Dying for the Gospel: The Gordons of Erromanga

Peter BushPeter Bush is the teaching elder at Knox Church, Mitchell ON. He is the author of Western Challenge: The Presbyterian Church in Canada's Mission on the Prairies and North.

Erromanga, an island in the southern region of Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) is only 40 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide, at its widest point. The famous explorer, Captain James Cook, who visited the island in 1774 and ended up having a military skirmish with the islanders, commented afterwards that "no one would ever venture to introduce Christianity into Erromanga because neither fame nor profit would offer the requisite inducement." In November 1839, John Williams, a British missionary who had worked in the eastern Pacific for over twenty years, did attempt to make contact with the people of Erromanga. Williams, who was scouting out potential new mission sites for the London Missionary Society, visited Erromanga on board the Camden. He received what he thought was a cordial reception. On his second excursion on the island further than the beach at Dillon's Bay, the sheltered anchorage on the north-west part of the island, he and his companion James Harris, a sailor who was seriously considering entering the ministry, were attacked and killed. The news of their deaths shook the missionary community in the southern Pacific and back in Great Britain and in Canada as well.

The London Missionary Society missionaries from Fiji and Samoa supported a series of Samoan and Roratongan Christians who moved on to Erromanga with the purpose of preaching the gospel and teaching the children of the island. These missionary ventures often ended in tragedy as some of the Samoan and Roratongan missionaries were killed and others starved to death because no one on Erromanga would assist them with acquiring food. It is estimated that approximately forty Samoan and Roratongan Christians, both adults and children, died seeking to proclaim the good news about Jesus to the people of Erromanga. By the early 1840s all missinary endeavours to reach the people of this tiny island ceased.

The end of missionary efforts did not mean that the people of Erromanga had no contact with white people; a number of traders sought to acquire the valuable and aromatic sandalwood that grew on the island. The Erromangans burnt this wood in cooking and heating and were willing to trade the wood for trinkets and the like. Some of the traders were brutal in their treatment of the native peoples, using their guns and cannons to impose their trade wishes. By the mid-1850s the appearance of white people filled the people of Erromanga with both fear and anger. The traders themselves recognized Erromanga as a dangerous destination, since a number of white traders had been killed there.

Our story now moves to Prince Edward Island. In 1848, John and Charlotte Geddie and their family bade farewell to Prince Edward Island becoming the first Canadian Presbyterian missionaries sent to another part of the world. They went to the island of Aneityum, the most southern of the islands in the New Hebrides to establish a mission. Shortly after his arrival Geddie wrote home, asking that the mission board send more missionaries. But it was not until 1855 that the board was able to meet that request in the person of George N. Gordon. Gordon, the son of Scottish-born parents, was born near Alberton, Prince Edward Island, in 1822. His father's family had been driven out of the Highlands of Scotland so that the lairds could turn the share-cropping farms into grazing land for sheep.

In 1848, Gordon's life was turned upside down as he had a powerful conversion experience and began to intentionally proclaim the good news about Jesus to everyone he met. He became a colporteur for the Bible Society, travelling around selling Bibles, distributing tracts, and telling all who would listen about God's love shown in Jesus Christ. In 1850 he began his theological education studying at both the Presbyterian Theological Hall in West River, Nova Scotia, and the Free Church College in Halifax. In 1852, while a full-time student, he became the first missionary with the Halifax City Mission, visiting in the most run-down and poorest neighbourhoods, bringing the gospel to life through word and deed as he challenged the injustices he saw, helped the poor with food and clothes, and never stopped telling about the difference Jesus had made in his life. It was during this time that he heard God calling him to be a missionary in the New Hebrides. In 1855, he sailed from Halifax for England, where he was to study tropical medicine for one year before going to his mission field. It was while he was in England that he met Ellen Catherine Powell, and they were married less than a month before boarding the John Williams for the ten-month voyage to Erromanga. During this time Gordon learned as much as he could about the language of Erromanga, and he was able, much to the surprise of the natives of Erromanga, speak a few words in their two most common languages by the time of his arrival. In June 1857, the Gordons arrived on Erromanga setting up their mission station at Dillon's Bay. They purchased the land for the mission from Kowiowi, a chief on the island, who had been responsible for the murder of John Williams seventeen years earlier.

Three things marked the Gordons' work on Erromanga. First, they were appalled by the treatment of women within Erromangan culture. Girls as young as twelve were married to men twice their age, and became simply beasts of burden for the men. A large number of women unable to face this kind of life took their own lives, climbing to the top of trees and jumping to their deaths, or throwing themselves off cliffs. Both Charlotte and George were vocal in their letters home about the oppression women faced, and outlined ways in which they had sought to rescue some of the women of the island from the terrible circumstances under which they lived.

A second theme was George's consistent warning to the people of Erromanga of the evils of the sandalwood traders. The stories of his family's eviction from the highlands of Scotland had given Gordon a profound distrust for the motives of merchants and large scale business enterprises. Gordon was not wrong in his analysis; the sandalwood traders sought to destroy the people of Erromanga by intentionally introducing measles and other diseases to the island to kill and weaken the inhabitants making the acquisition of sandalwood easier.

Early in his mission work Gordon made a controversial decision about how he would proceed. It was the practice for the white missionaries to recruit Christians from some of the churches on other islands in the south Pacific to come and aid the missionary in the work of teaching and preaching. It was argued that in this way, more people would hear the gospel more quickly. Gordon rejected this pattern. Instead, he sought to work with a handful of Erromangans who showed interest in growing in their understanding of the new religion. He poured time and energy into these people, nurturing their faith, with the intention of raising up indigenous Erromangan church leaders who could carry the gospel message to their own people. It is not clear why Gordon chose this different approach. It may have been that in reading of the tragedy surrounding the Samoan and Roratongan missionary effort of the 1840s, he saw that as still being a futile approach in the late 1850s. Whatever the reason, Gordon marched to the beat of a different drummer, and he was criticized for his approach to the missionary effort. At the time of the Gordons' deaths in 1861, there were three baptized believers on Erromanga — Gordon was demanding in his expectations of baptized believers — and a cluster of forty Christians. They also had portions of the Bible in their own language. Gordon from his earlier work with the Bible Society was committed to putting the Bible into people's hands, and his translation work began less than two months after his arrival on the island.

Life as a missionary on Erromanga was difficult. The mission's supply ship visited only once a year, meaning that staples like flour and sugar had to be carefully rationed and often were infested with bugs and other visitors before the fresh supplies arrived. Letters from home arrived only once a year, and missionaries could only be sure of getting letters off the island on an annual basis as well. There was a two- or three-month season that was particularly unhealthy, as the mosquitoes spread yellow fever. To avoid the worst of this bad season of the year, the Gordons built a new house for themselves on a hill, about two kilometers from the beach and Dillon's Bay. The cooler breezes were healthier. But being on their own away from the village at Dillon's Bay was seen by missionaries on other islands as courting danger. And then there were the challenges of living among a people who spoke a different language and had different customs.

1861 was a bad year for Erromanga. In January a typhoon devastated the island. In March, a group of sandalwood traders brought two people who had measles with them on their ship, and proceeded to expose these infected people to as many Erromangans as possible. The measles killed hundreds; in some villages half the people died. Gordon was kept busy caring for the sick; only two of the patients he attended died of the measles. They happened to be children of one of the island's chiefs. The chief believed that Gordon had cast a spell on his children and killed them. In his anger and grief, he plotted to kill George and Ellen, which he and a group of warriors did on May 20, 1861. After burying the Gordons, the forty Erromangan Christians fled to Aneityum, and told Geddie and the other missionaries the story.

By 1862, things were looking pretty grim for the Canadian Presbyterian mission to the New Hebrides. By 1860, the contingent had grown from just the Geddies to a total of eight missionaries working on the southern islands of the chain. But between the Gordons' murders and disease taking three other missionaries, the contingent was down to three by early 1862.

Our story returns to Prince Edward Island. On hearing of his brother's death, James D. Gordon, immediately volunteered to take his brother's place so that he might go and proclaim the gospel and a message of forgiveness to his brother and sister-in-law's murderers. James, ten years younger than his martyred brother, was born in 1832. After studying arts at the Presbyterian Seminary in Truro, Nova Scotia, he worked as a journalist in Charlottetown, PEI. At the time of his brother's death, James was studying theology at the Presbyterian College in Halifax, that George had attended. In 1864, James Gordon sailed from Halifax for Erromanga, having completed his theological training and taking a medical course in Halifax.

When James Gordon arrived at Erromanga he found a different situation than the one that had confronted his brother. Late in 1861, the Christian community had returned to Erromanga at their own request, so there was a small church communtiy with which Gordon could work. Second, the sandalwood trade was now a thing of the past, the trees being almost entirely gone from the island. Instead, there was a growing slave trade. The traders "recruited" men from the island to sign on as indentured servants for three years to work in the plantations of New Caledonia, Fiji, and Queensland. Once the men were lured to the plantations it was relatively easy to get them to sign on for another three years, working them until their deaths. All of the missionaries in the New Hebrides, including Gordon, strongly condemned the actions of the slave traders, sending a strongly worded petition to both the British and Australian authorities.

James Gordon was welcomed by the Christians of Erromanga with open arms. Since he was single, he was free to travel around the island without needing to be concerned for the safety of anyone but himself. This peripatetic lifestyle attracted a group of young Erromangans who travelled with Gordon. His wide travels also brought him into contact with village chiefs and others whose only experience of white people was negative. Gordon was a brilliant linguist. Having carefully studied his brother's biblical translations on the voyage, he was able to preach in one of the predominant languages of Erromanga almost as soon as he arrived. Within eighteen months he had learned these two languages well enough to translate key portions of Scripture into each of them. He was intending to learn the other two languages on the island, even though one of them was spoken by less than one hundred of the inhabitants. He had worked out the way in which the four languages had developed and which was dependent on which. Using his reporter's eye and literary skills, Gordon's letters home contain detailed accounts of the cultural, sociological, and natural history of the island. Gordon was concerned for the future of the island's population, noting the low birth rate and high mortality rate.

Gordon was something of a loner, who like his brother followed his own drummer. In 1867, Gordon visited Espiritu Santo, the largest island in the New Hebrides, and immediately attracted a group of young men around him whom he discipled in the Christian faith. His six months of work laid the groundwork for the permanent mission to Santo. In 1868, Gordon became a missionary under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales, Australia. That year he was asked by the mission to return to Espiritu Santo, but Gordon did not feel that his work on Erromanga was finished, and so told the mission that he was going to remain there, taking "this step on his own responsibility." Then, in 1870, as the result of a misunderstanding between himself and the rest of the Presbyterian missionaries in the New Hebrides, Gordon resigned all official ties with the mission, continuing his work on Erromanga.

James Gordon seems to have had a foreshadowing that his life might end much as his brother's had. When out walking with one of his closest companions, Soso, Gordon had pointed to a place and said, "If I die, bury me here." On March 7, 1872, while working on the translation of the book of Acts, he was killed for reasons that are still unclear. In his translation work, he had reached Acts 7:60, Stephen's words, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."

James Gordon had followed his brother's missionary methodology, choosing to train a small group of young Erromangan male converts in the faith, with the hope that they would become the future leaders of the church. This group of young men travelled with him everywhere on the island, and he built into them a deep understanding and commitment to the faith. By 1870, he had baptized sixteen people, and only one of them had turned their back on the faith. This was certainly a higher retention rate of baptized believers than was enjoyed at most of the other mission stations in the South Pacific. Most of those who were baptized became proclaimers of the gospel to their own people, and after Gordon's death in 1872, the Erromangan church was able to raise up its own native leaders, moving more quickly to self-sufficiency in its leaders than most of the other island churches in the region. In their twelve years of ministry, George and Ellen, and James Gordon, while marching to the beat of a drummer they alone could hear, laid the groundwork for an indigenous church led by native leaders.

In 1880, a church building was dedicated at Dillon's Bay, and named the Martyrs' Church. One of the native Christian leaders who spoke at the dedication of the church predicted that within a generation the whole island would be Christian. His words were prophetic, for by 1900, 95% of the people of Erromanga identified themselves as Christians. It was to this goal that the Gordons gave their lives.