Project Canterbury

A History of the Church of England in India
Since the Early Days of the East India Company

By Eyre Chatterton
Bishop of Nagpur

London: SPCK, 1924.

Chapter XV. The Diocese of Colombo, Ceylon, 1845


1. James Chapman, consecrated 1845; resigned 1861; died 1879.

2. Piers Calverly Claughton, consecrated Bishop of St. Helena 1859; translated 1867; resigned 1870; died 1884.

3. Hugh Willoughby Jermyn, consecrated 1871; resigned 1875; elected Bishop of Brechin 1875; Primus of Scotland 1886-1901; died 1903.

4. Reginald Stephen Copleston, consecrated 1875; translated to Calcutta 1902.

6. Ernest Arthur Copleston, consecrated in St. Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta, on August 30, 1903.

Books of Reference.--A Short History of the Church of England in Ceylon, by C. H. Christie David, 1906, Colombo; Memorials of Bishop Chapman, Skeffington and Sons; Buddhism, by Bishop R. S. Copleston, Longmans; Historical Sketches, Ceylon, S.P.G. 1902; Bishop Heber's Indian Journal.

WE owe a debt of gratitude to Mr. C. H. Christie David for his Short History of this fascinating Island Diocese of Colombo. It is indeed an island "where every prospect pleases," and if the ancient world was loud in praise of its beauty, a modern American description of it as the "show place of the universe" makes it clear that the praise of the ancients was not mistaken. Of its old civilisation, its ruined cities and temples, it is not for us to speak, nor can we do more than allude to the entering in of Buddhism into the island which was at that time partly Hindu and more completely the home of devil-worship. It is certain that Christianity entered fairly early into Ceylon, probably at the same time as it entered into South India. Most writers think that the early missionaries to Ceylon were Nestorian, and that they had fair success in their efforts. Long centuries passed, and then from the middle of the sixteenth century onwards Ceylon was to suffer from a bewildering succession of changes. It was to have for nearly a hundred years Portuguese rulers in its maritime parts--men of strong and intolerant convictions, who established the Roman Catholic religion wherever they could and who built churches and convents in many places. Then came a period of Dutch domination for a hundred and fifty years, which was equally intolerant in its own way, as the Dutch demanded of all natives who were in the service of the state that they should adopt the state religion, which was rigid Presbyterianism. They would have no truce with any kind of idolatry, and Bishop Chapman tells us that "during the time of the Dutch no single idol temple was ever built within their territories, nor was any native allowed to enter certain places with the stamp of idolatry on his person." He also adds in significant language that "in the first year of British rule which succeeded the Dutch no less than three hundred temples were built in one single province, and out of every ten natives one now meets, nine will be seen with the mark of heathenism visibly stamped on his forehead." The Dutch were unquestionably very earnest in their own religion. They built splendid Churches which still stand in many places, and they supplied Chaplains in abundance. When the British took over the rule of the island more than a century ago there were over 300,000 Christians, baptised members of the Dutch Church, though, as the Bishop of Colombo remarks, they were Christians more in name than in reality. With the coming of the British a new policy, such as we are familiar with in India, was at once introduced. It was made clear to the natives of Ceylon that they could expect no worldly advantage from the fact that they had become Christians. When this became known the greater proportion of the Dutch converts, "Government Christians" as they were called, rapidly decreased. "There were, however, certain places in which earnest pastors kept their flocks from lapsing into Buddhism, and in spite of widespread defection it is nevertheless the fact that the majority of the Sinhalese Christians are not recent converts, but are the descendants of those who became Christians under the Dutch." From the moment the island passed into the possession of the British the fathers of the Church Missionary Society had their eyes upon it as a suitable sphere for missionary effort. In 1818 their first missionaries arrived in Ceylon, and ever since then a succession of devoted men and women belonging to that Society have been working there. Nearly a generation later, at the request of the first Bishop, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel also started work in the island.

We read in the lives of the earlier Bishops of Calcutta interesting accounts of their Episcopal visits to Ceylon. Bishop Middleton, the first Bishop of Calcutta, has put it on record that he enjoyed his time in Ceylon more than in any other place during his Visitation tour. Bishop Heber was also charmed with the island and the work which was being carried on. Bishop Turner, the fourth Bishop of Calcutta, seems to have been depressed by the want of progress of the faith in this beautiful island. Then in the year 1837, Ceylon became part of the newly constituted Diocese of Madras. This state of things was not to last for long, as eight years later, in 1845, Ceylon was constituted into the separate Diocese of Colombo, and the Rev. James Chapman was appointed its first Bishop.

No one can read Mr. Christie David's History without feeling that Ceylon has been peculiarly fortunate in the Bishops who have been sent to it. They seem to have succeeded one another also in just the right order, as far as the needs of the work were concerned.

James Chapman, the first Bishop of Colombo, was an old Etonian and Fellow of King's College, Cambridge. From Cambridge he returned to Eton as Assistant-Master, where he proved a brilliant success. The celebrated Dr. Thring remarked of him that "he never knew so good a teacher." That he was strongly drawn to educational work is evident from the fact that when he was appointed to Colombo he was about to become a candidate for the Headmastership of Harrow. Fortunately for the Diocese of Colombo, he had held a College living for some years before he began his Episcopal work, so that he came to the diocese fully equipped for the work which lay before him. The number of Anglican Christians in the diocese at the time of his appointment was a little more than seven thousand, which seemed a tiny number when compared with the vast number of converts during the Dutch period. The number of scholars in the Church schools was only about five thousand. It is clear that the Bishop was a good deal depressed by what he saw during his first tour, and that he was constantly comparing the converts which the English were making with those which the Dutch had made. "The whole province was divided into thirty-two parishes by the Dutch, who built a Church, a manse, and a school-house in each. Many of these buildings still remain, some in ruins, others appropriated to any use which the local Government may authorise. They are witnesses against us. The Dutch did far more for the propagation of a less pure faith than we do for the extension of our own. Were British rule to become, in the changes brought about by the providence of God from year to year, a fact of history to-morrow, no visible impress would be seen of our faith in the whole face of the land. With the Dutch it was different. They conquered, they colonised, often they converted the people. Everywhere they built schools and Churches; everywhere to this day in the maritime provinces we see traces of them. We abuse them, but we strive not to emulate them; because they did not all things well, we think and talk about their faults, but little imitate that in which they are clearly imitable. This island has now been under British rule for fifty years, but not a single Church has been built to be compared with those of which we see the ruins in some of the rural districts or those which witness against us in each of their principal military stations."

During the sixteen years of his Episcopate Bishop Chapman lived a very active life. On one occasion we find him at the request of the Bishop of London, making a sea-voyage to Mauritius, where he consecrated three Churches and confirmed many candidates. Bishop Chapman will always be remembered in Ceylon on account of the splendid lead he gave in the promotion of sound education in the island. Perhaps the most important act of his Episcopate took place in the year 1851, when he founded St. Thomas's College in Colombo. This College quickly became the leading educational institution in the island, and under a succession of able Wardens "has sent out to the various professions of the country a regular supply of men of high character and education, both Christian and non-Christian." Later on a Divinity School was attached to the College, in which numbers of Sinhalese and Tamil Christians have been trained for Holy Orders. When Bishop Chapman resigned the see at the end of sixteen years of hard work, he received the following testimonial to the splendid work he had done as a pioneer Bishop: "Your Episcopate will be remembered as one of unceasing activity in proclaiming and spreading your and our Master's religion in this heathen land; whilst your untiring zeal and noble munificence have given such an impetus to the great cause of education as, under God, cannot fail to be attended with the most beneficial results to Ceylon."

Bishop Chapman was succeeded by one who had also distinguished himself at the sister University of Oxford, and who had been Fellow and Tutor of University College. Piers Calverly Claughton, the second Bishop of Colombo, had been appointed the first Bishop of St. Helena in the year 1859; three years later he was translated to Ceylon as Bishop of Colombo. He came of a clerical family; his elder brother being the Bishop of St. Albans. Before coming abroad he had had considerable experience in the Lower House of Convocation in England, which was to stand him in good stead during his Episcopate in Ceylon. Shortly after his enthronement he summoned a meeting of his Clergy in the Library of St. Thomas's College, Colombo, for the purpose of obtaining their opinion about the best way of spreading the Gospel amongst the heathen. Then came a long tour throughout his diocese. During the tour he met the principal chiefs of the Kandyan district by appointment. "They were all in costume, and the scene," the Bishop remarks, "was very striking." The Bishop addressed them by interpretation on the subject of Christianity, to which they listened with great attention. In the course of a lengthy address, the Bishop said: "My friends, I have asked you all to assemble here to-day, that I might have an opportunity of speaking to you about Christianity, the religion which we profess. I know you are a very great nation, a very old nation. We are a very great nation ourselves, but we owe our greatness to Christianity. We have our army and navy, and other elements of greatness, by which we command respect among the nations of the world; but it is Christianity alone that has contributed to our real greatness. Remote dependencies and distant colonies have been committed to our charge by an all-wise Providence, and it is therefore our duty and our privilege to impart to the people which inhabit them that knowledge of true religion which we ourselves possess. Believe me, it is not my intention to treat your religion with disrespect, but simply to tell you what we know and feel about our own, the only true religion in the world. Whatever may impede its progress for a while, Christianity will and must spread throughout the length and breadth of this island, for it will flourish when all other religions cease to exist. The building in which I address you is the abode of the Representative in this island of our Gracious Majesty the Queen. Under her rule, Christianity is not, as you are aware, forced upon her subjects. The reason of this is that she knows, what we also know, that Christianity must be embraced voluntarily. A forced religion can never be that which ours is--the religion of the heart. We do not seek to change your manners, your customs, or your modes of dress; our great object is to make you Christian in thought, word, and deed." Dewe Nilleme, the highest chief, on behalf of the rest, thanked the Bishop for his kind feelings towards them, and added that although they were not Christians, he had no doubt that the next generation was likely to embrace this religion, seeing that his own son, who was educated in a Christian school, was now a Christian. The Bishop rejoined by remarking: "I hope the father will follow the footsteps of his son in this respect at least, and set an example to the rest."

The Bishop also spent some time amongst the coffee-planters during his tour.

From the commencement of his Episcopate Bishop Claughton seems to have felt considerable misgivings about the utility of Catechists. He thought their position ambiguous, and he strongly objected to their working apart from missionaries.

It is to Bishop Claughton that the Church of Ceylon owes the commencement of its Synodical life. He had been deeply impressed by events which had taken place in South Africa in connection with the Colenso case. He felt strongly the isolation of the Colonial Churches and the grave dangers they were in consequent upon their isolation. He felt that they needed Synods, duly constituted and representative, with a declaration of their principles, showing their unity in faith with the Mother Church in England. After due consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other of the Colonial Churches, Bishop Claughton summoned the first Synod of the Diocese of Colombo in the year 1866. He did so with the full approval of the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Owing to the fact that the Church of the Diocese of Colombo was at that time established, it was impossible for the first Synod to be more than a consultative body. Later on, when the Church was disestablished in the year 1886, the Synod of the Diocese was fully constituted as a legislative body. It now meets yearly and consists of the Bishop, Clergy in Orders, and representatives of the laity. It has a constitution and rules providing for its sessions, elections of lay representatives, election of a Bishop, the Bishop's Court, the Incorporated Trustees, Patronage, Lay Officers, Pension Fund, and Standing Orders, The general administration of cenwal funds are managed by a Standing Committee consisting of the Bishop, the Archdeacon, seven Clergy, and fourteen laymen who are chosen by the Synod. Bishop Claughton's mind was much exercised by these matters and especially on the subject of the connection between the Colonial Churches and the home Church. While he thought that the Synods of these Churches should be entirely independent of any outside influence, he was anxious that the Colonial Churches should, where it was possible, preserve their link with the English Church supplied by the Letters Patent of the Crown, and he thought "the best mode of preserving the link with the Mother Church was by assigning to the Archbishop of Canterbury powers to receive appeals in certain cases."

In 1871 Bishop Claughton resigned after a ten years' Episcopate and was appointed Archdeacon of London. He seems to have impressed every one in the island with his wonderful serenity.

His successor, the Ven. Hugh W. Jermyn, was a man of immense devotion of life and great Evangelical zeal. During the four years of his Episcopate he preached the Word in season and out of season. In a Pastoral Letter to the Clergy of his diocese in the year 1874 he dwelt much upon the necessity of holiness of life, activity in God's service, and liberality in almsgiving. Early in 1875 he became dangerously ill owing to attacks of dysentery which he had contracted during a prolonged Visitation in the unhealthy parts of the island. Unfortunately his sickness did not yield to treatment, and much to the regret of every one he was compelled to resign his see after only four years of work. A few years later he was appointed Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

He was succeeded in due course by the Rev. Reginald Stephen Copleston, who was destined to give to Colombo twenty-seven years of splendid work and then to pass on to Calcutta as Metropolitan of India, a position which he held for eleven years, truly a fine record. A brilliant classical scholar, he distinguished himself greatly at the University and was elected a Fellow of St. John's College, Oxford, in 1868. He was twice elected President of the Union and was considered an able and convincing speaker. A man of a deeply religious nature with a strong drawing towards missionary work, it was not strange that he should have been selected from the first as a leader. When he received the offer of the Bishopric of Colombo, he was still under thirty years of age, the Canonical age for Consecration. It was felt, however, that he was so peculiarly qualified for the post that the place was kept open and he was duly consecrated in the year 1875. So much of immense interest happened during the thirty-eight years of his life in the East, first as Bishop of Colombo, then as Metropolitan of India, that it is hoped some day we shall have a full memoir of his distinguished career. We have alluded elsewhere to his great work on Buddhism, and to his quite remarkable gifts as a Chairman in Council. The Diocese of Colombo owes much to him. During the period before and after its disestablishment he probably did his greatest work. Writing of this period, Mr. Christie David says, "It has been often asked what has been Bishop Cople-ston's greatest work in Colombo? The answer is the creation of the Clergy Endowment Fund. In those dark days of 1886, when State aid was withdrawn from the Church, and it stood face to face with a great crisis, it was most fortunate that the Church of Ceylon should have had at the helm such a master to guide it through its difficulties. It is true that the Bishop had some very able advisers in the island, but the controlling hand was his, and he spared neither his great attainments, his purse, nor his influence to safeguard the Church in Ceylon, and he is to-day well comforted with the thought that the Church he loved so well is on a safe foundation."

Of his brother, the Right Rev. Ernest Copleston, D.D., who succeeded him nearly twenty years ago, it is sufficient to say that he has carried on the work faithfully and successfully along the lines laid down by those who came before him.

We cannot do better than conclude this short historical sketch by quoting some parts of an interesting account, given to us by the present Bishop, of the work which is now going on in his diocese.

Of the Clergy he writes: "The number on the list in 1922 shows 21 English, 7 Burgher, 34 Sinhalese, and 25 Tamil Priests, and 8 Sinhalese and 6 Tamil Deacons. The majority of the native Clergy are well conversant with English, and are accustomed in the towns to conduct services in English as well as in their own tongue. Several of them are in charge of parishes where there are regular services in at least two languages, There is a Divinity School, in, connection with St. Thomas's College, and from among the Sinhalese and Tamils more seek admission than the school can afford to take, or more than can be provided with titles afterwards."

Of the parishes and congregations in his diocese he writes: "The Church population at the 1911 Census was about 42,000. In the towns, both large and small, these consist of English, English-speaking Burghers, i.e. descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese, or of mixed descent; Sinhalese and Tamils. Generally the English-speaking members of all these races worship together in one Church. The aim has been to unite all races in one Church, to form parishes, not by race but by area, though where there is any considerable number of Sinhalese or Tamils, or both, in such area, services are conducted in their own language, as well as in English. A large number of village congregations, many of which were built and nurtured by the C.M.S., consist entirely of Sinhalese or of Tamils (the northern and eastern districts of the island are predominantly Tamil). In some Churches in the towns, where there are two or three congregations, they meet all together at a united Eucharist on great festivals. Many of the parishes are small and cannot provide the whole stipend of their Pastors. They are encouraged to give liberally by grants from the Central Stipend Sustentation Fund, which are made by the Standing Committee of the Diocese, and vary from ten to fifty per cent, of what is raised by the congregation.

"There are only two settled Planters' Chaplaincies, and large districts are without any ministrations of the Church. It is difficult to get planters to take much interest or to combine to guarantee a stipend, and so it is impossible under such precarious conditions to invite Clergy from England. A capital sum to start with or a regular subsidy is much needed.

"It has already been remarked that Bishop Chapman took the lead in the promotion of sound education, and in 1851 founded St. Thomas's College, which has done so much good in the island. In 1822 the Church Missionary Society opened a school in Kandy, but it is from 1872 that the history of this school, now Trinity College, really dates, while during the last ten or fifteen years it has made great strides, and has become a vital power among Kandyans, sending out men of fine Christian character to be a leaven among their countrymen.

"Since 1886 the Sisters of St. Margaret's, East Grinstead, have been at work in the diocese, and have a number of schools and homes under their care. Their High School, Bishop's College for Girls, and the Ladies' College founded by the C.M.S., both in Colombo, are two of the most effective in the diocese.

"In Kandy a High School, chiefly for the daughters of Kandyan Chiefs, under the auspices of the Zenana Missionary Society, has done and is doing a most effectual work for the Christianising of many homes. Of more recent years a Training School for Catechists and Schoolmasters, established in federation with the Wesleyans, has been the means of providing many men well trained both mentally and spiritually for village life and work.

"Another most valuable institution, in connection with the Zenana Society, is the School for Deaf and Blind, which has rapidly grown in numbers, and has received liberal support.

"A pleasing feature with regard to the various schools is that, with the exception of the English, there is no difficulty in having the children of the various races as pupils in the same school, and most of the English children are, if means allow, taken home at an early age for education.

"In the northern peninsula of Jaffna, where the people are almost entirely of Tamil race, the Church has a large College, St. John's, founded by the C.M.S. This and the Girls' College near by are both very valuable to the work of the Church among Tamils, and it is a very satisfactory feature that a large number of the teachers in both schools are old pupils who have gladly returned to their Alma Mater."

The Bishop concludes his remarks by a brief description of the missionary work which is now being carried on in his diocese: "There are some 750,000 Tamils, from Southern India, working on the tea, rubber, and cocoa estates, both in the hills and the lower country. Both English and native Clergy, with lay evangelists and catechists, minister over a vast area, both to Christian congregations and to Hindus, and experience shows that this is the most successful part of the missionary work in the way of conversion. The Tamil Christians themselves have been more helpful in this respect than other Christians.

"Ever since the coming of the Theosophists, about 1880, Buddhist propaganda and opposition to Christianity has been active in varying degree. Of late this activity and with it bitterness and misrepresentation have much increased, and it is constantly represented to the people that national patriotism and Buddhism are inseparable. But the Church has among its numbers both in the Kandyan and in the low country, a considerable proportion of men of rank, wealth, and education, and therefore of influence, and it is by no means the case that at the present day converts only come from the poorer or less educated of the population. There are no Mass Movements, nor any sign that they are coming, but the Church is holding its own, and by God's blessing will go forward."

Project Canterbury