IN 1867 French submitted to the Church Missionary Society a paper entitled "Proposed Plan for a Training College of Native Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers for North-west India and the Punjab." Both civilians and soldiers in India, he said, and also Indians of learning and intelligence, considered that "the materials in hand for constructing and building up the Native Church in India were not turned to the best account," and that the more advanced converts should receive a higher theological training to fit them to be able pastors and evangelists. The history of Christendom, he argued, showed that in former times institutions were located at convenient centres where "a small body of Christian teachers devoted themselves to the more complete establishment and firmer building up, in the truth and doctrine of Christianity, of a portion of the choicest and ablest converts." This was not left to be a desultory work, occupying the spare moments of missionaries already fully occupied. The ripest veterans undertook the work. An important feature of French's scheme was that the teaching should be given in the vernacular. "The plan of instructing our native teachers in English without putting them in possession of the power to express themselves on Christian doctrine correctly in the vernacular is quite abhorrent to the general practice of the Church of Christ from the beginning, as well as to right reason itself."
After a good deal of correspondence this scheme came before the C.M.S. Committee on Feb. 18, 1868. It so happen that on the same day were considered proposals by Sir R. Montgomery (who was now at home) for the better training of the Society's students at Islington; and when, after two hours' discussion, these received approval, French's similar suggestions for Indian students came on. Distinguished Anglo-Indians, Montgomery himself, J. F. Thomas, F. N. Maltby, H. Carre Tucker, and leading clergymen like Dr. J. C. Miller, all spoke in his favour; the plan was adopted with enthusiasm, and French was given carte blanche to carry it out.
And then a fresh token of God's favour appeared in the offer of the Rev. J. W. Knott, who was present that day, to join in the enterprise. Knott was one of the most remarkable men who ever dedicated himself to missionary service. He was a Fellow of Brasenose, and had been an ardent disciple of Dr. Pusey, who sent him to the charge of St. Saviour's, Leeds, the church built by Pusey at his own cost, though under the name only of "A Penitent." Dr. Hook's great work had made Leeds an Anglican stronghold; but, High Churchman as he was, he disliked both the ritual and the teaching at St. Saviour's. To Pusey himself the church proved a sore trouble. Within six years of its consecration nine out of fifteen clergymen connected with it seceded and joined the Church of Rome. Knott was sent by Pusey to retrieve the position, and he was soon the recognised "confessor" of hundreds of men and women from all parts of the North of England. But the issue in his case was very different. After a prolonged and painful mental struggle, he avowed to Pusey that his experience of the confessional had entirely changed his views, but in the opposite direction; and eventually he resigned his charge, and returned to Oxford. Presently, in virtue of his Brasenose fellowship, he succeeded to the important and lucrative rectory of East Ham. It was this influential position that he now surrendered in order to join French.
Much correspondence with India as to the place where the college should be located caused delay; but on January 5, 1869, the C.M.S. committee-room was crowded for the leave-taking of French and Knott. The speakers on the occasion were Professor Birks of Cambridge, French's old friend Dr. Kay, Dr. Alexander Duff, the veteran founder of Educational Missions in India, and Colonel Lake, a distinguished soldier and administrator from the Punjab, who afterwards became an honorary secretary of the Society. Dr. Kay pleaded earnestly that in accordance with Thomason's old motto, dia no onoma mou kekopiakas kai ou kekmhkaV, French might be able to "labour and not faint," and not overwork. French, in his reply, referred to a Roman soldier mentioned by Livy, who, after twenty campaigns, was going forth to war again, and who said, "I have eight children, and might claim exemption, but I shall always be ready to go against my country's foes when my Imperator calls me." It was remarked, says French's biographer, that one of the two missionaries was leaving behind eight children, and the other a living of £800 a year.
It had been settled that the new divinity college should be located at Lahore, the capital of the Punjab. That city was not an Anglican mission-station, but the American Presbyterians, who had occupied it before the first English missionaries entered the Punjab, spontaneously asked the C.M.S. to send a native pastor for Indians of the Church of England who chanced to be there; and now, with the same generosity, they welcomed the selection of Lahore for the projected institution, as being the most easily accessible centre for students from a distance. It was not French's wish to begin on a grand scale. It was quite in accordance with his ideas that, on the night he arrived at Lahore, there was no one to receive him, so he took his baggage himself in a hand-barrow to the dak bungalow, and found a sofa to pass the night on--"beginning," as he said, his new life "in an inn, according to the best precedent that could be followed."
French's plans did not meet with the approval of all the missionaries. Some doubted the wisdom of his scheme. Certainly it was a remarkable one. It was to give a really high-class theological training. The Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek Septuagint, the Greek New Testament, the Greek and Latin Fathers, were to be studied; and although English, with its wealth of Christian literature, was not to be excluded, the instrument of instruction was to be the vernacular Urdu. That is to say, the students were to read, say, Ezekiel in Hebrew and Ephesians in Greek, and Mr. French and his helpers were to lecture on these books in Urdu, with occasional use of Persian, Pushtu, Punjabi, Sanscrit, and Arabic; while Chrysostom and Augustine, Dorner and Tholuck, Hooker and Owen, were to be laid under contribution. "A Mohammedan convert, brought up all his life in distaste of and prejudice against English, should find that his want of English does not disqualify him for perfecting his curriculum of theology. Christianity should be domesticated on the Indian soil."
After many delays, during which French was constantly occupied, not only in preparation for the future by linguistic studies and translational work, but also in frequent evangelistic tours in the country, the college was opened on November 21, 1870. There were only native buildings, ill adapted to the purpose even after alterations; and some years elapsed before the present premises, including the chapel, appeared.
There were only four students, but seven others soon joined, and with these French felt he had a good beginning. All through the weary negotiations about the site and the alterations--for which kind of work French was by nature unfitted, and which therefore was a heavy burden upon him--he had rested on the assurance that every obstacle or disappointment was specially ordained of God to throw His servants more entirely on Him.
But where was Knott? Alas! he was already dead. He had used the waiting time in earnest work at Peshawar, not only helping in the Mission there, but ministering to the British troops. Unhappily, as human judgment would say, he stayed on too long in that fever-stricken valley, and worked too persistently, and on June 28, 1870, he died suddenly after a few hours' illness. The greatest grief was manifested by the whole English community; and the funeral was a very striking scene:
The body was conveyed to the cemetery on a gun-carriage lent by the officer commanding the Royal Artillery, and was carried to the grave by eight soldiers, members of a Bible-class he had conducted. Nearly every officer of the station was present, including the General and the Deputy Commissioner and 500 men of the 5th and 38th regiments."
French had learned to love and admire Knott greatly, and he regarded the removal of such a man as "a strange and almost unparalleled mystery"; but, he added, "It is comforting to rest assured that God is His own interpreter." Other brethren came to his assistance. He was helped at different times by Robert Clark, Rowland Bateman, T. R. Wade, and his old colleague at Beddington, George Maxwell Gordon. Deep interest was taken in England in his proceedings. The money for purchasing the site, and for scholarships to maintain the students, was provided by generous friends in his congregations at Clifton, Beddington, Cheltenham, etc., as well as in India. Rugby and Repton sent offertories. The Rev. H. Houghton gave £1,000 to endow a native professorship on condition that the Septuagint was included in the college course. Dr. John Wordsworth (afterwards Bishop of Salisbury) sent contributions from Oxford men, and Dr. West-cott similar ones from Cambridge. Dr. Lightfoot (afterwards Bishop of Durham), at the S.P.G. annual meeting, referred to "the noble letters which Mr. French had sent to the C.M.S."; and Westcott characteristically wrote: "The West has much to learn from the East, and the lesson will not be taught till we hear the truth as it is apprehended by Eastern minds."
The students came from all parts of North India. There were Afghans from the mountains and Hindus from the plains, Rajputs, Punjabis, Kashmiris, Persians. Most had been Mohammedans, some Hindus or Sikhs. Some were baptized Christians from infancy, being children of converts; some were the fruit of mission schools; some had found Christ in later life. Although the majority were Anglicans, others were not excluded. All were welcome; but on one condition--they must wear Indian dress. Once a catechist from Delhi, who was in European garb, applied for admission, and French let him in for a week, hoping he would conform, but on his refusal he was sent away.
On the same principle French gave the students Bingham's Christian Antiquities to study, that they might "know the habits and customs of worship and discipline in the early Church, which were often so much more Oriental and more free from stiffness than our English liturgical services, borrowed so largely from Rome." He was a great admirer of patristic theology, and would translate Chrysostom or Augustine, or Hilary on the Trinity, direct from the Greek or Latin into Hindustani. But he did not neglect more modern writers. With a view to lectures on the Being of God, the Person of Christ, the Work of the Holy Spirit, etc., he studied afresh Hooker and Owen and Butler, Dorner and Martensen and Liddon. This meant hard work:
"I do not think many can have an idea of the labour these classes cost. After all the time that I have spent on languages and theological books, I find that to lecture usefully an hour of preparation for each lecture is scant measure; often many hours are required even for one. . . . With the Mohammedans dogging our steps and scenting out keenly and industriously every real and imaginary difficulty, we cannot do as we would, and confine ourselves wholly to the spiritual interpretation. The critical will have its place. . . . Then, to put it all into intelligible and expressive Hindustani involves further torture of brain and culling of technical words from Arabic and Persian text-books, the Sufi literature, the Vedant and other philosophical systems of the Hindus."
But all was subordinate to the study of the Bible itself:
"Between our Greek and Hebrew lectures, prayer-meetings, expositions, and sermons, we manage to distribute various parts of the Old and New Testaments. ... It is delightful to witness . . . the beaming countenances which attest their joy. They thoroughly realise the text, 'I am as glad of Thy 'Word as one that findeth great spoil.'"
Severe as the Lahore curriculum was--too severe, some thought, though French insisted that the students took with especial kindness to Hebrew--the men were not there only for book-study. Evangelistic work in the city and district was carried on, and there were baptisms year by year in the tank in the college grounds. Besides this, French led his men in the vacations to distant parts. A new district on the Jhelum was taken up, as a special field for them; but this plan did not last. It was projected by G. M. Gordon, but the students had neither the physical nor the spiritual strength to do what he did. Gordon, in fact, became almost a fakir. He lived in a tower, the corner bastion of an old fort. He found he could generally walk ten miles a day--not a common thing in India--and thus be independent of a horse or "turn-turn" (gig). "It would spoil the verse, 'How beautiful upon the mountains,' etc.," he said, "if feet were exchanged for hoofs!" And the district he traversed in this way from his old tower was "as if a London clergyman had Lincoln, York, and Newcastle under his charge, to be visited periodically without railways or coaches." This kind of life did not suit native students.
French had the joy of seeing several of his men in definite posts of missionary service before he left India again. Two were ordained by Bishop Milman of Calcutta on Dec. 15, 1872. These were (1) Imam Shah, who had been a most bigoted Mohammedan, but had been struck by the term "Our Father" applied to God--so strange a phrase in Moslem ears--and then had been led to Christ by the Rev. Daud Singh (a Sikh baptized at the S.P.G. Mission at Cawnpore), and who has been now for forty years pastor of the native congregation at Peshawar; (2) John Williams, a Christian-born native of the North-west Provinces, who had gone to the Afghan frontier as a Government doctor, having an official medical qualification, but who joined the C.M.S. Mission on a lower stipend, and for many years laboured at Tank, conducting the hospital before mentioned as spared by the Afghan raiders.
But four of the students died early; one drowned in the Jhelum; one of consumption, who confessed to the Rev. Tara Chand (S.P.G. Delhi) that his real heart-conversion had taken place at the college; a third also of consumption; and a fourth struck down by fever while itinerating, who went on preaching in his delirium.
At length French himself could no longer struggle against repeated illnesses. After one of them he wrote, "To-day I have wound up my watch again for the first time for about seven weeks, and knelt down for the first time, as I have been too weak to do this. My heart has often knelt, I trust, but not my knees." One cannot wonder that he should be ill, when we find Mr. Ridley (afterwards so well known as the devoted Bishop of Caledonia), who was at that time a C.M.S. missionary in the Punjab and itinerated with French, writing of him that he was impossible to manage as a patient!--and, on the other hand, helpless as a nurse when others were ill.
So, in May 1874, he found himself once more with wife and family in England. He was succeeded in the Principalship of the college by another Oxford man, Dr. W. Hooper. But Hooper was a Sanscrit scholar, and more interested in the Hindus than in the Mohammedans; and after a few years he moved to Allahabad to start a similar institution for the N.W. Provinces. A third Oxonian, F. A. P. Shirreff, followed at Lahore, and gave twenty years of service to the college; and a fourth, H. G. Grey, succeeded him. Eventually the Oxford succession was broken by the appointment of E. F. E. Wigram, who is a Cambridge man. French's plans have naturally been modified as the years have gone by; but the college still maintains its career of many-sided usefulness.