Ed reflects on early Christian mission in the South Pacific.
Accompanied by church elder Joshua, and Ross and Lyndal’s local helper Louis, a small group of us ascended the hills behind Nikaura village on Tuesday afternoon to visit the grave site of Epi’s first missionary and his two children.
Thomas Smaill and his young bride Helen sailed out to Epi Island from New Zealand in 1890 to share the gospel with the as-yet-unreached locals of Nikaura and the surrounding villages. They were part of a wave of missionaries from the British Isles and her colonies who undertook the treacherous voyage to the South Seas during the 19th century with the dream and prayer of seeing the islands won for Christ.
For these missionaries, the journey was perilous and the task was daunting. Piracy, uncharted coral reefs, and ocean tempests made their very arrival a note for thanksgiving. Once on the island, they were confronted in many cases with cannibalism, warring villages, and infanticide. This was certainly the case for John Williams and James Harris who were killed and eaten within minutes of arriving ashore Erromanga in 1839. Others lived under the cloud of persistent hostility, the threat of malaria, and the pressures of isolation. Thomas and Helen, at ages 33 and 23 respectively, were willing like those before them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ.
Their trip was indeed a sacrifice. They buried their first two children on the island and Thomas eventually lost his life to Malaria in 1902, aged 44, leaving behind his wife Helen and daughter Nellie. Despite her grief, Helen returned to the island to continue ministering. She remained interested in the work there right up until her death in 1966, aged 99. According to elder Joshua, as Thomas laid his first child in the fertile soil of Epi, he boldly prayed, ‘I now claim this island for Christ.’
His prayer was answered. After his own toil and that of a small band of subsequent missionaries, life on Epi was transformed by the gospel, as we ourselves have witnessed this week. The fact that we could scramble up the mountain to pray with thanksgiving for the Smaills and for the continued progress of the gospel was a powerful picture of this. Black and white joined in prayer as brothers in Christ, standing over the grave of Smaill’s firstborn – I’m sure Thomas would have wept could he see the day.
Of course, there are still challenges facing the gospel on Epi, yet God continues to work. Ross and Lyndal are a part of this. What a joy it was to see hearts warmed as Ross addressed the whole village earlier that day proclaiming that we do not need to appease God any longer – he is glad with us who believe in Christ.
May we too be willing to count the cost and follow Jesus. He is more than worthy of our absolute surrender and the sacrifice is worth it – I’m sure the Smaills would testify to this now in glory.