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 www.donaldprout.com. 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.

Christian Friedrich Swartz Impacts Southern India

This is the day that Christian Friedrich Swartz was born in Prussia (now Poland), in 1726.

He has been described as “one of the most energetic and successful missionaries of the 18th century (Schaff/Herzog Encyclopaedia, page 2131).

His youth was spent at Halle, the centre of German pietism. Founded by Jacob Spener, this was a movement that sought to add spiritual life to a moribund Lutheranism. Young Swartz here studied the Indian dialect, Tamil, that he might superintend the translation of a Bible in that tongue.

Lutheran Missions to India had seen success under several missionaries, notably two eminent Germans, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1683-1719) and Heinrich Plütschau (1678-1747). Both of these men had preceded Swartz at Halle. Ziegenbalg’s work in southern India was an inspiration to William Carey for the latter’s later work in northern India.

In 1750 Swartz sailed for India, where he lived for the next 48 years, and where he died. When Schwartz arrived in south India, the Tamil-speaking Christian community established by Ziegenbalg and others was close to 2,000 persons.

Swartz threw himself into the missionary work. “His passion to save men made all labour and sacrifice seem little. He studied the habits, modes of thought and idioms of speech, and even the mazes of mythology, which are the paths to the hearts of the Hindus” (New Acts of the Apostles, by A.T. Pierson, page 91).

In 1768, the East India Company appointed Schwartz as a chaplain in Trichonopoly. Ten years later in 1778, Schwartz moved to Tanjore where he lived the rest of his life. During his service with the British, Schwartz was known as a peacemaker (i.e., diplomat) during times of war caused by the East India Company’s aggressive policies in India. Schwartz’s linguistic abilities became legendary as he related easily among Germans, English, Portuguese, and many different Indian peoples. Schwartz learned Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Persian, Hindustani, Marathi, and Portuguese.

He established many schools for native Indians and orphaned Indian children, which greatly endeared him to the Indian people.

Swartz never married; indeed he was critical of fellow missionaries who did! (Christian Missionaries, by O. Milton, page 33.) Rajahs, governors-general, haughty Brahmins, English military officers, all seemed to look upon him as a man of God.

It was Wednesday, 13 February, 1798, that he lay upon his deathbed and, “with clear and melodious voice”, joined with the friends gathered around him, singing, “Only to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ”.

The Rajah’s son, Serfojee, acted as chief mourner a few days later.

It is estimated that Swartz was responsible for the conversion of over 6,000 Hindus and Moslems during his years in India.

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 www.donaldprout.com. 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.

Adoniram Judson Impacts Burma

This is the day that … Adoniram Judson was born, in 1788.

He was to become America’s first foreign missionary. His passion for reaching Burma led to the formation of the first American Mission societies. He sailed from his homeland as a Congregationalist, and arrived in India as a Baptist, in 1812. En route his translation of the New Testament from Greek to English convicted him the Baptist position on baptism was correct.

With his young bride, Ann, he soon found himself in Burma, with a 33 year ministry (without furlough) ahead of him, during which he would see the death of both Ann and his second wife, Sarah; endure a 23-month imprisonment in intolerable conditions – and translate the Bible into the Burmese language.

Then he would return to America for a brief furlough – and go back to Burma with his third wife, Emily. Each of his wives is hailed for their commitment and contribution to his life and work. (On August 22 I will share with you a moving account of the life of Judson’s third wife, Emily Chubback)

It took him six years to see his first convert and he faced many obstacles that would have discouraged a lesser man. Significant among his converts was the first convert from the Karen tribe. The man, Ko Tha Byu, has come to be known as the Karen Apostle, the virtual founder of Karen Christianity. Recognising that Christianity was the fulfilment of his people’s own legends this man’s ministry resulted in the conversion of thousands. Within 25 years there were over 11,000 baptised Karen believers.

When Judson died in 1850 he left behind a flourishing church with 7000 members and more than 100 national Burmese pastors. He insisted that each convert be discipled with thorough Biblical training, rather than just make a confession. This led to a strong church among the converts.

“Judson became an inspiring example of missionary sacrifice and dedication for several generations of young people,” says E.A. Wilson.

True! And he would continue to be an inspiration to today’s Christian young people if they would read his biography.

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 www.donaldprout.com.

John Eliot Prints America’s First Bible

This is the day that … John Eliot was born, in 1604, at Widford, Hertfordshire, in England (Christian Hero Cards, by Ed Reese).

John was educated at Cambridge and became skilled in Greek and Hebrew.

Under the influence of Rev. Thomas Hooker, young Eliot embraced the doctrines of Puritanism … and was eventually forced to flee to Massachusetts (USA) in 1631.

Pastoring a church in New England, “his pulpit was a new Sinai from which burning lightning bolts hurled down upon all transgressions. Yet he was also a true gospel preacher, his kindness and love won for him many friends” (Early Missionary Endeavours, by J.T. Mueller, page 35).

Eliot set himself to learning the Indian language – quite a task! “Our love”, in the native Algonquin Indian language, was “Nummatschekodtantamuhn-gngannunoash”!

But Eliot persevered for 15 years before he dared to preach to the Indians in their own tongue, and eventually translated the whole Bible for them (1664). This was almost 120 years before the first English language Bible was printed in America by Robert Aitken in 1782.

This was not his first printing landmark. He was, with Richard Mather, one of the editors of the Bay Psalm Book of 1640, which was the first book of any kind ever printed in America.

Eliot also compiled an Indian grammar and dictionary (with the help of his sons), and translated Richard Baxter’s famous volume, A Call to the Unconverted, for them. It was 28 October, 1646, he preached to the Indians, his text being Ezekiel 37:3: “Can these bones live?”

On the third meeting where Eliot preached in their native tongue, several Indians declared themselves converted, and were soon followed by many others.

In the years that followed there were encouraging results, and opposition from the tribal medicine man. On 7 October, 1647, Eliot even buried a famous chief according to Christian ritual. Thus he was known as “the apostle to the Indians”, the first missionary to America’s native people.

Eliot set up Indian towns where effective Christian ministry was achieved. His model was followed by others. By 1674 the unofficial census of the “praying Indians” numbered 4,000.

He died on 20 (or 21) May, 1690, at the age of 86. “The Lord Whom I have served over 80 years will not forsake me,” he said. “O come in Thy great glory! A long time I have waited for Thee. Welcome, Lord, welcome.”

And the Bible he translated, and had printed, is now in an extinct language, and can only be understood by a handful of scholars.

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 www.donaldprout.com.

Caswell the Hymn Translator

This is the day that … Edward Caswell was born in Hampshire, England, in 1814.

The son of an Anglican vicar, young Edward graduated from Oxford in 1836, and three years later became a clergyman.

But during his first ministerial charge he was caught up in the Oxford Movement, which resulted in his seceding to the Church of Rome. After the death of his wife three years later he was accepted into the Roman Catholic priesthood.

For the next 28 years he worked among the “sick and the poor” at Edgbaston – and there he died on 2 January, 1878.

During those later years he wrote, and translated from the Latin, many hymns. Some of the best known include :

Jesus, the very thought of Thee …

O Jesus, King most wonderful …

When morning gilds the skies …

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 www.donaldprout.com.