The Significance of Our Fathers

Lessons on fathering from the life of John Paton, missionary to cannibals of the South Seas (Schlehlein, Banner of Truth)

Biographies are fresh air for the Christian heart and mind. Schlehein’s biography of 19th century Scottish missionary to the New Hebrides, John Paton, was fresh and challenging wind for me in June. While there are many take-aways from this brief sketch of John Paton’s life, most pressing to me was the influence of his father and mother. Let me give you a brief encouragement from Paton’s parents that help us to think about the significance of parents, looking first at fathers; and next week, at mothers. 

Paton was a living legend. His story reads like a movie – righteous swashbuckler Scotsman labors among cannibals with harrowing near deaths and constant obstacles, yet God saved many of these islanders through his labor. Reading it, I ask: “Where are men like this made?”“How are legitimate legends formed?” “What shapes a man to be devoted to Christ in a manner that oozes the rare but right attitudes that capture the hearts of those he loves and leads?” Paton was fun, funny, serious and sober. Paton lived in circumstances that often had literal life and death consequences in the balance with calmness. How does God make a man be the kind of man that weds a bright and beautiful 18 year old lady only to bury her and his firstborn from disease almost immediately upon arriving on the island of Tanna, sitting upon their graves so the natives would not raid them, and remain and minister there?  How does God make a man serve in Glasgow and when Roman Catholics bullied his flock and sent Paton death threats yet responds by teaching his flock, “Let them see that bullying makes you afraid, and they will brutally and cruelly misuse you; but defy them fearlessly, or take them by the nose, and they will brought like whelps beneath your feet” (13)? Where does God make a man to have the godly moxie to say his to aged elder warning him that he will be eaten by cannibals, “Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.” (19)? Where is a man made that gives himself tireless to raising of funds for a ship for the mission for it to be ran around and ruined on its first ministry use – and then go back to raise money again? 

The Spirit of God makes a man like John Paton. Paton’s life cannot be explained through social sciences. Yet, God uses means to make us into Christ’s image and a most significant means in Paton’s life, if not the most significance means was his family. His father, James Paton was a godly man worth imitating. James and Janet Paton had 11 children, 5 sons and 6 daughters. James struggled to provide for them, but worked industriously making wool stockings in his cottage. James and his family worked from 6am to 10pm with a two hours for meals. He exemplified and taught his family how to work hard. But he provided a spiritually rich and vibrant household of Christian faith. I want to highlight three of James Paton’s attributes for our fathers and fathers-to-be: faithful teacher, joyful obedience, and a genuine follower of Christ.

James Paton was a faithful teacher of his children. Morning and evening James would read the Bible, pray, sing and catechize his family. John Paton commented on this, “None of us can remember that any day even passed unhallowed thus; no hurry for market, no rush to business, not arrival of friends or guests, no trouble of sorrow, not joy of excitement, ever prevented at least our kneeling around the family altar, while the High Priest led our prayers to God and offered himself and his children there.” (9)  James Paton was also joyful in his obedience. Circumstances prevented James from going into ministry himself, but he vowed to God to consecrate any sons God gave him to ministry (9). Obeying His Lord was his joy.  James’ was genuine in his discipleship. John Paton said of the religion in his home, “Religion was presented to us with a great deal of intellectual freshness…it did not repel us, but kindled our spiritual interest. The talks with we heard were, however genuine; not the make-believe of religious conversation, but the sincere outcome of their own personalities. That, perhaps, makes all the difference betwixt talk that attracts and talk that drives away” (8). This is an example I need to learn from and to imitate. Our fathers are most significant. 

Imitating a champion is a proven way to become one. Imitate James Paton, John Paton’s poor, stocking-making, 14 hour-a-day laboring, shepherd father.

Practical Applications for Fathers from James Paton: Brief and practical principles from James Paton’s fathering

  • Love to serve the Lord
  • Love the Lord more than all things and in all things
  • Teach your children truth about God, salvation, man, Christ and the church. James used the Westminster Catechism but there are others, such as the London Baptist Confession or Bethlehem Baptist Church’s catechism.
  • Read the Bible with your children regularly
  • Pray for and with your family and children
  • Don’t excuse spiritual neglect because you work long hours
  • Enjoy your family in the daily routine

Sola Deo Gloria.