John Paton has become one of my favorite missionaries. His family upbringing, his unwavering devotion to Christ, and his missionary endeavors on the New Hebrides islands all come together to form one of my heros of the faith.
One of the fascinating aspects of John Paton’s life is his spiritual upbringing and the effect it had on his life. In his autobiography, he writes extensively about the faith of his parents and the impact of their faith on his life and later mission.
As we look at this spiritual upbringing, I believe there are seven lessons to both encourage and challenge parents today. As we consider each lesson, I include an excerpt from his autobiography as well as few additional thoughts of my own.
Lesson 1: The Importance of Personal Prayer
“Thither daily, and oftentimes a day, generally after each meal, we saw our father retire, and “shut to the door”; and we children got to understand by a sort of spiritual instinct (for the thing was too sacred to be talked about) that prayers were being poured out there for us, as of old by the High Priest within the veil in the Most Holy Place. We occasionally heard the pathetic echoes of a trembling voice pleading as if for life, and we learned to slip out and in past that door on tiptoe, not to disturb the holy colloquy. The outside world might not know, but we knew, whence came that happy light as of a new-born smile that always was dawning on my father’s face: it was a reflection from the Divine Presence, in the consciousness of which he lived.”
Not only did James Paton, John’s father, understand the importance of prayer, but he also understood the importance of setting an example of prayer for his family. Many parents spend their prayer time early in the morning or late at night while the children are sleeping so as not to be disturbed, which is quite understandable. However, in doing so we miss a great opportunity to show our children our commitment to prayer. We must ask ourselves, if our children never see us pray, are we teaching them something we do not intend to teach: that prayer is something we talk about, but do not much practice. Parents, let us learn from James Paton the importance of praying so that our children know that we are praying.
Lesson 2: The Importance of Family Prayer
“And so began in his seventeenth year that blessed custom of Family Prayer, morning and evening, which my father practiced probably without one single avoidable omission till he lay on his deathbed, seventy-seven years of age; when, even to the last day of his life, a portion of Scripture was read, and his voice was heard softly joining in the Psalm, and his lips breathed on the heads of all his children, far away many of them over all the earth, but all meeting him there at the Throne of Grace. None of us can remember that any day ever passed unhallowed thus; no hurry for market, no rush to business, no arrival of friends or guests, no trouble or sorrow, no joy or 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. And blessed to others, as well as to ourselves, was the light of such example!”
Private prayers were not the only prayers offered at the Paton home. The family gathered each morning and evening to prayer together. In a time in which families are seemingly busier than ever and there are many things pulling at a families’ time, families need to be intentional to set aside time to pray together. While twice a day is certainly is a grand goal, the key is to simply start praying together as a family on a routine basis (once a day, every other day, twice a week, or even once a week). Whatever you do and however often you do it, be consistent. Consistency communicates importance.
Lesson 3: The Importance of Attending Church Services
“Our place of worship was the Reformed Presbyterian Church at Dumfries, under the ministry, during most of these days, of Rev. John McDermid . . . Dumfries was four miles fully from our Torthorwald home; but the tradition is that during all thee forty years my father was only thrice prevented from attending the worship of God – once by snow, so deep that he was baffled and had to return; once by ice on the road, so dangerous that he was forced to crawl back up the Roucan Brae on his hands and knees, after having descended it so far with many falls; and once by the terrible outbreak of cholera at Dumfries. . . . Each of us, from very early days, considered it no penalty, but a great joy, to go with our father to the church…”
How many of us have the same commitment and joy in gathering for worship as James Paton? We live in a church culture today which places little importance on faithful attendance. Many people attend church when it is convenient, but also find many reasons for abandoning the Sunday morning gathering (i.e. sports). I believe the lack of faithful attendance during the formative years of a child’s life is a primary reason why many kids abandon church attendance later in life. Parents, may we have the same commitment to Hebrews 10:25 as James Paton.
Lesson 4: The Importance of Family Worship
“We had, too, special Bible Readings on the Lord’s Day evening, – mother and children and visitors reading in turns with fresh and interesting questions, answer, and exposition, all trending to impress us with the infinite grace of a God of love and mercy in the great gift of His dear Son Jesus, our Saviour.”
I believe the example of family worship in the Paton household is a great model for family worship today. First, the Paton’s practiced family worship once a week. Second, the Paton’s kept family worship simple: study of the Scriptures and presumably their daily time of prayer. Third, the Paton’s made family worship engaging. Fourth, the Paton’s focused their family worship on God, Jesus Christ, and the gospel. As we prepare for a new year, may we commit to regularly spending time together as a family in worship throughout 2021.
Lesson 5: The Importance of Discipline
“The very discipline through which our father passed us was a kind of religion itself. If anything really serious required to be punished, he retired first to his “closet” for prayer, and we boys got to understand that he was laying the whole matter before God; and that was the severest part of the punishment for me to bear! I could have defied any amount of mere penalty, but this spoke to my conscience as a message from God. We loved him all the more, when we saw how much it cost him to punish us; and, in truth, he had never very much of that kind of work to do upon any one of all the eleven – we were ruled by love far more than by fear.”
The example of James Paton in disciplining his children is an example of Godly discipline. How would our own discipline of our children change if we prayed the way James Paton prayed? How would the discipline of our children change if we linked our discipline to the fear of God? Parents, may we begin to discipline our own children after the pattern of James Paton.
Lesson 6: The Importance of a Missional Mindset
“How much my father’s prayers at this time impressed me I can never explain, nor could any stranger understand. When, on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in Family Worship, he poured our his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the Heathen World to the service of Jesus , and for every personal and domestic need, we all felt as if in the presence of the living Saviour, and learned to know and love Him as our Divine Friend. As we rose form our knees, I used to look at the light on my father’s face and wish I were like him in spirit, – hoping that, in answer to his prayers, I might be privileged and prepared to carry the blessed Gospel to some portion of the Heathen World.”
John Paton placed the genesis of his call to missions to his father’s missional prayers. How often do we pray for the lost world when we pray together at the dinner table or during our family prayers or at the foot of the bed each night? How often do we pray for lost friends or family members? How often do we pray for workers for the harvest according to Matthew 9:37-38? How often do we pray for the gospel to reach the nations? How might praying for each of the above change our hearts and the hearts of our children? One great resource to begin praying to this end is Operation World. Each day Operation World shares a featured nation to pray for along with information about how to pray for that nation. This would be a great way to begin adding a missional mindset to our family prayers.
Lesson 7: The Importance of the Father
A final lesson from the spiritual upbringing of John Paton is the importance of the father. In each lesson, we saw James Paton taking the spiritual leadership of his family seriously. This is not to negate the importance of Paton’s mother, but in a time when so many mothers seem to fill the void of spiritual leadership in the family, it is a timely reminder of the vital importance of the father. Fathers, may we begin to step up to God’s call of spiritual leadership over our family. May we follow in the footsteps of James Paton in leading our families well in Christ. And may that be the legacy we leave for future generations.
To learn more about John G. Paton, check out the following resources. I especially recommend the first volume of Paton’s autobiography, though the language can be difficult to read at times.
- John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides by John G. Paton
- John G. Paton: Missionary to the Cannibals of the South Seas by Paul Schlehlein
- John G. Paton: You Will Be Eaten By Cannibals! by John Piper (free eBook)
- You Will Be Eaton by Cannibals! Lessons from the Life of John G. Paton: Courage in the Cause of Missions (from the 2000 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors)
- John G. Paton: Working Among the Cannibals (blog)
All quotes from John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides by John G. Paton and edited by James Paton (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2007). Used with permission.
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