September 1 – George Brown & John Thomas

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.

George Brown & John Thomas, Christian pioneers

George Brown

The Rev Cecil Gribble, a former General Secretary of Methodist Overseas Missions wrote this about George Brown:

In the long history of Methodist Missions in the Pacific there is no figure more striking nor personality more colourful than that of the pioneer missionary and administrator, Dr George Brown.

 George Brown (1835-1917) was born in Barnard Castle in County Durham in north east England. His mother died when he was only five. When his father remarried young George did not get on well with his stepmother so as a teenager he left home and his father arranged an apprenticeship for him at the seaport of Sunderland. George left this work without his father or employer’s permission and ran away to sea travelling in the Mediterranean to Canada and then on to New Zealand. There he went to the home of his aunt and uncle, Rev. Thomas and Mrs Sarah Buddle. They were Methodist missionaries working amongst the Maori people. As George Brown shared in the life of the Buddle family (with their nine children) and attended Church he experienced the grace of God and became a follower of Jesus Christ. He applied to the Auckland gathering of Methodist ministers to become a minister and to serve as a missionary. Brown was accepted though not unanimously. It was necessary then for him to find a wife. He had met Sarah Lydia Wallis whose parents were also Methodist missionaries in New Zealand. George asked Lydia to marry him and enter a life of missionary service with him. She agreed.

George and Lydia went to serve in Samoa at a time of tribal fighting and much lawlessness. There was also tension between the two churches – the Congregational Church established by the London Missionary Society and the Methodist Church established by the Wesleyan Methodist Church. Both organisations had been active in Tonga and Samoa. A decision was taken in the Mission Headquarters in London that the Wesleyans would work in Tonga and the LMS in Samoa. The only problem was the Samoan Methodists refused to be directed by London. So the Wesleyans felt that they had no option but to go and nurture those who refused to forsake Methodism. Whilst George Brown had good personal relationships with the LMS missionaries in the field, the Congregationalists made complaints about him and his work to the Methodist Mission Board in Australia. So Brown not only had to deal with the violence and heathen practices he was encountering amongst the Samoan people, he had to write lengthy reports defending himself and his work to the home Board.

The Browns left Samoa after fifteen years of faithful work. That pioneering ministry which developed leaders and was involved in peacemaking is still recognised in Samoa today with one of the Church Schools being named the George Brown Junior High School. Well before he left Samoa George Brown had a dream of what he called the ‘new mission’. The islands of New Britain and New Ireland in New Guinea had received no missionary. George Brown pleaded with the Mission Board to let him lead a party to take the Good News to these dangerous cannibalistic people. The Board agreed and George Brown set about raising money for the venture. He had been impressed by the way the LMS had used converts from established areas to take the Good News to new fields. Tahitians went to the Cook Islands, Cook Islanders went to Samoa and so on. So George Brown recruited some Samoans. He decided to recruit also from Fiji to complete his team. The story of Brown’s visit to Fiji has often been told but it should be repeated for each new generation.

George Brown went to Fiji to recruit workers for the ‘New Mission’ when a quarter of the population had been decimated in a measles epidemic. He went to the Training Institution and spoke to the assembled students about the dangers, the illness and the possibility of dying away from home. Brown was about to call for volunteers when the Principal, the Rev. Joseph Waterhouse, suggested that they go to their homes, talk with loved ones and pray about the possibility of a call from God. ‘Then’, he said, ‘we can meet again in the morning to take your answer then’. When the students met again in the morning the whole 83 expressed their willingness to go. It was an amazing sight and a testimony to the power of the Gospel in Fiji. Six of the married students and three single men were selected to go. That, however, was not the end of the matter! George Brown and the volunteers were summoned to Government House where the Administrator reminded the group that they were now British subjects and no missionary had any right to compel them to go to any place where they did not wish to go. He also outlined the dangerous nature of the task that was being undertaken. Then one of the Fijians, Aminio Baledrokadroka, spoke up for the group. He thanked His Honour for his advice but assured him that Mr Brown had told them of all the dangers and the Rev. Waterhouse had told them clearly that they were free to go or free to remain. Aminio then concluded with these stirring words:

But sir, we have fully considered this matter in our hearts; no one has pressed us in any way; we have given ourselves up to do God’s work, and our mind today, sir, is to go with Mr Brown  If we die, we die; if we live we live.

Many of them died!

George Brown and his party established their base in the Duke of York Islands off the coast of New Britain. When the mission ship returned to Australia George Brown knew that he had to stay with his Pacific island friends who had come with him on this New Mission. They had arrived on 15 August 1875and gradually built the trust of the people. Some of the chiefs agreed to have teachers. Little by little the people came to learn of the God of love who wanted them to live at peace with their neighbours. In 1878 on New Ireland some of the people said that before the lotu (the Gospel) came to them they were always at war but now they were almost forgetting how to fight. Any sense of satisfaction in the progress of the mission was shattered when on 6 April 1878 four of the Fijian workers – a minister, a young man helping him and two teachers were murdered, then the bodies dismembered, distributed and eaten. Their widows and children were terrified. The Chief involved sent the word that others in the party, traders in the area and George Brown himself would be next.

George Brown had to face the most difficult decision in his life. The traders were determined to mount a punitive expedition. The Fijian and Samoan teachers were determined to avenge the murder of their colleagues. George Brown was uncertain if his participation would put the new mission at risk or if non-participation would put the lives of the staff and his own family at risk. In the end he decided to join the punitive expedition when people were shot, houses were burned, coconut trees were cut down and gardens were destroyed. Of course there was no police force, no army. New Britain was a frontier community without the rule of law. The decision to participate would haunt Brown for years. He sent a full report to the Mission Board where his actions were hotly debated. In subsequent years he would have to face the Board in an attempt to explain his course of action.

The Blanche Bay Affair as it was known, was reported and discussed in the press in Sydney and well beyond. George Brown’s actions would also be debated in the New South Wales Conference and later in the General Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australasia. What concerned Brown so much was that people spoke out of the comfort of their situation without comprehending the dangers that Brown and others had faced. Brown also went to Fiji to the colonial headquarters of the High Commissioner of the Western Pacific. Even though the Chief Justice was keen to try Brown and even gaol him, the High Commission indicated that ‘yours is not such a case as ought to be prosecuted’. So Brown was free to go.

Despite all the heated debates and arguments it was clear that George Brown still had the confidence of the Church. Some years after he and Lydia had returned to Australia he was elected General Secretary for Missions in 1887. In 1891 he was elected President of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference in New South Wales and Queensland. In 1913 he was elected President General of the Methodist Church in Australasia.

During his years as General Secretary for Missions he was deeply involved in the preparation for, and then went with the original party to establish a mission in the islands at the eastern end of Papua New Guinea. That group led by Dr W. Bromilow and those who succeeded them, established a Church which today is known as the Papuan Islands Region of the United Church in Papua New Guinea. George Brown was similarly involved in 1902 in commencing the work in the Western Solomon Islands led by the Rev. John Goldie and which today forms the Bougainville Region of the UCPNG and the United Church in the Solomon Islands. Under his leadership, Miss Hannah Dudley went to Fiji to commence work among the families of the Indian labourers who had come to work in the cane fields of Fiji. Today it is the Indian Division of the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma. George Brown not only kept pushing the boundaries of mission work geographically. He attempted, over several years to reconcile the divided Church in Tonga but was unsuccessful. He was a strong advocate for single women to serve as missionaries and to give leadership in the Church. He also promoted the establishment of a trained indigenous ministry and the involvement of indigenous lay people in the meetings and running of the Church. In Australia he advocated for the Union of the three branches of Methodism and for the wider Union of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches.

Even with all he did within the life of the Church it would be a mistake to think that his interests were confined to that. He was a linguist, speaking several Pacific Island languages. He was an amateur anthropologist collecting a vast number of artefacts. His wish was that his collection should remain intact. After several locations in England it is today in the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka in Japan. George Brown recognised the value of photography and a collection of his photos is in the Australian Museum. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Divinity by McGill University in Canada.

A wonderful book, Pacific Missionary George Brown 1835-1917 Wesleyan Methodist Church by Margaret Reeson tells much more about this remarkable man and his wife. As it says on the cover of that book, after listing Brown’s many accomplishments, ‘He saw himself, at heart, a missionary’.

 Margaret Reeson

John Thomas

 The Rev. John Thomas (1797 – 1881) and his wife Sarah were sent by the Methodist Missionary Society in Great Britain to serve in Tonga. They were there from 1826 until 1850 and from 1856 until 1859. Even though John Thomas was not the first missionary to arrive in Tonga he is regarded by the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga as the Father of the Church.

John Thomas, the son of a blacksmith and a blacksmith himself, was very aware of his academic limitations. He wrote of himself in his personal journal,

my own rough and knotty mind . . . what a raw, weak and uncultivated wretch was I when I left our England.

 This self-deprecation appears quite frequently in his personal writing. Limited education he may have had, but he was an outstanding observer of life. He may not have had a sparkling personality, but he had great plodding persistence. Those qualities enabled him to write an amazing chronicle of the history of Tonga which covers a period prior to the arrival of European influences. He also records the establishment and growth of the Church.

He provides the genealogies of significant people, records the arrivals and departures of ships and geographical information about the Island group. It is evident that John Thomas had the confidence of the people for they shared their stories and beliefs with him.

While John and Sarah Thomas were in Sydney preparing to go to Tonga there was a lot of pressure put on him to remain in Sydney, to serve in one of the circuits there. He was, however, very clear in his own mind that the Mission Committee had appointed him to Tonga and to Tonga he would go. John and Sarah Thomas had tragedy in their lives when Mrs Thomas had a number of miscarriages. At last a son was born and named John. Nine years later tragedy struck again when the child died. Later when they returned to England, Mrs Thomas also died. When John remarried his new wife had a son but sadly that child too died when he was nine years of age. John Thomas lamented there was no one to pass his written material to. He thought he might destroy it. Fortunately, he did not and his History of Tonga is a goldmine of information for Tongan people and for students of Tongan history.

John Thomas was a very spiritual man and a number of stories have grown up around his life.  A Tongan preacher told the story of John Thomas landing on an island to share the gospel of Jesus. He knelt on the beach to pray. Even though the water lapped around him his trousers were not wet.

Some people would be critical of John Thomas because he was pivotal in many people forsaking their traditional gods and becoming followers of Jesus Christ. The value of that was indicated by a story written by John Thomas. A King was gravely ill and one of his sons was strangled to appease the gods and to facilitate his father’s recovery. Even though John Thomas worked relentlessly to bring change in Tonga and to have the people follow a new way, the way of Jesus, no one did more to record the beliefs and history and genealogy of the Tongan people. He believed that there would come a time when people would want to know their history and about their culture. When they did, John Thomas has recorded it for them.

He was truly the Father of the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga.

by Rev John Mavor