[Born : 10 - 04 - 1815]

John Geddie (18151872) was a Scots-Canadian missionary who was known as "the father of Presbyterian missions in the South Seas." He pioneered missionary work in the New Hebrides islands, now known as Vanuatu. He died on the island of Aneityum on December 14, l872.

Early life

John Geddie (18151872) was born in Banff, Scotland, April 10, 1815. His father, a watch and clock maker, was a devout member of the Presbyterian Church. In 1816, his family emigrated and settled in Pictou, Nova Scotia, Canada. He began his ministry as pastor at Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. In 1846 he was sent as a missionary to New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), where he served for over twenty years. He married Charlotte McDonald in 1839. They had four children, three daughters and a son.

After completing grammar school and later the Pictou Academy, he entered upon the study of theology. When his health failed him and he faced having to give up the ministry, he vowed to commit himself to missionary work if his health recovered. On March 13, 1838, he was ordained as pastor of a congregation on Prince Edward Island.

Missionary Work


When the church committed itself to the establishment of a mission in the South Seas, it accepted Mr. and Mrs. Geddie as their first missionaries. Mr. Geddie's mechanical abilities and his knowledge of medicine peculiarly fitted him for work on a pioneer field among Melanesian and Polynesian savages. The two missionaries and their children sailed from Halifax on the 30th of November, 1846. On October 17, 1847, after a journey of more than 20,000 miles, the vessel sailed into the harbor of Pango-pango (Pago Pago) Samoa. While awaiting transportation to Eastern Melanesia, Geddie devoted six months to the study of the Samoan language. This knowledge would be of great value to him in communicating with the Samoan teachers who had already been settled on several of the Melanesian islands.

The inhabitants of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) were cannibals and at the island of Efate they approached the place where, a few months earlier, had previously killed and eaten the twenty-two crew members of the British ship, Sovereign.

In 1848, he landed on the island of Aneiteum (Aneityum), in the New Hebrides group. When their ship sailed away, the missionaries felt for the first time the stern reality of being abandoned on an island surrounded by a barbarous people from whom they had much to fear and with whom they had little, if anything, in common.

Learning about the inhabitants

Mr. and Mrs. Geddie were soon engrossed in learning the Aneiteumese tongue. The difficulty of the task was increased by the fact that the language had not been reduced to writing and no dictionaries or books of any kind were available. After mastering Aneiteumese, the first assignment was to reduce it to writing and then to print some materials to help enlighten the people.

When Geddie first reached Aneiteum, there were two Samoan teachers, Simeona and Pita, on the island but there was not a single native convert. The people of Aneiteum, like those throughout the New Hebrides, looked like savages. The people also acted like savages. The female sex was very degraded. The wife was practically the slave of her husband and to her lot fell the drudgery and hard labor. The practice of killing unwanted babies was common. When a man died, his wife was immediately strangled so that her spirit might accompany his to the next world, and any children too young to take care of themselves suffered the same fate as the mother. If there was a grown son, he was expected to perform the act of strangulation.

The revolting practice of cannibalism was prevalent on all the islands. The natives confessed that they considered human flesh the most savory of foods. It was considered proper to eat all enemies killed or taken in war. It was a common occurrence for chiefs to kill some of their own subjects to provide a cannibal feast, if the bodies of enemies were not readily obtainable. The missionary knew a man who killed and ate his own child!

The people were steeped in moral degradation. Licentiousness was rife, revenge was considered a sacred duty, forgiveness was a word not to be found in the language and the spectacle of a happy heathen family, bound together by ties of love, was unknown. And their religious beliefs were not calculated to elevate them. Their deities included idols and spirits called Natmasses. Their sacred men were invested with remarkable powers, such as producing thunder and lightning, causing hurricanes and inducing disease. "Can we indeed expect anything good from the poor heathen," wrote the missionary, "when their deities are supposed to be such as themselves, or, rather, are conceived as having attained to a more gigantic stature in every form of vice than man can possibly reach?"

Converting the Inhabitants

Prominent in his thinking was the recruitment of new missionaries. He sent fervent pleas for missionary reinforcements to the Presbyterians of Canada and Scotland and to the London Missionary Society. For years he labored on alone, but eventually other missionaries came to help possess the land. The most eminent of these was John G. Paton.

Geddie worked diligently for the evangelization of the home base. By means of schools, personal conversations and itinerating tours through the island, he was unremitting in his endeavors to win the Aneiteumese. There were many obstacles, many trials, many perils. Very few attended school at first and these irregularly. Having no comprehension of the value of learning to read and write, many said to him, "How much will you pay me to come and study?" The severest heartaches came when his children, one after another, had to be sent to the homeland for their education and when little Alexander, three years old, sickened and died. As Geddie went through the forests and over the mountains on his evangelistic tours, numerous attempts were made to kill him. Stones, clubs and spears were hurled at him, and several times he was injured. But he kept on telling of the Redeemer's love and exemplifying it in his actions.

One day Geddie came upon a group of women wailing piteously and rubbing a man's corpse with broken leaves. Some were pulling their hair and shrieking violently. The man's widow, an attractive young girl, sat near by expecting to be strangled. Geddie said, "This woman must not be killed," and started leading her from the scene. Immediately some men assaulted him, knocked him to the ground and seized the young widow. While some of the women held down the girl's arms and legs the men proceeded to strangle her. When Geddie again tried to intervene, men with clubs drove him away. The murderous deed was by this time completed. Knowing that the savages were infuriated and that he was further risking his life, he warmly told the people of the foul darkness of their deed. "According to our custom and belief, this is right. Be gone before we kill you!" they shouted. Then he began to tell them of that wondrous love which led the Son of God to give up the praise of the angels for the mockery of men, to exchange the diadem of the ages for a crown of thorns, and to die on the cross that the dark-hearted sinners of earth might be changed and received at last into the heavenly home. As he spoke, clubs were lowered and the people became wistfully attentive, for there is something even in a savage breast that responds to the story of the Saviour's suffering love.

Educating the Inhabitants

He taught all his converts to read and love the Word of God. As they developed in the Christian life, he imparted to them his vision of evangelizing the teeming populations of other islands. Scores of them volunteered in the spirit of Isaiah, "Here am I, send me!" and went forth to hazard their lives for Christ on other dark islands. Many of them "loved not their lives even unto death" and perished as martyrs on a foreign shore. Only eternity will reveal the full story of the magnificent heroism of these humble men and women who, like their beloved missionary, impelled by the love of Christ, went forth to labor, suffer and die, sustained by the presence of their Lord and soothed by the assurance that some day the seeds they had sown would be blessed of God to produce a harvest of precious souls.

He journeyed often to other islands. In response to Geddie's ardent plea, friends in Canada and Scotland raised a large sum of money and provided him with a vessel. In this, and sometimes in other vessels, he made extensive journeys through the New Hebrides, New Caledonia and the Loyalty Islands. He settled new workers on various islands and encouraged those already settled. His view of the importance of native workers is thus indicated: "Native agents, under the judicious direction of right-hearted missionaries, will yet accomplish a great work on this and neighboring isles of the sea." He never landed any teachers unless the chiefs solemnly promised to protect them and assist them. Despite these precautions, many of the workers suffered severe privations and died violent deaths. Many others were victims of the ravages of disease. As some fell, others were always ready to take their places and, after years of toil in the night, the dawn began to break on some dark islands.

Natives from other islands were encouraged to visit Aneiteum (Aneityum). Years of labor and prayer brought an amazing transformation on the island. Let Geddie's Journal speak: "For many months after our arrival almost every day brought some new act of theft to light, and altogether we lost property to a considerable amount; but now locks and keys are entirely useless. The natives who attended our Sabbath meetings used to come with their clubs and spears and painted visages; but now we seldom see a weapon on the Sabbath day, and the habit of painting is falling into disuse. I have seen the day when a man who wore a garment was the sport of others, but now every rag in the community is in requisition on the Sabbath day. All this were nothing, however, except as evidence of a change of heart wrought by the Spirit of God." It was a day of rejoicing and thanksgiving when the ordinance of the Lord's Supper was first observed. "This is the first time," says Geddie in a letter, "that the Redeemer's love has been celebrated in this dark land. Oh! that the time may soon arrive when many more of its dark and degraded inhabitants shall join us in this ordinance of love."

His prayer was at length answered. One day Yakanui, a chief and sacred man, came to the missionary. Yakanui was a human monster, the greatest cannibal on the island. There were very few children left in his district, because he had killed and eaten so many of them. Many grown persons had also fallen under the impact of his murderous club. He was hated by the people, yet feared because of his ferocity and because they believed he possessed mysterious powers by which to bring ruin upon them. Attracted by the gospel of forgiving love, he came to the missionary, who tenderly pointed him to the Redeemer who is "able to save unto the uttermost." Schools were established in all parts of the island. The New Testament, then the whole Bible, was translated and put into the hands of the people. Hundreds, then thousands, broke with heathenism and turned to Christ, and twenty-five churches were crowded with eager worshippers each Lord's Day.

When, after twenty-four years of toil, he answered his Lord's final summons and left the earthly scene, December 14, 1872, a tablet, prepared in Sydney, was placed behind the pulpit of the church in the village of Anelcauhat on Aneityum, where the beloved missionary so long had preached. On it was the following inscription:

"In memory of John Geddie, D.D., born in Scotland, 1815, minister in Prince Edward Island seven years, Missionary sent from Nova Scotia to Aneiteum for twenty-four years. When he landed in 1848, there were no Christians here, and when he left in 1872 there were no heathen."