John Williams: Messenger of Peace

Chapter 1
Our Father Is Alive!

“I will return soon!” John Williams yelled to the Atiu islanders as he waded into the lagoon and climbed aboard the rowboat, taking his place at the stern.

Two tattooed Polynesian men heaved on the oars in unison, and the boat began to cut its way across the calm, crystal-clear water. John turned to wave to his island friends, who were now singing a traditional farewell song. The words drifted across the lagoon to him as he thought about his first encounter years before with the people of this island. Back then their chief, Roma-Tane, had regularly ordered children to be sacrificed and enemies cooked and eaten in honor of the many gods they worshiped. They also robbed and starved the first missionaries who came to work among them. But now they called their island Lotu—given to God. Now there was a thriving Christian church on Atiu, and Polynesian teachers from the Society Islands taught the people to read and write.

Slowly the singing from shore was drowned out by the thunderous crash of breakers on the coral reef that surrounded the island. The Polynesian rowers were maneuvering the boat through a gap in the reef when one of them yelled, “Hold on!”

John whipped his head up to see an enormous freak wave descending on the rowboat. The craft was quickly upended, and before he could grab ahold of anything, John was flung into the surging water. He gasped one last breath as the force of the wave pulled him under. Frantically he thrashed his arms and kicked his legs, but it was no use; the undercurrent was too strong. His lungs throbbed for air as he felt himself being pulled farther downward.

I can’t drown! I can’t drown! There are too many islands to go! I have to reach them all! John told himself over and over as he fought the urge to breathe.

He kicked harder and harder, and slowly, very slowly, he felt himself begin to rise. Suddenly his head burst through the surface. He opened his mouth, and air exploded into his lungs. After several deep breaths, he looked around to get his bearings. The ship they were headed for lay in the distance, and the capsized rowboat was bobbing near the reef about twenty yards away.

John could see the two rowers swimming for shore. Still sputtering, he began swimming after them. His nose and throat burned from the salt water.

Wham! Another huge wave crashed over John. This time it hurled him forward onto the coral reef. “God help me!” he prayed as he felt his left leg being torn open by the sharp coral. He knew that many men, even expert Polynesian sailors, had perished on the reefs, where they were dragged under by the waves and trapped in the many caverns and fissures. Before drowning, their flesh was ripped to shreds on the razor-sharp coral.

John could not let that happen to him. Once again he frantically kicked and thrashed as he tried to get away from the jagged reef. But with each burst of effort, the current pushed him back. John’s strength was beginning to fail when two sets of strong arms surrounded him.

“Rest on us. We will get you to shore.”

John looked around to see two Atiu men, one on either side of him. He felt their powerful legs kick, and slowly they all moved away from the danger of the reef and into the calm, safe water of the lagoon. The men pulled John along until he felt sand beneath his feet.

“Our Father is alive! Our Father is alive! We thought you drowned, but you are alive!” cried the Atiu Christians as they ran to help John up onto the beach. Many of them kissed his hands and laughed with joy.

As he rested on the beach after the ordeal, John wondered how he could ever explain to his friends back in England the adventures he had experienced since coming to the South Pacific. In fact it was difficult for him to believe some of his adventures. He now lived in such a different world from his friends and from the life he had known as an apprentice back in London.

Things could all have been so different if he had not met Mrs. Tonkin on the street that Sunday night so many years ago. Without that seemingly chance meeting he could be back in England plying his trade as an ironmonger instead of being halfway around the world proclaiming the gospel among cannibals and fierce warriors.

Chapter 2
The Best Hour of His Entire Life

Seventeen-year-old John Williams stood outside the bakery on City Road in London waiting for three friends to show up. It was Sunday, January 3, 1814, and church bells were chiming six o’clock in the evening. “Trust them to be late!” John murmured to himself, trying to think what he should do next. Should he go on without his friends or waste more time waiting? The four of them were supposed to be going to Highbury Tea Gardens, which sold more beer than tea. The other three boys, like John, were apprentices, and each Sunday night they enjoyed drinking at Highbury Tea Gardens and swapping stories from work.

“Oh, John, how good to see you,” came a female voice from behind him.

John turned to see who it was. He quickly pulled off his cap. “Mrs. Tonkin, ma’am,” he said, unsure what else to say to the wife of his employer.

“I am glad I ran into you, John,” Mrs. Tonkin went on. “I have been wanting to invite you to come to church with me for quite some time, and now look, you are standing on the side of the road doing nothing, and I am on my way to church not two blocks from here!”

John smiled nervously. The last thing he wanted to do was set foot in a church. His mother was a Christian, and she had dragged him to church with her every Sunday when he was a boy. Now that he was out from under her grasp, he had no intention of wasting part of his day off on such a boring activity. Church was fine for women like Mrs. Tonkin and his mother, but it certainly was not anything he was interested in.

John looked up and down the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of his friends, but no one was in sight. “Uh, thank you, Mrs. Tonkin,” he replied gingerly. “I would be happy to go to church with you one day, but not today, as I am waiting to meet some friends. We are going to do something together.”

“And where might you be going?” Mrs. Tonkin asked.

Now John felt trapped. Being an apprentice in 1814 was a serious matter. His employer had control over where he went and what he did, even on days off. If John said he was going to a beer garden, he might get in trouble with Mr. Tonkin, and he couldn’t think of a good lie to make up on the spot.

“Oh,” he said, “we weren’t going anywhere. We were just meeting here.”

Mrs. Tonkin gave him a questioning look. “Well,” she said, linking her arm into John’s, “then you really don’t have anywhere else to go, and I think Mr. Tonkin would be very pleased to hear that his fine young apprentice accompanied me to church tonight. What do you say?”

What could he say? John forced a feeble smile and nodded. Five minutes later the two of them were walking through the doors of Whitefield Tabernacle. Mrs. Tonkin led the way to a pew near the front and sat down triumphantly.

Once seated in the hard pew, John readied himself for the long, monotonous sermon he knew would be coming. Sure enough, after several hymns and a prayer, the Reverend Timothy East walked to the pulpit. His voice was deep and clear. “I have taken for my text tonight the passage from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, verses 36 and 37. ‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’” he began.

John intended to daydream his way through the sermon, but there was something about what was being said that kept rousing his interest.

“What is there in this world that is worth exchanging your soul for?” the Reverend East asked.

The words struck John like a shaft of light in a darkened room. What was there in his life that was worth exchanging his soul for? A night at a beer garden with his friends? His ambition to one day be a rich iron merchant? The hope of having a pretty girlfriend? All of these things seemed shallow when weighed against eternity.

In an instant, as the Reverend East continued on with his sermon, John Williams made a decision—he was headed down the wrong road in life, and he was going to change direction right there and then. It was time he became a Christian. He had felt frustrated and intimidated by his employer’s wife when he walked into the church. When he left an hour later, he was convinced he had just spent the best hour of his entire life!

During the weeks that followed, John Williams was determined to change his behavior. He traded going to beer gardens for attending Bible studies, going to church, and visiting the sick. Within two months he was even teaching a Sunday school class.

John knew some co-workers at the ironmongery made fun of his new faith and behavior, but he did not care. Let them laugh. He had found something worth living for. Other people noticed his zeal, too, and soon the Reverend Matthew Wilks, assistant pastor at Whitefield Tabernacle, invited John to join a special class he was holding. Called the Mutual Improvement Society, the class consisted of a group of young men who met together each Monday night to discuss ways to prepare themselves to become pastors. John was not quite sure whether that was the right direction for him. Being a pastor sounded a little beyond his few years of formal schooling, but since he was eager to improve himself in any way he could, he went along to the society meetings.

One night, about two years later, the Reverend Wilks talked to the young men about something that sent John’s heart racing. “I have in my hand a wooden object, as you can all see,” he began, holding up a carved figure about eighteen inches tall. “This object is a symbol of both missionary endurance and God’s faithfulness. You have all heard me talk many times about the London Missionary Society and the first group of missionaries it sent out on the Duff twenty years ago. Thirty missionaries were on board, destined for one of the most remote and unknown regions on earth—the Pacific islands. Few missionaries had been there before, though a rough assortment of traders, whalers, and escaped convicts from New South Wales infested the islands, plying the natives with rum and guns. The Duff put missionaries off at Tahiti, Tonga, and the Marquesas. Eventually murder, sickness, and discouragement reduced their number to only three of the original missionaries, including Henry Nott, a stalwart ex-brickmaker who would not give up the battle for native souls. God guided him to befriend King Pomare of Tahiti, and when the king died, his son King Pomare II also came to regard Mr. Nott as a worthy friend. Now we have received word that King Pomare II has turned his heart toward God and wishes to become a Christian.”

Once again Matthew Wilks held up the carving. “This,” he continued, “is one of twelve idols that were the personal property of King Pomare II. He has sent it all the way to England to show Christians here that he is serious about the desire to put away his evil practices.”

John had often heard the Reverend Wilks talk about the London Missionary Society, or LMS, as it was known, and its goal of bringing Christianity to the Pacific islands. But staring at this idol carved by human hands and worshiped as a god drove the urgency of that goal home to him.

“We must all pray diligently for the people of Tahiti and for Henry Nott. For hundreds of years the islanders have practiced infanticide, ritual killing, and cannibalism. Now alcohol and guns have made matters worse. Without God these people are doomed,” the Reverend Wilks said emphatically.

That night, and for many nights afterward, John prayed for the Tahitian people and for King Pomare II. And every time he prayed, he felt the same goose-bumpy feeling run through his body. As he thought about Henry Nott, the ex-bricklayer, and the work he was doing, it occurred to John that perhaps he too could become a missionary.

John continued to turn the idea around in his head until finally he could not keep it to himself anymore. He felt he would burst if he did not confide in someone. After church one Sunday he spoke with Matthew Wilks about the idea. He was very grateful when the Reverend Wilks did not laugh at him but instead asked him questions.