In 1920, Silver Bay hosted one of its most unusual speakers, an Indian sádhu, a holy man, known as Sádhu Sundar Singh.
Born into a Sikh family in 1889, he embraced Christianity after a religious vision in 1904, and began talking to whomever would listen about the love of Jesus Christ. He was described as an evangelical missionary, an ecstatic visionary, and an ascetic pilgrim. It was said that his eyes showed deep inner peace and drew people to him, especially children, and even animals. When Jesus was mentioned, “his whole face lit up with a joyful radiance.” On the other hand, he was stoned and pelted with leeches by non-believers, and always at the mercy of the elements and the poverty he chose.
Along his rugged way, Sádhu Sundar Singh met Samuel Evans Stokes, an American missionary seeking to live like St. Francis of Assisi; they became friends and worked together in an Indian leper colony and then in a plague hospital in Lahore. In 1909, friends persuaded Singh to attend an Anglican seminary in Lahore. He became and remained an Anglican all his life, but he did not confine his preaching to any one denomination.
In 1920, Singh was able to realize a long-held dream of going to England, where he spoke to packed churches of every denomination, and met privately with Anglican bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury. From England, financed by supporters, he continued on to America.
In June, after speaking in cities all over the eastern U.S., he was invited to the Student Conference at Silver Bay, where 800 young men from about 100 colleges were gathering for fellowship and a deeper understanding of the personal and social meanings of Christianity.
The Sádhu spent four days at Silver Bay, preaching and talking, and several writers recorded their impressions of his time there.
Alden Hyde Clark wrote: “In his turban and his saffron robe, his feet clad in Indian sandals, with his spare erect figure and his face filled with divine light, he almost seems to be an incarnation of the Master Himself. Indeed, few men in all Christian history have so literally followed in the footsteps of our Master as Sundar Singh has done. I saw him at Silver Bay with American college students standing about eagerly asking him questions which he was answering out of the richness of his Christian experience.”
Belle Marvel Brain, a prolific writer on missionary work, wrote at length about the Sádhu’s visit:
“Nowhere did his likeness to Christ show forth more vividly than at the Student Conference at Silver Bay on Lake George in June 1920. It was especially notable at a vesper service held one evening on the stone steps, a hallowed spot dear to many.
“As he stood facing his audience, clad in his saffron robe, the scars of the leeches on his arms and the look of God on his face, the lake back of him and the mountains beyond lighted by the last rays of the setting sun, it was hard to realize that the lake was not Galilee, the time not A.D. 33, and the striking figure not that of the Lord Jesus.
“When he spoke the spell was not broken, for his teaching was in simple stories rich in spiritual truth such as the Lord himself might have used… The burden of one address was the danger of being near the Kingdom but not in it. This was emphasized by the parable of The Wise and Foolish Virgins and his own parable of The Hunter’s Lodge. The hunter was pursued by a tiger but had no fear because there was a hut near by to which he thought he had the key. On reaching it, however, the key was missing and although there was only the thickness of the door between him and safety, yet he was lost.
“To a little group that talked with him afterwards, he said that so far as he had been able to judge, a great many of the so called Christians of America, though full of good works, are like the hunter: almost saved but lost.”
In Sundar Singh: The Lion-Hearted Warrior (1923), the authors recalled one more incident from the Sádhu’s time at Silver Bay:
“Once when addressing a meeting at Lake George in America, the Sadhu noticed a tiny girl sitting in the front row, who never took her eyes off him for an hour. She watched him, and listened to his voice almost without stirring. When he ended and sat down, the little one turned to the nurse who was with her, and in her clear baby voice (she was only three and a half years old) asked, ‘Is he Jesus?'”
Another writer noted that at that moment, the room was “electrified.” But Sundar Singh was not confused about who he was. He pointed out that the donkey that bore Christ into Jerusalem would have been foolish to think that the palms and flowers were for him.
After Silver Bay, Singh continued westward, preaching the love of Christ as he went, in San Francisco, in Honolulu, in Australia, and then home to India. He is believed to have died while on a pilgrimage to Tibet in 1929. He is survived by his writings and many accounts of his life.
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“Sundar Singh: India’s Christian Sadhu” by Belle Marvel Brain, The Missionary Review of the World, 1922
India on the March by Alden Hyde Clark, 1922
Sundar Singh: The Lion-Hearted Warrior by E. Sanders and the Rev. Ethelred Judah, 1923
Sádhu Sundar Singh, Called of God by Rebecca Jane Parker, 1927