Behari Lal Singh and His Vision for Missionary Training

Behari Lal Singh and His Vision for Missionary Training

Only one representative from Asia appeared in 1860 at the overwhelmingly British Conference on Missions in Liverpool. It was Behari Lal Singh, who had become a Christian under the guidance of the Scottish missionary Alexander Duff. By then, Singh had been serving in the Scottish Reformed Church for almost twenty years.

            While grateful for all the service and sacrifices of foreign missionaries in India, Singh humbly submitted his suggestion that they should give more room and better training to Indian converts, allowing them to evangelize their own country.

            He gave the example of translations. Until then, he said, “the plan of translating the Bible had been conducted as though foreign missionaries were the only successful or competent translators.” Wasn’t it time for the foreigners who had so commendably “expended their time, strength, talents, and accomplishments in the work of translation” to spend now “their time and strength in raising an effective native agency to translate the Bible with far greater purity and precision than it had ever been done before?”[1]

            He also suggested that native converts be given better education so they could confidently explain Christianity to learned Hindus and Muslims. At that time, most missionaries were only given a minimal education. Because of the scarcity of workers, most of them didn’t have to attend a seminary or undergo serious studies. The assumption was that they would be speaking to uneducated people in so-called third-world countries.

            But missionaries to India often discovered that the common people referred their religious decisions to the highly-educated Brahmins. While the Brahmins represented a small percentage of the population, they were held in high esteem, and few people would venture to embrace Christianity without their approval.

            Not everyone at the Liverpool Conference shared Singh’s views. Many thought that higher education was unnecessary and a poor investment of time and money. In case anyone thought that he was moved by personal money interests, he clarified that he taught for free for the first two years in the mission and, “if it would concede to the welfare of the native churches, he was willing to surrender anything.”[2]

            Providing high education and reaching the influential classes had already been Duff’s vision from the start. With the help of the Hindu reformer Ram Mohun Roy, Duff had been accepted by the Hindu community and had been able to bring the gospel to many young Brahmins who were dissatisfied with traditional Hinduism. Until then, many of these young people had found a confirmation of their objections in Western atheistic Enlightenment literature. That is, until they understood the radical message of the gospel.

            Duff, who was probably the most renowned missionary at that time after William Carey, raised money to endow a missionary chair at New College, Edinburgh to prepare missionaries to face the new questions raised by people who lived in different cultures and environments. The goal was to give missionaries a thorough knowledge of the history, geography, languages, literature, and beliefs of different countries. He served there as the first professor.

Moved by Christian Example

Singh was one of the young men who learned under Duff’s teaching ministry. It was Singh’s father, eager to give his sons a thorough knowledge of the English language, to send Singh and his brother to Duff’s school in Calcutta. His vision was to equip his sons for a government job. A friend of the family, a Christian civil officer, helped with the costs. Singh’s brother fulfilled his father’s dream soon after graduation, while Singh stayed in the school a little longer.

            The school included Bible knowledge. Initially, however, Singh read the Bible as he read any other text-book. “It was not reading the Bible in school that moved my heart,” he said, “but it was the private ministrations of that great and good man, Dr. Duff, and of his excellent colleagues, Dr. Mackay and Dr. Ewart.”[3]

            Still, Singh continued to pursue his education in view of a profitable job. He was smart and had bright prospects. After Duff’s school, he attended the local Medical College, still benefiting from the financial support of the same civil officer. After passing an examination, he was offered the government job his father had always desired.

            In the meantime, however, Singh had been able to spend time with this civil officer and witness the fruits of the gospel in his life, particularly “his integrity, his honesty, his disinterestedness, his active benevolence,” and his generosity. This made Singh think “that Christianity was something living; that there was a loving power in Christ. ... This was the turning-point of my religious history, and led to my conversion.”[4]

            Around the same time, Singh’s brother had also undergone a similar experience, had embraced the gospel, had been baptized, and was preparing to devote his life to teaching in connection with the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Suddenly, their father’s dream of his sons’ profitable careers seemed to vanish.

            Singh’s father read the Bible to see what his sons found in it. In the end, his only criticism was that its moral standards seemed unattainable, so he gave his sons his stamp of approval. This made the two brothers’ life easier than that of other Indians who had been rejected by their families for turning to Christianity.

            Singh was baptized in the Free Church of Scotland (Duff’s denomination) and studied for some time in Scotland. One of his first assignments after returning to India was as a teacher among the large Jewish population, where he improved his knowledge of Hebrew.

            The converted Jews’ faithfulness to Christ in spite of severe persecution by families and Jewish communities made a great impression on him. “I, as well as many missionaries who witnessed their deaths, am glad to testify that they remained faithful unto death.”[5]

            Later, he became a missionary to the Muslims. His feelings on the importance of a thorough Biblical education (including knowledge of the original Biblical languages) and better translations were confirmed when he was confronted by a Muslim Mulvi. This religious scholar, being well-versed in Hebrew, was able to show how the Bible had not been translated properly into Hindustani and was not communicating the correct message to the common people.

            Since Singh could read the Bible with this Mulvi in Hebrew, the two had a fruitful conversation. “The Bible, the blessed gospel of God, was the only power that could convert the Brahmin and the Moulvie,” Singh said.

A Love Story

I haven’t found the name of Singh’s wife, but he told the beautiful story of how the Lord preserved her life and brought her to Himself and, later, to Singh.

            She was only six months old when she arrived in Balasore, India, in 1829. Her parents (a pious Brahmin family) were traveling to the shrine of Juggernaut when the wife contracted cholera. No one knows for sure what happened to the husband, Narain. Most likely, he died during the trip. Narain’s wife sought in vain assistance from the local Brahmin and from the community, until she resigned herself to death.

            She stayed in this pitiful condition until a missionary named Sutton found her and offered his assistance. It was too late for the mother, but the baby survived. Sutton, who had no children, took her home and raised her as his own daughter. Later, he sent her to America to receive an education.

            After returning to her country, the girl served as an assistant-teacher in the schools for girls the missionaries had started in the Odisha state of Eastern India. This is when Singh met her. After some time, the couple decided to marry, breaking the traditional Indian custom of letting relatives choose their spouses.


The name Behari Lal Singh is now largely unknown, but his words at the Liverpool Conference are recorded in history and have been noted for their wisdom. Like Duff before him, Singh believed that people in different environments had different questions, most of which had not been addressed in the Western church. In fact, his voice as a native of India added weight to Duff’s efforts to present missions as an integral part of the church and to raise consciousness about their concerns. For a long time after this conference, many Scottish missionaries continued to uphold Duff’s and Singh’s vision.




[1] Conference on Missions Held in 1860, edited by the Secretaries to the Conference (London: Nisbet, 1860), 26

[2] Ibid., 217

[3] Ibid., 182

[4] Ibid., 182

[5] Ibid., 181


Simonetta Carr