My mom enjoys biographies so I am always on the lookout for good birthday and Christmas books. Last year I bought Margaret Paton: Letters From the South Seas, which was republished by Banner of Truth Trust. She loved it and gave it back to me to read. I am enjoying it so much that I think I’d like to add a copy to our library to read again and share in the future.
Margaret, or Maggie, was the second wife of John G. Paton who was a well-known missionary to the New Hebrides in the 1800s. They lived on a remote island and would go a whole year without letters from home. Maggie regularly wrote letters to friends and family to have ready to send with the missionary vessel the Dayspring. These letters are collected in the book in chronological order.
One is struck first off by how long and detailed her writing was. I have always thought my letters were long-not compared with hers! She did not have the convenience of e-mail and I think that was a blessing as far as depth goes. The letters are fascinating glimpses into the joys and difficulties of living among the natives and, because they were written to close aquaintances, one is able to truly know the Patons.
She was both witty and insightful. Many times I have been moved to laughter and challenged by her observations in the same letter. She was not afraid to speak her mind, but she could also write in a way that got her point across through example rather than preaching. I personally do not mind being preached at if it is the truth that is being spoken, but it is good to be able to do both in our communication.
One of my favorite descriptions is of the nightly worship they had with the natives. On Sundays they had regular services and Sunday school, and then the family would go to their home for an afternoon of family time. The rest of the week was spent with the natives coming and going in their home. In the evenings the old chief would gather all the people to come for worship and get the big Bible out for John. They would read, sing and pray and then, because they enjoyed singing so much, they would sing all the hymns over again, enjoying the cool night breezes together. Our family has nightly worship, and I thought when I read that how wonderful it would be to gather extended family, friends and neighbors for this special time each day.
A concern I have had with many missionaries (and pastors) is the tendency to sacrifice their own families on the alter of evangelism. I believe this is a deception of Satan and something not required by God. Ministry ought to flow out of family life. Maggie says something similar on page 86 (and I did say she knew how to speak her mind), “Fools, who have had no experience of the many-sided influences of Christianity in saving and in civilizing the Heathen, may chatter against missionaries marrying, and shake their heads about the distractions of a family. We who are in the thick of the work, and know all sides to the question, feel overwhelmingly thankful that God has given us these children, not only for our own happiness, but even for our work’s sake. How often are those wonderful words suggested to us, ‘A little child shall lead them!’ Our bairns are little missionaries, every one. They have called forth in the Natives a softened feeling towards us, and in us towards the Natives and their children. . . .The life of the Christian home is the best treatise on Christianity – a daily object lesson, which all can understand, can ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest’; in fact, it is the only Bible which many of them shall ever read!”
Isaiah 8:18 says, “Here am I and the children whom the Lord has given me! We are for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of Hosts, who dwells in Mount Zion.” Titus 2 also confirms how important godly family life is to the spread of the gospel. For example, young women are told to love their husbands, love their children, be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands-so that the word of God will not be blasphemed. Maggie is an example of a woman who knew her main role was as wife and mother, and who skillfully opened up her home to include others in the daily things of life. She didn’t consider her children distractions or go running off to do ministry away from them. This is something our family desires to move towards.
An interesting quote on page 99, “We manage to keep our bairns, in large measure, separate from the Native children, for weighty reasons, but it requires a little engineering to prevent them from feeling it. The front of our house is quite fenced off, and the side gates are locked, so that they play about by themselves or with their nurses; and on Sundays we are entirely free of visitors.” They knew that the children were not ready to be missionaries on their own yet, but needed sheltered and trained throughout childhood, just as plants are started in a greenhouse, so that they would be strong witnesses when they grew up. And this bore much fruit. Their children grew up to be godly men and women who raised many grandchildren. (The Patons did, as the children got older, send them home to school–but still they were guarded from ungodly influences; and there were times that John traveled away from his family. I do not mean to paint an unrealistic picture. Their pattern as a whole was to minister together.)
The book closes with this tribute, “Her influence over her children was deep and permanent. There was in her nature a rare combination of saintliness and humanness, that made the Christian life very real and winsome to all with whom she came into touch. Beneath all the naturalness and the sparkling humour there was an intense devotion to Christ, and a heroism that nothing could daunt. And with it all, her life was, in her own words, ‘a pure-white heat of love for her children’. No wonder they loved her passionately, and with deep reverence sought to follow in her steps.”