The Growth of Christianity in India

Introduction

While India attempts to show religious tolerance, it has difficulty doing so when those born in that country are automatically considered Hindu and leaving is extremely difficult.[1] Along with this religion in India lies the caste (jati) system which tells people, men in particular what their worth in life is. In the caste system people range from the Brahman (usually wealthy and well-educated) to the Dalits (usually considered socially invisible)[2]. But the Lord speaking in his hometown synagogue to a group of people told them, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”(Luke 4:18-19 ESV)

While Hinduism is not the only religion it is the largest (around 73%) part of the population, followed by Islam (13.7%), and then Christianity (4.7%).[3]

Christian Movement into India

The church in India was not necessarily a new concept; it has been speculated that St. Thomas himself was the first there to share the gospel, but of that we have no hard evidence. With that being said we will start a just little closer to the present day (around 1500 AD). “Western Christianity came to India with the ships of Vasco da Gama in 1498. In their small territories of Goa, Cochin, etc., the Portuguese exercised strong pressure, though not actual coercion, on the inhabitants to become Christian, but they made no extensive attempts to convert the inhabitants of the country as a whole.[4] Within the next half century there would be attacks made on a small pearl fishing village unable to defend itself, “John da Cruz, and fifteen Paravars offered an alliance. A year later, their jati thalavan (chief), Vikrama Aditha Pandya, gave the Portuguese access to the lucrative pearl trade. Families of some 20,000 pearl-fishers were baptized. In 1537 a furious sea battle ended threats from Hindu and Muslim forces, and the entire Paravar community declared themselves Christian.”[5]

A few short years later St. Francis Xavier would begin his work on the Fisher Coast having a great impact in that region because he “exploited a deeply ingrained indigenous genius for memorization involving rhythmic recitations each morning and evening, and reinforced by mnemonic exercise, they drilled bright-eyed boys in imperfectly translated essentials: the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, Creed, Ten Commandments, and other rudiments of Christian Faith…”[6] As the 1600’s ensued there was only one recorded case of an Anglican baptism in India.[7] However that is not due to lack of presence, there were English and Dutch churches in India but their work consisted predominantly of taking care of their own people, with minimal records of missionary work and fewer conversions.[8]

Turning of the Tide

During the eighteenth century the tide began to turn in regards to missionary work in India. While there were many different missionaries, one of the most prominent would have to be Friedrich Schwartz, who was an amazing linguist (he was fluent in Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Persian, Sanskrit, and Portuguese); as well as a preacher, teacher, diplomat, and statesman.[9] Just imagine that without the influence of Schwartz in India the gospel may never have impacted as many people as it did, because he was able to train a man named Sundaranandam David. Sundaranandam would take the message that he heard back to his village and eventually “Thousands, often whole villages, turned Christian,”[10] because Schwartz was willing to sacrifice and reach a people so many others in the Hindu tradition had written off.

Sundaranandam was also a man would did not want to tolerate social injustice. He would set up what were known as “Villages of Refuge”, because as his Christian message spread, those who were not converted became more violent toward those who had. These villages took in those who were “fleeing, needy, sick, and poor widows and orphans. Every decade for a century the number of new converts doubled or tripled.”[11] This is a prime example of what William Carey meant when he said, “the forming of our native brethren to usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift and grace in them; in this respect we can scarcely be too lavish in our attention to their improvement. It is only by means of native preachers we can hope for the universal spread of the Gospel through this immense Continent.”[12]

This would be important because it would necessarily be the wealthy and knowledgeable, who were being converted, but “…among the most oppressed and poverty-stricken sections of the community….”[13] Gradually in certain parts of the country the local leaders of the churches would begin to outnumber the missionaries in that region.

The Church after 1900

The church in India is one that can be considered as awe inspiring. Unlike churches found in many other nations, the different denominations found a way to come together and glorify the Lord by creating one church. Granted this all did not take place over night, nor did the whole countries Christian community gather into one large church there are some differences between the Church of South India (CSI) and the Church of North India (CNI). Gonzalez takes care to point out that, “By 1908, Reformed and Congregationalist joined to form the United Church of South India, and in 1947 this church with the addition of Methodist and Anglicans, resulted in the Church of South India.”[14] To show the extent that Christians in India are willing to work together, Jonathon Hill notes that

In 1958 the Mar Thoma Syrian Church established intercommunion with the CSI, meaning that, while they remained separate churches, they regarded each other’s ministers and sacraments as valid. The CNI subsequently joined this accord, and in 1978 all three churches established a Joint Council which was to oversee what was in effect a federation of the three churches, known collectively as the Bharat Christian Church. Today, there are efforts under way to merge them into a fully unified Church of India.[15]

While the church in India is making great strides to come together as one large ecclesiastical body there are still more things that need to be in place before that can transpire; because certain parts of India are under the rule of the Roman Catholic Church, and have not entered into the conversation of joining together with any the ecumenical associations.

Conclusion

While Christianity may seem like the underdog in the predominantly Hindu country, we can trust that anywhere the gospel is faithfully preached there will be a church. Christ promised his followers, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20 ESV) Fellow Christians throughout the world would do well to follow the example set by the Christians in India; by putting minor things aside and enjoying the majors together, by worshiping our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as a unified body.

Bibliography

Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Frykenberg, Robert Eric. “Āvarna and Adivāsi Christians and missions: a paradigm for understanding Christian movements in India.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 32, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 14-18. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 5, 2011).

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianty Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Hill, Jonathan. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Nashville: Nelson, 1995.

Spinner-Haley, Jeff. Hinduism, Christianity, and Liberal Religious Toleration. Feb 2005. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30038394 (accessed October 7, 2011).

The Association of Religion Archives. http://www.thearda.com/internationalData/MultiCompare.asp?c=108,%20234 (accessed October 11, 2011).


[1] Jeff Spinner-Haley, Hinduism, Christianity, and Liberal Religious Toleration. Feb 2005, 36. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30038394 (accessed October 7, 2011).

[2] Robert Eric Frykenberg,. “Āvarna and Adivāsi Christians and missions: a paradigm for understanding Christian movements in India.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 32, no. 1 (January 1, 2008): 14 . ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 5, 2011).

[3] The Association of Religion Archives. http://www.thearda.com/internationalData/MultiCompare.asp?c=108,%20234 (accessed October 11, 2011).

[4] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 832.

[5] Frykenberg, Āvarna, 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7]Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976) 440.

[8] Cross, Oxford, 832.

[9] Frykenberg, Āvarna, 15.

[10] Ibid.15

[11] Ibid.15

[12] Johnson, History, 441.

[13] Cross, Oxford, 833.

[14] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianty Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010) 498.

[15] Jonathan Hill,. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)474-75.

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