Alphonse Lacroix


An unknown and forgotten Reformed missionary is Lacroix — unknown, because he lived so far away and so long ago; forgotten, because his name is dimmed by the luster of great missionaries so much better known to us. And yet what Judson was to America, what Carey was to England, Lacroix was to the French-speaking Reformed churches of Switzerland. He was a native of French Switzerland, born near the scene of the labors of Farel, that Elijah of the Alps in Reformation days. What Farel did three hundred years before in stirring up that region to a new life in the gospel, that Lacroix did there, stirring it to new life for foreign missions.

Alphonse Francis Lacroix was born May 10, 1799, at Lignieres, in the canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. As his father died soon after his birth, his uncle took charge of him. His uncle had charge of a boarding school in the suburbs of Neuchâtel, and was one of the few godly men in that age of unbelief who was not afraid to confess Christ. His school, therefore, had an atmosphere of piety about it that did not fail to tell on his nephew. Indeed, the Christian influence of this uncle was the original cause in preparing him ultimately to become a missionary. There by the stone of Serrieres where Farel stood when he first preached the doctrines of the reformation in that canton, he learned the earnest truths of that gospel. His uncle, anxious to have him learn German, sent him to Zurich, where he lived in the family of one of the pastors. He learned German, but the spiritual influence of that home was not what his uncle’s school was. For alas! the Church of Zwingli had become cold through rationalistic influences. He returned to Neuchâtel when twelve years of age.

His boyhood took place during the stirring scenes of the wars of Napoleon. Indeed, war had a great fascination for him. He longed to become a soldier. The bravery of Arnold Winkelried at Sempach, where he fell pierced by the Austrian spears a martyr-hero for Switzerland, enthused him. The military fever ran so high that when fourteen years of age he resolved to join a Swiss regiment in the French army. He, however, like a dutiful boy, went to his uncle to get his permission before he went. The uncle refused for a while, but finally reluctantly gave his consent. Lacroix started with his knapsack to go to Bern, thirty miles away, to enlist. Meanwhile his uncle, who believed that the effectual, fervent prayer of the righteous availeth much, went to praying. As the young recruit neared Bern, and was almost within sight of the city, a sudden change came over him. It seemed to him as if a hand were laid on his shoulder, and a voice rang in his heart, as came to Elijah: “What dost thou here? Return!” He paused, obeyed and turned back. When he came home, he flung himself into the arms of his uncle, saying: “Ah, dear uncle, you have been praying for me. I know you have been calling me back. Here I am.” He was not to be a soldier of Napoleon, but a soldier of a greater than Napoleon, who conquers not by the sword, but by the sword of the Spirit. This incident made a marked change in his character. His religious life deepened. He became more spiritually minded.

Two years later another incident occurred in his life that was another link in forging the chain to lead him into the mission field. He was called away from Switzerland to be tutor in a private family at Amsterdam, where he lived for three years. There was great interest in Holland at that time in missions. Here it was that he was brought into contact directly with foreign missions; for missionary prayer meetings were held there under the influence of the Netherlands Missionary Society. It was while attending a prayer meeting, where the overthrow of idolatry in the Sandwich Islands was described, that he first felt the desire to become a missionary. For six months he prayed over this, before he breathed it to others. Then it became so great a burden to him that he wrote to his uncle for advice. The uncle was only too glad to approve of his entrance into such religious work.

The Netherlands Society had sent out a call for three missionaries. He applied, was accepted and then enrolled as a student for a year and a half at their Mission House at Berkel, in Holland. When he was about to enter the mission field it happened that a pious physician, Dr. Vos, had come from India to Holland and asked that a missionary be sent to the few towns in India still remaining under the control of the Dutch. So he was ordered to go to Chinsurah in India. On August 2, 1820, he was ordained a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church at the Hague, and on August 25 a farewell service was held in the French Reformed church at Rotterdam, where Rev. Van Oordt solemnly presented the missionary with a Bible and urged him to preach its solemn truths. He sailed from England for India October 1, 1820, and landed at Chinsurah March 2, 1821.

The town of Chinsurah was an old Dutch town with about one hundred Dutch houses, the rest being native. Three missionaries of the London Missionary Society were already laboring there; but of the foreigners some were infidels and many of them immoral. He began to study the language very assiduously, and joined himself very closely to Rev. Mr. Townley, one of the London Society’s missionaries, going with him on his missionary tours. Almost the first sight he saw was a suttee, or the burning of a widow. Mr. Townley expostulated with the family although there was a large crowd present, but it had no effect. The widow was burned before their eyes. The impression of this horror of the Hindu system, Lacroix never forgot during all his life. On another occasion he saw a man drowning, and he called to a boat to pick him up, but they refused for fear they would break their caste by touching him, and so he drowned.

The missionaries of the London Society preached in the school houses, especially about the hour of sunset. They would preach the simple gospel, but would often be interrupted by opponents. On one occasion, after Lacroix had preached, Mr. Mundy was about to distribute tracts, when, as the people pressed him so closely, he climbed into a tree that he might give them singly and more conveniently. When to the delight of the people, the bottom of the basket came out, the tracts fell with it, and after a violent scramble among the people, they were carried off in triumph.

The time came, however, when his sphere was to be changed. The few Dutch colonies in India came under the control of the English government in 1825. The Netherlands Missionary Society felt that it should not do missionary work in English territory, when it had such wide fields in Java and the East Indies, which were under its own government. Besides, that excellent and venerable society began, alas, to feel the effects of rationalism that denied Christ’s divinity and man’s depravity, and which was coming into Holland. This was cutting the nerve of the missionary zeal, and the Society was beginning, therefore, to lose its first love. The Netherlands Society therefore discontinued its missions in India, and gave Lacroix the choice of going to Java or of entering some other society, if he wished to stay in India. He chose the latter alternative, retired from the Society and joined the London Missionary Society in 1827.

In 1829 he removed from Chinsurah to Calcutta. He there engaged extensively in preaching where his great knowledge of the Bengali language made him one of the most eloquent and effective preachers in India. He could always gain a large audience by the charm of his voice, by his beautiful use of their language and the beautiful imagery in which he clothed his ideas. He also superintended several congregations south of Calcutta at Rammakalchoke and Gungree, eight and twelve miles from Calcutta. He labored in them twelve years, going to them in heat and cold, in storm and pleasant weather.

Many were his discouragements. In May, 1833, one of the most awful hurricanes that was ever known burst over Bengal. A series of terrible waves, ten feet high, burst into the land, sweeping everything for more than fifty miles inland. Twenty thousand persons were drowned. The rich harvest was lost, and so famine and pestilence followed the hurricane. For several weeks long rows of starving people were fed daily at his garden. Wherever he went out among the villages, he carried bags of pica (an Indian cent) to distribute among the crowds. And yet in the midst of all the discouragements the mission had a steady growth. During the twelve years from 1829-1841 one hundred and twenty members were added, and the Christian community rose from fifty to four hundred. In January, 1837, he moved to Blowanpore, the southern suburb of Calcutta, so as to found there a missionary station with a school for the sons of his converts. He was too wise a man not to see that the subtle Indian mind must be met by education as well as evangelization. This school proved so successful that the London Society made it their principal mission in Calcutta. Here the boys were trained to become preachers of the gospel. His wife also started a school for the poor Hindu girls, which was also a wonderful success in numbers, reaching to five hundred.

Aerial view of modern-day Chinsura

Lacroix, although a diligent teacher, was most of all a preacher of the gospel. His tall, commanding presence and his powerful voice always made a deep impression on the simple people to whom he preached. To these were added a clear pronunciation of the Bengali language. His style of sermon was Scriptural, powerful, personal. A servant once told his mistress that whenever Mr. Lacroix preached, every Bengali’s heart trembled. For nearly thirty years he was considered the most elegant preacher in Bengali that the country contained.

Their method of holding services would seem odd and strange to us. Thus he would go into one of the bazaar chapels and begin reading from a desk a selection from the Bible. This he explains. During his explanation perhaps ten or fifteen persons come in. He then begins to preach. He takes no text, but describes some story from the Bible. He expounds it, illustrates it by incidents, argues and enforces it. The hearers listen with attention. Sometimes one will object, and he must be answered at once, or the preacher will not carry his audience with him. If they are interested, they remain, and at a striking argument, or a pointed story or a good humored exposure of their gods, will laugh or cry out “capital.” If not interested, they go out, but others come in to take their places, and so there is a perpetual coming and going during the service. The preacher must be careful to repeat his theme a number of times, so that the late ones may know what he is talking about. Lacroix usually preaches about three-quarters of an hour. After the sermon he offers a short prayer, and the people gather to receive tracts and gospels. Thus he scatters the seeds. A few remain as inquirers, or show their interest by coming again and again. These are followed up, and by and by perhaps are gathered into the Church.

Lacroix was generally very gladly heard by the people, but only on one occasion was injury offered to him, which but for the protection of his Master might have been severe. He was preaching one evening in the chapel in Pontonia in Calcutta, when, without any reason furnished by himself, a Hindu fanatic came quietly behind him and with a big stick aimed a blow at his head, so that he would knock him down. Providentially at that moment Lacroix turned, and the blow fell on his shoulder. The people jumped up in a minute and seized the man, calling aloud for a police. But Lacroix stopped them, and then, placing the man in front of the crowd, without a particle of anger in his voice or manner, he thus addressed him: “You have endeavored to do me a severe injury, and I might justly complain against you and have you punished. But the religion I preach teaches me to forgive those who do me harm. For the sake of that religion, therefore, I forgive you and will let you go away.” This simple incident produced a far deeper impression and called forth a louder demonstration than any sermon he had ever preached. Struck with the exceeding kindness of his act, the audience in the chapel, Hindus though they were, at once burst into a loud shout: “Victory! Victory, through Jesus Christ!” “Greater is he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

Lacroix seems to have been a fearless man, for he would often meet large cobras lying in the sun. He had no fear of them, when he had a stick in his hand and boots on his feet. On one occasion, when he stayed in the chapel over night, a snake was crawling along the floor and approaching the table. He put his arm out of the mosquito curtain and seized his boot to throw at the visitor. But just at that moment the light went out, and he was compelled to leave him alone. Not being at all nervous, he tucked the curtains in carefully and fearlessly fell asleep.

After having been in India for nearly twenty years, failing health at length compelled him to return to Europe. With all the home-sickness of the Swiss he longed to see his native Alps again, and he soon traveled up the Rhine to the land of his birth. He found that the Swiss Churches had been very little interested in missions, except at Basle, where almost the first missionary society on the continent had been formed in the latter part of the last century. Especially were the French or southern cantons of Switzerland ignorant on the subject of missions. Only at Geneva, where a few earnest Christians had formed a sort of auxiliary to the Basel missionary society, was there any interest taken. It remained for Lacroix to stir up the interest and produce a wonderful missionary revival in French Switzerland.

He came to Geneva just as the interest in missions seemed to be deepening. In June he visited the old home of his boyhood in Neuchâtel. What tender memories gathered around his uncle’s school and the old Reformed church there, which he had joined. He then returned to Basel, to assist in the ordination of five missionaries, and his address on that occasion made a deep impression. But the Committee of the Basel Society, that had its headquarters at Geneva, asked him to deliver a course of lectures on missions. They arranged to have them in a small church holding about two hundred persons. But the interest of the people in missions was greater than the faith of those who projected the course of lectures. For half an hour before the first lecture began, the church was packed and as many more were waiting outside of the church for admission. They therefore adjourned to a neighboring hall, where four hundred listened to his account of the strange faith of the Hindus. Lacroix described this with all his popular eloquence, which swayed his audience before him. His remarks made such an impression that at the second lecture the audience had doubled, and when he delivered the third lecture, a thousand persons were present, including the leading ministers of Geneva. And they hung breathless on his eloquence as he described the progress made by the leading Indian missionaries. Now the audience was moved to laughter, now to tears, by his apt words and bright illustrations. The attendance kept on increasing at each lecture, until at the fifth lecture not only was the hall filled, but the stairs and lobbies, and people stood where they could hear his voice even if they could not see him.

These were wonderful experiences for Geneva, that city which had been so injured by rationalism. Never before had Geneva been so stirred on the subject of missions. The missionary committee who had charge of these lectures felt that they had gained so much influence that they made bold to ask for one of the largest churches in the city for the closing lecture. This was rather a presumptuous undertaking, for the State Church had been honeycombed with rationalism, and many of its ministers had looked down on Foreign Missions as the dream of the enthusiast. But, strange to say, the Venerable Company of Pastors, which controlled all the state churches, granted the request and placed the Madeline church at the disposal of the committee.

Illustration of a suttee

This was a church which had rung with the eloquence of Farel, the Elijah of the Alps, in the days of the Reformation. When Sunday, October 28, 1842, came, that church was filled in every part, so that seats had to be carried into the aisles, and the stairways and door were thronged with people. It is believed that there were not less than 3,000 persons present. Never since the days of Farel had that church been so thronged. On the large platform around the pulpit sat the ministers of both the Free and the State Church. This in itself was a most remarkable thing, for the State Church had before refused to fraternize with the Free Church. Farel roused that city by his eloquence to become Protestant in the days of the Reformation, so Lacroix roused them to become missionaries in spirit by his eloquence, and a new era began to dawn on the churches of the French cantons. With all the eloquence which had made him in India the best preacher in Bengali, he now pleads with his Swiss friends to interest themselves in missions. And at the close of his lecture, with a voice broken with deep emotion, he bade them farewell. The collection for Foreign Missions that day in the boxes at the door of the church amounted to one hundred and sixty dollars, an amount unheard of before.

Nor did the influence of these lectures end then. For the next day, as he was making a farewell call at Professor Munier’s, a lady had a chance meeting with him, which had a marked influence on his after life. She had been deeply impressed with his lecture of the day before, so that she said at the close of his lecture: “Now we must do something.” At Professor Munier’s house she offered to give four hundred dollars, a very large sum then, and she started a movement that raised five thousand dollars for his work before he died, through the societies which she organized. All these results came from her words: “We must do something.” His eloquent lectures on missions Lacroix repeated at Lausanne and at Neuchâtel, and later at Brussels and Paris. Everywhere they were heard with profound attention and deep interest. The Paris Missionary Society was so pleased with them that they sent in a request to the London Missionary Society to allow Mr. Lacroix to remain in Europe for another year, so as to lecture throughout France and rouse interest in missions. The London Society, however, felt itself compelled to refuse the request, as he was greatly needed in India. His missionary work in Switzerland was, however, only second to his missionary work in India in importance. It disarmed prejudice and awakened interest. It started an influence which led, many years later, to the founding, in 1874, of the Foreign Missionary Society of the French churches of Switzerland, which would soon do such an admirable work in Southern Africa.

He thus describes an impressive scene in his tours:

“In the afternoon we proceeded to the village of the Kamarjani Proper, in doing which we had to cross a small but rapid river. The weekly market was just being held, and the crowd of buyers and sellers was most dense, not less than three thousand persons being present. We found it very difficult to make our way through the mass of human beings, and having at last reached a spot a little clearer than the rest, we made a halt. Mr. Hill then read part of a tract, at which we were surrounded by many hundreds and so hemmed in that we had scarcely elbow room. Then I made an address, and it required the highest power of my voice to make myself heard by all. I told them that this was a happy day for their village, for I had come to announce to them the true incarnation, the incarnation of mercy, that Jesus Christ had come into the world to save men from sin and hell, and to open the gates of heaven to all who repent and believe on Him. The attention was intense, and repeated exclamations of surprise and wonder were uttered at this news, which for the first time came to their ears.

Kali Temple, Hindu Mosque on the Hooghly River

“The sermon was followed by an unusual demand for tracts and books, which it was difficult to supply. Finding it was impossible to speak any longer, I told the assembled crowd that we were servants of Jesus Christ, of whom they had just heard, and that we brought books with us, which would explain more fully all that had been done for the salvation of men. On this the rush was so general that we dared not attempt distribution, and walked to a more distant spot. But being followed by the whole of our audience, we were equally unsuccessful. In four different places we tried to persuade them to sit down, so that we might distribute the books with some regularity, but it was in vain. For the outer rows, fearing the books would be expended before their turn came, rose and came falling upon those before them, until the confusion became so great that a lad was thrown down by the crowd, and would have been trampled to death, if Mr. Hill had not seized him by the hair and extricated him from his perilous position.”

Lacroix was temporarily supplying the English chapel, when on May 19, 1859, he was suddenly taken ill with his old affection of the liver. His Christian friends soon became alarmed about his condition, and a daily prayer meeting was held to pray for him. One minister in them, referring to him, said, “Who ever thinks of Mr. Lacroix as belonging to the London Missionary Society? He belongs to us all.” Lacroix’s prayer in the midst of his great suffering was: “O Lord, counterbalance by Thy presence the pain which I now feel.” Often his mind wandered through the disease, but his friends had only to speak the name of Jesus, and at once a heavenly smile broke over his wasted face. “His interviews in his sickness with missionaries of all denominations,” says one, “were most affecting; and his love to them and theirs for him is best illustrated by Paul’s farewell at Miletus.” He fell asleep in Jesus on the eighth of July, 1859. A great company followed him to his grave, including the Episcopal Bishop of Calcutta. The native Christians carried the coffin from the hearse to the grave. And a few days after, Rev. Dr. Duff preached to one of the largest congregations ever gathered in Calcutta on such an occasion, on “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?”

Next to William Carey, says Smith, the historian of India missions, was Lacroix as a preacher to the Bengali in their native tongue. The epitaph on his tomb is: “As a preacher to the heathen he excelled, as a pastor he was greatly beloved, as a man of undoubted integrity, wisdom and benevolence he was implicitly trusted, as a Christian he was universally honored.”