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Joel Beeke on the Letters and Sketches of Maggie Paton

Category Book Reviews
Date September 15, 2023

Maggie Paton’s letters ought to be read alongside Paton’s autobiography. James Paton wrote that he was eager to publish these letters because ‘they present another picture of mission life and experiences in the New Hebrides’ from that portrayed in the now famous Autobiography of her husband. 

The story of John Gibson Paton (1824-1907), Scottish Presbyterian missionary to the South Pacific, is well-known. Paton worked with the Glasgow City Mission while preparing himself for overseas service by studying medicine and theology. Ordained by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1858, Paton established a mission post on the New Hebrides island of Tanna. His autobiography tells how the loss of his wife and infant son in addition to severe privations and native hostility forced him to leave the island. He settled in Australia. There he extended the missionary challenge among the Aussies, as well as in New Zealand and Scotland, where his church elected him Moderator of her highest court in 1864.

In Scotland, Paton recruited seven missionaries for the work in the New Hebrides. He then settled on the island of Aniwa (1866-1881) with his second wife, Margaret (Maggie) Whitecross Paton (d. 1905), daughter of Rev. John Whitecross, author of the Shorter Catechism Illustrated. He related well to the natives there, had a highly effective ministry, and also translated parts of Scripture into the Aniwan tongue. By the end of the Patons’ tenure, most of the Aniwan natives were professing Christianity.

Beginning in 1881, Paton was based in Melbourne, Australia. He conducted missionary tours in numerous nations, producing large donations for South Pacific missions. He was a powerful yet simple speaker whose passion for missions knew no bounds. By the time of his death in Australia in 1907, he was hailed around the world as a great missionary leader. His family’s missionary connection with the New Hebrides continued until 1970.

Paton’s brother James edited his autobiography. James also obtained permission from Maggie Paton to publish her letters. Though many of them have been lost, a sufficient number survived to piece together a moving history of the Patons’ labors over a twenty-five year span (1865-1889).

The letters throb with heartfelt convictions. Most of them were written only for Mrs. Paton’s family members, and none were ever intended for print. Hence they are blunt, serious, and at times, humorous – all bearing the marks of great integrity. They provide remarkably realistic insights into life on the mission field from the perspective of a God-fearing missionary’s wife who was willing to follow her husband’s call in adverse and life-threatening circumstances.

Maggie Paton’s letters ought to be read alongside Paton’s autobiography. James Paton wrote that he was eager to publish these letters because “they present another picture of mission life and experiences in the New Hebrides from that portrayed in the now famous Autobiography of her husband. No feature will be found in the one contradictory to the features in the other, but many lovely and thrilling scenes of a supplementary and illuminative kind. Here we have the woman’s delicate touch; we see with the woman’s eye.”

Maggie Paton’s letters and sketches will move you; at times you will weep, at other times, smile. You will be stirred by the challenge of working in an isolated mission situation with only rare connection to the outside world. For example, she writes, “If you came to be missionaries, you would find it uphill work indeed, to be sacrificing your whole life merely for the sake of those who could not understand your motives, and who know not what it cost you to give up home and friends. But Jesus regards every sigh, and whatever is done for Him will meet with a sweet reward even in this life; for He who has promised can never disappoint”.

At times, Mrs. Paton is eloquent in conveying truth gleaned from the Holy Spirit’s teaching in the school of affliction. She writes, “It is only when we have a hold of Jesus’ hand that we can breast the billows that surge over and threaten to drown us”. Of home life, she says, “The life of the Christian home is the best treatise on Christianity-a daily object lesson, which all can understand, can read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest; in fact, it is the only Bible which many of them [the black natives] shall ever read! It wakens a terrible feeling of responsibility to see how they sometimes look up to us”.

She beautifully describes the power of the call to mission work when she writes of her husband: “His whole spirit is saturated with it; and it’s just as impossible to take the missionary spirit out of a man, as it is to put it into him. Besides, he does not feel that God has given him a direct call to leave it; and until that is the case, you may be sure he will not make the first move!”

I trust your appetite has been whetted to read this big-as-life book of mission letters. May God apply it to every reader, so that we examine our own sense of allegiance to Jesus Christ, the missionary par excellence, and realize afresh that without the mission heart of the Triune God, all of us would be lost forever.


You can purchase Margaret Paton’s Letters from the South Seas here. 

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