"The best of thoughts which he hath known
For lack of listeners are not said."
SOME there are who assert that missionary work in the far North is detrimental to all study, owing to the unsettled life and the want of kindred spirits. But Bishop Bompas believed just the reverse, and contended that in the quietness of the great wilds a person, freed from the bustle of the city, could pursue his studies undisturbed.
To the travelling missionary life the Bishop added that of an indefatigable student of no mean ability. An old manuscript note-book which belonged to him gives food for much thought. It is rude and worn, showing most plainly hard usage when brought forth by some Indian camp-fire that he might write down the new words he had acquired during the day. The cover is only a thin piece of oil-cloth, and how often it has shed the rain or snow from the pages beneath! As St. Paul carried about "the parchments" from place to place, so did this faithful apostle of a later day carry with him his rude note-book.
As soon as Mr. Bompas reached Fort Simpson, on that Christmas Day, 1865, he began the study of the Indian language spoken thereabouts, jotting down words here and there, and, according to Mr. Kirkby's testimony, by summer he had made such progress as to be able to converse quite fluently with the natives.
There were several dialects in the region over which he travelled, and to learn these in a short time is proof of no ordinary linguistic ability. Yet we find that between 1870 and 1880 he put forth four Indian primers in as many dialects--the Slavi, Beaver, Dog-Rib, and Tukudh--which were printed by Gilbert and Rivington, of London, and a portion of the Prayer Book (syllabic), in Chipewyan, in conjunction with the Rev. W. W. Kirkby, which was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Then followed a long list of publications showing steady work. In 1880 came forth a "Manual of Devotion, Hymns, Prayers, Catechism, etc.," in Beaver, and in 1882 "Portions of the Prayer Book, adapted to the Slavi," prepared in co-operation with the Rev. W. W. Kirkby, and published by the same society; in 1883 "The Gospels in Slavi," published by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and a vocabulary in manuscript; in 1886 and 1890-1891, with Bishop Reeve, "The Four Gospels, and Acts to Revelation" (syllabic), published by the Bible Society. Besides these, the Bishop produced the Epistles and Revelation, Acts of the Apostles, a hymnal, the New Testament, and Prayer Book, all in Slavi. Though some of these have heen revised, yet they show the lahour performed by this missionary as he travelled from place to place, studying by camp-fires in mid-winter, and in canoes on the great northern streams in summer, contending with the myriads of insects which surrounded him.
But while working at the Indian languages the Bishop was patiently observing everything which came under his notice, and collecting a fund of information concerning the country in general and the customs of the natives. This work was carried on quietly and steadily, and when occasion arose the treasure was stored up ready for immediate use. Whether he intended at first to use his data for publication is not known, but the proverb that necessity is the mother of invention proved true in his case.
Money was needed for the diocese, and he was urged to make an effort to raise funds. To go to England for the purpose was most repugnant to him, on account of the publicity to which he would be exposed, and he mentioned time and time again that this was one of the reasons why he did not wish to leave his field of labour. Then the thought occurred to him that he might "raise money by publishing some account of the country." Even this idea caused him much doubt, for he said: "It is hardly likely that I could write in a style acceptable to a fastidious public, after my long isolation, though I think to try the experiment, which I hope may be a harmless one."
And "try the experiment" he did, with the result that in October, 1888 the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge brought forth his "Diocese of Mackenzie River." This book of 108 pages, containing ten chapters, shows careful observation, and is written in a pleasing style, though one longs for more information concerning the mission-work in the diocese than that contained in one chapter. The book treats of the early explorers, and the work of the Church of England; the inhabitants, their language, dress, and habits; geography, meteorology, fauna, and flora; and closes with a chapter on resources and prospects. Though the book was reviewed in over twenty leading English papers and magazines, for the most part favourably, the sale was not large. By permission of the Society much use has been made of it in this Memoir.
This work was followed in 1892 by "Northern Lights on the Bible," published by J. Nisbet and Co., London, which will be referred to at length in another chapter.
But the Bishop's steadiest and most thoughtful work was the study of the Bible. He maintained that "Scripture studies may be the easiest and most profitable to pursue in the North, as the Bible is oftener close at hand than any other book. It is right also that the far North, as well as every other land, should contribute its quota towards the elucidation of the Sacred Volume."
Here was a man far from refined society, and yet through the pages of Scripture he lived and communed with Kings, Princes, Apostles, and Martyrs; and what greater society could he have? Truth was what the Bishop thirsted for, and the more he studied, the greater became his desire for further knowledge. Greek gave him a thirst for the study of Hebrew, and through these he probed deep into the sacred mine. But still he was not satisfied. He longed for something more, and not until he began the study of Syriac did he reach the haven of his desire. In this new field he revelled, and lost a taste for lighter reading. He wrote enthusiastically to Mrs. Bompas in England:
"I shall bless the day you were born, for two things you have done for me. You sent me my first pair of spectacles when I was getting blind, and so imparted new strength to my bodily eyes; and you sent me the Syriac Testament with Lexicon, and so have let the light of heaven into my darkening mind. I find the Syriac text leads me nearer to God than all the commentaries I have ever read."
The more he studied, the greater were the wonders he discovered, and, writing again to Mrs. Bompas, he said: "It is now almost 400 years since the Nina,, with Columbus on board, brought to listening Europe the tale of the discovery of a new world in the far West, and it may in God's providence be reserved for you to tell the tale of the discovery of a new world of wonders in God's Holy Word, which will, I think, prove the delightful study of God's people for a thousand years to come, and perhaps for a thousand generations. As you sent me the Syriac Testament, which was the seed, you ought first to partake of the fruits. ... If spared to next winter I may (D.V.) be sending home some matter to be printed." [Mrs. Bompas's name is Selina, shortened by her relatives to "Nina," which fact gives point to the Bishop's illustration.]
"I once told you," he wrote on another occasion, "that the name of your natal saint, Matthias, means 'Faith,' and so it has been explained in Hebrew; but in Syriac it appears to mean 'Advent,' or arrival. This is, doubtless, the better explanation, of which I was ignorant till I saw the Syriac Testament you sent me, and therefore I misled you.
"I trust that the wonderful things now coming to light in His Word may be taken to harbinger our Lord's approach and the extension of His kingdom. I trust, also, the pleasure I have been having in these studies may be taken as harbinger for me of the joys of heaven, which I feel must follow them speedily, if ever at all."
There is something grand in the thought of this man, away in the great North in some rude log building, or by a camp-fire, with hardly the bare necessities of life, perfectly indifferent to his surroundings, rejoicing in the Sacred Volume, and discovering so many wonderful things therein.
In 1896 James Pott and Company, of New York, brought forth "The Symmetry of Scripture," a volume of 350 pages. The book contains "Passages of Scripture with Notes," and portions of Scripture systematically arranged from the Old and New Testaments and the Prayer Book. Though most of the work is taken up with translations and rearrangement of texts, yet in the first few pages the Bishop sets forth his discoveries, which gave him such pleasure during the long Northern nights.
Few realized the extent of the Bishop's Biblical labours till after his death, when an old wooden box filled with a mass of manuscripts revealed the secret. It seemed almost irreverent to disturb the collection, and the sight of those old, worn papers tempted the imagination to stray far afield. And what did the old box contain? First, a complete translation of the New Testament from the Syriac, the whole of Genesis, portions of the Psalms, Proverbs, and the Apocrypha, besides a second translation of all the Epistles and Revelation, and much of the Gospels and Acts. ,
On the left-hand side of each page is the Syriac in English characters, with the translation opposite. This latter is rendered in most literal English without note or comment. The following will serve as examples:
ST. MATT. i. 1-4.
"A book of history of the Sovereign Saviour,
Son of Darling, Son of Choice-crowd.
To Choice-crowd was born Smiling,
To Smiling was born Heel.
"To Heel were born Confessor
And his brothers. To Confessor were born
Outburst and Sunrise from Palm-tree.
To Outburst was born Fold,
"To Fold was born Height,
To Height was born Bounty,
To Bounty was born Divining,
To Divining was born Peaceful.'"
ST. MATT. ii. 1-2.
"And while the Saviour was born
In Bread-home of Confessor's land,
In the days of Hero the King,
Came Astrologers from the East
"To Peacesite, and were saying, 'Where
Is the King of the Confessors, who was born?
For we saw His Star in the East,
And we come to bow to Him."
Next, the box contained two complete works in manuscript, showing great labour, prepared for publication. "Scripture Acrostics and Texts of the Bible Reversed and Transposed" is a mass of material closely written on 287 pages of 8 by 10 paper, with directions to print "500 copies in limp cloth, thin paper, to be printed and published at a total cost not exceeding $250.00." It is divided into seven sections dealing with various subjects. First there is a comparison between the Syriac and Greek of the New Testament, with eight arguments in favour of the former. Then follows in alphabetical order lists of ordinary and rare words in the new Testament, with detailed explanations and copious references, showing most careful research.
Section 4 treats of Bible history, while the remaining three consider very fully impugned texts and acrostics of Scripture.
"Scripture Analysed; or, Investigations in the Original Text of the Holy Bible," to which the date 1894 is attached, is a work of 168 pages, divided also into seven sections. "The object of this publication," so runs the preface, "is to establish the fact that the original text of the New Testament is to be found, not in the Greek, but in the Syriac tongue, which was actually spoken by Christ and His Apostles. . . .
"This present publication proceeds to establish that this original and inspired text of the New Testament is found in our present Syriac text, commonly called Peschito, or untranslated text."
The table of contents shows the subjects considered in this book: "Scripture Analysed," "Parallel Passages in the Gospels alike in Syriac and Varied Greek," "Alliterations Initialled," "New Testament Words in the Syriac," "Texts Reversed," "Old and New Testament Texts Analysed."
Such independent research on the part of the Bishop made him rather a severe critic. He had little patience with the popular theological writers of the day, saying that "they pulled the Bible to pieces too much." The Revised Version of 1885 received a share of his severe denunciation. He had waited with much expectation, mingled with anxiety, for the production of this work, and when Mrs. Bompas sent him a copy from England he was much delighted. But, alas! his joy was of short duration, and sadly he wrote:
"I do not write more on the Revised Old Testament, for I dislike it too much to consider longer its dissection, and the most painful part is that I feel it must be taken as an index of a defection from purity. Many of the prophecies are rendered as historical, and some of the most important prophecies of Christ are diverted from application to Him."
It is remarkable, considering his isolation, how the Bishop was conversant with the great Biblical questions of the day, and the arguments of leading scholars. He wielded the pen with great facility, and at times wrote learned articles to Biblical magazines. His essay, written for The Expositor, on his favourite subject, a plea "for a wider study of the Scripture in the Syriac tongue," is written in a pleasing style, and shows most plainly the skill and strength of the master in its execution.
No matter what subject he handled, the standard was always the Divine Word, and every idea had to be squared and fitted to that, or else he would none of it. Through long years of patient study he had "straight got by heart that book to its last page," and knew his ground. In 1900 the Bishop wrote an answer to a pamphlet on "The Unlawfulness of War." In this he gives an exhibition of his strength and versatility in handling the Word of God. We can almost imagine a smile flitting across his face as he proceeded, clearly and logically, to deal with the arguments of his opponent, bringing forth from the great armoury things both new and old to serve his purpose.
This, then, was the man who, steeped in Hebrew and Syriac, and with natural endowments which would have graced a professor's chair, yet was content through long years to minister faithfully to his little flock of untutored Indians. To them he could impart nothing of his grand thoughts, neither did he think to do so. His sermons, whether to Indians or white people, were full of simplicity and beauty. Love formed the warp and woof of each address, a language all could easily understand. Few of his sermons have been preserved. He always spoke from notes, written on a small slip of paper, which, as a rule, served to light his fire on Monday morning. Occasionally he would consider his notes worthy of preservation, and just two months before his death he forwarded those of his sermon, preached on the fifth Sunday in Lent, to the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, with a view to their publication.
The Bishop was fond of giving expression to his thoughts in verse, and he produced several poems of much beauty. In 1873, while travelling with the Indians in the North, he composed 200 lines on "The Loucheux Indians." Not only are these verses very descriptive and clothed in simple language, but a yearning strain pervades the whole poem. He had been labouring among these natives, walking and camping with them for eighty days. He had learned to love them, and in this manner expressed some of the affection he felt. One extract must suffice here as typical of the whole:
"'Neath skies with stars that never set,
But round the pole still circle yet;
Where streamers of magnetic light
Enliven winter's lengthening night;
Where niggard suns must stint their ray,
To spend on climates far away;
There Christian brethren bend their knees
In shelter of the forest trees.
Hearts that with heavenly fervour glow
Are found amid the Arctic snow;
And in the dreadful day of gloom,
When all the world to judgment come;
When, worldly sentence all reversed,
The first are last and last are first;
What if these tribes of sallow face,
Hindermost now of human race,
Their want and poverty lay by
For robes of immortality?"
Twenty years later the Bishop again made a passionate appeal for these Loucheux Indians in a poem entitled "A Plea for the Wild Sheep of the Rocky Mountains." He was Bishop of the Diocese of Selkirk at the time, and longing for workers to man the field. He alludes to poor Sim's death, and the heroic efforts of Archdeacon McDonald, and draws a vivid picture of his own position:
"A Bishop and his flock,
Two thousand zealous converts,
Walled in with mounts of rock.
No churches and no clergy.
Was ever such a sight?
But one chief pastor merely,
In solitary plight."
This poem of twenty-four verses of eight lines each was published in the Church Missionary Gleaner of November, 1893.
Other poems were put forth by the Bishop from time to time. "A God of Stone" is a modern development of Bishop Heber's well-known hymn "From Greenland's icy mountains," and draws a sad contrast between the simple faith of the Christian converts in heathen lands and the agnostic tendencies which prevail so widely in Christian England.
"One of great length, entitled 'The Critic,' deals quaintly, yet forcibly, with the modern criticism of the Bible; another, upon Lot's wife, contains a solemn warning against tampering with 'the pleasures of sin,' and the remainder consist chiefly of parables and leading events recorded in the Gospels, rendered in a versified form." [Church Missionary Intelligencer, June, 1894.]
With this brief sketch we must turn from these "monuments of pathetic labour, tasks patiently fulfilled through slow hours," when, as the Bishop tells us, "it seemed almost as though I saw an angel's hand tracing for me Hebrew sentences, as on the wall of Belshazzar's house." The joy of the scholar was great as he sat in his rude log building soberly among his papers, unheeding the loneliness around him. Some day a worthy and loving hand may arrange that mass of material, and bring it forth for the benefit of mankind. In the meantime the best that those old papers can do for us "is to bid us cast a wistful and loving thought into the past, a little gift of love for the old labourer who wrote so diligently in the forgotten hours, till the weary, failing hand laid down the familiar pen, and soon lay silent in the dust."