TO the veteran missionary now recommencing his missionary work at the age of seventy, an age when most men would have considered their active work finished, many changes were naturally visible--both in conditions of life generally and also in the missionary work carried on. The island of Ceylon had entered upon a new era of prosperity--the result of the "rubber boom." Many thousands of acres were being opened up in the low country for the cultivation of the new product, and this new area added considerably to the task for which the Tamil Coolie Mission considered itself responsible.
New roads were being made, old ones improved, and the railway through the hill country had crept over the summit since 1884, and had reached Bandarawela, the pleasant little town on the Uva uplands. Other lines of railway had been opened, making accessible new tracts of country both to planter and missionary.
What naturally interested "Padre" Rowlands was the tremendous advance to be noted in all branches of missionary effort. Especially was this to be seen in women's work. He himself was the first to get out an unmarried European lady missionary for the Borella schools. Since those days such work had been immensely developed. Another new feature was to be seen in the advance of work among the Tamil people. When he left the island in 1884 the Sinhalese work predominated. Now missionary activity among both Tamils and Sinhalese was approximately equal. Educational work, headed and inspired by the great reconstructional work at Trinity College under "Fraser of Trinity," was making great strides forward, and even on the tea estates provision was being made for the education of Tamil children. In addition, a great advance was being witnessed in the direction of self-support and independence by the Tamil and Sinhalese congregations.
Other changes there were, but not all for the better, as the following letter will show:
"HAPUTALE, December 10, 1908.
". . . Not a day passes, I think I may say, when I do not thank God for allowing me, after such a very long interval, once more to take up my work in the foreign field; and as I look back upon the year which my daughter and I have been permitted to spend in this island, I cannot doubt that it was His guiding hand which disturbed our happy nest at Bonchurch and led us back to Ceylon.
"I have had the pleasure of meeting with a good many old friends among the planters, and the sons and daughters of many others whom I knew well in former years, and nothing could have exceeded the kindness and hospitality I have experienced.
"But while this has been very pleasant, I have seen with great sorrow that the religious tone of the planting community, speaking generally, is decidedly lower than it was twenty-five years ago. There appears to be much less of family religion, and there is certainly less of Sunday observance and of attendance at the House of God. When I left the island in 1884 Sunday labour was a very rare thing, and was only found under circumstances of great pressure. Now it is the rule rather than the exception, and the consequence is that many of the native Christians are prevented from coming to church as frequently as they otherwise would. Nor is this all, but the indifference of their masters seems to react on the employees, and, with a very few bright exceptions, they show very little earnestness and zeal.
"This being the case, it is not surprising that the object of the Tamil Coolie Mission is less appreciated than it used to be, and that planters are less willing to contribute towards its work. It is no uncommon thing to be told, after a few pleasant civilities have passed between you and the man to whom you are paying a visit: * I do not believe in the Tamil Coolie Mission, nor do I think it is doing any good.'
"And yet, in spite of such discouragements, we are able to record an income of Rs 8549.85, an advance of Rs 217.71 upon last year, which, in its turn, was the highest since the year 1883.
"How far the statistics for the whole Mission will give us cause for rejoicing and thankfulness in this respect I do not yet know; but as far as my own division is concerned, I am sadly disappointed. There are, indeed, some bright and very cheering instances at the present time of men and women simply taking God at His word, accepting the offer of salvation made to them through Jesus Christ, and finding, in so doing, a joy to which they were before quite strangers. But only twenty-one adults have been baptized during the year in the Southern division, and there are at present only twenty-one candidates for baptism under instruction. While stating this fact, however, I am deeply conscious that the gospel message is finding its way home to many poor dark hearts; that it is working like leaven in them; and that, when the Holy Spirit is poured out from on high, as we are daily praying that He may be, we shall see a wonderful 'turning to God from idols.'
"The same outpouring of the Holy Spirit is what we need for the professing Christian Church. Our people are very liberal in their gifts for the support of their own pastors and of evangelistic work through the Tamil Missionary Association, as is evidenced by the fact that last year (1907) they contributed Rs 7649 for these and kindred objects; but only a few of them give proof that they recognise the great truth that they were 'saved to serve,' by persevering efforts to bring souls into the fold of Christ.
" . . .1 must urge as strongly as I possibly can the absolute necessity that exists for always maintaining a staff of three men in the Tamil Coolie Mission; with fewer the work cannot be properly superintended, parts of the vast field must be comparatively unreached, and funds must be lost which might otherwise be secured. That this should never be lost sight of is the more important because a new Ordinance has been passed by the Ceylon Government, requiring provision to be made by every estate for the primary education of the children of the Tamil labourers. This Ordinance has already called into existence a large number of new schools, and the number is increasing monthly. A good many of these schools have been entrusted to the care of the Tamil Coolie Mission. We are very glad that it should be so, because our influence is thereby greatly extended; but this also means an immense amount of additional work, which it will be impossible to cope with if, as has so often happened, only two missionaries are left to do what is more than enough work for three."
Undaunted by the fact that of the two junior missionaries whom he found in the Mission on his return, one had already left for England on furlough, the veteran proceeded to renew his friendship with those whom he had known in the old days, and to form new and lasting friendships among the younger generation of planters to whom his name had hitherto been only a tradition.
As Mr. F. Lewis puts it so well: "It made no difference if Mr. Rowlands turned up at a P.D.'s bungalow, where perhaps the worldly goods of his host were more, or if he arrived at the mud-walled shanty of the S.D., or the conductor's house, he not only shone in each, but he was received with more than cordiality, and that the welcome of real affection. Though he entered as a stranger, he never left but as a friend. His magnetic power influenced all alike: the rich or the poor, the well-born gentleman or the coolie's child. If an instance out of many might be recalled, I might venture to record one of a Tamil Kangani who said, after hearing Mr. Rowlands' speech one morning at muster, 'That Padre Dorai (gentleman) does not speak like most men; he speaks like a father to his own children!'"
The following adventure belongs to this period:
Padre Rowlands had arranged to take the services of the Rev. A. L. Keith, the Chaplain of Dimbula, while the latter was in camp at Diyatalawa with the Ceylon Planters' Rifle Corps. This necessitated taking the midday train at Haputale for Kotagala. The time of the train had, however, been altered, and the Padre, who usually did his journeys on his famous pony "Toby," independent of trains, missed it by three-quarters of an hour! No other train was available until 6 p.m., but this stopped at the junction of Nanuoya, over twenty miles short of his destination! What was to be done? The service began at 9 a.m. the following morning, and being Saturday evening, no night mail was running in those days. The South-West monsoon rain was pouring in torrents, and a heavy mist had settled down on the Nanuoya Valley, down which the narrow winding road ran. No hiring cars were available, nor a conveyance of any kind. There was nothing for it but to walk, through the pouring rain, along an unknown road. Once the Padre took a wrong turning, which took him a considerable distance out of his way. Wet to the skin, he reached Lindula shortly after midnight, where he had been told there was a resthouse; but no rest-house was to be found. Instead, he found there a Government dispensary, which was shut. In the verandah of the dispensary the Padre lay down in his wet clothes until the first streaks of dawn, between 5 and 6 a.m. Chilled to the bone, the indomitable veteran continued his journey, and reached Talawakelle Resthouse, where tea, hurriedly prepared, did something to restore his vigour. The arduous journey was continued to within a mile of the church, where a pony, which had been telegraphed for, met him. The Padre arrived at the church a quarter of an hour before service, which he took without changing his wet clothes. His planter friends took him away to breakfast, after which he returned and took the Tamil service in the same church. A rickshaw was provided for the Padre to go on to Lindula, about nine miles, to take the afternoon English service, after which, with the customary hospitality of the planters, he was entertained by one of them for the night. During these ministrations he had never once changed his wet clothes, which had dried on him. A cold was the result--nothing more! This story the Padre related some time afterwards, and then added, with a characteristic flash of the old indomitable spirit: "If you set out to do a thing, and it is at all possible to do it, do it!"
It was in no spirit of boastfulness, but rather of thankfulness, that the veteran missionary, at the close of his long life of service, with its unremitting toil and incessant travelling, during which he sometimes rode three thousand miles on horseback in a year, could record the amazing fact that he had never once failed to keep an engagement!