Much to my surprise, coming from a family with no church connexion, my brother one day in December 2014 said to me, “David, did you know we had missionaries in the Palmer family?”

There were two German missionaries married to sisters of my great grandfather Palmer. I chose to research and write about one of them, Julius Frederick Ullmann. Largely through the Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, I was able to access written records, including letters of Ullmann, that needed transcription, as well as comprehensive annual reports made by Mission Boards.

Julius Frederick Ullmann’s life as a missionary was remarkable in a number of respects. Chief among these was the longevity of that life. Among a group of young men, Ullmann was sent out to north-west India by Pastor Gossner of Bethlehem Church, Berlin, in 1839 as a freshly minted schoolteacher, aged 22 years. He remained a missionary in India 57 years, school teaching first with Gossner’s Mission, then with the London Missionary Society, before making a fresh beginning in connexion with the Presbyterian Church in the USA through its Board of Foreign Missions. With the Presbyterians he was able to cast school teaching aside to give full rein to his evangelistic impulses. He died in Dehradun, on the site of the present day Presbyterian Theological Seminary, aged 79 years.

Across the span of 57 years he had just four trips home: the first to find a wife and care for a dying father; the second to oversee the production of a new print run of the Hindi New Testament to replace stock destroyed during the Indian mutiny; the third to recover his health; and the fourth to see for the last time his wife and daughter. Missionary service was clearly spelled out by the Board, ‘to be for life.’ Even though recovery of health might mean a sooner than planned return to America, furloughs were set to occur ‘after ten or twelve years of actual service in the field.’

Of course, circumstances in north India were very different then. Missionary life proceeded under the protection of the British Raj and with the active support of many of its employees. There was no requirement for visas or threat of expulsion. Yet the conditions were unforgiving. There was the enduring harshness of the climate, and the high death rates, particularly of women and children. 

Ullmann demonstrated that he was well suited to an evangelistic and pastoral ministry. This can be seen in a number of ways.

  • He was firmly rooted in Christ. There is enough said in his letters to know that his faith was warm and genuine, a source of quiet contentment and joy. The text that appears on his headstone, still visible in the English Cemetery, Dehradun, says all we need to know, ‘I shall be satisfied when I awake with thy likeness’ (Psalm 17:15 KJV). Union with Christ, following in the Master’s footsteps was the secret of his life.
  • He was theologically orthodox, without being overly dogmatically reformed. Nevertheless it is clear that his theology bent in a reformed direction.
  • His command of the Hindi and Urdu languages, such that, according to an obituary, ‘he spoke it with such clearness, simplicity and accuracy that it was a pleasure to hear him.’
  • He was a stirring, forceful and courageous preacher – a colleague likening him to Martin Luther, totally focussed on ‘just one absorbing purpose – to destroy the works of the devil and to deliver men out of his snares and delusions.’
  • His literary efforts fully supported his evangelistic and pastoral work. His literary work was eminently practical and valued by both the nascent Indian church and by other missionaries far beyond his American Presbyterian circle. His mind was kept fresh by his literary work and fed directly into his evangelistic and pastoral labours. That was its purpose: to win the men and women of India to a living faith in Christ, and to nurture them in that faith. As well, he had a particular interest in their children.
  • Ullmann was a strategic thinker. This is seen in his widely adopted model of the mission station, circled by substations each with their own Indian workers. A particular strength of Ullmann was his friendship with, and confidence in, his Indian workers. It was this confidence in them that buttressed his model of the mission station surrounded by outlying substations. He wrote to them, he visited them in their homes, and they with him, in his home.                                                          
  • He was a translator of the Greek New Testament into Hindi; he wrote and translated prodigious numbers of hymns; compiled catechisms; wrote tracts and a theological work on Roman Catholicism; preached in the bazaars and at melas; regularly went on month-long itinerations with missionary colleagues; taught in schools, supervised schools; provided instruction in Hindi and Urdu for new missionaries; and mentored and directed his Indian co-workers. In addition, he was a husband who cared for a sick wife and a father, if mainly a distant father. Like many missionary families of the time, his children were sent back to England at an early age for their education.
  • His labours led to conversions, though it is impossible to say how many. However, those who confessed Christ, had cause to be thankful for his preaching, Bible classes, his hymns and tracts, as well as his one-to-one conversations with them.

For those committed to Christian Missions there will be the discovery in India: where the Master has sent me of a fascinating, perhaps alien past, that proves both spiritually uplifting and challenging. It may even provoke thought about the prosecution of present-day missionary endeavour. What can the church today learn from Ullmann and his colleagues with their ‘service for life’ commitment? Does the way they organised missionary work on a denominational basis, working according to a specified polity, have relevance today, and how would this work out? Should the church seek to increase the funds centrally collected to support its missionaries so that there is less pressure on missionaries having to garner their own financial support? Whilst not all in the past is relevant today, much is.

– David Palmer

David’s biography is available at $30 postage paid (Australia). Contact him by email gunn.palmer@gmail.com or phone 03 9521 6024.