James Paton and the Impact of Fathers

What impact can a father have on his kids? In the everyday experience of fatherhood, it’s not always clear. Leading rowdy kids in prayer, or disciplining a child yet again, or bringing a tired family to church, it can sometimes feel like all that effort isn’t making a difference.

And yet, when we read John G. Paton’s memories of his childhood, we’re reminded of the lifelong impact fathers can make on their children. John was a missionary to the New Hebrides in the 19th century, and in his autobiography,[1] he gives a moving tribute to his father and a model for how fathers can raise their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Here are six ways James Paton left a lasting impression in his children’s lives:

1) Model a private prayer life

James Paton’s fatherhood was an overflow of his personal relationship with God. A busy home with eleven children did not keep him from prayer but rather gave them a glimpse into his private prayer life.

The “closet” was a very small apartment betwixt the other two, having room only for a bed, a little table and a chair, with a diminutive window shedding diminutive light on the scene. This was the Sanctuary of that cottage home. Thither daily, and oftentimes a day, generally after each meal, we saw our father retire, and “shut to the door”; and we children got to understand by a sort of spiritual instinct (for the thing was too sacred to be talked about) that prayers were being poured out there for us, as of old by the High Priest within the veil in the Most Holy Place. We occasionally heard the pathetic echoes of a trembling voice pleading as if for life, and we learned to slip out and in past that door on tiptoe, not to disturb the holy colloquy. (8)

2) Commit to family worship

While James could not ensure that his children all had a private prayer life as he did, he could lead his family to read Scripture and pray together every day.

Family Worship had heretofore been held only on Sabbath Day in his father’s house; but the young Christian (James), entering into conference with his sympathizing mother, managed to get the household persuaded that there ought to be daily morning and evening prayer and reading of the Bible and holy singing… And so began in his seventeenth year that blessed custom of Family Prayer, morning and evening, which my father practised probably without one single avoidable omission till he lay on his deathbed, seventy-seven years of age… None of us can remember that any day ever passed unhallowed thus; no hurry for the market, no rush to business, no joy or excitement, ever prevented at least our kneeling around the family altar, while the High Priest led our prayers to God, and offered himself and his children there. (14)

3) Love the church

Similarly, James led his children to go along with the company of believers to church. The children were not separated from their parents in corporate worship, but rather saw the sincerity of their faith displayed every Lord’s Day.

Each of us, from very early days, considered it no penalty, but a great joy, to go with our father to the church; the four miles were a treat to our young spirits, the company by the way was a fresh incitement, and occasionally some of the wonders of city-life rewarded our eager eyes. A few other pious men and women, of the best Evangelical type, went from the same parish to one or other favorite Minister at Dumfries; and when these God-fearing peasants “forgathered” in the way to or from the House of God, we youngsters had sometimes rare glimpses of what Christian talk may be and ought to be. They went to the church, full of beautiful expectancy of spirit – their souls were on the outlook for God; they returned from church, ready and even anxious to exchange ideas as to what they had heard and received of the things of life…

Oh I can remember those happy Sabbath evenings; … How my father would parade across and across our flag-floor, telling over the substance of the day’s sermons… How he would entice us to help him to recall some idea or other, praising us when we got the length of “taking notes” and reading them over on our return; how he would turn the talk ever so naturally to some Bible story or some Martyr reminiscence, or some happy allusion to the “Pilgrim’s Progress”!

There were eleven of us brought up in a home like that; and never one of the eleven, boy or girl, man or woman, has been heard, or ever will be heard, saying that Sabbath was dull and wearisome for us, or suggesting that we have heard of or seen any way more likely than that for making the Day of the Lord bright and blessed alike for parents and for children. But God help the homes where these things are done by force and not by love! (16-17)

4) Discipline in love

Fathers are commanded to discipline their children, but don’t think that you can do this on your own! James’ example here reminds of the holy stewardship of parental discipline and the necessity for it to be combined with love.

The very discipline through which our father passed us was a kind of religion in itself. If anything really serious required to be punished, he retired first to his “closet” for prayer, and we boys got to understand that he was laying the whole matter before God; and that was the severest part of the punishment for me to bear! I could have defied any amount of mere penalty, but this spoke to my conscience as a message from God. We loved him all the more, when we saw how much it cost him to punish us; and, in truth, he had never very much of that kind of work to do upon any one of all the eleven – we were ruled by love farm more than by fear. (17)

5) Pray for the lost

John would someday go on to be a missionary to the distant islands. But his passion for the lost began when listening to his father pray for the spread of the gospel.

How much my father’s prayers at this time impressed me I can never explain, nor could any stranger understand. When on his knees and all of us kneeling around him in Family Worship, he poured out his whole soul with tears for the conversion of the Heathen World to the service of Jesus, and for every personal and domestic need, we all felt as if in the presence of the living Saviour, and learned to know and love Him as our Divine Friend. As we rose from our knees, I used to look at the light of my father’s face, and wish I were like him in spirit, – hoping that, in answer to his prayers, I might be privileged and prepared to carry the blessed Gospel to some portion of the Heathen World. (21)

6) Entrust your children to God

Perhaps the most moving account is of John’s departure from his hometown for the first time to go serve in a church and receive further training. The memory of this departure would strengthen his commitment to God for the rest of his life.

My dear father walked with me the first six miles of the way. His counsels and tears and heavenly conversation on that parting journey are fresh in my heart as if it had been but yesterday; and tears are on my cheeks as freely now as then, whenever memory steals me away to the scene. For the last half mile or so we walked on together in almost unbroken silence,—my father, as was often his custom, carrying hat in hand, while his long, flowing yellow hair (then yellow, but in later years white as snow) streamed like a girl’s down his shoulders. His lips kept moving in silent prayers for me; and his tears fell fast when our eyes met each other in looks of which all speech was vain! We halted on reaching the appointed parting-place; he grasped my hand firmly for a minute in silence, and then solemnly and affectionately said:

“God bless you, my son! Your father’s God prosper you, and keep you from all evil!”

Unable to say more, his lips kept moving in silent prayer; in tears we embraced, and parted. I ran off as fast as I could; and, when about to turn a corner in the road where he would lose sight of me, I looked back and saw him still standing with head uncovered where I had left him—gazing after me. Waving my hat in adieu, I was round the corner and out of sight in an instant. But my heart was too full and sore to carry me farther, so I darted into the side of the road and wept for a time. Then, rising up cautiously, I climbed the dyke to see if he yet stood where I had left him; and just at that moment I caught a glimpse of him climbing the dyke and looking out for me! He did not see me, and after he had gazed eagerly in my direction for a while he got down, set his face towards home, and began to return—his head still uncovered, and his heart, I felt sure, still rising in prayers for me. I watched through blinding tears, till his form faded from my gaze; and then, hastening on my way, vowed deeply and oft, by the help of God, to live and act so as never to grieve or dishonor such a father and mother as He had given me. (25-26)

What was it in James’ life that made such a deep impression on his children? It wasn’t simply about the external acts of family worship, church attendance, or discipline. Rather, it was his authentic, intimate walk with God in the grace of the gospel, which overflowed into a genuine love for his children and a spiritual concern for their souls. It was this love for God and for his children which made all the difference in his parenting, and which will make all the difference in ours.

[1] John G. Paton: Missionary to The New Hebrides (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965).

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