On Nathan Brown’s ‘The Missionary’s Call’ and Other Hymns

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I have just finished preparing the manuscript of a new edition of In a Far Country (1911), Harriette Bronson Gunn’s biography of her father, Miles Bronson. Some consider this kind of work academic drudgery but I liked it. I particularly liked doing the annotations. I did similar work on an early Indian English novel some years ago. Then I was working in the very well-stocked library of a leading university. Hence I had all the books I could possibly want at my disposal. My current setting is rather different. But the internet is a great leveller. I did have misgivings about using Wikipedia but allowed myself to be reassured by a review in the TLS which described the Wikipedia entry on the ancient Indo-Greek kingdom as the ‘most reliable overview of Indo-Greek history’ currently available. YouTube was of great help as well, giving me access to musical sources and information I would not have had otherwise.

In the Introduction to the book (out, hopefully, in December), I point out that In a Far Country belongs to a now forgotten tradition of evangelical and missionary writing that flourished in the nineteenth century. Protestants in America (and in Britain) created their own print culture by writing and publishing sermons, tracts, memoirs, biographies, and hymns. So I should not have been surprised by the book’s allusions to a number of hymns.  Many years ago, when I first read Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi, I was struck by the novel’s continual allusions to ghazals. Ghazals were integral to old Delhi Muslim life; even beggars seem to have recited them. However, from a literary point of view, the hymn, unlike the ghazal, is regarded as a lowly form. This is because hymns are perceived to be conventional, both in sentiment and form, rather than creative. Poetry, the argument goes, must be imaginative.Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poems are religious but innovative and so qualify as poems.

Perhaps there is also a feeling that the religious piety expressed in hymns is hypocritical. After all, the hymn composer John Newton, who wrote ‘Amazing Grace, so greatly loved by Americans including, ironically, by African-Americans, was a slave trader. He became a born-again Christian in 1748. Newton captained a succession of slave ships till 1754, when serious illness forced his retirement from seafaring. He became a pastor in 1764 but expressed condemnation of the slave trade only in 1788. Despite this context, it is difficult not to be moved by the emotional power of this hymn. Religious leaders like John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, have known the importance of hymns in religion and worship. Charles Wesley, John’s younger brother, is said to have written over 6000 hymns; they were often edited by John. ‘Jesus, Lover of my soul’ has been called the finest hymn in English.

Hymns can be disrespectful in the cultural and other assumptions they make. One of the hymns referred to In a Far Country is ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,’ written in 1819 by Reginald Heber, who later became become Bishop of Calcutta.  Gandhi found the line ‘every prospect pleases, and only man is vile’ offensive. Speaking at the Calcutta YMCA in 1925, he said, ‘My own experience in my travels throughout India has been to the contrary … [Man] is not vile. He is as much a seeker after truth as you and I are, possibly more so.’

Nathan Brown (1807-86), the first Baptist missionary in Assam, wrote a well-regarded hymn, ‘The Missionary’s Call.’ In The Whole World Kin (1890), his biography written by Elizabeth W. Brown, we read that it was originally a poem, written spontaneously when Brown was nineteen years old, following the inspirational commencement speech made by the President of Williams College, Edward Dorr Griffin (1770-1837). It was sent to the Missionary Magazine and Brown made ‘its acceptance or rejection …a token from providence whether to offer himself for the foreign field or not.’ Though it was not accepted, Brown’s zeal to be a missionary did not diminish. In 1830, Brown published it in The Vermont Telegraph, a religious paper of which he was the editor. The complete poem is published in The Whole World Kin. The shorter, hymn version, set to music (by Edward Howe, Jr.), is printed as an appendix. There is this (slightly) variant version on the internet:

The Missionary’s Call

    My soul is not at rest.

There comes a strange and secret whisper to my spirit

like a dream of night that tells me I am on enchanted ground.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

    Why live I here?

The vows of God are on me and I may not stop to play with shadows

or pluck earthly flowers till I my weary pilgrimage have done.

             The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

    And I will go!

I may no longer doubt to give up my friends and idle hopes

and every tie that binds my heart to thee my country!

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

      Henceforth it matters not

If storm or sunshine be my earthly lot, bitter or sweet my cup; I only pray,

‘God make me holy, and my spirit nerve for the stern hour of strife.’

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

        And when I come to stretch me for the last,

in unattended agony beneath the cocoa’s shade

it will be sweet that I have toiled for other worlds than this.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

In 1806, five Williams College students had held the famous Haystack Prayer Meeting which gave rise to the American foreign missionary movement. There was intense interest in foreign missions in New England. The Whole World Kin tells us that The Vermont Telegraph carried the latest news from Burma to the villages and farm-houses of Vermont. Burma was the largest foreign field of the American Baptists missionaries, established by the first and foremost missionary couple Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) and his wife Ann Judson (1789-1826), and there were calls to send out more missionaries to the field. My internet research turned up an essay ‘God and Man in Baptist Hymnals 1784-1844’ by David Singer. Singer argues that hymns popularized and brought to the average church-goer the sophisticated religious concepts that were otherwise the preserve of the theological and intellectual elite. Hymns also reflect doctrinal changes. He traces the change from ‘a strict Calvinism to Arminianism’ in the hymns produced during his period of study, and notes the rise of the number of missionary hymns in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Nathan Brown’s hymn is obviously a part of this upsurge of hymn writing.

In Bronson’s biography, Harriette relates an incident illustrating the tribal love of music. A group of missionaries reached a locality where no white man had yet penetrated. ‘They were confronted by a bristling array of spears, each tipped by deadly poison, and pointed straight toward them.’ One of the missionaries began to play ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’ on his violin. The ‘wild hill men’ were entranced and lowered their spears. ‘And thus,’ writes Harriette, ‘through power of Christian song and melody, the gospel obtained a lodgment in this hitherto inaccessible part of the mountains.’ Several internet sources (here is one) identify the missionary as EP Scott who worked among the Karbis. You can see the evolution of this discourse of the tribal love of music in accounts of the tradition of church music in the Northeast and the success of the Shillong Chamber Choir.

Wikipedia, that modern fount of all knowledge, tells us that as of September 2016 the Bible has been has been wholly and partly translated into 554 and 2,932 languages respectively. It is unlikely we will ever have a reliable figure for all the hymns composed. Sites like hymnary.org and cyberhymnal.org exist and are useful. But these data bases are confined to Western hymns. Accounting for all the hymns translated into indigenous languages as well as composed in them is not impossible but it would be a challenging task requiring the labours of a global team of experts and informants. William Ward (the Assam Baptist missionary, not to be confused with his famous Serampore namesake) is just one of the several hymnists who composed hymns in Assamese. Ward revised the Assamese hymn book called Khristio Dharmageet for a new edition. According to Guwahati Baptist Church pastor Aziz-ul-Haq, Ward added scores of original and translated hymns. In the fourth edition of the book, published in 1890, sixty three hymns were Ward’s.

‘I get one of these hymns in mind,’ wrote Ward in a 1873 letter to Bronson,  ‘and it goes on grinding when I lie awake, or when I wake in the morning, or at odd intervals of other work.’ Ward’s description of hymn composition is not different from the accounts we have of poets describing the creative process of poetic composition. Hymns have been called the ‘poor man’s poetry.’ Perhaps they help articulate feelings and experiences that the average church-goer might not have been able to express on his or her own. I was moved by the story of Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871), the English poet and hymn writer, who was an invalid for the last fifty years of her life. She wrote the hymn ‘Just as I am’ in 1835, and called it her spiritual autobiography. (It was adopted by the famous evangelist Billy Graham as his theme song.) I would not like to disrespect the feelings hymns evoke or dishonour the sincerity behind some justly famous hymns.

Annotating In a Far Country (and reading up on evangelical and missionary print culture) has made me freshly aware of the importance of religion in literature. A list of all the writers influenced by Christianity would have to include Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, Frost, and Auden (to mention only poets). That is a roll call of the greatest writers in British and American literature. I have always delighted in telling my students about under-theorized or overlooked genres like the essay or the letter (also known as ‘epistle’ back in the day when email did not exist). For me, hymns are a new discovery. Sadly, I do not have the time or the expertise or the resources to pursue this interest. But for a day or two I was a happy child playing on the beach of a vast sea, the roaring waves in the distance bringing me a dim awareness of the unplumbed depths beneath.

O T Cutter’s Letters to Miles Bronson

When Oliver T Cutter came to Sadiya (with Nathan Brown) on March 23, 1836 to start a mission station there, he brought with him a small printing press. The press was requested by Francis Jenkins, Commissioner and Agent to the Governor-General for Assam.  Tea was being newly cultivated and the British were keen to ‘pacify’ the frontier tribes through Christianity and education. The printing press was seen as an indispensable aid in this process. Later, Jenkins gave the missionaries another press. He also donated five hundred rupees to buy fonts from Calcutta. For the missionaries printing was of course an integral part of their evangelical work.

Siva dol temple in Sivasagar , from a letter written to Miles Bronson by Samuel Whiting in 1852.

Siva Doul in Sivasagar , from a letter written to Miles Bronson by Samuel Whiting in 1852.

In July 1836 Cutter printed his first book, a spelling book in English, Assamese, and Shan. Cutter worked in Assam till 1853. During this time, he set up the American Baptist Mission Press in Jaipur (after removing it from Sadiya) and then in its final location in Sivasagar. Cutter printed the first books in Assamese as well as in Shan, Singpho, and Naga. He also printed the Orunodoi, the first newspaper and periodical in Assam.

Cutter is not a very visible presence in missionary records.  He was dismissed from service in 1852 on ‘account of immorality.’ (The exact reason is not specified in the records I have consulted.) Thereafter details of his life and work disappear from official records.  About the early part of his career, we know that he was based in Moulmein (Mawlamyine), Burma (Myanmar). The American Baptist Foreign Mission Society had begun its proselyting activities in Burma in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. The Burma Mission’s printing presses in stations like Rangoon, Moulmein, and Tavoy brought out a large amount of religious and pedagogical materials. Cutter seems to have arrived in Burma in 1832: a report mentions that he brought to that country a press gifted by a church in New York. He also worked in a press in Rangoon for about nine months in 1833-34.

Four of his letters written to Miles Bronson have survived. They are in a brittle condition and Cutter’s handwriting is awful. But they throw some light on Cutter. Interestingly, they show that he continued to take interest in missionary work and maintained warm relations with his missionary friends until the end of his life.

The first letter is dated September 12, 1864; though the letterhead is that of the Military Orphan Press in Calcutta, Cutter was working as superintendent of the Government Printing Press at Hastings Street. (In October 1863, the Government had taken over the Military Orphan Press.) Cutter says that he is writing in haste to correct an ‘erroneous impression’ in the minds of Miles Bronson and others that he had expressed a wish to return to missionary service. What he had done (apparently in a previous letter to Bronson in Nowgong) was merely assured ‘my beloved friends that altho no longer enjoying the honor and privilege of being their associate’, he nevertheless empathized with them and could feel the joys and sorrows of the missionaries who were toiling in Nowgong. ‘But I never for a moment thought of proposing to return to the field, and I write at once to prevent your writing to any one that such was your impression.’

Abihijit Gupta has a nice little piece on the mournful sounding press whose stationery Cutter used. It belonged to a charitable organization founded in the eighteenth century to look after (as its name suggests) the orphaned or deserted children of British soldiers in India. The press was started ‘to train the first-ever cadre of press-workers in South Asia.’ Incidentally, its first three superintends, G H Huttmann, W Ridsdale and F Carberry, all died in harness. Huttmann was thrown by a horse; Ridsdale drowned, as did Carberry.

The next letter, also written when Cutter was the superintend of the Government Printing Press, Calcutta is dated June 11, 1868.  It expresses concern for Miles Bronson who fell seriously ill on the ship taking him to America. It also informs Bronson that Cutter’s wife, Harriett, has not been keeping well, and carries some news of missionary acquaintances.

Cutter’s next letters are more interesting. The third letter is dated July 27, 1880 and is from London where Cutter apparently settled after retirement. Though he prefaces his letter by saying that he ‘can scarcely hold my pen to write’, having fallen and broken his right leg, he ends up using three pages. He sends news of Mrs King, wife of C. D. King, the missionary stationed in Kohima, who is staying with a Mr and Mrs Stanton, awaiting the arrival of Mrs Ward (another Assam missionary) so as to accompany her to New York. Both Cutter and Harriet have visited her several times, he writes. To this letter, Cutter adds another, dated the following day. He explains that he had a visitor, ‘a friend who has seen much affliction come in and kept me past the posting hour’; then the son and daughter of Robert Robinson, former missionary at Dacca, came and remained till 9 o’clock. These references, and others like mention of a letter received from Mrs Bruce from Tezpur (probably the widow of the pioneering tea planter Charles Alexander Bruce), and his enquiries about various missionaries suggest that Cutter, far from severing his ties or being a disowned person, was part of a circle of missionary friends. He seems to have prized his friendships and visited, and was visited by, missionaries passing through London on their way to or from Assam. An elderly man of nearly seventy years, Cutter grows nostalgic as he remembers a tour he made, four decades earlier, with Miles and Ruth Bronson: ‘How often I think of that trip with you and dear Sister Ruth on elephants up the Naga Hills – those old Namsangias – the first time a white woman ever entered those Hills – how zealously you labored for them, and what privations and hardships you endured, and you heartily rejoiced in them all. Ah my dear beloved brother – those were happy days!’

As is the usual fate of printers, Cutter’s role is overlooked. He himself had no doubt about the efficacy of printing and in a rare report, written in the early days in Sadiya, he said:

Although the press is an invaluable auxiliary in this infant mission, and very little could be at present be accomplished without it, yet it is not kept in constant operation, like the presses in Burmah, neither will our small editions of 500 and 1000 compare with their editions of 100,000 copies. But we should not despise the day of small things. I look forward with no slight degree of interest to the time when the door shall be fully opened, that missionaries may travel from this to Ava, and distribute tracts among the numerous Shyans who people the districts, and also enter the Bor Khamti (Great Khamti) country, and scatter among its thousands, pages of truth…  I see no reason why we cannot why we cannot enter the provinces of China with very little difficulty. Then the importance of the printing department here, will be more extensively felt, and in a few years I hope to see calls made for tracts and parts of scripture in six or eight different languages. 

Cutter’s grand vision of printing leading to the Christian conversion of tribes on a pan-Asian scale did not of course materialize. Bronson and the other missionaries abandoned this impracticable idea in 1841 and began instead to focus their evangelical activities on the Assamese population. Yet in his last letter Cutter clings to the hope that animated the Assam (Shan) Mission in its initial years:

 What a splendid field you [Miles Bronson] have traced out! And if Assam, & Burmah, and China can be connected by a line of Missionary posts, occupied by a united band of devoted, hard-working laborers, what “glorious consummation”! I wish my dear wife and I were as well and strong, and as young as we were 40 years ago, and you were as well and strong as you were 30 years ago, how pleasant it would be for us to buckle on the harness, gird up the loins and enter upon this grand and noble work!

As the man who introduced print in Assam, Cutter is undoubtedly important. We ought to know more about him. Some of his other letters – with his terrible handwriting – may have survived.  I, for one, would love to read them, especially if they have something to say about his professional life as a printer.

 

An African Boy in the Nowgong Orphan School

The main entrance of the Franklin Trask Library. A major reorganization of the Library is currently on. So a side entrance on the ground floor is in use.

These days I wake up at six o’clock in the morning so that I can leave my Cambridge apartment before eight. Walking quickly I reach the Harvard Square subway station in about ten minutes. It is rush hour; the trains are  packed. I am on a sabbatical and can, if I wish, wait. But like the passengers commuting to work, I get into the first train that comes. An hour later I reach the little station at Newton Centre. Another ten minute walk, this time uphill, brings me to my destination, the Andover Newton Theological School. The Franklin Trask Library is being reorganized; it opens to the public at one o’clock for a couple of hours.  But I knock on a ground floor entrance and Diana Yount, Co-Director of the Library,  or one of her assistants, opens the door for me. After all, I am a foreign scholar who has travelled all the way from India to consult their archival material on Miles Bronson and the other missionaries who served in Assam in the nineteenth century.

Much of my excitement has to do with the fact that my research project on early printing in Assam is finally beginning to acquire shape. We know very little about our local collaborators. This puts them in distinguished if ghostly company: there is not much information, for example, about the metallurgist, Panchanan Karmakar, who composed the font for Nathaniel Brassey Halhed’s A Grammar of the Bengal Language (1778), the first book to be printed in Bengali. From the archival material I have consulted, I have gleaned some information on Batiram Das, the compositor and foreman at the American Baptist Mission Press at Sibsagar and Nidhi Levi Farwell, who apart from his role as writer, assisted in printing the Orunodoi and other publications.

But a part of my interest and excitement has to do the side stories I discover daily. By side story I mean an instance like the following excerpt from a letter written by Rev. C.D. King to headquarters on January 2, 1885.

As one of the most insignificant of the incidents which go to prove that a missionary needs a wife, and needs her with him, I may mention the fact that I have been writing this report between intervals of what promises at present to prove a very unsuccessful attempt at making bread. Two months ago the military bakery was closed. There is no bread to be bought in Kohima. Tomorrow is our communion Sunday, that is, if I succeed in getting any bread made. I hope you will accord due weight to the argument contained in this sad recital, and will be moved to send my wife back to me with the least possible delay.

This, strictly speaking, is not really relevant to my research project and does not further it in any conceivable or practical way. I really ought to smile and pass on. But perhaps because I am more of a fiction person than book historian, I find myself lingering a little too long on this letter, imagining in detail Rev. King’s predicament in his lonely Mission compound in Kohima. How many months was it before his wife joined him? And did he learn to bake bread tolerably well by that time?

A somewhat guilty pleasure, then. So it was good to meet Barbara Anne Radtke whose very competent dissertation, ‘“What are we among so many?”: A theological investigation of Miles Bronson and the Nowgong Orphan Institution debate’, Diana gave me to read. Barbara works as an Instructional Designer (Continuing Education) in Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry. She has never been to Assam but talks about Miles Bronson as though he died yesterday.  She talks of Ruth, Harriet and Sophie (Bronson’s wife and daughters respectively) as though they are her family. This familiarity, Barbara told me when I asked her, is the result of her involvement with side stories when she was helping Diana arrange the Miles Bronson Family Papers. (Incidentally, Barbara’s dissertation work was done under the Rev. George Peck’s supervision. Rev. Peck was President of Andover Newton and died in 1990. He came to Andover Newton in 1966; before that, he was head of the Eastern Theological College at Jorhat.)

The most interesting side story I have so far discovered is one about the African boy who studied at the American Baptist Mission’s Orphan School at Nagaon. Maheswar Neog made a passing reference to this boy in his 1985 monograph on Nidhi Levi  but the story is not generally known even in the Christian community in Nagaon.  Here is the relevant portion from Rev. Stoddard’s letter of  January 21, 1850 (Baptist Missionary Magazine, Vol. 59, pp. 176-77):

The orphan school continues about the same.  A poor African lad, whom br. Barker brought from Calcutta last spring, has been with us eight or nine months and was baptized on the first Sabbath of the new year. He gives the clearest evidence of a change of heart. Why he has been directed from his own heathen land to this far off heathen land is not yet evident to the eye of man. His love, zeal, piety and uprightness of character were a great astonishment to our Assamese disciples. As a man they looked upon him as vastly inferior to themselves, but as a Christian they all acknowledged that he was something superior, and seemed astonished, that such a poor wild jungle boy, as they called him, could entertain such exalted views of Jesus Christ and of the way of salvation. When he first came among us our house was visited daily for many days, by hundreds of the Assamese who came to see the “wild man”. They could not believe that he belonged to a large nation, but considered him as some curious animal found in the jungles. They even counted his fingers and toes to see if he possessed all the properties of a man, and were anxious to know if I could understand his words, – for he spoke English a little.

He is now studying English, and is very anxious to be a preacher of the gospel. As near as I can get hold of his history it is as follows: He was a slave to a hard master in his own country. About two or three years ago he made his escape and fell in with some missionaries where he heard the first words about Jesus. From what I could ascertain, one of those men of God was Rev. Mr. Saker. But the lad had been with him only a short time when he was seized and taken back to slavery. He did not remain long in this condition, but escaped to Fernando Po, where he boarded a Dutch ship for Calcutta. As soon as he arrived there, which was in the fall of 1848, he left the ship and went in search of Christians. He soon fell in with some of our Baptist brethren who befriended him and sent him to school. But as the temptations of that heathen city are great and there was no suitable school for him, they sent him to Assam last spring by br. Barker. How long he will remain with us I cannot tell, but think if he could be sent direct to the charge of some missionary family in his own country, it would be the best thing for him and the cause. He is about sixteen years old, and perfectly honest and trustworthy, – which cannot be said of all the Assamese.

An American friend to whom I described the letter politely said something about wonder, innocence and curiosity.  But the racist attitude of the Assamese who came flocking to see the boy is unmistakable. Stoddard’s final comment on the Assamese is racist too. But for once moral indignation is not an option.

What part of Africa did the boy come from? How long did he live in Nagaon? (The Nowgong Orphan School was closed down some years later.) What were his thoughts and feelings? At  this distance only fiction – another word for side story – can provide the answers.

This is the entrance I knock on to enter the Franklin Trask Library. Side doors and side stories – they kind of go together.