In 1606 a chain of eighty islands in the South Pacific was discovered by Fernandez de Quiros of Spain. In 1773, the islands were explored by Captain James Cook who named them ‘New Hebrides’ because of the similarities with the Hebrides Islands off the Northwest coast of Scotland. In 1980, the New Hebrides gained its independence from Britain and France and was named Vanuatu. The population today is about 190,000.
To the best of our knowledge, the New Hebrides had no Christian influence before John Williams and James Harris from the London Missionary Society landed in 1839. Both of these missionaries were killed and eaten by cannibals on the island of Erromanga on November 20 of that year, only minutes after going ashore, and in full view of the crew of the ship that had just dropped them off.
Nineteen years later Scottish pastor John G. Paton (1824-1907), then 33 years old, expressed to family and friends his desire to go to these same New Hebrides islands as a missionary. The tragic fate of Williams and Harris was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and all thought he was crazy to consider such a mission. A certain Mr. Dickson said to him angrily, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!” But to this Paton responded:
“Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is to die soon, be laid in the grave, and there to be eaten by worms. I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and on the Great Day, my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” (The Autobiography of J0hn G. Paton, p. 56)
On April 16, 1858, John Paton and his wife Mary sailed for the New Hebrides, arriving at the island of Tanna on November 5. In March of the next year both Mary and their newborn son died of ‘the fever.’ Paton then served alone on the island for the next four years under incredible circumstances of constant danger, until he was driven off the island in February, 1862.
For the next four years Paton did mobilization work for the Presbyterian mission to the New Hebrides, travelling around Australia and Great Britain. He married again in 1864. In 1866 he and his wife Margaret went back to New Hebrides, this time to the smaller island of Aniwa. They labored together for 41 years, until Margaret died in 1905.
When they came to Aniwa they saw the destitution of the islanders. Paton wrote:
“The natives were cannibals and occasionally ate the flesh of their defeated foes. They practiced infanticide and widow sacrifice, killing the widows of deceased men so that they could serve their husbands in the next world… Their worship was entirely a service of fear, its aim being to propitiate this or that Evil spirit, to prevent calamity, or to secure revenge. They deified their chiefs, and so almost every village or tribe had its own Sacred Man. They exercised an extraordinary influence for evil, these priests, and were believed to have the disposal of life and death through their sacred ceremonies… Their whole worship was one of slavish fear; and, so far as ever I could learn, they had no idea of a God of mercy or grace.” (Autobiography, p. 69, 72, 334)
Paton admitted that at times his heart wavered as he wondered whether these people could be brought to the point of weaving Christian ideas into their lives. But he took heart from the power of the gospel and from the fact that thousands on the island of Aneityum had come to Christ.
Paton learned the language and reduced it to writing. He built orphanages and schools. They “trained teachers, translated and printed and expounded the Scriptures, ministered to the sick and dying, dispensed medicines every day, and taught them the use of tools.” They held worship services every Lord’s Day and sent native teachers to all the villages to preach the gospel.
In the next fifteen years, John and Margaret Paton saw the entire island of Aniwa turn to Christ. Paton published the New Testament in the Aniwan Language in 1897. Even to his death he was translating hymns and catechisms and creating a dictionary for his people for when he could not be with them any more.
In 1887 Paton wrote: “On our New Hebrides, more than 12,000 Cannibals have been brought to sit at the feet of Christ, though I mean not to say that they are all model Christians; and 133 of the Natives have been trained and sent forth as teachers and preachers of the Gospel.”
Today, about 85% of the population of Vanuatu identifies itself as Christian.
Psalm 65:5 — You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.
Isaiah 42:10 — Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.
Isaiah 45:22 — Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.
Matthew 9:36-38 — When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
God of truth and love; Father Son and Holy Spirit, hear our prayer for those who do not know you; that they may come to a saving knowledge of the truth and that your name may be praised among all peoples of the world. Sustain, inspire and enlighten your servants who bring them the Gospel. Bring fresh vigor to wavering faith; sustain our faith when it is still fragile. Continually renew missionary zeal in ourselves and in the Church; raise up new missionaries who will follow You to the ends of the world. Make us witnesses to Your goodness; full of love, strength and faith; for Your glory and the salvation of the entire world. Amen
–Orthodox Christian Mission Center