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Angelic Bodyguards

The Rev. John Paton and his wife were pioneering missionaries in the New Hebrides, in the South Pacific. One night, hostile natives surrounded the mission station where the Patons lived. It appeared they were ready to set fire to the building and kill them.

The missionaries prayed all night. In the morning, they were surprised to discover that the attackers had left.

A year later, the chief of the tribe had become a Christian. Mr. Paton asked him, "What happened that night your warriors surrounded my house?"

The old chief asked, "Who were those men you had with you that night?"

Paton replied, "There were no men. Only my wife and I."

"No," the chief insisted. "We saw hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords. They circled your building. We could not attack."

This sounds, at first hearing, like a thrilling story that's well worth the telling (in fact, preachers as eminent as Billy Graham have used it in their books).  The folks at Snopes.com have tried to track down its origins, and have found examples of it in several variations.  Sometimes it's the Patons in the South Pacific, other times it's the Higgens among the Mau Maus in Africa, still other times it happened to a missionary named J.O. Sanders, traveling a bandit-infested country road in China.

There's even been a version circulating on the internet in recent years, that casts as its protagonist a young woman miraculously saved from a rapist.

Was there an original version from which the others sprang?  Hard to say.  Whatever the case, the concluding assessment of the Snopes.com researchers is sobering: "The Christian commandment about not bearing false witness just isn't getting the mileage it used to."