A crown of thorns for a missionary bishop in India

by
24 October 2007

Robert Caldwell was revered by his people — but a victim of party spirit, Vincent Kumaradoss says in a new biography

Last resting-place: the chancel of Holy Trinity, Idaiyangudi. Caldwell and his wife, Eliza, are buried under the altar

Last resting-place: the chancel of Holy Trinity, Idaiyangudi. Caldwell and his wife, Eliza, are buried under the altar

‘For Eliza, the MDC’s resolution was a deliberate measure to subvert her crowning effort’

CALDWELL was soon beset with a series of problems that began to hamper his work. His tenure as Bishop was the most trying period of his time in Tirunelveli. It was tragic that so outstanding a career as Caldwell’s should have been blighted at the end by his rupture with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel’s (SPG’s) Madras Diocesan Committee (MDC).

Feeling his age, he was not physically the same person he had been, and he complained of his health often. The theme of weariness began to recur constantly in his correspondence. He was now, despite this, a man in a hurry. Even though he had not been keeping good health, and a hostile campaign was launched against him and his wife, Eliza, he was driven by his sense of duty. The routine continued, in spite of illness, and in spite of setbacks and disappointments. The missionary task of evangelism proceeded as Caldwell stood his ground.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that the conflict arose to a considerable extent because the MDC seemed deliberately to assert itself in order to provoke and frustrate the new Assistant Bishop. A careful reading of the records makes it almost impossible to argue that Caldwell was not the entirely innocent victim of almost unrelieved malice on the part of the MDC throughout his episcopate. His own occasional references to “party” indicate the main source of this, and that his opponents brought to the issues between him and them the often virulent internal disputes of the Church of England in England at that time. This was something that the SPG’s foundation documents, back at the beginning of the 18th century, had required its members to eschew, and at its best successfully. But the Society and its members were not always at their best, the later decades of the 19th century being a case in point. ‘The bier was met by a crowd with “all the marks of loyalty and love” ’

The reason for the antipathy shown to him by the MDC in his last years, by comparison with earlier times, is difficult to assess. Much of it must be due to the calibre and experience of the men who by chance then composed the committee, and the influence of their secretary. Clearly, there was between them a lack of understanding of the situation of SPG missionaries and the native Church far away in the field.

To add to these shortcomings, there may have been some jealousy over Caldwell’s high reputation and influence in England, and the financial support he attracted direct from there, much of it going into Eliza’s schools.   Tension on ideological grounds had been exacerbated after Caldwell was appointed Assistant Bishop, as the MDC was coming to be dominated by people sympathetic to the Oxford Movement. When they learned that Caldwell was, as they saw it, an Evangelical, they began to look down on him.

He decided on a course to put the MDC in its place. His immediate task was to restore his prestige and inspire respect for the sacred office of bishop. Faced with a chain of unpleasant events, the struggle was to consume much of his time.

Caldwell felt strongly the need to discontinue the MDC’s connection with the mission. While making his appeal in England at this time, and expressing his hope of returning to Tirunelveli with a fresh mandate in a fresh atmosphere, he seized the opportunity to add a personal, almost pleading note on his declining health:

“Though my health is only partially restored, I should be delighted to return again to a field of labour I love so well, if I could do so with advantage. It would give me the greatest possible pleasure to devote the last days of my life to the work of reorganising the Tinnevelly Church and Mission on the lines I have indicated, with the Society’s approval; but I hope I may, without impropriety, be permitted to say that, at my advanced period of my life, with my nervous and sensitive constitution, I should not feel myself justified in returning to India to be placed in the same trying position as before, and to encounter again those troubles and worries which brought on the illness from which I have suffered for the last two or three years.”

In response to his suggestion, a resolution was passed by the standing committee on 14 February 1884, which ran as follows: “Agreed that the Bishop of Madras and the Madras Diocesan Committee be requested to favour the Standing Committee with an expression of their opinion upon Bishop Caldwell’s statement: it being prima facie the opinion of the Standing Committee that there are no insurmountable objections to the separate administration of the Diocese of Tinnevelly.” The committee in Madras, however, took a different view.

In its detailed minute of 30 May 1884, the MDC concluded that Caldwell’s proposal was inexpedient and impractical at that time. That only 12 years later, in 1896, it was possible for Tirunelveli to become, by contemporary standards, a properly constituted Anglican diocese is a measure of the reactionary, negative, and misguided character of the opposition Caldwell faced, and a measure, too, of the soundness of his own vision and aspirations.

THE MDC was desperate to stall anything that would diminish its domination. A long list of “animadversions” against Caldwell was addressed to the SPG in London. The whole exercise was clearly designed to present Caldwell as the disrupter of peace in Tirunelveli, and to discredit him in the eyes of the SPG in England, where, in fact, he was respected and had considerable influence.

The MDC pursued its game with undiminished vigour, intent now on crippling the progress of Caldwell College. Pleading financial constraints, they drastically cut the grant to the college.

In order finally to snuff out the college’s existence, three reasons were advanced. First and foremost was that the SPG could not afford to maintain the college due to its own financial crisis. Second, the results of examinations were unsatisfactory. Third, the number of students who attended the college was small. Whatever might have been the truth behind these claims, it was clear that the MDC was unwilling to see the institution survive. The MDC closed the college section in 1894 and reduced it to the level of a high school.

THE MDC had already characterised Eliza as having an undue influence over the decisions of the ailing Caldwell. Given its hostility towards Eliza, the MDC now turned its attention to her pet project, the Girls Normal School at Tuticorin, where a “large, beautiful and substantial building”, erected over two full years, “through the indefatigable exertions” of Bishop Caldwell and Eliza, had been opened by the Metropolitan of India.

The School came under the scrutiny of the committee when, in order to reduce its long-term financial commitments, the MDC refused to take any responsibility for new schools that had not been sanctioned by it. The MDC questioned the legitimacy of this “Female Training College”, as the sanction of the committee had not been sought.

According to the MDC, this was done in contravention of the rules of the SPG, and it wrote to Caldwell asking for an explanation. Caldwell argued that they had not ignored the rules of the SPG, as the school in question was not a new institution at all — it was, in fact, merely the “Tinnevelly portion” of the “S.P.G. Female Normal School” established in Trichy by his daughter Isabella Wyatt, and now transferred to Tuticorin.

This step was taken because of the practical difficulty involved in sending the girls to Trichy. The MDC, bent upon frustrating Caldwell and Eliza’s efforts, passed a resolution that it was unable to recognise the institution or undertake its future expenditure.

The resolution came as a rude shock to Eliza. Surprised and upset, she retorted that “it was quite gratuitous on their part to pass such an unfeeling and uncalled for Resolution.” For Eliza, it was an insult heaped on her for “life-long voluntary labours of forty three years in the cause of female education”, and a deliberate measure intended to subvert the “crowning effort” of her educational career.

The secretary of the MDC simply reiterated the committee’s stand that it was not possible to accept responsibility for the school at Tuticorin. He argued that a large sum of money from home was entrusted to the MDC chiefly for the extension of “Christ’s Church”, and was “only partially indeed to be spent in old Missions and in the training and helping forward in life of the children and grandchildren of Christians”.

Eliza issued an appeal for money to establish more girls’ schools, and a female training college for teachers, at Tuticorin. The appeal contained a history of her 44 years of work in Tirunelveli in the cause of female education.

Despite her attempts to get grants to keep the institution going, the school had to give up the training section in 1893. In 1894, however, after her husband’s death, while the training institution was shifted to Nazareth, the school was upgraded as a high school.

AFTER 1888, Caldwell’s “powers were slowly ebbing out”. Yearning for a cooler climate, he frequented Kodaikanal, which was congenial to his health. He began to spend much of his time there, and managed the affairs of his office, shuttling between Kodaikanal and Tuticorin. He began to suffer from physical exhaustion.

In July 1890, he requested the Bishop of Madras to relieve him of miscellaneous work connected with his district, so that he could continue purely with the episcopal part of his work, such as confirmations and ordinations.

Seeking a retirement allowance, Caldwell wrote: “In taking this step, however, I feel under the necessity of stating that I can only do so on the condition that the Society will continue to [pay] me my present stipend for the remaining years of my life. In my old age I naturally require comfort and attention which as a younger man I could dispense with.”

The standing committee took strong exception, and pronounced its displeasure over his seeking to fix his retirement allowance as a “condition”, and disallowed his pension claim. The Bishop of Madras solicited Tucker, the secretary of the SPG in London, for release of pension as per Caldwell’s wish. The SPG finally released the pension on his terms in January 1891.

During his last visit to Tuticorin in January 1891, he wrote a letter to Bishop Gell, resigning his office from 31 January 1891. The very next day, along with his family, he embarked on his last journey to Kodaikanal.

THE STRAIN of a continuously busy life, the hot climate of Tirunelveli, and the prolonged and persistent attempt to derail his initiatives during the later period of his bishopric had exacted a toll upon Caldwell’s frail body. In feeble health and beyond recuperation, he spent the next seven months at Roslyn, his bungalow in Kodaikanal, a hill station in the Nilgiris.

On Wednesday 19 August 1891, while returning from his usual walk, he contracted a chill. The following day, medical attention was sought. He was confined to his room, where, undisturbed, he pulled through for the next three days.

On Monday, he took a short stroll with Eliza, but in the evening he was seized with fever. He slowly slipped into a coma on the Thursday night. Though he revived on seeing his son, Dr Addington Caldwell, who came to see him from Australia, his condition was fast deteriorating. He slowly slipped into a coma on the Thursday night.

Next morning, at 9 a.m. on 28 August 1891, Eliza and his children watched as Caldwell entered into eternal rest at the age of 77.

The coffin carrying his body, dressed in his episcopal robes, was conveyed down from the hills, a journey of some 200 miles, by way of Palayamkottai, to Idaiyangudi, to be with the people among whom he had laboured for half a century. At Palayamkottai, a solemn and impressive service was held on the Sunday, honoured by the presence of “a large crowd of natives” and several missionaries and Indian clergy.

The final journey from Palayamkottai culminated on Tuesday morning, 1 September 1891, at 7 a.m at Idaiyangudi, where the bier was met by a large crowd with “all the marks of loyalty and love”. After the funeral service, the mortal remains of Robert Caldwell found an appropriate resting-place below the altar of Holy Trinity, the church that had been built by his own exertions, and consecrated by him.

Heart-rending sobs and praise filled the air as crowds of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims thronged to have a last glimpse of the revered face, and to pay their last homage to the priest and bishop who had for so long been their “father and friend”.

As his body came to rest in the mother church of Tirunelveli, in many ways one of Bishop Robert Caldwell’s cherished desires had perhaps been fulfilled. During his last visit to England in 1883, his parting words at a special service held in the SPG’s chapel, just before his return to India, had been: “For Tinnevelly I have lived, and for Tinnevelly I am prepared to die.”

The Caldwell saga remained to be assessed and justly honoured.

An edited extract from Robert Caldwell: A scholar-missionary in colonial South India by Y. Vincent Kumaradoss (ISPCK, 2007). www.ispck.org.in

Books

An edited extract from Robert Caldwell: A scholar-missionary in colonial South India by Y. Vincent Kumaradoss (ISPCK, 2007). www.ispck.org.in

Books

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