WILSON, John. Lauder, Berwickshire 11.12.1804 — near Bombay 1.12.1875. Rev. British (Scottish) Missionary in India, Indologist and Iranian Scholar. Son of Andrew W., a farmer and township councillor, and Janet Hunter. From the age of 14 studied arts, then theology at Edinburgh, during holidays worked as tutor. He became early interested in religion and mission, especially in India, and in 1825 founded the Edinburgh Association of Theological Students in aid of the Diffusion of the Gospel. He offered his services to Scottish Missionary Society and to prepare himself studied medicine in 1827-28. Ordained as priest in 1828, married Margaret Bayne (1795–1835) and sailed for India. Arriving in 1829 he quickly learned Marathi and started a chapter in Bombay. During a furlough in 1843-47 he visited Palestine and Egypt and spent some time in Scotland, again there in 1870-72. From 1843/47 Superintendent of the Free Church of Scotland’s Indian Mission. D.D. His wife died in 1835, and he married again 1846 Isabella Dennistoun, widowed again 1867. His only son was Andrew W. (1831–1881), a journalist and traveller.
Wilson was noted for his many missionary and educational activities. In 1830 he founded the Oriental Christian Spectator, which was the first of its kind and appeared until 1862. Together with his wife he started founding schools for girls in 1829. In 1832 he founded a college for both sexes (Ambrolie English School, later known as Scottish Missionary School, General Assembly’s Institution, and finally Wilson College), where teaching was given in local languages and, among other things, Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit were taught. In 1835-42 he was President of Bombay Literary Society (soon the Bombay Branch of R.A.S.), then its Life President. From 1857 Fellow and Dean of the Faculty of Arts in the new University of Bombay, from 1868 its Vice-Chancellor.
Wilson became an Oriental scholar from purely missionary motives: he wanted to prove that other religions – Hindu, Parsi and Islam – are false. To be capable of doing this, he studied them thoroughly, but without understanding. He thus began early learning Sanskrit, Gujarati, Avesta and Arabic. He travelled much in India studying and collecting manuscripts, and soon became also interested in archaeology and epigraphy – he studied cave temples and deciphered the Aśoka inscription of Girnar – and even in science. After 1847 he worked much on archaeology and served in 1848-61 as President of Cave Temple Commission. In his times Wilson was much appreciated as a scholar, but he always saw his missionary work more important, and this can easily be seen in his work. Nevertheless, with his learned controversy he prompted Hindus and Parsis to study their own traditions and start reforms.
Publications: The life of John Eliot, the Apostle of the Indians: including notices of the principal attempts to propagate Christianity in North America, during the seventeenth century. 300 p. Edinburgh 1828 (anonymous).
– An Exposure of the Hindu Religion, in Reply to Mora Bhatta Dandekara. 159 p. Bombay 1832; A Second Exposure of the Hindu Religion in Reply to Naráyana Ráo of Satárá: Including Strictures on the Vedanta. 179 p. Bombay 1834.
– The Parsi Religion: as contained un the Zend-Avesta, and propounded and defended by the Zoroastrians of India and Persia, unfolded, refuted and contrasted with Christianity. 610 p. Bombay 1843.
– “A Memoir on the Cave temples and Monasteries, and other Ancient Buddhist, Bráhmanical, and Jaina Remains of Western India of Western India”, JBRAS 1:3, 1848, 36-107, 4 pl. & sep. 1850; “Second Memoir on the cave temples”, JBRAS 4, 1853, 340-379.
– The Evangelization of India. 12+498 p. Edinburgh 1849; History of the Suppression of Infanticide in Western India. 457 p. Bombay & L. 1855.
– India Three Thousand Years Ago: Or, The Social State of the Aryas on the Banks of the Indus in the Times of the Vedas. 86 p. Bombay 1858.
– Aboriginal Tribes of The Bombay Presidency (a fragment). 61 p. Bombay 1876.
– Indian Caste. Ed. by P. Peterson. 1-2. Bombay 1877 (incomplete).
– Edited: A Memoir of Mrs. Wilson. 1838, 3rd enl. ed. 552 p. Edinburgh 1840, 5th ed. 1858.
– The Lands of the Bible. 1-2. Edinburgh 1847: lesser works and articles.
Sources: Buckland, Dictionary; E.I.C[arlyle], D.N.B. 62, 1900, 113-115, rev. by *D.W. Savage, Oxford D.N.B.; *M.D. David, “J.W. – An Orientalist”, JAsSocBombay 1972-73, 140ff. & *“J.W. – An Educationist”, JUnivBombay 43, 1974 & “J.W. Portrait of a Missionary”, ICHR 9, 1975, 128-146; *Lal Behari Day, Life and Labours of Rev. Dr. J.W. Edinburgh 1876; *G. Smith, The Life of J.W. L. 1878; Stache-Weiske 2017, 570; briefly in JRAS Proc. 1876, xivf.: picture in JBRAS Cent. vol. 1905; Wikipedia with 3 portraits.
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