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Reform Magazine | May 18, 2024

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Making waves - Reform Magazine

Making waves

The pioneering seafaring missionary met a grisly end – but his story lives on. Tricia Legge celebrates John Williams

When I was a child, and halfpennies had a ship insignia on them, I joined other children in collecting them towards the work of the missionary ship, John Williams VII. This was part of a story that went back to the early 19th Century, and continues to this day.

John Williams, my hero, was a missionary in the South Pacific. Apprenticed to a London ironmonger, he was enthused by a sermon at Moorfields Tabernacle, offered himself to the London Missionary Society (LMS), and went out to the Pacific islands with his new wife in 1814 when they were both aged 19.

With the help and encouragement of Tamatoa, the island’s chief, they set up their first mission on the island of Raiatea. Living among the islanders, they learned their language, customs and traditions. John told them about the Gospel and eventually taught them about trade. Mary taught, nursed and helped women develop the local skills.

John then wanted to do the same on other islands and so asked for a new ship. This did not please the LMS, as teaching trade was not in their constitution. So John hired a schooner, Endeavour, to trade and take the Gospel to more islands.

In 1823 John and Mary sailed to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, where, with money running out and the Endeavour no longer sea worthy, they decided to set up base. They built a family house, started a mission and John translated some of the Bible into Rarotongan. John found a run-down ship’s carcass, and, with the help of his new friends, rebuilt it out of local products. In 1827 The Messenger of Peace ship was launched by the King of Raratonga.

John and Mary were once again able to visit their mission stations and also to sail to the Islands of Samoa and Tonga, where John built new stations, leaving Tahitian teachers and Wesleyan missionaries to run them.

The Williamses came back to England only once to have the New Testament printed in Rarotongan and to raise funds for a new ship. Whilst there, John made many public speeches to enthusiastic audiences about his voyages and work, and in 1837 they returned to the South Pacific in The Camden. John sent journals and letters to family and friends in England, which were later published by Pathfinder books as The Adventures of John Williams the Shipbuilder, firing up many boy’s imaginations. John Williams became a hero to many children.

John was killed and eaten by islanders on Erromanga in 1839 (for which their descendents formally apologised in 2009). Wanting to continue his work, the LMS made an appeal for money to fund another ship. British children rallied around saving what they could from their wages – some even sold their lunches to raise money. A staggering £6,000 was raised and a ship was built, The John Williams. It set sail in 1856.

Children continued to save money for the work of the John Williams ships. My own halfpennies went towards the work of the last of them, which was decommissioned in 1974. But another legacy of his work continues still.

In 1936, the LMS wanted to give something to the children who had been raising money and to help them understand its work as well as encourage contined donations. From these aims, the Pilots youth organisation was born – modelled, naturally, on a ship. The leaders were Christian captains commissioned by the church. They invited all children, Christian and non-Christian, to join.

Children who come to Pilots nowadays are taught about John Williams and his dedication to others. They are taught the message of the Gospel and about other countries through projects, activities and games. The aim is, like John Williams’, to meet children and parents where they are, and to make faith relevant to people’s lives. By finding connections between the Gospel and everyday life, children are encouraged to live the Pilots promise: “To learn, pray and serve all they can in the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ”.

Tricia Legge serves on the Pilots management committee

Last year’s United Reformed Church General Assembly invited churches to celebrate Pilots Sunday on any week in June, in support of the organisation. For more information visit



This article was published in the June 2013 edition of  Reform.

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