Alexander Duff

1806 – 1878: Missionary to India

Alexander Duff was a man who understood the importance of Jesus Christ and proclaiming his name in all the nations. He worked tirelessly all his life to attempt to convert all of India from Hinduism, primarily by using an educational strategy not previously conceived of as possible. And the times he was too sick to do that, he worked just as hard to convince others at home of the utmost importance of missions.

Soon the Scottish Church decided to send a missionary to India on an educational mission, and Duff was asked to go. In 1829, at the age of 18, he left for India with his new bride Anne. When he arrived in Calcutta, Christianity had but a few converts among the orphans and outcasts. Christianity was small, feeble, and not self-propagating.

Duff decided that open-air preaching in the vernacular would not be the most effective method for him, so he set about establishing the plan he invented of offering Christian higher education in English to fight Hinduism and replace it with Christianity. Since he believed Christianity had “everything to gain and nothing to lose by the teaching of truth in any realm whatever,” teaching young Hindus truth in any area would, in itself, melt the presuppositions on which Hinduism rests. He also wanted to combat educated agnosticism by offering Christian truths to replace the void left by Hinduism.

This is where his major influence on the educational system in India lies. He encountered much opposition to the system he was proposing, especially the idea of teaching in English. He was opposed both by missionaries and the government, who believed that there was a difference between eastern and western education, and that Indians deserved eastern education and it should be given in their language. But Duff argued that making the language of education English would give the Indians access to all the resources of the English libraries on many diverse subjects. Duff, who never shrank from admitting that he wanted to use education to spread Christianity, also argued that it would assist the Indians in being more open to new ideas, especially Christianity. Within a couple months of his arrival, he was able to open a university taught in English for Indian students. When others saw the success of his school, he was recognized for his achievement, and others clamored to follow suit.

The university was a great success for Christianity as well. For one, it broke down much of the suspicion and hostility with which Hindus viewed the Bible and Christianity, and thus they were much more open to reading it. Duff brought discussion of Christianity to the highest literary and social circles, instead of just the orphans and outcasts. And the university, in concert with Duff’s active interest and involvement in the lives of the students, brought several to Christ. And as the university matured, it produced trained reliable Indian missionaries and pastors, many from among the high-caste Hindus.

Yet while his great influence on the educational system is one of the things he is most noted for, it was by all means not the only thing he did in India. He was instrumental in establishing a medical school, aided in publishing a Hindustani-English dictionary, worked for the wide establishment of vernacular primary studies, started a journal devoted to the exposition of Christian ideas and reviewing current literature in light of those ideals, worked on printing vernacular Christian literature, helped establish Calcutta Christian University, and worked for the education of women in India.

Duff’s health compelled him to return to Scotland every few years, yet he did not spend his time at home resting. On the contrary, he worked harder than ever to ensure that everyone he could possibly influence was informed about the great need for missions. Though he was urged countless times to accept a position as pastor, professor, or some other chair, he refused to be “promoted” to any position back in Scotland, saying “let me cling all my days to the missionary cause.” He greatly desired and worked toward the establishment of a missionary association in every congregation in Scotland. And his interest was not just that Scotland would be roused for missions—he traveled to Ireland, England, the US, and Canada as well. The goal everywhere he went was to raise up other men to go abroad.

He had great influence on both government and church policies. He was a major player behind the Dispatch of 1854, which was a bill supporting education of women, higher education in English with Christian teaching, vernacular education, and private education enterprises in India. And in the church, he advanced a plan for the improvement and training of missionaries, in addition to his plan to incorporate the idea of missions into every church in Scotland. As Convener of the Foreign Missions Committee of the Free Church of Scotland, he was responsible for instigating a mission in many other countries, raising a considerable sum of money for missions, and establishing Madras Christian College.

The contributions he made to Indian education and missions are innumerable and could take up many pages. Yet his work can be summed up in part by what was said about him when he left India for the last time. He left to the great sadness of many in India, whether government or populace, high cast or low, Hindu, Muslem, or Christian. It was noted by all that he was first and foremost a missionary, but he was still respected by all because he worked so tirelessly for truth and education. He did not shrink from challenges, whether from opposing viewpoints or hard issues in education, for he believed that his God was truth and could hold up against any opposition or lies. “The whole world of reality, fact and idea, was God’s; Christ was the center of it and key to its mysteries… Education therefore was not a thing extraneous to the missionary’s purpose, but of its essence.


Alexander Duff: Pioneer of Missionary Education by William Paton. Published by George H. Doran Co., New York, 1922.