Personal Recollections of British Burma and Its Church Mission Work in 1878-79.
by the Right Rev. J. H. Titcomb, D.D.
First Bishop of Rangoon
Continuation of Rangoon Missions--The Tamils--Native sub-deacon and congregation--Welcome to the Bishop--The Chinese--Anxiety for Baptism--Admission of forty-two converts into the Church of Christ --Pledges of sincerity.
STILL supposed to be in Rangoon, we shall now survey two other fields of Missionary labour.
Of the Tamils I have already spoken. They are a tolerably large body, chiefly belonging to the poorer classes, occupying the position of household servants and gharrie drivers. Among these I found an active, well-trained, and most useful catechist and sub-deacon, named Samuel Abishekanathan, who spoke and wrote English both fluently and grammatically. As a race, indeed, I think the Tamils have a wonderful linguistic faculty, very often learning three languages with great facility. It is the fashion throughout Burma to run. down this people as miserably degraded and ignoble, yet without reason. For though doubtless, many of them are immigrants of the lowest class from Madras, and even the best of them are deficient in that moral and physical strength which mark the races of Europe, they nevertheless retain remnant roots of a stock which many centuries ago held sway over the greater part of Southern India, where they exercised imperial power. Be that as it may, they are proved by experience to be capable of receiving the truths of Christianity, and are not without excellent points of character. Among these may be named trustfulness, gentleness, and warmhearted affection, to all of which I can bear my personal testimony.
These converts, with their sub-deacon, were at the time of which I speak, placed under the superintendence of the Rev. Mr. Colbeck; that charge having been assigned him by the present Bishop of Calcutta before my arrival in the country. Having no church of their own, their services were held in the cantonment and pro-cathedral churches, morning and afternoon alternately; an arrangement so exceedingly inconvenient to all parties concerned that plans were already being entertained for raising funds to build them a church, and toward which they had already subscribed among themselves the sum of 1,000 rupees. This is called the St. Gabriel's Mission, in contrast with that of Kemmendine, which is named the St. Michael's Mission. It numbered at that time about 130 converts, including children.
One of my first recollections of this interesting Mission was a visit I received from a deputation which waited upon me during our residence in the Guest House. It was introduced by Mr. Colbeck, and consisted of both men and women, with Abishekanathan the sub-deacon at their head. Their object was to read me an address (in English) expressing their welcome of the Bishop who had come to live among them; which done, they presented me with flowers, and then sang several hymns in Tamil words, and to weird-like Tamil tunes. Soon after this I had frequent opportunities of taking part in their church services, and of celebrating Holy Communion among them; also of preaching to them through Abishekanathan as my interpreter. On those occasions the communicants generally numbered about thirty, and the congregation about eighty.
Another, and in some respects more interesting department of Missionary labour, was an effort which had been lately commenced among some of the Chinese settlers in Rangoon. I have already mentioned the existence of these immigrants as an element of our city population. I should now state that, for two or three years past a Burmese Christian lady had, at her own cost, been paying for the services of a Chinese catechist, by whose labours a goodly number had been brought to an earnest state of inquiry into Christianity. Most of these lived six miles from Rangoon, where they followed the occupation of agriculturists. Notwithstanding this distance there were generally forty of them every Sunday at our eleven o'clock service, held in St. John's College Chapel, especially for their benefit. The addresses, which Dr. Marks on such occasions gave them in Burmese, were interpreted by the catechist sentence after sentence. Sometimes I preached to them myself, but in that case the operation was both longer and more complicated; for, in the first place, my own English had to be put into Burmese by Dr. Marks, and then his Burmese repetition of it into Chinese by the catechist. I could not but feel, however, that even this circuitous process of evangelisation was a very great privilege, and one which satisfied the desires of my heart; for, surely some words of truth, and some testimony to the work and person of our blessed Redeemer must have thus filtered slowly into their souls.
Added to this, I must not omit to mention that Dr. Marks, with the most indefatigable zeal, was in the habit of collecting these Chinamen for week-day instruction, teaching them very carefully the doctrines of the Christian faith through the clauses of the Apostles' Creed; the repetition of this Creed by their united and loud, yet harsh voices, being singularly striking. I should almost say that it bordered on the ludicrous, were it not that in a matter so sacred one can scarcely indulge in any feeling of levity.
All this time the anxiety of the men for baptism was becoming increasingly determined. Up to that moment, Dr. Marks, with great prudence, had resisted their importunity, lest rashness in the matter might foster false or ignorant professions. Moreover, we were without either Bibles or prayer-books in Chinese. They had been sent for from Canton, but, as yet, they had not arrived. At length a circumstance happened which seemed to make further delay unjustifiable. The report reached us that these men had vindicated their fitness for the sacrament of holy baptism by having torn down from their own homes--and that quite of their own accord--every household god, and every mark of their old idolatry. On hearing this, I requested Messrs. Marks and Colbeck to visit their homes and discover how far the tale was true. They found it just as it had been reported. Meeting our Chinese friends therefore, on the following Sunday, I asked them at the close of their service a series of solemn questions, with a view to test their sincerity; among other things, whether they would support a, Chinese clergyman of their own, supposing I could obtain one from China to minister to them. The reply in the affirmative was unanimous, and, in giving it, intense joy lit up every face. Still we were in no hurry to pass the Rubicon of Baptism, from which there could be no retreat. One by one, they were taken in charge by Dr. Marks, and were again instructed and examined, in order that nothing might be left undone to secure their efficient preparation.
At length the eventful day arrived when, in the Pro-Cathedral Church, it was my inexpressible privilege to admit thirty-six of these men within the fold of Christ. They were led in couples to the font by the catechist, who repeated after me the appointed interrogatories in Chinese, and then announced me their names. A sermon was afterwards preached to the congregation (amongst whom was our new Chief Commissioner, C. U. Aitcheson, Esq.) explanatory of all the circumstances and commending these disciples of Christ to their prayers. Such a sight had never before been seen in British Burma, and naturally excited great interest. It was, of course, very natural that many persons should be incredulous, and tell us we were being deceived. Even in vouching our belief to the contrary, we could only do so in fear and trembling. At all events, no one could have taken greater pains to test the sincerity of the catechumens, and, in one very practical manner, it was evidenced beyond a doubt. For, not only had these men never once asked of us a single favour, or begged one anna piece, but Sunday after Sunday they had even been in the habit of regularly contributing to the offertories of St. John's College Chapel. In the face of all these encouragements, therefore, how could we resist their entreaties? Might we not be quenching God's Spirit? We felt that it would be better, with St. Philip, blindly to baptise a Simon Magus, than, in the spirit of open unbelief, to reject a single soul which had been really called to Himself by the Good Shepherd.
Since that time six more Chinamen have been baptised, making forty-two altogether. Besides which we have received our long-looked-for box of Chinese Bibles and prayer-books. I am sorry to add, however, that the Bishop of Victoria, to whom I had applied for a Chinese pastor, wrote saying that it was impossible for him to comply with the request. I felt, consequently, that we should be more than ever thrown upon the strength of our Heavenly Father, and that, under His all-wise and gracious guidance, we must endeavour to train up one of these men themselves for ordination. At any rate, we have thus laid the foundation of a Chinese Mission in Rangoon, which, I trust, by God's blessing, may result in the salvation of many precious souls. We must expect to have some backsliders. Did not the Apostles themselves discover such? Yet I cannot believe that, alter all our prayers and labours and deep earnestness of soul, there will not be a few who shall be found at last to the praise and glory of God "in the day of the Lord's appearing."