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The Life and Letters of George Alfred Lefroy, D.D.
Bishop of Calcutta, and Metropolitan

By H. H. Montgomery

London, etc.: Longmans, Green and Co., 1920.

Chapter IV. The Leather Workers of Delhi

IT will be understood that the Cambridge Mission were called to arrange, on their arrival, how their own work should dovetail into that of the Rev. R. R. Winter, which was supported by the S.P.G. and formed part of regular Diocesan schemes. The Cambridge men took over responsibility for Bazaar preaching, the charge of St. Stephen's High School, the Christian Boys' Boarding School, and the superintendence of three out of the eight divisions in the city, and three out of eight out-stations.

It will be seen, therefore, how it came about that Lefroy was brought into close connection with the Chumars or leather workers. They are a low caste community and have been in the past ill educated. They live in "Bustis" (dwelling places), but the term at Delhi, at all events, had come to be confined to "little groups of houses in which the poorer castes live by families or clans." As soon as Lefroy could be relieved from High School work he eagerly turned to the Chumars, and meanwhile he was generally preparing himself for the harder and far more intellectual duty of the Moslem problem. The following letter takes us step by step through a day or two of a missionary journey in India:

"Mehrowli (in the Delhi District):

"Begun New Year's Eve, 1881, 11 p.m.

"I am out here once more with B. in the same village and indeed the same room from which I wrote last year wl^en I was settled here alone for a few days, trying to get close to and more intimate with the people than one can when living in state in Dak Bungalow. Our attempt has not this time proved very successful in the matter of attracting visitors and inquirers, for I don't think one has come near us since we have been here, but notwithstanding I do not think that even from this point of view our trouble in coming here has been wasted, for we have at any rate done what in us lies to come to them and give them an opportunity of getting at us, and even if they do not at once avail themselves of it, I cannot but think that it must in time suggest a difference in the relation which we wish to occupy towards them from that of the Government officials--with whom at present we are terribly liable to be confounded--and help them to understand that we come bearing a weighty message which we would press on their acceptance. Meantime, though visitors do not take up as much of our time as we could have wished we are not altogether idle. . . .

"I think it might amuse you and give you a little idea of the very varied conditions under which we have to carry on our work here if I just gave you a sketch of our morning's work. I will take yesterday. After breakfast at 7.30 I started off alone this time, as the Catechist had to stop and make preparations for a supper which we wished to give a little congregation here in the evening--taking a cross-country path which I was told would lead me to two or three villages. The first signs of habitation I reached after about an hour's walk was a Hindoo temple with its customary little red flag waving from the branches of the sacred tree under which it stood. On entering the enclosure I found myself face to face with the Faqir or Indian monk. He was a very fine looking man and told me he was one of four who lived together in a kind of monastic life, the other three being at the time out begging their daily supplies. This much I got from him, but his dialect was so hopelessly bad, to my ears at least, that I felt any further attempt at conversation would be but time thrown away, so I bade him good morning and went my way. The next place I came to about half a mile further on was a Hindoo village. Here, however, there were very few men as there happened to be a good well in the neighbourhood from which they were engaged in watering their fields, and as the one or two who were about did not seem at all to relish my visit I once again moved on. As I was walking to the next village I met a Faqir returning from his morning round of begging, and conjecturing that he was one of those whose home I had visited, I accosted him, and finding his speech rather more understandable I had some talk with him. He told me that the man whom I had seen at their temple was the Guru or teacher and the others were merely disciples, and he claimed for his Guru the power of miracles, saying that if he laid his hands on any sick person he recovered.

"It is remarkable how deep-rooted and widespread is the recognition of miracles as an almost essential evidence of a heaven-sent teacher--so that they have to be invented when not really present. He incidentally stated that he understood we were great sun-worshippers! How this idea got abroad I cannot say--whether from some one who noticed the identity of sun and Sunday or otherwise. In the next village I reached I found some men loitering about and as they seemed ready for a chat I sat down on the steps of an old stone tomb which occupied the centre of their little square, and soon had a little group of listeners round me. These turned out to be Mussalmans--of the Shiah sect however, while it is the other great sect who immensely preponderate in Delhi--the Sunnis. When they found out definitely what I was after there was some inclination, especially on the part of the elders of the group, to decline the religious discussion, suggesting that I had better go to Delhi, where I would find educated men in plenty ready and worthy to discuss it with me and not waste my time on poor unlettered villagers like themselves.

"It is really very characteristic this shrinking from discussion on the articles of their faith on the part of the Mussalmans when contrasted with the Hindoos, who are ever ready to hear and discuss any view which may be put before them, however new or strange it may be, or however hostile to their own beliefs or ideas. However, I persuaded them with some difficulty that this was by no means a subject for learned men alone, but rather for every one to whom God has given a soul to be saved, and the power of thought to seek out the way of salvation.

"After this we got on very well together, and they were especially struck with the story of the raising of Lazarus . . . our friendship was cemented by a good bowl of milk, which they offered me when I was getting up to go away, and which I was very glad to accept, both for its own sake and for the sake of those who gave it, for they are by no means hospitable as a rule in this sort of way in these parts--at least the Mahommedans are not; perhaps the Hindoos, who must be largely trained to it by that giving to Faqirs which forms so integral a part of their religion, are more ready givers.

"I was also pleased at the very unusual privilege of being allowed to drink it out of the actual vessel of the donor. . . . Another tramp across fields looking very brown and dry and I come to a third village. Hindoo this time. Again I produce my book and sit down, but fail practically to get an audience--a cart with a broken wheel, which has just been brought in for repair, proving quite too strong a counter-attraction. And now I knew I was near the end of my morning's walk, for I had been all the time steering for a village in which we had previously had a little school amongst the poor Chumars, who form the largest section of the community in this village, as indeed they do in most of the villages around, if they can be said to form a section who are rigidly shut off from all contact or intercourse with the other farmer inhabitants, living in a part of the village which is set aside for them, and into which one of the higher caste will never put his foot any more than these may enter the farmer's quarters: the very children I believe never mix in play.

"It was just before entering this village that I had a striking proof of the tremendously adverse influence which our connection with these despised Chumars exercises on all our attempts at contact with the higher classes. It is, of course, a fact for which we must be deeply thankful, that the Gospel has obtained some entrance at least--even if it be so far a most weak and uncertain one--into one of the great classes of this country, but when this class is the lowest of all it is impossible to shut one's eyes to the fact that the very success in one quarter raises up in all others one more and most formidable obstacle to be added to all those which already make our work in this country seem so almost humanly hopeless. For when, as is my usual custom before going into the Chumar quarter, I went up to a little group of farmers who were sitting chatting together and tried to enter into conversation with them, they just looked at me for a moment to make sure of my identity, and then told me most bluntly that they did not want me, I had better go to my friends the Chumars. And how much such rudeness means out here---how far more than it would in England--one sees when one remembers how naturally polite even to servility all the Hindoos are to any superior, and how intensely so to any of that wondrous race of Sahibs who, in some of the more remote country districts at any rate, are to them little less than the gods come down in the likeness of men. Of course, I had nothing left but to follow their advice, so I turned aside to the Chumars, and after a little talk with my brother in the Faith I set out homewards, and reached it somewhat tired and hungry about 12.30."

The three letters that follow adequately define problem among low caste people in India:

"Delhi: June 10, 1882.

"We had a Council meeting yesterday evening, and at ft a plan was proposed for discussion in which I take a deep interest. It concerned our poor Chumar Christians. You know how often I have told you of their unsatisfactory state. . . . One obvious cause of difficulty and falling is the close contact which they keep with their heathen surroundings. You see this is a temptation which does not assail the better class convert because he knows that, whether he likes it or not, the day he receives Baptism (or at least--for in some, though not in many cases, there is a curious distinction observed--the day he partakes of the Holy Communion) he will be cut off from kith and kin, and the doors of his own and all his relatives' and friends' houses will be closed upon him for ever--at least this is slightly exaggerated, for after a time, some years, if the man settles down quietly and respectably, and really lives a consistent Christian life, he wins his way back to a certain extent--though only to a slight one--among his old surroundings--though, of course, in the matter of food the Rubicon is absolute and unalterable. . . . All this difficulty, however--which however trying for the convert, is yet in one sense of the highest value as testing his real sincerity--is wanting in the case of our low caste Christjans. . . . These poor fellows being all utterly out of caste as it is (and also perhaps influenced in greater or less degree by the current representation of Christianity to which I have already alluded) have never 'closed the pipe and water,' as the phrase is, for expelling from caste fellowship. Consequently our Christian converts live in the same Busti cheek by jowl with the heathen, see their lives, hear their songs, mix in their feasts and amusements, and altogether so completely identify themselves, or rather continue their old identification with them, that it is well-nigh impossible to even hope for better things so long as this lasted. The best of them are just beginning to feel that their life is not quite what it ought to be; but, as one of them said to me, 'We really are not strong enough to shut our eyes and close our ears when some wandering Faqir comes and sits down in the middle of our Busti exactly opposite our door and sings his songs and performs his idol worship. We must look on, and if it is amusing and interesting we almost must take a part.' And it's quite true--especially considering what babes in knowledge and spiritual life they still are.

"Of course the obvious remedy for all this is to segregate one's Christians and make them live somewhere together apart from the heathen; but, on the one hand, in places where this has been tried it has by no means always succeeded (owing, I cannot help thinking, rather to want of management and skill than to any inherent fault in the plan, but anyhow producing an exotic, weakly non-self-propagating Christianity); and on the other, W. has been so dead against anything of this sort that we have never been able to think of it practically. It is exactly ------'s theory that if they are a little better--if they be but farthing dips--still they will do something to lighten the darkness around, and that anything like sharp distinctions between Christians and non-Christians (as they are euphemiously called) was above all things to be avoided. A good deal of it is very true, and no doubt other Missions have, so far as we can judge, often gone to the other extreme, but after all one feels that if you expose a farthing dip on a stormy night there is another alternative possible besides that of illuminating the darkness in however slight a degree. At any rate, we have come more and more to think that something of this sort must be done if any progress is to be made. . . Anyhow the scheme of a Christian fiusti has been brought forward and theoretically approved of by the Council, though for further consideration the matter has been deferred till next month, during which time we must try and obtain some details and think over practical points--for of practical difficulties I need not say there are many. First of all, there is the initial outlay. There is a good suitable piece of ground for sale at one rupee a square yard, and we might take iooo yards or so of this to begin with if we can get the money . . . and even when this initial difficulty is overcome there will be plenty left behind--chief among these the collection of rent, for on the one hand, of course, the thought of all these poor people will be ' What does the Padre Sahib with his horse and carriage want with my few pence?' and yet, on the other hand, we are firmly persuaded that to admit them without any rent, or to make it only nominal, would be the most certain way of lowering the tone and strength of the Christian life of the Busti. Christian paupers are about as poor as most other paupers. All this has to be settled somehow or other, and I trust we may have wisdom given to us to settle it aright"

"Delhi: August 12, 1882.

"There is a little colony of our poor Chumar Christians here for whom we had a service on the Sunday morning, when I preached to them on St. James, whose day had just come, leaving his father, nets, etc., to follow Christ. Poor people, it is little idea they have at present, I fear, of self-sacrifice or any kind of sacrifice for Christ, the chief idea seeming to be what they can make by the profession of His Name, and worse still, one hardly sees how they are to get any idea of anything else when they see us who preach to them of self-denial living as Sahibs ourselves. It is hard indeed to know what one ought to do in such matters, but I suppose the best way is to strive and pray for a better spirit of self-denial for oneself and them, and believe that somehow or other it will be given. The middle of Sunday was not the pleasantest part of my time, for work goes on on the new line on which M. is engaged just the same as other days, and the bustle and stir of work was not helpful. It is more or less of a difficult question, though there is no doubt that it could quite easily be settled in the right way if only the authorities chose to have it so. Of course, in laying out railways, etc., the great part of the actual work is given out to native contractors who work with native gangs. These protest that they cannot keep their men idle on Sunday or their contract will fail; accordingly the arrangement is supposed to be that these may go on working through the Sunday, but that any European who wishes may take the day free; but, of course, this in point of fact means nothing for as these tell you ' If work is to go on in one part of a system it must go on throughout, and it can't go on without the directing and responsible heads being present--if it does it merely comes to undoing on Monday all the work done on Sunday.' This is obvious, and every one knows that the only way of really getting the Sunday for any is to compel it on allj in so far at least as the suspension of all Government or public works compels it--allowing for such extra delay in the contracts; but this means increased expense, and there's the rub. So the result is that no general order is given in the matter, but it is left in each Department or each piece of work for the head to arrange this as he likes, and unfortunately the executive Engineer of this new line does not the least care for Sunday himself, so doesn't want any one else to care for it, or get it if they do care for it; but it is not exactly what one conceives of as suitable to hear, as I did, M. telling a Hindu contractor, 'Now remember, whether you like it or not, you must keep open all Sunday.' However, I believe M. makes it as much as he can a quiet day with his wife. In the evening we had Urdu Service at 6 without a sermon, and English with one at 7.30, in the room of the Zenana Mission House: there was a nice little congregation including one or two well-educated English-speaking Hindoos."

Employment for Indian Christians.

"Jan. 23, 1882.

"I want to explain a little why it is so necessary to provide in every possible way an outlet for Christians--in other words, why the existing outlets are so small and insufficient even for the moderate number of claimants that there are. The fact is that almost all the professions, and all the trades, such as we mostly understand them, are closed to them; and this for the simple reason that before you can be a master in any trade you must be an apprentice; but an apprenticeship is just what our native Christians can't get. And here one ought to remember that it is not only the religious difference which makes a master unwilling to take a Christian apprentice, but it is also the immemorial laws of caste usage which make it practically imperative on the son to follow the profession of his father whatever that may be, and so to take a young outsider, of whom they know nothing, is just what our Aryan brethren of this country are never asked to do, and never do. . . . The chief outlets at present for Christians are two--the printing presses, which require a large number of young hands, and being chiefly in Government or Mission hands are open to all; and employment in the Mission in some way or other; but, obviously, the one of these is as unsatisfactory as the other is insufficient. I mean to say that the presses must soon, and indeed it seems that they have already got their full complement, while one sees at once that many a man may be called to be a Christian and yet not be fitted to put forward as a representative of Christianity before his fellow-countrymen, in the way in which he is when he becomes a paid agent of the Mission; not to speak of the ready imputation of bad motives to which they are laid open by the fact of so often obtaining a position and income better and far more assured to them than theirs was before their Baptism. It is under some such circumstances as these that we have thought it right to try and open one more outlet for our native brothers in the Faith. Domestic service. It must, of course, at best be a very diminutive one, but if it were only a dozen or so that we could dispose of in as many years still this would be better than letting the same number go to the bad just because they have nothing to do."

In 1884 Lefroy reviewed the work of the Mission to the Chumars in a letter to Dr. Westcott, which was printed as an "Occasional Paper," but now out of print. It is too long to reprint here, and I proceed to give the substance of it. First, he meets the criticism that it was not the business of the Cambridge Brother to work among the low castes. He replies that the circumstances were such as to make this step inevitable. They found an over-burdened Mission which had been in existence twenty years. From 1877 up to 1881 there had been large accessions owing probably to famine. They found some eight hundred persons who were supposed to be Christians, but who could only be so termed in a most superficial sense. The so-called Christians of this class were entangled with caste in all their old customs. They could not be left in that condition without scandal to the Mission, and without incurring probably the criticism of educated Hindus and Moslems. Secondly, how could these so-called Christians be helped? Mr. Winter had persistently held that they ought to be left with their caste relatives and neighbours to act as leaven. He was not in favour of segregation. On the other hand, the Cambridge men, after two years' observation, considered that the leaven was such only in name, and would soon lose its character, and that some form of segregation must be attempted. Mr. Winter gave his consent to the experiment, and Lefroy proceeded to create Christian Bustis at Daryaganj. At the same time he was quite aware of the danger of fostering an exotic growth not fitted to battle with success against surrounding temptations. A little square of eight houses was built and Christian families were admitted on condition that they observed three rules: (1) to observe Sunday as a rest day; (2) to use Christian rites exclusively at times of birth, marriage, and death; (3) to abstain from the use of "charas" (drugs). The families established themselves in the Busti. Then in due time came the clash with the old-time customs, and it was necessary to take some drastic step in order to make the dividing line clear between the old life and the new. The plan adopted was to hold a Panchayat--a meeting, well understood in Indian life. Lefroy gives a graphic picture of the scene, full of dramatic incidents. The two forces met half an hour after midnight, with the European missionaries as spectators. The lights were little flickering points, but these were sufficient to illumine faces engaged in controversy, subtle, endless in length. So the hours passed. The Europeans would not intervene. It was for Indian Christians to settle their position against the others. Finally a bowl of Ganges water was introduced by the caste people, and all were asked to lift it up as an act of worship if they still adhered to the caste. When daylight came the remnant was small, but these at 7.30 a.m. went into their chapel for worship. The exhausted missionaries returned, convinced that it was their duty to obtain reality at the cost of losing thereby the merely nominal adherents.

I print here for convenience, and to emphasize the determination of the Mission to sustain reality, two letters written three years afterwards.

"Delhi: April 12, 1887.

"In our Mission Council this morning we discussed a question which has been looming in the distance, has only been staved off so long by R. R. W.'s reluctance to touch it, and must, as every one knows, come sooner or later. Do you at all realise the principle involved in the big night meeting in Daryaganj of which I wrote an account in an Occasional Paper? Out of the many baptized Christians who were living in the old ties and customs of the old Chumar brotherhood a few determined, as the only way of attaining to any kind of really Christian standpoint, to definitely sever all connection with the old Brotherhood. These constitute the inmates of my ' Bastis.' It was, of course, hoped at the time that this example would be followed by many more. Sad to say it has not been so, and year by year we are becoming more conscious of the dead weight round our necks in all further efforts for the spread of Christ's kingdom which the pressure of such a mass of absolutely nominal Christians is. The time is therefore coming very near when we (not the Padres only, but the body of the Christian Church here which has in any degree attained to a higher life) must take measures to call upon these men to do one thing or other, either to confess themselves Chumars, and have their names struck off our lists and be no more recognised as Christians, or to come out as Christians in some more or less real way. That it will, of course, mean the lapse of a great number there can, I fear, be no doubt; but indeed lapse is not the right word to use, when it is no actual fall, but a simple realisation and honest declaration of a state of things which has existed all through. . . . We bring the matter before our Easter Vestry next Tuesday, and start the ball thus."

"Delhi: May 3, 1887.

"We are having a good deal of stir just now in various ways. First of all, there is the movement towards discipline among our poor Chumar Christians, to which I alluded in some previous letter. It will mean a great searching of hearts, and the lapse, I fear, of the vast majority of our present nominal Christians; but, terrible as such a remedy must be, I do from my heart of hearts believe that it is better than our present state, and indeed, under the circumstances, the condition of any internal growth or onward progress. But besides this there are beginning to be signs, I feel almost sure, of something stirring among our College students. There are at present two definite cases on: one a Hindu who has been reading privately with A. for some time, and is now, I think, trying to make up his mind for the wrench of Baptism; the other, a more remarkable one, a young Parsee (than whom as a race there are scarcely any stronger opponents of Christianity) who is high in his class in the College, and a few weeks ago was deeply stirred, chiefly as far as we can make out by the 51st Psalm, and is coming to W. wanting almost immediate Baptism. It is a terrible thing to say, and to have to feel, but in all cases out here one has under the sad teachings of experience to ask is there any possible underlying motive (other than the apparent one) one cannot tell; there does not in this case seem to be. But whether or not we have any disappointment in the case of these individuals, which I trust in God's mercy we may not have, they may still, I believe, be taken as first signs of a coming movement. It will be a very great privilege if we are permitted so soon to see definite incomings of our labour. Of course it may very possibly not be so, but the thought of it helps to invigorate one for a stronger, more earnest life."

"Delhi: May 28, 1887.

"We had the big Panchayat of which I spoke in my letter to H. C. C. on Wednesday last about 6-10.30 p.m. It was certainly a very momentous occasion, and I hope to tell you more about it some day. In numbers it was even worse than any of us, I believe, had contemplated. Out of a nominal roll of 500 or 600 at least, about 50 or 60 were present. These, however, made rather a firmer stand than we had expected. Practically, then, with a great sweep of the work of years we start again anew with this remnant. It seems a terrible thing, and one may well ask whether the evils of the present system could be great enough to justify such extreme action; but I have myself no doubt whatever that it was right to do it, and I humbly and earnestly believe that the building up of a real congregation may be taken to date almost from this."

A scene at Kohat emphasises the same point. The letter is written many years later, when he was Bishop of Lahore.

Kohat: Feb. I, 1905.

"A man had, after years of work and waiting on the part of the missionaries, come forward and asked for Baptism, and, as there is, alas! no clerical missionary at this station, only two doctors, I was to baptise him, and a very memorable scene, for me at least, it was. Dr. Pennell much counselled the baptism to be in public and disabuse the people's mind of the common idea that we make a man a Christian by feeding him with swine's flesh and giving him beer to drink (their chief conception of an Englishman's religion!) and letting them see what baptism really is. Accordingly, it was to take place in the little open square in the centre of the village. The clouds were so threatening (there had been unusually heavy rain during the last week which made much of the going, frequently across fields, never on any proper road, very heavy for the horses, also the cold has been great, unlike anything I have ever before felt in India) that to the last moment we did not know whether the service could take place in the open; but at last we sallied forth, armed with an umbrella for my protection if the rain should come down. Just as we entered the square a rather untoward little incident, tell it not in Gath, occurred. We had to cross a little bridge, the earth was slippery with the rain, and as I stepped down from it, heading the procession, remember in full vestments, my feet slid from under me and, without a chance of saving myself, I measured my length in the mud, almost into the stream, fortunately not quite. No harm was done whatever, though the Rochet did not look at its best. I rather dreaded the effect of the incident, as an omen, on the new convert; but it was interesting to be told that it was sure not to strike the people in that light at all, because rain is so essentially the great blessing in this land that all connected with it, including apparently mud, slipperiness and falls, is viewed as of evidently good omen. A funny point of view to us! Anyhow they were quite clear that the fact of rain falling on the day was so marked a sign of God's hand on us for good as more than to outweigh any such little incident as my fall.

"Then the Baptism took place, the man answering clearly and decidedly, and his two little boys, quite little, being baptised with him, while many of the villagers were gathered round the edge of the square, watching and listening keenly though saying nothing. It was an experience to thank God for."

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