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Self Lost in Service - Alexander Duff of India
Chapter XIII. At the Helm

FROM the effects of his great sorrow Dr Duff never fully recovered. Often a word, a remark, which afterwards fell from his lips indicated to those who knew him best how deep was his sorrow, how acutely he felt his loneliness. He nevertheless threw himself with zeal into the work which his return devolved upon him.

For many years it had been his desire to help in founding a Central Institution where intending missionaries might be thoroughly equipped for this work. He remembered that, when first appointed to Calcutta, he could hardly find anyone who could inform him about the people of India and the missionary possibilities there. The first step was made when fourteen or fifteen gentlemen, most of them unconnected with the Free Church, offered him ten thousand pounds unconditionally to endow a chair of "Evangelistic Theology." He held the first professorship, to which the General Assembly unanimously appointed him in 1867, but allowed the emoluments to accumulate, to form the endowment, after his death, of the Duff Missionary Lectureship. Eventually the funds were surrendered, at the bidding of the Royal Commission, to the successful litigants after the House of Lords Judgment in 1904.

A Pen and Ink Portrait

In after years the late Rev. Dr Wilson, Abernyte, who had been one of Professor Duff's students supplied the writer with the following recollections of his veteran teacher, as the occupant of the Chair of Evangelistic Theology:-

"Dr Duff's lectures in the Chair  of Evangelistic Theology, which I attended about the year 1870, were very memorable to me as well as to most of my fellow-students. Many of us felt the need of something to counteract the tendency to make our theological training an affair of the intellect exclusively, and the lectures of the famous missionary seemed exactly to meet that want. Here were intellect, heart, and imagination, all fused by a spirit of red-hot missionary zeal. A few supposed that his zeal rose to an undue pitch, and that he overstrained the claims of the mission field; but our missionary, with Spurgeon, and indeed with the Epistle to the Laodicean Church, believed that the proper temperature of Christianity is red-hot.

One was impressed at first sight by the striking appearance of the venerable missionary, resembling that of an old prophet, with his patriarchal beard, furrowed cheeks and white hair rising above an intellectual forehead. He seemed like a scarred veteran who had passed through a hard-fought campaign, not unscathed, yet conspicuously successful. Being much broken down in health he seemed already to have one foot in the grave, and to be ready to soar up to receive his reward in the world of light. It was far from detracting from the interest of his lectures that they were, to a considerable extent, autobiographical. Whilst dealing with various aspects of the mission field and missionary requirements, Dr Duff gave intensity of interest to his subject by illustrating it from his own personal experience. He took us through the drama of his own missionary career from the time of his early decision to devote his great gifts to the cause of Christ in India on to his eventful experiences in Calcutta, and at various points the story rose to a pitch of thrilling interest. In spite of a somewhat redundant verbiage, one felt here was one of the few great natural orators one has the privilege to meet in a lifetime. He evidently felt himself sadly crippled in this respect by his weakened voice and inferior health, like an old eagle with clipped wings; but this very fact lent his lectures a pathos and impressiveness and a depth of spiritual influence they would not have had if he had still been in his vigorous prime. That a great deal of his early fire still remained, however, was evident at times, when his Celtic nature would take fire and an eloquent outburst would come, presaged by the sudden darting upwards 'of his right hand with fore-finger pointing up, followed by a downward twirl of the hand, which had somewhat the effect of an un expected flash of lightning.

"The keynote of his lectures was that the mission cause is no mere matter of secondary, but of altogether central and essential im portance in church work. The very raison d'etre of a Church is to be a mission agency at home and abroad. With him the position of missionaries yielded in honour to that of no other upon earth. They are the real heroes, the most worthy to be called followers of Christ. Yet even professing Christian parents, he said, would rather let their sons go abroad as merchants or earthly soldiers than as missionaries. But were a prince of the realm to go out as a missionary it would be no downcome, nay, it would be to win a far higher honour than if he were to drivel down into an earthly King. He would quote, in slightly altered form, the old Jacobite lyric which had fired the blood of his own Celtic ancestry—

I ha'e but ae son, my brave young Donald;
But if I had ten they would all—follow Jesus.

"He would speak with indignation of the excuses given by wealthy men for not contributing much to the cause of missions at the very time when they were laying out large sums upon mere luxuries. Certain Churches which did nothing for missions excused themselves on the score that their mission was to uphold some old testimony or outworn watchword of the past. 'Evangelise the world by uplifting a testimony I As well,' he declared, 'might one lift up a straw to stem Niagara.'"

"I have always regarded it as one of my highest early privileges to have been brought into some close personal contact with this great missionary."

No part of the work of the Chair gave Dr Duff greater joy than meeting his students in rotation at his home in hospitable entertainment and social intercourse, and drawing out their conversational powers; the Dassen Island Bible and Psalm book were always shown to them.

When it was proposed to send a mission to Lake Nyasa, he entered with great joy into the project. It mattered not to him whether the effort was made in one quarter of the globe or another, and he accompanied the friends who went to bid the mission party farewell. So deep was his interest in the work, though a popular writer seems to doubt this fact, that he wrote to Dr James Stewart of Lovedale, who was then in Nyasaland. "I wish I could join you for a year." To the end of his days everything connected with foreign missions had his earnest attention, and India and its welfare were ever in his thoughts and prayers.

Alexander Duff at sixty-seven
Alexander Duff at sixty-seven


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