Robert Caldwell

Contributed by David Gore

Robert Caldwell in South India
Young Robert
Robert Caldwell was brought up as a Presbyterian Scot. He became an Evangelist missionary and linguist who worked for over fifty years ministering to 'the poorest of the poor' in Tinnevelly, the southernmost and one of the hottest districts of India. He arrived first at Madras in 1838 as a non-conformist minister under the auspices of the LMS (London Missionary Society). There he learnt Tamil and was so attracted by the beauty of the language that he also explored its rich literature and poetry and became familiar with some of the other languages of the region. He even learned German so that he could study the work of Schwartz, Rhenius and other Lutheran missionaries of the past. Like them, he felt that he could do more good by ministering not to the privileged higher castes in the towns and European settlements but to the poorest and most isolated communities. He therefore transferred to the Anglican SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) who sent him to Tinnevelly. He walked the 800 miles south to the village of Idaiyangudi where he established his mission station: it was to be his home for the next 36 years. That was until 1877 when this erstwhile Presbyterian was consecrated an Anglican Bishop.

His life story and saintly qualities are still remembered in India, and the influence of his name and the schools that he and his wife, Eliza, founded echo today in the lives of the men and women of South India whatever their faith. Many of them are the beneficiaries of the Tamil revival and the Non-Brahmin movement as a whole to which Caldwell was an important stimulus. His role as "a pioneer Dravidian linguist" was acknowledged in 1968 when his statue was erected on the Marina Beach in Madras. The Indian historian Dr M.S.S. Pandian, editor of the recent biography of the Bishop, commented that Caldwell's "contribution to both Christianity in South India and the cultural awakening of the region is unmatched during the last two hundred years". In "The Hindu" newspaper's review of that biography one gets a modern view of Caldwell from a Hindu perspective: they call him a "pioneering champion of the downtrodden", and "a model for modern social workers everywhere"! In 2010 the government of Tamil Nadu paid this 19th century 'foreign' missionary the considerable compliment of issuing a postage stamp in his memory:
Tamil Nadu Stamp

At the end of Robert Caldwell's last visit to England when friends tried to persuade the old missionary to remain at home, his reply illustrates his affection for the people of Tamilnad: "I wish to die amongst the people for whom I have lived", and in 1891 after half a century of labour, his wish was fulfilled. He and Eliza are buried beneath the chancel of Holy Trinity, Idaiyangudi, the church which he took 33 years to build. The strands of Caldwell's life and work in India are well summarised on his memorial tablet in St George's Cathedral in Madras:-

"Excelling as a Scholar and Philologist, intimately acquainted with the Tamil people, their history, language and customs, a ready and elegant Writer, he attained a wide reputation, bringing honour thereby to the Missionary's calling, and strengthening the cause of Missions in the Church at home. But all his attainments and fame did not divert him from his great purpose and the simplicity of his Missionary life. He continued to be an earnest, sympathizing, vigilant watcher of souls. By his Apostolic labours and example, he trained many native agents, brought thousands of heathen into the Church of Christ, raised the character and status not of the Christians only, but also of those without the Church, and won their attachment and reverence."

A detailed account of Bishop Caldwell's life and work in India begins at: Faith and Family

Robert Caldwell
Robert Caldwell
Missionary, linguist and writer
1814 of Scottish Presbyterian parents
Place of Birth
Clady, Belfast, Ireland
1891, Kodaikanal, Palani Hills, Tamil Nadu
Place of Burial
'Holy Trinity', Idaiyangudi, Tamil Nadu
A Book Review on the biography of Robert Caldwell from "The Hindu" newspaper
The full account of the life and work of three generations of a missionary family in South India, of which Bishop Caldwell was a part, is at: Faith and Family
The 2007 English biography of Bishop Caldwell written by Dr Y Vincent Kumaradoss and published by ISPCK can be ordered from Amazon:
Robert Caldwell: A Scholar-Missionary in Colonial South India

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