FRENCH was appointed to educational work at Agra. That historic city was the capital of the great territory then called the "North-west Provinces," now the "United Provinces," comprising a great part of the Valley of the Ganges. In North India, the whole of which was in those days comprised in the Presidency of Bengal, Agra was only second in importance to Calcutta. And it was already a city to which attached deep missionary interest. In 1811 a Baptist minister was sent there from Carey's Mission at Serampore, but was instantly sent back by the British authorities, under a guard of heathen Sepoys; and on being invited again to Agra, merely to be tutor to an officer's children, he was a second time ordered back by Lord Hastings, then Governor-General, who said that "one might fire a pistol into a powder-magazine, and it might not explode, but no wise man would hazard the experiment."
But in the following year Daniel Corrie, one of the famous Five Chaplains under the East India Company to whom India owes so much, was appointed to Agra; and he took thither with him a remarkable convert from Mohammedanism, led to Christ by the preaching of Henry Martyn at Cawnpore. [The five were David Brown, Claudius Buchanan, Henry Martyn, Thomas Thomas on, and Daniel Corrie. They were first called "The Five" by Sir John Kaye in his Christianity in India.] This man, Sheikh Salih, had been master of the jewels at the Court of Oudh; and he was baptized at Calcutta on Whit Sunday, 1811, by the name of Abdul Masih (Servant of Christ). A Corresponding Committee of the C.M.S. had been formed at Calcutta, and the Society had remitted to it money for the employment of native Christian readers; and the first of these to be engaged was Abdul Masih. He was thus the first C.M.S. missionary in India; for no English Churchman had yet gone out definitely for work among the non-Christian population; and although there were a very few German Lutherans in the south working under the S.P.C.K., no missionary was allowed by the East India Company in the north, i.e. in British territory. Carey's Mission was in a Danish possession. Abdul Masih worked zealously at Agra for several years, and brought some fifty converts to Corrie for baptism. He was ordained by Bishop Heber in 1826, but died in the following year. His portrait was sent home to Charles Simeon, and it hangs in the C.M.S. committee-room to this day. It is worth remembering that the first Indian clergyman of the Church of England was (a) a convert from Mohammedanism, (b) a fruit of Henry Martyn's preaching, (c) admitted to the sacred ministry by Bishop Heber.
Schools were opened and "readers" stationed at several cities in North India, notably at Agra, Delhi, and Cawnpore, being generally superintended by the Company's chaplains or by earnest Christian officers; but Agra was not definitely occupied as a mission station until 1838-40, when three Germans appeared in India, who had laboured in North-western Persia under the Basle Missionary Society, but had been expelled by the Russians when the latter annexed the districts in which they were working. These men, Hoernle, Pfander, and Schneider, were engaged by the C.M.S., and stationed at Agra; and they afterwards received Anglican orders from the Bishop of Calcutta.
Meanwhile the great work of Dr. Alexander Duff at Calcutta was opening the eyes of missionary leaders to the value of Higher Education on Christian principles, as an evangelistic agency among the upper classes of India. One C.M.S. missionary in the south, Robert Noble, adopted Duff's method and opened a High School at Masulipatam, which in after-years produced a long succession of individual high-caste converts, many of whom became the leaders of the Church in the Telugu districts. The Society was being urged by friends in the north, particularly by Mr. James Thomason, the very able Lieut.-Governor of the North-west Provinces, and his secretary, Mr. (afterwards Sir William) Muir, to open a similar college at Agra; and they raised a large fund on the spot wherewith to start it. But the Society had no men suitable for the purpose. Pfander was a missionary of the highest class, but he was devoting himself to a different kind of work among the Mohammedans, and English University men were needed for the projected college. French's offer came providentially in the nick of time; another offer from a Dublin graduate of distinction, Edward Craig Stuart, enabled the Committee to respond joyfully, at last, to the appeal for men; and the Special Fund raised in connexion with the Society's Jubilee in 1849 helped the Fund raised in India to provide the means.
It is an interesting fact that the Valedictory Meeting at which French and Stuart were taken leave of, on Aug. 20, 1850, in the parish schoolroom of Islington, was attended by, among others, Dr. Ludwig Krapf, the great pioneer of East Africa Missions, who was in England at the time after thirteen years of toil and suffering in the Dark Continent. So, just ten years before, in 1840, the young David Livingstone had been present at the famous meeting for the promotion of the Niger Expedition, over which Prince Albert presided, only four months after his marriage with Queen Victoria.
French and Stuart sailed on September 11 in the East Indian Queen, which reached Calcutta after an unusually quick voyage, of course round the Cape, on January 2,1851. They at once proceeded up-country to Agra, where they were warmly welcomed by the Lieut.-Governor and his colleagues, several of whom were devout Christians. Of James Thomason himself, the highest encomiums are on record. Sir Richard Temple, in his Men and Events of my Time in India, writes, "He was one of the most successful Englishmen that have ever borne sway in India"; "his life was a pattern of how a Christian Governor ought to live." Under him were trained some of the ablest of Anglo-Indian civilians: among them John Lawrence, Robert Montgomery, Donald McLeod, and William Muir. He was a son of Thomas Thomason, one of the Five Chaplains before alluded to, who had been recommended to the East India Company by Simeon of Cambridge. Simeon's faith in getting Indian appointments for Cambridge men of his type, when the need was so great of godly men at home, has indeed been abundantly rewarded.
French soon lost his colleague, Stuart being transferred to Calcutta; and, on the other hand, he gained a still closer companion, being married to Miss M. A. Janson, a lady he had met at Oxford. Naturally he was largely occupied at first in studying the languages he would need if he were to be an efficient Principal of the College. In later days he became known in India as "the seven-tongued man"; and his ideas of what was necessary may be gathered from counsel given by him subsequently to a young missionary:
"You must, of course, commence with Urdu or Hindustani, so as to be able to talk with your servants, to help in the services of the church, and in the schools. You had better give some six or eight hours a day to that, and also spend two or three hours at Punjabi, to be able to talk with villagers. You should also try to give two or three hours to the study of Persian, which you will find invaluable in the schools, and all your spare time to Arabic, so as to be able to read the Quran."
The new college, named St. John's after Henry Martyn's college at Cambridge, "with additional reference to St. John as the Apostle of Oriental Churches," was opened in 1853. But a sort of beginning was to be seen before that. Mr. Charles Raikes, the Chief Judge at Agra, thus describes what he saw:
"In a corner of the rising edifice, with some twenty or thirty black boys round him, sat the future Bishop of Lahore. The weather was hot, the room small, the subject a lesson in Paradise Lost. The contrast between the highly educated Fellow of University College and his little dusky flock, between the sounding phrases of the poet and the Hindustani patois of the students, was too great for me. Surely, I exclaimed, as I went out, this is a case of labour lost, of talent misapplied, of power wasted. I was wrong: that tie between teacher and disciple, which in the day of adversity proved so strong and so lasting, was already formed, and was daily to draw closer the bond of love."
From the first the college was successful in attracting boys, although there was a large Government College in the city. In that institution the Bible was not taught; and intelligent parents of a superior class, though they had no wish for their sons to become Christians--and indeed no fear of their doing so,--did wish them to learn truthfulness and honesty, and the moral virtues generally; and experience has shown that it is always Christian teaching that does this, even where there is no conversion. But French, of course, aimed at conversions, and constantly prayed for them; and he soon discerned tokens of the Spirit's working among his pupils. His boys, he told the congregation when preaching in the English church, knew Scripture better than the average Oxford undergraduate; and some of them, he said, though unbaptized, had "endured more for Jesus" than any of the English in Agra. But he longed to be training "the native apostles, or at least the Tituses and Timothys of India," and hoped that they might come out of his first class of ten boys One of the ten, baptized a few years later by Shackell (a subsequent Principal), became the Rev. Madho Ram, pastor at Jabalpur. It is the general experience of these high schools and colleges that, while few conversions occur among the pupils at the time, many occur in after-years, when the truths learned at school come back with fresh force under other influences. French himself, twenty years later, far away in the Punjab, baptized an old student of St. John's, who found him out there, and came forward to confess Christ. Another case was revealed in a letter received by him in 1873. The writer had desired baptism while in the college, but was induced by his mother not to come forward; and now, after twenty years, he had at last been enabled to give himself wholly to Christ and had been baptized. "One soweth and another reapeth."
But French did not confine his labours to the college. He eagerly used every opportunity to make Christ known by conversations with individuals whom he met in various ways, and by itinerating in the neighbouring villages; and several conversions were the result. In one year three Mohammedan munshis were baptized, of whom he wrote, "They have forsaken all for Christ, and have suffered bitter reproaches for His Name's sake." There was at that time much earnest controversy between the missionaries and the Moslem moulvies. Pfander was untiring in this work, and his books, the Mizan-al-Haqq (Balance of Truth), Miftah-al-Asrar (Key of Secrets), and Hall-al-Ishkal (Solution of Difficulties), had a great effect upon the Mohammedan mind. The public discussion of 1854 is one of the famous incidents in the history of Missions in India. The scene was a striking one. The meeting took place in the C.M.S. school, which was crowded with Mohammedans sitting cross-legged on the floor. On one side sat the Moslem champions, and behind them a band of assistant students; opposite were Pfander and French and their brethren. Piles of English and German works, among which Strauss was conspicuous, lay in front of the Moslem disputants; and the burden of their attack proved to be the various readings in the MSS. of the Scriptures. The points adduced are familiar enough to even elementary Bible students in Europe; but the moulvies had got hints of damaging criticisms of the Bible, and had spared no pains to search them out. Hints from whom? It was afterwards discovered that they had been suggested by the Roman Catholic Bishop and priests! The discussion lasted two days, and, as might be expected, both sides claimed the victory. But not many years afterwards two of the younger moulvies, who at that discussion heard for the first time the Christian argument put verbally by faithful servants of Christ, came out and embraced the Gospel. One was Moulvie Safdar Ali, who became Extra Assistant Inspector in the Government Education Department; the other was Moulvie Imad-ud-din, whom we shall meet again as the Christian preacher and writer of Amritsar on whom Archbishop Benson conferred the Lambeth D.D. degree.
In 1857 came the great Mutiny, which for a time threatened the overthrow of British rule in India, and in which hundreds of English men and women and children were massacred. For nearly six months Agra was blockaded by the insurgent Sepoys. Writing of the early days of the conflict, Mr. Charles Raikes says:
"I must record the impression made on me by the calmness and coolness of Mr. French. Every Englishman was handling his sword or his revolver; the city folk running as if for their lives; . . . outside the college, all alarm, hurry, and confusion. Within calmly sat the good missionary, and hundreds of young natives at his feet, hanging on the lips that taught them the simple truths of the Bible."
"And so it was," he goes on, "throughout the revolt." While highly paid native officials deserted to the enemy, the students in French's college, Hindu or Mohammedan though they might be, stayed where they were; and when the city had to be abandoned, and all retired to the fort, they still proved trusty friends. An incident occurred when that grave step was taken which has often been misreported. The actual fact was that, when the Lieut.-Governor who had succeeded Thomason, Mr. Covlin, withdrew all Europeans into the fort, the native Christians in the city were admitted too; but then appeared the Christians from Secundra, six miles away, entreating to be taken in. French could not induce the officer at the gate to admit them; but at length, "on declaring his unalterable purpose to stay out with them if they were refused," the officer consented to open the gate if a written order were brought from the general; and this was easily obtained. And well it proved that they were admitted, for the heathen and Mohammedan servants had all deserted, and these poor Christians were taken into employment instead. [The mistaken report was that native Christians already in the fort were to be turned out, and that French only saved them by threatening to go out with them.]
In 1859, French's health being much impaired, he took furlough to England. For a year and a half he served as Curate at Clifton Parish Church. Then, despite many remonstrances against his returning to India, he sallied forth again, leaving wife and children behind. "I trust," he wrote to his wife, "the sacrifice we thus make of some of life's happiest years, the years when joy is intensest, may be graciously accepted for His sake, who alone can put any worth into our poor maimed offerings." It was not, however, to Agra that he was now bound. St. John's College had been committed to other hands, and the development was commencing which has since made it one of the largest missionary institutions in India. But French was to be again the pioneer in a new enterprise.