I just finished reading John Piper’s biography of John Paton (Pāy’tәn), pioneer missionary to the New Hebrides Islands during the late 1800s. As I read, I was struck with a deep sense of Paton’s commitment to the service of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, regardless of the cost to him. The New Hebrides were filled with cannibals who had killed and eaten other missionaries who had preceded Paton and thus, most of the evangelical church had determined that the islands were off limits to evangelization. But not to be deterred, Paton announced to the elders of his church that he believed God had directed him to go to the New Hebrides. One of the older elders, a Mr. Dickson, exploded, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!” John Paton’s direct, unequivocal, in-your-face response was:
Mr. Dickson, 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.
With that kind of commitment to Christ, Paton and his pregnant wife Mary, arrived in the New Hebrides in November 1858. The couple’s son was born a few months later in February, but after only one month, both Mary and the child died of an epidemic that was sweeping through the island population. After digging both graves with his own hands, he buried them and slept on the graves for two nights in order to keep the cannibals from digging up the bodies and eating them. He continued to evangelize the natives on the island for the next four years while in constant danger, until they finally drove him off the island.
But Paton’s commitment to Christ and to the New Hebrides was so great that after remarrying two years later, he and his new wife Margaret returned to the island of Aniwa in the New Hebrides. The Patons labored together for 41 years until Margaret’s death in 1905 when John was 81 years old. Despite the continual dangers and threats from the cannibals, the Patons persevered, eventually leading thousands to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. They trained pastors, taught the natives to read, dispensed medicines, conducted worship services, and sent native teachers to all the villages to proclaim the gospel. Eventually the entire island of Aniwa turned to Christ, and even today—105 years since the death of John Paton—85% of the population of Aniwa (now known as Vanuatu) identifies itself as Christian, with perhaps 21% of the population being evangelical.
From where did Paton’s unflagging courage to serve Christ come? Piper points out several reasons for such tremendous courage, but the two which I found most interesting were: (1) His commitment to the doctrines of Calvinism, and (2) His confidence in the sovereignty of God controlling all circumstances.
Paton recognized that everyone who comes to faith in Christ does so solely because of His sovereign choice and effectual call in drawing those to Himself. He wrote about these matters, stating “Regeneration is the sole work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart and soul, and is in every case one and the same.” He then concluded, stating, “Oh, Jesus! To Thee alone be all the glory. Thou hast the key to unlock every heart that Thou has created.” So despite all the misrepresentations of Calvinism’s doctrines and their impact on evangelism, it was his Calvinism that functioned as the impetus for Paton’s overwhelming passion for missions.
In addition, his deep trust in the sovereignty of God allowed him to serve in the most dangerous of circumstances without fear of death. About one situation in which he and a native believer were surrounded by hostile cannibals who intended to kill them and were urging one another to strike the first blow, Paton wrote:
My heart rose up to the Lord Jesus; I saw Him watching all the scene. My peace came back to me like a wave from God. I realized that I was immortal till my Master’s work with me 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, not 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 power in Heaven and on Earth. He rules all Nature, animate and inanimate, and restrains even the Savage of the South Seas.
What a deep understanding and application of God’s sovereignty! John Paton was one of God’s choicest servants whose commitment to Jesus Christ exceeded anything that most Christians today can comprehend. My heart was challenged by my own lack of commitment, my failure to share the gospel as I should, and how often I fail to apply the truths about God’s sovereignty to how I live my daily life. I recommend every Christian read either a biography of John Paton (there are several), or perhaps Paton’s own autobiography. I guarantee that your heart will be challenged also by the incredible commitment of this man of God.