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Undaunted Duff Defied Shipwrecks to Disciple India

Alexander Duff, educator of India.

BORN IN PERTHSHIRE, Scotland in 1806, Alexander Duff grew up on a farm where his father taught him love of Christ and horror of idolatry. He later wrote, “If ever son had reason to thank God for the prayers, the instruction, the counsels, and the consistent example of a devoutly pious father, I am that son.” His equally godly mother ran the family dairy. 

A dream about Judgment Day showed Duff his need of a Savior and a close call with drowning taught him the nearness of eternity. He learned the value of perseverance when he and a friend almost lost their lives during a heavy snowfall but did not despair although lost in the dark. 

While Duff studied at the University of St. Andrews, the Church of Scotland formed a mission society and asked him to be their first missionary. He was twenty-three when he accepted the call. Three months before leaving for India, Duff and Anne Scott Drysdale married. On this day, 14 October 1829, the newlyweds sailed aboard the Lady Holland. Following a narrow escape from pirates, their ship went down near South Africa with everything they owned. Undaunted, they boarded another ship for India, having salvaged a Bible and a psalm book. Eight months later, after a second shipwreck, they arrived at Calcutta.

Duff planned to educate Indians by combining secular subjects with religious training. Other missionaries told him this would not succeed: high caste Hindus would never allow their sons to study from the Bible. Encouraged by the experienced missionary, William Carey, and an Indian scholar, Duff stuck with his plan and opened a school under a Banyan tree. Within two years, he had over a thousand students. He said, “Our maxim has been, is now, and ever will be this: wherever, whenever, and by whomsoever Christianity is sacrificed on the altar of worldly expediency, there and then must the supreme good of mankind lie bleeding at its base.” 

Because India has many languages, Duff put his pupils on an equal footing by teaching in English. He also thought that England’s rule would be easier if more Indians knew their rulers’ language. Meanwhile, he labored to master Bengali so he could interact with the majority of his pupils better. 

Duff died in 1878. Although his methods were widely imitated in India, he saw few conversions, mostly from the lower classes. However, his classes inspired reform of Hinduism and produced men able to staff India’s civil service. His arguments helped bring about the establishment of Calcutta’s first public hospital and break the hold of traditions that made it taboo for respectable Hindus to study anatomy.

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