Paton, William (1886-1943)


PatonBorn in London, educated at Archbishop Whitgift School, Croydon, Pembroke College, Oxford, and Westminster College, Cambridge, Paton was converted to a living faith in the spring of 1905. He helped rebuild the Student Christian Movement (SCM) when the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union went its own way in 1910, then became the men’s candidates’ secretary of the Student Volunteer Missionary Union. A Presbyterian, he was ordained hastily in 1916 and dispatched to India as a YMCA secretary to prevent his being imprisoned as a pacifist. (Although he was a founding member of the Fellowship of the Reconcilization, he resigned in 1940 because as an indomitable opponent of fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism, he believed Hitler must be opposed by force.)

Paton returned from India in 1919, transformed by the experience, to provide inspiring leadership for the SCM. Recalled to India in 1921, he served from 1922 to 1926 as the first secretary of the National Christian Council of India, first secretary of the National Christian Council of India, making it a church-related Indian concern producing relevant research for evangelism. He then effectively succeeded J. H. Oldham as secretary of the International Missionary Council, as the latter became more involved with the Life and Work movement. He played a vital role in the creation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and became secretary alongside W. A. Visser’t Hooft. He gained enormous influence in the corridors of power in church and state due to sheer knowledge, hard work, and networking. Paton’s premature death at the height of his career, as he was planning for the reconstruction of Europe and in dialogue with Bonhoeffer, probably delayed the integration of the WCC and the International Missionary Council. His death was an irreparable loss, for Paton had a broader vision than some of his successors. A writer, preacher, and broadcaster, he always yearned to be a simple evangelist. His 1916 paperback Jesus Christ and the World’s Religions sold over 50,000 copies.

In 1911 Paton married Grace Mackenzie MacDonald, who radicalized him. She left first the Presbyterian Church and then the Church of Engladn because she considered they did nothing for the poor. In Calcutta she did much for nurses’ conditions; then, while making a home for their six children in St. Albans, Herts, she ran a restaurant for striking miners in 1926 and again for workers in World War II. In 1914, she wrote an important paperback, The Child and the Nation, on the condition fo children, and was still campaigning for nurses when she died in 1967. She became a Roman Catholic in 1936.

E. M. Jackson, “Paton, William,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 519.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


Digital Text

Paton, William. Alexander Duff, Pioneer of Missionary Education. New York: George H. Doran, 1923.


Paton, William. The Church and the New Order. New York: Macmillan Co., 1941.

_____. A Faith for the World. London: Edinburgh House Press, 1929.

_____. Jesus Christ and the World’s Religions. London: Red Triangle Press, 1916.

_____. The Message of the World-Wide Church. London: The Sheldon Press, 1940.

_____. Social Ideals in India. London: London Missionary Society. 1919.

_____. World Community. London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1938.

Paton, Grace M. The Child and the Nation. London: Student Christian Movement, 1915.


Jackson, E. M. Red Tape and the Gospel: A Study of the Significance of the Ecumenical Misisonary Struggle of Dr. William Paton. Birmingham: Phlogiston Pub. in association with the Selly Oaks Colleges, for the Paton family, 1980.

_____. “William Paton.” In Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, edited by Gerald H. Anderson et al. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994. Pp. 581-590.

Sinclair, Margaret. William Paton. London: SCM Press, 1949.


“William Paton Image.” In Sinclair, Margaret. William Paton. London: SCM Press, 1949.