Little did James Chalmers and his missionary colleague Oliver Tomkins know, as they waded ashore at Risk Point on Goaribari Island, New Guinea, that they were walking toward their deaths. It was Easter Sunday, April 8, 1901, and the villagers rejoiced at their arrival, inviting them into the newly constructed dubu (a communal house for fighting men which could not be used without consecration by a human sacrifice) for refreshments. Yet the festive mood was in stark contrast to the piles of human skulls nestled around the crude wooden idols in the corner of the hut. Without warning, the natives attacked and dismembered their two visitors, passing the limbs to the women to be cooked, mixed with herbs. In those few moments, Chalmers and Tomkins passed from Easter faith to Easter presence.
The Pacific islands were one of the first areas to be evangelized in the modern missionary era. Most of the indigenous population lived in primitive conditions, immersed in cannibalism, licentiousness, infanticide, and constant warfare. Yet by the end of the 19th century, most of this region had become Christian through the faithful and sacrificial service of many missionaries who proclaimed the gospel despite the constant threats of disease and death.
Chalmers, the son of a stonemason in the West Highlands of Scotland, was converted during the 1859 revival. Even as a boy he wanted to be a missionary to the cannibals, and eventually he arrived on the settled island of Rarotonga in May 1867, where he served with the London Missionary Society for the next ten years. He was a pioneer at heart and set off for New Guinea (modern day Papua New Guinea) to preach the gospel. For the next 23 years he labored up and down the coast, visiting 105 villages, 90 of which had never seen a white man, and establishing a chain of Polynesian teachers to continue the work. He always went unarmed, knowing this would allay native suspicions while leaving him defenseless in case of attack.
Chalmers, who outlived two wives, longed for the unreached to hear the gospel. “I dearly love to be the first to preach Christ in a place,” he said, and he had the joy of seeing communities transformed by the good news. Declining an offer to work as a government official, he declared: “Gospel and commerce, yes: but remember this: It must be the gospel first. Wherever there was the slightest spark of civilization in the Southern Seas it has been because the gospel has been preached there. The ramparts of heathenism can only be stormed by those who carry the cross.” Despite innumerable hardships, Chalmers counted it a great privilege to sacrifice everything for Christ.
At a time when many churches have championed the prosperity gospel with its “promises” of health, wealth, safety, and comfort, imitators of Chalmers are sorely needed. He sought neither personal protection nor glory; his faith did not rest on riches or long life. Instead James Chalmers lived with his eyes focused on heaven so that others might share his knowledge and confidence in the Savior. It cost him his life, but he would have been pleased with the exchange.