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.

Giralamo Savonarola Impacts Florence and is Martyred

This is the day that … Giralamo Savonarola was born to a noble family in Florence, Italy, in 1452.

At the age of 21, he left home secretly to join a Dominican monastery.

He was thirty when he preached his first sermons in St Marcos, Florence, resulting in ridicule and shame. “The disappointed thousands went away murmuring at the incompetence” of the preacher (Savonarola, by Rev. W. Rule, 1855, page 22).

For the next six years he retreated from the pulpit to master the art of preaching … and to study the Scriptures. His zeal was noted and he was recalled to Florence.

When he stood again in St Marcos, it was like a newborn John the Baptist, thundering out the Word of the Lord and calling sinners to repentance. “Tears ran profusely, mourners beat upon their breasts, crying to God for mercy; the church echoed and re-echoed with their sobs” (Prophets in Evangelism¸ by F. Barlow, page 159).

And among those whose sins he lashed was the infamous Medici – Lorenzo the Magnificent, Prince of Florence! Humanist notions had been promoted under Lorenzo. And even the Pope “who, though claiming to be head of the Church, was living openly in sin” came in for a powerful rebuke from this Italian ‘prophet’ (Yarns on Christian Pioneers, by E. Hayes, page 15).

Pope Alexander VI – one of the Borgia family – was denounced as “a heretic and an infidel”. Bear in mind that Savonarola was himself a Roman Catholic. But corruption and sin were rampant … and Savonarola attacked both clergy and civic leaders.

In 1493 Savonarola was given charge, as the first vicar-general, to reform the Dominican order in Tuscany, which he had proposed.

His great bonfire in the city plaza – 7 February, 1497 – saw the destruction of “lewd books, obscene pictures, carnival costumes, playing cards, dice, false hair, books on astrology and witchcraft – indeed anything that reeked of sinful living”.

The Venetian Ambassador offered him 20,000 gold ducats for his pile of ‘vanities’ heaped so high in a tiered pyramid. But Savonarola burned the lot!

The death of Lorenzo, and the invasion of France (destruction of the city averted by Savonarola’s face-to-face encounter with the French king), led to this remarkable preacher being the uncrowned ruler of Florence.

The republic of Florence was to be a Christian commonwealth, of which God was the sole sovereign, and His Gospel the law: the most stringent enactments were made for the repression of vice and frivolity. Gambling was prohibited and the vanities of dress were restrained by sumptuary laws.

It became a stronghold of puritanism … though not in doctrine!

By 1490 the tide of popular opinion was turning against him. Pope Alexander VI ex-communicated him (13 May, 1497). He was accused of heresy. He ignored the orders and continued in public office, but the next year the Medici were returned to power and Savonarola was ordered to stop preaching.

He was brought to trial for falsely claiming to have seen visions, and uttered prophecies, for religious error, and for sedition. Under torture he made avowals which he afterwards withdrew. He was declared guilty and the sentence was confirmed by Rome. On May 23, 1498, this extraordinary man and two Dominican disciples were hanged and burned.

A biographer records an interesting incident as Savonarola was led through the crowd to the place of his martyrdom. Some “broke through the police lines and slashed at his bare legs and feet with their knives and daggers …” But a poor old woman offered him a crust of bread. “Take and eat, Blessed Father Girolamo,” she said. He smiled, “Thank you, my daughter, but I need no food now. I have so little way to go. In a moment I will be in the mansions on high having sup with my Lord and Saviour” (A Crown of Fire, by P. van Paassen, page 313).

So it was, on 23 May, 1498, at the age of 46, he was hung and burned in the Plaza. During these final hours, the Catholic Bishop had said: “I declare thee separated from the church militant and triumphant.” To which Savonarola replied: “From the church militant, yes; but from the church triumphant, no; that is not yours to do!”

Luther spoke of Savonarola as “a pioneer of the Reformation” and another writer adds that this Dominican priest “seems to have believed in justification by faith” (Who’s Who in Christian History, page 608).

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

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

The Martyrs of Islam and Christianity

A religion can be evaluated by various measures. Here I suggest that the martyrs of Islam and Christianity provide a significant insight into both religions.

Martyrs are not new, but neither are they a thing of the past. When John Foxe (1516-1587) wrote his famous book, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, in the sixteenth century, he thought that martyrdom was a thing of the past. However, there have been more Christian martyrs in modern times than all those of antiquity. Gospelweb claims that, on average, 465 Christian martyrs are killed around the globe every day.

At the same time Islam has its martyrs. In modern times we know them best as suicide bombers. These are people who have been taught that the killing of infidels (non Muslims) will gain them personal benefits in Paradise.

So, let’s take a moment to review some of the superficial differences between these two groups of martyrs, the Muslim and the Christian. And in so doing, let’s see what those who are willing to die for their faith reveal about the very faith for which they die.

Islam’s martyrs die in holy war (jihad). They are commonly seen today as suicide bombers. Their actions are essentially selfish – in order to gain personal benefit, such as promotion to paradise, with a bevy of beautiful virgins at their behest. In death these martyrs aim to kill as many others as they can. They kill and main innocent people, in the name of their religious zeal.

Islam’s martyrs die for personal gain and maximum carnage on others.

Christianity’s martyrs die as victims, not as warriors. They most commonly die because they have attempted to take their faith to others, or because they refuse to deny their faith in the face of threat. They do not inflict pain or damage to others in their death. They are passive in their martyrdom.

That’s quite a startling contrast.

Muslim martyrs die with self-interest in mind. Christian martyrs die to win others or to remain true to their faith.

Muslim martyrs necessarily engage in the slaughter of others. Christian martyrs bring no harm to others in their death.

Muslim martyrs engender fear in the community. Christian martyrs are no threat to anyone.

The word ‘martyr’ comes from the New Testament Greek word ‘martoos’, which means ‘witness’. So let’s see what these martyrs give testimony to about their religion.

In reflecting the example of Islamic martyrs we are presented with a religion of self-interest, at the expense of others. We are also presented with a religion of violence, carnage and destruction. We are presented with a religion at war. There is no evidence of something that elevates the human soul. The indulgent image of sexual gratification as the reward for martyrdom is itself a base idea, even if it is only pedalled by the fanatic fringe.

Christian martyrs testify to a religion of self-sacrificing devotion. We see a level of self-less commitment to preaching the gospel to others, even at the risk of death. We see love in action.

Martyrs are not the only reflection of a religion. But surely those people who are sufficiently committed to their faith to die for it must have some credibility in illustrating the character of what they are dying for.

On balance, then, the martyrs of Islam and Christianity bear witness to completely different and contrasting religions. There is no evidence in the testimony of the martyrs that the Moslem God and the Christian God have anything in common.