November 20 – John Williams & Thomas Baker

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John Williams & Thomas Baker, Christian pioneers

Rev. John Williams

Older members of the Uniting Church who attended a Congregational Sunday School remember collecting money for the missionary ship of the London Missionary Society called the John Williams. There was a whole series of ships over the years bearing the name of John Williams. The Rev. John Williams was not only one of the great missionaries of the Pacific but he also made a significant contribution to the development of the Christian faith in Australia.

John Williams was born in Tottenham High Cross in London 27 June 1796.  His father John was one of the many generations who had been Baptists. His mother had been influenced by Calvinistic Methodism and John Williams became a Congregationalist. He was apprenticed to an ironmonger at age 14 and soon after was entrusted with the management of the business. It was an indication of his ability, managerial skills and boundless energy. These were characteristics he displayed during his highly significant missionary work in the South Pacific.

In 1814 he underwent an evangelical conversion and became a member of the Tabernacle Church (Calvinistic Methodist) and in 1816 he volunteered for missionary service with the London Missionary Society. He was accepted and was ordained a Congregational Minister at Surrey Chapel on 3 September 1816. On 29 October that same year he married Mary Chauner of Deraton Hall, near Choadley in Staffordshire. Williams was accompanied to Tahiti by other mission staff. The Rev. Lancelot Threlkold whose work later in the central coast of NSW with aboriginal people was significant, joined the party at Rio de Janeiro. The group arrived in Hobart Town in March 1817 and John Williams conducted the first Evangelical service in Van Diemans Land. Williams defied the Anglican Chaplain and preached in the open air. The group moved on to Sydney where already there was an itinerant Evangelistic ministry. Governor Lachlan Macquarie was impressed by the group and their enthusiasm.

While not unique to the London Missionary Society there were certain principles that their missionaries were meant to follow. They were encouraged to relate to the administering authority. Not only was Governor Macquarie impressed with the calibre of these missionaries to the South Pacific but Samuel Marsden was very impressed with John William’s ability. There was a bond between John Williams and the Rev. Samuel Leigh, the pioneer Methodist minister in Australia.

Another principle was to encourage economic enterprise both to help the people and to assist the mission to become self-supporting. When John Williams and his wife came to Sydney in 1821, he recruited Thomas Scott to teach the people of Raiatea (the island where the mission was established) how to grow sugarcane and tobacco. Williams also bought a ship to ply between Raiatea and Sydney knowing that if any economic development was to happen it would need a bigger market. The Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane was so impressed by Williams that he gave him a gift of animals and gave him magisterial authority for the islands.

The London Missionary Society encouraged churches that had been established and people who had come to faith to evangelise other communities. So Tahitians went to the Cook Islands, Cook Islanders went to New Caledonia and its outlying islands and to Papua. John Williams was active in encouraging this missionary enterprise and was involved in it himself. In 1839 he landed on a beach in Eromanga in what is today Vanuatu, hoping to bring the Gospel to those people, but he was clubbed to death. It was a sad ending to a brilliant missionary career.

We think of John Williams as an Apostle to the Pacific but he also had an important contribution in Australian Christian faith. He was deeply concerned about the plight of the Aboriginal people, appearing before a House of Commons Committee in London looking into the matter. He was influential in the formation in Australia of the Aborigines Protection Society. He was at heart a missionary.

Much of this material has been drawn for the article on John Williams by Neil Gunsen in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Rev John Mavor