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Letters from the South Sea

Category Articles
Date July 28, 2005

In 1894 a book appeared called ‘Letters and Sketches from the New Hebrides.’ It was a collection of personal letters written by Margaret, wife of Scottish missionary John Paton, to family and friends and thus never intended for publication. The book contained twenty letters written between 1865 and 1894. It has now been reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust, as a hardback of 320 pages.

Perhaps some of us would welcome the opportunity of spending some time on an idyllic tropical island in the South Seas. What about, though, if there were none of the securities of modern life to support us? Would we like to say good-bye to our family and only hear from them by letter once a year perhaps only discovering months after the event that a dear loved-one has passed away? Would we enjoy living amongst people whose language we struggle to understand and whose customs demonstrate the depths to which human souls without God can sink? What about living in very real fear of our lives from attacks by discontented natives and having that fear heightened when we hear a neighbour has been savagely attacked and killed? What about having to send our dear children away to be educated – assuming of course they survive all that life in a tropical climate can throw at them and reach an age when they can go off by themselves? Should one of them die would we give up, thinking the cost too much, or carry on with the task God has given us to do? And how would we respond to so-called ‘civilised’ people telling us that our husband was wasting his life and gifts amongst such people anyway and that ‘anyone will do for natives’?

During her years on Aniwa, Margaret Paton had to put up with these things and many other daily trials and difficulties. So is this book of letters covering nearly 30 years of her life full of moans and complaining? No, and it is only by reading between the lines of the anecdotes of every day life that we discover just what living on a small island in the South Seas cost Margaret Paton. We need to turn to the much better known book (‘John G. Paton, Missionary to the New Hebrides’ also published by The Banner of Truth Trust) to get details of events that are only alluded to in her letters. What does come out so clearly in these letters is her personality – her optimism, her sense of humour, but most of all her wonderful confidence in God. God has sent her with her husband to Aniwa and He will order her ways and keep her until He takes her home to be with Himself. The work is the Lord’s, to His praise and glory.

Margaret Paton writes in a clear style that immediately engaged my interest. I enjoyed reading each one of these letters and this book is a real encouragement to press on in the Lord’s work. I found the most moving and memorable part of the book her description of the events that took place when the first small group of believers on Aniwa were formally constituted as a church (Chapter 6). She says: ‘It was more than we could witness without deep emotion. Never did I feel happier in any society on earth, than when partaking of our Saviour’s body and blood with those dark sisters and brothers, now united with me in Jesus. It was a day long to be remembered. I trust it will be so even in eternity, with thanksgiving.’

Penny Leech Vision of Europe, magazine of the European Missionary Fellowship, with permission.

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