He was the first overseas missionary of the Church of Scotland to India. On 13 July 1830 he founded the General Assembly's Institution in Calcutta, now known as the Scottish Church College. He also played a part in establishing the University of Calcutta.
Alexander Duff was born in the heart of Scotland, at Auchnahyle, in the parish of Moulin, Perthshire. His parents were James Duff, gardener and farmer at Auchnahagh and Jean Rattray. After receiving his initial schooling at a local country school, he studied arts and theology at the University of St. Andrews.
He then accepted an offer made by the foreign mission committee of the Church of Scotland's general assembly to become their first missionary to India, and was ordained in August 1829.
After an adventurous voyage during which he was twice shipwrecked, Duff arrived in Calcutta on 27 May 1830. After inspecting the Bengali schools, he concluded that students were not receiving an adequate education in a broad range of subjects and secondly, that he would instruct his students using English instead of the local dialects. He at once identified himself with a policy which had far-reaching effects. Christian missions in India had been successful only in converting a few low-caste groups from a poor socio-economic background by giving them monetary benefits. The upper caste Hindu and Muslim communities had been practically untouched. Duff shrewdly assessed that these affluent communities could not be accessed by traditional evangelical methods. He recognised that holding out the prospect of upward mobility, by offering a western education, would bring the children of the affluent classes into his range of influence, which could then be extended to encompass religion. Duff devised the policy of an using western system of education to slowly convert Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. The success of his work had the effect:
- of altering the policy of the government of India in matters of education;
- of securing the recognition of education as a missionary agency by Christian churches at home; and,
- of securing entrance for Christian ideas into the minds of high-caste Hindus.
By teaching Biblical courses as well as courses in the physical sciences, Duff hoped that students would logically come to realize the contradictions and impracticality of Hinduism and embrace wholeheartedly the "truth" of Christianity. While a few students converted, Duff seems to have widely miscalculated the resilience of Hinduism as well as its ability to adapt itself to western knowledge. Whereas Duff and many of his fellow evangelists saw Christianity and Hinduism as diametrically opposed, Hindus did not generally consider the knowledge either tradition provided as mutually exclusive with the other.
Duff opened a school in which all kinds of secular subjects were taught, from the rudiments upwards to a university standard, alongside the Bible. The English language was used as the medium of instruction on the grounds that it was the key to Western knowledge. Alexander Duff proposed a theory which he called the "downward filter theory" in which he believed that by catering to the middle and upper social classes, the knowledge of Christianity would eventually filter down the social ladder. Although he promoted the teaching of English in schools, he still viewed the vernacular as an important language for spreading Christianity among "the masses" but deemed it inferior to the English language because it was not progressive. Duff wrote a pamphlet on the question, entitled A New Era of the English Language and Literature in India. A government minute was adopted on 7 March 1835, to the effect that in higher education, the object of the British government in India should be the promotion of European science and literature among the natives of India, and that all funds appropriated for purposes of education would be best employed on English education alone. His views influenced Peter Percival, a pioneering educator, linguist and missionary who worked in Sri Lankan Tamil dominant Jaffna peninsula in Sri Lanka.
Within the British Indian community of that era, there were not lacking those "Orientalists" who saw value in the traditional learning of India and wished to support and encourage it. They opposed Duff's policy of stringently disregarding the same while assiduously promoting the spread of western education, culture and religion. In 1839, Lord Auckland, the governor-general of India, yielded to them and adopted a policy which was a compromise between the two perspectives.
Regardless, English became the tool through which Indians were able to understand and advance themselves through the British institutions of government. This opportunity to share in governance established one of the foundations on which eventual self-rule was built.
Shortly after landing in India in 1830, Duff opened his institution in a house located at upper Chitpur Road in the Jorasanko neighbourhood of Calcutta. The house was made available to him by Feringhi Kamal Bose, an affluent Hindu. The school soon began to expand into a missionary college, known as the General Assembly's Institution. In 1834, Duff returned to Britain broken in health. During this sojourn, He succeeded in securing the approval of his church for his educational plans, and in arousing much interest in the work of foreign missions. In 1836, the Calcutta institution was moved to Gorachand Bysack's house in the Garanhata neighbourhood. On 23 February 1837, Mr. MacFarlon, the Chief Magistrate of Calcutta, laid the foundation stone for a new building belonging to the mission itself. The building was designed by Mr. John Gray construction was superintented by Capt. John Thomson, both of the HEIC. The construction of the building was completed in 1839.
In 1840, Duff returned to India. At the Disruption of 1843, Duff sided with the Free Church. He gave up the college buildings, with all their effects, and with unabated courage set to work to provide a new institution, which came to be known as the Free Church Institution. In 1857, when the University of Calcutta was established, the Free Church Institution was one of its earliest affiliates, and Duff would also serve in the university's first senate.
These two institutions founded by Duff, i.e., the General Assembly's Institution and the Free Church Institution would be merged in 1908 to form the Scottish Churches College. After the unification of the Church of Scotland in 1929, the institution would be known as Scottish Church College. He had the support of Sir James Outram and Sir Henry Lawrence, and the encouragement of seeing a new band of converts, including several young men born of high caste. In 1844, governor-general Viscount Hardinge opened government appointments to all who had studied in institutions similar to Duff's institution. In the same year, Duff co-founded the Calcutta Review, of which he served as editor from 1845 to 1849.
Several important Indian figures were products of Duff's Institutions. Most notably, Rev. Lal Behari Dey, who wrote two books (Folk Tales of Bengal and Bengal Peasant Life) that were widely distributed among Indian schools, and Krishna Mohan Banerjee, who became registrar at the University of Calcutta and later became a co-founder of the Indian National Congress.
In 1849, Duff returned to Britain. He was moderator of the Free Church assembly in 1851. He gave evidence before various Indian committees of parliament on matters of education. This led to an important despatch by Viscount Halifax, president of the Board of Control, to governor-general the Marquess of Dalhousie, authorizing an educational advance in primary and secondary schools; the provision of technical and scientific teaching; and the establishment of schools for girls. In 1854, Duff visited the United States, where what is now New York University gave him the degree of L.L.D.; he was already D.D. of the University of Aberdeen.
In 1856, Duff returned to India, where the mutiny broke out the following year; his descriptive letters written during this period were collected in a volume entitled The Indian Mutiny - its Causes and Results (1858). During this stint in India, Duff gave much thought and time to the University of Calcutta, which owes its examination system and the prominence given to physical sciences to his influence. In 1863, Sir Charles Trevelyan offered him the post of vice-chancellor of the University, but his health compelled him to leave India. As a memorial of his work, the Duff Hall was erected in the centre of the educational buildings of Calcutta.
In 1864, Duff visited South Africa, and on his return, became convener of the foreign missions committee of the Free Church. He raised money to endow a missionary chair at New College, Edinburgh, and himself became first professor. Among other missionary labors of his later years, he helped the Free Church mission on Lake Nyassa, travelled to Syria to inspect a mission at Lebanon, and assisted Lady Aberdeen and Lord Polwarth to establish the Gordon Memorial Mission in Natal. In 1873, the Free Church was threatened with a schism owing to negotiations for union with the United Presbyterian Church. Duff was called to the chair, and guided the church through this crisis. He also took part in forming the alliance of Reformed Churches holding the Presbyterian system.
Alexander Duff died on 12 February 1878. He is buried with his wife, Ann Scott Drysdale, in the north-east section of the Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh. By his will, he devoted his personal property to found a lectureship on foreign missions at New College (now part of the University of Edinburgh) on the model of the Bampton Lectures.
Alexander Duff was incredibly influential in Indian education and government and set several precedents. Duff’s methods were widely imitated and his cumulative twenty-five years in the subcontinent were largely characterized by the establishment of western-style educational institutions. Duff can be credited with creating a framework that influenced educational policy and practice during the nineteenth century and beyond. Since his schools catered mostly to the Hindu middle class, he was able to receive attention from the government which helped to spread his methods and ideas. Several other English schools were established because the General Assemblies Institution was so successful. The success and influence of Duff’s college led to the founding of the Calcutta Medical College. Hindu scriptures forbid people of higher castes from touching dead bodies, which prevented medical students from performing cadaver dissections. Students from Duff’s college expressed that their liberal, English education had "freed their minds from prejudice and the dissection of the human body was not objectionable to them." This new idea allowed higher caste Indians to pursue medical professions, therefore advancing healthcare in India.
The top-down theory of education described above typifies Duff’s evangelical elitism, one of the main elements of his legacy in the subcontinent. Duff seems to have believed that there was a direct relationship between education and missionary work. Not only was the education of the Indian people critical to his goal of dispelling "Hindu ignorance" but it was in fact the duty of evangelicals to modernize and instruct Indian society using Western ideals and texts. While Duff was a highly skilled scholar who was devoted to India, his evangelist ideals and western prejudice may have influenced his students in ways that he did not anticipate. Instead of initiating a mass conversion to Christianity he may have instead provided another catalyst for Hindu reform movements.
Duff hoped that through a western education in a time of enlightenment, Indians would be able to see the flaws in their religion and be compelled to convert to Christianity, but he did not consider the resilience of the Hindu religion and his efforts proved to be fairly unsuccessful on the broader scale. Educations of the Christian bible was accepted by Hindus because they were confident in their own religion and were not worried that their children would lose their faith. Hinduism was not only a religion but a culture, and the occupation of the British and their ideas was not drastic enough to change this. Because Alexander Duff was regarded well, his character served as a model to his students and friends and his teaching did eventually lead to some reformist movements within Hinduism. In fact, Duff’s work led to the acceptance of more Indians into public official positions in government. This experience was critical to the transitional Indian government after Independence in 1947.