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Paton, John Gibson (1824–1907)

by G. S. Parsonson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

John Gibson Paton (1824-1907), Presbyterian missionary, was born on 24 May 1824 at Kirkmahoe, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, eldest of eleven children of James Paton (d.1868), a stocking manufacturer of Covenanting principles, and his wife Janet Jardine, née Rogerson (d.1865). Educated in the parish school at Torthorwald where his family settled in 1829, he worked at various trades before migrating to Glasgow. On graduating from the Free Normal Seminary, he was briefly a relieving teacher in the Maryhill Free Church School and for some ten years an evangelist in the Glasgow City Mission. After spare-time study at the University of Glasgow, the Andersonian (Medical) College and the Reformed Presbyterian Divinity Hall he was licensed on 1 December 1857 as a preacher and on 23 March 1858 ordained as a minister and missionary to the southern New Hebrides.

On arrival at Aneityum on 29 August Paton was appointed to Port Resolution, Tanna, where he was settled on 5 November 1858. His stay was brief and tragic. In March 1859 his wife Mary Ann, née Robson, and infant son died of malaria, and Paton was incapacitated by the same disease for months. A general movement towards Christianity in 1860 was checked early in 1861 by a measles epidemic which carried off a third of the populace, and three devastating hurricanes reduced the remnant to starvation. The death from cerebral malaria on 21 January 1861 of Paton's young colleague, S. F. Johnston, and the martyrdom on 20 May of Rev. and Mrs G. N. Gordon on Erromanga further alienated the anti-Christian party. After the visit of H.M.S. Cordelia and Pelorus in June the situation deteriorated. On 18 January 1862 war broke out between the rival confederacies and Paton fled overland to Anuikaraka whence on 3 February he and the sickly missionary, J. W. Matheson, withdrew to Aneityum.

For lack of other work Paton was dispatched to Australia to raise funds for the mission and its new ship, Dayspring. His graphic description in the Chalmers Presbyterian Church, Sydney, of his supposed hairbreadth escape from cannibals won him many sympathizers. Its unwearied repetition in some 470 meetings in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and the hostility it occasionally evoked among the rougher elements made his name a household word. In May 1863 after two great farewell meetings in Melbourne and Sydney, which brought his receipts to £5000, he left for Scotland to recruit more missionaries and in 1864 was made moderator of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland. On his return to Sydney in January 1865 with his second wife Margaret, née Whitecross, he raised another £1700 to meet the running expenses of the Dayspring; on a third visit in 1866 he secured permanent support for the ship by the Sabbath schools. His part in the controversial bombardment of Port Resolution by H.M.S. Curacoa in August 1865 had cost him many Sydney supporters. He therefore spent some months stirring up missionary enthusiasm in the newly-united Presbyterian Church of Victoria and was appointed its first missionary. Uneasy over returning to Tanna whose people refused to readmit him, he at last accepted appointment to Aniwa, which became nominally Christian by July 1867 and wholly so by 1872, when his wife's illness rendered his connexion with the island more tenuous.

At this stage Paton rapidly became an international figure. After the Dayspring was wrecked in 1873 he raised £3000 in Victoria and New Zealand for a new schooner, Paragon. In 1876-77 he toured Victoria in mission interests. In 1881 ill health forced his virtual retirement from the islands and he became general mission agent for the Victorian Church, in which post he continued to take a deep, if proprietary, interest in the New Hebrides mission and its ship. In 1884 he raised £6000 in Britain for an auxiliary steamship, in defiance of the mission synod and the Sydney Dayspring Board. On the rejection of his initiative in 1890 he hotly opposed the contract with Burns Philp & Co., acting for the Australasian United Steam Navigation Co., as harmful to mission interests. He forced the issue in Melbourne after his triumphal tour of the United States and Britain in 1892-94 when he announced the gift by his London committee of £1000 a year towards maintaining the new ship and handed over another £12,527 of his total proceeds of £25,432 for work in the New Hebrides. When the steamer was wrecked in 1896, he campaigned for yet another Dayspring but had to concede defeat.

Meanwhile Paton threw himself into the perennial debate on the future of the New Hebrides. A rabid opponent of the Melanesian 'slave trade', that chief bar to mission progress, he bombarded the Colonial Office with alleged recruiting irregularities. On an official visit to Queensland in 1886 he denounced a local Presbyterian proposal for a Kanaka mission as subversive of the cause. In 1890 he exacerbated local opinion, Presbyterian and otherwise, by bitter attacks on Sir Samuel Griffith's plan to reopen the trade in 1892, thus associating himself, however innocently, with the rising sentiment for 'white Australia'. He also hotly opposed French ambitions in the New Hebrides, where in 1877 he had backed an abortive move by James Balfour to make a British protectorate. In March 1883 he informed Earl Derby of the French seizure of mission land at Vila; faced with new threats in June, he and Rev. D. Macdonald of Efate urged James Service to annex the group. He then vigorously supported Service's campaign to that end. On his return to Britain in 1884 Paton begged Gladstone to annex the Solomons and New Hebrides as well as New Guinea and devoted much time in 1885 to stirring up British public opinion on the issue. A member of a deputation of the Heathen Missions Committee to D. Gillies in March 1886, he was also to the fore in June after the landing of French troops at Efate and Malekula; at Gillies's request he wrote a lengthy account of British and Protestant interests there. In December, as moderator of the Victorian Church, he signed a petition for British annexation of his 'beloved islands'. In 1890, after a heated exchange with the New Hebrides Synod over their proposed relaxation of discriminatory legislation against British settlers, he took up Sir John Thurston's earlier proposal for an international ban on arms and liquor for native races. Lacking only American approval, he interviewed Presidents Cleveland and McKinley but had to wait for ratification of the agreement until 1902.

In his last years Paton became a legend. He still visited the islands, notably in February 1899 when he gave the Aniwans their complete New Testament, but his main message was to the civilized world wherever he could speak of his work in the New Hebrides. Among his many publications his two-volumed Autobiography (London, 1889), compiled by his youngest brother James, ran to numerous editions and brought him new admirers in North America and above all in Britain, where the founding in 1891 of the interdenominational 'John G. Paton Fund' by his devoted friend A. K. Langridge of the British Post Office assured him continuing finance. Honorary Doctor of Divinity (Edinburgh, 1891), he was the idol of the thousands of all ages who flocked to hear him. Even in his last visit to the United States and Britain in 1899-1902 when illness limited his activities he addressed 820 meetings and collected another £13,014, bringing up a grand total of £80,000. On returning to Australia he went twice to the islands to visit or settle Paton Fund missionaries, notably one of his five sons, Frank Hume Lyall. After his wife died in May 1905 his excursions in Australia in aid of the mission rapidly undermined his strength. In Gippsland he had a recurrence of an internal disorder in 1906 and died in Melbourne on 28 January 1907. He was buried in the Boroondara cemetery.

A lifelong anti-smoker, teetotaller and ardent Evangelical, Paton lacked some of the missionary flair of John Williams or John Geddie of Aneityum but as a propagandist he had no peer. If prone to exaggerate, he kept the New Hebrides issue before the public and helped to develop an Australian conscience; but for him the New Hebrides must have become wholly French. He also contributed much to the contemporary upsurge of missionary enthusiasm in the English-speaking world, which indeed may be said to have died with him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Steel, The New Hebrides and Christian Missions (Lond, 1880)
  • M. W. Paton, Letters and Sketches From the New Hebrides, James Paton ed (Lond, 1894)
  • A. K. Langridge and F. H. L. Paton, John G. Paton: Later Years and Farewell (Lond, 1910)
  • D. A. Scarr, Fragments of Empire (Canberra, 1967)
  • P. O'Reilly, Hébridais (Paris, 1957)
  • Reformed Presbyterian Magazine, 1860-76
  • G. S. Parsonson, ‘La mission presbytérienne des Nouvelles-Hébrides’, Journal de la Société des Océanistes, Dec 1956
  • Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Minutes of the Heathen Missions Committee 1872-1907, Minutes of the New Hebrides Mission Synod, 1857-1907, and John G. Paton Mission Fund quarterly jottings, 1893-1907 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Victorian Premier's Dept records, 86/2403.

Citation details

G. S. Parsonson, 'Paton, John Gibson (1824–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/paton-john-gibson-4374/text7117, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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