Chalmers of New Guinea
THE London Missionary Society —"The Missionary Society," as it was originally called—was founded in September 1795, and the South Seas Mission, to which James Chalmers was first appointed, was its earliest venture.
Some years previous to the founding of the Society, the publication of the narratives of Captain James Cook’s voyages round the world, and of that specially devoted by this intrepid explorer to the Pacific Ocean, had greatly widened the geographical horizon. "By the important discoveries made in these successive voyages," John Williams afterwards wrote, "a new world was opened to the view of all Europe; for, besides New Holland and New Guinea, almost innumerable islands were found to exist, bestudding the bosom of the vast Pacific with their beauties." Public interest in the primitive peoples inhabiting these distant shores had been aroused; and the accounts of their savage and unillumined condition had awakened in the hearts of Christian men and women at home a desire to send the gospel of peace to them.
So early as1787, the great William Carey had declared that "if he had the means, he would go to the South Seas and commence a mission at Otaheiti." But he found a sphere in India, and it was left to "The Missionary Society" to undertake the evangelisation of the South Seas. The first band of missionaries landed in Tahiti— Captain Cook’s Otaheiti—in March 1796.
For twelve years these brave pioneers, and comrades who joined them from time to time, sacrificed energy and health, and, in some cases, life itself, without seeing any direct fruit of their work. Efforts to carry the evangel to other islands were even less successful. In Tahiti, the missionaries contrived to retain a bare foothold, but of progress there was at first no sign.
After the lapse of these twelve years, however, it began to be evident that the savage islanders were becoming convinced of the disinterested intentions of the missionaries, and of the social advantages of the Christian rule of life; and in June 1813it was discovered that at least one Tahitian had embraced the Christian religion. The cloud whose showers had brought quickening to the seed so laboriously sown was at first "no bigger than a man’s hand," but in an incredibly short time it overspread Tahiti and the adjacent islands. The national idols and temples were destroyed, Christian laws were promulgated by the King of Tahiti, and the good news spread to the Leeward Islands, the Society Islands, and the Low Islands. In May 1818 the Tahitian Missionary Society was formed, and those who had but recently been heathen idolaters gave of their goods to assist in carrying the gospel to their less fortunate neighbours. Numbers, too, consecrated themselves to the work of missionary teachers, settling on the different islands visited by the pioneer missionaries, and giving themselves to the life-work of teaching, by word and example, the simple truths they had themselves learned concerning the true God and the Christian gospel.
For the South Seas Mission, the year1817 derived especial importance from the arrival of John Williams as an addition to the missionary staff. Williams had the instincts of the true pioneer. "A missionary," be wrote, "was never designed by Jesus Christ to gather a congregation of a hundred or two natives, and sit down at his ease, as contented as if every sinner was converted, while thousands around him, and but a few miles off, are eating each other’s flesh and drinking each other’s blood, living and dying without the gospel.
"For my own part, I cannot content myself within the narrow limits of a single reef; and if means are not afforded, a continent would to me be infinitely preferable; for there, if you cannot ride, you can walk; but to these isolated islands a ship must carry you." By the enterprise of John Williams, fresh fields of labour were opened up in one island after another. In time he overtook the New Hebrides group,—believing this to be the key to New Guinea and the islands inhabited by the Papuan races,— and suffered martyrdom in the year 1839 in an attempt to obtain a footing upon the island of Erromanga, one of this group.
The islands of the South Pacific owe everything to Christian missions. In the one-third of the globe covered by the Pacific Ocean, between Asia and the Americas, there are seventeen groups of islands. Within a period of fifty years, nine of these became entirely Christianised, while Christian influence effected a considerable improvement in others. So recent an observer as Robert Louis Stevenson has declared that "with all their gross blots, with all their deficiency of candour, humour, and of commonsense, the missionaries are the best and the most useful whites in the Pacific."
One of the earliest points of advance secured by Williams was the discovery of Rarotonga, in the Hervey Islands group, an island which had "escaped the untiring researches of Captain Cook." Stationed on the island of Raiatea, the largest and most central of the Society Islands, Williams, in his intercourse with the Polynesians, learned of the existence of this island, and even spoke with one or two who had come from Rarotonga. After several ineffectual attempts, he made his important discovery in 1823, and "dear Rarotonga" became the object of his deepest solicitude, and a centre from which he went forth upon his many missionary cruises.
The island contains an area of thirty-one square miles and consists of "a mass of high mountains which present a remarkably romantic appearance." It is surrounded by a reef, and possesses several good boat harbours, while ships may effect a landing at one point at least. Williams estimated the population at from6000 to 7000.
A year after its discovery the whole population of Rarotonga had renounced idolatry, and were engaged in erecting a place of worship 6oo feet in length; it was here that Williams built with his own hands the Messenger of Peace, a craft in which he sought to evangelise the South Pacific; here occurred the well-known incident in which a written message upon a chip of wood excited the wonder of his native messenger, who declared that it must have spoken. For the native chiefs, Williams drew up a code of Christian laws as the basis of the administration of justice in their island.
At the outset, the evangelisation of the island was mainly carried on by Polynesian teachers. In 1827 Mr. Charles Pitman was stationed there as the first resident English missionary, and in 1828 he was joined by Mr. Aaron Buzacott. Six years later, Williams was able to write of the island: "I cannot forbear drawing a contrast between the state of the inhabitants when I first visited them in 1823, and that in which I left them in 1834. In 1823 I found them all heathens; in 1834 they were all professing Christians. At the former period I found them with idols and maraes; these, in 1834, were destroyed, and in their stead there were three spacious and substantial places of Christian worship, in which congregations amounting to 6000 persons assembled every Sabbath day. I found them without a written language, and left them reading in their own tongue the ‘wonderful works of God.’ I found them without a knowledge of the Sabbath, and when I left them no manner of work was done during that sacred day. When I found them in 1823, they were ignorant of the nature of Christian worship; and when I left them in 1834, I am not aware that there was a house in the island where family worship was not observed every morning and every evening. I speak not this boastingly; for our satisfaction arises not from receiving, such honours, but in casting them at the Saviour’s feet; for ‘His arm hath gotten Him the victory,’ and ‘He shall bear the glory.’ " Elsewhere he wrote:
"In reference to the island generally, it may be observed that the blessings conveyed to them by Christianity have not been simply, of a spiritual character, but that civilisation and commerce have invariably followed in her train."
In 1839, before starting on the voyage in the Camden which was to prove his last, Williams spent a considerable time "in meeting with the brethren and the natives, and in making arrangements for the establishment of a college to educate pious and intelligent young men for missionary work, in which, besides theological truth, they were to be taught the English language and mechanical arts. Over this important institution Mr. Buzacott consented to preside."
Between 1839 and 1867, when Chalmers entered upon his duties, the work had been faithfully carried on by Messrs. Pitman and Buzacott, the Rev. William Gill, and the Rev. E. R. W. Krause, in succession, and the establishment included the Training Institution founded by Williams, and five villages or settlements, each under the immediate charge of a native pastor. The efficient oversightof all this work promised to be no light task for the young missionary and his wife.