The Martyrs of New Guinea

I begin with a charge from a certain bishop, Philip Strong, delivered to missionaries in New Guinea on January 31, 1942:

“As far as I know, you are all at your posts, and I am very glad and thankful about this.  I have, from the first, felt that we must endeavor to carry on our work in all circumstances, no matter what the cost may ultimately be to any of us individually.  God expects this of us.  The church at home, which sent us out, expects this of us.  The universal church expects it.  The tradition and history of missions requires it of us.  Missionaries who have been faithful to the uttermost and are now at rest are surely expecting it of us.  The people whom we serve expect it of us.  Our own consciences expect it of us.  We could never hold up our faces again if, for our own safety, we all forsook Jesus and fled when the shadows of the Passion began to gather round him in his spiritual and mystical body, the church in Papua.  Our life in the future would be burdened with shame and we could not come back here and face our people again; and we would be conscious always of rejected opportunities.

“The history of the church tells us that missionaries do not think of themselves in the hour of danger and crisis, but of the master who called them to give their all, and of the people whom he trusts them to serve and to love to the uttermost, even as he has served and loved to the uttermost.  His watchword is none the less true today as it was when he gave it to the first disciples, ‘Whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake and the Gospel’s shall find it.’  No one requires us to leave.  No one has required us to leave.  Our people need us now more than ever before in the whole history of the mission.

“No, my brothers and sisters, fellow workers in Christ, whatever others may do, we cannot leave.  We shall not leave.  We shall stay by our trust.  We shall stand by our vocation.  We do not know what it may mean to us.  Many already think us fools and mad.  What does that matter?  If we are fools, ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake.’

“I cannot foretell the future.  I cannot guarantee that all will be well—that we shall all come through unscathed.  One thing only I can guarantee is that, if we do not forsake Christ here in Papua in his body, the church, he will not forsake us.  He will uphold us; he will sustain us; he will strengthen us, and he will guide and keep us through the days that lie ahead . . .  Let us trust and not be afraid” (Faithful Unto Death: The Story of the New Guinea Martyrs; Stanmore: Australian Board of Missions, 1964).

Stirring words, yeah?

This charge came one week after Japanese forces had captured Rabaul, a militarily strategic port on the Island of New Britain, just northeast of New Guinea.  The lives of several Australian Anglican missionaries were indeed threatened.

A month or so later, Bishop Strong himself set out to make personal visits to all missionary stations in Papua, traveling by boat and foot.  Twice he narrowly escaped death: once when the boat on which he was traveling was shot at by a Japanese seaplane; and a second time when he was shot at on foot on a beach.  In the end he succeeded in visiting all stations.

Amazingly, all missionaries stayed on to do their work.

Japanese soldiers first appeared on the island on July 25, 1942.  They were okay, apparently, with indigenous peoples conducting western religious services.  Not so, however, with the white man.  Whenever soldiers neared, the white missionaries fled into the jungle.  Some escaped altogether; others were captured, some of whom were turned over to the Japanese military by natives who had not yet been reached with the Good News.  Of those captured, most were killed.  By September 2 the number of casualties reached ten: eight Australian missionaries and two Papuan nationals who had helped the Australians, all of whom we remember today.  By early October all remaining missionaries were evacuated.

“Thus they died,” Philip Strong wrote in 1964, now as the Archbishop of Brisbane, “faithful unto death.  They chose to remain with their flocks rather than desert them in their hour of danger.  They were martyrs for the Christian faith.  Their deaths were not in vain.  Their sacrifice inspired the Papuan church, and it remained firm.  Recovery after the war was rapid because of it.  Had they deserted, much of the work would have had to begin all over again.  But they were faithful unto death, and we honor them.  Once again the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church” (ibid.).

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