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Self Lost in Service - Alexander Duff of India
Chapter III. Standing Alone

SHORTLY after his arrival in Calcutta, Duff received an invitation to a State Ball arranged by the Governor-General in honour of the accession of William IV. As a matter of principle he had never attended any ball, and he felt that he could not accept the invitation. But as he did not know what an invitation from the Governor-General might mean, he consulted the godly English chaplain on the matter. The chaplain replied that he entirely disapproved of balls, and if he possibly could he would shun them altogether. But in India an invitation from the Governor-General, who represented the Queen, was regarded as a command. He, therefore, was in the habit of going to Government House and entering the ball room, to remain there for a few moments, and then quietly to retire. Duff did not like this compromise, and as his friend had no better solution to give, he wrote a letter to the Governor-General's Private Secretary, in which, after expressing thanks for the courteous invitation, he stated that he could not consistently attend the ball, and that he also was afraid to injure his usefulness as a minister by accepting the invitation.

After a week or two the Governor-General expressed by letter his cordial approval of the spirit and principles of the Missionary's attitude. At the same time the Private Secretary added that his lordship hoped Mr Duff would dine privately with Lady Bentinck and himself and a few friends in order that he might talk over various important matters which bore on the social, moral, intellectual and religious conditions of the natives of India. On these occasions civilians and military officials were surprised at the unusual sight of the Governor-General condescending to converse with a missionary instead of listening to them and hearing their opinions.

Duff's Plans

We may now ask:—At what did Duff aim in coming to India? What was the vision the missionary saw and hoped to be able to help to make a reality? He believed that, while it is the grand primary object of Christianity to save souls, it is divinely ordained that in the very act and process of doing so, Christianity should permeate, purify and elevate all society, not stopping short till all private, domestic and social habits, manners, customs and practices, as well as all national institutions and laws, are brought into complete conformity with the mind and requirements of Christ. He therefore hoped and expected that the Gospel would enable India, animated by Christian principles, to take her rightful place among the great nations of the world.

In the instructions which Duff had received from the Convener, the special desire was expressed that he should form a seminary for the higher education of the better-class natives. This was Dr Inglis' own idea. After making inquiry in Calcutta and its neighbourhood, the missionary concluded that the spirit of this instruction could be better attained if the letter were broken. The Committee desired that the seminary should be in the environs of the city; Duff decided it should be established in Calcutta itself. When he had once made up his mind he believed in acting promptly. He sent home full and exhaustive explanations justifying the course he was pursuing.

In reply there came a letter from the Convener, in which Dr Inglis pathetically stated it had taken him two months to circulate Mr Duff's letters amongst the Committee, and asking the missionary to take this as a warning and to state his views briefly, "abbreviating your discussions in point of reasoning." (This appeal of the overwhelmed Convener recalls the fond wish which a Scottish newspaper uttered when Duff addressed the Assembly as Moderator for the second time in 1873—that the missionary had studied under Baron Liebig!)

On another point the young pioneer in Calcutta had the courage to differ from the instructions which he had received. The original purpose which Dr Inglis, who really drafted the scheme, had in view was instruction through Bengalee, although if was intended that English should also be taught —to raise some intellectually by imparting a liberal education to them, so that they should be a leaven which would gradually act upon superstition and idolatry, but, "more particularly, to qualify some who may be converted to Christianity and religiously disposed," and who were to be used as ministers and evangelists amongst their fellow-countrymen. But, after carefully examining the situation, Duff decided that the best way to carry out the instructions would be to .teach the whole school English, thus taking advantage of the general eager desire of the Hindus for instruction in that language, instead of trying to train in European learning and literature through Arabic, Persian and Sanscrit.

Duff was convinced that the example of Akbar, when he had conquered India, was worthy of imitation by the British. Akbar insisted that the language of business and polite literature throughout all his Dominions should be Persian, his own language, in order that the people might become familiar with his rule. By this simple device he influenced the people's daily thought and made Persian rule almost a national condition of things in India. When the British overturned the rule of 'Akbar's successors, they did not at once introduce the English language, and by this omission they allowed the spell of the genius of the Mohammedan dynasty to be an impressive power in India. By his determination to use English in his school Duff hoped to begin the process of familiarising the natives with that language, and thus add to the stability of British rule in the country.

The New School

The most distinct feature of the new school, Duff resolved, must be the daily reading of some portion of the Bible by those who were able to read; and at the same time the simple explanation of Scripture to all. This, he held, must be done in order that the young people should be made acquainted with the enlightened thought of Scripture, and so might become more intelligent. But his chief end was to seek by this process to impress the truth upon the hearts of those he taught, so that conscience might become a living power in their lives. At no time in his career did he relish the idea of a separation being made in his school between what is called secular and what is called spiritual teaching. He went so far as to maintain that in a missionary school "there ought to be no exclusively secular department."

Duff found no difficulty in carrying out this idea; and he always endeavoured—his pupils testified to his success—in addition to reading and teaching the Bible, to combine secular and religious education throughout the teaching of the day. He sought to teach literature and science in such a way as to be of effect in Christianising the scholar; and he gloried in making this object known. He intended that his scholars should be so taught that they should find in the instruction the reflection of the spirit of Christ, and the illustration of its deductions and principles in general life. He believed that the endeavour to convert the country by the methods of elementary education and open air preaching alone was unwise, and that to insist upon the reasonableness of these methods alone was to sacrifice judgment to enthusiasm. At the same time he held that teaching and preaching were always supplementary to each other.

The European community of Calcutta at once disapproved. "What you propose doing is impossible. It is a wild dream to think that any of the better-class Hindus will attend a school where the Bible is read and explained." Many, therefore, tried to dissuade him from pursuing what they believed to be a suicidal policy. Their views were summed up by a brother missionary, who called the day before Duff opened his school and said: "He feared that his coming to India would prove a curse instead of a blessing, and that he would fill Calcutta with rogues and vagabonds."

"Impossible'! Reach down my dictionary, Sir, and turn to the word 'impossible' ," said a somewhat choleric captain to a young lieutenant who had used this word in reference to a proposed evolution. The youth looked, and then said "It isn't in your dictionary, it's ruled out with red ink." No. Sir," said the captain, "it's not in my dictionary, or in the dictionary of any naval officer;. such a word is not used in the Navy; carry out my instructions." And so it was with Alexander Duff. "Impossible" was not in his lexicon.

Friends in Need

Though his scheme was received with disapprobation in Calcutta, Duff visited the most experienced missionary in India, William Carey, at Serampore, who cordially welcomed the young Scotsman, and, after listening to the plan which he had formed expressed his general approval of it. Before leaving, Duff said to Carey "You have good reason if ever man had to adopt the Apostle's words 'I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. 'You have done so much for Christ's cause." "No," replied the aged Carey in. a voice weak from exhaustion; "that is too . strong, but I have a good hope."

The only one in Calcutta who expressed anything like faith in the success of the experiment, and whose help enabled the young missionary to begin his school, was a Brahman of high social position and influence, the Rajah Ram Mohun Roy, who had studied the leading religious systems in the original sources, and had become a believer in God, though he had not professed Christianity. "I met him twice or thrice every week in his house or mine. What made him draw more particularly to me was, that my system was one of religious instruction. If it had not been for him I could not then have begun." He procured for Duff a small hail in the Chitpore Road in the heart of the native city, and persuaded the parents to allow five pupils of the highest caste to attend the school.

For the next few days the school was besieged with eager applicants, "Me a good boy, oh take me," cried one, "Me a poor boy, oh take me," or "me want to read your good books, oh take me," said another. Perhaps one who knew a little more about English missionaries said, "Me know your commandments, 'Thou shalt not have any other gods before me'; oh take me." There was also heard the appeal, "Oh take me, and I pray for you."

When he had selected his pupils and made an attempt to arrange them in classes Duff asked them to come on 13th July. According to the Rajah's own suggestion he opened a school that day by repeating the Lord's Prayer in Bengalee, all the youths standing. When, however, he put copies of the Gospels in Bengalee into the hands of those who could read it, one of the youths said "This is the Christian Shastre (sacred book). How then can we read it? It may make us Christians, and our friends will be angry and drive us out of caste"—the greatest disgrace for a Brahman. The Rajah, who was present, pointed out to the lad his mistake. He drew his attention to the fact that many Christians studied the sacred book of the Hindus in Sanskrit, but it had not made them Hindus. He had studied the Koran in Arabic, but that had not made him a Moslem. In this way, having calmed the fears of the pupils, he added that all they were asked to do was to judge for themselves. The appeal told; boys are proud to be trusted.

Had you seen Duff in the evening you would have found him busily translating the day's lesson into Bengalee, to help his memory as well as to gain familiarity in writing the language, and drawing up a review of each lesson which he carried with him for his own guidance. The boys, noting the trouble which he took to acquire their language in order to help them to learn English, were stimulated to greater exertions ; it became a race between master and pupil. But at the outset, so low had the office of teacher of English, the language of the Mlecchas (or unclean), fallen in Calcutta, that six months passed before Duff could induce any Hindu to act as teacher or monitor for any pay.

Successes and Sorrows

Take a look into one of the class rooms. The missionary is standing beside a board resting upon an upright frame, with a semicircle of keen-eyed clever boys in front of him. He picks up a slip of wood, on which the letter O has been painted, and slips it into one of the parallel grooves that run across the board, at the same time pronouncing its name. When that letter has been mastered he slips in the letter X and pronounces it; when that letter, too, has been learnt he brings the two together, and says O-X, OX. He then gives the name of the animal which he has described, in Bengalee, their mother tongue, and the boys have begun to learn English. Follow these little fellows as they leave school that day. Soon they meet an ox pulling a native cart, whereupon they show off the English they have learnt by shouting in glee O-X—OX.

Some of the boys, not more than six or seven years old, proved apt scholars, for they learned the alphabet in two days, and with equal speed they put letters together into words, so that in a very short time they were able to read. Duff made it a rule, how-. ever, that only when they were able to read tolerably well their own Bengalee could they be allowed to begin English. For the Bengalee he secured an Indian teacher, but until the arrival of his colleagues from Scotland he had to teach all the English classes himself. He went rapidly from one class to another, keeping them all in exercise, so that he never sat down, though this involved from five to six hours daily in that hot trying climate.

One day the lesson in general knowledge was about rain. "What causes rain? " he asked.

"Oh, it comes from the trunk of Indra's elephant upon which he rides through the clouds."

"How do you know?"

"Our Guru (Sacred teacher) told us the gods told him."

"Would you like to know what we are taught about rain?"


"Did you ever see a kettle boiling? What comes out of the spout?"


"And what is steam?"

"It is the vapour which the water gives off."

"If you look at the inside of the kettle lid, what happens to the steam when it touches it?" "The lid becomes wet."

"In the same way if you hold a saucer before the spout in the steam the saucer becomes wet too. The steam is changed into water, it is condensed, and as the drops collect they fall back into the water. After the heavy rain has fallen, you see vapour rising from the ground, where does it go?"

"Into the air."

"And as the air is colder the vapour condenses, as the steam condensed on the saucer, and as soon as there is more vapour than the air can carry, the rain falls."

The boys understood the explanation, and saw that what they had been told was not true. They began to doubt their holy teacher.

One morning a scholar in great distress told Duff that on the previous day he had been compelled, from fear of offending parents and friends, to join in the Hindu ceremonies customary during an eclipse of the sun. "Why did you explain those things to us?" he said. "I had much pain, for your explanation is always in my mind, and I feel that I am now a hypocrite. Why did you explain them to us?"

In this way Duff devoted his time and strength, as he said, to the preparing of a mine which should one day explode and tear up the old system from its lowest depths.

A very well-known Independent missionary, when visiting a remote and obscure place forty miles from Calcutta, to preach there, was not a little surprised one morning when three young Hindus approached him, and one of them, addressing him in English, told the missionary that urgent business had brought him (the speaker) to that place. While there he met with these two neighbours and had been conversing with them in the effort to convince them of the superior claims of Christianity, for, said he, "The Bible is a good book and contains the only true religion." Having finished his business, he was now obliged to return to Calcutta, but as he had heard of the missionary's arrival, he, though a perfect stranger, had brought his neighbours to the missionary, as they desired to hear more about Christianity. Astonished beyond measure, the missionary asked the speaker where he had received his knowledge of Christianity. "At Mr Duff's school," he replied. " Here," said the missionary when relating the incident to Duff, "was a young Hindu, quietly and unknown to his teacher, doing the work of a missionary." It fully convinced him of the good which might be effected by an efficient Christian school.

One lad called upon the missionary after the pupils had read in the class and heard the explanation of the passage "Love your enemies." In his own holy books, he said, he was taught, on divine authority, to curse his enemies. That lad became a Christian, a step which in those days needed more than human strength and courage.

Another lad who wished to acknowledge Christ had nowhere to go; he, therefore, came to the missionary's house, and a message was sent to let his father know. In answer the father came walking with downcast countenance and hands folded as if in agony. By and by he drew near, and in silence embraced his son's feet, looked up wistfully, tears trickling down his cheek, as he said in soft piercing tones, "My son!" The son could not help weeping also. The father, looking up, said "My son! If you will not for my sake, why be so cruel to your mother who bore you, carried you on her breast, fed you with her own milk out of her own substance? Will you really, my son, be the murderer of your mother, for she has vowed that she will neither eat nor drink till she has set her eyes upon her darling son? Just come that she may look upon you for one moment. If you do not, she will die." The young man felt the strain so terribly that he fainted, murmuring, as he recovered consciousness, "Oh God have mercy upon me! Oh God, spare my reason!" Many a young convert faced this ordeal triumphantly.

As he received neither help nor encouragement from European residents and missionaries, Duff resolved to live in the native town, but no Hindu with any self- respect would let a house to one who ate beef. In the emergency, he heard of a house that no one would occupy because it was said to be haunted. In this house he lived with his wife and child till ill-health compelled him to seek healthier quarters. But what of Mrs Duff? One recalls Ruth's beautiful reply to Naomi, for the missionary's wife had made a similar choice and lived, without a murmur, a life of solitude during these days. It was of her that Duff's former colleague wrote when he heard of her death. "She was the best of wives and mothers, a loving and true help to her husband, the soother of his many pains and cares and sorrows, deeply interested in his work and intensely solicitous for his honour. If not herself a missionary, she was heart and soul a missionary's wife."

About a year after the opening of the school a public examination of the pupils was held in the Freemasons' Hall, Archdeacon Corrie presiding. The audience was amazed when they heard high-caste Indian boys not only reading in English portions of the Bible, but readily, with accurate knowledge, answering questions on the doctrines and proofs of Christian faith and morals. This was the talk of Calcutta for some time, and Duff was received into favour by the other missionaries, who frankly acknowledged they had been wrong. So many visitors now called to see the school that Saturday was set apart for their reception, while the new system of missionary education was generally adopted throughout India.

Mrs Duff


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