Abdool Messee, an Indian Convert

By the Rev. Robert M. M‘Cheyne,

Minister of St, Peters Church,  Dundee.

SHEKH SALIH was born at Delhi, in Upper India. His father was a learned man, and gained his livelihood by teaching children. His son was, accordingly, early, instructed in the Persian and Arabic languages. At twenty-one years of age, he came with his father to Lucknow, in quest of employment, and became moonshee or teacher, first to an English merchant, and then to an English officer. He was so zealous a follower of Mahomet, that he persuaded a Hindoo servant of this officer to turn Mahometan. But the master finding fault with him for this, he left his employment, determining to have no more communication with the British. For about a year he was master of the jewels in the court of Oude, where he was particularly attentive to Mahometan observances, and tried to make others so. He then entered into the Mahratta service as a trooper, a service something like that of the yeomanry of this country, and this step he always spoke of as the beginning of God’s mercy to him; for it was here that he was the witness of one of those scenes of treachery and murder which so often stain the annals of the na­tive chiefs of Hindostan. Disgusted with the perfidy of mankind, he left the army, resolving to gain his bread rather by the arts of peace, however degrading. He accordingly supported himself at Lucknow by preparing green paint.

A year after this, he went to Cawnpore to visit his father, who was engaged as moonshee in the house of a rich native, who lived in the premises next to those of the Rev. Henry Martyn. He here heard of Mr Martyn’s preaching to the poor natives on the lawn before his house on Sabbath-days, and determined to go, as he said, “to see the sport.” Mr Martyn was explaining the commandments to the people when Shekh Salih went to hear. The same God that opened the heart of Lydia opened his heart to attend. He was struck with the observations made, and considered them reasonable and excellent. He had been perplexed by the contradictions maintained by different Mahometan sects. This Christian instruction seemed better than any he had yet received. He told his thoughts to his father, and begged him to get him employment at Cawnpore, that he might hear more of these things. For the heart that is truly touched by God, even though it may bleed, cannot but desire to know more of his way. His father knew a friend of Sabat – the learned Arabian., and supposed convert from Mahometanism – who was then living with Martyn. Through this friend, Shekh Salih was engaged to copy Persian writings for Sabat. True grace is often a timid and delicate plant, that grows unsuspected and unknown, depriving itself often of the kindliest nourishment, that it may avoid the gazer’s eye. It was thus in the heart of Shekh Salih. He obtained a lodging on the premises, yet breathed not a whisper of his wishes; and his chief means of growing into a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, was by inquiring of the native children the subjects of the lessons which they had learned in school. When Mr Martyn finished his translation of the New Testament into Hindoostanee, the book was given to our friend to bind. This was a providential opportunity to him; he not only bound but read the book; and the work of his conversion was thus perfected in silence and secrecy by the same hand which makes the dew to feed the tender grass.

When Henry Martyn was about to leave Cawnpore, on account of his health, Shekh Salih could no longer refrain from asking his advice as to his future conduct, and earnestly requested to be baptized. Mr Martyn having solemnly warned him of the danger of a false profession, agreed to take him along with Sabat to Calcutta. But neither during the journey, nor during Martyn’s short, stay at Calcutta, was he entirely convinced of the reality of this man’s change of heart; so that he left him, without gratifying his wish for baptism, recommending him, however, to the care of the Rev. David Brown. That excellent man, one of the chaplains of the East India Company, after five months’ delay, being thoroughly satisfied of the conversion of Shekh Salih, baptized him on Whitsunday 1811, giving him the name of Abdool Messee – “Servant of Christ.”

His baptism was evidently attended with a blessing, and he now became in reality what he became in name, a servant of Christ. He began his Christian labours in Calcutta, where he remained unshaken, either by the offered bribes, or by the persecution of the Mahometans of that city.

In November 1812 he proceeded up the country with the Rev. D. Corrie, from whose account of him the preceding sketch is gleaned. He says, “So often have I been deceived by these people, that I almost fear to speak decidedly of any of them; but judging from pre­sent appearances, I should be more disposed to fear for myself than for Abdool.” Mr Corrie, then a chaplain of the Company, kept a journal of the public labours of Abdool, both in their voyage up the Ganges, and during seventeen months which he spent with Abdool in Agra. This interesting journal is printed in the Church Missionary Register for 1814–1815.

The conversion of so true and well born a Mussulman as Abdool, created an universal sensation, especi­ally in the places where his family was well known. At Agra, Mr Corrie and Abdool opened a school for Christian instruction to the young; and Abdool was constantly engaged in preaching Jesus to all who came. It was no uncommon thing for forty or fifty respectable Mahometans to be assembled around him; and in the evening, when he preached without the fort, even the tops of the houses were covered with Mahometans anxious to hear. An old Mahometan, on going away, was asked what he thought of Abdool? He answered, “What can I say? He says nothing amiss; and nothing can be objected to the Gospel, What can I say?” Another said, “How vain are all the objections some make to this man, and what reason is there why we should not hear him?” Sometimes he would be visited by a party, to try if he had really been a Mahometan, and if he knew the curious points of their observances. Sometimes he would be visited by rich and learned Mahometans, who had been his schoolfellows, and to whom, with admirable faithfulness, he defended his change, and recommended the Gospel. It pleased God to follow up these labours with a blessing, the abundance of which will never be known till the judgment-day. Whilst many, no doubt, received the good seed as Abdool had himself done, in silence and secrecy, many also received it openly, and brought forth the fruit in their lives. In the end of December 1813, Mr Corrie writes, “Since our arrival at this place, in March last, forty-one adults and fourteen children of theirs have been baptized, and all continue to walk in the truth.”

Abdool’s family at Lucknow were all along well disposed towards him. His brother and his nephew became true converts to Christianity. In July 1814 he paid a visit to his family, and kept a journal of his proceedings. The following is an extract:-

“July 28. – Thirty persons, friends and acquaintances, came out to meet me. Among them my father and two brothers-in-law, and my brother Joseph seeing me, embraced me and rejoiced greatly. After arriving at my father’s house, the sinful writer read the ninth chapter of Acts, and explained it, according as the Spirit gave assistance, and joined in prayer. About sixty men and women were collected, and all heard with attention and appeared pleased; and my mother and sisters expressed themselves thus: ‘Praise to Jesus Christ, that we who were separate are again brought together. We are his sinful servants. How shall he not vouchsafe his grace unto us.’ And my father, his eyes streaming with tears, said, ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, I, a sinner, cannot praise thee as thou art worthy; and now through the gladness that thou hast showed me, half my illness is removed. And now I am persuaded that thou wilt restore me to health also, and deliver me from the hands of all mine enemies.’ After this I and Mayut Messee, (his nephew,) sung that hymn, beginning

‘At early dawn the Lord we’ll praise.’”

How interesting a family scene does this lay open among the proud and unbending followers of Islam!

On the 18th of August, the same year, Mr Corrie was obliged to leave Agra, on account of his health. He committed the congregation to the care of Abdool Messee and Mr Bowley. During the sixteen months in which he and Abdool had laboured, fifty adults had been baptised, and twenty-one children; about half Mahometans, and the other half Hindoos. Of these one had been expelled, and six had apostatised.

In this interesting field did Abdool Messee continue to labour till 1820, when he received Lutheran ordination.

In January 1825, Bishop Heber, in passing through the north of India, came to Agra and met with this remarkable man. He thus speaks of him:- “Archdeacon Corrie’s celebrated convert, Abdool Messee, breakfasted this morning at Mr Irving’s; he is a very fine old man, with a magnificent grey beard, and much more gentlemanly manners than any Christian native whom I have seen. His rank, indeed, previous to his conversion, was rather elevated, since he was master of the jewels to the court of Oude, an appointment of higher estimation in eastern palaces, than in those of Europe, and the holder of which has a high salary. Abdool’s present appointments, as Christian missionary, are sixty rupees a month, and of this he gives away at least half! Who can dare to say that this man has changed his faith from any interested motives? He is a very good Hindoostanee, Persian, and Arabic scholar, but knows no English. There is a small congregation of native Christians, converted by Mr Corrie, when he was chap­lain at Agra, and now kept together by Abdool Messee. The earnest desire of this good man is to be ordained a clergyman of the Church of England, and if God spares his life and mine, I hope, during the ember weeks in this next autumn, to confer orders upon him. He is every way fit for them, and is a most sincere Christian, quite free, so far as I could observe, from all conceit or enthusiasm. His long Eastern dress, his long grey beard, and his calm resigned countenance, give him already almost the air of an apostle.’

This testimony of Bishop Heber’s, though incorrect as to some of the facts of Abdool’s history, is deeply interesting. In December of the same year he per­formed his promise, and conferred on Abdool the rite of Episcopal ordination; the articles, the various oaths, and the ordination service, having been translated for his use into Hindoostanee. The last notice we have of this interesting man is, that, “immediately after ordination, he went to Lucknow, where he resided, with the exception of a visit to Cawnpore, till his death, which happened on the 4th of March 1827, occasioned by mortification proceeding from a neglected carbuncle. The President, who had always behaved to him with the greatest kindness and liberality, read the burial service at his grave, and ordered a monument to be erected to his memory, with an inscription in English and Persian.”

We can only hint at the important lessons to be derived from this interesting history.

1. How unable the best men are to determine in what hearts there is a true work of grace, and in what hearts there is none. -How confidently does the amiable Martyn write with regard to Sabat the Arabian, that “not to esteem him a monument of grace, and to love him, is impossible.” And yet how sadly does the issue of the Arabian’s history, his public abjuration of the faith, his continued attendance at the Mosque, seem to prove that he was one of those who “deny the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” On the other hand, how diffident and doubtful is the same zealous missionary as to the conversion of Shekh Salih. He solemnly warns him of the danger of a false profession, – he takes him along with him on trial, – he leaves him, still refusing to baptise him, and yet how happily does the issue of Abdool’s history, – his long tried Christian walk and conversation, his unwearied and richly rewarded labours, his meek and holy deportment, seem to prove that he was not only a believer in Jesus, but a chosen vessel to bear Christ’s name before the Gentiles.

2. How much encouragement there is here to all godly ministers and missionaries, who may be walking in heaviness, because they see no fruit of their labours. When Henry Martyn went to India, he went in the true spirit of the believing missionary. “Even if I should never see a native converted,” he says, “God may design by my patience and continuance in the work to encourage future missionaries.” These words were almost prophetic of the result. No faithful missionary ever saw less fruit of his labours, in the way of conversion; and no missionary has ever done more in the way of a self-devoting example to encourage others to follow in his footsteps.

But there was fruit of Martyn’s labours, though he knew it not. Shekh Salih was converted under his preaching; and he again became the spiritual father of a large company of his countrymen, when the bones of Martyn were mouldering at the foot of the peaks of Tokat. It is our part to plant and to water, – it is God’s part to give the increase; and surely the energies and sufferings of a whole life are happily expended, if one soul be saved. Who that has the same mind that was in Christ, would not go round the world to save a soul?

3. We may learn the effects that may be expected from educated native missionaries in India. We have seen that Abdool was a man of good education among his countrymen. He was master of Hindoostanee, Persian, and Arabic. Now, though the Spirit of God can alone turn the heart of man, yet he does so always by means; and there cannot be a doubt that the measure of success which God gave to the labours of Abdool is to be accounted for instrumentally by the superior gifts and qualifications of the man. But Abdool was ignorant of the English language, and therefore had little or no command over the vast stores of information which can be acquired only through the medium of English. Is it then unreasonable to conclude, that if he had known the English language – if, in addition to his gifts, both of nature and of grace, he had been fully educated and equipped for the ministry in the same way as our best and most finished divines are – is it unreasonable to conclude that he would have been a mightier and more polished shaft in the hand of the Almighty?

Should not all those who love the Lord Jesus, unite their offerings and their prayers, in seeking to raise up in India a race of native teachers, who, being not only taught of God, but also fully taught of man, equipped both from earth and from heaven, may go forth with, power to preach Christ and him crucified, to the millions of their idolatrous fellow-countrymen?

HTML transcription copyright © 2006 David Frank Haslam

Last updated 2006-04-19