Project Canterbury

The Life of Charles Alan Smythies
Bishop of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa

By Gertrude Ward

Edited by Edward Francis Russell, M.A.

London: Offices of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa, 1899.


To this record of Bishop Smythies' ten years' episcopate is added the testimony of some who knew him and worked under him in Africa. Archdeacon Maples, who had often accompanied him on his journeys, who had watched the Nyasa work grow under his guidance, and who himself did not long survive his great leader, in an English sermon preached to the Likoma staff a few days after the startling news of his death had reached them, spoke as follows:

No one, I think, who knew our late Bishop even a little would dispute the fact that he certainly was endowed largely with that quality which ranks as almost the greatest essential in one called to such work as his--I mean zeal. It struck one at once, his zeal for God. He had a burning zeal certainly for the extension of the Church and for the gathering into it of all whom he met who were outside, and this too only because he had a burning zeal for God's glory, which he knew it was given to him to strive to promote in this particular way. . . . This zeal of his was manifest, I think, in all that he did. We can never forget how laboriously he spent each day, how untiring was his energy, how indomitable his perseverance; how attentive to minute details, how mindful of everything, how determined (if I may use the colloquialism) to let nothing slide, how unwilling to let anything take its own way--and all this throughout the whole of his episcopate, and, I suppose we may say it, to the very last. . . . Responsibilities, powers, authority, all were to be wielded, exercised, made use of to the very utmost, for the furtherance of the great work he had been called to preside over. So it was he brought to bear upon every department of his work, and upon every person connected therewith, the push and impulse and compulsion (one must even say) that came of his own zeal, so ardent and lofty and persistent and lasting as we all confess it to have been. He was a man--all who knew him well could not doubt it--who set before himself the highest ideal, and to him this ideal was (as we have been recently told to regard ideals) the very soul of his life and actions. God gave him along with his other endowments the power of never losing sight of his ideal. He gave him noble thoughts and views of his office and position amongst us, and the Bishop trusted them, clung to them, and translated them, one after another, all into action.

Let me illustrate by personal observation of his ways and habits some of those points in his character which, as I have said, constitute the claim made for him--he would not have made it himself certainly--to have been a really great missionary Bishop.

One recalls what he was on a journey, and how thoroughly he determined never to let the tediousness of travel or the weariness of it be an excuse for laxity as regards the great business of his life. Enjoying to the full the variety of the scenery as he took his course now along the valley of the Rovuma or Lujenda, now over the mountains in the Gwangwara country, now on the Makonde plateau or among the Masasi hills; fully alive to the interest that lay in bird and beast and flower, with a keen natural liking for such sport as chanced to fall in his way; still, when one was with him one never found that any of these things either absorbed him or occupied his chief attention even at times when it seemed little opportunity was afforded him for prosecuting those duties of his office which he ever regarded as his chief care. One was struck again and again, after perhaps a walk of twelve miles or so, how very little time during the midday halt he would give to absolute leisure: a rest of a quarter of an hour or so perhaps, and then the whole of the remainder of the three hours, ere the walk was resumed again in the afternoon, would be given up to devotion and study. He travelled with a sit-up chair and a table, that he might not be tempted to yield to the desire to spend an hour or two on his back in mere listless reading or sleep. He read his office and then some devotional book, and then perhaps a stiff theological volume, and then he would write and plan and prepare for future addresses and Retreats; or if we stopped where there was a village and people to be talked to, he rarely if ever failed to engage profitably in conversation with the people--profitably for their souls I mean--employing an interpreter, by which means he was able to instruct or preach a little to them, and none of this was done in a desultory or dilettante way. [Bishop Smythies once said to an old member of the Mission that he had at times a sort of dread of preaching to heathen, a shrinking fear of introducing to these crude minds the solemnities of heavenly things.] He had made a rule for himself in the matter, and he zealously and assiduously followed it, times out of number putting to shame the carelessness of some of us who have travelled with him at different times, who allowed ourselves to look upon a journey as a time when we might indulge in a kind of leisure we should have been ashamed to give way to when at the daily routine of life at a station.

Then, too, he was a fine example in a way which itself is a great mark of earnestness and devotion to duty, for it was characteristic of him that he would never, as I have said, let things slide; to him nothing was insignificant, nothing but what had its own importance, nothing so small, if a matter of moral or spiritual concern, but what demanded careful attention and arrangement. You will remember no doubt a familiar definition of genius as being 'an infinite capacity for taking pains,' and you will doubtless have often seen it noticed as a distinguishing mark of greatness, 'attention to details.' In largest measure these two qualities belonged to Bishop Smythies. No man more painstaking than he, no man (we know it to our own annoyance very often) more attentive to details. How often do I not remember occasions when a matter that appeared to me of no consequence was taken up by him as one of most serious import; how he would return to it again and again, his busy, earnest mind never set at rest about it until he had found some solution of what appeared to him as a thing he must get changed or put to rights! Yes, he had 'an infinite capacity for taking pains.'

And then how courageous he was, how entirely free from anything like pusillanimity; he may have changed, nay, he did change, his opinion not unfrequently on this or that subject, this or that question of policy, but whatever his convictions were, at whatever time, he was always absolutely true to them. . . . When once his mind was made up he hesitated not a moment; what he felt to be right to do he did; above all things he scorned for himself inaction, or, as I have already said, letting things take their own course. Thus as we mentally review, as one or two of us are able to do, nearly every station in the Mission and nearly all of the various departments of work, we see how visible everywhere was the touch of his hand and the reach of his influence, revising, rearranging, impelling, restraining, strengthening, enforcing, developing--and now all that has suddenly ceased; the work goes on indeed as before, but it must go on without the guidance and direction and control of that busy mind, that strong, firm will, that zealous spirit at the head of it all.

Time would fail me were I to do what would not be difficult, to dwell on another and yet another of those high gifts and endowments of his which bore so much fruit, and gave such an impetus to the work of our Mission all along the lines during the time over which his episcopate extended. . . . Yet there is one more word we would not leave unsaid when trying to gather up the lessons of his life. Bishop Smythies .... lived daily and hourly in the fear and love of God. He was eminently spiritual, one whose conversation--I use the word of course in its older sense--was truly in heaven, in-spite of all his distractions, his daily anxieties, worries, and perplexities. He said to me once, quite simply, 'I have always found a great facility in preaching.' Yes, and we who have listened to his Retreat addresses and his earnest, telling sermons could tell the secret of this: sermons came easy to him because his thoughts and affections seldom wandered far from the subjects out of which good sermons are made. One of the busiest men and most taken up with dealing with his fellow-men in endless talks, reasonings, persuasions, exhortations, he nevertheless maintained that best of all mental attitudes for a man to cultivate who wishes to conquer the world and its allurements--the spirit of detachment. And, if we may say it, one could hardly help noticing how his spiritual life grew and developed, how weaknesses we seemed to see in him in the earlier years of his episcopate in great measure vanished as time went on, giving place to fresh accessions of spiritual strength that came to him, we may not doubt it, in answer to his steadily maintained devotions and his earnest daily prayers.

Archdeacon Jones-Bateman, who had met the Bishop on his first arrival in Zanzibar, and survived him by three and a half years, wrote the following account, based upon the observation and intimate knowledge of ten years:

Greatness is what recurs to me constantly as his most marked characteristic. One never knew Bishop Smythies 'little' in any sense. His greatest power in some ways was his power spiritual. Certainly his Retreats--notably the first one he ever held--were very powerful and helpful, and made a life-long difference to many, I believe. Looking back, one marvels now how he so ably handled his first synod, though only six weeks after his arrival, and we all found we had a real leader. He was fired with an intense desire to deepen the spiritual life of all he came in contact with. It was specially marked in the persistent and persuasive way in which he urged on people the untold value to themselves and to their work of the systematic use of sacramental confession. The natives, too, specially recognised greatness in him. Partly, no doubt, his bodily presence impressed them, but he had a way of taking for granted that people would do what he wished, Native chiefs almost always paid him great respect, and he spoke very plainly indeed to many, even to lawless men like Machemba, who had robbed our Mission caravan, and his fearlessness and his warning that Machemba had robbed God, not man, had its effect. ... I was present when the English Consul-General urged him to evacuate Magila because the troubles of war constituted a certain amount of risk to the lives of the missionaries ministering there. Without a moment's hesitation, with a clear grasp of the great principle involved, he answered, 'I should never lift up my head again if I did.' 'Well, please put that in writing,' said the Consul-General. 'Certainly,' replied the Bishop. And we stayed there, and the Church at home said, 'Well done.'

He had a wonderful power of keeping in view a great principle, and refusing to be moved by any pressure of temporary expediency. It often happened, when the exigency of a growing work or the sudden illness of workers left posts unmanned, that the difficulty could be solved by hastily appointing some native teacher as reader, or making some layman deacon, or ordaining some deacon (native or English) priest. But he would never do it unless, quite apart from all pressure of circumstances, he was sure of the man's vocation and preparedness for the office. 'At whatever cost,' were words often on his tongue, urging the practical carrying out of principles which were all-important. It was the same with the question of the re-marriage of the 'innocent party' (though after attending the Pan-Anglican Conference in 1888 he partially relaxed in one or two cases): 'No permission of mine can make adultery not adultery, or make marriage what is not marriage,' though hardly anywhere in the Church more than with us could apparently cogent reasons be proffered, for such dispensations.

His individual attention to people of all kinds, white and black, was very marked, especially when he wanted to get them to set things in a different light. I never knew him shirk a disagreeable duty, though often he knew that an interview he intended to have might be painful or even stormy, and owned to dreading it, yet he always faced it and said all he felt bound to say. And sometimes his persistency won when argument failed.

We noticed during the first year he was with us how he visibly 'grew,' as someone in England expressed it. He got a grasp of things African with extraordinary rapidity, and rapidly learnt to re-adapt himself to African times and conditions. If a line was right it was no matter to him if it was temporarily unpopular; e.g. when the freed slaves in Zanzibar Island had got to expect the Mission to find them work, even if no work needed doing, he said, 'No, they must seek work in town as all their neighbours round about are doing.' And it proved to be as wise a line as it was at the time unpopular. People noted the same in England in his clear adhesion to a great principle. . . .

His power of sympathy with the Africans and the way he rapidly got to understand them was proved by his great personal friendship with many of them. This power was of the greatest possible help to our work at Kiungani, where he constantly stayed and got personally to know all the bigger boys, and was always ready to 'wrestle' with any temporarily wrong-headed or erring member of our school, and often with the happiest results, when all else had failed. Wisdom was what I know he daily prayed for, and, to my thinking, he was granted it in large measure. His statesmanship has been commented on at home; it was equally evident in his large plans for the government, and later on the division, of his huge diocese. His last pastoral, which contained some advice about the very difficult subject of fasting for natives, showed a wonderful wisdom in re-adapting catholic rule to make it real and native in uncontemplated and complicated Africaji conditions, so bringing out of his treasure-house things new and old.

His constant reliance on the help of God found its daily expression in his deep desire to celebrate each day the Holy Eucharist on behalf of the diocese. We shall never know in this world what we owed to those intercessions. One felt it to be the great power at the back of all his lines of work.

Yet with all this greatness and power there were signs sometimes of deep humility and self-accusation. 'Have you forgiven me?' were his first words in private on the day of his first arrival to a worker whom he had pained by writing a severe letter founded on false information. 'I must go back again to Newala,' he said on his last visitation of that district; it would mean a forty-six miles' trudge back over the path he had just come by, and the reason, because he felt that he had shown some irritation or displeasure at something, which had marred the friendliness of the farewell! Did he have some presage that it would be his last?

The letter he left behind for his workers, with his Will, tells the same story--asking their forgiveness if in any cases he had been hasty or lacking in gentleness or forbearance. This request stood 'confirmed' and 'reconfirmed' by his signatures at the end, with progressive dates during the last years of his life, showing that it was his abiding wish, as it was also the abiding proof of his self-watchfulness and constant recollection of the nearness of his call to rest.

The Rev. Godfrey Dale, who worked four years at Mkuzi, and whose knowledge of the Bishop is derived mainly from intercourse with him on the occasions of his annual visitations, writes as follows:

.... The next time I saw Bishop Smythies was at Mkuzi. I can remember little in connection with the visit except the keen interest the Bishop took in everyone and everything, and how good his memory was of the characters and histories of the different converts. It was always a busy time. There were baptisms, confirmations, excommunications, and reconciliations. He would sit up till quite late arranging the ritual of the services. His visit to Mkuzi generally coincided with Palm Sunday, and he was always most particular that the palms should be placed in a particular position over the altar. Very little escaped his notice. I remember how the hours set apart for the girls' school incurred his displeasure, and how wisely he altered them to suit the village duties of the girls, a change which caused a marked improvement in the attendance; and I also recall to mind a visit he paid with me to the chief of a village where we had an out-school. The chief always professed great friendship for us and a great desire to be taught, but it never came to anything. The Bishop gently bantered him, and compared him to a boy preparing for a plunge into the cold water and not having quite sufficient courage to make it. Although his Swahili was never good, his slow and weighty manner of speech had this great advantage, they remembered what he said, and as a rule grasped his point thoroughly. That is what I remember about that visit--making us all work hard and working the hardest himself, saying what was to be done, seeing that it was done, and knowing his own mind.

The next time I saw him, as far as I can recollect, was the following year, on Palm Sunday again. He was very ill, his fingers covered with whitlows. He reached Mkuzi on Saturday evening just before evensong, riding on Arobaini, the splendid Muscat donkey belonging to Magila. He really ought not to have come. He was thin and bent, and looked very grey and very old, with a haggard, worn-out face and a suspicious rim of yellow all round. He nearly fell off his donkey in alighting, from sheer fatigue, and said to me, 'I have come, Dale, but I am afraid I shall not be of much use. I shall not come to evensong; I am too tired. We must discuss things after dinner.' There was a whole year's work to be discussed! Just after evensong and before supper we heard a noise below, and looking out saw a large caravan with two Europeans come for the night quite unexpectedly. Nothing of course was prepared. For the first and only time in his life, I suppose, the Bishop (and no wonder) seemed disinclined to offer hospitality. However, I went down, and, finding that one of the Europeans was an Englishman, came up with him to the Bishop. He seized the Bishop's bad hand and gave it a good English shake, making him wince with pain. We did what we could, and the Bishop's unfailing courtesy overcame his sense of fatigue, and he entertained them both in conversation until nine o'clock. Then we had to settle our affairs for Sunday, and stayed up until eleven before all was finished. On his way down to Zanzibar he stayed at Usagara House in Pangani, and a German told me afterwards that the Bishop was so worn and ill that he fell fast asleep in his chair in the middle of dinner. I accompanied him part of the way to Pangani, and he then broached to me his scheme of a Suffragan Bishop, which eventually ended in the formation of a new diocese. I can see him now at Kakindo, six miles from Mkuzi, under a zambarau tree near a pool covered with beautiful lilac water-lilies, saying his morning office whilst the porters rested and his boy and I got his breakfast ready. . . .

We hardly realised that he was dead at first. It was difficult to believe that we should never see that handsome, kindly face again. . . . I always loved him, and was proud to work under him, and it was only some months after his death that I began to see what a loss it was as the time for his annual visit came round and we knew he would never come. I think of him always as a magnificent man, of kindly face and courtly manners, of deep, ripe judgment, with a wise, discerning heart and a strong, though disciplined will--a born ruler and leader of men. In the annual Retreats we learnt to see something of the strong vigour of the inward man and to feel the influence of his quiet, patient saintliness. The point in his character which I admired, and which helped me most, was his extreme tenderness for those who had sinned and fallen away, and the hopefulness with which he always spoke of the possibility of their repentance; and I remember the deep sadness of his voice when he had had an interview with a promising teacher who had committed some very serious sin: 'They seem to think I can give them permission to do such wicked things!' I suppose few men have known the African so well or loved him better.

August, 1897.

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