Margaret “Maggie” Whitecross was born in 1841 in Edinburgh, Scotland. She grew up in the home of a preacher and was an accomplished writer, musician, and artist. At the age of 22 she met a man 17 years her senior named John Paton who had been serving the Lord as a missionary to the cannibals on the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). He was home on furlough after losing his first wife and infant son to malaria and being chased off the island, narrowly escaping with his life. John and Margaret were married in 1864, and they went back to the New Hebrides in 1866 along with their two young sons. They were determined to set up a mission station on the small 7-mile by 2-mile wide island of Aniwa that was situated close to the island of Tanna. The islanders were astounded that missionaries would return to the islands after such treatment, and one native confessed, “If your God makes you do that, we may yet worship Him, too.”
As on the other islands, the natives of Aniwa practiced ancestral and idol worship along with infanticide and widow sacrifice. They served many gods and lived barbaric lives that left them in great depravity. They had no knowledge of the One True God that could bring them mercy, grace, and peace. The natives were intrigued by the foreigners and since they had never seen a white woman before, Margaret had to endure much poking and prodding when she arrived as the local women checked her out to see how much she was alike or different from them. John and Margaret lived in a hut while three buildings were erected – one for them to live in and two others to house the many orphans on the island. They began to learn the language by using hand gestures until they were able to reduce the language to written form.
John and Margaret began translating, printing, and teaching the Bible. They dispensed medicines daily and ministered to the sick and dying. They also taught the people about industry and tools. Sunday services were held each week and Margaret’s class of women and girls, which often had up to 50, became experts at reading, singing, sewing, and plaiting hats. They eventually had trained enough native teachers to send them to preach the Gospel to the other small villages across the island. The chiefs of the villages around the island did not like how the Patons were gaining the ear of the people and feared they as chiefs would no longer be listened to. There were many times John and Margaret were threatened and feared for their lives and the lives of their children, but they stood strong; sometimes even rebuking the chiefs to their faces for their poor treatment towards them.
Although they seemed to be making headway, they had long periods of sickness and felt the acute loneliness that is often felt by missionaries even when surrounded by a sea of people. A real breakthrough came when the island was in need of good drinking water, and John told the villagers that he had prayed and knew God would help them find a spring. He taught the men how to dig a well, something they laughed at him for since they had only ever seen water come from the sky. When water was finally discovered and they saw it was good for drinking, the chief said, “No god of Aniwa has ever answered prayers as the Missi’s (teacher) God has done . . . the gods of Aniwa cannot hear, cannot help us like the God of Missi.” They decided that since what the missionaries had said about the “invisible” water below the ground was true, what they said about the “invisible” God above in heaven must be true as well. There was a great burning of idols at that time and many hearts converted and turned towards God.
Within 15 years of stepping foot on Aniwa, John and Margaret had seen every last person on the island come to know Christ as their Saviour. Later on it was recorded that “. . . more than 12,000 cannibals have been brought to sit at the feet of Christ, and 133 of the natives have been trained and sent forth as teachers and preachers of the Gospel.” The hearts of those who once lived barbaric lives now lived in peace, and there was not a home on the island where the family did not come together for morning and evening worship.
Margaret and John stayed on the island until 1881 when they began to make trips to Australia, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States telling the stories of how God had changed the lives of the natives and seeking to find others that would surrender to go to the islands not yet reached. By 1899 they saw the establishment of missionaries on 25 of the 30 islands that made up the New Hebrides. Included in that number were two of their own sons and one of their daughters. In total they had 10 children, 4 of whom died in infancy or early childhood. Margaret herself died on May 16, 1905 at the age of 64 having “put her hand to the plough and never looking back.” She is a lady of whom it can be said, “She hath done what she could.”
Her Story/My Story:
Margaret faced the same difficulties as many other missionary women face, especially in primitive circumstances . . . the difficulty of trying to set up a home that is as comfortable as possible for your family with whatever limited resources are available to you . . . the difficulty of raising a family in a godless society that doesn’t hold to the same moral code, and in her case, thirsted for blood . . . the difficulty of trying to learn a hard language in order to be able to communicate the love of God to those you are living amongst instead of just saying a passing, “Hi, how are you?”. . . the difficulty of living a life that no one else can understand. Life on the island of Aniwa was difficult. But even in difficult times that caused her to sigh, Margaret persevered and drew strength from the fact that she knew Jesus’ watchful eye was ever on her. She once wrote home in a letter, “If you came to be missionaries, you would find it uphill work indeed, to be sacrificing your whole life merely for the sake of those who could not understand your motives, and who know not what it cost you to give up home and friends. But Jesus regards every sigh, and whatever is done for Him will meet with a sweet reward even in this life; for He who has promised can never disappoint.”
I’ll let you in on a truth. Even the best, most dedicated missionaries sigh . . . sometimes a lot. They sigh at their own failings. They sigh at the slow rate the nationals seem to grow spiritually. They sigh when there are disagreements or miscommunications with fellow missionaries. They sigh when the electricity turns off for the umpteenth time in a day or when brown water comes out of the faucet or no water comes out. They sigh when their kids pine away for friends they’ve left behind. They sigh when the government changes the visa laws yet again, causing them to pack their family up quickly and do a “border run”. They sigh when they can’t find that one final ingredient they need to make a simple dish for their family. They sigh whether warranted or not when they feel quite all alone.
Let’s face it. We all sigh for many different reasons. I have sighed many a time. I even sighed while trying to write this silhouette frustrated with myself trying to write it in such a way that gives a truthful account of Margaret’s life and encourages the reader in their spiritual walk and service to the Lord. I don’t know about you, but I often sigh when I’m at that point where I’m tired or frustrated or irritated with someone or something. For me a sigh usually signals that I’m about done with the matter and have not the wisdom nor the patience to deal with it any more. Then comes the frustration I feel for sighing in the first place, feeling like I’m not “strong” enough or capable enough to get the job done or cope with the situation. I mean, surely anyone serving the Lord . . . in the center of His will . . . in the power of the Holy Spirit, should have no cause to give in to sighing in any situation, right? I’m encouraged to know that sighing is not a sin because we know Jesus never sinned and yet He sighed.
Bible Study: Sighing
I love studying about the life of Christ. Probably 80% of the Bible studies I’ve done center around His time on earth . . . His miracles . . . His life’s work . . . His relationship with His Heavenly Father, but the one thing I love studying the most is His humanity. I can’t relate to what it must have felt like to perform the great miracle of the feeding of the 5,000(1), nor can I relate to the power it took to still the raging sea(2). The depths of forgiveness Christ showed to His accusers on the cross(3) is beyond my comprehension. But His humanity . . . His humanity I can relate to. I can relate to crying with a dear friend because a loved one has passed away(4). I can relate to seeing the multitudes in dire need of spiritual help and being overcome with compassion for them(5). I can understand anger at stubborn hearts who refuse Biblical teaching(6), and I can relate to sighing when after many long days of serving others someone asks something more of you(7).
A number of years ago I wrote in my journal about this matter of Jesus sighing. I was studying Mark 5-7 and the stories of how He healed the Maniac of Gadera(8) and a man who was deaf and dumb(9). He had healed the Syrophencian’s daughter(10) and a lame man brought to Him by his friends(11). In the midst of these great miracles, I read that Jesus sighed. “He sighed.” It seems like such a strange bit of information for Mark to share with us when telling the story of Jesus opening the ears of a man and loosening his tongue. Why did He sigh? Was He tired? Did He sigh because He knew those who would witness the miracle would not heed His admonishments to not publish it? Was it because everywhere He turned there was someone who needed His help? The Bible doesn’t tell us, but a few short verses later we find Him sighing again. This time it was because His enemies were questioning Him yet again(12) . . . questioning His deity . . . questioning His authority . . . questioning His actions and His motives.
What I realized is that although there were moments in Jesus’ ministry that caused Him to sigh, He didn’t decide it was time to give up. Instead, He continued in the work He came to do. It is a great example we should follow. We must know there will be times in ministry and life that cause us to sigh, but like Jesus, we must not give up and rest assured that He hears every sigh and is standing near to help us keep on going.
1. Mark 6:30-44
2. Mark 4:35-41
3. Luke 23:34
4. John 11:32-35
5. Mark 6:34
6. Mark 3:5
7. Mark 7:31-37
8. Mark 5:1-20
9. Mark 7:31-37
10. Mark 7:24-30
11. Mark 2:1-12
12. Mark 8:11-12
Serving the Master joyfully,
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