John Williams Transforms Polynesia

On November 20 John Williams was clubbed to death and eaten by cannibals on the island of Erromanga in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). It was 1839 – and he was 43 years of age.

Born in London 27 June, 1796 at Tottenham High Cross, he came from evangelical stock, his father a Baptist and his mother influenced by the Calvinistic Methodist movement. At age 14 John was apprenticed to an ironmonger and was soon managing the business.

At age 19 he was converted to Christianity and joined the Calvinistic Methodist Tabernacle Church, where Rev Wilks taught him grammar and exegesis.

At the age of 20 he offered himself to the London Missionary Society.

He married Mary Chauner and together they set sail for the Society Islands of the Pacific in December, 1816, sent out by the London Missionary Society. The mission team collected another member at Rio de Janeiro then travelled on to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). There in March 1817 Williams preached the first evangelical service on that soil, defying official church opposition by preaching in the open air. In May they arrived in Sydney and established good relations with Governor Lachlan Macquarie, on the promise of good trading prospects from the Pacific Islands.

On November 17, 1817 John and Mary arrived in Tahiti. John mastered the language in 10 months and was ready to preach! Williams was one of those unstoppable missionaries who seemed to take every obstacle in his stride. He was regarded as the most enterprising missionary in the islands.

He set to work building a boat – the first of five – which would enable him to sail to the other islands. But such a course of action did not meet with the approval of the mission directors back in England.

It was the old, old question, oft to be repeated: Who knows best – the man on the field where the action is, or the administrators in their office back home?

“The years that followed were tainted by conflict – sometimes heated and bitter – as Williams in flagrant violation of the directors’ mandate continued his nautical activity” (From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, by Ruth Tucker).

In December 1821 Williams and his wife visited Sydney for three months, where he preached and addressed public meetings. He also bought a ship with Rev Samuel Marsden’s reluctant approval, to trade between Raiatea and Sydney; and he engaged Thomas Scott to teach cultivation of sugar-cane and tobacco to the people of Raiatea. Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane was so impressed by Williams that he supplied stock to the mission and gave him magisterial authority for the islands.

In 1823 Williams travelled from the Society Group to the Hervey Group of islands and discovered Rarotonga where most of the inhabitants were soon converted. Williams later translated parts of the Bible and other books into Rarotongan and the Rarotongan’s asked him to create a civil and legal code for them, based on Christianity.

In 1838, when Williams had become a public figure, he returned to Sydney in the newly outfitted mission ship Camden, and drew considerable crowds to his meetings. He was returning form London (1834-1838) where he had given evidence before the committee of the House of Commons on Aborigines, and so was influential in the establishment of the local Aborigines Protection Society. In 1837 he published “Narrative of Missionary Enterprise in the South Sea Islands” throwing valuable light on Polynesia.

It is recorded that during his 22 years of ministry, this Apostle to Polynesia saw 300,000 natives brought to Christ. He taught them to build houses and furniture, churches and schools, and raise sugar cane. Natives were trained as teachers and as missionaries to other islands. The Rarotongan translation of the New Testament was printed during his lifetime.

“In 1823,” Williams wrote, “I found them (the Raratongans) all heathens; in 1834 they were all professing Christians. At the former period I found them with idols … in 1834 congregations amounting to 6000 persons assembled every Sabbath day; I found them without a written language, and left them reading in their own tongue the wonderful works of God” (Epoch Makers of Modern Missions, page 127).

Williams believed that Australia had a divine responsibility to take the gospel to the Pacific.

On 20 November, 1839, at the age of 43, he visited the isle of Erromanga, and was clubbed to death by hostile cannibals. His is one of the great stories of missionary endeavour with which every Christian should be acquainted.

Another famous missionary, John Coleridge Patteson, was martyred in the New Hebrides in 1871. That account can be found posted for September 20, 2008.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

John Coleridge Patteson Reaches Melanesia

This is the date that … John Coleridge Patteson was speared to death, in 1871.

He was born in London on 1 April, 1827, to devout upper-class parents, his father being a lawyer of good repute. Educated at Eton, he was elected captain of the College cricket team. Because it was the custom to sing ‘bawdy songs’ at the Eton Eleven’s annual dinner he resigned in protest. The team saw that he was right, asked him to remain as captain, and forsook their foolish and evil practice.

Eventually he was ordained to the Church of England ministry (14 September, 1853), and turned his eyes to the need of missionaries in the South Seas. He formed a strong friendship with Bishop Selwyn, Bishop to New Zealand, and learned from him the challenges taking the gospel to Melanesia. The multiplicity of languages was a major hurdle. Selwyn came up with the plan of taking youths to Auckland to be trained and then returned to their own islands.

When Patteson was asked to help he gladly did so and in 1855 he sailed for New Zealand with Bishop Selwyn. From Auckland the missionaries used a newly built schooner, the Southern Cross.

On May 1, 1856 the Southern Cross set sail for Melanesia. The trip took them to 66 islands, including 81 landings, and enabled them to collect a handful of young men to train back in New Zealand.

He writes to his father concerning a school he established: “I have the jolliest little fellows – about seven of them – fellows scarcely too big to take on my knee and talk to about God and Heaven and Jesus Christ…” Not all the boys survived the relocation to Auckland and the colder weather they were exposed to.

Visits to the Melanesian islands were made difficult by past violence from white men, including the Spaniards in the 1500’s. The islands were also troubled by the current practice of gathering slaves for the cane fields of Fiji and Queensland. Cannibalism was practiced on some islands as well.

In 1861 he was consecrated as the first Bishop of Melanesia. The French settlements promoted the Catholic faith and brought some opposition to the Protestant work of Patteson and his associates.

It was on a visit to the lonely island of Nukapu in the New Hebrides that his martyrdom took place a decade later. Hostile natives killed him – “in revenge for five natives who had recently died at the hands of white men…” traders who had no interest in the things of God. Apparently a ship had arrived at the island painted to resemble Patteson’s schooner, the Southern Cross. The deceivers kidnapped men and killed scores of others. Patteson had five wounds in his chest and his head had been dreadfully battered, but his face still retained its customary placid smile.

Bishop Patteson died at the age of 44.

Patteson’s death was used to urge the Queen to stop the illegal slave trade, referred to as “Blackbirding”. Britains were forbidden to enslave men, but they took them by force, supposedly as employees. The Pacific Islanders Protection Act of 1872 resulted.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at