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The Venerable Archdeacon Pratt, Archdeacon of Calcutta: A Sketch

By I. Cave Brown, Bengal Chaplain

From Mission Life, Volume III, Part 1 (New Series), 1872, pages 163-69.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2006




BY I. CAVE BROWNE, M.A., Bengal Chaplain.

WHILE India has been the training ground for some of England's greatest generals, and--as the history of her colonies and dependencies during the present century can show--the school in which were reared some of her best administrators, she has contributed very little to the general stock of English literature and science: official life in India, with its dry routine and worship of precedents, tending rather to dwarf than develope a man's natural talents in that direction.

It must be admitted, too, that literary and scientific fame there won rarely reached beyond the bounds of India. To realise the glories of the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere one must go into the Indian Ocean; and the value of the researches of even such men as Sir William Jones, or Mountstuart Elphinstone--men of more or less European fame--can be but imperfectly estimated out of India itself. Noble exceptions there undoubtedly are to this rule: some, too, whom as still living it would be unbecoming to name; but they have attained their high position in spite of, rather than by the aid of, Indian influences; and a subsequent English career has furnished the opportunity for building up a reputation, the foundation of which was laid in India. But where such opportunity has been denied to men, how often have they lived their life little known, little appreciated; leaving behind scarcely a trace of their existence beyond the bare name; scarcely a mark of their power beyond perhaps an Indian tradition;--and thus have passed away, without that honour which was intellectually their due, and which would probably have been freely awarded to them had they remained in England.

We have been led into these reflections by the sad announcement, which reached us by midday on Saturday, December 30th [1871], that on that very morning "Archdeacon Pratt died at Ghazepore of choleraic diarrha." In that small, retired station, where, in the beginning of the century, Lord Cornwallis had sunk a victim to climate and age, had passed away, alone probably--no wife, no kinsman, no friend, to tend his last hours--one, of whom, five-and-thirty years ago, Cambridge was justly proud; from whom the scientific world of England expected much; and who was, by common consent, "the greatest mathematician India ever had."

John Henry Pratt was the son of the Rev. Josiah Pratt, the original Secretary and almost founder of the Church Missionary Society, and [163/164] Vicar of St. Stephen's, Coleman Street. He was educated at Oakham School, under Dr. Lancaster, and went to Cambridge in 1829. There, as "Pratt of Caius," his measure was soon taken; he became marked as a man of high promise. In 1833 he came out Third Wrangler, Ellice of the same college being Senior, and Bowstead of Corpus (afterwards Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry) being Second; and was almost immediately elected a Franklyn Fellow of his college.

He appears to have at once taken a high position as a mathematician, for we find even in the following year (1834) a paper of his, while yet a young B.A., "A Demonstration on the Parallelogram of Forces," deemed worthy of a place in the "Phil. Mag." of the Royal Society. Very soon after he published the work for which he is even to this day honourably remembered in his University, "Mathematical Principles of Mechanical Philosophy." He remained in residence a few years after taking his degree; he was ordained deacon in 1836, and priest in 1837: but never held any parochial cure.

Early in 1838 he was called upon to make the choice which was to decide his future career. Daniel Wilson, of Islington, had been appointed Bishop of Calcutta in 1832, and, in token of his regard for his old tutor before going to Oxford, and his fellow-labourer in Salisbury Square, Josiah Pratt--in the hope, too, of still more closely cementing the old friendship--he was very anxious to obtain for the son an appointment on the Bengal Ecclesiastical Establishment, and to secure his services as his own domestic chaplain. Some delay had occurred in obtaining the appointment; at length the offer came; and the decision between Cambridge and Calcutta was to be made.

Many and grave were the strictures at "Caius," when it was known that Pratt intended to accept the offered chaplaincy. Men thought it madness that one of such an already assured position, and with such prospects, should "throw himself away" upon India. Cambridge had, indeed, already given, years before, a Claudius Buchanan, a Thomason, and, greatest of all, a Henry Martyn, and other though less distinguished yet worthy sons, to swell the ranks of Bengal chaplains. Buchanan, had, under exceptional circumstances, taken no high honours: but Thomason was a Fifth Wrangler, and Henry Martyn (insigne nomen!) carried off the highest honours the University could confer. Still in all these a strong Missionary spirit had shown itself from the beginning of their University career, and been fostered by the influence of Thomas Newton and Charles Simeon, then in full force at Cambridge; and an ardent desire to subordinate everything to the evangelisation of the heathen was the paramount aim of their lives.

This was not, at that time at least, or ever to the same extent, the case with Pratt. Mathematics were his life; the exact sciences his delight; while natural sciences, too, especially geology and mineralogy, [164/165] were his amusement. Such being his known tastes and pursuits and prospects, men did wonder at the choice he made: they called it a sacrifice of himself. But they could little plumb the depth of Pratt's mind; they could only see the height of his intellect. Without the ardent temperament--the enthusiasm--which characterised Henry Martyn and his confreres, without the same demonstrativeness of character, the same readiness to lay bare to other men's minds the inner and more sacred feelings of his own, Pratt was under an influence far beyond mere personal tastes, far above worldly prospects; he was imbued with a deep, fervent, though often silent piety, of which only his nearest and closest friends--kindred spirits--could form any just estimate. Under a buoyancy of manner and joyousness of spirit there flowed, even then, as some who still survive can testify, a strong-set stream of self-devotion, which marked his whole life. The one great principle of that life was to "do his duty," not coldly and perfunctorily, but "with all his heart;" to spend to be spent in his Lord's service.

Regarding the chaplaincy, the writer here thankfully avails himself of permission to quote the testimony conveyed in a private letter from one who was a little his junior, and for a short time his pupil at Cambridge, and who now adorns the English Episcopal bench: "I happened to have rooms" (he says) "immediately opposite to Pratt; and I was constantly in his rooms and he in mine. I have reason to believe that at that time I knew as much of him as most men did. He used to tell me all that was going on with reference to the negociations respecting India; and I believe he opened to me his whole heart. I remember being very much struck with the perfect honesty of his behaviour in this most important matter. It seemed to me that self was as much put out of sight as was possible, and that his simple desire was to do what was right; and I well remember the emphasis with which he complained to me one day that some of his brother Fellows distressed him by discussing whether it would be for his interest to go out to India; he said, 'They don't understand me.'"

The summer of 1838 saw the rising young Fellow of Caius bidding farewell to Cambridge, and to England; and in the following January he joined Bishop Wilson in Calcutta, and at once entered on his duties as domestic chaplain. In this capacity he continued to act for the next ten years, living as a member of the Bishop's family, almost as a son with a father. In the end of 1849 the appointment of Dr. Dealtry, Archdeacon of Calcutta, to the see of Madras, on the resignation of Bishop Spencer, gave Bishop Wilson the opportunity of marking his high esteem for his domestic chaplain, and his sense of his unwearied and valuable services, by nominating him to the vacated archdeaconry. This appointment, not unnaturally in a somewhat strictly seniority service, caused much comment, for Pratt was still low on the roll of chaplains: [165/166] some little jealousy was at the time aroused among his seniors, who regarded themselves as being superseded; but this soon disappeared before his unassuming, gentle demeanour; and twenty-two years of wise, moderate, generous administration, have more than justified the selection.

That Archdeacon Pratt was never raised to the Indian Episcopate has often been a subject of surprise. It is no longer the betrayal of private confidence to mention that Bishop Wilson more than once endeavoured to effect it--offering to resign, when he found his health utterly failing, provided the authorities would appoint "his beloved Archdeacon" his successor. This, however, was met by an unqualified refusal, not on personal grounds, but as establishing an undesirable precedent; the appointment, moreover, was regarded as too important a piece of ecclesiastical patronage for the then Board of Control to forgo even for one turn. Yet when Bishop Wilson died, in 1858, the end was almost attained. Through Lord Shaftesbury's influence with Lord Palmerston (then in office) Archdeacon Pratt's name was actually laid before Her Majesty for the vacant See and approved; but before the formal arrangements could be completed, a letter arrived at Windsor from Government House, Calcutta, strongly urging that in the very excited state of the native mind on the subject of Government designs at conversion to Christianity--for the ground-swell which followed the political hurricane of 1857 was still rolling--it would be most inexpedient to appoint any one at all identified with missionary work.

By a singular coincidence, caused by the break-down of one of the English steamers, two mail deliveries reached Calcutta simultaneously; in one came a letter conveying to Archdeacon Pratt the assurance, "on authority," that his name had been approved for the vacant See, in the subsequent one another letter telling him the nomination had been cancelled, and why. Yet when, in the close of 1858, Bishop Cotton landed in Calcutta, he received no more sincere welcome, or more ready and valuable help and counsel, than from the very man who had been named before him for the See. How fully he appreciated that co-operation, so single-hearted and so judicious, Bishop Cotton took a public opportunity of placing on record, by dedicating his first Charge (of 1861) to him,


The reciprocated esteem between the Archdeacon and Bishop Cotton was strikingly attested in one of Archdeacon Pratt's last acts. The one great work with which Bishop Cotton's name is associated in India is the establishment of the "Hill Schools"--schools in the different parts of the Himalaya range, where, with the advantage of a glorious, healthy [166/167] climate, the children of parents whose limited means precluded their sending them to be educated in England, might receive a good sound English, classical, and religious education. In 1869 Archdeacon Pratt brought forward a plan for founding, as a memorial to the lamented Bishop, and as giving permanency to his noble scheme, a Fund which should provide an endowment for these schools. This "Hill Schools' Nomination Endowment Fund" was to close in 1871. It was closed a few weeks before the year ended; and on the last day but one of the year closed the good Archdeacon's life.

Nor were other proofs wanting of the esteem in which the Archdeacon was held in India. In the course of 1864 the Secretary of State for India passed an Order, at the suggestion of Bishop Cotton, restricting the period of chaplains' service to twenty-five years (previously it had been unlimited), but granting to any who had already exceeded that period an extension of three years from the date of the order being published in India. A further extension was, however, possible, in any very exceptional cases, under strong recommendation from the Bishop and the Indian Government. The single exception as yet made has been in the case of Archdeacon Pratt, whose period of service, which would have expired in October, 1867, was, on the earnest solicitation of Bishop Cotton, extended to March, 1869. There was, however, felt to be some ambiguity in the wording of Sir Charles Wood's reply to the Bishop's letter. Towards the close of 1868 the Archdeacon wrote to Government, saying that, provided the official interpretation of the Secretary of State's letter limited his service to March, 1869, his wish would be to leave India a little earlier in the year, and he begged to tender his resignation as from the following January. In reply he was informed that, in accordance with the earnest desire of the Lieut.-Governor of Bengal (Sir W. Grey) and the Bishop of Calcutta (Dr. Milman), "with which the Governor-General in Council entirely concurs," the Secretary of State will be asked to allow him the option of prolonging his service till October, 1872. In a letter addressed at the time to the writer of this sketch, he says, with characteristic modesty and submissiveness, "This gratifies me very much; especially as I have no desire to retire till ill-health or inefficiency show me that I ought. Still, I have been perfectly passive in the whole business. I am quite happy to be led." It was, of course, very graciously conceded by the Secretary of State with a flattering acknowledgment of his services.

In anticipation of his retirement next October, the Archdeacon had commenced early in December what he intended should be his last "cold weather" tour of visitation. His last it was!

Archdeacon Pratt's literary productions during his Indian career were chiefly of a scientific character. Valuable papers appeared from time to time between the years 1853 and 1862, in the "Journals" and "Philosophical [167/168] Transactions" of the Royal Society, and in the Asiatic Society of Bengal: some on "The Effect of the Local Attraction on the Plumb-line caused by the Himalaya and other Mountain Ranges of India;" also on "The influence of the sea on the Plumb-line of India;" on "The great Indian Arc of the Meridian;" on "The probable Date of the Vedas." To these is to be added yet one more, on "The Constitution of the Solid Crust of the Earth," which will appear in an out-coming number of the "Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions." Occasional papers of a similar but lighter character were also contributed to the Calcutta Review, and other Indian publications. In 1856 he edited, "The Notes of the Eclectic Society;" and only at the close of 1871 he had issued the sixth edition of his best-known and most valuable work, "Scripture and Science not at variance," refuting the arguments based on scientific discoveries against Revelation, and bringing down his work to the latest date, embracing the more recent theories of Lyell and Darwin, unanswerably proving that true science "can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth."

Besides these published results of the thought and research of so powerful a mind, it may be mentioned that the Government archives in Calcutta contain many very valuable papers from the pen of Archdeacon Pratt, prepared at the request, and for the information, of Government on scientific subjects, such as the "Tidal Wave of a Cyclone;" and occasionally, too, on engineering questions, for he was frequently consulted where mathematical knowledge of the highest order was needed.

He had, as the writer knows, been long meditating and collecting materials for a sketch of the several Episcopates of Calcutta, drawing out the characteristic features of each, and the work with which each Bishop's name is specially associated. It is to be hoped that this valuable contribution to Indian Church history is left sufficiently complete for publication.

A course of sermons preached in 1867, on "The Authority, Commission, Ordinances, and Perpetual Presence of Christ in His Church," with a few Ordination and other occasional sermons, comprise nearly all the Archdeacon's contributions to theology. It is no disrespect to his memory to say that he was more powerful, and better known, as a mathematician than as a theologian. While undoubtedly a very close reasoner, he could hardly be called an original thinker. He always consistently identified himself with the Evangelical school in the Church. He inherited those views from his father, and they were naturally fostered by daily intercourse with so illustrious an exponent of them as was Bishop Wilson. But when brought into contact in later life with the larger mind of Bishop Cotton, his own undoubtedly, perhaps unconsciously, expanded. Though not one whit the less true and loyal to the dicta of his father and Bishop Wilson, he unquestionably gave fuller play to his natural generosity of [168/169] character; he grew to regard, not only with more toleration, but with more charitable appreciation of their sincerity, men who differed from him. Such was his single-heartedness, his genuineness, his generosity, that even those whose views were widely opposed to his own honoured him as a man, loved him as a friend, and were proud of him as their Archdeacon.

But it would indeed be presenting an imperfect, a very one-sided view of his character, if only the gentler, the more amiable traits were brought out. He was as worthy of honour (perhaps more so) in his sterner virtues as in his softer graces of character. His was a single eye to the glory of God. Whether as an expositor of Revelation, or as a reader of the page of Nature, he seemed to "set God always before him." In a sermon, or in a scientific essay, or in private conversation, the end he ever had in view was to build up his fellow-men in "the faith" which was the pole-star of his own life's voyage. Of him it might be said as of few men after thirty years and more in India, that neither body nor mind seemed to have been enervated by the relaxing climate, or deteriorated by the subtle influences of Indian life. Such as he left England in 1838, such he remained to the last. As conscientious in every act as in the decision then made; unwavering when he once "saw his way:" unflinching when his duty was clear; firm of purpose,--and yet how kindly in manner! Indefatigable* [Footnote: see next paragraph] in his work, and methodical to a marvel; and above all, in his life how exemplary! In occasional circumstances of no ordinary perplexity and trial, how calm, and indeed cheerful withal, for he "knew in whom he believed." Those who, like the writer of this sketch, had enjoyed the privilege of witnessing his life in India, may be allowed to indulge in reverential reminiscences, proud of having had at the head of our list of clergy one so honoured for his intellectual attainments, and so highly to be admired for his consistent Christian example. We alone can fully realise was India has lost--what we have lost--in one so holy, as well as so learned, as was our good Archdeacon, John Henry Pratt.

[Footnote from above: * A very happy illustration of his "indomitable perseverance" is supplied by the kindness of an old college friend. "During the last vacation before Pratt took his degree, he and I agreed to walk from Bangor to Barmouth. Soon after we started, Pratt picked up a large piece of quartz which he thought was a curiosity, so we contrived to strap it on to his back; and though the journey was long, the path bad, and the sun very hot, so that those who had no rock to carry were nearly worn out, Pratt toiled on with his burden, and nothing could induce him to give it up till he had carried it safe to Barmouth. I think" (says his old friend) "you may see in that walk the same spirit which made him so indefatigable in India." Of the methodical turn of his mind he has left behind one striking and invaluable memorial in his work entitled, "The Endowments and Institutions of the Diocese and Archdeaconry of Calcutta."]

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