In our parish of St Luke’s, Hornsby Heights, we explore the life of a notable man or woman each Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day as an encouragement to the congregation. So, as this Fathers’ Day approaches, let us share with you the life of this year’s father: James Paton.
We need to begin with James’ firstborn son, John – which might seem like starting halfway through the story, but it is through John’s life that we know his father. John Paton shared his father with the world through his own autobiography Missionary to the New Hebrides, which is still in print more than 130 years after it was first published.
Born on May 24, 1824, in Kirkmahoe near Dumfries in Scotland, John Paton was the first child of James and Janet – they would go on to have 10 more. John’s ministry began in the Glasgow city slums. Ordained by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1858, he became one of the first from that denomination to go as missionary to the South Pacific islands. Under his ministry thousands of inhabitants of those islands heard the good news of Jesus, repented and believed.
It is impossible to read John’s autobiography and not be stirred by his description of his father. John writes of the day when, at 17, he left home to begin his studies. Walking the 65 kilometres to the train station, John carried a small bundle of personal belongings and was joined for the first 10 kilometres by his father. Both father and son thought this might be the last time they saw each other. John writes:
My dear father walked with me for the first [10km] of the way. His counsels and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene. For the last half mile or so we walked on together in almost unbroken silence... His lips kept moving in silent prayers for me; and his tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks for which all speech was vain! We halted on reaching the appointed parting place, he grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly and affectionately said:
“God bless you my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!” Unable to say more, his lips moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and departed.
John walked on but was soon overcome with emotion. He climbed a dyke to see if his father had moved. He had not.
He did not see me, and after he had gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face towards home, and began to return – his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears as his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonour such a father and mother as He had given me... In my early years particularly, when exposed to many temptations, his parting form rose before me as that of a guardian angel. It is no Pharisaism, but deep gratitude, which makes me here testify that the memory of that scene not only helped, by God's grace, to keep me pure from the prevailing sins, but also stimulated me in all my studies, that I might not fall short of his hopes, and in all my Christian duties, that I might faithfully follow his shining example.
We cannot read this last sentence without asking “How?”. How might one instil such a positive, life-shaping parental respect and trust in the Lord Jesus in our children? What follows is four encouragements from James Paton on how parents can raise their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).
Born in Scotland in 1791, James Paton grew up an evangelical Presbyterian home. He learnt the stocking manufacturer trade of his father, married Janet Rogerson and they set up their home, with James on the stocking loom and Janet caring for their children.
His children saw and heard him follow Jesus
“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).
Here Jesus explains that what should be seen are the good deeds we perform. James and his wife embodied this passage and the children took note, modelling the behaviour of their parents. James discussed weekly sermons with Janet, told his children Bible stories and explained metaphors and allegories to them. In doing so, he made his faith digestible, important and interesting. John wrote:
There were 11 of us; and never one of the 11, boy or a girl, man, woman, has been heard, or ever will be heard, saying that Sabbath was dull or wearisome for us.
James allowed his children to see him pray, to see and hear his trust in the Lord Jesus. John recalls his father kneeling, with his family around him, praying for the conversion of non-Christians, for their personal needs and to develop their own relationship with Jesus.
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.
While our lives, personalities, work and home structures may be different, what is clear is that when children see their parent(s)’ devotion to the Lord Jesus, they see a model of faith that is inspiring and replicable. Children can be literal and are more inclined to believe in only what they can see; as such, your devotion may be deep, genuine and life-giving for you, and affirming for your children. Read your Bible at the table over breakfast, invite your children to pray together and share what you learned from your day.
Parents, disciple your children intentionally.
He prayed and worked for others’ conversion
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15).
James was father to a large family and worked hard in the stocking business with a team of people. Work began at 6am and finished at 10pm, six days a week. Church on Sundays involved a 20-kilometre walk for the whole family. James worked without modern medicine, electricity, sewerage systems, social safety nets, convenient public transport and supermarkets. It is easy to protest how busy our lives are as parents, but it is hard to imagine the physical work and steady business of this time.
Despite this, James was consumed with the mission of Jesus in the world. John recalled that his father “poured out his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the heathen world to the service of Jesus”.
James prayed for the people his son would meet on mission and for those who lived in their own village. He worked in his family, his community and society, to see people transformed by meeting the living God.
For the last 12 years or so of his life, he became by appointment a sort of rural missionary for the four... parishes and spent his last years in literally sowing the good seed of the kingdom.
We encourage parents to embrace a cause for their life. A cause needs to be greater than the next pay cheque, the next family holiday or the next promotion. If we open our eyes, we will see the world is filled with problems to solve, suffering to alleviate, evil to stamp out and good works to do in Jesus’ name.
Parents, embrace a cause bigger than yourself and let your kids see and hear and feel you do it with all your strength.
James ruled his home with love
“The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).
John recalls his father’s approach to discipline:
If anything really serious required to be punished, he retired first in 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’ve defied any amount of 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 – we were ruled by love far more than by fear.
James cultivated the gentle tongue of discipline through laying every decision before the Lord in prayer. Parents, your reprimands need to be measured and tempered by your own prayerful humility. Through our own submission to Jesus, discipline your children with a gentle tongue.
James knew his children belonged first to Jesus
“Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).
When John Paton offered himself to the Presbyterian Church as a missionary to the South Pacific, shock emanated through the community. The first missionaries to the New Hebrides had been clubbed to death and eaten. Friends and colleagues tried to frighten him, guilt him and pay him not to go. He sought advice from his parents.
With so many obstructing influences, I again laid the whole matter before my dear parents, and their reply was to this effect: Up-to-now we feared to bias you, but now we must tell you why we praise God for the decision to which you have been led. Your father’s heart was set upon being a minister, but other claims forced him to give it up. When you were given to them, your father and mother laid you upon the altar, the firstborn, to be consecrated, if God saw fit, as a missionary of the cross; and it has been their constant prayer that you might be prepared, qualified, and led to this very decision; and we pray with all our heart that the Lord may accept your offering, long spare you, and give you many souls from the heathen world for your work.
This notion of parenthood is very different to some modern forms of parenting – strict, uncompromising, helicopter styles, where parents are highly invested in ensuring their children’s success. What would it have been like for James and Janet to farewell their son knowing they might never see him again?
Yet they did. They blessed his desire to travel to a place where his life would be in danger every day so that he might tell sinners there is a Saviour who saves by grace and his name is Jesus. What strengthens a parent to do that? James knew his children belonged to Jesus.
Be encouraged as you to commit your children to Jesus. He has given them to you for a season to love, teach and care for but then let them walk out into the world to the life that the Lord Jesus has called them to, spending themselves for his glory.
Be like James Paton, who knew this and held the notion tightly as he farewelled his son.
By God’s grace, the faith of James Paton was instrumental in John’s missionary success. James’ wisdom and personal relationship with Jesus carried John on his adventures, holding his faith steadfast. May it be the same for us and our children.
“God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you and keep you from all evil!”