Presbyterians of the Past

John H. Morrison, 1806-1881

John Hunter was born on June 29, 1806 to James and Eleanor (Thompson) Morrison in Wallkill Township, Orange County, New York. His early studies were completed in Bloomfield Academy, New Jersey. At twenty-two years of age he professed his faith in Christ in the Presbyterian Church on Cedar Street in New York (currently, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian) during the ministry of Cyrus Mason. It was two more years before John entered the College of New Jersey (Princeton) where he graduated with the class of 1834, then he continued preparation for the ministry across town in Princeton Seminary receiving his certificate in 1837. The Princeton Seminary Board reported to the Old School General Assembly in 1838 that Morrison’s class included twenty-four graduates which was the largest class to date to complete the entire program of study. The Presbytery of New York, Old School, licensed Morrison on September 12, 1837; the next day he married Anna Maria Ward, the daughter of E. D. Ward, M.D., in Bloomfield. Just a few weeks after he was licensed, he was ordained on the first day of October. The Morrisons and others about to leave for foreign service met for a public commissioning service in Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, where they were charged and encouraged by Dr. William Wirt Phillips of First Church, New York, and Dr. Henry Rowan Wilson.

On Saturday, October 14, the Morrisons left Philadelphia on a steamboat headed for Newcastle, Delaware, where they were to set sail for India once the stormy weather cleared. The next day they were on board the Edward which was under the command of Capt. J. H. Cheyney. It was the Sabbath so Rev. Morrison held a service on the deck with the passengers and crew in attendance as he preached from Romans 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” Anna Maria described their accommodations on the sailing ship.

The stateroom admits one chair, and a small table, which answers the purpose also of a wash-stand, having a bowl fastened to it. Our berths are large, and by far more comfortable than I supposed they would be. And if we could have a little more air, we should sleep charmingly.

However, when the ship sailed for India on Monday, October 16, what was hoped to be a charming trip ended up a horrendous journey for Anna Maria. The one-hundred-seventy-day voyage to Calcutta included reoccurring extended bouts with sea sickness—one lasting two weeks, to which was added a mysterious malady with symptoms that included a splitting headache and convulsions. The unidentified disease was diagnosed by one passenger with a smattering of medical knowledge as “congestion of the liver.” Late in the voyage, Anna Maria developed bowel pain to add to her discomfort. When the Edward arrived in Calcutta on April 6, 1838, things were looking better because they were in the country where they would serve the Lord, but despite the peace of port, Anna Maria’s headaches continued to bother her. Whether it was a Calcutta physician or local remedy, the treatment chosen to help her involved the application of leaches to her head in conjunction with ice. Added to the Morrisons’ difficulties was the news that cholera was raging in Calcutta. The sequence of events becomes unclear at this point, but it appears the Morrisons remained on the Edward as they awaited transport to Allahabad, which is nearly 500 miles northwest of Calcutta. For Anna Maria, new symptoms developed indicative of cholera and she died of the horrid disease on April 27, 1838. So, John and Anna Maria had been married about seven months, on the move nearly the whole time, and they did not reach their field of ministry in Allahabad together. To say the least, this is a horribly sad story but not an uncommon one for western missionaries working in Asia.

Unfortunately, information regarding the response of John Hunter Morrison to Anna Maria’s death is not available, but it is clear that he went about his missionary ministry. He came to be known among the missionaries in India as “The Lion of the Punjab,” for his toughness in difficult times and for his pointed and faithful preaching of the Bible. However, though tough, he was congenial, well loved, and greatly respected during his mission work. It took Rev. Morrison some time before he considered remarriage, but on February 20, 1839, he married Isabella Hay of Scotland at Allahabad. Presumably, they had met in the missionary community. But after only four years, she died in Calcutta on February 14, 1843. On June 1, 1846, while Rev. Morrison was visiting the United States he married Anna Williams of England in Louisville, Kentucky.

One event in the history of India that was particularly difficult for the Morrisons and the work of missionaries occurred in May 1857 when some sepoys—Indian soldiers serving under British military command—shot their officers in Meerut in reaction to the British imprisoning some sepoys because they disobeyed orders regarding the use of their Enfield rifles. The sepoys marched to Delhi where they teamed with others in the hopes of restoring the Mughal emperor, Bhādur Shah II. The revolt spread, the British responded by deploying reinforcements from other colonies, but peace was not achieved until July 9, 1858. As was seen in the article on Presbyterians of the Past about John and Katherine Peale in China, when nationals oppose being ruled or influenced by foreign countries Christian missionaries from those countries sometimes suffer persecution, even death. In the case of the Presbyterian missionary work in northern India, four missionary couples were killed along with two children. Fortunately for John H. Morrison, he and Anna were spared, but their mission station and several others in the region were either partially or completely destroyed. John and Anna had enjoyed nearly fifteen years of married life when she became Rev. Morrison’s third wife to pass away, December 20, 1860, at Cawnpore. The cause of her death was small pox. Once again, he had to pick up the pieces of his life and continue ministering to the Indian people.

In 1863 Rev. Morrison returned to the United States for a visit. He was elected moderator of the General Assembly for its meeting in Peoria, Illinois. He was a member of the Presbytery of Lodiana, one of three presbyteries of the Synod of Northern India. Normally a moderator is present to deliver a sermon to the assembly the year following the one in which he hefted the gavel, but in the case of Moderator Morrison he would likely be back in India, so as he adjourned the 1863 assembly he made a few closing comments of appreciation.

I came here deeply depressed and discouraged with the prospects of the work to which my life has been devoted, but you have greatly cheered and encouraged me. You have testified your interest in that work by calling me, from among many older and better qualified, to preside over your deliberations. … You have borne with my inexperience and defects, and carried me through the difficult and delicate duties of this office. For this I thank you, both in my own name and in that of my brethren in the missionary work. You have still further cheered and encouraged me by the hearty response you have given to the appeal made to you in behalf of our broken-down missions. Now, dear brethren, bear in mind all this, and reflect with what a crushing weight of disappointment will the news fall upon us, if we hear that you have gone home to forget all this, and do nothing more to help us than has been done heretofore. Allow me to beg that you will keep fresh in your memories the sweet hours we have spent together, the solemn pledges we have mutually given to do our respective parts in the great work of saving a lost world. Go, dear brethren, tell your Presbyteries and your flocks what you have pledged to God and his cause. Tell them of the nature of our work, and how we are struggling to bear the heat and burden of the day. Endeavour to excite their interest on behalf of their missionaries, in behalf of a dying world and a bleeding Savior. Endeavour to get them to inform themselves on all these subjects, that they too may work and pray with you and us.

It appears that the great loss of property occurring as a result of the sepoy revolt of 1857-1858 had severely crippled the work of Morrison and the other missionaries and associates in India. However, an event that occurred during Morrison’s visit to the United States which he would have found encouraging was Washington College honoring him with a Doctor of Divinity.

Ten years after the death of Anna, John married his fourth wife in 1870, Elizabeth Amalie Reuther, who was the daughter of German missionary Rev. Charles Frederick Reuther of the Church of England Missionary Society. Dr. Morrison continued his ministry in the several churches of India until he, like his first wife, died of Asiatic cholera, September 16, 1881, at Dehradun. The cultural, climactic, dietary, and religious transition from the United States to northern India was then, as it is today, dramatic, yet despite the cost to his household, Dr. Morrison continued his ministry. He worked not only in Allahabad but other cities including Agra, Sabathu, Simla, Ambala, Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Dehradun. Elizabeth survived John along with his five sons and three daughters. Two of the sons, Rev. W. J. P. Morrison and Rev. Robert Morrison, as well as two daughters served in overseas missions. His publications include: The Love of God, A Sermon, 1840; a sermon on infant baptism published in Allahabad in 1847; On Prayer for the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit, date unknown; and Presbyterian Union: Being a Compilation of the Measures that have been Adopted for Promoting the Organization of the Presbyterian Church for all India, 1873.


Sources—The information about Anna Maria (Ward) Morrison is from the diary and correspondence about her voyage to India as found in Memoir of Mrs. Anna Maria Morrison, of the North India Mission, compiled and edited by E. J. Richards and published in New York by M. W. Dodd, 1843. Information about the sepoy revolt and the Old School missions in India was provided by Secretary John Leighton Wilson of the Board of Foreign Missions in The Great Revolt in India: Its Effects Upon the Missions of the Presbyterian Board, New York, 1857. Thank you to Ken Henke, Princeton Seminary Special Collections for information regarding Morrison and for the scan of his portrait from the Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, September 1905. Other information was gathered from biographical catalogs, missionary publications, and Nevin’s Encyclopedia of the Presbyterian Church. The view of the port of Calcutta is from Cassells Illustrated History of India, Vol. 2, by James Grant, 1891.

Notes—The application of ice to Anna Maria Morrison’s head to relieve her pain may have been a common practice in the day because Thomas Smyth, 1808-1873, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, often put his throbbing head in a bucket of ice water for relief. It is not known if Dr. Morrison participated in the translation of the Westminster Confession into Hindustani, but it seems highly likely that he did since it was published in 1842.

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