Project Canterbury

India and Oxford
Fifty Years of the Oxford Mission to Calcutta

London: SPCK, [n.d., but 1933]

Chapter I. Origins and Methods

Oxford in the seventies and eighties of the last century had recovered from the shattering blow of Newman's secession. For the time it had driven the Oxford Movement into exile--an exile which, as Dean Church has told us, had the happy result of leading to the evangelization of the slums of the great cities--but now, without interrupting this activity, the Movement reappeared in its original home. It would be difficult in any age of the Church to point to a finer band of religious leaders than these great Victorians. The torch had passed from Oriel to Christ Church, where Pusey still lingered in his college rooms and from time to time emerged to deliver one of his soul-searching sermons. The place of the original three had been taken by three others scarcely less great--Liddon, the devout and eloquent preacher; Bright, the learned historian; and, best beloved of all, Edward King, the saintly soul whose face already shone with the beauty of those who turn many to righteousness. Not far away were Richard Benson, perhaps the greatest of them all, and Church, "the one and only Dean." And beside these there was quite a company of younger men ready to follow in their steps, most of whom became known afterwards as members of the Lux Mundi group--Paget, Scott Holland, Illingworth, Talbot, Aubrey Moore (who died early), and, clarum et venerabile nomen, Charles Gore. The Oxford Movement had a sort of second summer in its own home, where it was represented by such names as these.

And the summer was to be followed by a fruitful autumn. The cause of Foreign Missions had not been taken up by the early Tractarians. The fight to maintain their own position at home had been too severe to allow them to turn their thoughts to other countries--perhaps it would have been better for them if they had--but now that cause began to impress itself on their minds, as it must sooner or later impress itself on anyone who is in earnest about his religion.

The first note was sounded by Dr. King. At Oxford he established a hostel for missionary students reading at the University, and he placed in charge of it one Marsham Argles, who had recently taken his degree at Balliol. But Argles was not a man to do things by halves. As he prepared others for work in the Mission-field, the question quickly presented itself, Why should I not go myself? And on this arose a second question, Where? A sense of responsibility for India, not only in the sphere of religion, but also in that of politics, social life, and education, lay very close to the heart of many of the great men of that period. Were we as Englishmen doing our duty by that great dependency? We could point to great efforts in several departments, but until Cambridge led the way with its Mission to Delhi in 1877, these efforts had chiefly dealt with the poor and uneducated; as far as the higher classes were concerned we were giving education without religion--an education which, as some of them bitterly complained, took away their gods without giving them a new one whom they could accept. What, for instance, were we doing in Calcutta--that great city, the second in the British Empire, which the English had founded and made their capital? The brilliant beginning made by Dr. Duff had not been followed up, and at this time the strongest religious influence in the city was that, not of a Christian, but of a Brahmo--the wonderfully attractive and eloquent Keshub Chunder Sen. Much as we admired and liked him, could we think that his Unitarian teaching had in it the condition of permanence and completeness? Could the Christian Church leave the matter in his hands? St. Paul has said, "I am debtor both to the wise and to the unwise." Difficult as was the task of bringing home the Gospel to learned Muslims and Hindus, were we not bound to attempt it? And was not the University of Oxford pre-eminently the body which might lead the way? And so the foundation of the Oxford Mission was laid in King's rooms at Christ Church on October 18,1879. In that meeting the following took part: Canons King and Bright, Dr. Talbot, the Warden of Keble (afterwards Bishop of Winchester), H. R. Bramley of Magdalen, C. E. Hammond of Exeter, J. Wordsworth of Brasenose (afterwards Bishop of Salisbury), H. Scott Holland and F. Paget (afterwards Bishop of Oxford) of Christ Church, M. F. Argles of St. John's, and E. F. Willis of Balliol. These ten formed themselves into a committee, with power to add to their number--Dr. Liddon and Charles Gore were at once added--for the promotion of the Oxford Mission, subject to the approval of the Bishop of Calcutta. Two important resolutions were passed. The first was "that the Mission shall take the form of an association of men living together in a community, though bound only by the tie of a common object." The second was "that this Committee is prepared to act under the conditions suggested by the Bishop of Calcutta--namely, to keep the Mission before the public, regulate finances, and advise, but not to exercise definite control over the activities of the Mission in India."

The last was a very noble, self-denying ordinance on the part of the Committee. Hitherto it had too often been assumed that the Society at home which found the money should also, in greater or less degree, exercise the control; but the Bishop of Calcutta had realized the inconvenience of having his clergy subject to an authority whose distance from the scene of operations was a cause of frequent delays, obstructions, and misunderstandings. Moreover, the question of principle might be raised as to whether such an authority was consistent with the Constitution of the Church. In this respect the Oxford Mission made a new departure, and certain it is that the Mission from the first felt the immense advantage of being able to act on its own initiative, subject, of course, to the advice and authority of the Bishop.

Of the difficulty of the work, indeed, there was no doubt. Let no one think that such a great enterprise was lightly undertaken, or with any hopes of immediate success. A sermon which was preached and published at this time dealt with "The Difficulties of Indian Conversion." In it were fully set forth the claims which the great religions of India have to our respect and admiration. Nor could it be for a moment supposed that they had not in God's providence filled a valuable place in the spiritual and intellectual advancement of the nation. But was not that very advancement a call for further advance? Does not this innate religiousness of the Indian peoples prove that sooner or later they must have a great part to play in bringing us to that one far-off "divine event" which is, we believe, the predestined fulfilment of history?

Bengal is in some respects the leading province of India. It is true that Bengalis are no fighters, and for that reason are looked down upon by the warlike races of the North and North-west. But in the arts of peace they are well to the fore. The Calcutta University, with some 26,000 students, is larger than any other in India. The names of Rabindranath Tagore and Jagadish Chandra Bose are symbolic of Bengali eminence in literature and science. The Brahmo movement, though it has not fulfilled all its promise, was almost entirely a Bengali movement. And there is one respect which would seem to make Bengal a very promising sphere of labour. While most other races (the Tamils are another exception) keep to their own province, the Bengalis go everywhere. There is no part of India in which they are not found in positions of some importance. They are not traders like the Marwari, nor given to domestic service like the people of Madras, but as clerks, as schoolmasters, as professors in colleges, and even in the position of Dewans (viziers) in some of the Native States, Bengalis--always recognizable by their characteristic names--are to be found. It was this that made Dr. Duff say that a religious movement initiated in Bengal would be felt throughout the length and breadth of India. Unfortunately, since the days of Dr. Duff and Keshub Chunder Sen the Bengali mind has turned away from religion. It has been so engrossed by the political struggle that the still small voice of religion scarcely makes itself heard. The last census showed Bengal to be behind any of the larger provinces in the number of its professing Christians. Out of a total of 50 millions in the province, only 180,572 are returned as Christians--this is to be compared with 5,961,794 Christians in the whole of India.

Looking back, then, over our first fifty years' work, we cannot claim that it has been marked by any very striking success, and the question has sometimes occurred to us whether it would not be the highest wisdom to desert what seems a barren field for one of those regions--such as the diocese of Dornakal--where the converts are coming in so fast that the main difficulty is to provide them with teachers. What is it that withholds us from doing so? It is mainly the sense of the solidarity of the Church; the belief that what seems like failure must in the long run contribute quite as much as "success" to the evolution of the whole body. The cross must always have its place in Christian work, and if it does not come in one way it will come in another. Sir John Kaye, in his History of the Sepoy War writing about the reconquest of Delhi, tells how the cavalry brigade were ordered to take up a position where they could accomplish nothing, but could only accomplish nothing, but could only die. The nature of the ground made it impossible for horses to advance, and yet if they had deserted their position it would quickly have been occupied by the enemy, who would thus get behind the British lines. And so, he says: "For two long hours the brigade stood firm as a rock, and as one after another fell riddled with grape or canister there was no wavering in the rank. Every man pressed his knees more tightly in his saddle and took a firmer grip of his reins. There was nothing else in their demeanour to distinguish this grand game of defiance and endurance from an ordinary cavalry parade. I may be wrong, but I think that this heroism of patience is grander than the active gallantry displayed in a perilous charge. It is far easier to rush at an enemy in the first enthusiasm of battle than to stand steadfast on a given spot for an ungiven period, waiting for the order or the opportunity to move, whilst swept by the fire of a hidden enemy." The educated classes, and more especially the University student, have been, and must always be, according to its Constitution, the primary interest of the Oxford Mission. But experience has shown that they are immensely difficult to deal with, and not all the members of the Mission have had the necessary qualifications for doing so. Consequently we have not felt ourselves precluded from launching out in other directions so long as this primary purpose of the Mission was not being neglected. From the first we have felt the importance of good Christian boys' schools, and tried to establish them as we had opportunity. Also we have been anxious to establish hostels for non-Christian students in all the places we could reach. In 1895 we were invited by our Bishop to a much more serious undertaking. This was the charge of a village mission in East Bengal--of which Barisal is the headquarters--which for reasons which we need not now go into had become derelict (see Chapter V), but which still counted among its members a considerable number of Church-people. The facts that it was our own Bishop who called upon us for this service to the Church and that it did not appear that there was anyone else to do it, also that on general principles it did not seem right that we should confine ourselves strictly and absolutely to one class of the community, led us after much consideration to accept the call. And so was started the Barisal mission, which has now grown almost to the proportions of a village or small town, with its stately church, its home for Hindu widows, its schools for boys and girls, its training class for teachers, and its ramifications in villages which spread over more than fifty square miles. In this kind of work we soon discovered that we should be helpless without the aid of Sisters, and so a Sisterhood has grown up under the fostering care of its Warden and its first Mother Superior, which now numbers some thirty European Sisters with certain Indian novices. This will form the subject of a future chapter.

There is one more activity of the Mission which deserves to be noticed. In the year 1883 Philip Smith of blessed memory (he died in 1887) started a small weekly paper for the benefit of English readers. It consisted of four pages the size of the Spectator, and its object was to help to explain the Christian religion to those who did not know it--in fact, to manifest Christ to the Gentiles--and so it was called The Epiphany. At first it had only a small circulation, but in the hands of Charles Walker, who edited it from 1885 to 1903, it attained a circulation of nearly 10,000 weekly, and it now goes into all parts of India and far beyond. It has penetrated America, Australia, Africa, China and Japan; Abyssinia and Tibet have furnished readers. It is taken in and circulated by missionaries of all denominations. Its most interesting feature is the letters which it prints from correspondents of every range of opinion. No letters are refused (so far as space allows) from anyone who can state his case intelligently and without wilful offence in English, and thus we gain an insight into the opinions of those around us and their genuine objections--often starting from a Christian point of view--to our teaching. Nothing has helped so much in gaining a sympathetic understanding of the minds of our readers--mostly Hindus and Muslims--and thus we have been helped in meeting their difficulties and in many cases leading them nearer to Christ. Testimonies to the value of this paper as a missionary agency have reached us from all quarters. The Principal (in 1924) of the Church Missionary College at Peshawar wrote to a friend:" The only thing I know about the Oxford Mission is that they issue a little weekly paper called The Epiphany, and I don't mind saying that if they do nothing else that paper alone justifies their existence. It is equal to the maintenance of an extra missionary in every college and hostel to which it goes."

Bishop Gore said in a speech that he considered The Epiphany "one of the most wonderful papers on the face of the globe. . . . You cannot conceive in England the gulf which yawns between the life of the Englishman and the life of the native, though the English and the natives are touching one another physically every day. . . . This Epiphany, with its medium of communication, with its correspondence column, acts as a link between the thought of the Englishman and the thought of the Indian. It is quite invaluable; there is nothing like it in India."

The Epiphany has also a small satellite called Tara (the Star), which is published monthly in Bengali.

Let it be candidly acknowledged that there is one respect in which the Mission has conspicuously failed. The population of Bengal is divided almost equally between Hindus and Muslims, the latter slightly predominating. For these Muslims the Mission has done nothing. They are much less accessible than the Hindus. They are apt to fortify themselves in a rather unintelligent loyalty to their own religion and strongly to resent any suggestion of its inadequacy. In point of education the Hindus leave them far behind. The experts always say that it is useless to expect success with Muslims unless the work is pursued with an exclusive and wholehearted devotion, an entire consecration of time and talents to Arabic studies and Islamic questions. No one in the Mission has hitherto been drawn to such consecration. Cambridge has produced its Lefroy, but Oxford has not so far followed in its footsteps. So this great hiatus remains unfilled, and though the Muslims have begun to take great interest in The Epiphany, that only represents a small beginning which has not yet been followed up. It would indeed be a matter for thankfulness if the Mission could see its way to remedying this great defect, which cuts it off from more than half the inhabitants of the province.

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