Rev. Joseph Knight – Founder Of St. John’s College.
REV. JOSEPH KNIGHT – FOUNDER OF ST. JOHN’S COLLEGE.
The Rev. Joseph Knight left England with the first party of Missionaries of the CMS for Ceylon in December 1817. On the arrival of the party in Colombo via Cape of Good Hope Rev Knight was assigned Jaffna to set up his missionary work. Of the others in the party Rev. Lambric was assigned Colombo, Rev. Mayor to Galle and Rev. Ward sent to Mannar and Calpetyn. Rev. Knight arrived in Jaffna in July 1818 and moved to Nellore in April. The first task he undertook was to study Tamil. As a missionary, he was of the view, that the conversion of Tamils in Jaffna to Christianity was best accomplished in the language of the people, whom he wished to target for conversion.
At this time, Jaffna was in the throes of a bad epidemic of Cholera and the havoc and ravage it left in its trail made it not a convenient time to embark on conversion. He therefore set his heart to the study of Tamil in earnest during this period until some semblance of normalcy returned. By 1820 he was quite confident of conversing and giving Divine Service in Tamil. To attract people to his Sunday Services he visited people in their homes as a means of increasing the congregation. His keen scholarship and free intercourse with the people soon made him a Tamil Scholar. In later years, he was the driving force to publish an English-Tamil Dictionary. In the preface to Winslow’s Comprehensive Tamil and English Dictionary published in Madras in 1862 it states``….it was commenced….by Rev.J.Knight, Church Missionary at Jaffna. The plan embraced not only a Tamil-English Lexicon of the Common and Poetic dialects, but on a smaller scale an English- Tamil Dictionary, and one of Tamil Synonyms. Mr. Knight who was an accurate Tamil Scholar, laboured diligently….. in collecting materials for these publications.”(Page V11). It is therefore noteworthy that the founder of St. John’s, in addition to starting an educational institution also contributed in no small measure for the study and enhancement of the Tamil language.
Rev. Joseph Bailey, his wife and sister soon joined Rev. Knight. The team set about printing and distributing religious tracts at bazaars, fairs and other places where people congregated or assembled. Tracts were read and explained. These tracts were extracts from the scriptures and the target groups were the Hindus and Catholics. Some of their encounters were not without incidents. In April 1822, a Catholic Passion play was in progress on a land adjoining the Chundikuli Church. Rev. Knight with the Assistant Surgeon Alexander McQueen and Lt. Richard Price went there to witness the Passion Play wearing hats. On arrival, they were asked to remove their hats. They replied they would do so when they entered the Church. The crowd got restive and set upon them forcing Rev. Knight and the other two to flee for dear life. A military party had to be dispatched to restore order. Consequently, a case was filed but the accused were all acquitted.
Soon Rev Bailey and wife had to move out of Jaffna to Cotta due to Mrs. Bailey’s failing health. Rev Knight had to carry on with his work, and it was about this time in 1823 that the Rev Knight obtained from Government an Old Dutch Church in Nellore with some land appurtenant to it for his school. Here, he started the Seminary and boarding house, which was the embryo that in later years developed into St. John’s College. The Church was 100 feet in length and 36 feet in breadth. Of this building 42 feet was taken from one end for a dwelling house for Rev Knight.
Rev. Knight found at this time, that his being a bachelor was an impediment to his reaching out to girls and mothers in the conservative Jaffna setting. In the same year (1823) he married the widow of Rev. James Richards of the American Mission. It should be noted that the American Missionaries too were about this time engaged in Missionary work in the Peninsula. Unfortunately for Rev Knight, this marriage did not last long and Mrs. Knight died the following year. He married a second time, also to a widow, of an American Missionary by the name of Mrs. E.S.Nichols who was a sister of Rev Dr. Poor, but she too died in 1838.
By the year 1825, Rev William Adley and wife joined Rev. Knight as replacements for Rev. & Mrs. Bailey. By 1828 and 1829 the Boys school was up and going but the Girls school was lagging behind. Even by 1831, efforts to induce schoolmasters to bring their wives and sisters to church were not yielding results. The conservative outlook in Jaffna especially regards girls and women were standing in the way.
In 1829, a native convert by the name of Samuel died of snakebite. But in his dying hours his words in praise of the Lord Christ and his peaceful death was the talk of the town. His peaceful death and faith attracted the attention and interest of the people. Shortly afterwards his wife and others near and dear to him received Baptism.
After 22 years of dedicated service as a missionary and after founding a school that would, in the course of time, become one of the leading educational institutions, not only in Jaffna, but indeed in the whole island – Rev Knight died on 11th.October, 1840. He was buried in the CMS churchyard, Cotta. It should be noted that on his return voyage to Jaffna from England before his death, his ship was wrecked off the coast of Cape of Good Hope in 1838. It is believed he contracted an affliction of the lungs, of which he died shortly after his return to Colombo. This explains why he was buried in Cotta and not in his beloved Jaffna.