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The Claims of the Heathen

Category Book Excerpts
Date September 6, 2023

Happy in my work as I felt, and successful by the blessing of God, yet I continually heard, and chiefly during my last years in the Divinity Hall, the wail of the perishing Heathen in the South Seas; and I saw that few were caring for them, while I well knew that many would be ready to take up my work in Calton, and carry it forward perhaps with more efficiency than myself. Without revealing the state of my mind to any person, this was the supreme subject of my daily meditation and prayer; and this also led me to enter upon those medical studies, in which I purposed taking the full course; but at the close of my third year, an incident occurred, which led me at once to offer myself for the Foreign Mission field.

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, in which I had been brought up, had been advertising for another Missionary to join the Rev. John Inglis in his grand work in the New Hebrides. Dr. Bates, the excellent convener of the Heathen Missions Committee, was deeply grieved, because for two years their appeal had failed. At length, the Synod, after much prayer and consultation, felt the claims of the Heathen so urgently pressed upon them by the Lord’s repeated calls, that they resolved to cast lots, to discover whether God would thus select any Minister to be relieved from his home charge, and designated as a Missionary to the South Seas. Each member of Synod, as I was informed, agreed to hand in, after solemn appeal to God, the names of the three best qualified in his esteem for such a work, and he who had the clear majority was to be loosed from his Congregation, and to proceed to the Mission field–or the first and second highest, if two could be secured. Hearing this debate, and feeling an intense interest in these most unusual proceedings, I remember yet the hushed solemnity of the prayer before the names were handed in. I remember the strained silence that held the Assembly while the scrutinizers retired to examine the papers; and I remember how tears blinded my eyes when they returned to announce that the result was so indecisive, that it was clear that the Lord had not in that way provided a Missionary.

The cause was once again solemnly laid before God in prayer, and a cloud of sadness appeared to fall over all the Synod. The Lord kept saying within me, “Since none better qualified can be got, rise and offer yourself”. Almost overpowering was the impulse to answer aloud, “Here am I, send me.” But I was dreadfully afraid of mistaking my mere human emotions for the will of God. So I resolved to make it a subject of close deliberation and prayer for a few days longer, and to look at the proposal from every possible aspect. Besides, I was keenly solicitous about the effect upon the hundreds of young people and others, now attached to all my Classes and Meetings; and yet I felt a growing assurance that this was the call of God to His servant, and that He who was willing to employ me in the work abroad, was both able and willing to provide for the on-carrying of my work at home. The wail and the claims of the Heathen were constantly sounding in my ears. I saw them perishing for lack of the knowledge of the true God and His Son Jesus, while my Green Street people had the open Bible and all the means of grace within easy reach, which, if they rejected, they did so wilfully, and at their own peril. None seemed prepared for the Heathen field; many were capable and ready for the Calton service. My medical studies, as well as my literary and divinity training, had specially qualified me in some ways for the Foreign field, and from every aspect at which I could look the whole facts in the face, the voice within me sounded like a voice from God.

It was under good Dr. Bates of West Campbell Street that I had begun my career in Glasgow–receiving £25 per annum for district visitation in connection with his Congregation, along with instruction under Mr. Hislop and his staff in the Free Church Normal Seminary–and oh, how Dr. Bates did rejoice, and even weep for joy, when I called on him, and offered myself for the New Hebrides Mission! I returned to my lodging with a lighter heart than I had for some time enjoyed feeling that nothing so clears the vision, and lifts up the life, as a decision to move forward in what you know to be entirely the will of the Lord. I said to my fellow-student, who had chummed with me all through our course at college, “I have been away signing my banishment” (a rather trifling way of talk for such an occasion).” I have offered myself as a Missionary for the New Hebrides.”

After a long and silent meditation, in which he seemed lost in far wandering thoughts, his answer was, “If they will accept of me, I am also resolved to go!” I said, ” Will you write the Convener to that effect, or let me do so?” He replied, “You may.” A few minutes later his letter of offer was in the post office. Next morning, Dr. Bates called upon us early, and after a long conversation, commended us and our future work to the Lord God in fervent prayer. This fellow-student, Mr. Joseph Copeland, had also for some time been a very successful City Missionary in the Camlachie district, while attending along with me at the Divinity Hall. The leading of God, whereby we both resolved at the same time to give ourselves to the Foreign Mission field, was wholly unexpected by us, as we had never once spoken to each other about going abroad. At a meeting of the Foreign Missions Committee, held immediately thereafter, both were, after due deliberation, formally accepted, on condition that we passed successfully the usual examinations required of candidates for the Ministry. And for the next twelve months we were placed under a special committee for advice as to medical experience, acquaintance with the rudiments of trades, and anything else which might be thought useful to us in the Foreign field.

When it became known that I was preparing to go abroad as Missionary, nearly all were dead against the proposal, except Dr. Bates and my fellow-student. My dear father and mother, however, when I consulted them, characteristically replied, that “they had long since given me away to the Lord, and in this matter also would leave me to God’s disposal.” From other quarters we were besieged with the strongest opposition on all sides. Even Dr. Symington, one of my professors in divinity, and the beloved Minister in connection with whose congregation I had wrought so long as a City Missionary, and in whose Kirk Session I had for years sat as an Elder, repeatedly urged me to remain at home. He argued, that “Green Street Church was doubtless the sphere for which God had given me peculiar qualifications, and in which He had so largely blessed my labours; that if I left those now attending my Classes and Meetings, they might be scattered, and many of them would probably fall away; that I was leaving certainty for uncertainty-work in which God had made me greatly useful, for work in which I might fail to be useful, and only throw away my Iife amongst Cannibals.”

I replied, that “my mind was finally resolved; that, though I loved my work and my people, yet I felt that I could leave them to the care of Jesus, who would soon provide them a better pastor than I; and that, with regard to my life amongst the Cannibals, as I had only once to die, I was content to leave the time and place and means in the hand of God, who had already marvellously preserved me when visiting cholera patients and the fever-stricken poor; on that score I had positively no further concern, having left it all absolutely to the Lord, whom I sought to serve and honour, whether in life or by death.” The house connected with my Green Street Church was now offered to me for a Manse, and any reasonable salary that I cared to ask (as against the promised £120 per annum for the far-off and dangerous New Hebrides), on condition that I would remain at home. I cannot honestly say that such offers or opposing influences proved a heavy trial to me; they rather tended to confirm my determination that the path of duty was to go abroad. Amongst many who sought to deter me, was one dear old Christian gentleman, whose crowning argument always was, “The Cannibals! You will be eaten by Cannibals!” At last I replied, “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honouring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” The old gentleman, raising his hands in a deprecating attitude, left the room exclaiming, ” After that I have nothing more to say!”

My dear Green Street people grieved excessively at the thought of my leaving them, and daily pled with me to remain. Indeed, the opposition was so strong from nearly all, and many of them warm Christian friends, that I was sorely tempted to question whether I was carrying out the Divine will, or only some headstrong wish of my own. This also caused me much anxiety, and drove me close to God in prayer. But again every doubt would vanish, when I clearly saw that all at home had free access to the Bible and the means of grace, with Gospel light shining all around them, while the poor Heathen were perishing, without even the chance of knowing all God’s love and mercy to men. Conscience said louder and clearer every day, ” Leave all these results with Jesus your Lord, who said, ‘Go ye into all the world, preach the Gospel to every creature, and lo! I am with you alway.”‘ These words kept ringing in my ears; these were our marching orders.

Some retorted upon me, “There are Heathen at home; let us seek and save, first of all, the lost ones perishing at our doors.” This I felt to be most true, and an appalling fact; but I unfailingly observed that those who made this retort neglected these Home Heathen themselves; and so the objection, as from them, lost all its power. They would ungrudgingly spend more on a fashionable party at dinner or tea, on concert or ball or theatre, or on some ostentatious display, or worldly and selfish indulgence, ten times more, perhaps in a single day, than they would give in a year, or in half a lifetime, for the  conversion of the whole Heathen World, either at home or abroad. Objections from all such people must, of course, always count for nothing among men to whom spiritual things are realities. For these people themselves I do, and always did, only pity them, as God’s stewards, making such a miserable use of time and money entrusted to their care.

On meeting with so many obstructing influences, I again laid the whole matter before my dear parents, and their reply was to this effect:- “Heretofore we feared to bias you, but now we must tell you why we praise God for the decision to which you have been led. Your father’s heart was set upon being a Minister, but other claims forced him to give it up. When you were given to them, your father and mother laid you upon the altar, their first-born, to be consecrated, if God saw fit, as a Missionary of the Cross; and it has been their constant prayer that you might be prepared, qualified, and led to this very decision; and we pray with all our heart that the Lord may accept your offering, long spare you, and give you many souls from the Heathen World for your hire.” From that moment, every doubt as to my path of duty forever vanished. I saw the hand of God very visibly, not only preparing me for, but now leading me to, the Foreign Mission field.

Well did I know that the sympathy and prayers of my dear parents were warmly with me in all my studies and in all my Mission work; but for my education they could, of course, give me no money help. All through, on the contrary, it was my pride and joy to help them, being the eldest in a family of eleven; though I here most gladly and gratefully record that all my brothers and sisters, as they grew up and began to earn a living, took their full share in this same blessed privilege. First, I assisted them to purchase the family cow, without whose invaluable aid my ever-memorable mother never could have reared and fed her numerous flock; then, I paid for them the house-rent and the cow’s grass on the Bank Hill, till some of the others were more able, and relieved me by paying these in my stead; and finally, I helped to pay the school-fees and to provide clothing for the younger ones–in short, I gave, and gladly, what could possibly be saved out of my City Mission salary of £40, ultimately advanced to £45 per annum. Self-educated thus, and without the help of one shilling from any other source, readers will easily imagine that I had many a staggering difficulty to overcome in my long curriculum in Arts, Divinity, and Medicine; but God so guided me, and blessed all my little arrangements, that I never incurred one farthing of personal debt.

There was, however, a heavy burden always pressing upon me, and crushing my spirit from the day I left my home, which had been thus incurred. The late owner of the Dalswinton estate allowed, as a prize, the cottager who had the tidiest house and most beautiful flower-garden to sit rent-free. For several years in succession, my old seafaring grandfather won this prize, partly by his own handy skill, partly by his wife’s joy in flowers. Unfortunately no clearance-receipt had been asked or given for these rents, the proprietor and his cottars treating each other as friends, rather than as men of business. The new heir, unexpectedly succeeding, found himself in need of money, and threatened prosecution for such rents as arrears. The money had to be borrowed. A moneylending lawyer gave it at usurious interest, on condition of my father also becoming responsible for interest and principal.

This burden hung like a millstone around my grandfather’s neck till the day of his death; and it then became suspended round my father’s neck alone. The lawyer, on hearing of my giving up trade and entering upon study, threatened to prosecute my father for the capital, unless my name were given along with his for security. Every shilling that I or any of our family could save, all through these ten years, went to pay off that interest and gradually to reduce the capital; and this burden we managed, amongst us, to extinguish just on the eve of my departure for the South Seas. Indeed, one of the purest joys connected with that time was that I received my first Foreign Mission salary and outfit money in advance, and could send home a sum sufficient to wipe out the last penny of a claim by that money-lender or by any one else against my beloved parents, in connection with the noble struggle they had made in rearing so large a family in sternly noble Scottish independence. And that joy was hallowed by
the knowledge that my other brothers and sisters were now both willing and able to do more than all that would in future be required–for we stuck to each other and to the old folks like burs, and had all things in common,” as a family in Christ–and I knew that never again, howsoever long they might be spared through the peaceful autumn of life, would the dear old father and mother lack any joy or comfort that the willing hands and loving hearts of all their children could singly or unitedly provide. For all this I did praise the Lord! It consoled me, beyond description, in parting from them,
probably for ever, in this world at least.

The Directors of Glasgow City Mission, along with the Great Hamilton Street congregation, had made every effort to find a suitable successor to me in my Green Street work, but in vain. Despairing of success, as no inexperienced worker could with any hope undertake it, Rev. Mr. Caie, the superintendent, felt moved to appeal to my brother Walter–then in a good business situation in the city, who had been of late closely associated with me in all my undertakings–if he would not come to the rescue, devote himself to the Mission, and prepare for the Holy Ministry. My brother resigned a good position and excellent prospects in the business world, set himself to carry forward the Green Street Mission, and did so with abundant energy and manifest blessing, persevered in his studies despite a long-continued illness, and became an honoured Minister of the Gospel, in the Reformed Presbyterian Church first of all, and thereafter in the Free Church of Scotland.

On my brother withdrawing from Green Street, God provided for the district a devoted young Minister, admirably adapted for the work, Rev. John Edgar, M.A., who succeeded in drawing together such a body of people that they hived off and built a new church in Landressy Street, which is now, by amalgamation, known as the Barrowfield Free Church of Glasgow. For that fruit too, while giving all praise to other devoted workers, we bless God as we trace the history of the Green Street Mission. Let him that soweth and him that reapeth rejoice unfeignedly together. The spirit of the old Green Street workers lives on too, as I have already said, in the new Halls erected close thereby; and in none more conspicuously than in the son of my staunch patron and friend, another Thomas Binnie, who in Foundry Boy meetings and otherwise devotes the consecrated leisure of a busy and prosperous life to the direct personal service of his Lord and Master. The blessing of Jehovah God be ever upon that place, and upon all who there seek to win their fellows to the love and service of Jesus Christ. When I left Glasgow, many of the young men and women of my Classes would, if it had been possible, have gone with me, to live and die among the Heathen. Though chiefly working girls and lads in trades and mills, their deep interest led them to unite their pennies and sixpences, and to buy web after web of calico, print, and woollen stuffs, which they themselves shaped and sewed into dresses for the women, and kilts and pants for men, on the New Hebrides. This continued to be repeated year by year, long after I had left them; and to this day no box from Glasgow goes to the New Hebrides Mission which does not contain article after article from one or other of the old Green Street hands. I do certainly anticipate that, when they and I meet in Glory, those days in which we learned the joy of Christian service in the Green Street Mission Halls will form no unwelcome theme of holy and happy converse!

That able and devoted Minister of the Gospel, Dr. Bates, the Convener of the Heathen Missions, had taken the deepest and most fatherly interest in all our preparations. On the morning of our final examinations he was confined to bed with sickness, yet could not be content without sending his daughter to wait in an adjoining room near the Presbytery House, to learn the result, and instantly to carry him word. When she, hurrying home, informed him that we both had passed successfully, and that the day of our ordination as Missionaries to the New Hebrides had been appointed, the apostolic old man praised God for the glad tidings, and said his work was now done, and that he could depart in peace having seen two devoted men set apart to preach the Gospel to these dark and bloody Islands, in answer to his prayers and tears for many a day. Thereafter he rapidly sank, and soon fell asleep in Jesus. He was from the first a very precious friend to me, one of the ablest Ministers our Church ever had, by far the warmest advocate of her Foreign Missions: and altogether a most attractive, white-souled, and noble specimen of an ambassador for Christ, beseeching men to be reconciled to God.


The above excerpt is from John G. Paton: The Autobiography of the Pioneer Missionary to the New Hebrides (Cloth-bound, 540 pages, £14.50).

Featured Image: William Clark, 1803–1883, British, The English Merchant Ship ‘Malabar’, 1836, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1981.25.106.

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