Margaret Paton was the second wife of pioneer missionary John G Paton and daughter of John Whitecross, compiler of the book of anecdotes, The Shorter Catechism Illustrated. Paton himself had reached the New Hebrides in 1858 and settled on the island of Tanna. After four years of extreme difficulty, which included the loss of his wife and baby son, he had to leave.
Through the eyes of his second wife, we see the ups and downs of everyday life as the gospel took effect in the lives of the islanders of Aniwa, another of the New Hebrides. They are described in long letters mostly to Mrs Paton’s family back in Scotland. This volume originally had the title: Letters and Sketches from the New Hebrides and now has an added chapter on her last days.
An article in the first volume of The Young People’s Magazine, presumably by the then editor Rev Donald Beaton, describes a visit by Paton to the Assembly’s College in Belfast, when he told the students: “Don’t believe what unbelieving scholars tell you about the Bible. When I went to the South Sea Islands, the people I laboured among were savages thirsting for my blood. But the Holy Spirit made use of God’s truth through the Word, and what have I to tell you today? There is not a home in these Islands where the gospel has come but has family worship morning and evening.” The comment made in that article about Paton’s Autobiography (1) could also be made about his wife’s Letters: “His narrative moves along with pleasing, natural motion without effort or any straining after effect”.
Aniwa too was not without its difficulties. Far from it. But there were real encouragements. One extract must suffice: “What a contrast to those former days of blood; and even a contrast, as the Robertsons [another missionary family] told us, to what they had to suffer only in January last! The heathen chiefs were getting fierce at the rapid strides Christianity was making all round the island and laid a deep plot to take the missionaries’ lives. They chose their time well, when nearly all Mr Robertson’s young men were away at Cook’s Bay; and you may imagine his and Mrs Robertson’s feelings when the alarm got up one night as they sat quietly reading. They went into their bedroom and took their stand beside their three sleeping children. Escape by sea was impossible, even could they get to the boat – the night being stormy.
“Mrs Robertson turned to her husband and said, ‘Do you think they could touch those sleeping lambs?’ He smiled bitterly, ‘What do they care for our sleeping lambs?’ “Yomit, a devoted Erromangan teacher, came in to them, and she turned to him saying, ‘O Yomit, do you think they could have the heart to kill those little sleeping darlings?’ He raised his arm and said, ‘Missi, they’ll have to cut this body of mine in pieces before ever they get near them!’ He started off and collected all the available help necessary, sending secret messages overland in different directions to their friends, so that before morning the mission house was surrounded by 200 warriors ready to give their lives in defence of the missionary. And these were the very men who murdered the Gordons – explain the change! Jesus has been among them!”
Margaret Paton, however, was cautious in her conclusions. She describes one of the island women: “She was such a kind and affectionate creature. She always sat before my seat on Sabbath, and was the first to shake hands. I shall never forget that night she died. When I went to see her after the worship she was lying on a mat just outside their house for air, and a little flickering fire lit up the sorrowful faces of the dark group around her. . . . We would have liked more evidence that she was saved. Mr Paton had been very often talking with her; and when he asked her if she loved the Saviour she answered in the affirmative. But we must not build too much on that, for almost everyone in Aniwa would give the same reply – most of them being under an impression that they are very good Christians indeed! I could only feel that it was a terrible warning to be more diligent in the future.”
This reprint is to be welcomed. Around the time it was first published, it was accurately described as “perhaps as clear and vivid a description of the inner and more personal side of life amongst sunken heathen as has ever been written”. It gives a warm, convincing picture of life on an island mission station when contact with the outside world was possible only at well-spaced intervals. And it is a tribute to the power of God to use the gospel to make lions into lambs.
1. Also in print, and available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom at £12.95.