Duff, Alexander (1806-1878)

Scottish missionary in India and missiologist

Alexander DuffDuff was born in Moulin, Perthshire, the son of a Gaelic-speaking farm servant. At St. Andrews University he was a distinguished student in arts and divinity and helped to found a student missionary society. As his studies were concluding, the Church of Scotland was preparing to institute its first mission, which would have education at its center, and appointed him superintendent of the General Assembly’s institution at Calcutta. He arrived in Calcutta in 1830, after two shipwrecks. Desiring to influence Hindu society as a whole by producing a core of thinking people who would have change thought patterns and value systems, Duff’s institution offered a complete system of science and letters in English, set in a Christian philosophy with constant use of the Bible. He was crucially assisted by the Hindu reformer Ram Mohun Roy, who gained him acceptability among Hindu parents and, after 1835, by the new status of English as the language of local administration. At the government Hindu College many young Brahmins were rebelling against traditional Hinduism and proclaiming their atheism under the influence of Western secular education. Duff engaged them in debate; four prominent leaders, including K. M. Banerjea, were converted. To reach a wider intellectual public he produced a magazine, the Calcutta Christian Observer.

alexduff-locIn 1834, his health broken, Duff returned to Scotland to recuperate. A powerful speech (published as The Church of Scotland’s India Missions [1835, 1836]) at the General Assembly disarmed critics, gave new prominence to missions in church agendas, and gained support for a new mission to Madras. He traveled throughout Scotland, producing enthusiasm in congregations and creating a local infrastructure that transformed mission finances. A lecture series (the basis of his book India and Indian Missions [1839]) expounded a systematic theory of mission in the context of “the gigantic system” of Hinduism. The crown of such mission was to be the emergence of a native ministry to evangelize India. Duff went on to develop a theology of the church as missionary in its essence (Missions the Chief End of the Christian Church [1839]).

From 1840 to 1851 Duff was back in India. The school, while giving an excellent Western education, was seeing conversions and producing a deeply committed and intellectually grounded Christian leadership. In 1843, at the time of the Church of Scotland Disruption, Duff and the missionaries who had joined him declared for the Free Church, but the old Church claimed the property. Duff and his colleagues began anew, with uncertain finances. The work expanded beyond Calcutta, and the foundations of an indigenous church were laid. In 1850 Duff was recalled to Scotland to restore collapsing mission finances by his advocacy. A busy visit to the United States in 1854 was made the occasion of perhaps the first-ever international conference on missions, held in New York City.

Duff’s final period of Indian service lasted from 1855 to 1863. Educational work still prospered, but the remarkable conversions were no longer so obvious; high-caste Hindu reformism now had other outlets. Following the 1857 mutiny he wrote The Indian Rebellion and Its Results (1858), a book that was critical of British Government policy. By 1863 he was chronically ill and left India, with universal honor, to become a convener of the Free Church’s foreign mission committee. He visited South African missions on his way back to Scotland.

As convener, he encouraged expansion in Africa and India and campaigned for mission studies as a necessary ingredient of the theological curriculum. In 1866 he proposed a missionary professorship, with a missionary institute that would study Asian and African languages and cultures, a vision partly inspired by Propaganda Fide in Rome. Next year he was appointed to a new chair of Evangelistic Theology at New College, Edinburgh, the first chair of missions anywhere. But he was not attuned, personally or theologically, to a changed Scotland, and the innovation did not have the impact he sought.

Nevertheless, few missionaries ever did so much to raise consciousness about mission or expounded a more coherent philosophy of mission. In India, although the period of dramatic high-case conversions soon ended, and despite the limitations of his policies (underemphasis on vernacular language, the cultural uprooting of converts), he made an immense impression, above all on students like Lal Behari Day. In Scotland, the best missionary tradition retained his association of the gospel with learning and scholarship, and a readiness for intellectual engagement with indigenous thought.

Andrew Walls, “Duff, Alexander,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 187-88.

This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.


Digital Texts

Duff, Alexander.  India and India Missions: Including sketches of the gigantic system of Hinduism, both in theory and practice; also notices of some of the principal agencies employed in conducting the process of Indian evangelization. Edinburgh: J. Johnstone, 1839.

_____. India and its Inhabitants. Cincinnati: J.A. Brainerd, 1852.

_____. The Indian Rebelllion: Its Causes and Results, in a Series of Letters from Alexander Duff. New York: R. Carter, 1858.

_____. The Jesuits: Their Origin and Order, Morality and Practices, Suppression and Restoration. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Education, 1845.

_____. Missions the Chief End of the Church. Edinburgh: J. Johnstone, 1839.

_____. The mutual duties and responsibilities of pastor and people: A sermon, preached, on Sabbath, September 4, 1836, in the South Parish Church, Aberdeen, on occasion of the introduction of the Rev. W. K. Tweedie, to the pastoral charge of that church and parish. Edinburgh: J. Johnstone, 1837.

_____. Treatise on Deeds and Forms Used in the Constitution, Transmission, and Extinction of Feudal Rights. Edinburgh: Bell and Bradfute, 1838.

Holcomb, Helen H. Men of Might in India Missions: The Leaders and Their Epochs, 1706-1899. New York: Revell, 1901.

Paton, William. Alexander Duff: Pioneer Missionary of Education. New York: George H. Doran, 1923.

Smith, George. Twelve Pioneer Missionaries. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1900.

_____. The Life of Alexander Duff. New York: A.C. Armstrong, 1879.

Vermilye, Elizabeth B. The Life of Alexander Duff. New York: Revell, 1890.

Walsh, W. Pakenham. Modern Heroes of the Mission Field. New York: Revell, 1915.


Duff, Alexander. India, and India Missions: Including Sketches of the Gigantic System of Hinduism, both in Theory and Practice; also Notices of some of the Principal Agencies Employed in Conducting the Process of Indian Evangelization. Edinburgh, J. Johnstone, 1839.

_____. The Indian Rebellion: Its Causes and Results. New York: R. Carter, 1858.


Day, Lal Behari. Recollections of Alexander Duff, D.D., LL.D. and of the Mission College which he Founded in Calcutta. London: Nelson, 1879.

Duff, W. Pirie. Memorials of Alexander Duff. London, James Nisbet & co., 1890.

Holcomb, Helen H. Men of Might in India Missions; the Leaders and their Epochs, 1706-1899. New York: Revell, 1901.

Laird, Michael A. “Alexander Duff.” In Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, edited by Gerald H. Anderson, et. al. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994. Pp. 271-276.

Paton, William. Alexander Duff: Pioneer of Missionary Education. New York: George H. Doran, [1922?].

Smith, George. The Life of Alexander Duff. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1879.

_____. Twelve Pioneer Missionaries. London: T. Nelson, 1900.

Vermilye, Elizabeth B. The Life of Alexander Duff. New York: Revell, 1890.

Walsh, Right Rev. W. Pakenham. Modern Heroes of the Mission Field. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1887.

Wright, Caleb. India and its Inhabitants. Boston: L.P. Crown & Co., [1850].


Online Encyclopedia” contains of a biographical sketch of Alexander Duff.

MUNDUS, Gateway to Missionary Collections in the United Kingdom” contains information on Duff Papers held at National Library of Scotland.

National Register of Archives” contains links to Alexander Duff’s correspondence.


Alexander Duff Image.” Courtesy, William Carey University, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 39401, USA. All rights reserved.

Library of Congress: Identification from a photograph by George H. Weeks, PH – Weeks (G.), no. 1 (AA size). Forms part of: Daguerreotype collection (Library of Congress). Produced by Mathew Brady’s studio.”