OXFORD has given the Church a noble V band of Missionary Bishops. Recalling only a few of the more conspicuous, we think of Heber and Daniel Wilson, among the earlier in India; of Williams and Had-field, each with his half-century of labour in New Zealand; of the two missionary martyrs, Patteson and Hannington; of the first English Bishops in South Africa (Gray), Madagascar (Kestell-Cornish), China (G. Smith), Japan (Poole), Rupert's Land (Anderson); of still surviving veterans like Copleston of Calcutta, Scott of North China, Tucker of Uganda; to say nothing of many other distinguished Bishops in colonial fields. But in the front rank of all must be placed the name of French, first Bishop of Lahore. Thomas Valpy French was born on New Year's Day, 1825, at the Abbey, Burton-on-Trent, in which town his father was vicar of Holy Trinity Church for forty-seven years. The Rev. Peter French was much respected as a leading and successful Evangelical clergyman. He was an able preacher, and he accomplished an important work in building churches and mission-rooms and schools in the town and district. Mrs. French was noted for the "sweetness and gentleness" of her character, and indeed was described as an embodiment of the Psalm of Love in the thirteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians. Thomas was their eldest child. The quaint, old-fashioned house in which he was born, once part of a Benedictine Abbey, on the banks of the Trent, and only separated from the bustling brewing town by its own wall, was typical of the future Bishop's own life, passed amid incessant and pressing occupations, yet marked by a certain aloofness and ecclesiastical quietism which made him breathe the atmosphere of the venerated past, even in the environment of the urgent present.
It is recorded of the future missionary that, from early childhood, he manifested "his keen interest in the various deputations who came to plead the cause of Missions," and "his carefulness to mention their names in his prayers"; and also that, at the age of six or seven, he seriously began to write sermons. After a short time at Reading Grammar School, he went at the age of fourteen to Rugby, then in the full tide of its influence under Arnold. A school-fellow of his there, afterwards a well-known London clergyman, the Rev. G. P. Pownall, has left an interesting account of French as a Rugby boy. They two, and R. A. Cross (now Viscount Cross) used to study together. Pownall describes him as having been "wise unto that which is good, and simple concerning evil," and as having been somewhat puzzled by Arnold's sermons, which, despite their manly earnestness, did not seem quite "the gospel" he was familiar with at Burton.
In 1843 he went to Oxford, having won a scholarship at University College. He took no part in the burning controversies of the time; and the influence of John Henry Newman, who was then nearing his secession, was on the wane. He taught in the Holy well Sunday School, under E. M. Goul-burn (afterwards Dean of Norwich). He was a collector for the C.M.S., and he formed (it is believed) a little missionary union, one of whose members was A. H. Mackonachie, afterwards of St. Alban's, Holborn. But he was a thorough student, and in 1846 he obtained a first class in "greats," along with Conington, Bright, and Ince--all of whom became Professors--and subsequently won the coveted Chancellor's Latin Essay Prize, and was elected Fellow of his college.
The call to the mission-field came to French from different quarters and in different forms. First, H. W. Fox, the pioneer of the Telugu Mission in South India, during his first visit to England addressed a breakfast-party of men in Trinity College; and Canon Curteis (author of one of the Lives of Bishop Selwyn), who was French's contemporary at University College, and was taken by him to that breakfast, writes that he "can hardly doubt that that address made a permanent mark" on his "sympathizing and enthusiastic soul." Then Fox, on his return to India, wrote to French and begged him to come out. "If God's promises be true," he wrote, "the more men come out the more men will He raise up to bless the Church with, which out of its poverty gives its best to His cause." Then came a great speech by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, appealing to Oxford men to go forth; which French himself looked back to in later years as having brought him to the point. He and a friend prayed together over it, and that friend, Arthur Lea, was killed in a railway accident soon after. "The one was taken," says Mr. Birks, French's biographer, "and the other left, and so their mutual vows of consecration appeared to him doubly binding." He at once put himself in communication with the Church Missionary Society, and he was thankfully accepted for missionary service on April 16, 1850.
Then began a career remarkable as comprising five distinct periods of foreign service, every one of them occupied by distinctly new and in a sense pioneer work.