The Missionary Spirit, Pt 5 – The New Hebrides of the South Pacific

Iain Murray points out that it was the voyages of Captain James Cook, son of a Scottish father, that brought the South Pacific Islands to the attention of Britain. Cook reached Tahiti three times and it was to that place that the London Missionary Society (LMS) sent their first eighteen missionaries in 1796. These Pacific islands were a group of approximately thirty islands scattered over four hundred miles of ocean in the area known as Melanesia, hundreds of miles northeast of New Zealand and east of Australia.

John Love, a London pastor, worked with the LMS and it was his work, Addresses to the People of Otaheiti (Tahiti), Designated to Assist the Labour of Missionaries, that the first missionaries took with them. It was written as a guide of how the Christian message should be stated. Murray says–

“After seventeen pages on the character of God and fallen man, to whom God, at the dawn of history promised a Saviour, Love then states, ‘Men and women of Tahiti, you are our brethren and sisters, our flesh and blood, and we bring you the joyful news of that Man whom Jehovah promised to send into the world. That wonderful Man has come into those parts of the world which are far off from Tahiti. He was the image of God. He was bright and glorious like the sun. When he walked up and down in the world, it was as if the sun had come down from the skies to the earth, not to scorch and burn it, but shrouded in clouds, to cherish and delight in it. But you were very far off, and many seas were between him and you, and you could not see him. When he spoke and smiled, it was the voice of God, and the sweet face of Jehovah; when he rebuked wicked men and frowned upon them, they were struck with terror, and felt the anger of God’.”

In speaking about the Bible, Love wrote, “You ask us how we know that this book is Jehovah’s book? We ask you-how do you know that the sun now shines in the heavens? How do you know that the fruit of these trees is pleasant and wholesome, and suited to strengthen and nourish you? You wonder that we should ask such questions because the matter is plain. It is equally plain to us that this writing is Divine.”

Murray shows how this first attempt to establish a gospel base and foothold in the Pacific was a failure initially. The people of Tahiti-two hundred and eight days of sailing from England-were not irreligious and simply waiting on further direction and teaching. They already had beliefs, demonically strong, all well-suited to the kind of life they followed. The words of one missionary were true of conditions throughout the south Pacific–

“Their deities, like themselves, were all selfish and malignant; they breathed no spirit of benevolence, and the rewards and punishments of the future state were connected more with ritual observance than with moral character. Their religion contained no principle that could lead to a holy life; they certainly thought that their gods were like themselves, and that they approved of their sins. It would have been morally impossible on Aneityum [their local island] for any man to have conceived of such a character, morally and religiously, as that of Jesus Christ.”

Murray goes on to state that all remaining missionaries were withdrawn from Tahiti in 1809, and it was proposed to end the mission endeavor in the South Seas. Simply put, persons of unusual ability and special strength would be needed if the work was to continue.

Then appears John Williams of London. Williams was converted at Whitefield’s Tabernacle in London in 1814 and was ready to sail to the islands three years later with the LMS. Murray says–

“Beginning near Tahiti, he worked steadily westward, through Raratonga and Samoa, where he saw churches formed. After nearly eighteen years, Williams returned to Britain, but he could not remain there. His mind was set on reaching the New Hebrides. This hope was fulfilled simultaneously with his death, for when he first landed at Dillon’s Bay, Eromanga, he was killed within hours by the natives of that island. A monument raised to him by the Christians in Samoa read: ‘Sacred to the memory of the Rev. John Williams, father of the Samoan mission and other missions, aged 43 years and 5 months, who was killed by the cruel natives of Eromanga, on November 20, 1839, while endeavoring to plant the Gospel of peace on its shores.'”

Speaking of Williams’ time in Britain, his biographer says, “Of all the missionary journeys which Mr. Williams undertook, none awakened greater anxiety or produced a better influence than the one he took to Scotland.” By 1842, Murray says, “The first Scots, George Turner and Henry Nisbet, arrived in the New Hebrides and spent the first seven months on the cannibal island of Tanna. Forced to retreat to Samoa, Turner’s leadership went into a Teacher’s Training Institution for the preparation of missionary teachers.”

Murray shows that the first reinforcements for the New Hebrides Mission were John G. and Mary Paton and Joseph Copeland in 1858. The first man sent by the Free Church of Scotland was Peter Milne who would serve for fifty-five years before his death in 1924 at the age of ninety. These men, together with colleagues from Canada, New Zealand and Australia, often at great personal cost, lived to see the transformation of the islands they came to serve. What kind of struggle this was became known to the world through their deputation and then the autobiography of John G. Paton. Forced to retreat after four years on Tanna, Paton saw much success on Aniwa (1866-81). Not at that time, but later, Paton was to be revered on Tanna. Referring to the transforming power of the gospel among the natives of the islands who came with him to Tanna from Aneityum, Paton said, “These teachers had all been cannibals; yet, with one exception, they proved themselves to be, to the best of my judgment, a band of faithful and devoted followers of Christ.”

As Iain Murray says, “Nothing known to men under heaven could have produced their new character and disposition except the grace of God in Christ Jesus.” And nothing could have produced such results through them except that the missionary spirit motivated their hearts and labors.

– Mack Tomlinson (all material taken from A Scottish Christian Heritage by Iain Murray, published by the Banner of Truth Trust)

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