September 1 – 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.

John Thomas, Christian pioneer

 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.

Rev John Mavor