Letters of John Wilson (1804-1875), Missionary and Orientalist

Scope and Content

The material is composed of: letter from Wilson at Harewood Glen, Selkirk, to 'My dear Smith' prior to his return to India after his second visit to Scotland; and, letter from Wilson at Cliff, Malabar Hill, Bombay, to 'My dear Sir' the Librarian at the Indian Offices, introducing him to his son Andrew Wilson prior to his 'journeyings in the Himalaya Range, Kashmir, and other countries on our India Border'.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Wilson was born in Lauder, Berwickshire, on 11 December 1804. He was educated locally before studying for the ministry at Edinburgh University. While there he founded the 'Edinburgh Association of Theological Students in Aid of the Diffusion of the Gospel' and he offered himself as a missionary to the Scottish Missionary Society. To prepare himself for a life in India as a missionary he studied anatomy, surgery and the 'practice of physic' at Edinburgh University, 1827-1828. In 1828 he was licensed by the Presbytery of Lauder and he was ordained as a missionary the same year. In 1829 he arrived in Bombay (now Mumbai) and in 1830 founded the Oriental Christian spectator. In 1831 he formed a church on Presbyterian principles. Schools too were set up. In the 1830s he travelled more widely in India seeking to spread his mission. From the very beginning he acquainted himself with Marati, Gujarati, Hindi, and also used Hebrew, Portuguese, Farsi, Arabic and Sanskrit. In 1836 he was elected a Member of the Royal Asiatic Society, and he was the first to partially decipher the rock inscriptions at Asoka. His work The Parsi religion unfolded, refuted, and contrasted with Christianity (1843) brought his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1845. Earlier, in 1843, illness brought him back to Scotland via Egypt, Syria and Palestine, and he returned to India in 1847. In 1848 he was made President of the Cave Temple Commission, appointed to examine and record the antiquities connected with the cave temples of India. In 1849 he toured the Sind. In 1857, when the University of Bombay was constituted, Wilson was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts. A tour in Rajputana was made in 1860 and in 1870 he returned for a second visit to Scotland. While there he was made Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church. He returned to India in 1872. Other published works by Wilson include Lands of the Bible visited and described (1847), A memoir on the cave temples and monasteries, and other Buddhist, Brahmanical, and Jaina remains of western India reprinted (1850) from the Journal of the Bombay Asiatic Society, History of the suppression of infanticide in western India (1855), and India three thousand years ago (1858). John Wilson died in Mumbai on 1 December 1875.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol. 21. Whichcord-Zuylestein. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes: correspondence and papers, 1826-1875, National Library of Scotland, Manuscript Collections, MSS 8955-56.