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Problems to be Solved: Australasian and South Sea Problems

By John Richardson Selwyn

From The Official Report of the Missionary Conference of the Anglican Communion on May 28, 29, 30 and June 1, 1894.
Edited by George A. Spottiswoode.
London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1894, pages 257-261.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Retired Bishop of Malaita, 2008




The Right Rev. JOHN RICHARDSON SELWYN, D.D., Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, formerly Bishop of Melanesia.

I CANNOT help thinking that the net of this Conference has been woven so exceedingly small, in order to include a great variety of speakers and subjects, that it cannot fail to catch within its meshes a considerable number of sprats, of which I am afraid my paper will be one. For the title,South Sea Problems' is so vast, and suggests so many issues, that to deal adequately with them would require much more than fifteen minutes. And, indeed, the statement of any one of them requires no small degree of skill in condensation in order to make the bearings of the case at all plain. For since the days of Law and the South Sea Bubble the public--nay, even the religious mind--has remained sufficiently vague as to the regions, the races, the governments, and the missions which obtain in that comprehensive area. The crash of Australian banks, the labour trade and all that springs from it, the residence of a great novelist in Samoa, and his encounters with the Lord Chief justice of that isle, have all done something to clear up geography. But even these things do not prevent such an omniscient paper as the,Pall Mall Gazette' placing New Zealand in the Melanesian Archipelago, or a lady, misled by a German geographical savant, from asking my successor whether his diocese extends across the whole of Australia. If, then, I have to spend most of my paper on explanation, I hope it will be attributed to my having duly learnt the parable of the fly on the wheel, which teaches a sense of proportion, and that what seems to make a noise in our own little circle does not necessarily attract the attention of the world.

The problem which I have selected for my paper is one out of many that will require the judgment of the new Bishop of Melanesia, and I think it is one of great importance, especially as it shows that the influences of civilisation are being brought to bear on the missionary work in the South Seas. All my hearers are probably aware of the existence of the labour trade among our islands. Into the merits or demerits of that much-vexed question I am not going to enter now. I said what I had to say very fully in the,Guardian' two years ago, and I believe that my paper then expressed fairly and accurately the state of the case. But what I am now concerned with is the reaction which is at present setting in from the plantations to the islands themselves.

[258] This is a most hopeful and a most thankworthy symptom, and one for which we may praise God with all our heart. In the early days of the labour trade very little indeed was done to benefit spiritually the labourers who were brought in such large numbers to the shores of Queensland and Fiji. The returned labourer as we saw him in the islands brought back too often all the harm and none of the good of our civilisation, and little or no knowledge of our Christianity. Indeed, his influence was often thrown into the scale against us. I remember well a man taking the trouble to walk all across the island of San Cristoval to one of our stations, which was just struggling into light, to deliver this message:,What is the good,' he said,,of learning about the white man's God? I have been in the white man's country and he does not believe in Him.' And another man came to me once, and said in the quaint language which obtains as English in our seas,,Christmas! oh yes! Me savez Christmas. All same races.' He had a holiday on that day, and races were the all in all of it to him.

I am thankful to say that this is being materially changed now. In Queensland and in Fiji great efforts are being made to reach the labourers. Devoted clergymen and laymen, and above all Christian ladies, are stirring at Brisbane, Maryburg, Bundaberg, and Mackay to teach these strangers that are within their gates. I regret that I have not a complete list of all who are engaged in this work.

But though I cannot mention their names, I should like them to know, if these words ever reach them, how deep is my gratitude to them for all that they have done and are doing. I feel I may mention without invidiousness an old friend of mine, Mrs. Robinson, near Mackay. She has never faltered in this work; though she and her husband have felt the full force of the depression which has gone over Australia, yet she has still managed to keep her school going. It has outgrown her house, and with some aid she has erected a most spacious building and struggles on, resolute to do the task she has set herself. Perhaps some of my hearers may like to help her.

And what she has done is being done in many other places. The men are got together. They are taught, they are baptized and confirmed, and on all hands I am told they impress people by their sincerity and earnestness.

And what has been done in Queensland has been done also in Fiji. Mr. Floyd, the veteran clergyman of Levuka, and Mr. Jones, the incumbent of Java [Suva], the capital, are doing splendid work among the labourers in those towns. Mr. Floyd, with the aid and partly by the work of these labourers, has built a church in Levuka, which is the centre of the life of these people; and Mr. Jones has done the same at Java [Suva]. My old friend Mr. Comins, one of the veterans of the Melanesian Mission, and who has done more than almost any one else to uphold it during its crippled state after my resignation, has just gone down there to see what can be done to utilise the men so taught as missionaries to their own countrymen. Happily I received a letter from him on Sunday last, and can thus give his vivid impression of the reality of the work. He says:--

'On the wharf we were met by Mr. Jones and crowds of Melanesians. They literally swarmed down to see us, and gave Luke and myself an enthusiastic welcome. They had so often been disappointed about our [258/259] coming that now their delight knew no bounds.' (I may explain that Luke Masuraa is one of our teachers from the island of Malanta, from which most of these people came.) Mr. Comins goes on:,The great event of my stay here was the opening of the Polynesian Church (as they call it). Mr. Jones' boys have increased in numbers till there was no room for them in his own church, so they collected nearly 200l. among themselves, and Mr. Jones has had a splendid new building put up for them in a nice airy situation. They opened this on Saturday evening, and the place was crowded with both whites and blacks. I gave an address in English first, then I tried my hand at two Malanta dialects--Port Adam and Saa--and then said a few words in Mota for the sake of some Banks Islanders present. The singing was grand, being assisted by the church choir. We had one Malanta hymn which Luke had translated. I find that there are four or five distinct Malanta dialects represented here, and Luke can make nothing out of two of them, and when we give an address in any dialect only twenty-five or thirty people are reached by it. It seems as if Fiji would be the best medium of instruction, but the Solomon Island boys are ambitious to learn English, and do not care to be taught in Fijian.'

These last words lead up to the great crux and problem which I have to lay before you. Here we have on both sides of the Melanesian Islands, in Fiji on the east and Queensland on the west, a large number of people being taught Christianity and enthusiastic in it.

From both of these bodies we hope to draw men, earnest and zealous, to aid the teachers of our Norfolk Island school in evangelising their own countrymen. In one respect they are better than the boys we train at our Mission School, as they have been brought in contact with a wider civilisation, and perhaps can thus influence their countrymen the more. But, though you can train these men themselves to a certain extent, in what language are they to teach when they reach their own people? Mr. Comins has explained the immense variety of dialects--so great that in a single congregation there were five dialects spoken by labourers from one island only, two of which an exceptionally intelligent native of that island could make nothing of. Why not teach in English you say? My father and Bishop Patteson tried it, and it is used universally in Queensland, and, as Mr. Comins shows, in Fiji.

But Bishop Patteson found that, though you could teach English for the ordinary purposes of life, yet it is exceedingly difficult to teach it so that men may grasp religious truth in it, and not only grasp it, but may be able to impart it. That is the great difficulty, as Doctor Codrington showed in his most able paper yesterday. You may be able to teach a native in pigeon-English to understand something about God, the Sacraments, the Commandments, &c. But can you teach him so that he will be able to reproduce it accurately? I ask any of' my hearers to-day who have been engaged in missionary work, whether the hardest part of their work has not always been the finding out in an imperfectly known native language words and phrases which may express the ideas which they (the missionaries) are thinking in their own language. Now reverse that process. Teach a man the things of God in a very imperfectly understood language--i.e. English--and then bid him turn what he has learnt into his own tongue, and into [259/260] the ideas of his own people. I think that they will allow that this is a very hard task indeed.

But you will say you have been doing this all these years at Norfolk Island, only you have used Mota as your lingua franca, and not English.

I grant it. Bishop Patteson deliberately substituted Mota as the medium of instruction. And the reason was this: the words of Mota might be different from any other given dialect, but the grammar, the construction, the form of idiom, were very much the same. If, therefore, you thought out well the words used for the various technical phrases in English (and Bishop Patteson took enormous pains to do this), you could teach those words in an easily acquired language to natives from other islands, and could test how far the idea had been grasped.

There is therefore a good deal to be said for Mr. Comins' opinion, that we ought to make Fiji the lingua franca of the Solomon Islands at least. It is a Melanesian dialect. It is spoken and taught by the returned labourers in many parts of the Solomon Islands. And, above all, thanks to the labours of the Wesleyan missionaries of Fiji, it has a very considerable literature--above all the Bible. It even has a newspaper published at Suva.

But then, again, the great crux meets you. That is all very well for the teachers taught at Fiji. But what about those taught in Queensland? They will not learn Fijian, and you are no nearer utilising them.

And the thing to be guarded against is, lest by introducing a number of teachers more or less crude, you get a number of Churches, very zealous doubtless, but as full of crotchets and theories as there are dialects in any given island.

And there is another difficulty. The returned labourer is not always a good colonist. His residence in civilised lands has made him fastidious. He has become a 'clubbable' man in another sense from that in which he was when he first left his home. And so he is apt to become restless and dissatisfied. A labour vessel comes by, he remembers the fleshpots of Queensland, and he is gone to his old employer.

Such is a brief--a very brief--sketch of the great problem which now presents itself to the Melanesian Mission. I hope no word of mine has hinted that the problem is insoluble or even doubtful. God forbid! We are going to use those men, however they are taught, because we believe they are led by the Spirit of God. And that same Spirit, Who by His action on the day of Pentecost seems to teach us that He is given, that trusting in Him we may overcome these difficulties of diversities of tongue; that same Spirit, I say, will guide the new bishop and his clergy, and those earnest souls who are working for the good of these people in Queensland and Fiji, that they may use His instruments aright. I conclude in the words of the Bishop of Tasmania, who has been round our islands, to the Rev. F. D. Putt, who has also been for a cruise in our mission vessel.

'We are beginning to see,' he writes on January 30,,that in the future a converging fire must be brought to bear on the Solomons from Norfolk Island, Fiji, and Queensland, and that each of these is almost equally important.

'Mr. Bice tells us of two hundred Christian boys from Bundaberg [260/261] who are waiting to go back together to start a Christian village. This is a call to action from Queensland to the mission which is unmistakable.

'I earnestly trust that the Melanesian Mission may be the first to take the plantations into partnership as it were, and to make full use of their exertions. I am writing as a private individual to this effect to Mr. Young and the Gibsons at Bundaberg. But I am also writing to you as a private individual to urge that, if you possibly can, you should see your way to working among the plantations in Queensland. It is impossible to exaggerate the good you may do by such a step; and I believe that you take a deep interest in it.

'I believe that there is a call to you to help the mission in this way. You have seen the work in the islands, and you could form a link which might lead under God to the speedy evangelisation of Malanta, Guadalcanar, and San Cristoval, just the three places where the work is least strong.'

Such is a brief outline of the problem which our mission has to solve. It is difficult, doubtless, but is it not of high promise? Is it not a sign of God's overruling hand that the same labour trade which by its ill-doing in old time caused the death of Bishop Patteson, which even now has many faults and not a few dangers, is thus turned by Him into a means of spreading the knowledge of His Son? I ask your prayers that my old mission may make full use of this opportunity. I ask your influence that I may be able to find a couple of men in Holy Orders who can go out to help to guide and direct it.

[Discussion of papers on "The Call to Missionary Service", Ibid, pages 35-36.]

[35] The Right Rev. JOHN RICHARDSON SELWYN, D. D. (Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, late Bishop of Melanesia): I should like to emphasise the thought which was put before you as to the vocation by the Holy Spirit of God. We have been told how the Holy Spirit called St. Paul and called others. I think we want more and more to open our minds and lift our eyes to heaven to feel that that same Holy Spirit still works in the Church of Christ, and that the Spirit of our Lord and Master still calls whom He will to serve Him. As far as I can see, having gone about a great deal in England, I feel that men are still thinking rather too much whether they are fit, and whether they are not fit--thinking whether the climate is good and whether the climate is not good--thinking of all sorts of different things, very often honestly, very often with real humility, but with a forgetfulness that there is working amongst us the power of the Holy Spirit of God to call; that the Holy Spirit of God does know the hearts of men; that the Holy Spirit does know the conditions of the work; that the Holy Spirit of God knows the hearts of those to whom these men are going to be sent, and that He will fit them for the work. And what I want to put before you, and especially any of you who are feeling called to missionary work, is this: that our Lord's own promise which He gave when He gave the command to go into all the world was, 'Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world'; and you may be sure that He is here now, calling each man as He wants him, just as he was when He stood on the mount and called whom He would to come to Him. I would emphasise that. I would emphasise the fact that you may be, sooner or later, absolutely certain that you are called. It will come to you in different ways--sometimes, perhaps, by the voice of a friend, sometimes by a sermon, sometimes by the influence of a great meeting, sometimes by reading books; but in some way or other there will come to you the still, small voice of God, saying, 'Who will go for us?' and you will feel the coal of fire on your lips, and you will be able to say, 'Here am I; send me.' Yes, to you, a person of unclean lips, dwelling in the midst of a people of unclean lips, conscious of your own infirmities, conscious of your own want of purpose, conscious of everything that makes you unfit for the service of God, yet you may be certain, if you turn in hearty prayer and absolute self-surrender, without any thought of consequence, of where you are going, or of what you have to do, or anything else: if it comes over you like a wave that you have got to do this thing for God, you may be certain, I say, that it is the voice of God in your heart, and that He will give you strength to do it. Just for one moment let us think of the evidences we have had in these latter times of such calls. In 1854 my father preached four wonderful sermons in the University of Cambridge--sermons which men still talk of as having been an epoch-making utterance in the Church of Christ. There was listening to those sermons a College Fellow, not particularly moved towards missionary work, not particularly full of zeal for the work, though full of all Christian graces and all Christian love; living the ordinary life of a College Fellow, influencing the men around him by his holiness and by his goodness, but not particularly moved or called for the special work of the Church in the foreign field. He heard those sermons and they moved his heart. He thought, 'Perhaps at some time I may be called to go.' That man was Charles Mackenzie. That man got his call in time. He waited patiently. He tarried, 'the Lord's leisure,' as some person said just now. The call came. He seemed to do very little work--just a little, full of controversy--a reviled and despised work. He sleeps by the waters of the Zambesi. Bishop Steere sleeps hard by him, and Bishop Smythies sleeps beneath the blue waters of the Indian Ocean--all the result of that single call to that College Fellow. Take another case. You will excuse my referring to what I know, and perhaps you will excuse the filial love which prompts me to refer to my own father. A boy was in the school at Eton, growing up, captain of the eleven, influenced by a young and strong man, full of life and vigour, who was a private tutor at the college. That man was called to go, and he went to do the work which you know of in the Church of God in New Zealand. But he had put a seed in the boy's heart. Again, the boy tarried. The seed of the Spirit of God grows slowly, and that man came home when the time came, and the Spirit spoke through him, and said, 'Coley, will you come?' Bishop Patteson sleeps beneath the waters of the Pacific, and his work goes on. Another instance of the work of the Church of God and the work of the Spirit of God calling men to the work for which God has fitted them. Again, let us go farther--and this is the special reason for which I dared to rise to-day to speak to this great meeting. You must carry your thoughts much farther than the bounds of the four seas [35/36] of England. You must carry your thought of the operation of the Spirit of God much farther afield than some of us are apt to carry it. You must believe that the Spirit of God can see the hearts of all men, whether they beat under white breasts or under brown or yellow or black. You must believe--and you will not do the work of the Church unless you do believe--that the Spirit of God chooses whom He will for the work of Christ among all the races of the earth. We are apt to look too much at missionary work as the work of those who are called from our midst--our sons and our daughters, our brothers and our sisters, who are called to go forth from this land or from the land of my brethren of America, who are around me here. The Spirit of God is no respecter of persons. The Spirit of God can choose from all the races of the earth those men who are fitted for His service and who can win the hearts of their own people; and I hope that this Missionary Conference, if it does nothing else, will strengthen all the Church of God throughout the world, not to work too much in the fetters of the white missionary, not to make too much of the Church of England, not to plant it as an exotic in the tropics of Africa or among the heathen of China, but to go forth in the Spirit of God, sending the very best men you have, that through them the voice of that Spirit of God may call to the men of other races to come and be the messengers of Christ to their fellows. Now, why do I say this? I say it because I have tried it. I say it because my father and my predecessor, Bishop Patteson, rested on the strength of this Spirit, and I, in my own work, have seen its fruits. I do not say that there have not been failures. Has any Church not got its failures? Have not men made mistakes and thought that they were moved by the Spirit of God when they were moved by ambition, by a desire for an easy place, by a desire for position to which perhaps they could not otherwise attain? But I have seen men who have been called--aye, called by my own humble self--to do the work of Christ, and I have told them that they should have the power of that Spirit of God; and I have told them that that Spirit of God did want them; and I have seen that He has worked with them and has blessed their efforts. I ask all you who are interested in the mission work to see what one of the natives says of himself, to show how the power of that Spirit of God came to him through the voice of Bishop Patteson. It is in a little book edited by my dear friend Dr. Codrington, and published by the S.P.C.K. You will there see the autobiography of a native deacon of the Melanesian Church. He tells us how Bishop Patteson influenced him and told him of the strength of God's Holy Spirit; and he tells you how I placed him in one of the hardest of missionary posts. I planted him in an island full of superstition and full of jealousy. He went on for three years, and he never had one single scintilla of hope. He came to me--he tells it most graphically--and he said, 'Bishop, I cannot stand this; I must go.' He describes in his book how he summoned up his courage to meet me, and, as he says, to withstand the bishop to his face, and to tell him that he might move him to any part of the work, but that he could not go on where he was. He tells us how I walked up and down with him under the cocoanut trees one whole afternoon, how I told him that it was not his work but God's work, and that God worked slowly, and how I quoted to him the parable of the tree that would not bear fruit. He went on for another seven years more, and now he is winning his way. Read that book, dear friends. It is the unstudied utterance of a simple native deacon. But when you have read it, and when you see how that man is filled with the power of God's Holy Spirit, and when you understand how that Spirit comes down, not here in England only, but in every island and every spot of the earth if men will but seek Him, then you will send your missionaries forth indeed in greater numbers and in fuller power, but you will send them forth to be the brethren, not the rulers only, of those among whom they work. You will send them out as men who will look up to the Spirit of God and ask for grace to do that which is the hardest work of the rulers of the Church of Christ--the choosing of men for His service; and you will pray that the Spirit of God will give them a right judgment in all things. And when you pray you will believe that the same Holy Spirit is working still in the hearts of men, and that He will call to Him whom He will, whether they be white or black.

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