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Hallo again to all.

Mr Williams? Are you there?We'll skip the usual pleasantries, and tell you right away that there is no Sanskrit translation of the Book of Common Prayer.

We've been waiting a very long time to tell you this, though we would have been just as happy to write There is a Sanskrit translation of the Book of Common Prayer! or even There will soon be a Sanskrit translation of the Book of Common Prayer. We have no strong position on whether there ought to be a Sanskrit translation of the Book of Common Prayer. But having read in our undergraduate days that there was one, we set our minds to finding a copy. If you have ever gone down the rabbit hole of an epic bibliographic quest before, you'll understand our dogged determination to find something once we have a hint that it's there to be found. There were good indications at regular enough intervals to encourage our hopes of success.

Our quest began in a venerable tome called The Book of Common Prayer among the Nations of the World, compiled by an indefatigable linguist named William Muss-Arnolt and published in the fateful year of 1914.* Deep in this very important book's section on Anglican liturgical texts in 'the Lesser Indo-Aryan Languages,' we long ago flagged the following paragraph:

"The Brahman's Prayer Book," in Sanskrit and English, was published at the Riwarri Mission Press for its translator, the Rev. Thomas Williams. First edition, 1894; second in 1897. The translator was educated at Saint Augustine’s College, Canterbury, and ordered deacon in 1869. He was ordained priest in 1871 at Bombay, and was stationed as S.P.G. missionary at Bombay, Kolhapur, Ahmadnagar, from 1869 until 1882. From 1883 on he was at Riwarri, in the Diocese of Lahore. He died of cholera, in Kashmir, September 30, 1900. Williams was a good Sanskrit scholar, a master of modern Arabic, and translator of tracts into Hindi and Marathi. With his decease the Church lost an amount of Oriental learning and philosophy which other missionaries described as quite unique. A most sympathetic obituary and estimate may be found in the S.P.G. report....

We've chased the Reverend Mr Williams through fin-de-that-siècle missionary annals and college alumni records, and found that he was in fact a remarkable man whose very considerable linguistic talents were justly considered ornaments of the church in his time. One eulogist noted that he could

not attempt now to estimate the extent of our loss. It is in many ways irreparable. We may get another man as devoted, but it is certain that we shall never get in his place a man of such vast learning, capable of meeting both Hindus and [Muslims].

One of the great pleasures of our bibliographic quest was the chance to learn about this fine specimen of the scholarly class that gave inspiration to the phrase Clericus anglicanus stupor mundi.** Hoping to appreciate afresh the fruit of his labour, and perhaps even to make it available online for today's readers for reading, marking, and learning, we set to work. We searched online databases. We corresponded with librarians in India, Germany, the US, and the UK. We asked friends to search the archives of missionary societies. We wrote to antiquarian booksellers on both sides of the Atlantic and the Bay of Bengal. We harrassed long-suffering interlibrary loan coordinators at several academic institutions. As decades changed, and centuries turned, we came up empty.

This week our search ended when a kind English librarian sent us, at long last, a PDF scan of The Brahman's Prayer Book. We downloaded and double-clicked in a spirit of nearly-satiated curiosity.

I am most certainly not the Book of Common PrayerIt was indeed a liturgical text in Sanskrit and English, but it had nothing to do with the religion of Mattins, Evensong, and the Great Litany. Thomas Williams had translated the common prayer service of priestly Hindu Brahmins into English, not the BCP into Sanskrit. The man hitherto believed to be an Anglican liturgist was in fact a pioneering scholar of comparative religions, bringing the beliefs of his host-society into his own language for its readers.

Muss-Arnolt—and Anglican liturgical bibliographers since his time who relied uncritically on his work—looked at the title and its author, and never bothered to look inside the book itself. So a misunderstanding became a fact, and so many copies of BCP bibliographies are in circulation that we suppose this is almost impossible to undo.

Cui bono, at the end of the day? Well, we've reached what we think is the end of a search. We've sketched out what we think will be a new paragraph in the posthumous reputation of a significant nineteenth-century Anglican scholar. We've come to a new appreciation of the fuzziness and asymptotic quality of the bibliographic profession. We've carved out a translation project for the energies of a Sanskrit scholar with Anglican interests. And we hope we've brought into greater clarity what Anglicanism has been and hasn't been, is and isn't, however fine a point we've chased down and sharpened.

This is how history works, and how traditions are defined—by assertion and correction, by quest and discovery. It's hard slogging, and it's among the most satisfying things we know how to do. As we close a chapter on one quest and move on with fresh focus to a host of others, we hope you'll share with us in this ongoing honing of Anglican who, what, where, when, why, how, and if.

See you next week. Until then, it's time for a glass of sherry—or tea, if you wish—raised before sipping on high in honour of Mr Williams, whose truth is found at last.

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Last updated: 5 September 2010

* WM-A (by now an old friend we are happy to know by his initials) was a librarian at the Boston Public Library, and the author of learned treatises on the Names of the Assyro-Babylonian Months and Their Regents (1892); On Semitic Words in Greek and Latin (1893); and A Concise Dictionary of the Assyrian Languages (1905).

** 'An English cleric, wonder of the world'.

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