LAWES, William George (1839-1907)


LAWES, William George (1839-1907)
missionary
was born at Aldermaston Berkshire, England, on 1 July 1839. He was educated at a school connected with the Congregational Church at Mortimer West, and at 14 went to work at Reading. In 1858 the Rev. William Gill came to this town bringing with him a native from the island of Rarotonga. Lawes became much interested in missionary work, and offering himself to the London Missionary Society, was sent to Bedford to pursue his studies. He was ordained at Reading on 8 November 1860. He had been married about a fortnight before to Fanny Wickham, and on 23 November the young couple sailed in the John Williams for Savage Island by way of Australia. Sydney was left on 16 May 1861, and Savage Island was reached about three months later. The natives, once among the fiercest of savages, were now largely Christianized. Lawes soon learned the language and during his stay of 11 years his work was steadily successful. He translated portions of the scriptures into the Niue dialects, which were printed by the New South Wales auxiliary of the Bible Society.
In 1872 he went to Great Britain with his wife on furlough, and did a large amount of travelling and public speaking for the missions. He was sent to the New Guinea mission and in November 1874 a mission station was established at Port Moresby. The people were kindly disposed, but it was soon realized that the desire for teachers and missionaries was largely based on the hope of obtaining beads, tobacco, and food. Lawes philosophically observed that at the dawn of Christianity much better-informed people were no doubt attracted by the loaves and fishes. He went steadily on with his work, but malaria and other diseases took toll of native teachers he had brought with him, and there was little local food available. The coast as far as Milne Bay was explored, and portions of the interior were visited. Lawes began to reduce the local language to writing, and in 1877 published at Sydney Buka Kienana Levaleva Tuahia, a first school book in the language of Port Moresby. In 1885 he brought out Grammar and Vocabulary of Language spoken by Motu Tribe (3rd ed. 1896). From 1877 he was associated with James Chalmers (q.v.), and worked well with him. Chalmers was the more adventurous, Lawes more scholarly, and they made a good combination. When a British protectorate was proclaimed in November 1884, Lawes explained to the chiefs as well as he was able the significance of the ceremony. When he visited Australia in the following year he asked that the natives should be accepted as fellow subjects and fellow men. "Don't talk about them as 'niggers' or 'black fellows' but shake hands with them across the straits!" In 1891 Lawes spent six months in England seeing through the press his translation of the New Testament into Motu, and on his return spent some time travelling through Australia bringing the claims of the mission before the churches. He returned to Port Moresby in April 1893 and at the end of the following year removed to Vatorato, where a training college for teachers was established with Lawes in charge. He was in England when word came of the murder of Chalmers "his bosom friend and beloved brother" as he called him in a remarkable appeal for missions at a meeting held a few days later at the Albert Hall. "Chalmers and Tomkins must be avenged," said Lawes, "not by the burning down of homesteads but as the sainted Tamate would have it, by sending the army of Christian workers to win the tribes for Christ, and make it for ever impossible that such deeds should be perpetrated on their shores."
In 1906, after 44 years of continuous service, Lawes decided to retire. He arrived in Sydney in April 1906 and lived quietly, always interested in Papua as the part of New Guinea under the control of Australia was now called, and frequently preaching at various churches until his death on 6 August 1907. He was survived by his faithful wife and companion in all his labours, and three sons. He was given the honorary degree of D.D. by Glasgow university. In addition to the works mentioned Lawes was responsible for other translations into Motu, including Selections from Old Testament History, a hymn-book, a catechism with marriage and burial services and forms of prayer, and a geography and arithmetic book. The basis of his great success as a missionary was his belief that the work must be a mission of love and understanding. He was an ideal teacher, a skilful organizer, a fit complement of Chalmers. Together they did a great work for New Guinea and civilization. There is a stained glass window in memory of Lawes in Trinity Congregational Church, Reading.
J. King, W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea; R. Lovett, James Chalmers, His Autobiography and Letters; The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 August 1907; The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 7 August 1907.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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