Project Canterbury

Beginnings in India

By Eugene Stock, D.C.L.

London: Central Board of Missions and SPCK, 1917.

Chapter II. The First Work in Bengal

FROM Madras, if we went northward to Calcutta, we should to-day find there also extensive Missions of both the S.P.G. and the C.M.S., alike in the capital and in rural Bengal; also the devoted women of the Church of England Zenana Society; also the important Oxford Mission, of which more by-and-by. But if we wish to see the oldest outward and visible sign of missionary enterprise, we shall be taken to a church originally erected by the first missionary to the non-Christian population who lived and worked in Calcutta. It was built in 1771, and, though largely rebuilt long after, is still called the Old Church. From that church and its influence we may trace the beginnings of Anglican Missions in Bengal.

Calcutta was described in those old days as "a corrupt city," and the expression was used, not of the native population, but of the European community. If this were so, can we reasonably be surprised? It used to be said, in the days when ships for India sailed round the Cape of Good Hope, that men left any religion they had at the Cape, and in later times, since the direct route by the Red Sea was opened up, that the authority of the Ten Commandments ceased at Suez. These caustic sayings were not wholly unwarranted; and even now, what impression do we get from modern novels of Indian society? But there have been brilliant examples of true Christian life, nevertheless, as we shall see, not only among the chaplains, as we might expect--though Lord Teignmouth did declare that "a black coat was no security" against "the general relaxation of morals"--but also among the British officials and others, both military and civilian.

To Calcutta, in 1758, came a young Swedish Lutheran clergyman, J. L. Kiernander, from the Missions in the South noticed in our last chapter. He was kindly received by Clive, the British General who in the preceding year had won the Battle of Plassey, and thereby laid the foundation of the British Indian Empire. The welcome was" all the more hearty because at the moment there were no chaplains of the Company in Bengal. The last two had perished in the Black Hole of Calcutta. It was Kiernander who built the Old Church, generously spending on it £12,000, which came to him through two marriages. It is all the more sad, after this, to find that in his later years heavy debts led to the church being seized by his creditors. Then Charles Grant, an official of the East India Company, who held the high rank of Senior Merchant, stepped forward, with the help of friends bought the church, and wrote to the S.P.C.K. for a clergyman to take charge.

The S.P.C.K. did send a Cambridge man, the Rev. A.T. Clarke, in 1789. He may be regarded as the first English clergyman to go to India as a missionary, for although the Old Church was chiefly attended by English and Eurasians, and there was little work among the non-Christian population, its then title, "the Mission Church," was justified by its unofficial position and the influence it exerted. But he only stayed a year, and then left for a chaplaincy in the south. After a few years' vain search for another Englishman, the Society sent a German Lutheran, Ringletaube; but he likewise soon went off, and joined first the Moravians and then the London Missionary Society. No wonder the S.P.C.K., referring to Schwartz, and his comrades in the South, said, "It has been the surprise of many, and the lamentation, that fortitude thus exemplified should not have inspired some of our own clergy with an emulation to follow and to imitate these champions of the Cross." [Quoted by Dr. G. Smith, Henry Martyn, p. 136.]

Meanwhile, Charles Grant had evolved a scheme for a kind of "National Mission" to Bengal--national in the sense that it was to be patronized and supported by the East India Company. Of course the Company was by this time no mere commercial association. It was the governing power in the British possessions in India, so its responsibilities were far greater than they had been at first. Wilberforce, therefore, when the periodical revision of the Charter came before Parliament in 1793, moved certain clauses to give effect to the scheme. In the present day we should all understand that for the British Government to engage directly in missionary work would be a mistaken policy; but in those days, and for long after, the State was expected to share in, and practically to control, Church enterprises. The very phrase, "our happy Establishment," so common then in speeches and writings, expressed much more than our modern approval of an established Church. The defeat of Wilberforce's clauses by the East India Company cannot be fully explained by our supposing a clearer perception on the Company's part of what is wise and right. In point of fact, many of its members would have vehemently endorsed the opinion of the great Governor-General, Warren Hastings, that "all missionary efforts should be discouraged." Much stronger language than that was used both in the Court of Directors and in Parliament.

The Company, as represented in Madras, had always shown favour to the S.P.C.K. missionaries. It had given them free passages to India. It had used them to supplement the services of the chaplains. It had even built churches for them. [Interesting particulars are given in Mr. Penny's The Church in Madras. This book, though one-sided, does usefully correct some common misconceptions.] How it availed itself of the great influence of Schwartz we have seen. But Madras was not Bengal, and the Calcutta Government rarely showed the liberality of the Madras authorities. The years between the defeat of Wilberforce and the next revision of the Charter in 1813 have been called the Dark Period, and if the evidence of authorities familiar with Indian history, like Marshman, Sir John Kaye, and Dr. George Smith, can be relied on, dark it certainly was, although no doubt exaggerated language has been used regarding it.

Anglican Missions in Bengal, therefore, were, as the eighteenth century closed, still in the future. But Carey the Baptist was just beginning his great work in India. He had gone out in 1793, not without difficulty, for he could not get a permit from the Company, and the captain of the ship in which he had taken his passage put him on shore again, and he then managed to get away in a Danish vessel. Arrived in Bengal, he had to be employed by Mr. Udny, a friend of Grant's, as manager of an indigo factory, for five years, reporting himself to the authorities annually. "If I were to return myself as a missionary," he wrote, "I should not be able to remain in the country." Meanwhile, he studied the languages and began his translations of the Scriptures. In 1799 his two famous comrades in years to come, Marshman and Ward, succeeded in getting to Calcutta in an American ship, and, on being ordered to leave India at once, contrived to escape up the river to the Danish settlement at Serampore, the governor of which refused to surrender them to the British authorities. There Carey joined them, and as the year 1800 opened, the three brethren began one of the greatest works in missionary history. Bishop Mylne of Bombay, in his valuable book on Indian Missions, compares the three famous men, Xavier, Schwartz, and Carey, and gives the palm to Carey.

There was some excuse for the hostile treatment of these and several other missionaries who were excluded from British territory--one of them Judson, the American hero of Burma. None of them belonged to the Church of England, and there was much doubt in those days about the loyalty of Dissenters; even Evangelical Churchmen were suspected. No one could be a member of the S.P.C.K. without independent testimony to his being "well affected to the Crown"; and even Charles Simeon, after thirty years at Cambridge, was black-balled. When Lord Wellesley, Governor-General, wanted a teacher of Bengali for a college he had projected at Calcutta for the better training of the young Englishmen sent out by the Company, he actually appointed Carey, who was obviously the best man, when he found on inquiry that the despised missionary was "well affected" to the government. Then things looked better for a little while; but after the Serampore brethren had printed and circulated many Christian tracts, one unfortunate tract attacking the character of Mohammed was issued, and this led to renewed strictness on the part of the authorities. One Baptist missionary was invited by an officer at Agra to go up there as tutor to his children, but was sent back under a guard of heathen soldiers to Serampore by order of Lord Hastings, who said that "one might fire a pistol into a magazine and it might not explode, but no wise man would hazard the experiment."

All through this period, however, while no Anglican missionaries appeared, and all others were suspected, noble service for the cause of Christ and the Church was rendered by some of the Company's chaplains. Charles Grant had gone home and become a leading member (twice chairman) of the Board of Directors. Through his influence Simeon of Cambridge obtained appointments as chaplains for a number of men who had the true missionary spirit. It was a remarkable act of faith on Simeon's part, when such men were so sorely needed at home, and God honoured it with abundant recompense. David Brown took charge of the Old Church, served as its minister twenty-three years without extra pay (being also chaplain for the English church), and died at his post without once going home; and his influence and teaching were the chief instrument in a marked change that came over Calcutta society. Many officers and civilians became truly religious men, and the results of this change were seen for half a century and more in the fearless Christian profession of so many leading officials. Claudius Buchanan was also a real power in Calcutta, and Lord Wellesley put him at the head of the college before mentioned. Henry Martyn, the Senior Wrangler in 1801, had coveted missionary work among non-Christians, and though he eventually went out as a chaplain, he studied the languages, preached to the heathen, did valuable translational work, and died in Armenia on his way home, leaving a reputation for personal devotion to the Lord which led Sir James Stephen, in the Edinburgh Review, to declare that his brief career had given the Church of England its one "heroic name" (but there have been many added since then!). Daniel Corrie, afterwards first Bishop of Madras, started the first Indian evangelist of the English Church (as we shall see) when there was not a single English missionary in all India. Thomas Thomason succeeded Brown at the Old Church, and he and Corrie made it an active centre of missionary zeal and interest; and his son became in after years one of the best Governors an Indian province ever had. Marmaduke Thompson at Madras was also a power for good; so a little later were Robinson, Kerr, Hough of Tinnevelly, Fisher of Meerut, Carr of Bombay (where he was afterwards first Bishop). Some of these, and others, both from Cambridge and from Oxford, were Fellows of their colleges. In the chaplaincies, therefore, the Church may truly be said to have been represented by picked men.

But the day was now approaching when India was really to be thrown open for missionary enterprise. Not, however, without a long struggle in England. In 1806 some Sepoy troops mutinied at Vellore, near Madras, and this was instantly attributed, though without a shadow of reason, to their alarm at the presence of the half-dozen innocent missionaries in the Madras Presidency. This not only strengthened the hostile party in India, but led to a war of pamphlets in England. Sydney Smith's famous and furious attack on Missions appeared in the Edinburgh Review. With glorious inconsistency, while the "consecrated cobblers" were sneered at as incompetent, their instant expulsion was demanded as the only way to save India for the British Crown. Proposals to this effect at the Court of Directors were only defeated by the strenuous efforts of Charles Grant. Even Bishop Horsley, probably the ablest of the Bishops of his day, actually said in the House of Lords, "There is no obligation upon us as Christians to attempt the conversion of the natives of India, even were it possible to do so, which I deny. The command of our Saviour to His apostles does not apply to us"!

But Wilberforce planned a new campaign as the year for a fresh revision of the Company's charter drew near. The venerable S.P.C.K. and the youthful C.M.S. set all their influence in motion, and in 1813 the decisive battle ensued. Once more the House of Commons was treated to a glowing description of Hinduism and its "benignant and softening influences," and to expressions of "horror at the idea of sending out Baptists and Anabaptists to convert such a people, disturbing institutions ordained by Providence to make them virtuous and happy." But this time Wilberforce triumphed. What, however, was the actual decision?

No official Government Mission was now proposed, as in 1793. Two resolutions were moved and carried. One acknowledged our duty "to promote the interests and happiness of the Indian peoples," and that, with a view to the introduction of "useful knowledge and religious and moral improvement," "sufficient facilities should be afforded by law to persons desirous of going to and remaining in India" to accomplish "those benevolent designs." In other words, the State left the Church, by the instrumentality of the Societies which were its arms, free to do the work for which the State was unfitted.

The other resolution, which provided for the establishment of a Bishopric, will come before us in the next chapter. Meanwhile, this chapter has shown us how truly the Old Church in Calcutta stands to this day as the representative of the earliest Anglican missionary enterprise in Bengal.

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