The South Asian Scene
With Special Reference To India
Rev. Richard Howell
Christianity is an Asian religion. In India it is two millennium old, and continues to remain an active presence in society and in the lives of millions today. Tradition asserts that Christianity reached India by AD 52 through the apostle St. Thomas who landed at the West Coast port of Cranganore, not very far from the Cochin harbor. From Ad 52 to AD 72, St Thomas is believed to have spent his life in India, preaching the gospel of Christ. His main area of work was in Malabar, where he founded seven churches. It is also believed that St Thomas visited practically all parts of India and there is some evidence of his visit to the court of Gondophernes, the Indo-Parthian King of Taxila. Christianity having originated in Asia then spread East and West, North and South by its adherents. The Christian faith has become global religion. Christianity is culturally translatable as is demonstrated in the South Asian and Indian Churches and missions of indigenous origins.
Plurality of living religions and ideologies is a given reality in the Indian sub-continent. In such a context the Church of Jesus Christ is committed to its God given ministry of reconciliation and blessing all communities in the totality of their living experiences. In this article I have endeavored to give a very brief account of Christian missions in India, highlighting the diversity of issues Christian missions had to encounter and respond. Thereby learning some lessons for our continued work of reconciliation and blessing South Asia with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The missionaries, Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau who were the result of Pietist revival in Germany, landed in a small Danish settlement called Tranquebar in South India on July 9, 1706. The first copies of the New Testament came out of the little mission press in Tranquebar in the 1714, just eight years after the first two missionaries landed.
Christian Friedrich Schwartz, a product of Halle, the Pietist University, arrived in India in 1750 and traveled extensively. It was Schwartz and his Indian fellow-worker, Sathianathan who ventured out to the southern most part of India, Tirunelvelly. The first group movement from the Nadara to the Protestant Church in Tirunelvelly started from a person named Sundaranandam, who was baptized in Thanjavur by J.Casper Kohlhoff around 1795. He took the name David Sundaranadanm and was native of Kalangudi. In the first half of the 19th Century whole villages became Christian. The first Indian Bishop of the Anglican Church V.S. Azariah was from Tirunelvelly.
These pioneer missionaries were of German origin, Lutheran by confession and sponsored by a pious Danish King and supported by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) which was an English organization. A wonderful example of partnership for the sake of the gospel and a visible demonstration of the unity in the body of Christ, which indeed has always been and remains the way forward for the work of the gospel in South Asia.
The next great missionary pioneer who also brought an impetus for social reform in India came through the English Baptist William Carey who started work in a Danish settlement. The British East India Company that governed for the crown opposed any missionary work being done in British territory. As a consequence, Carey was forced to leave Calcutta, where he had landed on 11th November 1793, and to seek sanctuary of the Danish governor of Serampore. In 1813 an act of parliament required the East India Company to let down its barriers to Christian missions.
In every case the pioneering task was the same: Laborious study of the language, painstaking translation of the Christian scriptures, careful research of the sacred literature of the people to whom the gospel was preached and the beginning of little congregation of the newly baptized. The characteristic stages in the evolution from the mission to the Church were the following. A teacher catechist to be succeeded in time by an ordained pastor. Regular instruction, leading to membership through receiving the Holy Communion. Training in stewardship leading toward self-support and self-government and Christian witness with a view to self-propagation.
The mission school education aimed at raising an indigenous Church and training its leadership. It worked for the christianizing of India by means of direct influence on the influential classes and inculcation of Christian values and diffusion of Christian knowledge throughout the nation at large. The mission education also worked among the upper classes, which included English medium education, cultural imperialism, and a role as ally to Government in supplying English speakers for the civil service.
Emancipation of women was one important agenda of the Christian missions. When missionaries first came to Tirunvelvely and started girls schools the people said, "dear me! They will teach the cows next' and one Hindu woman said' "You might as well teach monkeys as women'. The wives of missionaries taught the women needlework. Amy Carmichael, a Zenana missionary at Dohnavur from 1900, played a great role in rescuing girls dedicated to become devadasis. Women issues must be a priority item to be addressed in South Asian societies.
The Cambridge Mission to Delhi (CMD), also known as the Cambridge Brotherhood, consisted chiefly of educational missionaries. At the center of their work was the St Stephen School, a secondary school for boys with English as the medium of instruction, and, as time went by, St Stephen's College, an English medium higher education college for young men. B.F. Westcott, who was a life long supporter of the mission had a dream that St Stephen's college would be `an Alexandria on the banks of the Jamuna', by which he implied a center of education which would contextualise Christianity into the Hindu worldview, in the same way that Clement and Origen had done into Greek thought. Westcott was an advocate of `fulfillment theology' which held that it was possible and necessary to re-express that Christian faith in terms of Indian culture and to see the educational process as one that combined the best of East and West and not one that imposed Western cultural patterns on India.
Through the educational programs, translation work, medical work, itinerate preaching and pastoral commitment the Church got connected with the context. As a result the Church had to contest the ground with the powerful political and social forces that were garnished against them.
The missionaries conducted a dual mission, going among both the poor, oppressed and the outcastes, and also amongst the caste Hindus. However, they found the former responsive to the Gospel while the latter remained critical of Christianity. The American United Presbyterian Mission started its work in Sialkot on 8 August 1855 through Rev. Andrew Gordon. On 25 October 1857 two people were baptised, one was a high caste Hindu and another an elderly Dalit. The mission concentrated on working among high caste Hindus and Muslims. In the first 19 years of work only 19 people decided to follow Christ. In November 17,1872, Rev.J.S.Barr baptised Nattu who was a high caste and son of a Lambardar (village head). The missionaries had high expectations from him hoping he would succeed his father in becoming the next village head, but Nattu lost his right to become the village head. The missionaries considered him a `weak brother'. But this is not so, he became instrumental in a person to Christ who later became one of the main person responsible for the present Church in Punjab state of North India. This man's name was Ditt. He was from a small village named Shahabdike, about thirty miles from Sialkot (now in Pakistan). In 1873 Nattu took Ditt, a black, lame, illiterate and short statured, to Rev. S. Martin in Sialkot for baptism. That was the beginning of a group movement among Dalits in Punjab. Today there are about 250,000 Christians in Punjab who have come from Dalit background.
The Protestant missionary work began in Maharashtra in 1813, under the leadership of Gordan Hall. Initially most missionary's societies began work among Brahmins of Maharashtra. The rationale behind this was that if Brahmins would follow Christ, then other castes would follow suit. The Brahmins remained agonistic to the gospel except for a few converts. Missionaries also came across various receptive peoples. These were not caste people but the outcastes; the Mahars and the Mangs.
The Christian mission contributed to the awakening of the depressed classes' consciousness, which resulted in their socio-economic transformation. The poor and the oppressed responded to the gospel, for it promised them self worth and dignity. The message that was communicated to them from the Scripture was one of awakening and confidence. Sermons were based on texts such as: "the night is far spent and the day is at hand". Other texts included, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest" (Mat: 11:28). " There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 4:27).
The identity crisis and the aspirations for new identity were obvious when the Dalits fully or partially revealed their motives at the time of their conversion. There is no question that the Dalits were influenced by a variety of reasons such as spiritual, material, psychological and social well being. Awakening of consciousness was the singular reason behind the social transformation of the Dalits. Their conversion to Christ enlarged their thinking, sharpened their minds and gave them self-respect. The transforming gospel of Christ is indeed good news for the poor and the oppressed. A Biblical vision of society was and must be presented as the answer to the desperate communal tensions, economic disparity and human freedoms, which continue to ravage the nation.
Gossner Mission Society, Berlin, was requested to send missionaries to Burma. Father Johannes Evangelista Gossner was the founder of this society. He prayed over the matter, and selected four young men, Emile Schatz, Fredrick Batsch, august Brand, and Theodore Janke, and sent them to go to Burma. They arrived in Calcutta, and were walking through the streets. They met Adivasis of Chotanagpur working on the streets of Calcutta had compassion for them, and decided to go Chotanagpur and work among them. So they left Calcutta and arrived in Ranchi on 2nd of November 1845.
Early in 1850, four Orans, Domain Navin Pahan of Hethakotta, Kesho and Bandhu from the village Chitakuni, and Ghuran of Karanda village, came and met the missionaries. They were baptised on 9 June 1850. Zamindars (land Lords), Jagirdars, and non-tribals began to persecute these new Christians. The pressure and pain were so great that three of the first converts were forced to give up their faith. But Navin Doman Pahan stood the test of time. He organised a congregation in his village, started a school, and was appointed an elder of the congregation. Thus Navin Doman became the early father of faith for the Christians in Jharkhand.
One of the theological and theoretical reasons for the Christianity being accepted by the Adivasis is much deeper. The Adivasis' worldview is that there is an organic relatedness of nature, spirit and God. This philosophy of relatedness of all things comes very close to God relating himself with human beings by creation and redemption, and communities are similar to the Old Testament laws governing society in Jewish history. This facilitated the acceptability of the Christian faith among the Adivasi communities in Chottanagpur.
There is a common knowledge and feeling that Christians are liberated from the atrocities of the landlords and other exploiters and oppressors. They are now bold enough to face these forces and try to keep themselves safe and free from the age old pain and social suffering. Over and above this liberative experience, they have come to know that they belong to the fellowship of Believers all over the world. They are not alone in a corner of India. This gives them courage and confidence to struggle in life.
The tribal languages have been given a written form. The fact that their languages can also convey a message of God in Jesus Christ and can become bearer of the gospel now' has given the Adivasi Christians a sense of equality with other peoples and languages in India and the world.
The Khasis of Meghalaya were the first among North-east India to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ. Being a matrilineal society, the Khasis take their descend from their mother. In 1813, Rev.K.C. Pal of the British Baptists from the Serampore Mission stayed for a few months in Pandua, a marketing centre of the Cherrapunji Syiemship. This was their first contact with the Khasis. From it came the decision of William Carey to translate the Bible into Khasi. Bengali script and Shella dialect were chosen by the Serampore mission, since those who would make use of it appeared to be the War Shella business people. Though imperfect in some respect, the 500 copies that were printed in 1824 marked a momentous beginning and historic watershed.
It was a shipwreck in the Bay of Bengal on the night of January 18,1837, the Calvinistic Methodists Mission to Khasi Hills, that led to the mission venture sustained by the Welsh people. Rev. Jacob Tomlin, and English Baptist missionary and former member of the London Missionary Society along with the an unknown benefactor who met the expenses of the journey of Rev. Thomas Jones and his wife were God's instruments for the Presbyterian mission among the Khasis. Thomas Jones and his wife arrived in Cherranpunji on 2ndof June 1841. Their pioneering work earned for Thomas Jones the nick name "father of Khasi Alphabet". The first decade of hard and pioneering work 91841-1851) showed a total of twenty adherents. However the courageous stand taken by one of the new converts Ka Nabon and the sufferings she had to undergo from her relations is an impressive account in the early history of the Welsh Presbyterian Church. In 1995 the Presbyterian Church numbered 387,357 and the Catholic 270,563. The Presbyterian Church has Church based mission outreach work.
The Garos of Meghalaya in living in Garo Hills. The life of Garo tribe was full of violence and no Indian king ever conquered them. David Scott was British Officer who was entrusted with the responsibility to deal with the problems of Garo raids into the plains under British control in 1816 he took charge of the Garo problems while he was the magistrate of Rangpur. He was convinced that establishing a formal education along with the spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Scott introduced mulberry plants to increase the production of silk, established agriculture farms, introduced potatoes and other vegetables, improved dairy farming and taught useful occupation to the tribal prisoners. Scott died in 1831 and it was only in 1863 that while in Assam, two young people Omed and Ramkhe accepted Christ. When they returned to their native place then the Baptist mission work began in Garo Hills. Christian faith gave an identity to Garos and united them as a tribe. The handful of rice giving, now practised by many Christian women in the North East India, was originated by the wife of one of the early Garo pastors some time in 1887-89.
The Mizo of Mizoram belong to the Mongoloid racial stock. Their language belongs to the Tibetan- Burman group. Most historians believe on the basis of Mizo tradition and folklore, as well as a few historical evidences, and racial and cultural affinities, that the original home of the Mizo was somewhere in China. They migrated to the present Mizoram, one of the states of India in Northeastern part, around AD 1700 through Burma. By the 19th century, Mizo villages , each village being ruled by the chief, assisted by a group of elders, each village being independent and autonomous. The Mizo were completely isolated till the invasion by the British. The Mizo were animistic, primitive in their subsistence with their slash and burn methods of Jhuming. They were oral society, and like most tribals groups, they could trace their ancestors to only a few generations back.
The first missionary to visit Mizoram was William Williams, a Welsh missionary to Khasi, in 1891. J.H. Lorrain and F.W. Savidge came to Mizoram on 11th January 1894. During their four year stay, they reduced the Mizo language to written form, taught a number of Mizo to read and write and translated the Gospels of Luke and John and the Book of Acts into Mizo language. They also prepared a Mizo grammar, a dictionary, a number of small books and a catechism. Before they left in 1897, D. E. Jones of the Calvinistic Methodist Church came to Mizoram, who was soon joined by Edwin Rawlands. The Church they planted, namely the Presbyterian Synod of Mizoram, became the biggest denominational Church in Mizoram.
In 1903, the Baptist Missionary Society, after an agreement was made with the Calvinistic Methodist, sent the former Arthington missionaries, J.H. Lorrain and F.W. Savidge to Southern Mizoram. The church they planted became the second largest denomination in Mizoram. R.A. Lorrain, started work among the Lakher (Mara) sometime after 1910, as missionaries of the Lakher Pioneer Mission, an independent mission agency. These three foreign missions worked in the beautiful mountainous land of Mizoram.
J.H. Lorrain, in his annual report for 1903, wrote that from the start "it will be our aim to make the Lushai (Mizo) church self-supporting and self-propogating". The church in Mizoram today is indeed a living example of a completely indigenous church involved in missions through out India. Their giving for the work of the Bible society of India has been highest for the last number of years when compared with the church in other states of India. The Mizo community is a tremendous example of the transformation brought about by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Mizo Christians actively participate in not only worship of the triune God and monetary contribution, but also in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ among themselves as well as all over India and abroad.
The Nagas of Nagaland comprise of sixteen major tribes, with a population of 1.3 millions. Racially Naga are of Mongoliod stock. The gospel reached Nagaland through Godhula an Assamese convert, and Rev E.W. Clarke. With Clarke's encouragement, Godhula, an Assamese evangelist visited Ao hills for his evangelistic mission in October 1871. The American Baptist missionaries served in Nagaland with much dedication for 83 years. The Church in Nagaland is self-supporting, and self-propagating. Christianity brought a new world-view, culture, science, technology, medicine, schools and literature to the Nagas.
The Churches in Nagaland are alive towards their responsibility of sharing the gospel with others. The Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) in 1960 at Mokokchung, a home Board was established, later it was renamed as Nagaland Missionary Movement. Today it has hundreds of cross-cultural missionaries working in many parts of India. NMM is an indigenous mission. It receives no funds from abroad but is faithfully supported by the contributions of the Nagaland Churches, Associations, local Churches, families and individuals.
MYANMAR is 677,000 sq.km ringed by a horseshoe of high mountains that isolates the country from India, China and Thailand. It population of 46,300,000 comprises of 63.1% Burmese and 19.3% minorities and others. Buddhists are 87.8%. Muslims 3.8% and Christians 6.5% and others. The gospel first preached by Adoniram Judson, the famous American Baptist missionary and those who followed. The isolation of the Church in Myanmar lasted for thirty years. The Church is deeply rooted and has grown stronger in adversity. The growth of the Church has been among the ethnic minorities. The Church in Myanmar is reaching out to its people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
BHUTAN is a small kingdom in the eastern Himalayan mountain with a population of about 700,000 is a strongly Buddhist. The main people group are Drukpa about 60%, Nepali about 30%. And others about 8%. Bhutan was closed to any witness until 1965. There are estimated about 150to 200 Drukpa Christians. Missions are operating leprosy hospitals and involved in health, agriculture and educational programs.
NEPAL is a mountain-ringed Himalayan Hindu Kingdom between China and India with a population of about 21,000,000 people. The indo -Aryan are about 80.6% compromising of about 23 people groups. The Tibeto-Burman are about 18.8% about 54 people groups. And others about 0.6%. The official language is Nepali. Unrest in 1990 brought about extensive liberalisation, multi-party elections. The Church in Nepal has grown in the midst of persecution. The Churches are growing in the new freedom all over the country and most ethnic groups and castes are represented in this movement.
SRILANKA is a large Island 80-km Southeast of India of about 20,000,000 population. It comprises of 74% Sinhalese an Aryan people of largely Buddhist origin and Tamil about 18.2%. Buddhism is the state religion practised by about 70.3% is protected and promoted. Hindus are about 14.3% and Muslims 7.8% Christians are about 7.6%. There is a rising opposition from both the Buddhist and Hindus to Christian work in Sri Lanka. The Church is growing and there is a renewal of spiritual life experienced by many denominations in SriLanka.
MALDIVES is only 298sq.km in area is 600km south west of Srilanka. Islam is the only recognised religion, and the government is committed to greater Islamization. Muslims are about 99.4% Buddhist 0.5% and Christians 0.1% almost entirely Sinhala, Indian and Western. The Maldives is among the least evangelised on earth. There have never been any resident missionaries, and there are no officially recognised Maladivian Christians, as the government uses the full power of the state to discourage evangelism and enforce allegiance to Islam.
PAKISTAN is 880,000 sq.km in area, with about 142,000,000 population comprising of 170 ethnic groups, six major language families and numerous dialects. Pakistan is an Islamic Republic with 96.7% Muslim population. Hindus 1.5% and Christians about 1.7%. The persecution of religious minorities by Muslims has rapidly increased since 1988. Christians who come from a Muslim background are particularly under threat with the implementation of Sharia law. Christian missions have been working in the land since 1833.Presbyterians; Anglicans, Methodist and later Salvation Army missionaries pioneered the work. Some Pakistani believers have started fellowship groups in a number of Middle Eastern Lands, some with an outreach to non-Christians often at a considerable risk.
The population of India has crossed the one billion mark. Forty eight percent of these are women and thirty five percent of Indians are around the age of fifteen. The total number of Christians in India are about 35 millions (some estimate 20 millions), out of which 65% are in the four Southern States (in South India), which covers only 21% of the country. Fourteen percent of the Christians are in North -East India, which covers 6% of the country's territory. In the larger section of our country North India, we have only about 4-5 million Christians, of which 85% come from Dalit background. The large North India, which includes North-West, Northern, Central, Eastern, and Western India, covers 73% of the country of India. Considering the above numbers the strength of Christian presence id found in South and North East of India. There are cross cultural missionary movements, which have originated from the South and carrying on the ministry of reconciliation and blessing India. There are about 50,000 thousand cross cultural gospel workers.
Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) was started in 1951 as the umbrella body for the evangelical Churches, mission agencies, institutions and individuals. One of its major reason of existence is the work of mission, revival and evangelism. In 1977 EFI started India Missions Associations (IMA) as its missions arm. EFI & IMA have promoted missions all over India. IMA is the largest mission body in the world.
The unique contribution of AD 2000 and Beyond Movement has been in he formation of Harvest Networks all over North Indian States. These are indigenous mission movements, which have owned the responsibility for the work of reconciliation and blessing India. North India remains the major area where Christian presence is the least. The cross-cultural missions have played their part yet there is a tremendous need for developing local cultural leadership. The role which world missions can play should be primarily in the area of training, literature and research.
It is an interesting fact that from the South India godly men and women have founded cross- cultural mission agencies which have spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in India and other parts of the globe. Whereas in the North East and North India the mission work is carried on primarily by the local Churches and denominations.
A brief survey of Christian work in India has revealed that missions had a constructive engagement with the social, economic and political issues, which they encountered, and the issues, which impressed upon the evangelistic work of the Church. This indeed requires an understanding of the nature and work of the Triune God as Father Son and Holy Spirit. In the context of relativism of post modernity and plurality of religions, the question of the finality and uniqueness of Jesus Christ has to be presented with new sharpness. But this question can be correctly answered, as also the relation between what God is doing in the mission of the Church and what God is doing in the secular events of history within the framework of a fully and explicit Trinitarian doctrine of God.
Mission deals with the realities of the life of humanity and helps understand what God is doing in the secular movements and changes, which are taking place everywhere. This is possible through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the life of the believer, which causes him to trust the creative and providential power of the Father to direct all things towards the glorifying of the Son. We are invited to become, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, participants in the Son's loving obedience to the Father. All things are created that they may be summed up in the Son of God. All history is directed towards that end. All creation has this as its goal. The Spirit of God, who is also the Spirit of the Son, is given as the foretaste of that consummation, as the witness to it.
Missions in South Asia must be involved in diligent theological reflection and action, which often comes from traumatic experiences of life. People need to feel poverty and powerlessness, racial and caste discrimination in order to appreciate and reflect theologically. Creative contextualizations of the Christian faith may come from any cultural horizon in any country in the world. Contextualisation is not a private or purely individual task. It is the responsibility of the local Church and must be undertaken within the framework of the believing community. The Holy Spirit illuminates the individual interpreter within the context of the Church. The body of Christ has an historical dimension. The historical traditions of the Church have great value in interpreting the realities of our modern existence.
Communicators of the gospel have often underestimated the cultural factors in communication. Some have been insensitive to the cultural thought patterns and behaviour of those to whom the gospel is proclaimed. Similar words like salvation, sin, heaven, convey different images and meaning in the minds of the hearers. When the communicator brings with him alien ways of thinking and behaviour or attitudes of superiority, paternalism or preoccupation with material things, effective communication is hindered.
We should present the truth of the redemption in Christ in varied ways to those who do not know they are God's moral and spiritual children. While witnessing to diverse people in a pluralistic world, we need to review the many factors the Spirit uses to bring people to Christ. The example of Paul is commendable who said,
"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jew I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law - though not being myself under the law- that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law - not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ- that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings". (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
The primary work of the Holy Spirit is to regenerate sinners, and the primary task of every Christian is to communicate the Gospel to sinners. Our confidence is in the Holy Spirit, who has chosen to bring the world to Christ through His people's sowing and watering of the seed of God's unchanging truth. We are called to serve diligently and faithfully, but leave to God His work of redeeming, judging, and making new. The Great commission and the spiritual condition of the lost should impel believers to minister to the unreached with holy passion. The crucial causes of global evangelism, social justice, and family values must be our prime priorities. We must be willing to obtain necessary education to minister the unchanging truth of the gospel to the ever changing context.
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