Broken Hill to Port Lincoln
Ralph was born in Adelaide on March 7th 1928 to Edward (Ted) and Sylvia, a younger brother to Lionel. Soon after Ralph’s birth, the family moved to Port Lincoln, where they lived for many years. Ralph’s memories of Port Lincoln involved fishing, camping, and holidays to Coffin Bay.
Ralph’s generation were profoundly affected by two catastrophic events. The unrestrained boom of the 1920s shuddered to a stop and ushered in an unprecedented decade of austerity, followed by the biggest and deadliest war in human history. Ralph’s generation, known as the ‘builder’ generation, were frugal and devoted to a life of service, sacrifice and working for the common good. These values became the hallmarks of Ralph’s life.
Ralph moved to Adelaide in 1947 to train at the Methodist Home Missions at the age of 19. From 1947 to 1955 he was a Methodist ‘circuit rider’. He rode a WW2 Harley Davidson and served in towns such as Nangkita, Balaklava, Unley, Bordertown Melrose and Booleroo. He was a candidate for Ministry in 1949 and studied history and philosophy at Adelaide University.
In Adelaide, Ralph met Margaret, the younger sister of fellow pastoral trainee Allan Davis. He was quickly smitten, in awe of this beautiful vision who was, in his mind, a genius at university, majoring in Latin and French. The friendship with Margaret soon turned to romance and continued through Ralph’s early ministry years.
1956 was a big year for Ralph and Margaret. They married at the Maughan Methodist church in Adelaide on 7th January, and Ralph was ordained in the Kent Street Methodist Church in Adelaide.
Off to PNG
The Mission Board in Sydney appointed Ralph and Margaret to the Papuan Islands Region as teaching staff for the new Wesley High School being built at Salamo, on Fergusson Island, in the Milne Bay Province. Margaret was already a secondary school teacher, and the Board required Ralph to complete a Diploma of Education which he did at Sydney Teachers College. They set off on the good ship Malekula from Pyrmont during Christmas 1956, sailing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, heading for Papua New Guinea. How they must have felt that day! They arrived in Salamo on 7th January 1957, the date of their first wedding anniversary.
Early PNG years
Wesley High School at Salamo opened in 1958. Ralph initially taught in English, but on weekends his work in surrounding villages required knowledge of the Dobu language, spoken by the church for its village work and official meetings. After three years, Ralph transferred to Dobu Island as superintendent of the Dobu Circuit. He became fluent in Dobu, and before long was the Papua Synod’s official translator for church meetings. He also translated Dobu speeches for English hearers, and English speeches into Dobu for indigenous hearers.
After a few years at Salamo, Ralph and Margaret were further challenged with two children, Jenny in 1958 and Doug in 1961.
Ralph transferred to Kiriwina in 1961, and his family followed in 1962. The family expanded in 1964 when David was born.
Ralph’s responsibilities included caring for a mission station; managing 40 Papuan staff, their village churches and buildings; repairing buildings and building new ones; maintaining vehicles including a boat; the upkeep of a small herd of cattle and a coconut plantation; and finance. His duty to patrol 15,000 square kilometres of sea caused him to be absent from home sometimes for 24 weeks each year.
Ralph’s fluency in Dobu, also known to some Kiriwina people, helped him learn the Kiriwina language. He began to collect Kiriwina words with the same enthusiasm he employed in collecting stamps. After five weeks, he was using Kiriwinan to work effectively with village churches and pastoral staff.
Ralph was challenged and fascinated by the cultural and linguistic complexities around him. Soon after arriving at Kiriwina he realised the need for Kiriwina language material, and so Ralph’s calling became clear: he was to translate the Bible. He formed a committee of church leaders and the long process began. For this work, Ralph compiled word lists which expanded in size and complexity as the years went by, and ultimately formed the basis of his bi-lingual English-Kiriwina dictionary.
The Canberra Years
The Lawton family moved to Canberra in 1973 so Ralph could study linguistics at Australia National University. They stayed several more years so Ralph could complete a Masters in linguistics, awarded in 1980. The move from tribal Kiriwina to the sophisticated suburbs of Canberra was challenging and unsettling for the family, with three children attending primary and high schools. Margaret joined the Bible Society’s translation department in Canberra, where she worked for the next 25 years.
The translation continues
The translation work continued through this first decade in Canberra, with three-month long field trips to Kiriwina in 1976, 1978 and 1979. In 1978 and 1979 Kiriwina translators also came to Canberra for periods of three months. What a shock the Canberra winter was to them! Since Ralph no longer received a salary, he established a second-hand bookshop in July 1976 ingeniously called Lawton’s Books. This helped fund the translation. Ralph completed the New Testament in 1978 (published by the Bible Society in 1984).
During a visit to Kiriwina in 1978 Ralph was asked to undertake a mammoth task: to translate the Old Testament into Kiriwinan. He took some convincing, but Ralph began work on the Old Testament. This time, he encouraged the Kiriwina people to be their own translators, with help from himself and Canberra support groups. Ralph worked on the Old Testament full time from 1983 to 1987, supported by Lawton’s Books and church groups in Canberra.
Ralph took four trips to Kiriwina between 1983 and 1986. Between each of these trips, a group of Kiriwina translation workers spent a three-month period in Canberra. The team completed the Shorter Old Testament and a revised New Testament in 1994 (published in 1997), and the full Old Testament in 2005. The full Kiriwina Bible was published by the Bible Society of Papua New Guinea in 2011. A joyous dedication celebration on Kiriwina followed in 2012. This festive occasion was attended by church dignitaries from PNG, a large contingent of Lawtons and members of the Yarralumla church congregation. There was much feasting, singing and dancing, and many speeches.
Oldest PHD graduate at ANU
With the translation complete, Ralph resumed his research at Australian National University on Kiriwina lexicography, and at 85 years old, was awarded his PhD in July 2013.
Margaret’s death in December 2014, one month before their 58th anniversary, was a devastating blow for Ralph and the family. Death indeed was a thief. ‘One is surrounded by people wanting to help, and children trying to bear the sorrow with you, but essentially it is a time of loneliness knowing that she has left.’ He carried on with his other love, the Kiriwina Dictionary, and completed a first draft a few years ago before failing eyesight and health issues prevented him from finalising it for publication. However, a few dedicated supporters formatted his work, and a draft printed copy of the dictionary, bound in two volumes, was dropped in his lap as a gift on his 93rd birthday. Happy days!
the great measure of a man
The great measure of the man was further on display in the way he dealt with the hardships of his failing health. For a man to which eyesight meant everything to his enjoyment of life and his much beloved work, his blindness, his lack of mobility and even when COVID restrictions prevented visitors for many months, he still presented as positive and engaged and keen to hear about world events and the people around him. What a GREAT MAN.
His love for Kiriwina and her people was on display until the end. His engagement with Caring for Kiriwina’s activities and the knowledge that the work of this charity helping the Kiriwinan people still continues provided him with a source of strength and great comfort. This is also his legacy.
Ralph ran his race well
He served a greater good and laid down his life for his call. He loved God, he loved God’s Word. Ralph left a legacy of the Bible and dictionary as a gift to the people of Kiriwina that will remain for generations.
Ralph’s children are as proud as punch to have been included in his life of perseverance, devotion, and service. Our loss is heaven’s gain, as the angels of heaven get ready to receive another son. Well done, good and faithful servant.