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 IX. Among the Eastern Churches

AS we have already seen, Bishop French, on resigning his bishopric, did not return direct to England, but was for more than a year journeying about Mesopotamia and Syria. He encountered all the difficulties of travel familiar to visitors to those lands who go far off the tourist routes; and they cannot have been rendered less troublesome than usual by his carrying with him "a small representative library of all sorts of books almost, except high mathematics and novels!" But he was quite ready to brave heat and cold, dust and damp, caravanserais "not so clean as in Persia" (he said), poor food, and so on, if he could get into touch with Mohammedans, Jews, and Oriental Christians in their actual daily life, and talk with them about the Lord Who died for them. "Several passages out of the Gospels," he wrote, "on our Lord's life and work, I was able to comment upon as we rode along, and where we stopped for an hour to get a cup of tea." With his ripe learning, his facility with languages, his historic instincts, his wide sympathies, his readiness to be servant of all men, his ardent love for his one Lord and Master, he found abundant opportunities of useful intercourse with Nestorian and Armenian and Jacobite and Greek ecclesiastics, with American Presbyterian missionaries, and with Moslems of both Turkish and Arabic race; and he frequently ministered in the churches of the various Christian communions. At some places, as in India, he gave lectures on the Uganda Mission. One extract from his letters must be given as a specimen of his visits to Arabs:

"Darkness overtook us ... but, seeing the lights of a wild Arab hamlet by the roadside, whose name I did not learn, if it has a name at all, we threw ourselves on the hospitality of the villagers, and got a little single-roomed house placed at our disposal, all but the zenana part screened by a sort of screen of straw-plaiting, where the good lady and her children secreted themselves. But these Arab ladies are most obliging sometimes, bring their children to be looked at, ask about my sons and daughters, and elicit my small stock of Arabic colloquial--1 never forget the bakshish of course. Their behaviour is respectful, and even dignified, yet with a freedom of converse which surprises me. . . . They soon had a fire lit, coffee roasted, ground, then boiled, and poured into cups like dolls' cups, and handed round with some fresh baked bread and the 'sour kraut' of curdled milk. For a couple of hours the Arab host and his friends sat and listened to stories from a passing traveller, the lady standing, like Sarah, at the tent-door and taking all in with curious interest. I said to the orator, 'Now you have regaled us with feats of war, suppose you tell us a story out of the history of Abraham.' He confessed to profound ignorance on the subject; so I summoned what Arabic I could, and told of the offering of Isaac and God's promises to him, with some teachings on the great account to be rendered before the judgment-seat of Christ."

The ancient Christian Churches everywhere called forth his especial interest and sympathy. He attended their services, knelt to receive the Holy Communion at their altars, and took infinite pains to explain to their Bishops and priests the true position of the Church of England. When asked by them what sort of Christian he called himself, his reply was, "Katulik la Papaviya" (Catholic, not Papal), a formula which he constantly repeated because the Roman missionaries, who were numerous everywhere, persistently branded all, Eastern or Western, who did not submit to the Pope as "uncatholic." They had been successful in attaching to the Latin Communion sections of the Syrian and Chaldean Churches, "aided by French prestige and influence"; but there were still considerable sections that clung to their ancient independence. French attended the services of all the different bodies. He was often received courteously even by the Romans themselves: for instance, he was invited by Carmelite nuns at Bagdad to examine their school-girls. Always on the look-out for Christian heroes, he went to see the tomb, at a place called Mariaco, of Père Besson, a famous Dominican missionary, who, he wrote, was "a kind of Henry Martyn of the Roman Church," who had been Pio Nono's chief painter at the Vatican, but "gave up all for Christ" to go out as a missionary to the East. "I think," he said, "the Latins are far less bigoted than in Europe, though Mariolatry is much the same"; and he lamented the introduction of images into the churches, as likely to repel the Mohammedans.

An example of French's readiness for fellowship with all Christians may be taken from a Sunday spent at Mosul. First, he "attended Jacobite mass." "The prayers seemed full of Christ; the Virgin's name I caught once or twice, but not the connexion in which it came. I begged to receive the elements kneeling, and both were brought to me by the officiating priest." At noon he was present at a Bible-class of the American Presbyterians, and "said a few words." In the afternoon he "attended a service of prayer and song in the fine Latin cathedral of the Dominicans." In the evening he "attended the American service." From Bagdad he wrote:

"An old Chaldean Christian member sits several hours a day with me, and I translate Spurgeon's sermons with him, and read the Arabic Bible with an Arabic work of controversy written in Spain by a Christian doctor about A.D. 870, and edited by Sir W. Muir. The Christians come to my room and have a little talk in Arabic; and I managed to read a lesson in church this morning and to give the benediction."

It is curious to find that a "little purple apron" which had been sent out to him was "a great help, as it is the recognised Eastern Bishop's dress." Of one Jacobite church, at Diarbekir, he wrote quite enthusiastically:

"My heart was full of joy at the store of Scripture read out so eloquently and with such expressiveness--the later history of Samson, Hosea xiv., the Philippi history of St. Paul. Most full of joy at the sermon, which was a rich treat of evangelical marrow and fatness. A Puritan would have heard it with glistening eyes. Christ, and Christ only, was the Good Samaritan; then, earnest exhortations to come to Him. A fine congregation, one-third women, all on the ground."

Bishop French avowed that he began his tour somewhat prejudiced against the American missionaries, as representing a policy of proselytism from the ancient Churches; but in one of his long letters to Archbishop Benson he said that he "found witness borne on all hands to the remarkable stirring and awakening which their schools and public services and ministries, with the large circulation of the Holy Scriptures, had brought about among several of the Churches of the East." "Both at Mosul and at Mardin," he wrote in another letter, "I have felt compelled to break my rule of not speaking in other than Church of England places of worship, and have addressed their large flocks, having the missionary for my interpreter. In these wildernesses of the world, at least, I can scarcely think I should be blamed." He was glad to hear of the Archbishop's Mission to the Assyrian Christians, which was just then beginning its work. He wrote long letters to Benson on the whole position, which were afterwards printed in the Report on Missions issued by the United Boards of Missions in 1894.

Mesopotamia, of course, presented much besides the Eastern Churches to interest a scholar like French. He was keen to examine the ruins of Babylon and Nineveh, and he was fortunate in meeting "a Mr. Budge, of the British Museum," whom he refers to as "a young and vigorous traveller" who "reads off cuneiform inscriptions like English"; apparently in ignorance of the European reputation to which Dr. Wallis Budge was then already attaining. But he viewed the ancient remains in a spirit very unlike that of the casual tourist. For instance, he wrote from Babylon:

"A good part of to-day has been spent in examining the mounds of Nebuchadnezzar's palace, standing on its height, and trying to picture the time when he stood on its parapets and exclaimed, 'Is not this great Babylon which I have built?' and then, when the discipline was complete, made his lowly confession of faith: 'Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, extol, and honour the king of heaven.' The willows along the Euphrates banks touchingly reminded one of the harps of the captive Jews hung on the willows. To imagine Belshazzar's boisterous and guilty carousals in the midst of such unbroken silence was difficult, or to think of Alexander dying there in the full tide of his conquests over the world, except himself, his own lusts and passions."

After several months so spent, French came into Palestine towards the end of the year. He was delighted to spend the Christmas of 1888 at Bethlehem, with Miss Jacombs, of the Female Education Society (afterwards of the C.M.S.). He conducted the service, and preached on "When the fulness of the time was come," etc., in Gal. iv., especially on the words, "Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts." Of the Rev. Chalil Jamal, the C.M.S. native clergyman at Salt, he wrote one of his highly characteristic descriptions:

"Mr. Jamal is something like Bishop Dupanloup, I should say, in his excellence in catechising; a real lamp burning and shining in the midst of the wild Bedawin of the lower ranges of the Moab hills. He is a little Elisha up there, minus the she-bears, though his rough hairy dress almost calls Elijah's to mind."

On April 17, the Wednesday in Holy Week, he once more arrived in England, for the last time.

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