Thomas, John
1797-1881; e.m. 1824

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WM missionary to Tonga, born in Clent, Worcs, to a blacksmith's family on 7 November 1797. He was converted by class leaders and became a local preacher. With no formal training he was appointed to the Friendly Islands and sailed via Australia in 1825. The NSW ministers, without authority from London, had ordained John Hutchinson, expecting him to be Superintendent of the mission. Thomas's appointment caused such animosity on Hutchinson's part that the mission made little headway until Hutchinson left in 1829. Thomas remained the unsophisticated evangelical whose simplicity had so impressed the WMMS secretaries, an avowed Sabbatarian and devout literalist. He gave the Tongans the new faith and social structure they needed as Western 'civilization' spread. After two fruitful years, when hundreds were converted, baptized and put in classes, and made literate, in 1832 he was, to his dismay, made Chairman of the South Seas District (later including Fiji and Samoa), remaining so until 1848.

From the outset Thomas interested himself in Tongan history and culture and his unrivalled knowledge of the language at first made up for his ignorance of Hebrew and Greek, though it later exposed him to painful criticism from his college-trained colleagues. In England slanderous lies were told by a Captain Dillon, bent on increasing French influence in the Pacific and indignant at Thomas's efforts to protect Tongan women from his crew. His deep inferiority complex made him seem dictatorial in his later days, but he was trusted by many of the chiefs and brought to an end internal wars. Not having visited England or New South Wales for 24 years left him out of touch with changes in Church and society and he returned home in 1850 a disillusioned man. But Tonga was his true home.

Janet Luckcock's study has belatedly done justice to a largely self-educated pioneer who against the odds is still known to the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga as 'Father Thomas'.

He died on 29 January 1881 and was buried at Brierley Hill in the West Midlands. A century later, members of the Tongan royal family, including the grand-daughter of Queen Salote (who had attended the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1952) were present at his grave to lay a wreath in his memory.

  • William Moister, Missionary Worthies, 1782-1885 (1885) pp.355-57
  • James H. Rigg, Wesleyan Methodist Reminiscences Sixty Years Ago (1904) pp.161-62
  • Janet L. Luckcock, Thomas of Tonga, 1797-1881: the unlikely pioneer (Peterborough, 1992)
  • Janet L. Luckcock, Thomas of Tonga (Peterborough, 1998)
  • Martin Daly, 'The BIble and the Sword: John Thomas and theTongan Civil War of 1837', in Wesley and Methodist Studies 4 (2012) pp.71-90.

Entry written by: ADY and JLL
Category: Person
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