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.