/ James Faris

Alexander Duff's Shipwreck

Rowland E. Prothero’s little book, The Psalms in Human Life (London: John Murray, 1920), is a gem to be treasured by everyone who loves the Psalms. In this volume, Prothero compiles historical accounts of the blessing God’s songbook has been to saints through the history of the Christian church. Here’s a brief but powerful story from the life of Alexander Duff:

High in the roll of missionaries stands the name of Alexander Duff, the eloquent speaker, the educational statesman, and the first missionary sent out to India by the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. An incident on his voyage confirmed, if it did not shape, his career. On October 14th, 1829, he and his wife sailed from Ryde, on board the Lady Holland. Four months later, in rough, boisterous weather, the ship approached the Cape of Good Hope, and made for Table Bay. At midnight, February 13th, 1830, she ran aground. Her back broke; her masts were cut away; waves dashed over the wreck: the position seemed desperate. It was not even known whether the ship had struck on a reef, the mainland, or an island. All around were boiling surf and foam. With great difficulty, one of the boats was launched, manned, and dispatched to find a landing-place. Three hours passed. Hope was almost gone, when the boat returned, reporting a small sandy bay. At this haven, which proved to be on Dessen Island, the passengers and crew were safely landed, but all that they possessed was lost.
In the search for food and fuel, a sailor found two books cast by the waves on the shore. One was a Bible, the other a Scottish Psalm Book. In both, Duff's name was written. To the shipwrecked party the books seemed a message from God. Led by Duff, they knelt down on the sand while he read them Psalm 107, "Whoso is wise will ponder these things," etc. On Duff himself the effect was lasting. All his library was lost. With it had gone all his notes and memoranda, everything that reminded him of his student life. Only the Bible and Psalms were preserved. Henceforth, as he read the message, human learning was to be only a means and not an end. In this spirit he founded his College, to teach in the English language everything that was educationally useful, and to hallow secular teaching with the study of the Christian faith and doctrines (p. 336-337).

What makes this story the more powerful is understanding Duff’s background. I’ve reflected briefly on him previously. He is notable for his missions philosophy in India. Duff determined that it would be more efficient and effective to teach Indians to learn English and thus tap into the great store of Western learning and technology rather than seek to translate the same into the many Indian languages. Thus, he took a different approach from William Carey. In some ways, echoes of the debate continue to play out in current Indian political tensions. Hindu nationalists want to reinforce historical norms by promoting the use of the Hindi language. Those who promote a more cosmopolitan Indian ideal see English as the lingua franca of choice.

When Duff shipwrecked and his Bible and Psalter were recovered, he doubtless turned to the 107th Psalm because he was reminded of the merchants who go to sea seeking a profit in Psalm 107:23-32. Like Duff and his companions, those merchants went to sea seeking to do good in their trade. The Lord caused the storm to rise up to show the sailors their powerlessness until they cried out to the Lord in their trouble (v. 28). Then, the Lord stilled the sea and brought them to their desired haven. Thus, the sailors were to give God thanks for his steadfast love and to respond in worship with the assembly of God’s people (v. 31-32).

Duff himself sought to bring great profit to India spiritually and materially by teaching the Indian people English. He wanted to help them grow by building on the progress made by others in the West over many centuries. The Lord sent the storm to demolish Duff's library and "tool bag" off the coast of Africa on the way and to turn Alexander to Psalm 107 to contemplate the Lord’s priorities at the outset of his work. God left him with a Bible and a Psalter to remind him that all progress and development must lead back ultimately to the haven of God's word and worship of his name with his people.

It’s not just Alexander Duff who should consider these things:

Whoever is wise, let him attend to these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the LORD. - Psalm 107:43
James Faris

James Faris

Child of God. Husband to Elizabeth. Father of six. Pastor of Second Reformed Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Ordained as a pastor in 2003.

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