In Search of Missionaries

Throughout my personal family history research I have found many cases of ancestors who have fought for their country, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find three close relatives fighting the good fight for the Almighty himself.

My first cousins twice removed, William and Mary Paton, as well as William’s son David, were all missionaries in the 20th century. All had fascinating stories that have led me to new and wonderful archive sources, and a great deal of family pride.

Rev. William Paton

Rev William Paton - Red Tape 001William Paton was born on November 13th 1886 in Lambeth, London, the only son to my Scottish great great uncle James Paton. By 1901 both William and his family were resident in Croydon, where William was initially educated at Archbishop Whitgift School, before attending Pembroke College, Oxford, and Westminster College, Cambridge. In 1911 he completed his studies, and in the same year he married Grace Mackenzie MacDonald, secretary to future Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.

In 1916, Bill was hastily ordained as a Presbyterian minister to avoid being arrested as a pacifist, and was quickly despatched to India to work as secretary for the YMCA. He returned to England in 1919 to work with the Student Christian Movement, but soon returned to India to become the first secretary of the country’s National Christian Council. Based in Calcutta, he often met with Mahatma Ghandi to discuss the emerging nationalist situation, and campaigned vigorously for German missionaries to be re-allowed to take up their work in the country following the First World War.

Bill returned in 1926 to settle at St. Albans, Herefordshire, and worked as editor on The International Review of Missions publication. He soon accepted a post as joint secretary for the provisional committee of the World Council of Churches, a job which saw him travelling around the world to co-ordinate Christian missionary policy in the developing nations. By the late 1930s, his perceptions of the evils of Nazi Germany caused him to reverse his pacifist stance, arguing passionately to the world that Hitler had to be fought.

William tragically passed away in 1943 whilst out walking in the Cumbrian hills. So high was his standing in the ecumenical community that the Archibishop of Canterbury held a memorial service for him at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on September 28th.

Many resources have been able to help me trace Bill’s life story, including contemporary newspaper coverage, Who’s Who, the history society of the United Reform Church in Cambridge (, the Missionary Biographies website at, and the Library of the Church England at Lambeth Palace ( In addition, I have been able to source two biographies written about him and many religious books that he himself wrote, and his personal letters and papers, which are held at the University of Birmingham. Bill has been a relatively easy man to research, but his sister’s story took a little more digging.

Mary Paton

Mary Paton 1948 at ShantouMary Vallance Dunlop Paton was born in November 1887 in Lambeth. In 1904, she underwent her religious conversion in Hendon, and became a teacher, working with the English Presbyterian Church, and later with the Education Committee.

Initially I could find almost nothing on her career, but my break came with the discovery of a website entitled the Internet Mission Photography Archive at Through this site I discovered many photos both taken by and featuring Mary, as she worked in China as a missionary. The source for the photographs was noted as a collection held at the School of Oriental and African Studies archive in London (, which I soon discovered had its own online catalogue. A visit to the archive would soon reveal considerably more about Mary’s life story.

The archive holds Mary’s entire service record for the Church, and amongst the papers I found a letter dated February 1st 1913, in which Mary expressed her wish to work as a teacher in China for the Women’s Missionary Association of the Presbyterian Church of England. In a lengthy examination procedure, she had to answer questions such as “Do you think you have the elasticity of spirit and energy of character which can endure hardness and cheerfully meet difficulties and adapt yourself to the ways of others?”, to which she somewhat prophetically answered “I think so”! Her application was accepted, and after training she was posted in 1914 to the English Presbyterian Mission in Swabue, near Shantou, China. 

Mary learned to speak in Chinese, and was soon responsible for the building of a women’s school in Swabue. From 1918-20 she was then placed in charge of Swatow Girls School, where she taught both poor young girls and women, before returning again to Swabue. As well as being the sole teacher for a lengthy period in what was essentially bandit country, Mary had other ordeals to deal with, including the partial destruction of her school during a typhoon in 1922.

When communists invaded in 1925, Mary was forced to evacuate to Swatow again, where she remained for ten years and once again took a post at the local Girls School. In 1937, following the Japanese invasion of the region, Mary was rescued by a hastily despatched British warship, HMS Thracian, sent specifically to rescue her, though she did return for a period after the war to continue her work.

Mary eventually passed away in Watford in 1974. From a conversation with one of Mary’s nephews, I heard a story which showed how just how Presbyterian she was, but also her sense of humour. She once attended a Roman Catholic mass with him, and took a bag of jelly sweets in with her to eat during the service. Each was devil shaped, and he was sure she was making a small but very public defiant gesture!

Rev. David Paton

Canon David Paton Church Times 4 SEP 1981William Paton had several sons, two of whom went on to work in the Church also, though both within the Anglican faith. Whilst Michael Paton became archdeacon of Sheffield Cathedral, David Paton was eventually to become a chaplain to the present Queen from 1972-83 and a canon at Canterbury Cathedral. However, David also worked for many years prior to this as a missionary.

David’s missionary career started in Beijing (Peking) in 1939, where he worked throughout the war as both a YMCA secretary and with the Church Missionary Society. He lived with a traditional Mandarin family and like his aunt Mary, learned the local language. He became very pro-Chinese, and when the Japanese occupied Beijing he helped to smuggle surgical instruments to Chinese guerillas in Yanjing, believing that it was important to stand up for his principles. In 1941 David travelled to Hong Kong where he was ordained as a priest in St. John’s Cathedral, and between August 1941 and July 1944 he worked amongst students at Chongqing (Chungking), living in some fairly horrendous conditions.

After a brief return to the UK, where he married Alison Georgina Stewart in 1946, David returned to China to work in Fuzhou (Foochow) in Fujian (Fukien) province, at a time of intense civil war. His work as a missionary was threatened seriously with problems affecting hyperinflation and shortages, and things worsened when Fuzhou fell to communist control in 1949, forcing the Chinese church to cut its ties with foreign missions in order to show loyalty to the new regime. David was forced to flee in 1951. Back in Britain he became vicar of Yardley Wood in Birmingham, and secretary for the Council for Ecumenical Co-operation of Church Assembly, and later took up work for the Missionary and Ecumenical Council of the Church Assembly.

When David passed away in 1992, an obituary in the Guardian stated that David “was arguably the most far-sighted English Anglican this century and yet was denied any influential post, let alone a bishopric”. It concluded with the comment that “if he had been given greater responsibility, the Church of England would be now less busy contemplating its own navel”.