Leaders, Christian

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LEADERS, CHRISTIAN The Protestant Christian communities in South India can be traced back to the work of two German missionaries, George Bartholomeaus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Pleutschau, of the Royal Danish Mission, at the Danish settlement of Tranquebar, in 1706. Missionaries of various societies from England and America later strengthened the Tranquebar community, so that by the end of the nineteenth century the South Indian Protestant missions were well coordinated, concentrating their energies on winning converts and establishing Christian churches. Christian doctrines, traditions, and institutions spawned by the missionary community were, of course, interpreted and appropriated by indigenous groups to fulfill their own needs and aspirations. While accepting the "new faith," the converts evolved their own agendas, which did not necessarily conform to that of the missionaries.

The interaction between the missionaries and the Indians among whom they worked set in motion unpredicted consequences. The earliest and the most fascinating account unfolded in rural Tirunelveli, where Robert Caldwell (1814–1891) achieved the largest conversion among the low caste Shanars, known today as Nadars. Caldwell, a missionary of unparalleled importance, left his imprint on almost every aspect of Tamil society. He established schools and churches, and evincing a keen interest in Indian culture and religion, learned several Indian languages. Caldwell's greatest impact was in education. He produced a number of works, most important of which were The Tinnevelly Shanars: A Sketch of Their Religion and Their Moral Condition and Characteristics as a Caste (1849) and A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages (1856).

Rankled by the derisive portrayal of Nadars in Caldwell's The Tinnevelly Shanars and the authoritarian behavior of the missionaries, Arumainayagam (also known as Sattampillai), a Nadar catechist, founded his Hindu Christian Church of Lord Jesus in 1857 at Prakasapuram in Tinnevelly district. Sattampillai (1824–1919) established the new church to subvert the missionary authority, developing a substantial critique of Western Christianity, which he claimed was corrupt and inauthentic. He also appropriated elements of Judaism for his new church, which he represented as the restoration of the original, pure form of Christianity, thus investing his adherents with a spiritual superiority. Sattampillai's Hindu Christian Church signaled the first wave of indigenization of Christianity.

Caldwell's magnum opus, A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages, was a pioneering philological work, constructing a new genealogy for South India's Dravidian languages and culture, as opposed to the Sanskritic languages and culture. It was appropriated by upper caste non-Brahman Hindus to forge a non-Brahman ideology to counter the socio-cultural and intellectual hegemony of the Brahmans in South India. Another notable missionary in the Tirunelveli district, G. U. Pope (1820–1907), a colleague of Caldwell, continued his philological tradition by translating Tamil literary works such as Tirukural, Tiruvasagam, and Naladiar, as well as publishing Tamil dictionaries and grammars, extolling the historic glories of Tamil culture. Pope's work helped to generate theories concerning the autonomy and purity of the Tamils, stimulating the revival of Tamil language and literature.

Indian nationalism's encounter with Christianity added another dimension to the story. Prominent among the Protestant missionaries in this regard was H. A. Popley (1868–1960), who supported Indian nationalism, openly expressing his solidarity on one occasion by unfurling the Indian National Congress flag next to the Union Jack on the roof of his bungalow during an official visit by the governor of Madras. Popley was keenly interested in traditional music and Tamil literature, and he was the first to set the Gospel hymnal to indigenous melodies. Influenced by Tamil forms of Hindu devotion, he was in the forefront of musical evangelism, assimilating traditional music and performing it during his Christian preaching. He prepared a Hand Book of Musical Evangelism to illustrate the adoption of Indian notation in his work. The Music of India is Popley's most celebrated work, which reveals the rich heritage of Indian musical culture. He translated the Tamil classic Thirukural into English and quoted from it profusely in his sermons.

Among the educated Christians of high social standing, John Lazarus, V. Chakkarai, and P. Chenchiah, prominent public figures in Madras, developed a deep awareness of Indian nationalism. John Lazarus (1849–1925) was a missionary and pastor of the Danish Mission Society in Madras and a firebrand of the Christian community there. Deeply concerned about the prospects and challenges confronting the Indian Christians, he was instrumental in founding the Madras Native Christian Association (1888), aimed at promoting the welfare of the Indian Christian community "by legitimate means" and furthering the political, social, moral, and intellectual advancement of its members. In 1890 he launched the Christian Patriot, an English weekly newspaper of "social and religious progress" in Madras. He was an ardent advocate of the National Church of India, which he tried to revive after the demise of its founder Dr. Pulney Andy. He exhorted Indian Christians to unify by shedding Western sectarianism and creating a united indigenous church in South India. Lazarus evinced keen interest in the Indian National Movement. He praised the Indian National Congress's role in creating a nation, and he made an appeal to the Christian community to spend "their time and strength and their means" for the welfare of the "Indian nation." A Tamil scholar, writer, and translator, he was involved in bringing to the fore the richness of Tamil literature and the great antiquity of the Tamil people. He made an intense study of Tamil, translating the grammatical work Nannul and part of the Tamil classic Thirukural into English. He also translated and published a corpus of ten thousand Tamil proverbs.

V. Chakkarai (1880–1958) converted to Christianity while a student at Madras Christian College, influenced by William Miller, principal of the college and a well-known Christian liberal, who joined Indians in their social reform initiatives. Graduating from Christian College in philosophy, Chakkarai completed his bachelor of law degree at Madras Law College in 1906. In 1907 he attended the Indian National Congress session at Surat and became a follower of the extremist leader B. G. Tilak. In 1917 he participated in the Home Rule Movement, and in 1920 he joined Mahatma Gandhi's movement. Active in the Indian National Congress, he was also an executive member of the Madras Presidency Association, a non-Brahman enclave within the Congress. As a member of the Madras Presidency Association, he favored reservation of electoral seats for non-Brahmans. In 1926 Chakkarai left the Congress, protesting against the practice of serving meals separately to Brahman and non-Brahman students at Shermadevi Gurukulam, a nationalist educational institution run by V. V. S. Aiyar.

One of the founding fathers of the trade union movement in India, Chakkarai served as president of the Madras Provincial Trade Union Congress from 1943 to 1958 and as president of the All-India Trade Union Congress from 1949 until his death in 1958. He was a Madras Municipal Corporation councillor for more than thirty years, between 1916 and 1948. He was elected mayor of Madras city in 1941 and was a member of the Madras Legislative Council from 1952 to 1958. Chakkarai's theological concerns centered on building an indigenous Christian theology. Along with P. Chenchiah, he was one of the founders of the Madras Christo Samaj (Christian Society), which worked for the Indianization of the church. A powerful orator, he was also a prolific writer; his theological quest was reflected in two of his works, Jesus the Avatar and The Cross and Indian Thought.

P. Chenchiah (1886–1959) converted to Christianity, along with his entire paternal family, in 1901. In 1906 he graduated from Madras Christian College, where he was influenced by William Miller. He obtained his degree in law in 1908 and began his legal career under veteran politician T. Prakasam, who later became the first chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. Qualifying himself for the master of law degree in 1913, he worked for a while as part-time professor at the Madras Law College. He practiced as an advocate, and from 1929 to 1941 served as chief judge of Pudukottai State High Court. He went to England in 1919 on a political mission to give evidence, as an Indian Christian, before the British Joint Parliamentary Committee in connection with the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms. An ardent nationalist, he was also recognized as a stimulating thinker in conceptualizing an Indian Christian theology and he was actively involved in the Christo Samaj.

Indigenization of Christianity was possible within the framework of the Indian church organization. Those who stood outside the church were concerned more about the nationalists' critique of Christianity than the anxieties of the Christian community, which was drawn largely from the lower castes. In this process of Indianization, they could function within a miniscule community of Christian intellectuals based on an estrangement with the Christian community and the church organization.

Vincent Kumaradoss

See alsoChristian Impact on India, History of


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