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JOHN G. PATTON, an apostle to the cannibals of Hebrides Islands 

The group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean north east of Australia is known as New Hebrides Islands.  The people of these islands were cannibals till the 18th century and were very backward.  When John Williams went to work among them as a missionary, they killed and ate him. Then they handed over his bones to those who came seeking him.  This happened in 1839 and it shook the whole world.  But it aroused a spirit of challenge among the young people of British Scotland.  Twelve youths stood up and said they would go to the Hebrides islands to turn the man-eaters to Christ. 

Birth and upbringing 

John Patton was born in 1824 in Scotland in an ordinary family.  His father was a pious business man.  In His house, there was a room, called Holy Place (sanctuary).  His father used to enter this room three times a day and pray for his family and for Scotland.  John Patton, who saw him doing this, followed suit and began to walk close with God.  His mother was also intent on bringing up the children in the fear of the Lord.  

Miracle of food 

One day, his father had gone out of town on business and there was no food at home.  The mother gathered the hungry children, prayed with them, and put them to bed assuring that God would supply them food the next morning.  The children went to bed and woke up the next day.  There was standing in front of their home, a cart loaded with food items.  The children could not believe their eyes.  They were told that their grand-father had sent them the food even he did not know their need. Their mother taught them to love the Heavenly Father and to pray to Him in faith.  This teaching of his mother got entrenched in the heart of young John Patton. 

Youth for Christ 

John Patton discontinued his studies at the age of 12 mainly because of penury and began to help his father in business.  He learnt to make different kinds of machines and to operate them.  This skill was useful to him in his later years as a missionary.  By this time, John Patton had yielded his life to Christ.  He was praying with a deep desire to serve the Lord. When the opportunity presented itself, he gladly joined the Theological College in Glasgow.  He paid the fees by taking up a teaching post in a school.  He learned medicine also along with his Biblical studies.  He devoted himself to ministry, even while at college, among the backward people living close to his college.  Nobody turned to the Lord in the beginning.  But he was faithful in his ministry and continued it without losing heart.  That made him achieve the impossible.  Many began to turn to the Lord.  Among them were drunkards and immoral people. 

Call of God for ministry 

For ten yeas, he served the Lord among the people.  It was then that a Presbyterian missionary shared in a meeting the need for a young man to work among the tribal people of the Hebrides Island. The Holy Spirit moved the heart of John Patton.  He heard the Lords still small voice telling him to commit his life to the cause of the tribal people in the Hebrides.  John Patton readily obeyed the call, stood up and said he would go.  He conveyed his decision to his friends and church members.  Contrary to his expectation, what they said discouraged him.  An old man among them said, You, young man, do not go there, they will eat you.  In reply, John Patton told him, Old man, when you die and are buried, worms will eat you in the grave.  It does not make any difference if the cannibals eat me or the worms eat me in the grave. 

John Pattons parents had no regrets in sending their son as a missionary.  At the age of 34, John Patton with his young wife Mary Ann left for the Hebrides Island in the year 1858. 

New Hebrides and the cannibals 

The people of this island were backward and uncivilized.  They were half-naked and indulged in cruel activities.  But they were afraid of the evil spirits.  To appease the evil spirits, they worshipped idols and practiced sorcery. The sorcerers were held in high esteem.  They did not believe in natural death. When a person died, they would call a soothsayer and would ask the reasons for death.  If the dead person had an enemy and the sorcerer mentioned his name, they would get him killed. The relatives of the person, that was killed, would rise up against the killers and many more murders would follow.  When a husband died, they would strangle his wife to death and bury her along with him.  When the aged became a burden to the family, they would beat the aged people to death.  They worshipped devils and spirits of the ancestors. 

Murder of early missionaries 

John Williams who went to them as the missionary to tell them about Christ was beaten to death.  Many other missionaries who followed John Williams met with the same fate.  Some were chased out. When John Patton landed in this place, there were a few Christian families.  They had been won to Christ by missionaries who worked among them in the midst of stiff opposition. 

Ministry in Tanna 

Tanna was also one of the areas which showed much opposition to the ministry. The sorcerers of this area vehemently opposed the missionary work.  They blamed the missionaries for natural calamities such as famines, cyclones, floods and droughts.  So they mistreated the missionaries and threatened to kill them.  

When John Patton landed there and started building a wooden hut, he could watch a few people eating human flesh and indulging in revelry.  Patton began to feel great pain and anguish in his heart about the miserable condition of these people. 

Their language had no written form.  Patton spoke to them in signs and movement of his hands.  What is this?  What is your name?  These were the questions he first learned and asked everyone whom he met.  He wrote down the details he thus collected.  He then learnt their language by speaking to them constantly. 

Trials and tribulations 

The Lord blessed John Patton and his wife with a son within a year since their arrival in the mission field.  But tragedy struck soon.  His wife was affected by a viral fever and she died.  In a weeks time, the child also died.  He dug their graves with his own hands and buried them.  John Patton was very much grief-stricken.  In his agony, he said, If Christs abiding fellowship had not been with me, I would have become mad. 

Constant threats to life 

His life was constantly under threat.  The tribal people took away all his belongings.  His bed, bed-sheet and vessels were stolen by them.  Not even a single vessel was left behind for cooking his food.  So he appealed to the village leader and got back a tea vessel and that too, without the lid. 

The tribal people used to celebrate a festival and in that festival they tried to spot out the man who caused death among them. During one such festival, they caught hold of John Patton and make him to eat food casting magic spells in order to kill him.  But nothing happened to John Patton. The two sorcerers who did this were amazed.  This aroused a curiosity in their hearts to know of Christ Jesus, the God of John Patton. 

Others too tried to kill him because he spoke against the practices of liquor distillation.  The dreaded disease, small-pox, caused many deaths in the islands.  The tribal people blamed John Patton for the spread of this disease.  A group of people came with the village leader to kill him. John Patton was repairing his house at that time.  Knowing fully well that he could not escape from them, he simply knelt down and prayed, Lord, protect me according to Thy word that Thou would give anything that we ask.  One by one, they left the scene.  Everyone in the crowd felt that Gods presence was with him.    

But opposition continued to grow.  For a change, John Patton left for Australia and there he involved himself in raising prayer and monetary support for his ministry.  The Sunday school children alone gave Rs.10, 00,000/- to his ministry.  He returned to New Hebrides with a shipload of gifts for the people. 

Ministry in Aniwa Island 

This time he began his ministry in Aniwa, an island close to Tanna.  The people of Aniwa were receptive to him.  The ministry began to grow. The elderly village leader also accepted Christ.  John Patton taught them to wear clothes, emphasized the importance of education.  The whole island of Aniwa (seven miles in length and two miles in width) turned to the Lord.

Realizing the need for drinking water, he dug a well with the help of the people. The people were surprised to see water gushing out from the deep.  They exclaimed, Rains from the depth of the earth.  On tasting the water, the village leader ordered all his people to accept Christ and to throw away all their idols. 

Translation of Bible and other works

In 1899, Patton translated and released the New Testament in the Aniwa language. After 10 years of hard work, the gospel began to spread in many islands.  By his efforts, two orphanages, churches and schools were built.  A school exclusively for girls was also started.  With the spread of the gospel, incidence of social crimes and murders came down drastically.  Missionaries came there and worked in 30 islands.

The Church of Aniwa grew in strength. A Bible School was started to train the local evangelists.  John Patton toiled in Aniwa till the end of his life and translated the whole Bible in the Aniwa language.  Even in his good old age of 73, he conducted three services and gave sermons.  He died on 28th January, 1909 at the age of 83.  With his own eyes, he could see thousands of people turning unto the Lord.  Even now, five missions work on this island. 

John Patons ceaseless and untiring work brought to the fold of Christ even man-eaters.  Fear of death, death of his beloved wife and son, loss of possessions and unbearable sufferings did not deter him from going ahead with his commitment to love Christ and to preach the gospel. 

(Courtesy: Friends Focus July 2003)






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