Tears for Tanna

The Perseverance of John G. Paton and the Transformation of Tanna

“The ever merciful Lord sustained me to lay the precious dust of my beloved ones in the same quiet grave. Whensoever Tanna turns to the Lord, and is won for Christ, men in after-days will find the memory of this spot still green, where with ceaseless prayers and tears I claimed this land for God in which I had buried my dead’ with faith and hope.”

I remember the first time I sailed the South Seas, trudged along a black coral beach, traversed Tanna’s mountains on a jungle trail, and climbed up into an that old chestnut tree by moonlight to hide from angry cannibals.

All of these I experienced vicariously (while bouncing along in a loud train in north China circa 2013) via the spellbinding storytelling of John G. Paton as he shared his remarkable experiences on the (formerly) cannibalistic island of Tanna.

I have recommended The Autobiography of John G. Paton regularly ever since, and have shared snippets of his story in countless missionary meetings, encouraging others to persevere in both praying for missions and staying faithful to the Gospel in the face of tribulation and persecution.

But merely talking about Paton and sharing his story never seemed to me to be sufficient. I would often daydream about someday visiting the islands for myself, and recently that desire became a reality. Here are three things that contributed to my making a short pilgrimage to the island of Tanna in late 2023:

First, I was deported from China in 2018(Unbeaten.vip) and am still unable to access my adopted home in the foothills of Tibet, much as Paton was forced to flee his beloved Tanna in 1862.

In short, I can relate to how he felt departing the island, not knowing if he would ever be able to return. And his testimony of faithful perseverance was so encouraging that I wanted to see for myself how much fruit, if any, could be found all these years later.

Second, my desire met opportunity when I was (again) denied entry into China in late 2023. While my family made a return trip to China without me, I found myself with enough free-time to get to Vanuatu (formerly, the New Hebrides) for about a week, and I was able to spend a solid four days following in Paton’s footsteps on his beloved island of Tanna.

Third, when I noticed that John G. Paton was born on May 24, 1824, I thought to myself that maybe, just maybe, I would have enough time to put together a new edition of his classic book in time for his 200th Birthday. What you are reading now is my attempt to fulfill that desire, as well as add a tiny bit of value to what has long been a treasured missionary story.

I will share what I discovered on my visit to Tanna in the final two chapters. Feel free to skip on ahead if you want, but I highly recommend that you first journey through the original story as told by John G. Paton himself.

If you have not yet rocked and swayed across the swirling sea, suffered through the feverish heat of a tropical jungle, wept over the grave of the grieving missionary’s young wife and newborn son, stared down the pointed spear of an angry cannibal, and persevered through four years of unimaginable toils and trials, then you will not truly appreciate the transformation of Tanna.