John Paton and his wife Mary Ann arrived on the New Hebrides island of Tanna on 5th November 1858, in excellent health and full of hope. There was nobody to tell them that the location where they built their house was a breeding ground for disease. In mid-February 1859, Mary Ann gave birth to a son, Peter Robert – but in the fever that subsequently enveloped her, she never regained her strength. She passed away on March 3rd. Almost immediately the new-born son became ill, and on March 20th he too was taken from the man who was just a few months into his missionary calling.
Paton himself fell sick, along with the distress at his stunning loss. Yet still he wrote:
“But I was never altogether forsaken. The ever-merciful Lord sustained me, to lay the precious dust of my beloved Ones in the same quiet grave, dug for them close by – in all of which last offices my own hands, despite breaking heart, had to take the principal share!
“I built the grave round and round with coral blocks, and covered the top with beautiful white coral, broken small as gravel. And that spot became my sacred and much-frequented shrine, during all the following months and years when I laboured on for the salvation of these savage Islanders amidst difficulties, dangers and deaths.
“Whensoever Tanna turns to the Lord and is won for Christ, men in after days will find the memory of that spot still green – where with ceaseless prayers and tears I claimed that land for God in which I had ‘buried my dead’ with faith and hope. But for Jesus and the fellowship he vouchsafed me there, I must have gone mad beside that lonely grave.”
John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides (pp. 79,80)