The smartest person who ever lived

(William Sidis at his Harvard graduation in 1914.)

William James Siddis (1898-1944) was perhaps the smartest person who ever lived. Estimates of his IQ range between 250 and 300. At eighteen months he could read the New York Times. At two he taught himself Latin. At three he learned Greek. At four he was typing letters in French and English. At five he wrote a treatise on anatomy and stunned people with his mathematical ability. At eight he graduated from Brookline High School in Massachusetts. He was about to enter Harvard, but the entrance board suggested he take a few years off to develop socially. He complied, and entered Harvard at eleven. At sixteen he graduated cum laude, and then became the youngest professor in history. He inferred the possibility of black holes twenty years before Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar did. As an adult, he could speak more than forty languages and dialects.

Yet the stress of possessing such an amazing intellect took its toll on Sidis. Instead of being appreciated and admired for his intellectual gifts, he was regarded as a freak – an intellectual performer to be started at rather than a fellow human being to be esteemed. As a teenager at Harvard, he suffered a nervous breakdown. As a professor at Rice University, he was unable to bear the constant media attention. In his early twenties, he resigned his professorship and withdrew from all serious intellectual pursuits. In 1924, a reporter found him working at a low-paying job in a Wall Street office. Sidis told the reporter that all he wanted was anonymity in a job that placed no demands on him. He spent the rest of his life working menial jobs. [Sidis died from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 46.]

(The Design of Life, p 1.)


Jonny Kim

So let me see if I got this right:

  • Navy SEAL (also part of the famous SEAL Team Three “Task Unit Bruiser” led by Jocko Willink and including Chris Kyle, Marc Alan Lee, Kevin Lacz, and Michael Monsoor)
  • Math major (summa cum laude)
  • Harvard emergency physician
  • NASA astronaut

I guess next up is President of the free world? 😉

Lights in a dark world


Ernst Kasemann was telling me of his friend Steinbauer, one of the most courageous Christians of the Third Reich, who spent nearly as long in prison as Martin Niemoller [or Dietrich Bonhoeffer]. We do not know his name as well because, I suppose, he lacked some of Niemoller’s gifts. I had not heard of him until then. But he was a man of surprising courage. He had publicly declared ‘Hitler is mad’. When he was set free at the end of the war, by the Allied forces, he was immediately sent – out of the frying pan and into the fire – to act as chaplain to a prison camp of 30,000 S.S. [Schutzstaffel] men. He preached there a sermon and one ex-officer came up to him and said, ‘As soon as I am out of here, I will seek you out and kill you.’ Steinbauer went on, unafraid of what he knew was a deadly serious threat. After four sermons the S.S. officer was converted.

Lights in a dark world; straight in a crooked world; fearless in a threatening world; loving in a selfish world; helpful in a despairing world. You possess the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Learn from the past but do not live in it. And press on to the mark.


This is not unlike the present world in which we live in the West. When our religious freedoms and liberties as Christians are under threat by secular progressives. In fact, it’s not just Christians, but all people who cherish democratic ideals are under threat by secular progressives.

What do I mean by secular progressive? I have in mind people who argue for the following kinds of things. Every man is a sexual predator until proven otherwise (also see the excesses of the #metoo movement). Biologically born males who are transgender women must be allowed to use women’s bathrooms and locker rooms and compete in women’s sports. Everyone must call a person by the term the person wishes to be called. Religious people owning private bakeries must serve any and all customers including those customers who want them to bake a cake for their homosexual wedding despite it going against their consciences, or else face law suits, but progressive-minded restaurant establishments are allowed to deny service to anyone they wish without any repercussions (e.g. Red Hen and Sarah Huckabee Sanders). And so on and so forth.

Secular progressives hold most the power and influence in our culture, the media, and public education, among other areas.

Politics is currently split 50/50, but secular progressives are making gains in politics too. If and when they do gain enough strength in politics, then secular progressives will doubtless seek to change how we are governed. If they govern, they will govern top-down, not bottom-up as it should be in our constitutional government. They will govern by mandates and edicts, but also by bread and circuses. They’ll give people “free” education and “free” health care, but as every good economist knows “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. People will get what they want, but they’ll have to pay on the way out. Perhaps some will leave in coffins.

It’s worth reading the very short book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by the Yale historian Tim Snyder. As an aside: Snyder applies the book’s lessons to Trump and conservatives in public forums. However, the ironic truth is the shoe’s on the other foot, but the author doesn’t realize it. It’s secular progressives who are the real threat to our democratic ideals.

In any case, it’s a serious concern what the future world will look like for Christians and our families. Society will say the opposite: don’t worry so much, all is well, black is white, down is up. Even families will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother. Fathers will have their children put to death, children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. The question for us is, what kind of person will we be?

Maggie Paton’s letters

(Maggie Paton is seated in the center of the photograph. John G. Paton stands behind her.)

The Letters and Sketches of Maggie Paton from the New Hebrides
By Joel Beeke

The story of John Gibson Paton (1824-1907), Scottish Presbyterian missionary to the South Pacific, is well-known. Paton worked with the Glasgow City Mission while preparing himself for overseas service by studying medicine and theology. Ordained by the Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1858, Paton established a mission post on the New Hebrides island of Tanna. His autobiography tells how the loss of his wife and infant son in addition to severe privations and native hostility forced him to leave the island. He settled in Australia. There he extended the missionary challenge among the Aussies, as well as in New Zealand and Scotland, where his church elected him Moderator of her highest court in 1864.

In Scotland, Paton recruited seven missionaries for the work in the New Hebrides. He then settled on the island of Aniwa (1866-1881) with his second wife, Margaret (Maggie) Whitecross Paton (d. 1905), daughter of Rev. John Whitecross, author of the Shorter Catechism Illustrated. He related well to the natives there, had a highly effective ministry, and also translated parts of Scripture into the Aniwan tongue. By the end of the Patons’ tenure, most of the Aniwan natives were professing Christianity.

Beginning in 1881, Paton was based in Melbourne, Australia. He conducted missionary tours in numerous nations, producing large donations for South Pacific missions. He was a powerful yet simple speaker whose passion for missions knew no bounds. By the time of his death in Australia in 1907, he was hailed around the world as a great missionary leader. His family’s missionary connection with the New Hebrides continued until 1970.

Paton’s brother James edited his autobiography. James also obtained permission from Maggie Paton to publish her letters. Though many of them have been lost, a sufficient number survived to piece together a moving history of the Patons’ labors over a twenty-five year span (1865-1889).

The letters throb with heartfelt convictions. Most of them were written only for Mrs. Paton’s family members, and none were ever intended for print. Hence they are blunt, serious, and at times, humorous – all bearing the marks of great integrity. They provide remarkably realistic insights into life on the mission field from the perspective of a God-fearing missionary’s wife who was willing to follow her husband’s call in adverse and life-threatening circumstances.

Maggie Paton’s letters ought to be read alongside Paton’s autobiography. James Paton wrote that he was eager to publish these letters because “they present another picture of mission life and experiences in the New Hebrides from that portrayed in the now famous Autobiography of her husband. No feature will be found in the one contradictory to the features in the other, but many lovely and thrilling scenes of a supplementary and illuminative kind. Here we have the woman’s delicate touch; we see with the woman’s eye.”

Maggie Paton’s letters and sketches will move you; at times you will weep, at other times, smile. You will be stirred by the challenge of working in an isolated mission situation with only rare connection to the outside world. For example, she writes, “If you came to be missionaries, you would find it uphill work indeed, to be sacrificing your whole life merely for the sake of those who could not understand your motives, and who know not what it cost you to give up home and friends. But Jesus regards every sigh, and whatever is done for Him will meet with a sweet reward even in this life; for He who has promised can never disappoint”

At times, Mrs. Paton is eloquent in conveying truth gleaned from the Holy Spirit’s teaching in the school of affliction. She writes, “It is only when we have a hold of Jesus’ hand that we can breast the billows that surge over and threaten to drown us”. Of home life, she says, “The life of the Christian home is the best treatise on Christianity-a daily object lesson, which all can understand, can read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest; in fact, it is the only Bible which many of them [the black natives] shall ever read! It wakens a terrible feeling of responsibility to see how they sometimes look up to us”.

She beautifully describes the power of the call to mission work when she writes of her husband: “His whole spirit is saturated with it; and it’s just as impossible to take the missionary spirit out of a man, as it is to put it into him. Besides, he does not feel that God has given him a direct call to leave it; and until that is the case, you may be sure he will not make the first move!”

I trust your appetite has been whetted to read this big-as-life book of mission letters. May God apply it to every reader, so that we examine our own sense of allegiance to Jesus Christ, the missionary par excellence, and realize afresh that without the mission heart of the Triune God, all of us would be lost forever.


A friend of God


“[A]nd the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” – and he was called a friend of God.” (James 2:23)

John Piper shares the following story about the missionary John G. Paton:

One of the most powerful paragraphs in his Autobiography describes his experience of hiding in a tree, at the mercy of an unreliable chief, as hundreds of angry natives hunted him for his life. What he experienced there was the deepest source of Paton’s joy and courage. In fact, I would dare to say that to share this experience and call others to enjoy it was the reason that he wrote the story of his life.

I pity from the depth of my heart every human being, who, from whatever cause, is a stranger to the most ennobling, uplifting, and consoling experience that can come to the soul of man — blessed communion with the Father of our Spirits, through gracious union with the Lord Jesus Christ. (p. 359)

He began his Autobiography with the words, “What I write here is for the glory of God” (p. 2). That is true. But God gets glory when his Son is exalted. And his Son his exalted when we cherish him above all things. That is what this story is about.

Being entirely at the mercy of such doubtful and vacillating friends, I, though perplexed, felt it best to obey. I climbed into the tree and was left there alone in the bush. The hours I spent there live all before me as if it were but of yesterday. I heard the frequent discharging of muskets, and the yells of the Savages. Yet I sat there among the branches, as safe as in the arms of Jesus. Never, in all my sorrows, did my Lord draw nearer to me, and speak more soothingly in my soul, than when the moonlight flickered among those chestnut leaves, and the night air played on my throbbing brow, as I told all my heart to Jesus. Alone, yet not alone! If it be to glorify my God, I will not grudge to spend many nights alone in such a tree, to feel again my Savior’s spiritual presence, to enjoy His consoling fellowship. If thus thrown back upon your own soul, alone, all alone, in the midnight, in the bush, in the very embrace of death itself, have you a Friend that will not fail you then? (p. 200)

How do you claim the promises of God for protection when faithful others have died?

John Piper writes the following in his biography of the missionary John G. Paton.

How do you claim the promises of God for protection when your wife was equally faithful but, rather than being protected, died; and when the Gordons on Erromanga were equally trusting in those promises and were martyred?

Mr. and Mrs. G. N. Gordon were killed on Erromanga on May 20, 1861. They had labored four years on the island when they walked into an ambush. “A blow was aimed at him with a tomahawk, which he caught; the other man struck, but his weapon was also caught. One of the tomahawks was then wrenched out of his grasp. Next moment, a blow on the spine laid the dear Missionary low, and a second on the neck almost severed the head from the body.” Mrs. Gordon came running to see the noise and “Ouben slipped stealthily behind here, sank his tomahawk into her back and with another blow almost severed her head! This was the fate of those two devoted servants of the Lord; loving in their lives and in their deaths not divided, their spirits, wearing the crown of martyrdom, entered Glory together, to be welcomed by Williams and Harris, whose blood was shed near the same now hallowed spot for the name and the cause of Jesus” (p. 166).

Paton had learned the answer to this question from listening to his mother pray, even before he leaned the theology that supports it. When the potato crop failed in Scotland, Mrs. Paton said to her children, “Oh my children, love your Heavenly Father, tell him in faith and prayer all your needs, and he will supply your wants so far as it shall be for your good and His glory” (p. 22). Compare this way of praying with the way Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced the fiery furnace in Daniel 3:17–18, “God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

This is what Paton trusted God for in claiming the promises: that God would do what was for Paton’s good and for his own glory.

His courage when he was surrounded by armed natives came through a kind of praying that claimed the promises under the overarching submission to God’s wisdom as to what would work most for God’s glory and his good.

I . . . assured them that I was not afraid to die, for at death my Savior would take me to be with Himself in Heaven, and to be far happier than I had ever been on Earth. I then lifted up my hands and eyes to the Heavens, and prayed aloud for Jesus . . . either to protect me or to take me home to Glory as He saw to be for the best. (p. 164)

That was how he prayed again and again: “Protect me or . . . take me home to Glory as you see to be for the best.” He knew that Jesus had promised suffering and martyrdom to some of his servants (Luke 11:49; 21:12–18). So the promises he claimed were both: either protect me or take me home in a way that will glorify you and do good for others.

This meant that, in one sense, life was not simple. If God may rescue us for his glory, or let us be killed for his glory, which way to turn in self-preservation was not an easy question to answer.

To know what was best to be done, in such trying circumstances, was an abiding perplexity. To have left altogether, when so surrounded by perils and enemies, at first seemed the wisest course, and was the repeated advice of many friends. But again, I had acquired the language, and had gained a considerable influence amongst the Natives, and there were a number warmly attached both to myself and to the Worship. To have left would have been to lose all, which to me was heart-rending; therefore, risking all with Jesus, I held on while the hope of being spared longer had not absolutely and entirely vanished (p. 173).

After one harrowing journey he wrote, “Had it not been for the assurance that . . . in every path of duty He would carry me through or dispose of me therein for His glory, I could never have undertaken either journey” (p. 148).

Often have I seized the pointed barrel and directed it upwards, or, pleading with my assailant, uncapped his musket in the struggle. At other times, nothing could be said, nothing done, but stand still in silent prayer, asking to protect us or to prepare us for going home to His glory. He fulfilled His own promise — I will not fail thee nor forsake thee.(pp. 329–330)

The peace God gave him in these crises was not the peace of sure escape but the peace that God is good and wise and omnipotent and will do all things well. “We felt that God was near, and omnipotent to do what seemed best in his sight” (p. 197).

Did ever mother run more quickly to protect her crying child in danger’s hour, than the Lord Jesus hastens to answer believing prayer and send help to His servants in His own good time and way, so far as it shall be for His glory and their good? (p. 164, emphasis added)

Paton taught his helpers to pray this way as well, and we hear the same faith and prayer in Abraham, his trustworthy Aneityumese servant.

O Lord, our Heavenly Father, they have murdered Thy servants on Erromanga. They have banished the Aneityumese from dark Tanna. And now they want to kill Missi Paton and me. Our great King, protect us, and make their hearts soft and sweet to Thy Worship. Or, if they are permitted to kill us, do not Thou hate us, but wash us in the blood of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ. . . . Make us two and all Thy servants strong for Thee and for Thy Worship; and if they kill us now, let us die together in Thy good work, like Thy servants Missi Gordon the man and Missi Gordon the woman. (p. 171)