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Image: The Martyrdom of John Coleridge Patteson – one of three scenes carved into the pulpit at Exeter Cathedral. (source)
At the age of fourteen, John Patteson knew he was going to be a priest. At the age of twenty-seven, he was. He grew up in England, and in 1855 would go to serve in Melanesia, a chain of some 10,000 islands off the northeast coast of Australia. His Bishop told him that his work would include “the evangelization of no less than 20 million.” Just to make it interesting, some of those 20 million were headhunters and cannibals, and had the custom of strangling a woman if her husband died. In addition, slave traders roamed the seas practicing “blackbirding” – capturing the natives and forcing them into slavery on the farms of the Europeans. Patteson was not deterred.
The goal of the mission was to travel to the islands and convince the tribes to allow one or two of the older boys to leave the island for ten months to a year, so that they could be trained in the teachings of Christianity, then take them back to their islands where they would evangelize the rest of the community.
Patteson was successful in this work, gaining the respect of the natives and fellow workers, which led to him being elected as the Bishop of Melanesia. A Bishop from New Zealand wrote, “Anything more conscientious and painstaking cannot be conceived than the way Patteson has steadily directed his talent, every hour and every minute of his life, to the one work he has set before him. However small or uncongenial or drum-drudgery-like his occupation, however hard or dangerous or difficult, it seems to be always met in the same calm.”
This calm and the respect of the natives is what would eventually lead to his death. The blackbirders learned that the people would come out to greet Patteson, so when they anchored off the coast of one of the islands, they would send messengers to tell the islanders that Patteson was on board and wanted to see them. The natives would go out, only to be taken captive. This led to Patteson’s work becoming all the more dangerous, and he even wrote to his sister telling her that he feared it would eventually get him killed. It did.
On September 20, 1871 he made a visit to the island of Nukápu. He went ashore with a few others, but was immediately taken captive and martyred. Unfortunately, it was a mistake. Earlier that day, the blackbirders had raided the island and murdered five members of the community. They thought that Patteson and others were those same blackbirders returning.
Learning of his death, Max Muller, a professor at Oxford and friend of Patteson wrote, “To have known such man is one of life’s greatest blessings… In the distant future, depend upon it, the name of Patteson will live in every cottage, in every school, and every church in Melanesia—not the name of a fabulous saint or martyr, but as the never-to-be-forgotten name of a good, a brave, a God-fearing and God-loving man.”
Was his work and the work of others throughout the region successful? Melanesia is one of the most Christian nations in the world, with over 91% of the population believers. I would call that successful. In addition, his death led Queen Victoria to push for the end of all blackbirding.
What led Patteson, at the age of fourteen to want to become a priest? He heard a sermon while living in Windsor. That evening, he wrote to his mother: “It was beautiful when he talked of his going out to found a church, and then to die, neglected and forgotten: all the people burst out crying.” Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
John Coleridge Patteson truly gave and lost his life for the sake of the Gospel, so Jesus said to him on this day in 1871, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”