When traveling to the mission field was as perilous as being a missionary of the Truth.
Faithful Unto Death
Ordinary people who answered God’s call in spite of uncertainty
By Merle Poirier
When John Tay met Jesus, everything changed. As a teenager John loved the sea, sailing ships, and a small South Sea island called Pitcairn. Now his love was the same, but different. For Tay, loving Jesus meant telling everyone about his new Friend.
Tay went regularly to the wharf to meet the large ships. He used to talk to sea captains about faraway places, but now he talked about Jesus. He gave them books to read. He still thought of the island of Pitcairn. Did the people there know about Jesus?
The Beginning of an Adventure
In 1886 Tay could resist no longer. He left behind his wife and home in Oakland, California, finding passages on different ships until he arrived at Pitcairn Island about four months later. John stayed on the island until the next ship arrived, about five weeks later. During that time he preached about Jesus. When he ate with people, he shared Jesus. He conducted Bible studies. When he left, every single individual on Pitcairn was keeping the Sabbath and requesting baptism! Tay promised to send a minister to baptize them and organize a church.
In April 1888 the Seventh-day Adventist Church agreed to send a minister. Church leaders asked Andrew John Cudney, 34, a minister from Nebraska, to accompany Tay back to Pitcairn. They told both men to find their own way there. Cudney wanted to share Jesus and didn’t hesitate. Leaving his wife and two young sons behind, he answered the call, even though it was 5,000 miles away, and he had no idea how to get there. He would go so that people could learn about Jesus.
Cudney and Tay arrived in San Francisco, California, in May 1888. They waited several weeks, but found no ships leaving for the South Pacific. Church leaders counseled them to separate; Tay would remain in California waiting for a ship sailing to Tahiti. Cudney would sail for Honolulu, Hawaii, on May 20. There, he would take a ship to Tahiti to meet Tay, and together they would proceed to Pitcairn.
It seemed like a good plan, but Cudney’s arrival in Hawaii found no ships destined for Tahiti either. He was uncertain about what to do. Returning to California seemed unwise. Yet no way forward seemed possible. N. F. Burgess, a believer, offered to purchase a previously owned transport vessel that was up for auction. He would repair and fit it for sailing as long as it was used to go to Pitcairn. Encouraged, Cudney agreed. While waiting, Cudney shared Jesus with people in Hawaii. He encouraged them, conducted Bible studies, and, before leaving for Tahiti, organized the first Seventh-day Adventist church in Honolulu with nine members.
Meet Me on Pitcairn
On July 31 Cudney left Honolulu on the newly refitted Phoebe Chapman to rendezvous with Tay in Tahiti. Just before leaving, he wrote of his desire to share Jesus: “An English captain, of extensive experience, whose wife is a Sabbathkeeper, goes as sailing master. He speaks the principal languages of the South Seas. A Swede goes as mate, who can speak five languages. Two men go before the mast as far as Tahiti without wages. . . . It does seem God’s hand is in the work. The crew are strangers; but most of them seem to be exceptionally goodhearted men, and I trust that some of them will learn to love the truth before the voyage is over. We sail at noon today, going first to Tahiti, where I expect Brother Tay is waiting for me; thence we shall go directly to Pitcairn, as fast as the wind will carry us.”*
Meanwhile, John Tay left San Francisco for Tahiti on July 5, arriving there August 8, where he waited for Cudney to arrive. Each day found him at the harbor inquiring of ships, but Cudney’s vessel never arrived.
Those at the General Conference were also waiting word of the ship’s arrival. Cudney’s anxious wife wondered and prayed for her husband’s whereabouts. Minutes of meetings recorded prayers and actions that revealed the church’s anxiety for the missing ship and its crew.
Tay attempted to find a ship to take him to Pitcairn, thinking that Cudney went on without him. Once captains found out his intentions to talk about Jesus, no one would take him. After waiting in Tahiti for six months, he finally sailed for home. A year later, with no word from Cudney or his crew, it was decided they must have been lost at sea. Cudney’s wife kept his clothes for many years, hoping he would one day be found, having run aground on another island.
A Call to Action
In response, the church did not waver on the request of those in Pitcairn still waiting for baptism. Because of the challenges faced by Cudney and Tay, the church decided to build its own ship. The Pitcairn was launched in the fall of 1890, carrying three missionary couples, including John Tay and his wife. Upon their arrival on Pitcairn, 82 people were baptized into the newly organized church.
The remains of the Phoebe Chapman were found on the west coast of Tahiti in 1891. A. J. Cudney, while close, never reached his destination. Cudney wanted to share Jesus despite any obstacle set before him, sailing out in faithfulness to his call. Now he awaits the Second Coming, when the Life-giver will call him again, this time from his watery grave, where he will hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Matt. 25:21).
The Chapman family was one of the first in Petaluma, California, to accept the Adventist message from John Loughborough. Several male suitors were seeking the attention of their daughter, Phoebe, a popular and beautiful young woman. The family tells the story of the day when one young man approached Phoebe, interested in making an impression. He shared with her that he had named the first Adventist missionary ship after her—the Phoebe Chapman. Hearing that, she tossed her head and said, “I hope it sinks.”*
Later, upon hearing the news of the lost vessel, she regretted her careless words. While her words did not cause the tragedy to occur, there is wisdom in being faithful and true in our speech. “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8).
*Mary Colby Monteith, “California’s First Tent Campaign,” Adventist Review, Feb. 28, 1980.