned back in his chair and lifted his feet up. When he asked a local woman what he was doing, she answered, “You are leaning wholly.” That was it. Saving faith was to lean wholly on Jesus.
Paton’s life and ministry invoke challenging questions. What is important to see in a national believer’s life and testimony before admittance into church membership? When is a national believer ready for leadership in the church? What role should social reform take in church planting efforts? How should missionaries spend financial donations in their ministry?
Paton was a persuasive and master fundraiser, yet when it came to native churches, he emphasized they be self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. The first Bible translation came about because native believers saved money from their cash crops for over a decade.
It’s hard for me to read details of Paton’s life and not increase in admiration for my own father. My dad—a small-town pastor who worked full-time in an auto factory to support his six children—surely found a kindred spirit in the pages of the autobiography he read on his lunch break. Like my father, Paton was hard-working, stubborn, grounded in Reformed theology, relentless in evangelism, and hopeful in his outlook.
Paton’s parents held a strong spiritual influence on the man Spurgeon would later call the “King of the Cannibals.” Paton’s father, a working-class Reformed Presbyterian, invested deeply in the lives of his eleven children. Paton never lost admiration for his father who set a “shining example” of godliness in the home.
“It’s hard for me to read details of Paton’s life and not increase in admiration for my own father.”
Schlehlein describes a scene when Paton’s father accompanied him for the first six miles to seminary. Finally parting ways, his father exclaimed, “God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!” Paton later reflected, “I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as he had given me.”
My dad’s journey on this earth ended when his Master took him home only a few years after that summer of 2000. I’m confident that he has joined Paton in the unending joy of seeing God’s church brought into his fold, one sinner at a time. They’re experiencing the “joy of glory,” which Paton described in this beautiful encounter,
At the moment when I put the bread and wine into those dark hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism, but now stretched out to receive and partake the emblems and seals of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that well nigh broke my heart to pieces. I shall never taste a deeper bliss, till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus himself.
I can’t wait to join them.
Madeline Arthington is a writer who serves with IMB in Central Asia.