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 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 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.
    • Grant argued in 1792 that the principal problem of India was the religious ideas that perpetuated the ignorance of Indian people.
      • This could be effectively changed through the dissemination of Christian light, and in this lay the noble mission of British rule in India.
      • To convince his critics, Grant could also show a complementarity between the civilising process and material prosperity, without any accompanying danger of dissent or desire for English liberty.
    • Charles Grant‘s advocacy of English education to be introduced in India fell on deaf ears before the Charter Act of 1793 for fear of political unrest.
      • His major concern was however about the misrule of the Company officials.
      • The real hegemony of the British, he thought, could be established in India through a display of the superior moral and ethical values of the West as manifested in its Christian heritage.
      • Christian instruction was the best guarantee against rebellion, as it would rescue the natives from their polytheistic Hinduism and make them parts of the assimilative project of colonialism.
    • Grant’s ideas were given greater publicity by William Wilberforcein the Parliament before the passage of the Charter Act of 1813, which allowed Christian missionaries to enter India without restrictions.
  • 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 other 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, for 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  Indians, and ultimately it would be the Company’s interest that would suffer.
  • 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.
  • Despite the ban, the missionaries continued to use various ingenuous means to arrive in the country and work for the dissemination of Western education, which they believed, would lead to proseylitisation.
    • Thus, while the Protestant missionaries started working from the Danish station in Madras from the early eighteenth century, the Srirampur Danish settlement near Calcutta became, towards the end of the century, the refuge of three Baptist missionaries: Dr William Carey, Ward and Joshua Marshman.
    • Apart from running a printery and translating the Bible into local languages, they also ran schools for both boys and girls.
    • Unless they directly offended the religious sensibilities of the local population, the Company’s government tolerated such missionary activities, the number of which before 1813 was however very small.

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.
    • Christian missionaries were henceforth to be allowed to enter India, subject only to obtaining a licence either from the Court of Directors or the Board of Control. “
    • 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

  • The Charter of 1853 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.
    • 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

  • The Christian missionaries played the role of a socio-religious movement, which indirectly gave birth to neo-Hindu reformist movements led by educated Indians.
    • Gandhiji  held  the  view  that  the  work  of  Missionaries  (of conversion to Christianity by showing social evils of Hinduism) quickened  the  task  of  Hindu reformers to set down our own house in order.
    • The missionaries’ zeal to convert Hindus, criticise social evils like untouchability 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.
    • The flow of knowledge and education from the west did not brainwash the educated class so as to consider Christianity as a substitute for Hinduism.
      • This educated class worked for the social reforms mainly for reform in women life.
      • It was also because most of social evils of India was related to women and hence any social reform had large impact on women.
    • 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.
      • Other example: The Christian missionaries had first started attacking the institution of sati though it was a strong abolitionist campaign under Raja Rammohan Roy that gave the movement its real momentum.
  • The social activities of Christian missions were directed towards bringing about moral reforms in Indian society and helped in the emancipation of individuals including women from their age old superstitions and other social evils like sati pratha, child marriage, untouchability, caste discrimination etc.
    • The missionaries strove to secure several rights for women for eg. the rights of the women to wear upper cloth.
  • Missions demanded legal support from the British government in support of their vigorous fight against social evils and superstitious practices associated with Hindu religion such as widow burning or Sati, child marriage, drowning of children in sacred rivers etc.
    • With the support of liberal Hindu leaders and missionaries Governor General William Bentick introduced several legal measures of social reforms.
  • 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.
    • St. Stephen’s College at Delhi, Madras Christian College at Madras, and St. John’s College at Agra are a few of the many institutions of higher education started by the missionaries.
    • Some of the first missions to India in the 1820s applied themselves rigorously to the education of women.
      • Their programmes rested on the belief that the ‘womanhood of India’ were protectresses and zealous adherents of traditional heathenism.
      • Indian grandmothers, mothers and wives, it was held, taught the first lessons of idolatry and ritual to children and, therefore, conversions were unlikely unless the influence of women was combated.
      • The Christian educational work for girls served as a model for government and other agencies to found schools for girls’ education.
      • Pioneer work in the field of women’s’ education was done by Pandita Ramabhai, who was a Christian convert.
        • She worked indefatigably for the progress of women’s education.
        • Ramabhai founded an institution called Mukti for helping widows and others.
        • Women’s Christian College Madras, Isabella Thoburn College Lucknow, Sarah Tucker College Palayamcottah etc. are notable in the field of women education.
      • The Christian educational work for girls provided an impetus to the government and other agencies to found schools for girls.
        • The Arya Samaj, Theosophical society, Ramakrishna Mission and other agencies began to take interest in womens’ education following the lead given by the Christian missions.
  • The terrible inadequacy of medical facilities in India induced Christian missions to start hospitals and dispensaries in cities and villages.
    • Zenana Medical Mission (ZMM) was founded to bring medical aid to women and children in India.
  • 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.
  • Missionaries extended active support to the indigo ryots in their struggle.

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…
    • Missionaries called Hinduism as false, stupendous and barbaric religion.
      • The prominent missionary, Alexander Duff called Christianity as true religion, which should replace all false religions. He said: “Of all the systems of false religion ever fabricated by the perverse ingenuity of fallen man, Hinduism is surely the most stupendous.”
  • The mass conversion led to degradation of Indian Culture and a conflict between the classes themselves originated.
  • The propaganda of Christianity caused the contempt of Indians by fellow converted Indians. 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’…”
    • Insensitive propaganda by missionaries against native religion and culture had wounding effect on people’s self-confidence and Indian culture.

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.’

7 thoughts on “Christian missionary activities in India”

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

  2. a common man this much information can suffice his desire to know about the history of India@ Christianity.
    The MYTHS which radical elements use to target us can be turned into counteracts

  3. In my opinion, the above article has been written with some negative thoughts. The good work done by the Christian missionaries like establishing Hospitals, Education schools, printing presses etc. also eradication of the superstitions and practices like Sati and introduction of Girls education, which helped our India to grow in the world at a higher pace than we might have taken, had these not been built for us in time.

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