3 Takeaways from the Missionary Life of John G. Paton

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John G. Paton spent over forty years as a missionary amongst the people of the New Hebrides. The New Hebrides (modern-day Vanuatu) are a group of Melanesian islands located in the south seas, east of Australia. In the days of Paton, heathen men and women known primarily amongst the civilized world for their practices of witchcraft and cannibalism inhabited the islands. Through many hardships, agonies, and dangers, Paton saw the Gospel take root amongst the people of the New Hebrides. The story of Paton is an inspiring testimony of Christ’s power to save even the vilest sinner and His faithfulness to His people. Here are my top three takeaways from Paton’s life as read from Paul Schlehlein’s biography, John G. Paton.

God’s Grace to the Vilest Sinner

The men of the New Hebrides were consumed by savagery as evidenced in their gruesome practices and violence. The waves and sands of the shores of Vanuatu are stained crimson with the blood of God’s saints. Whatever one’s moral compass, it is universally accepted that cannibalism is among the vilest of human practices. The most moving testimony given in this biography is found in the introduction in which a local convert from a neighboring island is asked if he has ever eaten human flesh. Sheepishly he looked at the ground before lifting his countenance and responding, “It is true sir, I have eaten. I am full of shame. But, sir, it was in the days of darkness before the light… came to Fiji. God is good-hearted and I am forgiven.” [1]

This is just one testimony of many given by the once heathen man-eaters of Oceania. Like Paton, many missionaries would confess that what propelled them to the mission field is the reality that droves of men and women are dying without the Gospel. Testimonies like the one given above are the visible fruits of God’s saving work, done through our participation in His Great Commission. We serve a God who forgives the vilest sinner and makes even the most egregious offender into His child. It was faith in this God that propelled men and women like the Paton’s to the New Hebrides. Concerning these saints Revelation says they, “loved not their lives, even unto death.” (Rev. 12:11 [ESV]) The God of Paton, and of his young wife who perished on the islands, is calling me and my family to serve Him. May the living God give us grace to do so and may Christian love compel us to fulfill the Great Commission.

We Are God’s Workmanship

It is easy for me to read biographies of great saints such as Paton and feel the shame of comparison. There is an aspect of their testimony that is, by design, meant to challenge, stretch, and even convict believers. But it would be a mistake to measure my life one-for-one with men like Paton. Paul told the church in Ephesus, “we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10 [ESV]). Some missionaries who went to the New Hebrides lived, and some died. Some stayed for many years, and some could only remain for a short season. It is not the wisdom of man to measure one’s work, but God’s who is the righteous judge. We are each called to God’s service according to His will, which is a good reminder for not only missionaries, but for myself. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” What’s more, comparison is the thief of joy in God.

If Paton’s life is evidence of anything, it is that missions is difficult and messy.

Messy Missions

One thing is abundantly clear. Paton’s life as a missionary was messy. What do I mean by messy? Paton worked in extreme conditions that often induced chaos in his ministry and personal life. Him and his wife regularly faced death and danger at every turn, along with barriers of language and culture. Missiology is becoming a polarizing topic amongst evangelicals, specifically around mission methodology. Some of this polarization is necessary and good because there are things prescribed in God’s Word that cannot be ignored in missions, like biblical ecclesiology. There are also times that we should break with those who are not following a biblical missiological pattern. Missions is not an excuse to set aside orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Biblical ends are accomplished by biblical means. But as American Christians, we may have a tendency towards immediately desiring missionaries to enter into a fully realized biblical missiology. This tendency can often lead to being uncharitable with those whom we disagree with or are still growing in their convictions and practices. But if Paton’s life is evidence of anything, it is that missions is difficult and messy. As we shepherd others in developing biblical missiology and disagree with those who do not hold our convictions, the messiness of missions should invoke in us a distinct Christian charitableness, even if it ultimately leads to stark disagreement.

I believe we should operate with a high level of grace and patience with missionaries, especially those we disagree with. We should be quick to listen to those on the field and hear their struggles and challenges. Though we may have profitable and biblical guidance to give, we should consider the unique challenges our missionaries are experiencing. We should give abundant grace because of our trust in God. Though Paton and his companions did not do everything right, it was obvious that God was sovereignly orchestrating His purposes in the New Hebrides for His glory. We can be patient and rest; God will build His church, and the gates of hell will never prevail against it.

John Paton cast himself headlong into the service of a living God.

Though an imperfect man, Paton demonstrated that God will mightily use men and women who have their eyes fixed on eternity and who by faith trust Christ for all things. John Paton cast himself headlong into the service of a living God, and the people of the New Hebrides were never the same, both now and in eternity.


[1] Paul Schlehlein, John G. Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), xv.

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Dalton Kaiser

Dalton Kaiser serves as the Pastoral Apprentice at a church in Raleigh, NC. He and his wife McKinley moved from Texas in 2021 and have since had two little girls, Greta and Stephanie. He is completing his MA at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and will continue on to his Doctor of Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Lord willing, Dalton and his family are humbled and excited to serve Christ's church wherever He may take them.

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