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The Life of John Wilson
Chapter XIX. Second and Last Visit Home


The Shadow darkening—Sir Bartle Frere leaves Bombay—Isabella Wilson’s Death—Legislation of Sir Henry Maine and Sir Fitzjames Stephen—Acts for Re-marriage of Converts and Marriages between non-Christian Natives —Testimonial from the Inhabitants of Bombay on fortieth Indian Anniversary—Addresses from University and Asiatic Society—Summoned to be Moderator of General Assembly—Addresses to the Assembly—Modern Criticism and Missionary Translators—Work at Home—Portrait—Evidence before Commons’ Committee on the Opium and Excise System— Return to Bombay.

The year 1867 cast over Dr. Wilson the first shadow of that darkness beyond which is the everlasting light. In his long course of nigh forty years he had seen band after band of temporary English settlers in the land come and go ; he had himself trained generations of native youth, and built up a native church, colleges, and schools. As friend departed after friend he bewailed the exodus from a land which needed all their experience and their energy. The last was the Governor whom he had received at Ambrolie fresh from Haileybury, and had admitted to an almost life-long intimacy. Sir Bartle Frere turned from the honours and the applause which attended his departure from Bombay, to spend one of the last days there with the missionary among his schools and college students. Still invested with all the influence of his office, his Excellency, having examined the youth, expressed to them his personal conviction that religion is all important as an element of education. He warmly commended the life-long efforts of Dr. Wilson and others who sought to impart that to the natives of India, to whom it could not fail to be a blessing even when they fell short of embracing Christianity.

As the hot season passed into the rainy time, and the one really intolerable month of the Indian year, September, came round, when wearied humanity pants for the cooling breezes and reviving life of what Europe calls winter, Isabella Wilson was taken away. Her abundant labours of twenty years, in which she had enjoyed only the combined rest and toil of a six months’ visit to her sisters in Scotland, precipitated the end. All Bombay, from the Chief Justice and Judges of the High Court to the humblest Native Christian and student, followed to the Scottish cemetery the remains of one whose influence was all the greater that it had been never obtruded yet ever present in all that was good in the place. In her own home, in the native church, in the central native female day school, in the monthly inspection of the district and other girls’ schools, in the Beni-Israel school, in the native female boarding-school, in the Ladies’ Committee of the Scottish Orphanage, in the Bible-woman’s Association, and in other philanthropic institutions of Bombay, she had proved so potent a force that it was difficult to realise how these organisations could prosper without her. Her social intercourse for the highest ends, with Hindoo, Parsee, Jewish, and Muhammadan families, had been closer than that of any other English lady in all India. What she was to her husband in his literary researches and missionary tours, which taxed the courage and resources of the bravest men, we have partially seen. But the purest tribute to her memory was that which the converts rendered, the women and the girls, the catechumens from all the lands of the East from Abyssinia to China, the ordained Natives who, in an eloquent sermon by the Rev. Dhunjeebhoy Nowrojee, expressed the loss of the whole Church of India. Henceforth, to his own last hour, Dr. Wilson is cared for by his niece, Miss Taylor. All this came upon him at the time of the preparations for the Abyssinian Expedition, which, however, gave Lord Napier an opportunity of calling on him to express warm sympathy. His own sorrow he manifested by erecting a female school, as the best memorial of one who had given herself for the women of Bombay.

Soon after his appointment as law member of the Governor-General’s Council, Sir Henry Maine had been led by Lord Lawrence to devise a legislative solution of the two questions—What relief should be given, first, to Christian converts whose spouses refuse to join them, or are prevented for years from doing so ; and, secondly, to non-Christian dissidents from Hindooism who have conscientious objections to the idolatrous and suggestively indecent marriage rites of Brahmanism. This second question was afterwards settled by Sir James F. Stephen, so as to satisfy the followers of Keshub Chunder Sen, and even to lead English Comtists to take advantage of an Act under which the parties must declare that they are not Christians. The Converts’ Remarriage Bill had a keen interest for all Christians, however, and called forth ecclesiastical discussion for years. Dr. Wilson was consulted by Government on both difficulties, and the assistance he gave to Sir Henry Maine was warmly acknowledged. Unlike the sacramentarians who hold that a marriage is irrevocable by whomsoever made, even if one of the parties refuses for ever all conjugal duties, Dr. Wilson showed, from the early Fathers down to the Reformers, that Scripture had been consistently interpreted so as to give proper relief. He laid special stress on the opinion of Basi-lius of Caesareia,1 because of the great authority of that bishop in the Roman, Greek, Syrian, and Gothic Churches. The result of a learned and sometimes bitter discussion in the Press as well as the Legislative Council of India, was the most equitable Act under which, if a wife persistently refuses to join her converted husband (and vice versa) for two years, notwithstanding private opportunities of remonstrance judicially given, the district courts may only then pronounce divorce. The Act has worked extremely well, by affording opportunities to the law to free wives from such restraint as we have seen Brahmanism and Parseeism impose on inquirers, and so to prevent divorce. The great jurist and the experienced scholar were thus happily allied in removing one of the last obstacles to perfect toleration. Nothing now remains to be done by the legislature save the promulgation of a uniform rule or procedure for the protection of the rights of conscience of minors, in a country where marriage takes place at and sometimes before puberty.

As the 14th of February 1869 approached, the leaders of all the communities in Bombay, European and Asiatic, resolved to honour their foremost man on that, the fortieth anniversary of his arrival in Western India. Mr. Sassoon, the Jewish millionnaire, and Dr. Bhau Daji, the most learned reforming Brahman, were active in the movement, side by side with Mr. James Taylor, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and of the Asiatic Society, and with the secretary of the committee, Mr. James Douglas. The long roll of subscribers and signatures in many languages on the parchment sheets, represents all races, creeds, and classes in the East, and all varieties of Christian sects. Although New Bombay was still suffering from the ruin and apprehension that followed the cotton mania, and the work was rapidly done, upwards of Rs. 21,000 (£2100) was presented to the missionary on a silver salver wrought by native artists, and bearing the inscription, in Sanskrit:—“ This salver was presented to the Rev. John Wilson, D.D., F.R.S., at a meeting of the inhabitants of Bombay, as a mark of esteem for his high personal character, and in acknowledgment of his great services to India in the cause of education and philanthropy.” The design represents him as a missionary standing under the sacred peepul tree, a Hindoo temple and a figure of Rama behind, and before him a crowd of Asiatics of every cult and caste in Western India, from the learned Brahman to the ignorant peasant. The Governor, Sir Seymour Fitzgerald, presided at a great meeting in the Town Hall of Bombay, on the 15th February 1869, and made the presentation. The Chief-Justice, Sir Richard Couch, assisted. A loving letter was read from Sir Bartle Frere, and the other speakers were Mr. Sassoon and Dr. Bhau Daji. Dr. Wilson thus reported the event to Miss Margaret Dennistoun: — “It is wonderful to think that gratification has been felt with the issue through the whole of India. Only one element of my felicitation (I was humbled rather than exalted) was wanting—the sympathy of her, the beloved one who was so lately removed from me. I have been weeping whenever I have been thinking of this deprivation. I always felt that one quiet glance of her loving and approving eye was better to me than the applause of the multitude. Her love was always an emblem to me of that of the Saviour Himself.” It was characteristic of his whole career and of his unfailing tact, that, agreeing to use the interest only in his philanthropic and literary labours, he should designate the capital sum to aid the higher studies of the youth of Bombay, “in a form which will be agreeable alike to my European and Native friends.” The fund has accordingly devolved on the University of Bombay for the foundation of the John Wilson Philological Lectureship, to which his friend and executor, Professor Peterson, was appointed. Dr. Wilson desired that lectures may thus be delivered “by a competent European or Native scholar, annually elected for the purpose, on either of the following classes of languages and the literature in which they are embodied:—Sanskrit, and the Prakrit languages derived from it; Hebrew, and the other Shemitic languages; Latin and Greek ; English, viewed in connection with Anglo-Saxon and its other sources.”

The address of the inhabitants of Bombay, followed by one from the Hindoos and Muhammadans of Nasik, from which he had been almost expelled in his first missionary tour, reviewed the whole course of Dr. Wilson’s work for the people, and thus expressed their own special gratitude: — “As citizens of Bombay we thankfully acknowledge that the credit of this city has been upheld by the personal courtesy and learned aid which distinguished foreigners and others, coming hither as visitors or for purposes of Oriental research or Christian philanthropy, have always received from you, as acknowledged by them subsequently in their published writings or otherwise.”

But again, as in 1842, it was left to the Asiatic Society to review his contributions to scholarship, and to the University to acknowledge his work for the higher education. Never before in its history had there been such a concourse of the members of that Society as on the 17th February 1870, when it was known that Dr. Wilson had been summoned to his native country once more, to fill the highest office which the democratic Scottish Church can confer, that of annual Moderator of the General Assembly. The Governor, who presided, after stating the thanks of Government for his political services, which, “ as regards our relation with the people in trying times, have been of the utmost value,” declared it a happy thing that one who had been able to combine the fearless assertion of what he believed to be true with a conciliatory demeanour and tender respect for the belief of others, had been summoned to take the chief part in the government of a religious body who had sacrificed much for the truth at a time when religious discussion too often means animosity and estrangement. Mr. Justice Tucker, Dr. Bhau Daji, Mr. Dhunjeebhoy Framjee, the Portuguese Dr. J. N. Mendonca, Mr. Manockjee Cursetjee, and Messrs. Wedderburn and Connon, told successively what Dr. Wilson had done for scholarship, for literature, for education, for progress of all kinds. Dr. Wilson’s reply was more generous to his fellow members than just to his own researches. Two days after he was on his way to Edinburgh. The native journals followed with their eulogies the now venerable apostle, whose delight it had been to spend and be spent in the service of the people, with an unselfishness which all admired, though all did not trace it to Him whom the missionary proclaimed.

The office of Moderator of the General Assembly is filled, as a rule, by the unanimous vote of the six or seven hundred members on the first day of its meeting. But the Moderator is designated some months before by those surviving who have previously filled the chair, is approved of after consultation by the “ commisson ” of the previous Assembly, and is requested by his immediate predecessor to allow himself to be nominated. In this way Dr. Wilson received a formal invitation from the Rev. Sir Henry Wellwood-Moncreiff, Bart., to come home for the Assembly of May 1870. The Churches, like the country generally, know so little of India till a catastrophe occurs which knowledge might have prevented, that the whole learning and power of Dr. Wilson in his new position proved a surprise to the Free Church of Scotland. Courtesy of the old school; knowledge of men and their public assemblies; promptitude and fluency in expression; learning, rarely obtrusive but always present; and grace of that highest kind which comes down from heaven alone, marked all his public services and official receptions. The time was one when the vexed question was near the embittered stage— Whether the great goal of one reconstructed Kirk of Scotland could best be reached by immediate union with the early seceders of the United and Reformed Presbyterian Churches, or by waiting till the minority of the Established Church atoned for the wrong they have since confessed % To Dr. Wilson, it was well known, the immediate duty of union with all like-minded who would unite, was plain, but he held the balance fairly as became one in his judicial position. So long before as in 1864 he had moved the Presbytery of Bombay to “overture” the General Assembly for this possible instalment of union; for to one in the distant high places of the field the still existing divisions look both ludicrous and criminal. Only on the one disputed question of the use of hymns in public worship did he, when he had ceased to be Moderator, let out the force of his alternate scorn and ridicule for views which would strike evangelical catholicity out of any Church.

His opening address as Moderator was directed to the part which Scotland has taken in the reception, propagation, and conservation of Christianity. A hearer might have supposed that he had never been out of Scotland, but for the extent of his knowledge and the breadth of his sympathies. His vindication of the Westminster Confession of Faith did justice to the foresight and spirit of its authors, only now beginning to be acknowledged, while he quoted with a keen delight the motto of the first Confession of 1560 : “And this glaid tydingis of the kyngdome sail be precheit through the haill warld for a witnes unto all natiouns, and then sail the end cum.” To the then debated question of National Education he gave his support with a confidence since fully justified by the religious steadfastness of his countrymen. The narrow, the sectarian, the purely ecclesiastical found no quarter from him. His closing address was no less fair in the tribute to the lay elders of his Church, and in the remark when alluding to the rationalism of the great French scholar—“This I say, without accusing M. Renan of playing false with his own convictions or depreciating his Shemitic scholarship.”

When the report on Foreign Missions was read he left the chair and told the story of his life-work in words which concluded with the declaration that, notwithstanding his forty-one years’ connection with India, if he lived to the age of Methuselah he would consider it a privilege to devote his life to its regeneration. The General Assembly of 1870 appointed the Rev. W. Robertson Smith, then fresh from the students’ benches but of great reputation, as Professor of Hebrew in succession to Mr. Sachs at Aberdeen. Referring to the translations of the Scriptures by the Rev. Dhunjeebhoy Nowrojee into the Parsee-Goojaratee language, Dr. Wilson said:— “The missionaries know and take advantage of the results of modern criticism; not of rash, but devout, intelligent, and reverent criticism, knowing what passages have often been misunderstood. We have to deal in Bombay with languages drawing all their technical terms from the Sanskrit, one of the most wonderful of all languages in regard to its power of expressing human thought. We have great need of able men in India for biblical and other literary work; and if Mr. Smith, who has this day been appointed a Professor of Hebrew, will come out to India after he has obtained a few years’ experience at Aberdeen, he will find there ample scope for his linguistic talents.”

If the duties, ecclesiastical and social, devolving on a Moderator are not few during the ten days’ sittings of the General Assembly, those which occupy or distract his year of office are formidable. Every cause that needs the preaching of a popular sermon; every new church that is founded or opened; every neighbouring Church to which a brotherly deputation has to be sent, in England, Ireland, and on the Continent, looks to the Moderator. To all this, and especially to his own more special work of stimulating missionary zeal, Dr. Wilson gave himself up with an ardour that taxed his waning energies, as time soon showed. The charms of his talk and companionship in private life were universally recognised with a delighted surprise, for who knew anything of Bombay? Dr. Wilson was as ready to lecture to the theological students of the Established Church in the University Association which he had founded in 1825, as to those of the three New Colleges. And not only to them, for Principal Shairp induced him to delight the students of St. Andrews with a lecture on the Literature and History of the People of India, intended to stir them up to claim their share of appointments in the Services which Scotsmen once almost monopolised.

This growing appreciation led to a movement for securing a portrait of the philanthropist for his native country, since he persisted in his resolution to return to much-beloved Bombay. On the 9th June 1871 he thus wrote to Mr. David Maclagan, who had organised the matter—“ The proposal has taken me by surprise, as I feel that I have no claim to be an aspirant to the honours which you and other friends

desiderate on my behalf. In giving my grateful consent to that proposal, I feel very deeply that it is the judgment of God and not that of man with which I have mainly to do, and that I have many grounds for personal humiliation in the divine presence in connection with my ministrations in all the places in which they have been conducted.” The portrait, painted by Mr. Norman Macbeth, has since adorned the common hall of the New College, Edinburgh.

The Select Committee of the House of Commons, which began to take evidence on the financial system of India in 1871, examined Dr. Wilson on the subject of the opium cultivation of Central and Western India and the excise laws. Almost from the year of his first landing at Bombay he had, on the ground of temperance, memorialised Government on the increase of drunkenness under our rule. He admitted, from the Yedas and from the state of Poona under the Marathas, that intoxication had been known in India, both from drugs and distillation. From his tours, in Rajpootana especially, he gave much information as to the extent to which the cultivation of the poppy is absorbing the best lands, demoralising the people and killing off their chiefs. He urged an increase of the spirit duties, the protection of native villages from the invasion of the drink-sellers caused by our excise system, and—at least—the conversion of the Bengal opium monopoly into the Bombay system, for which the Government and the nation, as such, are not responsible. He testified to the satisfaction of the natives with British rule as contrasted with that of their own princes. That Select Committee was not allowed to give in a final report on the voluminous evidence which it took. The excise laws and opium monopoly remain unchanged to this day, a blot on our generally benevolent administration of India, excused but not justified by financial difficulties.

The toil-worn man of sixty-five, the missionary of forty-three years’ service, might well have been pardoned if he had chosen to rest where he was. But whether in Scotland or in India rest could not be for that burning spirit, that busy mind, that active body. “ I go bound in the Spirit to India to declare the Gospel message,” he wrote to Miss Margaret Dennistoun, when about to step on board the ‘ Ceylon ’ at Brindisi. “Nothing but this object sustains my heart. I am sure you will all earnestly pray for me. My solace is in the Lord.”

“4th October 1871.—Took leave of my beloved friends at Lauder, who were all deeply affected, not expecting again to see me in the flesh. Though I felt much on parting with them, I was wonderfully supported by the Lord Jesus. I read the 129th and 121st Psalms before engaging in prayer in my own house with the surviving members of our family. They gave me the convoy in the carriage till we got out of sight of the valley of the Leader. Drove to Greenlaw, where I was received with much kindness by Mr. and Mrs. Fairbairn, and Rev. Messrs. Cunningham, Fraser, and Spence, whom they had invited to meet me. Addressed a meeting in the Free Church.

“5th.—To Langton, where I addressed Mr. Logan’s congregation in the evening. In the afternoon I visited Langton House, to renew my acquaintance with the excellent Lady Hannah Tharpe, who gave me a very kind reception. I had a long talk, too, on the grounds, with Lady Elizabeth Pringle, who has done much for their improvement as well as for that of the mansion. She is a most vigorous and intelligent old lady.

“6th.—Driven by Mr. Logan to Dunse, to the Rev. Mr. Miller. After calling on Dr. Ritchie of the United Presbyterian Church I left for Selkirk by rail. I was recognised at Galashiels by Mr. Ovans, son of an old friend, who took me to his house. I posted to Hare wood Glen, where James Dennistoun and his family were delighted to see me.

“8th.—Driven to Selkirk and preached in the Free Church.” Then after a day at Stow, with the Rev. T. N. Brydon, and a visit to Glasgow, he bade farewell to Scotland.

Dr. Guthrie’s was the last “kent” face he saw in his native land. Accompanied by his niece he followed his old route by the Rhine to Munich, seeing Professor Christlieb at Bonn, and bitterly lamenting the loss of “my grand walking-cane, the gift of Colonel Davidson.” At the Bavarian capital he writes: “I renewed my acquaintance with Dr. Haug, Professor of Sanskrit in the University, and he treated the two of us to a right good German supper in the evening, at which we met not only his wife and son, but Mr. "West (now Ph.D.) and Mrs. West, old Bombay friends, much with dearest Isabella and myself. Dr. Haug offered to introduce me to Dr. Doll-inger, the living lion of the place, but I could not spare the needful time.” And so, after a day at Trent, and in the cathedral and church of Sta. Maria Maggiore “ in which the famous Council intended to defeat the Reformation was held,” the last week of November 1871 saw him in the hospitable house of Dr. Yule, the consular chaplain at Alexandria, and soon after on an excursion from Suez to the Wells of Moses. At Aden he and General Irving, R.E., repeated the usual five miles’ ride to the town and tanks. On the 9th December he was welcomed back to Bombay by Dhunjeebhoy and the son of the Nawab of Nasik, who boarded the steamer as it entered the harbour.

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