« Impact of Reformation on India » – D. Jeyaraj

Impact of Reformation on India through missions

An Assessment
Daniel Jeyaraj

1. Reformation Christianities

The complex phenomenon of Reformation in sixteenth century Europe rested on fresh understanding of four interconnected absolutes, namely Christ only, Scripture only, Grace only, and Faith only. They resonated with the political leaders, traders and ordinary people in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and England. The teachings of Martin Luther (1483–1546) in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) and John Calvin (1509–1564) in Switzerland, King Henry VIII of England (1491–1547) and John Knox (1513–1572) in Scotland framed the destiny of their countries. Their followers formulated distinct denominations, creeds and theologies. After they were introduced to the people of North America, new forms of voluntary entrepreneurial Christianities came into being. At the dawn of 18th century, Western Europe and North America became synonym for Reformation Christianities that were territorial and non-missionary.

By contrast, the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut (1498) enabled different forms of Roman Catholic Christianity to grow in coastal places. The Jesuits, who shared the ethos of the Council of Trent, were prominent among the Roman Catholic missionaries: Henrique Henriquez (d. 1600), Roberto de Nobili (d. 1656), Heinrich Roth (d. 1668), Jean Venant Bouchet (d. 1732), Johan Ernst Hanxleden (d. 1732), Constanzo Beschi (d. 1747),for example, persuaded their Indian followers to adapt Roman Catholicism. Their European feudal background probably led them to tolerate several quasi-religious practices such as caste as an inevitable social custom. The ensuing Rite Controversy drained the energy of the Roman Catholic Christians in India. Additionally, the competing loyalties between the missionaries belonging to the Portuguese Padroado and the papal Propaganda (1662) missionary systems greatly hindered the growth of Roman Catholic Christianity in India.

When Protestants from Holland, England, and Denmark came to India, the Roman Catholic Christians in India were established for nearly 200 years. The Dutch East India Company, for example, functioned from Surat (1604), Pulicat (1609), Nagapatnam (c. 1660), Kochi (c. 1673) and other places. Likewise, the British East India Company (EIC) consolidated their centres of trade, territorial administration and military in Surat (1612/9), Chennai (1639), Mumbai (1688), Kolkata (1690) and several sea port. Finally, the Danish East India Company secured trading centres in Tranquebar (1620), Masulipatnam (1625), Calicut (1752), Serampore (1755), and other places. These European colonies were dedicated for trade only. Yet, diverse forms of Reformation Christianity began spreading from these colonies.

2. Reformation Christianities in India

Dutch preachers such as Abraham Roger (d. 1649) and Philip Baldaeus (d. 1671) showed remarkable openness to interreligious study; their works captured deep insights into the socio-cultural and religious life of those Indians whom they encountered. The British colonizers built their St. Mary’s Church (1680) in Chennai; until the establishment of the English Bishoprics in Kolkata in 1814, Anglican chaplains catered to the needs of the British people in India.

In this context, the arrival of the German Lutheran Pietists Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (d. 1719) and Henry Plütschau (d. 1752) in Tranquebaron 9 July 1706 started a new chapter in the history of Reformation Christianity in India. Their piety led them to translate the Bible into Tamil, establish schools, educate their followers in reading, writing, and mathematics. Their Enlightenment backgrounds equipped them to study the socio-cultural and religious life of their followers and present their Christianity as an alternative way to re-think, live and organize their life. Few Tamils, who were excluded from attaining social recognition and upward mobility courageously embraced their teaching and joined their Lutheran congregation. The success of these German Lutheran missionaries and their Tamil followers irritated the Danish colonial administrators, who feared that this missionary work would ruin their trade with non-Christian merchants, spy agents and mercenaries. However, the exemplary works of the Lutheran missionaries like Christian Friedrich Schwartz (d. 1798), Christoph Samuel John (d.1813), Philip Rottler (d. 1836) continued the legacy of Lutheranism in India.

After the East India Company had introduced the Pious Clause to their charter of 1813, 1833 and 1853, European, North American and Australian Protestants sent their agents to establish their mission centres in India. They competed to recruit followers from the same geographical areas. Their competitions first wasted their energy and resources and then led to join hands in running colleges, hospitals, and seminaries. The formation of the Church of South India (1947), the Church of North India (1970) and united bodies in North East India set visible signs for unity. After 1947, few Indian Christians founded indigenous mission agencies; nowadays the National Council of Christians in India (1914) and the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India (1944) work with the Dalits, women, young people, and Adivasi peoples and help them to regain their human dignity.

Since the second half 20th century, various forms of Pentecostal Christianity spread fast in India. Nowadays any Christian, who does not agree with an established church, can form their own congregations and call themselves pastors and even bishops. These fragmented Christianities complicate the confusing expressions of Reformation Christianities. Yet, simultaneously, countless Indians admire the person of the Lord Jesus Christ; they embrace his teachings and lifestyle; they do not belong to any visible church, but live within their own ancestral traditions. These multiple expressions help us to assess to what extent the four Reformation absolutes, namely Christ only, Scripture only, Grace only, and Faith only, have incarnated into the socio-cultural fabric of Indian life.

3. Reformation Christianities and their Impact in India

Currently, Christians constitute about 3% of the Indian population; most of them are Roman Catholics. Yet, their values seeped into Indian society as salt and light. Many Indians, who were excluded even from hearing their sacred scriptures, read the Bible in their mother tongue, thought about its message, made Indian-Christian choices, and reoriented their life. They developed their thinking capacities and articulated their theological thoughts. Earlier, Roman Catholic missionaries translated the biblical texts into vernaculars; but they did not give them to Indian Christians for private reading. By contrast, Protestants read these Roman Catholic translations, updated them according to their traditions and gave them to Indian Christians for personal reading and edification. They destigmatised the dialects of several Adivasi peoples, gave them scripts, preserved their socio-cultural memories, and ensured their continued survival. As the Protestants translated the Bible into several North Indian languages, they also produced relevant dictionaries, lexicons, and grammars. In the course of time, languages such as Bengali and Hindi, were enlivened. Printing Christian literature helped standardizing the scripts and promoted dissemination of knowledge. Protestant journals and newspapers educated their readers with information on peoples living in other parts of India and the world. Their readers understood that they belonged to something that was larger than themselves.

Protestant ways of reading and interpreting the Bible supported independent thinking and freedom of conscience. They were less concerned about the questions and answers of their European Protestant reformers. They understood the Reformation doctrines such as the justification by faith, the law and gospel and priesthood of all believers through Indian mediums, and expressed their theology through songs and biographies. They did not pay much attention to the worlds of the Hebrew, Greek and Latin peoples, but remained devoted to their rich indigenous socio-cultural heritages. For example, the Hebrew tetragrammaton YHWH is given as Parāparavastu (‘the Most Supreme Being’), Satcitananda (‘Truth-Wisdom-Bliss’), Kadavul (‘the One, who has gone through and resides inside’) and Deva (‘the shining Being’). Indian Protestants understood salvation as liberation (mīṭpu) and as God’s gift of grace (arul). Amazingly, they perceived Jesus Christ as the victorious Lord, who could break the power of karma, annihilate the unending cycle of births and deaths, forgive sin (papa), and bestow salvation here and now. The fact that Jesus touched the sick and healed them attracted many Dalits to Protestant faith; earlier the Dalits were inhumanely ostracised as untouchables. The truth that Jesus chose fishers as his disciples, fed the hungry, listened to the cry of the downtrodden, and gave them fuller life prepared many Indians to accept Protestant Christianity.

Protestant missionaries promoted the knowledge of Indian religious traditions: Ziegenbalg commented on Tamil bhakti literature. William Carey (d. 1834) and Joshua Marshman (d. 1837) translated Ramayana (1806–1810) into English. Protestant Christians associated with the Asiatic Society of Bengal revived Sanskrit studies. Hilko-Wiardo Schomerus’ German translation of Saiva Siddhanta (1912) still remains a standard work. Indian Protestant converts frequently linked their ancestral faith with Christianity. On the surface they rejected their past; but in fact, they negotiated and reinterpreted their ancestral faith. They also understood Christianity through their pre-Christian memories and experiences. The songs by Henry Alfred Krishnapillai (1900) and Narayan Waman Tilak (d. 1919) best illustrate this truth. Protestant Christians received their spiritual and socio-cultural values from missionaries, who mostly hailed from Northern Europe, United Kingdom, North America and Australia. In 19th century, Northern Europe had already experienced the forces of Enlightenment, anti-clericalism and anti-authoritarian movements. Generally, Protestant missionaries imbibed the dynamic concepts of individualism, rationalism, equality, freedom and fraternity. Most of British and North American missionaries, who worked in India, hailed from lower strata of their society. They themselves questioned inherited authorities, traditions, and habits of their church and society. During their missionary work among Indians, they taught them lessons from the Bible and ecclesial traditions; additionally, they also imparted the abovementioned socio-cultural, political values, which they cherished even unknowingly.

Consequently, Protestant missionaries perceived the four-fold varna (‘socio-religious categories’) and the countless jati (‘birth-groups’) as caste. They approached it as a dehumanising religious entity that robbed people of their dignity and even humanity. Ziegenbalg fought against caste by quoting biblical narratives of creation, Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross, and his forgiveness for all humans. He also used ancient Tamil writers who actively resisted caste discriminations. Later, Lutherans like Karl Graul and the Anglicans like G.U. Pope had different views on caste. Protestant fight against caste yielded partial success, but the fight continues unabated.

Protestant Christians like William Carey joined Indian social reformers to oppose social evils such as Satī (‘true woman,’ i.e., burning of the widows), female infanticide and child marriage. They encouraged their followers to give up image worship, pilgrimages, and other costly customs associated with the rites of passages; these habits further impoverished most poor people. Protestant missionaries introduced calendars to save common people from consulting religious priests against a heavy fee and getting information on auspicious and inauspicious times to fix marriages or to name children or to begin any business.

Protestant missionaries treated their followers holistically. They fed their souls with religious truths, their mind with intellectual curiosity, and their body with solid food and work. They dignified all works, encouraged their followers to take risk, to remain mobile, and to test with new ideas. When Indians ostracised Christian converts, the missionaries trained them in reading, writing, accountancy, tailoring, carpentry. They gave them interest-free loans to start businesses; they educated their children and employed them in schools, hospitals, sanatoriums, industries. Gradually, Christians became a dignified social group with distinct ways of corporate worship, lifestyle, and identity.

After independence (1947), many Protestant Christians in South India and North East India founded self-funding mission agencies. Nowadays, their missionaries evangelize fellow Indians in rural villages and mountainous areas in Central, North and North West India. Their consistent preaching and presence ministries bear fruit. For example, due to their efforts, entire tribes such as the Maltos in Bihar were saved from ruin.

Protestant missionaries and Christians influenced leading Indian intellectuals through their educational institutions. Now, as holders of public offices, they either tolerate Christians or oppose them on different levels. Non-Christian mission agencies have remarkably incorporated Christian values into their social, religious, educational, medical and other services. Thus, the manifold impacts of Reformation on India are not yet over. They continue; they may seem weak and invisible; but they enfold further and instil confidence; their widening ripples influence Indians more than ever before.


Daniel Jeyaraj is a Tamil Christian belonging to the Church of South India, is a leading authority on the role of Christians in 18thcentury Indo-German relationships, the emergence of Tamil-Lutheran Christianity and its impact on Europeans. His seminal publications explore questions related to inculturation, textual studies, Tamil religions, grammar, ethics, church songs, and the impact of Jesuit writings on early Lutheran missionaries in Tamil country. He teaches World Christianity at Liverpool Hope University, England, supervises a team of international doctoral students, and leads the Andrew Walls Centre for the Study of African and Asian Christianity.