Project Canterbury

An Heroic Bishop
The Life-Story of French of Lahore

By Eugene Stock

London, New York and Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, [1913]

Chapter VIII. Journeys and Visits, East and West

IN reviewing Bishop French's work in the Diocese of Lahore, we did not wander beyond the bounds of his jurisdiction. But he was not actually in the diocese during the whole ten years of his episcopate. From March 1883 to September 1884 he was absent. He had received from the C.M.S. an earnest request that he would visit Persia, and execute the office of a Bishop in its Mission there; and, as he was taking furlough after six years' hard work in the diocese, he determined to return to England that way. The Bishop of London, who claimed whatever jurisdiction was possible over a branch of the Church in a foreign country like Persia, sent him a formal commission for the purpose.

The C.M.S. Mission in Persia had been established by Dr. Robert Bruce, who was engaged in revising Henry Martyn's Persian New Testament, and had baptized a few Mohammedan Persians; and, although he avoided proselytising from the Armenian Church, as a Roman Mission was doing, two or three hundred Armenians who were tired of their ignorant and often immoral priests, and had no wish to join the Roman Church, had put themselves under his purer teaching and induced him to open a school for their children. Bishop French had much sympathy and respect for the ancient Churches of the East, as we shall see by and by; but he felt bound to recognise the facts of the case in Persia. At Julfa, therefore, the Armenian suburb of Ispahan, where Bruce was carrying on his work, he confirmed sixty-seven candidates, and ordained a native pastor for the congregation, the Rev. Minasakan George. He thus wrote of the ordination:

"It was a scene and a service I can never forget. I preached in Persian for nearly an hour, and fair facility and fluency were given me, thank God. I took for text, 'In all things approving ourselves as the ministers of Christ ... by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, by the word of truth, by the power of God. . . .' Minas, the old catechist (he must be fifty years old), with grey hairs here and there upon him, behaved with simple, quiet dignity. He read the Gospel, and gave the cup to the last row of communicants. The singing was delightful in the Armenian tongue. Among the hymns were 'The Church's one foundation' and 'Just as I am.' One's heart does yearn over these dear people."

It was with deep feeling that French found himself in Persia at all; and his journals, which are most interesting, are full of allusions to Henry Martyn. He landed at Bushire on Easter Day, which happened to fall that year (1883) on March 25, thus coinciding with Lady Day. His biographer notes the fact that Henry Martyn, in 1811, left India on March 25, and had his first glimpse of the Persian coast on Easter Day. At Shiraz, the city where Martyn suffered so acutely from the reproaches and blasphemies of the mullahs, French experienced a very friendly reception, and found great readiness to hear the Gospel:

"Thank God for some most interesting conversations on the great truths of the kingdom of God, the death and burial of Christ, the atonement, or kafara, the second coming, etc. It is surprising to see how much is admitted, and apparently in some assurance of faith. The Lord does seem to have His own everywhere. They did not attempt to set up Mohammed against Christ. . . . The Word and Son of God, His eternal oneness with the Father, seemed to present no difficulty. . . .

"A general in the army and a sheikh called and sat a long time. They both wanted copies of the Bible, specially of Isaiah and Daniel, after what I told them of Cyrus and Darius from those books."

French also sought friendly intercourse with the Armenian Bishops and priests. His whole heart went out in brotherly sympathy with these ancient Churches, so long oppressed by their Moslem rulers, and which, though scarcely ever attempting to preach the Gospel to the Mohammedans, did by their very existence bear a silent testimony to Christ. But, with all his large-heartedness, and his keen sense ot every link with the early Church, he found little to encourage him in his friendly attitude. Oriental Christendom has never taken kindly to Western influence.

It should here be added that the C.M.S. Persia Mission, then carried on by Bruce only, with Dr. Hoernle as medical missionary, has since been largely developed, four chief cities having been occupied, and a considerable number of Persian Moslems baptized. It was joined in 1894 by Bishop E. C. Stuart, French's comrade in India forty years earlier, who gave up his New Zealand diocese--as French had given up his Indian diocese--to take up direct missionary work again. Persia has lately (1912) been made a missionary diocese, with Dr. Stileman, an experienced missionary, as the first Bishop.

After three months in Persia, Bishop French left the country by the Caspian route, and, travelling via Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Berlin, reached England early in July. While at home he fulfilled not a few important and interesting functions. Before he became Bishop he had read a paper on Missions at the Stoke Church Congress in 1875, a masterpiece of beautiful thought and writing; and now he read one at the Reading Congress of 1883, which led to some subsequent discussion, owing to the freshness and boldness of the views expressed in it. Instead of boasting of the success achieved in the mission field, he urged that the work of the century called for "the deepest contrition, humiliation, and genuine heartfelt confession on the part of the labourers for past neglects and defects," and he pleaded for more "apostles." At once an outcry arose that a Bishop was disparaging missionaries. It was forgotten that French himself was a missionary. In fact, he was humbling himself as their representative; and when he called for "apostles" he named, as examples of what he wanted, C.M.S. and C.E.Z.M.S. missionaries, Bishop G. E. Moule, George Maxwell Gordon, Robert Bruce, Miss Tucker, etc.

He gave the address at the famous annual missionary breakfast at Oxford arranged by Canon Christopher, and found two hundred young men "an inspiring sight." The breakfast had not at that time begun to attract the crowds of dons as well as of undergraduates that are now to be seen. He preached the C.M.S. annual sermon at St. Bride's, and wrote next day to his wife:

"It was a splendid congregation, almost appalling from the mass which filled basement, galleries, and all. . . . The responses of the congregation were like the murmurs of the sea. . . . Alas! I preached an hour and ten minutes. ... I had to leave out bits here and there. . . . The Archbishop of Canterbury was present and gave the final prayer and blessing."

The sermon was a really great one, on Missions as in a sense priestly work, based on the striking words of St. Paul in Rom. xv. 16, where he calls himself the "minister" (leitourgon) of Christ, "ministering" (ierourgounta) the Gospel, that the "offering up" (prosfora) of the Gentiles might be acceptable.

October of that year saw French back at Lahore, and, as we have seen, he had three years more of episcopal service. He left India finally on January 5, 1888; but not to return direct to England. After so short a time of absence, how could the soldier of the Cross go back at once to wife and family? There were two sections of Asiatics over whom his heart yearned, viz. the Oriental Christians and the Mohammedans: why should he not make a missionary journey to visit those in Syria and Mesopotamia, as he had already visited those in Persia? He sailed accordingly from Karachi up the Persian Gulf to Bussorah; and during more than a year he was travelling between Babylon, Bagdad, Mosul, Aleppo, Beyrout, Jerusalem, etc. Of this tour the next chapter will tell. At last he turned his face homewards, and reached England in April 1889.

Even then he could not be idle. He often travelled to various parts of the country in the interest of both S.P.G. and C.M.S., and took the opportunity to pay visits to Bishops and other friends, enjoying much the company of Bishop G. H. Wilkinson at Truro, Bishop Lightfoot at Durham, and Bishop Christopher Wordsworth at Lincoln. From time to time he had his share in church functions: for instance, he joined in the laying on of hands when Bishop Tucker of Uganda and Bishop Hodges of Travancore were consecrated at Lambeth. Still, he did at this time allow himself to enjoy a little of the sweets of family life. For he was ever a devoted husband and father, although he regarded himself as definitely called of God to this and that service abroad which involved long separation from those he loved so dearly. Mr. Birks gives a brief but picturesque account of a visit to his mother's house at Chigwell in Essex, which was paid by the Bishop during a vacancy in the see of St. Albans, to hold a confirmation:

"When he arrived on the Saturday, before he could be hindered, he had plunged half way upstairs with a heavy bag of books, saying he 'would not break the housemaid's back with it.' On the Sunday morning he preached for the British Syrian Schools from his favourite passage in Zech. xiii., 'Awake, O sword,' and in the afternoon he held the confirmation. Before delivering his charge he knelt beside the chancel steps and poured forth his heart in every collect of the Prayer-book that pleads for the presence and good gifts of the Holy Ghost; then he spoke fervently about the seal of the Spirit impressing on the heart the image of the Saviour's love.

"The Bishop's blue bag, that he was so loth to let another carry, his brisk and energetic but somewhat jerky walk, due to sore feet that often pained him greatly, although he would not drive; his interest in all the work of others, his modesty about his own; his resolute redemption of the time for private study; his unwillingness to lead the family worship, and the comprehensiveness and beauty of his prayers when at last he consented--will long live in the memory."

Another reminiscence illustrates both the physical vigour which he even yet possessed and the readiness with which he faced external inconveniences. Being in Northumberland, he planned a visit to Lindisfarne, "minding," like St. Paul at Troas, "himself to go afoot," as a pilgrim, to the scenes of the labours of St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert. Rain coming on, his son-in-law, the Rev. E. A. Knox (now Bishop of Manchester), ordered a carriage for the party; but, when they were starting, French was missing, and they found that he had already set off. Three or four miles on the road they overtook him "in his shirtsleeves, dripping wet, his coat over his arm, trudging gallantly onwards." He went through a day of sight-seeing in his wet clothes, ending with a long train journey to Whitby. "His pleasure," says Mr. Birks, "in the scenes of St. Cuthbert's and St. Aidan's ministries was so great that it seemed to act as a preservative against the rash exposure."

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