Williams, John (1796-1839) (DNB00)

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WILLIAMS, JOHN (1796–1839), missionary, born at Tottenham High Cross, Middlesex, on 29 June 1796, was the son of John Williams by his wife, the daughter of James Maidmeet, a partner in the firm of Maidmeet & Neale, St. Paul's Churchyard. He was taught at a school in Lower Edmonton, kept by two persons named Gregory. His education was commercial, and on 27 March 1810 he was apprenticed for seven years to Enoch Tonkin, a furnishing ironmonger in the City Road, London. He ardently devoted himself to his trade, and showed so much ability that Tonkin usually entrusted him with work requiring delicacy and accuracy of execution.

Williams was the child of pious parents, his mother, who had come under the influence of William Romaine [q. v.], being distinguished for sanctity. In childhood he composed hymns and prayers for his own use, but in later youth he entirely lost his former fervour. On 30 Jan. 1814, however, he heard a sermon by Timothy East of Birmingham at the Tabernacle, Moorfields, which changed his feelings from indifference to strong devotion. In September he became a member of the Tabernacle congregation, of which Matthew Wilks was minister, and began to take an active part in church work. The congregation were much interested in the work of the London Missionary Society, and Williams resolved to offer himself as a missionary. In July 1816 he applied to the directors, and was accepted after passing an examination before them. The islands of the Pacific had been selected by the founders of the London Missionary Society as the scene of their earliest efforts. For many years their agents made little progress, but at the time of Williams's offer of himself for the mission field they had achieved considerable successes, and were making urgent requests for fresh labourers. Impressed by their needs, the society responded by sending out Williams and several other young men after a training of a few months only. Tonkin released him from his apprenticeship, and on 30 Sept. he and several others were set apart at a service held in Surrey Chapel. On 17 Nov. he and his wife sailed for Sydney in the Harriet in the company of three other missionaries. In September 1817 they left Sydney in the Active for Eimeo, one of the Society Islands, near Tahiti, where there was already a mission station. Arriving at Papetoai on 17 Nov., Williams remained for some months assisting the missionaries and perfecting himself in the Tahiti language. During his stay several chiefs of the Leeward Group, who had assisted Pomare in regaining the sovereignty of Tahiti, visited Eimeo, and welcomed the project of establishing a mission station among their own islands. In consequence Williams and two other missionaries, John Muggridge Orsmond and William Ellis, with their wives, landed at Huahine on 20 June 1818, and were heartily received by the natives. The fame of their arrival drew crowds of visitors from the neighbouring islands, among them Tamatoa, the king of Raiatea, whose urgent request induced Williams and Lancelot Edward Threlkeld to remove on 11 Sept. 1818 to his own island, the largest of the group. It was the centre of the religious system of the inhabitants of the Leeward Islands, and contained ‘the temple and altar of Oro, the Mars and Moloch of the South Seas.’ By the time of his arrival at Raiatea Williams had acquired sufficient knowledge of the language to preach to the people. The way for the adoption of Christianity had been prepared by a visit two years before from Charles Wilson and Pomare, who were driven from Eimeo by a sudden gale, and the task of the missionaries was made easier by the approbation of the supreme chief, Tamatoa. While, however, the people were ready to adopt Christianity as a state religion, they were debased in their morals and inveterately idle. They also dwelt in so scattered a fashion that collective instruction was impossible. Williams induced them to form a common settlement, and to construct a chapel and schoolhouse. For himself he built a dwelling on an English model, hoping that it would serve as an example to the natives and stimulate them to industry. They were also instructed in boat-building, and paid for their services with nails, hinges, and other useful articles. A printing press established at Huahine was of important service, and the Gospel of St. Luke and a supply of elementary books in their own tongue were distributed among the people. An auxiliary missionary society was formed in emulation of those already existing at Tahiti and Huahine. On 12 May 1819, when a new chapel was opened, a complete code of laws was read and adopted by popular vote. Unlike those previously introduced in other parts of Polynesia, it included trial by jury. In the same year the cultivation of the sugar-cane was introduced and a sugar-mill erected, Williams turning the rollers in a lathe made by his own hand.

In the meantime Williams became dissatisfied with his position. His work seemed to him too easy, and he had an intense desire to reach the heathen populations scattered in other islands. He thought at first of leaving Raiatea and setting out independently of the society, but afterwards resolved to attain his end by means of a mission ship, making Raiatea his headquarters. The directors of the society did not favour the project, but Williams was resolved, and having inherited some property on the death of his mother, he visited Sydney in 1821, and purchased the Endeavour, a schooner of eighty or ninety tons. He also engaged a manager for three years to teach the natives the art of cultivating sugar and tobacco.

Arriving at Raiatea on 6 June 1822, Williams sailed on his first mission voyage in the Endeavour on 4 July 1823. On 9 July they arrived at Aitutaki, and thence proceeded in search of Raratonga, whose inhabitants were said to be the most ferocious in Polynesia. Failing to find the island, they visited Mangaia, Atiu, Mauki, and Matiaro, all in Hervey or Cook Islands. A second attempt to find Raratonga was successful, and leaving Papeiha, a native teacher, who bravely offered to remain alone, Williams returned to Raiatea. On 10 Oct. he departed to visit Rimitaru and Rurutu, two of the Austral Group, which had been christianised by native teachers. On his return he was preparing to attempt to reach the more distant Navigators' Group, when his plans were frustrated by the intelligence that the governor of New South Wales had made fiscal regulations which materially reduced the value of South Sea produce. He had relied on meeting the expenses of his vessel by trading, and was therefore compelled to send her back to Sydney to be sold. He appealed in vain for assistance to the directors of the society, who with some narrowness of spirit refused to countenance his projects, on the ground that they disapproved of missionaries entangling themselves with the affairs of this life.

In April 1827 he accompanied two newly arrived missionaries, Charles Pitman and his wife, to Raratonga, and remained with them for some months until they gained experience. During this period he translated portions of the Bible and other books into the Raratongan language, which he had to reduce to a written form. After completing this work and waiting for some months for a ship to convey him back to Raiatea, he resolved to build a vessel for himself. This, though destitute of iron, he accomplished with marvellous ingenuity, constructing bellows for his fire out of goatskin, and when these were eaten by rats, making them of wood. Having no saw, the trees used were split by wedges, and, having no steering apparatus, bent planks were procured by splitting curved trunks. Cordage was made from the bark of the hibiscus; sails, of native matting; for oakum, cocoanut husk was used; and the pintles of the rudder were formed from a piece of a pickaxe, a cooper's adze, and a large hoe. With such contrivances Williams constructed in fifteen weeks a seaworthy vessel about sixty feet long and eighteen feet wide, which he named ‘The Messenger of Peace.’ Supplied with anchors of wood and stone, he sailed to Aitutaki, a distance of 145 miles, returning with a cargo of pigs, cocoanuts, and cats. Receiving a supply of iron shortly after, Williams strengthened his vessel, and safely accomplished the voyage to Tahiti, a distance of eight hundred miles. He then began to prepare afresh to visit the more distant isles of Polynesia. On 24 May 1830 he started from Raiatea, and visited Savage Island, Tongatabu, and others of the Friendly Islands. He then proceeded to the Samoa Group, where he placed teachers in the island of Savaii. He again visited Samoa at the close of 1832, and, returning to Raratonga, completed his translation of the New Testament.

In June 1834 he visited England, where the fame of his adventures made him a centre of interest. He addressed numerous meetings, and during his stay did much to quicken the growing interest in missions. He submitted to the London Missionary Society plans for a theological college at Raratonga, and for a normal school at Tahiti for training native schoolmasters, and laid before the British and Foreign Bible Society his manuscript of the Raratongan New Testament. In April 1837 he published ‘A Narrative of Missionary Enterprise in the South Sea Islands, with Remarks on the Natural History of the Islands, Origin, Languages, Traditions, and Usages of the Inhabitants,’ a volume which excited the interest of men of letters and of science, as well as of those concerned in the progress of Christianity. Several editions have since been published, the latest appearing at Philadelphia in 1889. The common council of London, impressed with the commercial importance of his projects, voted him 500l., and altogether 4,000l. was subscribed, with which the Camden was purchased and fitted out. On 11 April she sailed from Gravesend, containing Williams, his wife, and sixteen other missionaries. After visiting the Samoan Islands he proceeded to Tahiti and other islands of the Society Group, whence he went to the New Hebrides, a group of islands beyond his previous field of labour. Landing at Dillon's Bay, Erromanga, on 20 Nov. 1839, he was killed and eaten by the natives in retaliation, it is believed, for the cruelties previously perpetrated by an English crew. As the news of Williams's death was carried by the Camden from island to island, the population burst into wailing and abandoned themselves to hopeless grief, even the heathen joining in the lamentation.

Williams was the most successful missionary of modern times. He acquired the languages and adapted himself to the varying characters of the races he encountered in a manner most remarkable for a man of his defective education. He supplied his lack of training by great practical sagacity and by marvellous comprehension and toleration of alien modes of thought, but, above all, by singlehearted zeal for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the native races, which they did not fail to perceive and appreciate. A stone marks the place at Apia where his remains, collected by Captain Croker of her majesty's ship Favourite, were buried. On 29 Oct. 1816 Williams married Mary Chauner, who shared in his labours until his death. By her he had a surviving son, William.

[Williams's Missionary Enterprise, Philadelphia, 1889; Prout's Memoirs of John Williams, 1843; Campbell's Martyr of Erromanga, 1842; Lovett's Hist. of the London Missionary Soc., 1899, vol. i. index; English Cyclopædia; Horne's Story of the London Missionary Soc. 1894; Buzacott's Mission Life in the Islands of the Pacific, 1866.]

E. I. C.