Review: John G. Paton: The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides

John G. Paton, Banner of Truth, 1897/2013, 538 pp. 5 of 5 stars

This is the story of an island of cannibals, their journey out of darkness, and the man who led them to the light.

John G. Paton stands as one of the great missionaries in church history. He was an icon in his day—a household name in Great Britain and Australia. Contemporaries such as C. H. Spurgeon called him the ‘King of the Cannibals’.

After a decade of successful evangelistic and pastoral work in Glasgow, Scotland, Paton (1824-1907) gave the rest of his life as a missionary to a group of remote islands in the South Pacific. In the midst of unimaginable suffering, he still managed to plant churches, translate the Scriptures, spread the gospel and–in this later years–travel the world as a kind of missionary statesman.

But his most enduring legacy is his Autobiography (edited by his brother). His son, who later became a missionary on the same islands, called his father’s autobiography a missionary classic—unable to be excelled. It is still in print over a hundred years later.

Three items make Paton’s life worth studying:

  1. Paton is a model of courage — In our world of emotional sensitivity, the South Seas missionary comes with bare-knuckled bravery. We need men like Paton to put steel in our spines and assurance in our minds that there are times to double the shot and shorten the fuse.
  2. Paton’s pen will arrest you — Paton is clear and vivid and owns that evasive knack for the well-turned phrase. One sample: “I knew not, for one brief hour, when or how attack [against my life] might be made; and yet, with my trembling hand clasped in the hand once nailed on Calvary, and now swaying the sceptre of the universe, calmness and peace and resignation abode in my soul.” (p. 117).
  3. Paton will encourage the faint-hearted — Over a century ago, his autobiography gave hope to worn-out, discouraged missionaries in obscure places when they saw what God had done among the cannibals of the South Seas.

Paton’s autobiography is among the greatest missionary accounts ever written. However, the books length, like many biographies, may scare off readers. Still, this work reads like a thriller and overflows with application and warmth.

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