‘”All generalizations are false, including this one,” yet we keep making them’, says Elisabeth Elliot. ‘We create images–graven ones that
can’t be changed; we dismiss or accept people, products, programs, and propaganda according to the labels they
come under; we know a little about something, and we treat it as though we know everything.
‘I couldn’t count the times I’ve heard nineteenth-century missions and missionaries cited as examples of stupidity
and failure. I heard a whole lecture predicated on this assumption. They were bigoted and imperialistic and naive
and arrogant and hypocritical. Some of them probably were some of those things. Some twentieth-century
missionaries might make the ones of the last century look like paragons by comparison. Missionaries are (and need
we go over this again?) human like everybody else, but the world has seen some great ones, some men and women who
saw something to which they witnessed with truthfulness and often with real sacrifice.
‘In a box of old family papers, I found a little frayed booklet put out in 1906 by the Yale Foreign Missionary
Society entitled A Modern Knight, by Joseph Hopkins Twichell. It broke up some of my categories. It was the story
of John Coleridge Patteson, Missionary Bishop of Melanesia. He was English (“of course,” I said to myself–I think
of nineteenth-century missionaries as English–my generalization).
‘He came from a refined English home. He was the nephew of the famous poet Coleridge and the son of an eminent
jurist. He had his place “by birth,” the booklet says, “in the upper circles of English society.” Exactly. No
categories shaken by those facts. He grew up in a “praying household, notably pervaded with the spirit of humble
piety and with all sweet gospel savors. There is no mistaking the evangelical tone and quality of the religion
there prevailing.” He went to Eton, was confirmed in the Church of England, and graduated from Oxford, a “rarely
accomplished scholar.” He was elected fellow of one of the colleges of his university.
‘But instead of becoming a jurist like his father, John went as a missionary to the Melanesian Islands to work with
people who were nearly all savages and naked and cannibalistic–a people marked by “features of repulsiveness and
horrible ferocity,” according to the chronicler. But it is interesting to note that Patteson himself spoke of them
as men. To him they were “naturally gentlemanly and well-bred and courteous. I never saw a ‘gent’ (by which term I
think Patteson meant one who vulgarly tries to imitate a gentleman) in Melanesia, though not a few savages. I
vastly prefer the savages.”
‘He saw that they spoke a language, not the “uncouth jargon of barbarians” as many assumed. (“They don’t speak a
language, do they?” people have asked me of Ecuadorian Indians. “They only make sounds.”) Patteson considered some
of the Melanesian languages better than English for translating the biblical Hebrew and Greek.
‘”He gave them his company,” writes Twichell. “For years together he scarcely saw any human being save his handful
of assistants and his dark-skinned Melanesians. He never married. He adopted that wild race as his family.’ It is
Twichell who thinks of them as a wild race. Patteson ‘had none of the conventional talk about degraded heathen.
They were brethren.”
‘He was ecumenical in spirit, at one time having to assume charge of a mission of another denomination where he
scrupulously conformed to the practices of that mission, though he admitted that he greatly missed the Prayer
‘The nurture of the indigenous church has been thought to be a recent emphasis in missionary work. Patteson made
this his primary object. He visited the islands for four to six months of each year, and spent the rest of the
time instructing people of both sexes at a central location. He insisted that they return to their homes at the
end of the instruction period as a test of their own progress.
‘Patteson himself was up against gross misconceptions of the nature of his work, but he wrote truthfully about it.
“In these introductory visits scarcely anything is done or said that resembles mission work in stories. The crowd
is great, the noise greater. The heat, the dirt, the inquisitiveness, the begging, make something unlike the
interesting pictures in a missionary magazine of an amiable individual very correctly got up in a white tie and
black tailed coat, and a group of very attentive, decently clothed, nicely washed natives.”
‘Patteson could not abide sentimentality, that lifeless, heartless, and ultimately cruel idol of many Christians.
“One who takes a sentimental view of coral islands and coconuts is of course worse than useless,” he wrote. “A man
possessed with the idea that he is making a sacrifice will never do. A man who thinks any kind of work beneath him
will simply be in the way.” He was to be found milking cows and cutting out girls’ dresses and doing things the
people in England thought shocking.
‘”Integration” was not a word in his vocabulary as we use it today, and he deplored “that pride of race which
prompts a white man to regard colored people as inferior to himself. They (the natives) have a strong sense of,
and acquiescence in, their inferiority (‘Does an ant know how to speak to a cow?’ one of them once said) but if we
treat them as inferiors they will always remain in that position.”
‘Progress reports? “My objection to mission reports has always been that the readers want to hear of progress, and
the writers are thus tempted to write of it; and may they not, without knowing it, be, at times, hasty that they
may seem to be progressing? People expect too much. Because missionary work looks like failure, it does not follow
that it is. Our Savior’s work looked like a failure. He made no mistakes either in what He taught or in the way of
teaching it, and He succeeded, though not to the eyes of men.”
‘Patteson saw his own work as seed sowing. He was prepared to wait long and patiently and not to dig up in doubt
what he had planted in faith. He gave to the handful of Melanesians whom he was training a care of instruction and
discipline that was “deliberate and painstaking beyond measure.”
‘We have heard missionaries of the last century accused of transferring European civilization to the native culture
as though it were synonymous with Christianity. Patteson said, “I have long felt that there is almost harm done in
trying to make these islanders like English people. They are to be Melanesian, not English, Christians. . . .
Unless we can denationalize ourselves, and eliminate all that belongs to us as English and not as Christians, we
cannot be to them what a well instructed countryman of theirs may be. . . . Christianity is the religion of
humanity at large. It has room for all. It takes in all shades and diversities of character, race, etc.”
‘When he was little over forty, Patteson visited an island he had never been to. He was received from his ship in a
native canoe and taken to shore. The crew waited hours for his return, and at last saw two canoes leaving the
beach, one towing the other which appeared to be empty. Soon the empty canoe was cast adrift while the other was
paddled rapidly back to shore. Cautiously the boat’s crew made toward the drifting canoe. As they drew alongside
they saw the body of John Coleridge Patteson, wrapped in a mat, a palm frond laid on his chest. It was the year
‘The church, for the most part, has forgotten this name in the long list of its martyrs. It forgets most of what
has been done and suffered, and thinks it is doing and suffering now as never before. We boast of our progress
(from missions to “mission,” for example) and criticize those bunglers of one hundred years ago. But criticism is
an easy-chair exercise, especially when the critic does not trouble himself to look at the data but relies chiefly
on what he himself feels or on “what everybody knows”–on generalizations.
‘Thank heaven the work of Patteson and all other missionaries, as well as the work you and I have to do today, is
subject to the judgment of “a judge who is God of all,” who never mistakes the counterfeit for the real, never needs to revise his categories, never lumps men together.’
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