During the Middle Ages, the knights were the premiere warriors in the European continent, if not the entire world. Battles were won and lost by a relatively small number of knights in complete suits of armor. Although there were other troops on the field, often many of them, in many battles they did not play a decisive role. Yet there was one nearly forgotten group of peasants in the 15th century that defeated knights over and over again – the Hussites. These common folk of Bohemia, modern Czech Republic, were followers of the martyered John Hus, and ideological predecessors of the Protestant Reformation.
The most effective, and famous, commander of the Hussites was Jan Zizka. Today he is something of a national hero for the Czechs, and there is a massive statue of him on Vitkov Hill, the site of one of his greatest victories, overlooking the city of Prague. Zizka had a genius for organizing the Hussites, who were mostly farmers, and turning them into an effective fighting force. He developed several tactics that allowed the Hussites to defeat several crusades that were launched against them by the Catholic Holy Roman Empire.
Statue of Jan Zizka
Zizka knew what had happened when mobs of peasants had faced knights before – complete defeat. He knew that the Hussite’s only chance for victory was through organization, so that is what he set out to do. He made sure that there were clear rules, and clear punishments for violating them. Disobedience to orders was punishable by death. Zizka also trained his armies to march fast and move quickly, so that they could move easily to strike where they were needed.
Once his army had basic training, Zizka did not immediately go out to face his most powerful enemies. He first took opportunities to try small sorties into the surrounding countryside, practicing the drills that they had learned, gaining their weapons and tactics, and experiencing the rush of battle for the first time. Gradually, through much training and practice, Zizka’s farmers were turned into a disciplined fighting force, a feat nearly unheard of at this time in history. Towards the end of his career, Zizka wrote The Statues and Military Ordinances of Zizka’s New Brotherhood, which codified the practices he had fostered in his forces, and established a code of military conduct.
Zizka’s men lacked not only discipline, but weapons and equipment. So they improvised. They were farmers, so they turned farm tools into weapons. One of the most common were the flails, which farmers used to thresh gain. This was a long handle, with a short length of chain and then a shorter stick. These could easily be turned into fearsome weapons by embedding spikes in the shorter part of the flail.
Replica of a Hussite War Wagon
Another thing that farmers would have were wagons, and this is likely where war wagons, the most famous Hussite innovation, originated. The war wagons eventually became critical to the Hussite tactics. They were wagons that were specifically designed to be turned into a fort at a moment’s notice. They were likely the first mass produced military vehicle in history. They were generally plated with iron, with wheels and panels designed to interlock when placed end to end to create a solid wall. There was a high wall on one side of the wagon, and sometimes a roof, to protect the defenders. A ramp came down to allow easy entrance and exit. There was also a container of stones handily for ballast, and to use as missiles if the enemy got too close.
As part of Zizka’s organization, the crew of the wagon was very systematized. It consisted of 20 men, each with a specific role. Two were drivers who were also armed for defense. Two were handgunners, who manned a small gun or cannon which was usually mounted on a swivel in the wagon. Six more were crossbowmen, who could fire and reload in the shelter of the wagon. Four were flailmen, whose improvised weapons worked best against enemies with anything else other than plate armor. Four were halberdiers, who carried halberds, pike-like weapons that were designed to throw fully armored knights to the ground and then finish them off with a quick blow. Two were pavisiers, who carried large shields to provide cover for those carrying flails, halberds, or crossbows, when not in cover behind a wagon.
These wagons were organized into sections of ten. An army would have a total of fifty to a hundred wagons. 50 to 100 total wagons. This provided a way to very quickly build a fort that provided a refuge that heavily knightly cavalry could not easily overcome. The “tabor,” as the wagon forts were called, could even be mobile, as long as the horses survived. Once enemy knights were worn down by attacking the tabor, they would be vulnerable when the Hussites sallied out from the wagons to counterattack.
Hussites Fighting at the Battle of Lipan
The Hussites armies were some of the first forces of common men who were able to defeat knights through discipline and good training. They could be called the first step in the downfall of the knights. As technological changes lessened the knights’ supremacy, and other factors changed European society, crowds of pikemen and musketeers replaced the cadre of knights that had ruled the battlefield.
The history of the medieval crusades, at least at a very minimal level, is well known to most people. When we think of the crusades, most of us probably imagine an army of pious Christian knights full of religious zeal going to win back the holy land. There are a few issues with this notion. One is that the crusaders were looking to achieve far more than just pleasing God. While many, especially the common people, were motivated by the pope’s promises that their sins would be forgiven, this religious motive was accompanied by a healthy dose of greed. They sought after plunder, land and power. There is no better example of this than the Fourth Crusade.
Once Pope Innocent III called for a crusade to recapture the Holy Land, crusaders began to slowly organize across Europe. Past crusades had gone overland, but that route was long and dangerous. Instead they would try to go by sea, so they sent envoys to Venice, the great seafaring republic, to organize transportation. Venice agreed to help. They would cease all of their trading voyages for two years to devote all of the city’s energies to transporting and supplying the crusade. But they would do it only for a hefty price. It was one of the most expensive contracts in medieval Europe.
In 1202, as most of the crusading army gathered at Venice, things were shaping up to be a disaster. The contract had specified that the army would number some 33,000 men. The actual number who arrived was closer to a third of that. Worse still, the crusaders didn’t even have the money to pay Venice, and the Venetians were not interested in doing them any favors. As the crusaders arrived, the Venetians dropped them off on a small barren island in the lagoon. It was clear that they weren’t getting off until the cutthroat merchants of Venice got their money.
Venetians Taking the Cross
Venice wanted to be paid, and it became apparent that a negotiation was necessary. Eventually the crusaders and Venetians came to an agreement. Dandelo, the Doge, or Duke of Venice, took the sign of the cross and went on crusade, setting an example for his fellow citizens. However, as the crusade finally set out, they invaded not Muslim lands, but Christian. The crusaders had agreed to pay their debts by attacking Venice’s enemies in surrounding lands. The army of Christendom had been coerced into doing the will of the Venetians. When the Pope received word of what was going on, he was furious. He sent letters threatening, and eventually declaring, the entire crusade excommunicated for attacking fellow Christians. But the leaders of the crusade just did what they pleased, and carefully kept this to themselves, for fear of how the common people would react.
While they wintered in their newly conquered lands, the crusaders received an interesting proposal. A young noble from Constantinople, a son of a recently deposed Byzantine emperor, asked their help in restoring him to his throne. He offered, in exchange, to provide them with gold and silver and send knights to help conquer the Holy land, once he was restored to his kingdom. His promises were ridiculous, as anyone who understood the Byzantine empire would have understood. But since he had no kingdom, he was willing to promise anything for the chance of aid. The crusade was short on funds, and Doge Dandelo gave enthusiastic support for the proposal, so they accepted. For the chance of money and influence, the crusade was going to invade an Orthodox Christian empire.
The Crusaders Besieging Constantinople
There ensued in Constantinople a series of complex negotiations and conflicts, both political and military. There were many twists and turns in the story, and desperate and fascinating battles fought. But to summarize the tale, the crusaders eventually laid siege to Constantinople in 1203. They captured the city and put the pretender on the throne as Alexios IV. But the young man discovered that promises are much harder to keep than to make. He was trying to balance the hostile factions in the empire, as well the crusaders who wished to hold in to his word, when a nobleman rose against him, slew him in his palace and was crowned Alexios V. This led to the crusaders laying siege to Constantinople again in 1204. When they regained the city after a hard fought battle, they did not treat it as kindly as the year before. This time the soldiers were let loose to plunder and destroy. One historian wrote:
The Latin soldiery subjected the greatest city in Europe to an indescribable sack. For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed on a scale which even the ancient Vandals and Goths would have found unbelievable. … Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians.1
The Byzantine empire was divided up between the crusading forces, and a Latin emperor set up in its place. Although the Byzantines reconquered Constantinople some decades later, Christendom in the east had been dealt a death blow by other Christians. The Byzantines were rendered easy pray for the expanding Turks by the greed of the Fourth Crusade.
Sir Steven Runciman, a historian of the crusades, wrote, “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”2 While that is hyperbole, the Fourth Crusade was certainly a dark blot on the history of medieval Europe. The original mission of the Crusade was completely reversed. It was totally co-opted by the Venetians and was used as a weapon against their enemies. The opportunistic leaders abandoned any pretense of fighting the Muslims, and instead attacked Orthodox Christians. Although it gained wealth for those involved, the victory was short lived. They left the Byzantine Empire crippled and weakened, easy prey for the Turks. The wickedness of the Fourth Crusade demonstrates how far the medieval Catholic church had strayed from true Christianity.
1. Byzantium and Europe by Speros Vryonis (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967) p. 152. 2. A History of the Crusades by Steven Runciman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951) vol 3, p. 130.
The name of Rome is fearsome in military history. Over the centuries, the Roman legions propelled a small city along the Tiber to rule the entire known Western world. Yet there was one man, more than anyone else, whose name sent shivers through the Romans – Hannibal Barca. Hannibal, a Carthaginian from North Africa, was the most skilled and successful enemy that Rome ever faced. He successfully took an army of thousands of men, along with some elephants, on the very difficult journey across the Alps. He then stayed in Italy for nearly 15 years, with little significant help from Carthage, and defeated every Roman army he faced in a major battle. Although he eventually was recalled to defend Carthage and defeated in battle, he may have come closer than anyone to destroying the Roman Republic. How did he do it? How did he outwit so many Roman commanders? The answers shed light on his impressive achievements, and teach leadership lessons for the present day.
The Battle of Zama
Without a doubt, Hannibal was a very bold soldier. Many of his greatest victories would have been impossible without it. He was not rash, but he knew that if he risked nothing, he would gain nothing. Consider his famous crossing of the Alps. The Alps have been crossed by armies many times throughout history, but never in the way Hannibal did it. He was the first general to take a foreign army across them, that was not from the area and familiar with the terrain. Before the era of maps, this is a shocking achievement. It is very likely that not one of his officers or soldiers had ever crossed the Alps before. It took incredible courage to enter very difficult and unmapped terrain, filled with unknown and hostile tribes, with the only thing waiting for him on the other side being the enemy’s country guarded by the Roman army – the best soldiers in the world. That shows his grit, determination, and fearlessness in the face of mighty obstacles.
2. Always Learning
Often, Hannibal’s bold deeds were not reckless because he had spent time in study and preparation. His Alps crossing was likely conceived years earlier. Much time was spent laying the ground work in gaining knowledge and building relationships before the daring strike. When a foreigner came through Hannibal’s camp, he interviewed them and sought to learn not just the geography of the lands that he had never visited, but their history, customs and culture. Any of this information could prove critical at the proper time. While on campaign, he would disguise himself and travel the countryside, gleaning first hand information from the inhabitants.
As a fruit of all this study, Hannibal was able to remain fresh, fluid and innovative in his tactics. At one point, he did not seek to storm Rome, when many believed he had an opportunity to, because he did not think the time was right. But at a later moment he marched to just outside the city, to threaten the city and relieve pressure from another point. He used seals captured from Romans to send forged messages to Roman units, giving them false orders that suited his purposes. And he used his knowledge of specific enemy commanders against them, exploiting their own personal weaknesses to entice them into a tactical position where he could destroy them.
A Carthaginian Coin which may depict Hannibal
3. Understanding People
One key to Hannibal’s success was his ability to gain and retain the trust of his troops. Although he was almost completely cut off from support or reinforcement from Carthage for nearly a decade and a half, not once did his troops mutiny against him. He won their love and respect. Many of the ways that he did this were simple things. He made sure, whenever possible, that his men were well fed going into battle. He payed close attention to their attitude, and was ready to give encouragement or an inspiring speech if he saw their spirits flagging. He set rewards clearly before them if they were victorious, inspiring to fight their hardest. Not long after he arrived in Italy, he promised his army their choice of land or money once Italy was won, and promised that slaves who followed their masters into battle would be given their freedom, and that their masters would receive two other slaves to replace them.
Hannibal also was skilled in making allies. His goal in Italy was to break away Rome’s allies and win them over to the fight against Rome. It took great wisdom to win these political victories. Although he did not win enough allies to gain the victory, he always had allied troops fighting with him. When he left Italy after more than a decade, virtually all of his original army was gone. They had been replaced, in large part, by allied recruits, who fought faithfully under him.
Hannibal’s Elephants Crossing the Rhine River
4. Brilliant Tactics
Last but not least, Hannibal beat the long odds against him, and was victorious for so long against the Romans, because he had a brilliant mind for tactics. He used the terrain and the weaknesses of the enemy to defeat the superior Roman forces. Over and over again, he was able to find the enemy’s weakest point, and throw his strongest forces against it to win the day. His battles are famous in world history, and for good reason. From Lake Trasimene, where in an unparalleled feat he hid his entire army and ambushed the Romans, to Cannae, where he executed a double envelopment of the Romans opposing him, a feat which generations of generals have tried to replicate.
For years Hannibal sustained a war effort alone, with very little significant support, raising his own finances and new recruits in an enemies country, while holding the affections of his allies and seeking to bring more nations to his side. Although Carthage eventually fell to Rome, there is much that we can learn from his struggle, and his years of wise leadership in the face of incredible adversity.
Next week millions of Americans will watch a total solar eclipse. Now they are a fascinating phenomenon, but in ancient times they were seen as having a much larger impact. At one point one even stopped a battle!
The Waldenses have been persecuted for centuries. They are a Protestant sect dating back to at least the 12th century. Over the years countless Catholic popes, dukes and kings strove to destroy them, by bloody persecution, but all in vain. One period of intense persecution in the 17th century. The Waldense Alpine valleys, located in what is now northern Italy, were at that point part of the Dukedom of Savoy. The Duke of Savoy, at the urging of the Pope, tried again and again to eliminate this Christian minority.
Usually the Waldenses did not resist what Savoy was doing in time to really stop it. This was due, in large part, to their beliefs. They believed that it was wrong to resist or even mistrust their ruler, unless he was actually in the act of the destroying them. They trusted him and believed him to be a good ruler, just misguided by wicked advisors. They had no understanding of the doctrine of interposition, that the ruler can be removed if he was working against God’s law and his people’s good. They did not understand that a ruler who tried to destroy the Christians in his dominions was wicked, no matter what his advisors had recommended he do. But for many years the Waldenses did have an effective military commander, in the person of Joshua Janavel, also known as Giosuè Gianavello, though at times he stood nearly alone.
Janavel began as a person of no particular note, living near the town of Rora. In 1655, when our story begins, the Duke of Savoy had been increasing the restrictions on the Waldenses. They had been forced from out of the Piedmont up into the mountains, and now they were not allowed to leave an area comprising three alpine valleys. Then an army arrived. The Duke sent 800 infantry and 300 cavalry, and ordered the Waldenses to provide them housing. Most of the Waldenses did not see this for what it was – a way to get troops into the Waldense communities who could massacre them. Most made no efforts to organize a defense. Joshua Janavel was probably the only one to raise a group of militia. He was looked upon as too radical. His fellow countrymen believed he was just organizing rebellion against their legitimate ruler, and that he ought to just submit.
When the small town of La Tour was ordered to provide accommodation, they refused, because they simply did not have enough room. So the army, reinforced to 15,000 men, attacked – burning houses and killing all they met. The ill-prepared Waldenses did try to fight back, and had some successes against the enemy. After repeated attacks were beat back, with heavy casualties, the Catholic commander switched tactics. He met with representatives of the Waldenses and told them that this had all been a big misunderstanding. He said that the Duke had no problem with the settlements in the valleys, and that the attacks had just been due to undisciplined soldiers. Shockingly, the Waldesnses believed him. They returned to their homes, and accepted the troops to be quartered.
The army did not abandon it’s mission to destroy the Waldneses. On April 24th, Easter’s Eve, upon a signal being given, a general massacre began. The massacre was horrible. Children were ripped limb from limb. Pregnant women were ripped open. Families were slaughtered one by one as their loved ones were forced to witness the terrible scene. There was but one bright spot in this horrible day – Joshua Janavel. When the troops came towards Rora, he was ready to resist, though with a very meager force. His militia consisted of only him and six men, facing a battalion 500 to 600 strong. As the Catholics moved up the valley, Janavel and his men positioned themselves in a narrow pass, hiding behind rocks. As the soldiers approached, they let loose a volley. Their aim was true, and six soldiers fell. Quickly reloading, the Waldense militia continued to fire. With the sound of the shots bouncing from mountain to mountain, not seeing foe nor knowing what small numbers they faced, the battalions retreated. They believed that they surely faced a far more formidable force than seven untrained and inexperienced Waldneses.
Though frustrated that day in their plan to massacre Rora, the Catholics returned on the next day, joined by a new battalion. Janavel too had been reinforced, but not by a battalion. He now had seventeen men, but they were not well armed. Six of them didn’t even have firearms – only slings. Again, as the soldiers of Savoy climbed up a narrow defile, they were suddenly struck with a volley and thrown into confusion. This time Janavel and his bold warriors charged forward, leaping from rock to rock with loud shouts. The vanguard turned and fled. The panic spread, and soon the entire unit was fleeing.
Not long thereafter, a regiment came instead of a battalion. They fared no better. These eighteen brave warriors attacked again. This time they again miraculously turned back the regiment, but won even more success. Attacking the main army by rolling stones down the mountains, they actually won some positions.
The Catholics could not stand to be humiliated by this motley throng. The entire army of over 10,000 men moved against Janavel, who now had 30 to 40 men. He turned back a vanguard of picked men, and the fled before him, some so headlong in their flight that they actually ran off of cliffs to escape him. He also turned back the first of three divisions. But while focused in this unit of thousands, another division came into Rora a different way. They secured the town and massacred its inhabitants, capturing Janavel’s wife and daughters.
Janavel still remained at large, and along with Barthelemy Jahier, began a guerrilla war against the Catholic enemy. The Catholics set a price upon his head, and sent a letter threatening him that he had to convert to save his wife and daughters. Janavel wrote in reply,
There is no torment so cruel that I do not prefer it to the abjuring of my religion; and your threats, instead of turning me from it, confirm me in it all the more. As for my wife and my daughters, they know if they are dear to me! But God alone is Lord of their lives; and if you destroy their bodies, God will save their souls. May he graciously receive these beloved souls, and likewise mine, if it so happen that I fall into your hands.
Massive muskets that reportedly belonged to Janavel
Janavel was tried by the Catholics, and condemned to have his flesh torn apart by red hot pincers, his body divided into quarters, and his head displayed as a warning for other would-be rebels. The only problem – they didn’t have him. He continued to fight from the mountains, regardless of the threats made against him and his family. While Janavel was incredibly courageous, he was not invincible. During one battle in 1655 he received a grave wound. He did, however, to the surprise of many, make a complete recovery.
Janavel’s force of outlaws numbered, at one time, as many as 600. The Waldenses, with their Duke against them, had only Janavel and his band to defend them. The outlaws attacked the soldiers who were plundering their people. At times they took the war to the enemy, marching down into the plains, and forcing Catholic towns and villages to pay money, which was used for the outlaws and their defenders. Through the experience of living his life in the valleys, as well as spending much time on campaign there, Janavel was intimately familiar with the terrain of the Waldenses’ homeland. This served him well when he needed to choose strong points from which to resist much larger Catholic forces. At one point, a Catholic army composed of six regiments moved into the valleys, but nearly miraculously Janavel’s forces drove them back, inflicting hundreds of casualties.
The war continued for eight long years. Eventually the Duke, since he was frustrated in his efforts to eradicate the Waldenses by force, made a truce with his people. Part of this included a general amnesty for those who had fought against him. But specifically exempted from this was Joshua Janavel. Instead of being able to live in peace in the land he had fought so hard for, he lived in Geneva in exile.
Although many miles away, Janavel still cared deeply for his native land. Decades later, in the 1680s Janavel noticed changed taking place. He believed that increased persecution was coming, so he wrote to his people with advice to prepare them to stand strong against it. He recommended:
That the preachers gather all the Waldenses together, exhort them, and lead them to covenant to be faithful together until death.
To not allow any troops to be quartered in the valleys. It was by this pretext that the 1655 massacre had been able to take place.
To organize themselves into militia units and train for military service.
To gather wheat to store in a secure place in the mountains so they could take refuge from their foes.
Sadly, Joshua Janavel’s people did not heed his advice. Not long thereafter there was another Easter Massacre and through more naivety, most of the people fell to the sword or too captivity. For a while, things were looking very dire. Janavel by this time was too old to return to fight again. But some, called the Invincibles, did escape the massacre and began a guerrilla war like Janavel had done years before. Because of this thorn in the side of the Duke of Savoy, along with pressure from Protestant countries, the Duke agreed to release the Waldenses and exile them to Protestant countries.
A cave where the Waldenses hid from their persecutors
Although the surviving Waldenses were finally living in a Protestant country, after hundreds of years of persecution, many still longed for their Alpine homeland. They began plotting an escape from exile. Although Janavel was too old to go with them, he met with them to give his expert advice. Some has survived in writing to the present:
If our church has been reduced to so great an extremity, it is our sins that have been the cause. It behooves us, then, every day to humble ourselves more and more before the Lord, … and when any mishap occurs to you, be patient, and redouble your courage, so that there shall be nothing firmer than your faith. …
When you are come into the country of the enemy, seize two or three men of the place where you happen to be [as hostages.] You will treat them with all the tenderness possible. …
You will always keep sentinels posted at the summits of the mountains, that you may not be surprised … and in order to keep the passes free from one valley to another. …
[A] place of sure retreat … shall be … where was the most ancient retreat of our fathers…. Spare no labour nor pains in fortifying this post, which will be your most secure fortress. Do not quit it unless in the utmost extremity…. You will, of course, be told that you cannot hold it always, and that rather than not succeed in their object, all France and Italy will gather together against you…. But were it the whole world, and only yourselves against all, fear ye the Almighty alone, who is your protection.
The severest penalties must be inflicted upon any one who abandons his post.
Have scouts in the level country, to keep you informed of the movements of your adversaries.
On the field of battle give quarter to no one; for how will you keep prisoners? You can neither employ your men to guard them, nor your provisions to feed them; and upon leaving you, they will make known your position to the enemy.
… [S]pare innocent blood, or blood which there is no need to shed, that you may not have it to answer for before God; and in particular, see that you never allow yourselves to be seized with fear or with anger; for if you put your trust in the Lord, be assured that he will never forget you, and that his sword will be around you as a wall of fire against your enemies.
Aided by Janavel’s help, the Waldenses set out on their “Glorious Return.” It was not easy, and they had many obstacles to overcome, natural as well as military, but eventually they triumphed and was able to live in their homeland again. Janavel himself had not long to live. He died on March 5, 1690 of edema, at the age of 73.
Joshua Janavel was used in remarkable ways in Waldense history. While everyone else was acquiescing to the Duke’s commands, he was preparing to fight. When thousands came against his home, they were driven from before him and a handful of companions. When warfare was to many of his countrymen an unthinkable last resort, he had the knowledge and foresight to plan for the future. In the face of impossible odds, he did not lose heart, but with all his trust in God, resolved to fight to the bitter end.
1. Israel of the Alps by Alexis Muston (Blackie & Son, Glasgow: 1875) vol. 1, p. 363 2. Israel of the Alps by Alexis Muston (Blackie and Son, Glasgow: 1858) vol. 2, p. 30-31.
ISIS has been all over the news, and it may seem like Islam is more militant than every before. But did you know they were spread fire more widely during the Middle Ages, with footholds in Spain, Italy, Hungary and even threatening Austria? See Hohensalzburg, an impressive castle that would have stood against that threat.
It was spring of 1817. Two young missionaries stood on the deck of a ship, peering into the distance toward the new and strange land where they would spend their lives. A long line of white sand greeted their eyes, a refreshing break from the brilliant blue skies and water they had seen for weeks. John Williams and his wife, Mary, had left behind the comforts and pleasures of home to come and give their lives to the service of the Master in the islands of the South Seas. These islands had only recently come to the attention of Western Europe. Psalm 97:1 says, “The LORD reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof.” Until the voyages of Captain James Cook in the 1770s, the islands of the South Pacific were bound in darkness.
The 30,000 islands of the Pacific present a daunting task to the missionary. Over a third of the world’s known languages exists in these islands. Fifteen million people live across a vast expanse of ocean that stretches over twenty million square miles of water. The tropical beauty of the surroundings contrast sharply with the ugliness of sin. Infanticide was a common practice. Cannibalistic feasts were part of the superstitious religion of these islands. People worshiped everything from demons to birds to ancestors to stone idols, and religion, customs, and language vary widely from island to island.
These islands captured the heart of Welsh missionary John Williams, later to be known to history as the “Martyr of Polynesia.” More than any other man, John Williams would be the instrument of God to open the islands of the South Pacific to mission work. The first island upon which the Williams labored was the beautiful island of Tahiti, in what is now French Polynesia. It was there that a small mission work had already been founded, and Williams and his wife learned how to operate a mission station among cannibals.
The first island where Williams began a pioneer work was the island of Raiatea in the Society island group. There, John and Mary Williams were welcomed cordially by King Tamatoa, a monarch who had been looking for someone to come and give them the message of salvation. The Williams served on Raiatea for about five years. In this short period of time, they saw remarkable results they could not have imagined. Their congregation was regularly in excess of 2,000 people. Hundreds were baptized and began to live as consistent Christians. Naked cannibals learned to put on clothing. All the wooden idols on the island were collected and burned. Stone idols were sunk into the sea. Houses were built. Farms were cultivated. Animals like goats, horses, and cattle were brought from Australia. The natives were astonished by these animals. Goats they called “birds with great teeth in their heads.” Horses were known as “great pigs that carry men.” Soon these animals were put to productive labor. King Tamatoa prospered as he ruled in the fear of God, using the law code given on Mount Sinai. John Williams reduced the native language to writing and translated the Bible into Raiatean. Soon, the work was ready to be entrusted to native workers. Williams wrote back to his parents in Wales, “I am engaged in the best of services, for the best of masters, and upon the best of terms.”
Williams’s House in Raiatea
John Williams next turned his attention to an island in the Cook group, the island of Raratonga. Here he experienced similar success. It should be noted, however, that the mission work was not without its troubles. Several times, there were violent plots upon his life. Malaria and other tropical diseases took their toll on the Williams family. Mary Williams lost several babies, and they were buried in neat graves of rock and coral, monuments to the sacrifice of a missionary family. After Raratonga was thoroughly evangelized and the triumph of the Gospel was assured, John Williams turned his attention again eastward, toward the Samoan group. It was during these years that he planned the evangelization of the South Pacific. He knew that white men alone could not do the work. Native teachers who understood the culture, knew the languages, and were familiar with the seas were an important part of a missionary endeavor.
Williams took his example from the Lord Jesus who sent out his disciples two by two to preach and teach in the rural villages of Galilee. The Apostle Paul also used native workers like Aristarchus and Tychicus to evangelize the villages with the Gospel. Following this pattern, Williams commissioned a ship to be built that would serve as a mobile base of operations. The ship was called The Messenger of Peace. As the missionary team sailed, Williams would stop on various islands and meet with the chiefs. If the chiefs were willing, Williams would leave native teachers from Tahiti, from Raiatea, or from Raratonga to serve in the pioneer stations. Islands like Aitutaki, Upolu, Apia, Savai’i, Futuna, and many other smaller islands were reached in this way over a period of about ten years. Native workers multiplied the efforts of Williams, and the work prospered. Like the Apostle Paul, Williams would return in The Messenger of Peace and “visit the churches to see how they do” (Acts 13:36). It was this Biblical policy that brought the islands of the Pacific under the triumphant reign of Christ. Williams set a pattern that other missionaries like John G. Paton would later follow in the New Hebrides.
In 1833, John and Mary Williams revisited England for the first and only time. Mr. Williams was surprised to find himself a hero. Vast crowds thronged into the churches to hear him preach and tell eager-eyed boys and girls about the needy cannibals of the South Pacific. Purses were opened to the cause. Young men and women resolved that, by God’s grace, they would become pioneer missionaries also. Williams wrote a short description of the South Sea islands, and 38,000 copies sold within five short years. While in England, John and Mary Williams celebrated their 20th anniversary—and almost their last. He wrote this note for her to find on that anniversary morning,
My Dearest Mary, Twenty eventful years have rolled away since we were united in the closest and dearest earthly bond, during which time we have circumnavigated the globe . . . I sincerely pray that, if we are spared twenty years longer, the retrospect will afford equal or even greater cause for grateful satisfaction.
On April 11, 1838, John and Mary Williams set sail from London, bound for the other side of the world. The wharves, docks, and bridges were lined with people who came to see them off. Mortality was so high in the South Pacific that they made the difficult decision to leave their six-year-old son in England. As the ship pulled away, a kind relative lifted Samuel high into the air so his parents could see him in the crowd. The eyes of the little boy streamed with tears, but he was old enough to know that his Mommy and Daddy were going back to his dark-skinned friends to give them the Gospel. That morning, his loving father had written a note in Samuel’s journal, giving him a warm goodbye and a fatherly exhortation to live for Christ if perchance they never met again in this life.
The Lord bless thee, my dear boy, and keep thee; The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace.
Only one year later, soon after he had arrived back in the South Pacific, John Williams set his sights upon the New Hebrides islands. It was known that the inhabitants of these islands were among the fiercest cannibals in the Pacific. Leaving his wife at the mission station on Upolu, Williams sailed toward the New Hebrides.
The Massacre of Williams
In the morning of November 20, 1839, John Williams prepared to land on the island of Erromango. In his Bible was later found a small scrap of paper upon which he had written this text from the lips of the Lord Jesus, “I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not.” This petition was gloriously answered on that bloody day, and the faith of John Williams did not fail. He was brutally beaten with a war club, and his corpse was dragged into the dense vegetation to be cooked and eaten. The grief-stricken native workers, the faithful fellow-laborers of John Williams, watched the entire ordeal from the boat. They were the ones who had to tell Mrs. Williams the sad news. She took it with grace and Christian fortitude. Her eldest son, John, continued his father’s work in Samoa. Samuel, the little boy left in England, also became a messenger of the Prince of Peace. He carried the middle name, Tamatoa, the name of the Island King who first welcomed his father to Raiatea.
John G. Paton, the son of a Scottish stocking-maker would follow the noble example of John Williams twenty years later. John G. Paton and his wife determined to labor in the New Hebrides islands to finish the work that John Williams had so nobly begun. By God’s grace, their effort was grandly successful. The islands of the New Hebrides, now called Vanuatu, fulfilled the glorious promises of Psalm 97, and the tongues of former cannibals and their descendants still sing the praises of the Redeemer.
John Williams, The Martyr Missionary of Polynesia by James Ellis The Autobiography of John G. Paton
Lieutenant William Cowper was a soldier fighting for the Confederacy in the 17th Mississippi. In October 1862, he wrote a letter to his mother after Stephen, a slave, ran away. In it, he expressed ideas of God and his justice that many today would find very foreign:
I don’t know that I much regret the loss of Stephen. I have thought that this war was ordered by Providence, as a means of settling definitely and conclusively the question of slavery: if slavery is a divine institute, I believe we will be successful, that our independence will be recognized and the Southern Confederacy will be established as a Government with slavery as its great distinctive feature. if on the contrary, slavery is a curse and obnoxious to an All Wise and Good Creator I believe that he will make this war, the means of abolishing it from the face of the earth. I have the greatest confidence in the wisdom of God, and believe that all things work together for good to them that we love.
From The Hour of Our Nation’s Agony: The Civil War Letters of Lt. William Cowper (Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press: 2007).p. 102.
Although this is outside the normal scope of Discerning History, we wanted to make our readers aware of this situation as it is one in which those behind Discerning History are deeply involved.
Voice of the Martyrs is a ministry that purports to help Christian victims of persecution. However, it has been discovered that their work in Nigeria was in a tragic state – orphans were being abused and mistreated, financial fraud was rampant, and those who were trying to spread the word were being removed. When this was reported to the office in the United States, they seemed more concerned with covering up a scandal than ensuring that justice was done.