Christian missionary activities in India

Christian missionary activities in British India

  • Generally, a missionary movement presupposes a group of people who take it as their religious duty to spread their religion to other parts of the World. It is the religious thought and the  passion  to  make  more  and  more  people  aware  of  their  religious  superiority  or  to  make others conform to the same belief that a missionary movement is organised.
  • The British Government had three roles in India, first that of a trader, second that of ruler and then that of a Christian propagandist.British rulers held and professed Christianity. Consequently British rule was equated with Christian domination.

Early years of British rule: Upto 1813

  • In the early years of its rule the Company had taken a position of neutrality with regard to the religious and social affairs of its subject. The East India Company decided not to interfere with the traditional cultures of the people by supporting missionary work. The company’s policy was non-interference in Indian education but favouring traditional Hindu or oriental learning.
  • The non-interference probably based was on the fear that missionaries through English education expecting to aid conversions might offend the Hindu subjects of the company and create unrest. They felt that the missionaries would encourage the religious sentiments among the people in India that could affect the business policy and the diplomatic role of the East India Company. (This policy of non-interference with the customs and traditions of the natives and lack of support for missionary work were reviewed after the Company Charter was reviewed in 1813.)
  • It  was  during  the  1770s  and  1780s  that  several  Englishmen,  such  as  Edmund  and  Burke,  argued  that  the  East  India  Company’s  power  could  not  be  justified  unless  it  were exercised  with  morality  and  subject  to  Parliament’s control.  But  there  efforts  were  not  paid heed to.
  • Then Charles Grant, a junior officer in British East India Company,  drafted  the  original  proposal  for  mission  in  1786-87,  in  their  personal  capacity,  and campaigned  for  it  for  decades  at  their  own  expense. Grant  sought  only  for  an  official endorsement of the East India Company for his proposal to start a missionary endeavour. He neither sought for Company’s money nor its manpower. He himself offered support to one of the missionaries  from  his  personal  capacity.  Yet  he was  only  given  a  hearing  to  Lord Cornwallis. However, though Lord Cornwallis assured him that he would not oppose the move for  missions,  he  could  not,  as  the  Governor  General,  give  his  active  support. Grant  was therefore forced to go to the Christian leaders in  England, who were big enough to influence the Government or big enough to fight the Company.
  • At that time, the only missionary-minded Christian figure in England, who had the status to bypass the East India Company and influence the  Government itself, was John Wesley. Refusing permission to John Wesley to open mission would thus have been politically incorrect for the British. Besides him, the  only  Christian  politician, then, who had  the  stamina  to  fight  for  a  moral  cause,  was  William  Wilberforce.  In  1793,  Wilberforce studied Grant’s Book, and Wilberforce moved  the  famous  Resolution  on  Missions,  which  were  drafted  by  Grant  himself.  Three days later,‘the missionary clauses’ were accepted by the Committee, which sought to empower the East India Company to send out schoolmasters, and other approved persons, foe the religious and moral improvement of the inhabitants of the British Dominions in India. However, on the third reading of the Bill, the Clauses were rejected and the Court of Proprietors of East India Stock had a special Meeting and passed a resolution against the Missionary Clause.
  • Thus it can be found that while it is often accused that the Missionaries came to spread Christianity and are thus opposed because of it, there was also a counter force, in the form of the Company and few other influential people in England, who made an attempt to stop the promotion of Missionary movement in India as they feared that it would lead to the awakening of the  Indian Hindu, and ultimately it would be the Company’s interestthat would suffer. Any rise in character of the natives could be so lament so as to lead to a most serious and fatal disaster.
  • Thus, it created an agitation against the East India Company that the Company was opposed to the teachings of Christ and neglected to provide education for the Indians.

Charter Act 1813

  • The battle for Missions heated up again in 1813, when the Company’s Charter came up for  renewal.  The  situation  was  vastly  different  this  time.  Grant  had  grown  in  stature  and influence,  and  had  won  himself  a  seat  in  Parliament.  William  Carey’s  work  had  earned immense respect for missions, in Bengal as well as  in England. Also, his struggle against the inhumanity of  sati and the Company’s cowardice in not banning such an inhuman practice had became  well  known.  It  had  therefore became  harder  to maintain  that  Indians  should  not  be challenged  to  critically  examine  their beliefs and practices  and  missionaries  should not be allowed to teach Indians to distinguish true faith from superstition.
  • There was a great unrest in the British Parliament ,in the year 1813, when the issue of permission  to  start  missionary  movement  in  India  was  asked. The  chief  ammunition  for  the opponents  of  mission  was  provided  by  the  Vellore  Mutiny,  which  began  on  July  10,  1806, being  instigated by the sons of Tipu Sultan, who  were  allowed  to  live  at  Vellore  after  being defeated by the British forces. The immediate causes of the mutiny revolved mainly around resentment felt towards changes in the sepoy dress code, introduced in November 1805. Hindus were prohibited from wearing religious marks on their foreheads and Muslims were required to shave their beards and trim their moustaches. This Mutiny followed a lot of events creating unrest in Britain as well as in India and ended with the Governor General of Madras Presidency, William Bentick being recalled back to London.
  • Several officials of the Company argued that the restrictions on the missionaries should  continue:  the  Indian  are  civilized  enough  and  do not need the missionaries. But the missionaries and their political supporters had prepared a formidable attack. Indians are in the darkest  plight,  they  argued. The conversion  of  India  to  Christianity  will  spell  temporal  benefits  to  the  heathens.  Far  from  the unsettling it, the conversion of the heathens to Christianity will further consolidate the empire.
  • Finally a missionary clause was attached to Charter Act 1813 passed by the Parliament. Charter Act of 1813 permitted made provisions to grant permission to the persons who wished to go to India for promoting moral and religious improvements that means Christian missionaries to propagate English and preach their religion.
  • It also allotted Rs 100,000 to promote education in Indian masses.

Charter Act 1833

  • The charter act of 1833 laid down regulation of permanent presence of missionaries in India and the number of Bishops were made 3. The charter act of 1833 made provision for Anglican hierarchy at Calcutta.
  • Finally in 1833, the policy of the company was changed under pressure from the Evangelicals in England. This marked the first decisive step of missionary work in India. A spokesman of the Evangelicals declared: “The true cure of darkness is the introduction of light. The Hindus err because they were ignorant and their errors have never fairly been laid before them. The communication of our light and knowledge to them would prove the best remedy for their disorders”.
  • With the expansion of the British Empire missionaries began to arrive and Christianity began to spread by establishing dioceses at Madras and Bombay. Ever since there existed a renewed cooperation between the missionaries and the colonial power in helping one another in their missions.

Charter of 1853

  • Then came the Charter of 1853, which declared a renewed commitment of Educational responsibility of the Company. This provision led to the famous Educational Dispatch of 1854, drafted by the Committee chaired by Sir Charles Wood, a devout Evangelical who was also an ‘undercover’ missionary.
  • This fact was summed up by the 1858 Proclamation of Queen which said that ‘it should breathe feelings of generosity, benevolence and religious feelings, pointing out the privileges which the Indians will receive in being placed on an equality with the subjects of the British Crown.

Missionaries’ views on Indian Culture

  • The characteristic feature of nineteenth century missions was the enthusiasm for the multiplication of missionary efforts. The priority of the colonial missions was conversion. Conversion of individual souls was considered the sole end of mission.
  • The British rule had provided favourable atmosphere and necessary infrastructure for the missions to work even in the remotest mountain villages without confronting much opposition. Julius Richter says that, it would be hard to find any land possessing so great an attraction for the missionary societies.
  • After the Charter of 1833 was renewed, missionaries were allowed freely to come to India. Missionary teams became powerful and their style of work changed. By this time a new set of missionaries rooted in ‘the iconoclastic zeal of extreme Protestantism’ began to arrive. These missionaries, soon through letters, reports and stories, created a very distorted image about the people and culture in India. They were imbued with the western ‘imperial sentiments’ and the sense of cultural superiority and agreed with Charles Grant, the spokesman of the Evangelicals in England, that it was not any inborn weakness that made Hindu degenerate but the nature of their religion. For the evangelicals India was in darkness and would need the light present in the western world.
  • Claudius Buchanan another spokesman of the evangelicals who had been a missionary in India said: “The missionaries asserted that since God laid upon Britain the solemn duty of evangelizing India, the Government should not hesitate to throw its weight into the struggle. They demanded above all open Government patronage of Christian education and vigorous warfare upon the abuses associated with Hindu religion”.
  • The Evangelicals and other mission societies made a combined attempt to change the policy of the British Government and demanded the introduction of legal and social reforms in India. It was thus that William Bentick in March 1835 issued his resolution intended mainly to promote European literature and science and utilize funds mainly for English education. The study of Indian literature and oriental works was admitted to be of little intrinsic value and the opinion was that these literatures inculcate the most serious errors on the subjects. Also the customs and traditions and the religious beliefs of the subject people were considered by the missionary educators and their societies in England as a sign of depravity and futility. The remedy was the introduction of English education.
  • Alexander Duff, Scottish missionary and leading educator thought that though Hindu philosophical discourse contained lofty terms in its religious vocabulary what they conveyed were only vain, foolish and wicked conceptions. According to Duff, Hinduism spread like a dark universe where all life dies and death lives. The Christian task for him was to do everything possible to demolish such a gigantic fabric of idolatry and superstition. Needless to say, such an attitude prevented any positive encounter between Christianity and Indian culture.
  • Duff, Buchanan, Trevelyan, Macaulay and others had great influence on the missionary thinking. The missionaries and civil servants who came to India were so prejudiced that they did not see anything good in India society.
  • The missionaries and their societies subscribed to the view that civilizing the Indian people would prepare the primitive religious people to embrace Christianity. Missions were unwilling to understand the complexities of Indian cultural variants. Deeply entrenched in them was a sense of superiority of European civilization and that coloured their approach to people of other cultures and religious faiths. English education was a means towards this goal. That is to facilitate change from exterior to interior, from trade to religion, a cultural revolution for the betterment of the natives by disseminating knowledge of Christianity and make them loyal to the British.
  • The evangelical supporters of Anglican mission were far more interested in the dissemination of the Bible and baptismal statistics than in any measure for the general enlightenment of India.
  • The primary interest of the Raj was to keep control over India.  The dominant interest of missions was to work for the conversion of Indians to Christianity.  But in the colonial situation they found themselves in need of one another and so mutual support was but natural.
  • Although the missionaries worked hard and suffered a lot for bringing education and awareness of social justice to the people living in the rural areas of India, as they were associated with the colonial-imperial powers, the significance of their selfless service was either overlooked or misunderstood.

Positive outcome of missionary activities in India

  • Gandhiji  held  the  view  that  the  work  of  Missionaries  quickened  the  task  of  Hindu reformers to set down our own house in order. The missionaries’ zeal to convert Hindus and  the  realization  that  they  were  specially  targeting  the  sections  which  had  been trodden down, lent an urgency to the determination  of reformers to work for the uplift and integration of these sections into the rest of the Hindu society. One example to this effect  was  that  Missionaries  took  up  the  cause  of  leprosy  elimination.  The  work  they undertook set the example, which was later followed on by others in India.
  • Generations  of  young  man  and  women  received  modern  education,  many  of  whom were endowed with the ideals of service and uprightness and rectitude because of the educational institutions maintained by these missionary societies. Lakhs of people were saved and restored to normal health by hospitals set up by the Church-affiliated organizations, namely the Missionaries, The Christian Medial College at Vellore stands as a distinct example of which.
  • The standards of living of the tribals was raised and they were able to carve out a living with the aid of the Missionaries.
  • Educational Reforms imbibed in the Missionaries a unifying spirit in the Indians and they came together to fight for the cause as a united nation.

Negative impact of missionary activities in India

  • Where  the  Missionaries  educated  the  Indians  their  shortcomings,  they  completely destroyed the self confidence and the self-respect  of the natives. On such instance of which is reflected when Swami Vivekananda wrote, “The child is taken to school and the first thing he learns is that his father is a fool,the second thing that his grandfather is a lunatic, the third thing that all his teachers are  hypocrites, the fourth that all his sacred books are a mass of lies. By the time he reaches sixteen, he is a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless…
  • The mass conversion led to degradation of Indian Culture and a conflict between the classes themselves originated.
  • The educational inequalities made the so-educated Indians contempt the fellow Indian and the following quote by Charles Trevelyan is an illustration to prove that.  “A generation is growing up which repudiates idols. A young Hindu, who had received  a  liberal  English  education,  was  forced  by his  family  to  attend  the shrine of kali, upon which he took off his cap to ‘Madam Kali’, made her a low bow, and hoped ‘her lady ship was well’…”

Analysis of Christian Missionary

  • The  missionaries,  however,  had  come  to  India  in  obedience  to  Jesus  Christ.  Christ claimed  that  he  was  “the  light  to  the  world.”  His  plan  of  bringing  light  to  the  world  involved sending  His  disciples  into  “all  the  world”  as  “light.”  Therefore,  to  challenge  everything  that appeared “darkness” was a necessary part of the true Christian Mission.
  • The  claims  made  by  the  Christian  Missionaries  also  tend  to  highlight  their  actual interests, which are not hidden. They laid that Brahmanism tried hard to retain the monopoly of the religion with itself in India. It neither shared its own rich language with others, nor did it develop  the  languages  of  the  people.  India  was  still,  at  the  time  of  advent  of  the  Christian Missionaries,  an  ‘under-developed’  country  because  Brahmanism  did  not  develop  our languages. It was therefore a task laid for the Christian Missionaries to perform.
  • It is indisputably agreed that Brown, Buchanan and Carey were  using  a  secular  College (at  Fort William)  meant  for  training  secular  administrators,  for translating  the  Bible  and  imparting  a  missionary  spirit  to  administrators.  They  had  the  full backing of the Governor General and support of some of the directors of the Company, the objective being to give stability to the Government in India and to Christianize the Government. For 150 years, even as they served the interests of British imperialism, the Church tried to orient its Indian adherents away from Indian nationalism. The Collected Works contain several accounts in which Missionaries acknowledge to Mahatma Gandhi that the institutions and services were indeed incidental to the aim of gathering a fuller harvest of converts  for  the  Church. There  activities  were  also  admonished  by  Swami  Vivekananda  as taking Spiritual Advantage of famines and Cholera.
  • The  1911  Census  Reports on  Bengal  Bihar,  Orissa  and  Sikkim  state  that  converts  from  among the four tribes- Oraons, Mundas, Kharis and santhals- accounted for nearly nine-tenth of Christian Converts.  The speech delivered to the  Baptist Missionary Society in London in April 1883 by Sir Richard Temple stated that ‘every Christian is duty bound to spread the religion; that the heaviest responsibility in this regard had fallen upon the British- that Buddhism and Hinduism are dying and dead; that the tribals ought to be made the special focus of the exertions of the missionary and in the moral responsibilities before God and man, India was a country which of all others the Christians in Britain were bound to enlighten with Eternal truth.’


Q. “The Christian Missionary propaganda from 1813 onward was often insensitive and wounding.” Comment.


  • The Character Act of 1813 was the first parliamentary approval for propagation of Christianity in India.
  • The policy of modernising Indian society and culture was also encouraged by the Christian missionaries and religious minded persons such as William Wilberforce and Charles Grant, the Chairman of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, who wanted to spread Christianity in India. They too adopted a critical attitude towards Indian society but on religious grounds. They passionately believed that Christianity alone was the true
  • The English language played an important role in this respect. It became the medium for the spread of modern ideas. It also became the medium of communication and exchange of ideas between educated Indians from different linguistic regions of the country.
  • But soon English also became a barrier to the spread of modern knowledge among the common people. It also acted as a wall separating the educated urban people from the common people, especially in the rural areas. This fact was fully recognised by the Indian political leaders.
  • Where  the  Missionaries  educated  the  Indians  their  shortcomings,  they  completely destroyed the self confidence and the self-respect  of the natives. On such instance of which is reflected when Swami Vivekananda wrote, “The child is taken to school and the first thing he learns is that his father is a fool,the second thing that his grandfather is a lunatic, the third thing that all his teachers are  hypocrites, the fourth that all his sacred books are a mass of lies. By the time he reaches sixteen, he is a mass of negation, lifeless and boneless…
  • (Include several insensitive comments made by missionary leaders and other facts from the chapter discussed above).

2 Comments Add yours

  1. bhaussaheb says:



  2. Faiz says:

    Hi, very interesting article. Can you please tell me what books were used to gather such information? Many thanks


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