In the early 1800s a young Englishman felt called to serve as a missionary in the South Pacific. At the age of 20 John Williams took his wife in the footsteps of the legendary Captain Cook, and sailed from London. They landed on the island of Tahiti in the Society Islands in November 1817, and made their home on the island of Raiatea. John longed to take the Gospel to new places and their plan was to take the good news of the Christian faith to as many people as they could. On some islands the people were hostile, the ‘white skinned’ man was still a mystery and someone to be feared, but on other islands they walked freely, learning each other’s language, customs and traditions. They exchanged skills, shared knowledge and despite the language difficulties and culture differences they together came to an understanding of the Christian faith.
On one voyage in 1823 they discovered the island of Rarotonga in the Hervey Islands (modern Cook Islands). A native missionary called Papeiha was dropped on the island to lay the foundations of the Gospel. John Williams and his wife visited the island in 1827 and found the Gospel had been received well. Marooned without a boat, John stayed on the island, helped translate the scriptures, and eventually built his own ship called the “Messenger of Peace”. In that boat he returned to Raiatea and used it to sail as far as Samoa taking the good news of Jesus Christ.
John returned to England only once, to raise money for a new boat, the Camden. He travelled much, giving talks about his missionary work. He also wrote journals and letters, telling others about his life. The Pathfinder series of Adventure books for boys brought out a title, ‘John Williams the Ship Builder’, and he became a hero for children all over the British Isles.
John’s life ended on November 20th 1839 on the island of Erromonga, where he was murdered by cannibals on the beach. When news of his death reached Rarotonga, Samoa, Tahiti and Raiatea people swarmed to the beaches and mourned his passing. The Camden’s last journey was to return to England.
The story continues back in the offices of the London Missionary Society at Livingstone House where it was decided to appeal to churches to see if they could raise enough money to buy a new ship to continue the work already begun. A letter was sent to churches who supported the work of the LMS and in one local church some children overheard the anxious talk of the members as they thought about raising the money. Together, the children decided to do what they could to help.
As the weeks went by, these children, along with friends and other children around the country saved their money for the appeal. Pocket money hadn’t been invented yet, so they saved what they could earn. They worked through their lunch breaks, they worked extra shifts, they sold possessions, and they even sold their lunches to raise the money, always believing that they too, were called by God.
£6,000 was raised by children from all over the country.
The first ship was bought and named the John Williams; it was launched at Harwich on May 20th 1844, making her maiden voyage on June 5th the same year.
Children continued to save money and to collect it from church members. A total of seven ships were bought and named after John Williams with the money raised. John Williams VII was de-commissioned in the early 1970s.Pilots grew out of this history: in 1936 children continued to collect money associating the ship halfpenny, which was launched in 1937, with the imagery of the John Williams ships.Companies of Pilots were formed, each with its own Captain and Officers appointed by the local Church Meeting. A weeknight programme of worship, education and fun was designed to complement and supplement what went on in church on Sundays. The organisation was non-uniformed and flexible, and catered for both boys and girls. Over the years Pilots has had its ups and downs, but it has been owned by the United Reformed Church since its inception, and also sponsored by the continuing Congregational Federation. Here, already in existence, was a ready-made organisation capable of interesting children during the week and involving them in the life and mission of the Church.Children are integral to the ministry and mission of the United Reformed Church: not an optional extra; not the Church of the future, but an essential part of the Church of today.