BISHOP FRENCH could not settle down in England. He hungered for fresh work of a more definite kind; and to the East he must go. But whither? At that time there were strained relations between Bishop Blyth of Jerusalem and the C.M.S.; and French much wished to be instrumental in bringing about more cordial co-operation between them in the work which both were doing in Palestine. First he thought of becoming a kind of roving commissioner for the Society with which he had kept so long and happy a connexion as a missionary. Then, on the other hand, he thought of putting his experience, as a Bishop who had been obliged to deal with various Church parties, at Bishop Blyth's disposal in some unofficial way. But neither scheme proved to be practicable; and then French's ardent spirit took a wider flight, and after study, inquiry, and prayer, he dedicated himself to missionary service as a free-lance pioneer in the hitherto most inaccessible of Mohammedan lands--Arabia.
He had been deeply interested in a remarkable article by Alexander Mackay of Uganda, which appeared in the C.M. Intelligencer of January 1889, entitled "Muscat, Zanzibar, and Central Africa." Zanzibar, prior to the German occupation which preceded the British Protectorate, had been a dependency of the Sultan of Oman, in Eastern Arabia, whose capital was Muscat. From Muscat came many of the Mohammedan traders who so vehemently opposed Mackay's work and influence in Uganda; and they used to say to him, "Ah, you come and convert the Uganda people, who are idol-worshippers; you never tried to convert us at Muscat!" Mackay, with his usual far-seeing statesmanship, urged in his article that Moslem influence should be attacked at its headquarters by the establishment of a C.M.S. Mission at Muscat; and Bishop French, for the fifth time undertaking the role of a pioneer, resolved to go there himself, and perhaps prepare the way for the Society. It was an heroic venture for a man of sixty-five, already strained with much travelling and increasing studies and labours; but French, as we now know, was of the stuff of which heroes are made.
He left England on November 3, 1890--never to return; went first to Tunis and Egypt; thence to Bombay and Karachi--the only way of reaching Muscat; and arrived at Muscat itself on February 8, 1891. "I being in the way," he wrote, "the Lord led me," like Abraham's servant. At Tunis, and at the sacred Moslem city of Kairowan, and at Alexandria and Cairo, he seized every opportunity of improving, and using in Christ's cause, his colloquial Arabic. He could not see, he wrote, interpreting the "tongues" of the Corinthian Church as standing for varied languages, that he had any right to let his life's work at tongues go to waste, "in spite of St. Paul's deprecation of them in comparison with charity." With the same object, instead of taking a P. & O. mail-boat to Bombay, he sailed from Suez in a Turkish coasting steamer that was going to the various ports on both sides of the Red Sea, Jedda, Suakin, Massowa, Hodaida, and so to Aden, where he visited the grave of Ion Keith-Falconer, the devoted pioneer of the Free Church of Scotland, who had left his Cambridge Arabic Professorship to start that Church's Arabian Mission, and had died after a few months' work. From Aden he had to take the mail-steamer to Bombay, and thence to come back to Karachi. It was from that port that he had finally left his Indian diocese three years before; and he would not land, but stayed on board the small Persian Gulf steamer--not in very pleasant environment: "Arabs, Persians, and Hindus are my brother-passengers, who cook their food as well as eat it in the saloon, and its scents at least are not savoury if its composites are; the chief advantage being that I hear Arabic spoken incessantly and loudly, and so a succession of munshis keep me primed for my next preachings." He would take the second-class saloon even in so inferior a boat, but, "finding the Arab horse-dealers too overpowering," he was forced, against his will, to transfer himself to the first class, such as it was. Happily he had a companion with him in the person of the Rev. A. C. Maitland, of the S.P.G. Delhi Mission, who had been one of his clergy in the Lahore diocese, and had joined him in Egypt. Mr. Maitland was himself almost an invalid, and this was an advantage in one sense, as for his sake French refrained from reckless doings in which he might otherwise have indulged.
They landed at Muscat on February 8. The Bishop would not accept hospitality from the British Political Agent, Colonel Mockler, as he wished neither to compromise the Government of India by his missionary proceedings nor to give ground for any prejudice against him on the part of the Arabs as representing a foreign power. They therefore had some difficulty in finding a roof to shelter them. Mr. Maitland wrote:
"At last a Hindu merchant got a Goanese half-caste to take us in; so we went back and got our baggage from the steamer, and settled ourselves as well as we could in a longish room, very dirty, with one charpoy in it, a broken couch, and a number of chairs. . . . We got a kettle boiled and some coffee and biscuits. Later we got some chapatis and milk from the bazaar."
But the house turned out to be a Portuguese grog-shop for the Arabs! whereupon French accepted the offer, from the American consul, of a house at Muttra, a large town three miles off by boat:
"Mr. Mackinly sent a servant to put us into the house, who got it swept out a bit, arranged with a bihisti to bring us water daily, and a woman to supply us with milk, went with me to the bazaar to buy some sugar, candles, etc., and then had to return to Muscat, and we were left monarch (and attendant) of all we surveyed. Luckily there were some degehies (cooking-pots) and plenty of cups and plates in the house. I had bought two teaspoons and a rusty knife in Muscat, and got three more tin spoons in Muttra. Excellent Persian bread was to be bought close by, so I boiled the kettle and made some tea, and we dined. We were to have had evensong together afterwards, but the place was so dirty (not having been occupied for seven or eight months), and I took so long washing up, and getting a clean place to put the things, that--well, evensong was not said together."
These are trivialities, but they are realities, and help our conceptions of the Bishop's life. Mr. Maitland, however, had to leave after a week or two to return to Delhi; and French himself wrote little of this kind, but kept a full journal of his intercourse with the people and efforts to preach Christ to them, which is deeply interesting, but of which only a few brief passages can be quoted:
"Difficulties and hindrances abound. Muscat is full of mosques, and they are fairly well attended by women as well as men, more so than in any other Mohammedan city I have seen."
"I cannot say that I have met with many thoughtful and encouraging hearers or people who want Bibles and Testaments; there is much holding aloof, and even occasionally of bitter and angry opposition. The Arabs seem, on the whole, the most quiet and thoughtful hearers. I must at least thank God that even the first fortnight I have been able to secure so much of patient attention and real opening up of the great truths of the Gospel."
"Colonel Mockler still does all he can to dissuade my selecting Muscat for a centre."
"Two days ago a large party of Arabs (ladies and gentlemen, the former standing, the latter sitting) made almost a dead set at me to induce me to turn Mohammedan. It was a new experience to me, but useful as enabling me better to understand the feeling an Arab or Hindu would have in being so approached with a view to changing a faith dear to him as life itself, and so with the Moslems it usually is."
"Happily we have the promise for Arabia twice repeated by name in the 72nd Psalm (P. B. Version). Was it that which took St. Paul so soon into Arabia? "
"Beyond all my expectations I am permitted to witness here to companies of educated and thoughtful Arab sheikhs and their followers. Last evening I sat an hour in a circle of them, going through many of the most vital Gospel truths, and listened to with marked attention and seriousness. ... I began by speaking of the coming kingdom of God and Christ, reading David's words in 2 Sam. xxiii. Then, from Isa. xxxv. and Ps. Ixxii., I showed some of the characteristic features of this kingdom, and how the kings of Arabia and Seba should bring gifts. Then the way was open for further reference to the kingdom of Christ as set up in the heart, being in effect a new creation through repentance and death to sin with Christ, and resurrection with Him to a higher and holier life. Many questions they asked as to prayers and pilgrimages; what I thought of Mohammed and the Koran; what would become of the drunkard and the fornicator in the coming kingdom: in answer to which I read much of Rev. xxi. and xxii., which seemed to strike them much."
"A long afternoon in the town. Some solemn and serious preachings in companies of educated people. They cost a great effort, and I had to throw myself on God's help to carry me through. I was thus able to speak with some authority which God' gave me, and with pointed appeals. It is chiefly in coffee-shops that these gatherings take place."
"A still more hopeful day than yesterday. . . . Sitting by an old wall, I had a long conversation with some ten or twelve adults and a few intelligent boys. Went carefully through St. John iii. and Rom. vi. . . . As the sea was too rough for a small boat to return at 2 p.m., I sat by the roadside in a quiet street reading my New Testament; but a neighbouring Arab gentleman came out, and, with polite courtesy, beckoned me to come into his house. He had coffee and refreshments brought, and I read him and his friends some Scripture portions."
"Oppressed with weariness and hot wind to-day, but forced myself out, and was more than rewarded by two quite lengthened opportunities of opening up some of the grandest truths of the Gospel. A venerable and dignified old teacher, or sheik, came out and took part with much gravity and quiet intelligence, and rebuked a very virulent African whose resistance to the Gospel was most bitter, though intensely ignorant."
On Easter Day, March 29, he held a service at Muscat itself for a congregation of four persons, including Colonel and Mrs. Mockler, who received the Holy Communion with him:
"The thoughts of the day and its glorious truths had so possessed me that I was able to enjoy the subject, 'Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God.' We had two hymns, 'Jesus Christ is risen to-day,' and 'Oh, what the joy!'"
Meanwhile he was making inquiries as to the feasibility of a journey into the interior, and at last found an Arab who seemed an earnest inquirer, and who was willing to go with him. On April 24 he wrote to the author of this present volume, summarising his work and prospects, and adding, with reference to that Arab, "I have sung my Te Deum for him." At last, on May 5, he started in an open boat for Sib, a village some thirty miles distant, whence he would try and go inland.
On that same day, May 5, 1891, the annual meeting of the C.M.S. was being held in Exeter Hall. The letter just referred to did not reach England till a fortnight later, but it showed that he had not forgotten what was going on in London:
"I am asking a special blessing for your May meetings and services. . . . The Archbishop will be at his best, I trust, and directed what to say for the glory of Christ and the good of His Church and the Society's highest interests."
Archbishop Benson was, in fact, the chief speaker that day, and referred sympathetically to Bishop French. So did the President in the chair, Sir John Kennaway:
"We desire to send forth a message of tender, strong sympathy, encouragement, and support to those of our brethren in distant lands who are holding the fort or carrying the war into the enemy's country . . . and to cheer the heart of that old veteran, Thomas Valpy French, who, in the fortieth year of his missionary service, unsupported so far as human help goes, is attacking the seemingly impregnable fortress of Islam in the eastern parts of Arabia."