04 May 2007

Williams lauds CMS hero

‘Seven–tongued’ Thomas French of Lahore

‘Seven–tongued’ Thomas French of Lahore

Dead on a beach in Muscat, with few converts to his name, the first Bishop of Lahore still inspires the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has hailed a CMS missionary as a personal hero.

Dr Rowan Williams said Thomas Valpy French, who died in a date grove in Muscat in 1891, was a prime example of a Christian disciple.

Dr Williams was speaking at the London conference of Fulcrum, the open evangelical Anglican group, on the theme of “Being disciples”.

French was someone who showed “the utter worthwhileness of discipleship”, even if his ‘success’ wasn’t obvious to the world.

Born in 1825 in Burton–on–Trent, the son of a long–serving clergyman, French first felt called to mission in India while at Oxford University.  He made a pact with a fellow student that they would serve together.  He later watched that friend die after a railway accident before they even left England.

In his first seven years in Agra, he only made one convert, although two of his pupils later came to faith.

French’s lack of success in numbers didn’t daunt him, said the archbishop.  French simply understood discipleship as, in the archbishop’s phrase, “going to be where Jesus is”.

Dr Williams developed his theme, saying that “going to be where Jesus is” meant “you’ll find yourself in the same kind of company as Jesus” — the poor, the despised, those without a voice, “without purchase in society”.

“Where are the people without a voice?  Without the leverage?” Dr Williams asked.  These were the people with whom Christian disciples would look to be. For French, such people were ultimately found among the Muslims of the Persian Gulf.

“Naming the elephant in the room,” Dr Williams suggested that for Christians in countries like Jamaica and Nigeria, such discipleship today might meant standing alongside homosexual people.

French’s journey, however, took him to Agra in 1851, where he set up the Christian school, St John’s College.  In the anti–British uprising of 1857, amid the general panic, he calmly continued teaching.

His wife, however, came near to death when giving birth to their fourth child and returned to England for good.  Some 10 years later, when he was leaving England to become the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Lahore, he made mention of the sacrifice of his wife and, by then, 8 children in sparing him to leave.

His wife’s comments are not recorded.

He would soon be known as “the seven–tongued clergyman of Lahore” for his dedication to studying languages.  He studied for three or four hours a day and mastered Urdu, Hindustani, Punjabi, Persian, Arabic and other tongues.

French founded Lahore Divinity School and made visits to Kashmir and Iran.  But by 1887, after 10 years as bishop, he felt his health failing and resigned.

However, he still couldn’t give up being a pioneering missionary.  Though he had returned to England, in late 1890 he set sail for Muscat in Oman.  In February 1891, at the age of 66, he became the first missionary there.

As in Agra, where he had taken part in vigorous public debates with Muslim scholars, he met imams, to whom he would introduce himself with the words, “I love all lovers of God.”

After a few months he set off up the coast on an evangelistic journey, but collapsed unconscious in a date grove in the village of Sib.

“If he attempted to labour above measure for his Lord,” wrote his companion in Muscat, the Rev AC Maitland, “God grant us more of the Spirit which inspired him.”

Information on Thomas French adapted from Thomas Valpy French, First Bishop of Lahore, by Vivienne Stacey.