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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Beg, Wazir (1827–1885)

by E. C. B. MacLaurin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Wazir Beg (1827?-1885), Semitic scholar, Presbyterian minister and controversialist, was born at Poona, India, in the Bombay presidency into a Muslim family. He became a secret believer in Christianity in 1842, but was unable to acknowledge his faith because of the distress it would cause his family. However, he declined the headmastership of the Dhanwar government school because he would not teach in the guise of a Muslim. A Scottish missionary family befriended him, and in September 1846 he was baptized in spite of violent opposition which even threatened his life, and became a teacher in the mission school at Poona. His vernacular languages were Hindustani and Persian. His conversion convinced him that he was called to the work of a missionary, and to prepare himself he learnt Arabic and Turkish as well as English which he spoke almost without an accent. He attended a class in Poona where he acquired some Latin and Greek.

In 1853 Beg finished his theological studies and was licensed. Next year he went to Scotland where he decided to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but his name does not appear in that university's records. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1861 at London and to have gained medical qualifications from Erlangen, Germany. He arrived in Melbourne as a ship's surgeon, was accepted by the local Presbyterians and ordained at Port Albert in 1864; since Victoria had no facilities for Semitic scholarship he accepted a call to the Chalmers' Free Presbyterian Church, Cleveland Paddock, Redfern, and in 1865 went to Sydney. The University of Sydney had just established a readership in Oriental Languages and Literature, with Arabic as the main language. In December 1866 Beg was appointed to the position. This was a notable development: as the first Oriental Studies Department founded in an Australian university it firmly established the temporal priority of Sydney in all studies dealing with eastern scholarship, notably Semitic studies. The government also appointed Beg Oriental interpreter, but because of a dearth of students the readership was short lived. His remarkable scholarship was recognized in 1864 by an honorary LL.D. from the Baptist College, Greenville, North Carolina.

Apart from a short ministry in 1867 at the Ipswich Presbyterian Church in Queensland, Beg remained in charge of Chalmers' Church until he resigned in 1882. He was a strong advocate of Presbyterian union and served on various church committees; his Manual of Presbyterian Principles was published in Sydney in 1870. He was also very active in the struggle to prevent public funds being spent on denominational schools. A keen Freemason, he became grand chaplain in New South Wales and for a time was editor and proprietor of the Freemason. He was also an energetic member of the Loyal Orange Lodge and editor of the Orangeman. As a bitter critic of Roman Catholicism he published in Sydney several pamphlets attacking Archbishop Roger Vaughan. In his controversies Beg also attacked Puseyism, ritualism, and spiritualism. Long a sufferer from Bright's disease he died, aged 58, at his home in Woolloomooloo on 4 January 1885 and was buried in the Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife Margaret Robertson, née Smith, whom he had married at Launceston on 12 March 1872, and by a son, a daughter and three stepchildren.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Cameron, Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales (Syd, 1905)
  • C. A. White, The Challenge of the Years: A History of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in the State of New South Wales (Syd, 1951)
  • Presbyterian and Australian Witness, 14 July 1883
  • Dr Steel, 'The Late Rev. Dr. Wazir Beg', Presbyterian and Australian Witness, 10 Jan 1885, p 4
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 17 Jan 1875
  • Chalmers' Church records (Presbyterian Library, Assembly Hall, Sydney)
  • information from the Presbyterian Historical Society of New South Wales.

Citation details

E. C. B. MacLaurin, 'Beg, Wazir (1827–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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