Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duff, Alexander

DUFF, ALEXANDER, D.D., LL.D. (1806–1878), missionary, was born at Auchnahyle in the parish of Moulin, Perthshire, 26 April 1806. In his boyhood he came under deep religious impressions, and in his course of study in arts and theology at the university of St. Andrews was much influenced by Chalmers, then professor of moral philosophy. As soon as he finished his theological course, he accepted an offer made to him by the committee of the general assembly on foreign missions to become their first missionary to India. Ordained in August 1829, Duff proceeded on his way, and after being twice shipwrecked on the voyage, and losing all his books or other property, reached Calcutta in May 1830. After much consideration he determined to make Calcutta his base of operations, and to conduct the mission in a different manner from any other. His plan was to open an English school, which should by-and-by develope into a college, this to become the headquarters of a great campaign against Hinduism. The Bible was to be the great centre and heart of all his work, and the leading aim of the mission would be to impress its truths. But along with this there would be taught every form of useful knowledge, from the A B C up to the subjects of the most advanced university studies. The use of the English language in his school was a great innovation, and brought down on him much unfavourable criticism. But he was firmly persuaded, and the result has justified his belief, that the English language was destined to be the great instrument of upper education in India, and he had the immovable conviction that nothing was better fitted than our western knowledge to undermine the superstitions of the country and open its mind to the gospel. It was a leading feature of his plan from among the converts of the mission to train up native preachers of the gospel, it being his decided conviction that only through native teachers and preachers could India become christian.

From the beginning his school was highly successful. Some very decided conversions took place in its earliest years, bringing on it a fearful storm, but openly stamping it with the character of a mission school, while it began to expand into a missionary college, that soon after obtained unprecedented renown. Duff was cheered by the co-operation of Sir Charles Trevelyan, who arrived at Calcutta soon after himself, and by the friendship of the governor-general, Lord William Bentinck [q. v.] His plan received an extraordinary impulse from a minute of the governor-general in council on 7 March 1835, in which it was laid down that in the higher education the great object of the British government ought to be the promotion of European science and literature among the natives of India, and that all the funds appropriated for the purposes of education would be best employed on English education alone. A pamphlet of Duff's, entitled ‘New Era of the English Language and Literature in India,’ showed the immense importance which he attached to this minute. He confessed, however, that the enactment had a defect in treating the spread of christianity in India as a matter of worldly expediency.

Broken down in health by ceaseless and enthusiastic activity, Duff visited his native country in 1834. Here his enthusiasm did not at first receive a very flattering response; but when he was called to address the general assembly, and when, in response to this call, the young man of twenty-nine was able to hold the whole audience as by a spell for nearly three hours, in a speech which for combined exposition, reasoning, and impassioned appeal was almost without a parallel, his triumph was complete. For some years afterwards he went through the country expounding his plan, and not only secured general approval, but on the part of many awakened a new interest in the work of missions generally and cordial devotion to his own mission in particular.

Duff returned to India in 1840. Ever since the issue of Lord William Bentinck's minute, a vehement controversy had been going on between the ‘Orientalists,’ as the party was called who were opposed to it, and the friends of European education. In 1839 Lord Auckland, governor-general, adopting a reactionary policy, passed a minute, the object of which was to effect a compromise between the two parties. Duff took up his pen, and in a series of letters which appeared in the ‘Christian Observer’ endeavoured to show the mischief and the folly of supporting at one and the same time the absurdities of the east and the science of the west. All his life Duff fought hard for a more reasonable and consistent policy, but without the complete success which he longed for. On revisiting India at this time, he found many proofs of the progress of western ideas. His own institution was now accommodated in a structure that had cost between 5,000l. and 6,000l., and was attended by between six and seven hundred pupils, and the college department was in full and high efficiency. In 1843 the disruption of the Scottish church took place, and as Duff, with all the other foreign missionaries of the church, adhered to the Free church, all the buildings, books, and apparatus of every description that had been collected for his mission had to be surrendered. Once more he found himself in the same state of destitution in which he had been after his shipwrecks, on his first arrival in the country. But his spirit rose to the occasion, and being very cordially encouraged by the church at home, which determined, notwithstanding its other difficulties, to support all its missionaries, he proceeded with his work. By-and-by a new institution was provided, more suited to the enlarged operations now carried on. He was cheered by the hearty support of men like Sir James Outram and Sir Henry Lawrence, and by the accession of a new band of converts which included several young men of high caste and of equally high attainments. The success of the mission caused a great crusade by the supporters of the native religions against it, end it passed through one of the severest of those social storms to which it was always exposed in times of success. He had the satisfaction of seeing several of his pupils receiving training for the work of native missionaries, and beginning that work. Branch schools, too, were formed in several villages in the neighbourhood of Calcutta. The operations of the mission were greatly enlarged.

In 1844 Lord Hardinge became governor-general. One of his first acts was to declare government appointments open not only to those who had studied at Government College, but to the students of similar institutions, a step which greatly delighted Duff. In the same year Duff took part in founding the ‘Calcutta Review,’ to the early numbers of which he contributed frequently. The first editor was Mr. (afterwards Sir J. W.) Kaye, who on leaving Calcutta in 1845 besought Duff to undertake the charge, the ‘Review’ having proved a great success. Duff continued to edit it till ill-health drove him likewise away in 1849, when it was handed over to one of his colleagues. This arrangement continued till 1856, when the ‘Review’ passed into other hands.

In 1849 Duff had the advantage, on his way home, of traversing India and seeing many of the chief seats of mission work. His second visit home was signalised by his elevation to the chair of the general assembly of the Free church in 1851, and another mission tour, the chief object of which was to induce that church to place its foreign mission scheme on a higher and less precarious platform, and secure for it an income adequate to its great importance. Hardly less was it signalised by his appearance before Indian committees of parliament, to give evidence on various questions, but especially that of education. This led to the famous despatch of Lord Halifax, president of the board of control, addressed to the Marquis of Dalhousie, then governor-general, and signed by ten directors of the East India Company. This despatch was really inspired by Duff, and embodied the very views with which he had started his work in 1830. It proceeded on the principle that ‘ the education we desire to see extended in India must be effected by means of the English language in the higher branches of education, and by that of the vernacular languages to the great mass of the people.’ The plan embraced a system of universities, secondary schools, primary schools, normal schools, art, medical, and engineering colleges, and finally female schools. The system of grants in aid was to be applied without restriction. The Bible was to be in the libraries of the colleges and schools, and the pupils were to be allowed freely to consult it, and to ask questions on it of their instructors, who if they chose might give instructions on it, but out of school hours. While Duff was delighted with this minute, it was a great disappointment to him during all the remainder of his life that he could not get its provisions fully and fairly carried into effect.

In 1854 Duff, at the earnest solicitation of a citizen of great enthusiasm and public spirit, Mr. George H. Stuart of Philadelphia, paid a visit to the United States. His travels and orations in that country were a series of triumphs. ‘No such man has visited us since the days of Whitefield’ was the general testimony as he parted from them on the quays of New York. ‘Never did any man leave our shores so encircled with christian sympathy and affection.’ The university of New York conferred on him the degree of LL.D. The university of Aberdeen had previously made him D.D.

When he returned to India in 1856, Lord Canning was governor-general, and there were mutterings of the great storm which soon burst out. Duff, who knew the people well, was not unprepared for it, and with other missionaries had been urging on the authorities his views regarding the right treatment of the people. What followed was recorded by him in a series of twenty-five letters to the convener of the foreign missions committee, which were published from time to time in the ‘Witness’ newspaper, and afterwards collected in a volume which went through several editions, entitled ‘The Indian Mutiny: its Causes and Results’ (1858). When the mutiny was over, Duff preached a memorable sermon in the Scotch Free church, in which, like another Knox, he condemned the policy of the government, some of whose members were present. The mutiny had no such unfavourable effect as some dreaded on the progress of christianity in India. In 1850, a census showed the native protestant christians to be 127,000. In 1871 the number was 318,363. Among the martyrs during the mutiny was his third convert, Gopeenath Nundi. The loyalty of the native christians to the British government was conspicuous.

During this period of Duff's stay in India, his chief object of public solicitude was the university of Calcutta, now in the course of foundation. He had been appointed by the governor-general to be one of those who drew up its constitution. ‘For the first six years of the history of the university,’ says his biographer, Dr. George Smith, ‘in all that secured its catholicity, and in such questions as pure text-books and the establishment of the chair of physical science contemplated in the despatch, Dr. Duff led the party in the senate.’ Dr. Banerjea has written thus of his leadership: ‘The successive vice-chancellors paid due deference to his gigantic mind, and he was the virtual governor of the university. The examining system still in force was mainly of his creation. … He was the first person that insisted on education in the physical sciences.’ In 1863 the office of vice-chancellor was pressed upon him by Sir Charles Trevelyan, to whose recommendation the viceroy would probably have acceded, but the state of things at home was such that the church recalled him to preside over its missions committee. It was thought to be time that Duff should leave India, his health being so impaired as to make a permanent change a necessity.

The memorials devised in his honour on his leaving were very numerous. In the centre of the educational buildings of Calcutta a marble hall was erected as a memorial of him. Four Duff scholarships were instituted in the university. A portrait was placed in one college, a bust in another. A few Scotchmen in India and adjacent countries offered him a gift of 11,000l., the capital of which he destined for the invalided missionaries of his own church. Conspicuous among those who gave utterance to their esteem for him as he was leaving them was Sir Henry Maine, who had succeeded to the post of vice-chancellor of the university. Maine expressed his admiration for Duff's thorough self-sacrifice, and for his faith in the harmony of truth, remarking that it was very rare to see such a combination of the enthusiasm of religious conviction with fearlessness in encouraging the spread of knowledge.

On his way home in 1864 Duff, in order to become practically acquainted with other missions of his church, visited South Africa, and traversed the country in a wagon, inspecting the mission stations. In 1865 he learned that his Calcutta school had for the first time been visited by a governor-general, Sir John Lawrence, who wrote to him that it was calculated to do much good among the upper classes of Bengal society. Installed as convener of the foreign missions committee, Duff set himself to promote the work in every available way. To endow a missionary chair in New College, Edinburgh, he raised a sum of 10,000l. He had never thought of occupying the chair, but circumstances altered his purpose and he became first missionary professor. He superintended all the arrangements for carrying into effect the scheme so dear to Dr. Livingstone, of a Free church mission on the banks of Lake Nyassa. He travelled to Syria to inspect a mission in the Lebanon. He co-operated with his noble friends, Lady Aberdeen and Lord Polwarth, in the establishment of a mission in Natal, the ‘Gordon Memorial Mission,’ designed to commemorate the two sons of Lady Aberdeen, whose career had terminated so tragically, the sixth earl of Aberdeen and the Hon. J. H. H. Gordon. In 1873, when the state of the Free church was critical, on account of a threatened schism, Duff was a second time called to the chair. This danger, strange to say, arose from a proposal for union between the Free church and the United Presbyterian, which Duff greatly encouraged. Among his latest acts was to take an active part in the formation of the ‘Alliance of Reformed Churches holding the Presbyterian System.’ Before the first meeting of this body, in 1877, Duff's health broke, and he died on 12 Feb. 1878. His personal property he bequeathed for a lectureship on missions on the model of the Bampton.

Duff's principal publications were as follows: 1. ‘The Church of Scotland's India Mission,’ 1835. 2. ‘Vindication of the Church of Scotland's India Missions,’ 1837. 3. ‘New Era of English Language and Literature in India,’ 1837. 4. ‘Missions the end of the Christian Church,’ 1839. 5. ‘Farewell Address,’ 1839. 6. ‘India and India Missions,’ 1840. 7. ‘The Headship of the Lord Jesus Christ,’ 1844. 8. ‘Lectures on the Church of Scotland,’ delivered at Calcutta, 1844. 9. ‘The Jesuits,’ 1845. 10. ‘Missionary Addresses,’ 1850. 11. ‘Farewell Address to the Free Church of Scotland,’ 1855. 12. Several sermons and pamphlets. 13. ‘The World-wide Crisis,’ 1873. 14. ‘The True Nobility—Sketches of Lord Haddo and the Hon. J. H. Hamilton Gordon.’ 15. Various articles in the ‘Calcutta Review.’

[Letter to Dr. Inglis respecting the wreck of the Lady Holland, 1830; Missionary Record of Church of Scotland and of Free Church of Scotland; Disruption Worthies; Life of Alexander Duff, D.D., LL.D., by George Smith, C.I.E., LL.D., 2 vols.; Men worth remembering, Alexander Duff, by Thomas Smith, D.D.; Daily Review, 13 Feb. 1878; Proceedings of General Assembly of Free Church, 1878.]

W. G. B.