John Williams was a missionary with the London Missionary Society for 23 of his 43 years of life. He was savagely killed bringing the Gospel to the New Hebrides.
The island the narration centres upon, is near Tahiti, which for some years, like many other islands in the Pacific, was governed from New South Wales. Governor King, for instance, appointed a magistrate to Tahiti in 1802, Governor Macquarie similarly in 1811, and Williams himself was given magisterial authority over the islands by Governor Brisbane. Williams was the most enterprising missionary to the Pacific Islands, and believed Australia was in a unique position to christianise the Pacific region. In Australia he was responsible for founding an Auxiliary Missionary Society in Sydney, being influential in the establishment of the local Aborigines Protection Society, as well as being the first evangelist to preach in the open air in Van Diemen's Land on his arrival there in 1817.
In the latter end of the year 1821, Mrs. Williams's health being much impaired, and suffering myself from the effects of a disease prevalent in the islands, it was deemed desirable to avail ourselves of an opportunity, which was then afforded, of visiting New South Wales. Desirous of making the affliction subservient to the one great object to which our lives were devoted, we determined to take with us two native Christians, and place them as teachers in the Island of Aitutaki.
The captain of the vessel having kindly consented to convey them, without expense either to ourselves or the Society, we mentioned the circumstance to the members of the church, who were delighted with the proposition, and selected Papeiha, and Bahapata, two of their number, for the work. Of Papeiha much will be said hereafter, for he has been exceedingly useful, and to the present moment, has preserved an unsullied reputation. These two brethren were set apart to their office in an interesting service, held on the day of our departure from Raiatea. The minds of our people had been awakened to the subject of extending the knowledge of the Gospel, by a peculiarly interesting circumstance that had just before occurred. An island called Rurutu, about 350 miles to the south of Raiatea, was visited by an epidemic, which appears to have been exceedingly fatal. As the natives regard every such calamity to be the infliction of some angry deity, two chiefs of enterprising spirit, determined to build each a large canoe, and, with as many of their people as could be conveyed,to launch upon the mighty deep, committing themselves to the winds and the waves, in search of some happier isle. They felt convinced, that, if they remained, they would certainly be "devoured by the gods", whose anger they had in vain endeavoured to appease; and that should they not succeed in reaching any other land, they could but perish in the billows of the ocean.
Every thing prepared, Auura and his party launched their canoe, unfurled their sails, and were soon out of sight of their lovely but devoted island, and, as they supposed, out of the reach of their infuriated deities. They arrived at the island of Tubuai; and, after having recruited their strength and spirits, determined on returning to their native isle, hoping that the plague was stayed. They launched their vessels, and committed themselves again to the waves of the ocean, little anticipating the perils that awaited them. Scarcely had they lost sight of the mountains of Tubuai, when they were overtaken with a violent storm, which drove them out of their course. Of the crew of one of the canoes the greater part perished at sea. The chief Auura, to whom the other belonged and his party, were driven about they knew not whither, and for three weeks did they traverse the trackless deep, during which time they suffered exceedingly from the want of food and water. At length, He, who holds the winds in his fists, and the waters in the hollow of his hands, to whose merciful designs the elements are subservient, guided them to the Society Islands. They were driven on the coral reef which surrounds the island of Maurua, the farthest west of the group. Had they not reached this island they must have perished.
The hospitable attentions of the inhabitants of this little isle, soon restored the strength of the exhausted voyagers, who related the dreadful calamaties which had befallen their country and themselves. The Mauruans informed them that they formerly worshipped the same deities, and attributed every evil that befell them to the anger of their "evil spirits"; but that now, they were worshippers of Jehovah the one living and true God; giving them a detailed account of the manner in which Christianity had been introduced among themselves, and pointing to the demolished maraes and mutilated idols in confirmation of their statements.
The astonished strangers, on hearing that white men, who had come in ships from a distant country to bring them good tidings, were living in islands, the summits of whose mountains were in sight, determined to proceed there immediately. A westerly breeze setting in, Auura and his friends again launched on the deep, not to fly from the anger of their gods, but in search of those who could explain more fully to them the nature of the astonishing news they had heard. Not being acquainted with the coast of Porapora they missed the entrance, and were driven to Raiatea. There their astonishment was again excited; the Missionaries, their wives and families, the natives in European dresses, with hats and bonnets, their neat white cottages, together with the various useful arts which had been introduced amongst the people, filled the strangers with admiration and surprise. They were conducted to public worship on the Sabbath; beheld with astonishment the assembled multitude; heard them sing the praises of the One living and true God, and listened with the deepest interest to the message of mercy. They were convinced at once of the superiority of the Christian religion, and concluded that God had graciously conducted them there for the purpose of making them acquainted with its inestimable blessings. They placed themselves immediately under our instruction, when we gave them in special charge to our deacons, and supplied them with elementary books. Auura was exceedingly diligent in learning, and made most rapid progress. In a short time he completely mastered the spelling-book, could repeat the greater part of our catechism, and read in the gospel of Matthew. They were only with us a little more than three months, and before they left, he and several others could read, spell, and write correctly; although they were previously ignorant of the formation of a letter, or a figure.
Auura expressed to us very frequently his anxious desire to revisit his own island, to carry to his relatives and countrymen the knowledge he had obtained of the true God and his son Jesus Christ; expessing, at the same time, in the most affectionate manner, his fears, that on his return he should find very few of his relatives and friends alive, as "the evil spirit was devouring the people so fast when he fled from the island".
A vessel, belonging to our kind and liberal friend A. Birnie, Esq., touched at Raiatea, on her way to England, whither she was conveying the very first cargo of native produce that was shipped from that part of the world. It was a cargo of cocoa-nut oil, contributed by the converted natives in aid of the funds of the London Missionary Society. His Late Majesty King George IV, upon being informed of the circumstance, graciously commanded that the duty should be remitted, which enhanced the value of the property £400. The total amount, therefore, contributed to the funds of the Society, by this produce, was £1800.
We informed the captain of our wish to have the chief and people conveyed to their own island;and, with a readiness which did him honour, he offered to take them; and, as we were anxious to know what reception was given to the teachers, and to open a communication with this, to us, unknown island, we also sent a boat of our own, with a native crew, to bring back intelligence. We named the kind offer of the captain to Auura and his wife, who were delighted with the prospect of returning; but he objected to going to their "land of darkness without a light in his hand", by which he meant, unless accompanied by some person to instruct him and his people in the truths of the Gospel. We assembled the members of our congregation, mentioned Auura's desire, and inquired who among them would go as teachers to the heathen of Rurutu? Twoof our deacons, who were amongst our best men, came forward, and, we hope, with the spirit, as well as in the language of the prophet, said, "Here are we; send us." They were therefore set apart to their work by an interesting service. The greater part of the night previous to their departure was spent in providing them with the articles which they would find both necessary and useful. Every member of our church brought something as a testimonial of his affection; one a razor, another a knife, a third a roll of native cloth, a fourth a pair of scissors, and others various useful tools. We supplied them with elementary books, and a few copies of the gospels in the Tahitian language, from which their own does not materially differ. Thus we equipped them for this expedition as well as our means would allow.
After an absence of little more than a month, we had the pleasure of seeing the boat return, laden with the trophies of victory, the gods of the heathen taken in this bloodless war, and won by the power of the Prince of Peace. On reading the letters we received, and seeing with our own eyes the rejected idols, we felt a measure of that sacred joy which the angels of God will experience, when they shout, "The kingdom of this world are become the kingdoms of our God and his Christ."
A meeting was held in our large chapel, to communicate the delightful intelligence to our people, and to return thanks to God for the success with which he had graciously crowned our first effort to extend the knowledge of his name.
The chapel was lighted up with ten chandeliers, made of wood neatly turned; cocoa-nut shells were substituted for lamps. The middle chandelier held eighteen lights, twelve in the lower circle, and six in the upper; the others held ten and twelve each. When lighted up, they presented to the natives a most brilliant appearance, and called forth expressions of astonishment and delight. In the course of the evening the rejected idols were publicly exhibited from the pulpit. One in particular, Aa, the national god of Rurutu, excited considerable interest; for, in addition to his being bedecked with little gods outside, a door was discovered at his back; on opening which, he was found to be full of small gods; and no less than twenty-four were taken out, one after another, and exhibited to public view. He is said to be the ancestor by whom their island was peopled, and who after death was deified.
Several most interesting addresses were delivered by the natives on the occasion. The two following extracts will give an idea of their general character: - Tuahine, one of our deacons, observed,
"Thus the gods made with hands shall perish. There they are, tied with cords! Yes! their very names also are changed! Formerly they were called 'Te mau Atua,'or the gods; now they are called "Te mau Varu ino,'or evil spirits:' Their glory, look! it is birds' feathers, soon rotten; but our God is the same for ever."
Tamatoa, the king, also addressed the meeting: and, perhaps, a finer illustration of the similtude of the knowledge of the Lord covering the earth, as the waters cover the channels of the great deep, will not readily be found, than was used by this Christian chief:-
"Let us," said he, "continue to give our oil and arrow-root to God, that the blind may see, and the deaf hear. Let us not be weary in this good work. We behold the great deep: it is full of sea; it is rough and rugged underneath; but the water makes a plain, smooth surface, so that nothing of its ruggedness is seen. Our lands were rugged and rough with abominable and wicked practices: but the good word of God has made them smooth. Many other countries are now rough and rugged with wickedness and wicked customs. The word of God alone can make these rough places smooth. Let us all be diligent in this good work, till the rugged world is made smooth by the word of God, as the waters cover the ruggedness of the great deep. Let us, above all, be concerned to have our own hearts washed in Jesus' blood; then God will become our friend, and Jesus our brother."
He concluded by an interesting allusion to the natives of Rurutu. Another speaker, with warmth and animation that produced great impression, said,
"Look at the chandeliers! Oro never taught us any thing like this! Look at our wives,in their gowns and their bonnets, and compare ourselves with the poor natives of Rurutu, when they were drifted to our island, and mark the superiority! And by what means have we obtained it? By our own invention and goodness? No! it is to the good name of Jesus we are indebted. Then let us send this name to other lands, that others may enjoy the same benefits." "Angels," added Uaeva, "would rejoice to be employed by God to teach the world this Gospel of Christ."