Missionary to the New Hebrides Islands
"I claimed Aniwa for Jesus, and by the grace of God Aniwa now worships at the Savior's feet.”
In 1858, a young missionary named John G. Paton sailed with his wife to a remote island full of cannibals in the South Pacific that had no Christian influence. At thirty-three, Paton was compelled to leave a very successful church ministry in urban Glasgow, Scotland so that the lost might be saved on the New Hebrides Islands. Before he left, one elder in his church was outraged and said to Paton, "The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!" Indeed, the only other missionaries sent to this island had been killed minutes after landing on the beach. But Paton replied,
“Sir, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.”
To his initial relief, his family’s lives were spared when they reached the island. However, his wife and son would both die of a fever within a year. Thus began a grueling missionary career for Paton.
He spent an additional four years on the island of Tanna until he was driven off in 1862. Travelling to Australia and England, Paton mobilized people to give resources to the mission. He eventually married again, and in 1864 sailed back to the New Hebrides, this time landing on the island of Aniwa.
The spiritual condition of the island was just as destitute as the first. Paton described it in a letter:
“The natives were cannibals and occasionally ate the flesh of their defeated foes. They practiced infanticide and widow sacrifice, killing the widows of deceased men so that they could serve their husbands in the next world... They exercised an extraordinary influence for evil, worshipped evil spirits and their tribal chief priests. Their whole worship was one of slavish fear; and, so far as ever I could learn, they had no idea of a God of mercy or grace.”
Paton and his wife dove headfirst into loving the people of Aniwa. Paton learned the language and translated the Bible. He built orphanages and his wife taught sewing classes. They ministered to the sick and dying, taught them how to use tools, and held church services every week. After fifteen years of faithfulness, the entire island of Aniwa came to know Christ.
Paton would go on to later describe the immense joy he had in seeing God save an Aniwa man:
“At the moment I put the bread and wine into those dark hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism, 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.”
By the year 1899, Paton had mobilized a movement of missionaries on twenty five of the thirty islands of the New Hebrides that had seen over 12,000 people be saved.