IN PERILS BY THE HEATHEN
This pen-portrait of a native Christian from the islands of the New Hebrides is largely extracted from the book “John G. Paton”, republished by the Banner of Truth in 1965, a book first published in 1889.
Abraham was born on the island of Aneityum which is the most southerly of the New Hebridean islands lying more than 1,200 miles east of Australia and 1,000 miles north of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean. The natives on these islands at the beginning of the nineteenth century, were of the most debased character described by J. G. Paton as “cannibals of a very pronounced type and savages without any trace of civilisation.
Through the labours of intrepid Christian missionaries, Abraham, along with others from Aneityum were brought to the knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. They
found Him to be the Saviour of sinners, proving that Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5.6), even those so ungodly as these debased cannibals. Under the renewing and elevating influence of the Holy Spirit he was made a new creature in Christ Jesus and henceforward his life was completely altered. Instead of the old hatred and bitterness of tribal and inter-island warfare Abraham was eventually found amongst a group of native Christian teachers who accompanied John G. Paton to the wholly unconverted island of Tanna, with the hope of seeing these spiritually and morally benighted people turned to the ways of God.
The opposition of the cannibals on Tanna was terrifying in the extreme and for a long time there were few who showed the least interest in or sympathy towards the missionaries.
Not realising that to live near the sea on low lying land was dangerously unhealthy, “Missi” (as J. G. Paton was called by the natives) became very ill with fever not long after having buried his young wife and new born child who had died from the same terrible plague. He records his deliverance in the following passage:Â—
Just at this juncture, the fever smote me again more severely than ever; my weakness after this attack was so great, that I felt as if I never could rally again. With the help of my faithful Aneityumese teacher, Abraham, and his wife, however, I made what appeared my last effort to creepÂ—I could not climbÂ—up the hill to get a breath of wholesome air. When about two-thirds up the hill, I became so faint that I concluded I was dying. Lying down on the ground, sloped against the root of a tree to keep me from rolling to the bottom, I took farewell of old Abraham, of my Mission work, and of everything around! In this weak state I lay, watched over by my faithful companion, and fell into a quiet sleep. When consciousness returned, I felt a little stronger, and a faint gleam of hope and life came back to my soul.
Abraham and his devoted wife Nafatu lifted me and carried me to the top of the hill. There they laid me on cocoa-nut leaves on the ground, and erected over me a shade or screen of the same; and there the two faithful souls, inspired surely by something diviner even than mere human pity, gave me the cocoa-nut juice to drink and fed me with native food and kept me livingÂ—I know not for how long. Consciousness did, however, fully return. The trade wind refreshed me day by day. The Tannese seemed to have given me up for dead; and providentially none of them looked near us for many days. Amazingly my strength returned, and I began planning about my new house on the hill. Afraid again to sleep at the old site, I Slept under the tree, sheltered by the cocoa-nut leaf screen, while preparing my new bedroom.
Here again, but for these faithful souls, the Aneityumese teacher and his wife, I must have been baffled, and would have died in the effort. The planks of the wreck, and all other articles required, they fetched and carried; and it taxed my utmost strength to get them in some way planted together. But life depended on it. It was at length accomplished; and after that time I suffered comparatively
little from anything like continuous attacks of fever and ague. That noble old soul, Abraham, stood by me as an angel of God in sickness and in danger; he went at my side wherever I had to go; he helped me willingly to the last inch of strength in all that I had to do; and it was perfectly manifest that he was doing all this not from mere human love, but for the sake of Jesus. That man had been a cannibal in his heathen days, but by the grace of God there he stood verily a new creature in Christ Jesus. Any trust, however sacred or valuable, could be absolutely reposed in him; and in trial or danger, I was often refreshed by that old teacher’s prayers, as I used to be by the prayers of my saintly father in my childhood’s home. No white man could have been a more valuable helper to me in my perilous circumstances; and no person, white or black, could have shown more fearless and chivalrous devotion.
When I have read or heard the shallow objections of irreligious scribblers and talkers, hinting that there was no reality in conversions, and that Mission effort was but waste, oh, how my heart has yearned to plant them just one week on Tanna, with the “natural” man all around in the person of Cannibal and Heathen, and only the one “spiritual” man in the person of the converted Abraham, nursing them, feeding them, saving them “for the love of Jesus”Â—that I might just learn how many hours it took to convince them that Christ in man was a reality after all! All the scepticism of Europe would hide its head in foolish shame; and all its doubts would dissolve under one glance of the new light that Jesus, and Jesus alone, pours from the converted cannibal’s eye.
“Missi” recovered from this severe illness and laboured on in the work of teaching and preaching but amidst increasing opposition. This suspicion and hatred was brought to a head when a party of wicked and unscrupulous traders deliberately carried an epidemic of measles to the island.
‘The measles, thus introduced, became amongst our Islanders the most deadly plague. It spread fearfully, and was accompanied by sore throat and diarrhoea. In some villages, man, woman, and child were stricken, and none could give food or water to the rest. The misery, suffering, and terror were unexampled, the living being afraid sometimes even to bury the dead. Thirteen of my own Mission party died of this disease; and, so terror-stricken were the few who survived, that when the little Mission schooner “John Knox” returned to Tanna, they all packed up and left for their own Aneityum, except my own dear old Abraham.
At first, thinking that all were on the wing, he also had packed his chattels, and was standing beside the others ready to leave with them. I drew near to him, and said, “Abraham, they are all going; are you also going to leave me here alone on Tanna, to fight the battles of the Lord?”
He asked, “Missi, will you remain?”
I replied, “Yes; but, Abraham, the danger to life is now so great that I dare not plead with you to remain, for we may both be slain. Still, I cannot leave the Lord’s work now.”
The noble old Chief looked at the box and his bundles, and, musing, said, “Missi, our danger is very great now.”
I answered, “Yes; I once thought you would not leave me alone to it; but, as the vessel is going to your own land, I cannot ask you to remain and face it with me!”
He again said, “Missi, would you like me to remain alone with you, seeing my wife is dead and in her grave here?”
I replied, “Yes, I would like you to remain; but, considering the circumstances in which we will be left alone, I cannot plead with you to do so.”
He answered, “Then, Missi, I remain with you of my own free choice, and with all my heart. We will live and die together in the work of the Lord. I will never leave you while you are spared on Tanna.”
So saying, and with a light that gave the fore-gleam of a martyr’s glory to his dark face, he shouldered his box and bundles back to his own house; and thereafter, Abraham was my dear companion and constant friend, and my fellow-sufferer in all that remains still to be related of our Mission life on Tanna.’
Some time after these events the lives of the remaining small band of missionaries were in grave danger and “Missi” writes:Â—
‘Abraham and I were thrown much into each other’s company, and he stood by me in every danger. We conducted family prayers alternately; and that evening he said during the prayer in Tannese, in which language alone we understood each other:
“O Lord, our Heavenly Father, they have murdered Thy servants on Erromanga. They have banished the Aneityumese from dark Tanna. And now they want to kill Missi Paton and me! Our great King, protect us, and make their hearts soft and sweet to Thy worship. Or, if they are permitted to kill us, do not Thou hate us, but wash us in the blood of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ. He came down to earth and shed His blood for sinners; through Him forgive us our sins and take us to heavenÂ—that good place where Missi Gordon the man and Missi Gordon the woman and all Thy dear servants now are singing Thy praise and seeing Thy face. Our Lord, our hearts are pained just now, and we weep over the death of Thy dear servants; but make our hearts good and strong for Thy cause, and take Thou away all our fears. Make us two and all Thy servants strong for Thee and for Thy worship; and if they kill us two, let us die together in Thy good work, like Thy servants Missi Gordon the man and Missi Gordon the woman.”
In this manner his great simple soul poured itself out to God; and my heart melted within me as it had never done under any prayer poured from the lips of cultured Christian men!’
They had constant need of the Lord’s protection for, amidst a tribal conflict, they became the centre of the cannibals’ hatred and were eventually compelled to attempt an escape in a canoe to a neighbouring mission station.
“The teachers, the boy, and I now resolved to enter the canoe and attempt it, as the only gleam of hope left to us. After Faimungo
came, the man to whom the canoe belonged had withdrawn from us, it having transpired that Miaki would not attack us that night, as other game had attracted his savage eyes. My party of five now embarked in our frail canoe; Abraham first, I next, Matthew after me, the boy at the steering paddle, and Abraham’s wife sitting in the bottom, where she might hold on while it continued to float. For a mile or more we got away nicely under the lee of the island, but when we turned to go south for Mr. Mathieson’s Station, we met the full force of wind and sea, every wave breaking over and almost swamping our canoe. The Native lad at the helm paddle stood up crying, “Missi, this is the conduct of the sea! It swallows up all who seek its help.”
I answered, “We do not seek help from it, but from Jehovah Jesus.”
Our danger became very great, as the sea broke over and lashed around us. My faithful Aneityumese, overcome with terror, threw down their paddles, and Abraham said, “Missi, we are all drowned now! We are food for the sharks. We might as well be eaten by the Tannese as by fishes; but God will give us life with Jesus in heaven!”
I seized the paddle nearest me; I ordered Abraham to seize another within his reach; I enjoined Matthew to bale the canoe for life, and the lad to keep firm in his seat, and I cried, “Stand to your post, and let us return! Abraham, where is now your faith in Jesus? Remember, He is Ruler on sea as on land. Abraham, pray and ply your paddle! Keep up stroke for stroke with me, as our lives depend on it. Our God can protect us. Matthew, bale with all your might. Don’t look round on the sea and fear. Let us pray to God and ply our paddles, and He will save us yet!”
Dear old Abraham said, “Thank you for that, Missi. I will be strong. I pray to God and ply my paddle. God will save us!”
With much labour, and amid deadly perils, we got the canoe turned; and after four hours of a terrible struggle, we succeeded, towards daylight as the tide turned, in again reaching smooth water. With God’s blessing we at last reached the shore exactly where we had left it five hours ago.
Finally these noble men escaped from the island and “Missi” returned to Aneityum. There is no further information about the life of Abraham until his last days on earth. Some few years after the events on Tanna, Missi returned to Aneityum after a period in Australia and England, and records that while staying there, “I learned with as deep emotion as man ever felt for man, that noble old Abraham, the sharer of my Tannese trials, had during the interval peacefully fallen asleep in Jesus. He left for me his silver watchÂ— one which I had myself sent to the dear soul from Sydney, and which he greatly prized. In his dying hour he said, “Give it to Missi, my own Missi Paton; and tell him that I go to Jesus, where Time is dead.”