A likely outcome of his ministry ended with him upon a plate. A generation before, on November 20, 1839, the first pair of formal missionaries to the New Hebrides were killed and eaten within minutes of their arrival upon the shore. Even still, John G. Paton, whom Spurgeon later dubbed “King of the Cannibals,” traveled as a missionary to the islands with his wife and son, facing odds and suffering only Christ with him could conquer.
And Christ, having promised to be with him (Matthew 28:20), achieved a great feat. Less than fifty years after the murder of the first missionaries, Paton would reflect on the widespread work of God on the islands (including the entire island of Aniwa coming to Christ) , writing, “Thus were the New Hebrides baptized with the blood of martyrs; and Christ thereby told the whole Christian world that he claimed these islands as his own” (The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides, 75).
From a people dead in their sins, who ate the flesh of their enemies, committed infanticide, and killed their widows upon the death of the husband — to the whole island coming to Christ, and today roughly 85 percent of the population of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) still professing his name.
The courage alone makes the blood to stir. Something must be said — and indeed much has been well said — about the grand triumph of planting Christ’s flag on an island of cannibals. Biographers have written books. Legends have been passed down. We rightly raise great lives — like that of John G. Paton — to fly high for following generations.
Yet comparatively little is said of the ordinary saints whose prayers, lives, and instruction shaped these men mightily used of God. We admire the flowers and forget the stems. Mothers often play a formative role in the lives of great men: Hannah stands behind Samuel, Elizabeth behind John the Baptist, Eunice behind Timothy, Monica behind Augustine, and on and on. Their praying, weeping, pleading gave birth to lions for the kingdom of God.
The birth of missions among the New Hebrides cannibals, however, largely began in the humble cottage of a hardworking, ordinary — yet anything but ordinary — father. A father whose example stirs the heart of every godly man and hangs in the halls of this world, displaying the beauty of a simple life devoted to Christ.
The family tree of these islanders who converted to Christ has its roots in a man almost forgotten to history. James Paton, father of eleven, lived Deuteronomy 6:5–9:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
“We all can live the beautiful ordinariness of James Paton: Wholehearted worship. Glad gravity. Ferocious faithfulness.”
He labored all day as a stocking manufacturer, taking breaks to pray earnestly in his prayer closet after every meal. He led family devotions consisting of Scripture reading, application, catechizing, singing, and fervent prayer for the lost world.
He walked four miles (each direction) with his children to church every week, talking of the Lord along the way — an endeavor John insists the children never begrudged. Upon arriving home each Sunday, he would impart the sermon from memory to his wife — who remained home due to poor health — his children filling in the gaps.
James led a rare home, an unhurried one:
None of us can remember that any day ever passed unhallowed thus [family worship]; no hurry for market, no rush to business, no arrival of friends or guests, no trouble or sorrow, no joy or excitement, ever prevented at least our kneeling around the family altar, while the High Priest led our prayers to God and offered himself and his children there. (Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas, 9)
Simple gazes at his Savior in the word, simple (yet ignited) prayers to him from simple faith and trust, led to simple joys, simple yet constant acts of devotion, along with simple sacrifices for others that all amassed into a remarkable legacy of faith and passionate consecration that he passed to his children.
Hear the King of Cannibals speak of such a father.
In family worship, he brought his family into Christ’s presence:
How much my father’s prayers at this time impressed me I can never explain, nor could any stranger understand. When, on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in family worship, he poured out his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the heathen world to the service of Jesus, and for every personal and domestic need, we all felt as if in the presence of the living Savior, and learned to know and love him as our divine friend. (Missionary, 82)
In sending his son off to a possible horrific death, he handed him affectionately to divine providence:
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. The appearance of my father, when we parted — his advice, prayers, and tears . . . have often, often, all through life, risen vividly before my mind, and do so now while I am writing, as if it had been but an hour ago. (80)
In life, he served as a sanctifying and “shining” example:
In my earliest years particularly, when exposed to many temptations, his parting form rose before me as that of a guardian angel. It is no Pharisaism, but deep gratitude, which makes me here testify that the memory of that scene not only helped, by God’s grace, to keep me pure from the prevailing sins, but also stimulated me in all my studies, that I might not fall short of his hopes, and in all my Christian duties, that I might faithfully follow his shining example. (81)
In death, he left an unforgettable spiritual legacy:
Never, in temple or cathedral, on mountain or in glen, can I hope to feel that the Lord God is more near, more visibly walking and talking with men, than under that humble cottage roof of thatch and oaken wood. Though everything else in religion were by some unthinkable catastrophe to be swept out of memory, or blotted from my understanding, my soul would wander back to those early scenes, and shut itself up once again in the Sanctuary Closet, and, hearing still the echoes of those cries to God, would hurl back all doubts with the victorious appeal, “He walked with God, why may not I?” (85)
What a legacy to leave a son: “He walked with God, why may not I?”
Fathers, we will not all have children so distinguished as to convert an island of cannibals to Christ. But we all can live the beautiful ordinariness of James Paton: Wholehearted worship. Glad gravity. Ferocious faithfulness. Passionate prayer. Domestic discipleship.
“The sincere hope of every godly man runs, ‘May you worship your father’s God.’”
Of the many lessons he teaches us, one primary lesson for me is to relentlessly pray and exhort my children that they may know the Christ that I know. “God bless you, my son!” James Paton said as he handed his son into the hands of divine providence. “Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil.” Simply put, the sincere hope of every godly man runs, May you worship your father’s God.
So, on this Father’s Day, I would like to ask for that one gift that delights us most to see in our children: their faith in Christ. My daughter is not yet 2, and my son not yet 1, but this is my heart for them, echoing the love of many fathers for their own sons and daughters.
May you worship . . .
If given but one plea, I do not ask for little-league championships, for a prosperous career, for a peaceful life devoid of hardship, for a beautiful spouse or adorable grandchildren who live just down the street. My hope for you exceeds the best gifts of this life. I long and fast, I instruct and encourage, I discipline and exhort, I forgive and ask forgiveness toward this supernatural end: that you worship the Lord Jesus Christ. Sixty years would still be too short a time together. I don’t just want the pleasure of sharing a home with you in this life; I yearn to share a kingdom with you in the next.
. . . your father’s God.
And I plead that my God — not some abstract worldview or distant deity, but my Lord, the Lord — whom I have served these years, would be yours. May you trust in him. May he prove as faithful to you as he has to me. May you resist the “painted beauties of this world” and find your all, in the God who promises you himself and all the earth besides. He is light in the darkness, comfort in the deepest valleys. His presence silences the gravest fears. He is higher. He is better. He is worthy. The greatest inheritance I long to leave you is a living faith in this most merciful God.