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The Scottish Churches' Work Abroad
Duff and Christian Education

ALEXANDER DUFF was the first missionary sent out by the Church of Scotland, and one of the most remarkable men who ever set foot on the shores of India. He was born near Pitlochry, in Perthshire, on the 25th April 1806. His father was a farmer of unusual strength of character and Christian devotion, who early impressed his son’s mind not only with the truths of the Gospel and the errors of Popery, but, what was less common in those days, with vivid pictures of the woeful condition of the heathen world. After his death his son wrote of him : "Into a general knowledge of the objects and progress of modern missions I was initiated from my earliest youth by my revered father, whose catholic spirit rejoiced in tracing the triumph of the Gospel in different lands, and in connection with the different branches of the Christian Church. Pictures of Jaganath and other heathen idols he was wont to exhibit, accompanying the exhibition with copious explanations, well fitted to create a feeling of horror towards idolatry and of compassion towards the poor blinded idolaters, and intermixing the whole with statements of the love of Jesus."

Proceeding from Perth Grammar School to St. Andrews, Duff became the favourite student of Chalmers, who was at that time the chief glory of the ancient university, and, as Duff afterwards said, "the leading missionary spirit of Christendom." It was largely due to the influence of Chalmers and Dr. Inglis that the anti-missionary policy of the Church of Scotland was reversed in 1824. In the winter session of that year Duff joined with some of his fellow-students in founding the Students’ Missionary Society, a society which has inspired many distinguished missionaries. Some of his friends having volunteered for foreign service— Urquhart and Adam under the London Missionary Society, Nesbit under the Scottish Missionary Society—it was natural that Duff himself should feel the call, and accordingly, when he was approached as the fittest man to be the pioneer of the Church of Scotland’s mission to India, he willingly laid his life upon the altar.


In the early years of the nineteenth century the state of India lay heavy upon the conscience of Christian Britain. Since the battle of Plassey in 1757 the dominions of the East India Company had grown to the dimensions of an empire, and our moral responsibility for the good government and welfare of these subject peoples was increasingly felt. The policy of the Company, which at first had been favourable to the evangelising of the country, had become definitely hostile to all mission work. The most exaggerated views prevailed of the disastrous results likely to follow upon any attempt to introduce the Gospel to the natives. Partly this was due to a genuine anxiety not to do anything which would offend religious sensibility or rouse a spirit of fanaticism. But no doubt also the violent hostility to missions was due to the fact that at that time the government of India was in the hands of irreligious and immoral men. It was not the exception but the rule for the young servant of the Company, on his arrival in India, to stock his zenana and proceed to live in the style of a rajah. The chaplains appointed by the Company did little or nothing to redeem the situation. Regarding them, the Governor-General reported to the Court of Directors in 1795: "Our clergy in Bengal, with some exceptions, are not respectable characters. Their situation is arduous, considering the general relaxation of morals, from which a black coat is no security." Badly paid, they were driven to private trade for a living. Some, acquiring shares in the Company’s lucrative monopolies, retired in a few years with fortunes. This whole period has been characterised as "the most evil time of the East India Company’s intolerance of light in every form." It was considered good policy to give State recognition to idolatry, every crime done in the name of Hinduism was condoned, and any interference with its blind and cruel superstitions was regarded as dangerous in the extreme. There were many who in their bigotry believed that the entrance of the missionary would mean the speedy downfall of our Indian Empire. Hence it was that, when Carey landed in India, he could only maintain his ground by taking refuge under the Danish flag in Serampore.

A flood of light began to be thrown upon this heathenish state of things in the early years of the nineteenth century. The evangelical and missionary spirit which had awakened at home could not endure to see our greatest dependency made a closed reserve for heathenism. When the charter of the Company came up for renewal in 1793 and again in 1813, a great fight was made for the introduction of what came to be known as the "pious clauses," which aimed at opening the door for educational and missionary work among the natives of India. The leaders in the fight were Wilberforce and his friends of the "Clapham sect," who were at the same time fighting for the freedom of the slave. It may be doubted whether the work they achieved for the emancipation of the slave was as potent for good as their work for the emancipation of India. The leading authority among them on Indian affairs was Charles Grant, who, having served the Company in India, had ultimately become chairman of the Board of Directors. There, and in the House of Commons, where he long represented the county of Inverness, he did more for the Christianising of India than any other man of his day.

Mention of his name is due, for not only did his work do much to turn the mind of the Church of Scotland to India, but he clearly laid down the principles of educational missions which Dr. Duff afterwards adopted and applied with such magnificent success. Duff’s policy is often represented as a daringly original conception of his own, but the following quotation will reveal its real author. Grant wrote in 1792 : "It is perfectly in the power of this country, by degrees, to impart to the Hindus our language: afterwards, through that medium, to make them acquainted with our easy literary compositions, upon a variety of subjects ; and, let not the idea hastily excite derision, progressively with the simple elements of our arts, our philosophy, and religion. These acquisitions would silently undermine, and at length subvert, the fabric of error; and all the objections that may be apprehended against such a change are, it is confidently believed, capable of a solid answer." After pointing out how the introduction of Western science would explode Hindu superstitions, he concludes:

"But the most important communication which the Hindu could receive through the medium of our language would be the knowledge of our religion. . . . Wherever this knowledge should be received, idolatry, with all the rabble of its impure deities, its monsters of wood and stone, its false principles and corrupt practices, its delusive hopes and vain fears, its ridiculous ceremonies and degrading superstitions, its lying legends and fraudulent impositions, would fall." Duff himself never set forth the educational policy with more force and clearness than did Charles Grant.


It is one thing, however, to enunciate a policy, it is quite another to carry it through, and to Duff, pre-eminently, this honour belongs. His arrival in Calcutta in 1830 was highly dramatic. He had been twice shipwrecked on the voyage: first at the Cape and then at the mouth of the Hugh, and nothing had been rescued of his belongings but his Bible, which had been washed ashore. These events were fitted to create in the native mind the impression of a man divinely commissioned and preserved, an impression soon to be deepened and confirmed by Duff’s commanding presence and golden eloquence. The only instruction he had received was not to settle in Calcutta. Probably the Home Committee felt that the prevailing godlessness made mission work in that centre practically hopeless. Up till that time missions had been merely nibbling at the edge of Hinduism, detaching an individual here and there, or devoting themselves to the non-Hindu tribes. Nothing had been done to shake the confidence of the learned and respectable classes in the system of Hinduism, and these regarded the Street preacher with contempt.

Duff felt that the time had come for a direct attack on the citadel, backed up by all the intellectual, moral, and religious forces which the Christian West could supply. As he himself expressed it, he said to his fellow-labourers in the field: "While you engage in directly separating as many precious atoms from the mass as the stubborn resistance to ordinary appliances can admit, we shall, with the blessing of God, devote our time and strength to the preparing of a mine, and the setting of a train which shall one day explode and tear up the whole from its lowest depths."

It was an ambitious scheme, and when Duff visited various missionaries and laid it before them, he found no support. Probably they looked upon this raw youth of twenty-four as a visionary who had yet to learn wisdom from the hard facts. Last of all, however, Duff went up the Hugli to Serampore to visit Carey, then nearing the end of his great career, and when he had expounded his scheme, he received the warm approval of the man whose opinion on the subject was the most weighty in all India. Carey himself had encountered opposition in his own educational work at Serampore College. Some good people had even withheld their subscriptions to the Mission till they were assured that none of the money would be spent on teaching science at the College, which had led Carey to inquire, with irony, whether ministers could be trained in England without a liberal education. It may well be imagined, then, with what joy he saw this important work being taken up by a young and powerful recruit, with the religious and educational forces of the Scottish Church supporting him.


Greatly heartened, Duff set to work. He announced the opening of a school for teaching every branch of Western learning to the natives, together with daily instruction in the Bible, all through the medium of English. At the outset, he was exceedingly fortunate in obtaining the countenance and active assistance of a distinguished man, by name Raja Rammohun Roy, the most enlightened Hindu of his time. Dissatisfied with Brahmanism, he had studied widely, had read the Bible in English and in the original Greek and Hebrew, and although not a professed Christian, had come to venerate the character of Christ and to rank His teaching far above all other. For years he had been striving to reform Hinduism from within. On learning Duff’s plans he cordially approved them, for he believed that all education ought to be religious, and he welcomed the use of English as the medium of instruction. Not only did he influence his friends to send their sons to the school, but on the opening day he was present himself and commended the Bible to the students as a book worthy of their most earnest study.

Thus auspiciously the school got under way, although at first all the missionaries kept aloof, fearing, as one of them exclaimed to Dr. Duff, "You will deluge Calcutta with rogues and villains." Twelve months of hard work, however, produced notable results. At an examination, held in presence of a company of interested Europeans, the progress of the scholars, both in general and in scriptural knowledge, was so remarkable that for a time European Calcutta talked of nothing else. But native opinion was a far more important factor, and it had yet to be reckoned with. As the school grew in numbers and in prestige, the cry began to arise of Hinduism in danger. Other influences, it should be mentioned, were at work in Calcutta. A certain amount of Western learning had filtered through to India, but it was of the secularist type, and had led some ardent young Hindus to renounce all religion. Fortunately, Duff got into contact with some of them, and began to lead them in a Christian direction, but their wild views and excesses fanned the flame of religious excitement, which at last reached such a height that the school was boycotted, and for a time the attendance was reduced from three hundred to a bare half-dozen. Duff went calmly on and the panic was gradually allayed. The thirst for Western learning was too strong for the forces of Hindu orthodoxy, and soon the school was more crowded than before.

Meantime, Duff continued by lectures and discussions to influence deeply many young Hindus in Calcutta who, having renounced their ancestral faith, were drifting rudderless upon a dark sea of doubt. One and another and another were led into the light. The testimony of the first convert may be quoted as typical : "A twelvemonth ago I was an atheist, and what am I now? A baptized Christian. A twelvemonth ago I was the most miserable of the miserable,, and what am I now? In my own mind, the happiest of the happy. What a change! How has it been brought about? The recollection of the past fills me with wonder. When I first came to your lectures, it was not instruction I wanted. Instruction was the pretext, a secret desire to expose what I reckoned your irrational and superstitious follies, the reality. At last, against my inclinations, I was obliged to admit the truth of Christianity. But I still felt contrary to what I thought. On hearing your account of the nature of sin, and especially sins of the heart, my conscience burst upon me like a volcano. In spite of myself I became a Christian.

Surely some unseen power must have been guiding me. Surely this is what the Bible calls ‘grace.’" Some of these early converts became leaders of the Indian Church, and some in the dark days of the Mutiny witnessed a steadfast confession under torture and in prospect of immediate death.


By 1835, Duff’s plan of campaign had justified itself and his college was firmly established, but the strain had broken down his health, and he was ordered home. This, however, was only to introduce him to a new and even greater task, the inspiring of the Churches of Britain and America with the missionary spirit. As an orator, Duff has been ranked with Chalmers and Gladstone. Men who had listened to Fox and Pitt in the zenith of their glory solemnly declared that they had never heard anything even second to Duff’s Assembly orations, and vast audiences in America were equally spellbound. His speech, pouring on with the rush of a mountain torrent and the volume of a tidal wave, swept away all before it. He was equally great as an organiser. Before his homecoming, £1200 had been fixed as the maximum missionary income of the Church of Scotland. "Not £1200, but £12,000," said Duff, "and do not stop at that." "Is the man mad ? exclaimed a leading member of the Committee. "Has the Indian sun turned his head ?" But Duff lived to see the missionary income of Scotland rise to over half a million, largely through the inspiration of his own wonderful personality.

Returning to India in 1840, he resumed his work, which steadily grew in intellectual and spiritual influence. In 1843 there were nine hundred students in the College, while the mission supervised three branch stations. It is not necessary to enter here upon the Disruption controversy which rent the Church of Scotland in twain. Suffice it to say that all the missionaries then in the field cast in their lot with the Free Church. The authorities of the Established Church, however, with a harshness which no one would now attempt to justify, claimed all mission property. The injustice was especially glaring in the case of the Calcutta College, which had been built and equipped by Duff’s own efforts. With undaunted courage he went out, leaving only empty class-rooms behind him, and in an incredibly short space of time, aided by generous gifts from India, Britain, and America, he established himself in a second College with a thousand students, and carried on his great work without a break.

Happily the old bitterness has long passed away, and the two Colleges which Duff founded in Calcutta are now united under the name of the Scottish Churches’ College. It is one of the great Colleges of India, with two thousand four hundred university and high school pupils on its rolls, who pay over £11,000 annually in fees.

While the commanding personality and eloquence of Dr. Duff brought his work in Calcutta prominently to the notice of British and American Churches, and did much to commend the cause of educational missions, the fact must not be overlooked that similar work was being done by the Scottish Church in the other great centres of India. In 1829, the year before Duff landed in Calcutta, John Wilson began his great work in Bombay, although for the first six years he worked under the Scottish Missionary Society. For nearly half a century he held a unique place in Western India, being alike the confidential adviser of Government and the friend of the poorest. His name is commemorated in the Wilson College, which he founded and built up. The story of his early experiences forms an exact parallel to Duff’s. There were the same debates and discussions, the same ferment in native opinion, resulting in notable conversions followed by rioting and persecution. The two most remarkable converts were Nauroji and Sheshadri, names that were at one time household words in the Free Church. Nauroji lived to be the Grand Old Man of the Church in Western India, dying in 1908 after seventy years of consistent Christian life and devoted service.

In 1837, John Anderson laid the foundations of a college in Madras, while in 1844 Stephen Hislop began a similar work in Nagpur. The College in Madras was afterwards greatly developed by the statesmanship and princely liberality of William Miller, who began work there in 1862. Under his influence various evangelical churches have united in the work of the College, which is now known as the Madras Christian College, and is the most powerful religious force to-day in South India.


In connection with educational missions, certain questions of policy arise which from time to time have occasioned considerable discussion and difference of opinion. Is the Church justified in keeping up expensive colleges to provide higher education for Hindus and Mohammedans? Are these colleges in any degree effective missionary agencies? Might not the men and money available be spent to more purpose in directly evangelistic work ? Granted that it is necessary to train a native ministry, ought not the colleges to devote themselves exclusively to that? Some of these views have recently been advanced with great force and persuasiveness by Bishop Whitehead in his book, Indian Problems. He urges that the great harvest-field for Indian missions is among the low caste and outcaste peoples, the so-called "untouchables," who provide more than 8o per cent. of the converts, and who are pouring into the Christian Church in thousands every year. He urges that the Church has her hands more than full with these converts, that she ought to concentrate upon them, and by Christian education raise them up to be the light of India. This certainly has an apostolic ring about it, for we are reminded of Paul’s words: "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are." So it would appear to be in India, and every Christian heart must rejoice in the uplifting of the "untouchables."

But there are weighty things to be said for the Christian Colleges as at present constituted—things which entitle them to the fullest confidence and support of the Church. As to expense, the three Colleges in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras earn £9000 in Government grants, while the native students pay fees amounting to over £30,000 annually. Only the merest fraction is paid from missionary funds. It is thus evident that the Hindus and Mohammedans pay for their own education. Not only so, but it might even be said that the native Christian preachers and teachers are to some extent educated at their expense, for if these Colleges were purely missionary institutions it would be quite impossible to provide in them anything like so complete a curriculum. Still further, and most emphatically, objection is taken to the distinction sometimes made between evangelistic and educational methods. It is contended that the educational work of the Colleges is evangelistic, for it is an effective means for spreading abroad the knowledge of the Gospel. Every student must attend the hour of Bible instruction, and thus, day by day, thousands of the keenest young minds in India are saturated with the teaching of Jesus. The number of baptisms among the students is no doubt small, possibly smaller than might reasonably be expected, but the leavening influence is undoubtedly profound. As a Government official remarked, " It is idle to speak of making India Christian some day; India is becoming more Christian every day." A visitor in Madras, speaking to a Brahman teacher, and anxious to get some insight into his mind, asked, "Now, what book would you turn to in time of trouble ? " "Why, the Bible, of course," was the reply. That may be taken as typical of the attitude of many old students of the Christian Colleges to whom the teaching of Christ is supreme, though they may not be enrolled among the number of His professing followers.


Within recent years the centre of interest in India, on the surface at least, appears to have changed from religion to politics, and with the increase of self-government a demand has arisen for a conscience clause in Christian Colleges. Hindus and Mohammedans object to paying public funds to schools where Christian teaching is compulsory. This position is easily understood, and is one which must command a great deal of sympathy both in political and in missionary circles. It may soon become a practical question for the Church at home to decide, and therefore the situation in India ought to be carefully observed. Briefly it is this, that the Indian Government, after providing certain colleges on a non-religious basis, finds itself altogether unable to meet the educational needs of India, and therefore recognises and welcomes the aid of religious schools and colleges—Hindu, Mohammedan, or Christian, to all of which it impartially gives grants for secular education. Most missionaries would agree that in single school areas a conscience clause might be conceded, but in the larger centres, where the educational needs of each religious community are separately met, there is no hardship in making Christian teaching compulsory in a Christian school. There is, in fact, no real compulsion in the matter, for all the pupils freely accept it as a condition of entrance to the school. From the point of view of the Home Church it must never be forgotten that the supreme end for which the Christian Colleges exist is the propagation of the Christian religion, and the moment they cease to fulfil that high end the Church can have no further interest in their upkeep.

If the conscience clause were insisted upon in all schools, it would doubtless lead to a complete revision of the Church’s present policy of missionary education. She would then be compelled to devote her energies to the Christian education of converts, and rich compensation might be found in that, for the opportunities are already great and are rapidly increasing. Yet the loss to the intellectual and moral life of India would be immense. For, whatever the future may have in store, the record of the past is clear. The Government Colleges, if they had been left alone in the field, would inevitably, with their non-religious policy, have created the impression in the native mind that Western learning and irreligion are inseparable. In exploding the superstitions of Hinduism by the doctrines of materialistic science, they would have uprooted all religion. This has too often been the result. The Christian Colleges, from the first and throughout their whole history, have rendered an incalculable service to India by showing to her students and thinkers that the finest Western learning is in complete harmony with Christian truth. By their means the knowledge of the Gospel has reached quarters where otherwise it never could have come, the evangelistic missionary and the village preacher have felt the intellectual and moral support of their prestige, and all who desire the welfare of Christ’s cause in India will pray that their work may continue and increase.

See also Duff in India

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