When a young unemployed cotton bleacher from Bolton in Lancashire walked into the annual meeting of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) being held at Exeter Hall in London’s Strand in May 1865, he didn’t know that his life was about to change. A hymn inspired him and a discussion would lead him down the path to becoming a missionary himself, and later on a Bishop in the Canadian prairies. The young man’s name was John Grisdale. This is the first part of his fascinating story.

Preaching at Exeter Hall

Preaching at Exeter Hall

The hymn that inspired John was a favourite of his former teacher, the Rev. Canon Henry Powell, who was present at the London meeting. The hymn referred, as John’s obituary in a Bolton newspaper in 1922 tells us, to ‘India’s Coral Strand’; it is called From Greenland’s Icy Mountains and was written in 1819 by Indian missionary Reginald Heber. I include it here because the sentiments tell us a lot about about how missionaries such as Powell, and later John Grisdale, saw their job and the world at large:

From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand;
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.

What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.

Shall we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high,
Shall we to those benighted the lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation! The joyful sound proclaim,
Till earth’s remotest nation has learned Messiah’s Name.

Waft, waft, ye winds, His story, and you, ye waters, roll
Till, like a sea of glory, it spreads from pole to pole:
Till o’er our ransomed nature the Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator, in bliss returns to reign.

After the meeting John talked with Canon Powell. He “expressed a desire to enter upon Christian work in a larger field”. Powell was obviously pleased that his former pupil wanted to follow him into a missionary life and “used his influence” to get John admitted to the CMS’s  Islington Missionary College, where he would spend the next five years training to be a missionary.

Let’s go back a bit to see what had led John to be in London in 1865.

He was born in 1845, in Tongue Moor, Bolton, Lancashire, the second child of Bolton cotton weaver Robert Grisdale (1819-1897) and his wife Alice Yates (1821-1897). The family soon moved to another part of Bolton: to Slater’s Lane in Little Bolton. In the year of John’s birth Frederick Engels wrote this about the Lancashire towns and about Bolton in particular:

Among the worst of these towns after Preston and Oldham is Bolton, eleven miles north-west of Manchester. It has, so far as I have been able to observe in my repeated visits, but one main street, a very dirty one, Deansgate, which serves as a market, and is even in the finest weather a dark, unattractive hole in spite of the fact that, except for the factories, its sides are formed by low one and two-storied houses. Here, as everywhere, the older part of the town is especially ruinous and miserable. A dark-coloured body of water, which leaves the beholder in doubt whether it is a brook or a long string of stagnant puddles, flows through the town and contributes its share to the total pollution of the air, by no means pure without it.   – The Condition of the Working Class in England (Leipzig, 1845)

St Peter's, Bolton Le Moors

St Peter’s, Bolton Le Moors

Later in life John would tell of how he was “formerly an errand lad” around the town. While his father toiled in the mills John attended the Bolton Parish School. This was an Anglican school attached to Bolton Parish Church (Saint Peter’s) and was overseen at the time by the vicar of Bolton: the Rev. Canon Henry Powell we have already met. Henry had been made vicar of Bolton after many years as a missionary in Ceylon. Canon Powell taught John at the school. Another of his teachers was the Rev J Farrell Wright (whose own son was to become an Archbishop). Given John’s subsequent career as a missionary in India and then in Canada, it might prove informative to try to get a little flavour of how Canon Powell saw the “heathens” whose job it was the CMS’s missionaries to convert. In 1840, two years after arriving in Ceylon, Powell wrote home to his friend the Rev. Francis Trench in Reading:

The natives, among whom we live and labour, are a mild, inoffensive race of beings, but very indolent, uncleanly, indifferent, and deceptive. In fact, without charging them with any particular breaches of morality, I should designate their character as low, weak, and in nowise to be depended on. The men have no dress but a cloth tied round the waist, reaching to the knees. The women dress precisely the same, except in missionary stations, where they have been induced to add a jacket. The hair, both of the men and women, is turned up and fastened with a comb, as ladies’ hair in England; so that it is with great difficulty a new comer can distinguish male from female.

The religion which is commonly professed amongst the natives is Bhuddhism; though many are given up to devil worship, and others are Atheists, and of no religion at all. Idolatry, it seems, is very productive of Infidelity and Atheism. Satan may here almost literally be said ‘ to lead the poor creatures captive at his will;’ and so infatuated are they of their superstitions, that nothing but the power of the Divine grace can, I am sure, drive them out of those fastnesses in which they have entrenched themselves.

Their ignorance, also, is fearful in the extreme; and their minds have been so long neglected, and so unused to consideration, that it seems almost impossible to communicate ideas to them. Words seem to make no impression; they are listened to as a pleasant sound; they recreate, but fail to instruct. It is a fact, that the natives will sometimes listen to my instruction and conversation for a tolerable length of time; and though I broach none but the most elementary truths, yet even these are not understood or remembered, and they are unable to answer a single question upon what has been told them.

An old woman, indeed, told me the other day that she had heard the missionaries preach here for years; but she did not understand or remember what they said, for it was not her place to think, and she could not. This arises from their own destructive system; for, when they go to hear their idolatrous books read, which is, however, only once a year (but then for a whole week, night and day), they are not required to attend to what is said, but only to be present to hear, which is all that Bhuddh requires of them, and for which he will dispense merits according to the time that they attend. Indeed, they could not understand the reading, were they to pay attention to it, for it is in the Pali and Sanscrit languages, which they have never learnt.

Their indifference to religion, however, is even a greater obstacle to our success than their ignorance. This seems almost invincible. They do not care for the event; nor do they look upon religion as important. They are, indeed, a set of fatalists; and, holding very strongly the cold doctrine of metempsychosis, they look upon their present condition as the result of their conduct in some former state of existence; and, in consequence, seem to care very little what becomes of them for the future. Indeed, they have very few notions of religion in common with ourselves, and, apparently, do not wish to have. They acknowledge Christianity to be a good religion, but they cannot see why they should become Christians.

Of course that they didn’t want to be Christians didn’t stop the missionaries from trying to make them be; a pattern that John Grisdale would later follow in Canada.

Slater's Bleachworks, Bolton

Slater’s Bleachworks, Bolton

John was obviously a keen pupil of the religious doctrines he was taught in Bolton Parish School because he was eventually to become a religious ‘Sunday School’ teacher there. But John had to work too. At the time in Lancashire a type of unpaid child slavery still existed in the cotton milling industry.

As long as the English cotton manufacturers depended on slave-grown cotton, it could truthfully be asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black men on the other side of the Atlantic — Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, October 14, 1861

As well as the mills themselves, the cotton industry had many other associated trades. One of these was cotton bleaching – an extremely unhealthy job. The Grisdale family lived in Slater’s Lane, right next to Slater’s Bleachworks, and it was perhaps inevitable that John, and later his brother Levi, went to work there. He was perhaps in his early teens but could have been younger. John became an apprentice and he is listed as such in the 1861 census when he was fifteen. After completing his apprenticeship, we are told that “he was thrown out of work, and leaving Bolton in search of employment, he went to London”.

In the early to mid-1860s, thousands of Lancashire cotton workers had been thrown out of work, become destitute and even starved. It was the time of the so-called Lancashire Cotton Famine. This was a depression in the textile industry of North West England brought about by the interruption of imported baled cotton caused by the American Civil War. The North had blockaded the Southern ports. One historian writes:

The famine of raw cotton and the difficult trading conditions caused a change in the social circumstances of the Lancashire region’s extensive cotton mill workforce. The factories ran out of raw cotton to process, large parts of Lancashire region’s working society became unemployed, and went from being the most prosperous workers in Britain to the most impoverished.

Lancashire 'Cotton Famine' workers queuing for food

Lancashire ‘Cotton Famine’ workers queuing for food

That the Lancashire cotton mill workers were ever the most prosperous in Britain is ludicrous. They never were. But I’ll leave that to one side.

Rather than starve John Grisdale tried his luck in London and, when he had walked into the missionary meeting at Exeter Hall, his luck had been good.

We don’t know much about John’s five years of missionary training in Islington and I won’t try to reconstruct it here. But in 1870 John left the college and was ordained a clergyman in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The Church Missionary Society then decided to send him to India; as a missionary to the heathens there. By the way, the word ‘heathens’ was the one used by the CMS, whose whole purpose, which was very explicit, was to convert the native “heathens” – the religious care of colonists generally being left to the SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), although the lines were often blurred.

We know something of John’s short career in India from letters he sent home to the CMS and from a talk he gave to the  ‘Anniversary Meeting’ of the local  CMS ‘auxiliary Society’ at their meeting in Colchester on 13 May 1872. It was reported that “owing to the exceedingly unfavourable state of the weather… the general attendance was very small”. A motion was taken and passed asking the speakers to tell the audience something about “the character and reality of the work being done by the society”. John Grisdale “proposed to give them in plain language the experiences of a young Missionary on his first arrival in the country which was to be the scene of his labours”. “It was”, he said, “one Sunday morning in December (1870) that (we) first steamed into the Harbour of Bombay.” He was met by a missionary friend and taken to his house. John “truly rejoiced to see 70 native Christians taking part in the Liturgy and Services of the Church of England, in their own tongue, and a native Clergyman who was once a Hindoo, reading the service for them”. The next day he “went to see a large and important school in Bombay – the Robert Money School”. The Roman Catholics, Protestants, Mahommedans and Hindoos were “all mixed together”. They had, Grisdale said, “all come to this School which had for its avowed object their conversion to Christianity; they nevertheless seemed to come to the School from some decide preference to the others in Bombay”.

John then moved “105 miles to the north, to the sacred city of Nassach, the very centre of Hindooism in India”. He talked a lot about the Mission there, but another incident caught his attention. It seems that having travelled much during the day he had taken a longer night’s rest than usual and about half-past five in the morning, “when it was just dawning”, he heard voices outside his window. “In that heathen land” he heard the words of Bishop Ken’s morning hymn: “Awake my soul, and with the sun, thy daily stage of duty run.” When he went out he “found that nearby were some thirty of the sable daughters of Africa”. He continued:

The Church Missionary Society had an orphanage there for the purpose of receiving the girls captured by the Queen’s ships from the slavers, who still carried on their trade on the Eastern Coast of Africa… When rescued, these slaves are taken to Bombay, and from thence to Nassach, and an attempt was made to civilize them, and afterwards many of them were taken back to their own country. It was hoped, in this way, that their bodily slavery might turn out to be the setting free, not only of themselves, but many of their fellow-countrymen, from the trammels of idolatry.

St John's College, Agra

St John’s College, Agra

John continued his journey across much of the breadth of India; visiting the missionary stations in Jubbulpore and Benares before eventually arriving in Agra. Here he was “attached to St. John’s College”, a CMS missionary establishment occupying a fine building. He was appointed Professor of Pastoral Theology. His “especial duty”, he told his Colchester audience, “was to teach the Bible, and afterwards (he had) also the English class”. Every morning about 50 gathered around him – some “Mahommedans, some Hindoos”. He would open his class with a prayer and when the reading was over he would say: “Is there anything you would like to say as to the bearing of this chapter on Hindooism or on Mahommedanism?” And after they had spoken he would try “to show the superiority of Christianity”.

Soon after he was “summoned down to Calcutta, and afterwards to Burmah”. But he was so unwell that he thought he would have to go to the hospital in Rangoon. However, an English gentleman took him to his house, where he was “obliged to keep to his room for some weeks”. He related how every morning a “Mahommedan” used to come and ask:” How is your Highness’s health?” It seems that “this little fellow was the grandson of that cruel king who was reigning in Delhi at the time of the Indian Mutiny”. Grisdale hoped that this young member of that family “would reach the Kingdom of Christ”!

Missionary John Grisdasle

Missionary John Grisdasle

Because the climate had affected his health so much, John had written to the CMS in London requesting a transfer. A little later, in June 1871, he wrote again from Calcutta to the Rev. Wright, the corresponding secretary of the CMS. He brought up the subject of his health and enclosed a letter from his doctor. He also mentioned for a second time his intention to marry. In view of both these facts he asked that the CMS sanction both the marriage and the transfer so that he would be “enabled to make the necessary arrangements”. The CMS were to agree to John’s request and he soon returned to London. His intended wife, Ann Chaplin, was a carpet dealer back home in Bolton. When John was “invalided” back to England they were married in late 1871 in Lutterworth, Leicestershire (Ann having been born nearby in Hinckley) to where her parents had returned after their many years in Bolton. Their first son, Robert Chaplin, arrived in Chelmsford, Essex in September 1872.

Where would be a more conducive place for John’s future health and ministry? Canada was decided upon. Not ‘old’ Canada, but rather Rupert’s Land, which had only just been acquired for the British Crown from the Hudson’s Bay Company and whose “capital” was the 300 person settlement of what was soon to be called Winnipeg.

And so it was that the 27 year old Reverend John Grisdale, his new wife Ann, twelve years his senior, and their baby son, stood on the docks in Liverpool one day in late April 1873 about to board the ship Algeria. They were bound for New York, from where they would make their journey to Winnipeg and their new life. And there I will leave them. I will tell something of John’s long and successful career in Canada in Part Two.

  1. […] The Bleacher Missionary – The Early Life of Bishop John Grisdale […]

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