On Sabbath, March 31, 1839, we came to anchor at the northern end of Benares, at a place called Raj Ghat, the ferry connecting the city on the left bank of the river with the Trunk road on the right, leading to Behar and Bengal. Near this place the most of the native craft employed in the city traffic is moored. Many of the vessels are of considerable size.
For hours Benares had been in sight, but owing to the strength of the stream our progress had been slow. It was early afternoon by the time of our arrival. In so public a place as Raj Ghat there are always a number of people, but the early afternoon is a time when few bathe, and there is a lull in the stir of the community. As the afternoon comes on, and the evening advances, there is fresh activity. We therefore, on landing, saw little of the scene with which we were afterwards to become familiar.
Word of the approach of our steamer and flat had reached Secrole, the European suburb of Benares, three miles inland, and no sooner had we come to anchor than the agent of the Steam Company and the friends of expected passengers came on board. Among these was the Rev. William Smith of the Baptist Mission, whose house was on the high bank immediately above Raj Ghat, and who had been requested by my brethren of the London Missionary Society to be on the look-out for me. This good man gave me a kindly welcome, and took me with him to his house, built very much in the native fashion, with flat roof, with small, low rooms entering from one into another, and a verandah extending along its front, from which a commanding view was obtained of the river and craft below, the country on the other side of the river, and a part of the front of the city. Immediately behind the house was the chapel, in which daily worship was conducted.
[Sidenote: PREACHING TO BEGGARS.]
The first thing I saw on getting to Mr. Smith's house was the chapel crowded with very poor-looking people, of whom a number were blind and lame. I was told these were beggars, who came every Lord's-day to receive a dole, either pice or dry grain, from the missionary and his wife, and who listened very patiently to an address before the dole was given. This service was kept up for many years, and there was no falling off in the attendance. Those who have read the life of Henry Martyn, and others of the early missionary period in India, know that they ministered to this class. Here were persons whose destitution appealed directly to the Christian heart, and who were content to be present when the gospel message was delivered, while little access to others could be obtained. How far these poor people heard it would be difficult to say. I am afraid few heard with any desire to understand and consider what was said, but there is every reason to believe some did obtain lasting spiritual good. We have heard of instances of genuine conversion, though it must be admitted these were rare; and it must be also acknowledged there were instances of pretended conversion, when the life soon proved that the motive for seeking baptism was entirely sordid. Still the work in itself was worthy of the followers of Christ, and could not fail to make a favourable impression, not only on the persons helped, but on the community around. Almsgiving stands high among virtues in the estimation of both Hindus and Muhammadans; it is considered sufficient to atone for many sins, and it is practised so indiscriminately as to pauperize many who could provide for themselves. It is unfit that Christianity should seem less careful of those who are really poor and helpless than Hinduism and Muhammadanism are. Work such as I saw in Mr. Smith's chapel is carried on in some places down to the present time.
A short time after our arrival at Raj Ghat my dear friend the Rev. W. P. Lyon appeared, and took me in his conveyance by a road skirting the city to the Mission House in Secrole, which he then occupied. From Mr. and Mrs. Lyon, both of whom I had known intimately for years in our own land, I received a hearty welcome.
At the corner of the mission compound, facing the public road, was the humble chapel, built of sun-dried bricks, in which service was conducted in the native language. I arrived half an hour before the time for the afternoon service. Before its commencement I had the pleasure of meeting Messrs. Buyers and Shurman, with whom I was to be for years associated in mission work. With them I went to the service, which was conducted by Mr. Shurman. There were at that time only two or three native Christians connected with the mission, and these, with their families, the missionaries and their wives, and a few orphan children, constituted the congregation. I had just enough of the language to catch an expression here and there, and from my ignorance of what was said my mind was left at greater freedom for realizing my new and strange position.
I had just had a glance of the sacred city of the Hindus. I had seen at a short distance the domes of some of the principal temples, and the minarets of some of the principal mosques, especially those of the mosque built by Aurungzeb, soaring far above every other object in the city. I had dimly seen the bathing-places of the people stretching away for miles, and the houses on the high bank of the river. As I landed I had seen a few bathing, and a number moving about.
And now, in this poor chapel, with its low roof and earthen floor, I found a few assembled for the worship of the living God through the Lord Jesus Christ. I realized, as I had not done before, that I had left my native land behind, and had come among a people the vast majority of whom were wholly given to idolatry, and the rest followers of Muhammad, the bitter enemies of my Lord and Saviour. The greatness and difficulty of the missionary enterprise presented themselves to me with a painful vividness, and but for the conviction that the work was of God, and that my long-cherished desire to enter on it and the gratification of my desire in my appointment to Benares had come from Him, I should have been ready to retrace my steps. Yet here I was, worshipping with a few persons who had been idolaters, and one of whom at least had made great sacrifices when he had avowed his faith in Jesus. Why should we despise the day of small things? Forty-four years have elapsed since that, to me, memorable 31st of March, 1839, and I can now realize myself sitting with Messrs. Buyers and Lyon in front of that humble pulpit, while Mr. Shurman preached, and remember, as if it were yesterday, the strange feelings that thrilled me that afternoon.
[Sidenote: RESIDENCE IN BENARES.]
I had to make no arrangement for my accommodation on reaching Benares. Previous to my arrival it had been arranged that I was to take up my abode with my dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lyon. I was at once at home with them, for Mr. Lyon had been my fellow-student at Glasgow, and Mrs. Lyon was the member of a family with whom I had been intimately acquainted while studying at Edinburgh. Within a few days of my arrival I was introduced to the missionaries of the Church Missionary Society, and to a few European residents who took an interest in missionary work.