Project Canterbury

Tucker of Uganda, Artist and Apostle 1849-1914

By Arthur P. Shepherd

London: Student Christian Movement, 1929.

Chapter III. Great Decisions

IN the autumn of 1878 Alfred Tucker went on a tour to Warwick and Oxford. His pictures were selling well, and the possibility of marriage was beginning to seem nearer at hand. But Oxford, that city of dreams and ideals, stirred more than his artistic instincts and filled him with questionings and unrest that changed his whole life.

Thirty years later Canon Christopher was still an influence on the undergraduate life of Oxford; in 1878 he was at the height of his power. He was the vicar of St Aldate's, Oxford, and in addition to his parochial work he took the keenest interest in varsity life. Not only did he hold Bible-classes for undergraduates, but his house was a social centre of their life, and he made the needs of his parish a constant challenge to their spirit of service. Tucker had obtained introductions to several undergraduates, and owing to his personal charm and artistic ability had been admitted to various university circles. He was a regular attendant at Mr Christopher's Saturday evenings for varsity men, and a helper at the open-air services on Sunday evenings at the Martyrs' Memorial. Before long he had a district in Mr Christopher's parish, which he visited in his spare time.

The squalor of the slums of Oxford, in painful contrast to the beauty of its colleges and the culture and happiness of its scholastic life, deeply impressed the young artist with his passionate sense of human need, and questionings stirred within him as to whether the highest call to him was to devote his life to art. Common sense told him that he was twenty-nine, just making a success of his profession, and above all hoping shortly to be married, and that any other career was impossible--but his heart was not silenced.

When he came home to Langdale for Christmas, he told his fiancée what he had seen and done at Oxford. When he spoke of his friendship with Mr Christopher and of the work he had done with him, Josephine Sim was struc: by the eagerness in his voice. Suddenly she asked him if he had ever thought of taking Holy Orders.

"Yes," he replied, "I have thought of it many times, but it is impossible."


"It would mean delaying our marriage at least three years. I should have to take a degree, and it would be unwise to be married as an undergraduate. No, it is out of the question."

There was silence for a few moments and then she said, "If what you have felt is a direct call to take up other work, nothing must stand in the way. We must wait."

Many times they talked it over, until at last, encouraged by Miss Sim's unselfish advice, Tucker determined to make an attempt to qualify for the calling of a clergyman. From his father and brothers the idea met with great opposition. His father was proud of his son's artistic ability and regarded it as wrong that such talent should be neglected.

But Alfred Tucker's mind was made up, and backed by his fiancee he began immediately to plan his future, determining to support himself at the university by his art. He returned at once to Oxford and for nine months painted and studied by turns. He was still in the closest touch with Mr Christopher and also with university life through his many undergraduate friends, and was even invited to take part at any time in the practice games of the Varsity Rugby Union Football Club--an almost unprecedented compliment. But Tucker had not much time for games. He knew no Greek and had known little of the discipline of continuous book work since he was thirteen, and his time was spent between reading and painting for his living, what leisure he had being given to Mr Christopher's poor. But whatever he was doing, he was happy. One of his life-long friends who met him at this time writes:

It was about the end of the seventies that I first saw Alfred Tucker in Oxford. He was sitting on a camp-stool in the "High" sketching the Laudian Gate of St Mary's. I made some excuse to speak to him. His frank and genial smile encouraged further advances and the attraction I felt towards him ripened into a friendship that lasted close on forty years.

In the autumn of 1879 he successfully matriculated and entered upon his career at Oxford as a non-collegiate: The next three years at Oxford passed much as the previous months had done, the time being divided between working for his degree and painting for a living. He made many friends, especially among those whom he met at Mr Christopher's.

All the money saved to provide a home for his bride was spent, and often he was not far from his last few pounds. Then a picture had to be painted and sold--and fortunately they sold well: "the cruse of oil" his fiancee called it. One of his pictures, a black-and-white drawing of Christ Church, was hung in the Royal Academy. There were times when the pressure of things and the alteration of his plans brought a fit of depression, but it never lasted long. A long walk or a stiff pull on the river, and he was himself again.

During these years the interest first began to lay hold on him that afterwards became his life. There was considerable keenness at Oxford about missionary work, particularly in Africa. Twenty years before, Livingstone had made a special appeal to the universities, and the Universities' Mission to Central Africa had been the result. That interest had been fanned by the heroic tales of the first band that had gone out to Uganda, and Tucker's instinct of service responded to it. He had no thought as yet of going abroad, but he joined Bishop French's Society of Mission Associates.

In the autumn of 1881 he became attached to Christ Church, and in June 1882 he took his Pass degree. On account of his ability he was advised to stay for another year and take Honours, but he would not keep his fiancee waiting any longer, and he was anxious, too, to get to his work. On October 20th they were married and spent their honeymoon at Rouen and Caen.

On December 21st, 1882, Tucker was ordained deacon in Gloucester Cathedral to the curacy of St Andrew the Less, Clifton, under the Rev. E. P. Hathaway. As might have been expected, he threw himself heart and soul into parochial work. No part of it was neglected. His parish was for the most part a poor one, and soon Tucker's sturdy figure was known in and out of the houses. His cheery smile and good temper made many friends, but he was quite uncompromising where his convictions were concerned. He was still a great temperance advocate and was not infrequently to be found in a public-house, in keen argument with the publican as to the right or wrong of serving drink to an intoxicated man.

In January 1885 Mr Hathaway resigned, and Tucker left Clifton for the parish of St Nicholas, Durham, under the Rev. H. E. Fox, afterwards honorary secretary of the Church Missionary Society. This parish, like the former, was keenly missionary, but it was not till he had been a year in Durham that the question occurred to Tucker as to whether he ought himself to go abroad. His age, the fact that he was married, and that he had sacrificed a career under a deep sense of vocation to spiritual work in England, had kept his mind from thinking of any other sphere of work.

Had anyone told me a few years ago [he wrote to Mr Hathaway in March 1886] that I should probably one day find myself contemplating missionary work, I should have been utterly incredulous.

But the years 1885-1886 were years when the heroism and romance of the Uganda mission were only equalled by its calamitous disasters. Converts were being massacred in the bitter persecution of Mwanga; Mackay and Ashe were alone in Uganda; and then to crown all came the murder of Bishop Hannington on the border of Busoga.

It was just such a call as would stir Alfred Tucker's heart: lost causes and desperate odds had always appealed to him in games and work.

He wrote to Mr Hathaway, who then and for many years afterwards was his confidant and adviser in all his deepest concerns:

I have it in my heart to offer myself to the C.M.S. and specially if God should make the way clear for service in Africa. . . . Interest in missionary work I have had for many years. . . . The events of the last few months in the missionary world and the death of Bishop Hannington have brought it to a culminating point. . . . The watchword "Africa for Christ" is ringing in my cars continually.

It was no light decision for Tucker and his brave wife to make. Already they had sacrificed three years of married life that he might respond to the call to the ministry, they had only been married three and a half years, and now they were prepared to be parted again that Tucker might go on a forlorn hope, which had cost the lives of most of his predecessors. Yet so keenly were they pressing on the path of service that they felt it almost a hardship to be prevented.

"If God as a trial of faith should keep me back," he wrote, "both my wife and I are ready to say 'Thy Will be done.' "

He was kept back. Having written to his father and mother as to his intentions he went over to Windermere to see them and found, to his dismay, that his father had been severely shaken by the news.

My brothers told me [he writes] they honestly believed that the parting from me would bring about an utter breakdown of his health. I felt this was decisive and that it could not be God's will that I should proceed further. Surely God leadeth me strangely. . . . Still I would not willingly be without the teaching and discipline of the last few months. If God has a work for me to do in the mission field He will I doubt not make it plain and call me to it in His own good time.

Four years later the call came to him again. Events had moved rapidly in Africa: Bishop Parker, Hannington's successor, had died before reaching Uganda, Uganda itself was convulsed by plot and counterplot, and a ringing call had come from Mackay in his lonely exile at the south of the lake to send out reinforcements.

On January 13th, 1890, Tucker wrote to his old friend:

I think I told you how strongly Mackay's appeal has come home to me. I have been waiting and working quietly for the last four years, wondering if ever the question would be reopened. Of course the original difficulty--the health and objections of my father--still remains. But I feel that the first shock having been got over, the difficulty has in proportion grown less insurmountable.

By this time a baby boy had been born to the Tuckers, but none the less Tucker's heart was always hankering after Africa.

These bells of the old cathedral [he told his wife] have been sounding the Gospel for a thousand years, and I want to go and tell a people who have never heard. I have only one life to live and I am daily growing older.

He wrote therefore to Mr Eugene Stock at the Church Missionary Society to ask whether there was anything he could do for God in Africa. This letter, intended as an inquiry, was regarded as an offer and as such was eagerly accepted. After an interview in London, Tucker was asked to take the leadership of the party which had already started for Uganda, and which he would overtake at Mombasa. All his instincts of organization and initiative rose to this offer; and having obtained his father's consent, he accepted it. A letter to Mr Hathaway, telling of the offer, reveals how already he had made himself familiar with the situation and had grasped its essentials with that quickness that was afterwards such a mark of his statesmanship.

I believe that humanly speaking the future spiritual welfare of Africa depends entirely on the use which is now made of the present opportunities. . . . Trade will rush in, I believe, at a tremendous rate and if Christianity does not precede it, woe to Africa.

He gives, too, an unusual and interesting reason for feeling the call to Africa: "God has given me physical strength beyond most men. At present I feel it is not being used to the uttermost." For twenty years he consecrated that strength to God with amazing success.

Meanwhile the question had been raised as to whether he was not the man to nil the vacancy caused two years before by the death of Bishop Parker. [Alexander Mackay, the leader of the mission in Africa, was, of course, a layman.] His name was submitted to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who immediately accepted it. Tucker was amazed and bewildered by the offer. He writes:

I am humbled to the dust. I can only cry to God in what is little else than an agony of mind and soul, "Who and what am I that I should put my hand to this work."
A busy six weeks of preparation followed, and baby were to be left behind.

It will be manifestly impossible [he wrote] for her to attempt to accompany me on such an expedition. . . . She is therefore willing for the purpose of this expedition that she should remain here until its termination and then join me at Freretown.

It was perhaps easier for him that he did not know then that he was really saying good-bye to home life, except on his furloughs, for twenty years.

St Mark's Day, April 25th, was the day fixed for his consecration, and well before then his luggage had started on the boat for Africa. That morning he was consecrated Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Lambeth Parish Church, and the same night he waved farewell to his wife on the Dover packet and was off on his dash across Europe to join the boat at Brindisi. For the second time they had both ungrudgingly made a tremendous sacrifice in obedience to the call of God, this time to a perilous adventure.

It was the hour of Africa's desperate need. Fourteen years before to the very day on which Tucker was consecrated, Alexander Mackay had said farewell to the committee at Salisbury Square. For almost the whole of those fourteen years, without one furlough, he had borne the burden of the leadership of the mission. Two months before, his gallant soul had slipped from his worn-out body in the grass-thatched hut at Usambiro, on the southern shore of the Great Lake.

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