This reflection on Christianity’s contribution to India is by Clive, Children and Families Mission Leader at Merrylands Anglican Church. He is one of a group of Sydney-based South Asian pastors who are calling on Christians to pray on Sunday, July 3, to commemorate Indian Christian Day, an event inaugurated last year celebrating the contributions of the Christian faith to India’s culture, society, and nation-building.
July 3 has been historically observed as St Thomas Day, which commemorates the martyrdom of the apostle Thomas in 72 AD near Chennai, India. Indian Christian leaders in Australia anticipate there will be a large influx of young educated professionals from India in the wake of a new economic and trade agreement between India and Australia. They hope to raise awareness of the day and use it as an opportunity to pray for churches to welcome Indians and pray that they become Christians.
A few years ago, I met an Indian friend named Jaswinder*. I was able to help him with some physical needs, and, as our friendship grew, I began sharing stories of Jesus with him. I soon realised that he had heard many of the stories before.
He told me that that he had attended a Christian school in Jalandhar, in the state of Punjab. It was amazing to me that Christians set up a respected school in a small majority Sikh town. This reminded me of what a positive impact followers of Jesus have made in India.
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Jesus’ followers have blessed the Subcontinent with education, health care, and myriad other social services,
Since the gospel first went to India, Jesus’ followers have blessed the Subcontinent with education, health care, and myriad other social services. Recent political propaganda has tried to re-cast all non-Hindu religions in India as foreign invaders. However, history shows that Christianity has been a positive force for transformation.
The early influence of Christianity in India is not well documented. However, it’s not insignificant that the state that was most reached by the gospel, Kerala, has also been the state with the highest literacy in the country (96.2 per cent, compared to the national average of 77 per cent). Christian missionaries established modern education in India.
The state that was most reached by the gospel, Kerala, has also been the state with the highest literacy in the country.
The first Christian schools in India were started by the Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century. The German Tranquebar missionaries followed them in Tamil Nadu. In the late 18th century, the prolific William Carey pioneered education in North India. He established India’s first university in Serampore, as well as a printing press. Carey firmly believed that education was the best way to improve Indian minds and bring transformation to Indian society. By 1818 there were 111 schools located as far as Shimla and Delhi in the north, and Rajputna in the south.
Missionary wives also pioneered female education. Christian women challenged the status quo where only 1 per cent of Indian women were literate (reported in 1834). Although some missionaries westernised Indian culture, they also did much to preserve it. It’s true some educators such as Alexander Duff saw English-language education as the best means to evangelise India. Most missionaries, however, actually helped to standardise many Indian languages. The modern Hindi language was developed out of Hindustani and more than a dozen other local dialects. In 1887, Rev. Samuel Kellogg produced the impressive A Grammar of the Hindi Language, which is still in circulation today.
Most missionaries actually helped to standardise many Indian languages.
The work of missionaries also broke the dominance of Persian and Sanskrit and allowed regional languages to develop and flourish. Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, wrote: “Christian mission work in India has not always been admirable and praiseworthy… but in this respect, as well as in the collection of folklore, it has undoubtedly been of great service to India.” (Nehru, Jawaharlal. Discovery of India, pp. 317-318.)
In the field of medicine, Christians have also been a tremendous blessing to India. The Jesuit missionaries of the 16th century built infirmaries next to their living quarters. Later, John Thomas, an associate of William Carey, began his medical work in Serampore.
Finally in the 19th century, virtually every missionary society set up medical establishments of various kinds throughout India. In obedience to Jesus, Christians have always been concerned for people’s minds and bodies, as well as their spirits.
The Zenana Mission has contributed to the proliferation of Indian women in nursing even today.
The American medical missionary, Dr Samuel Green, who worked in India in the mid-1800s, said his hope was to spread the gospel and science at the same time. In 1880, Fanny Butler, the first female medical student at the London School of Medicine, left for the Zenana Mission in India. She joined the new initiative for the health and welfare of Indian women. The Zenana Mission has contributed to the proliferation of Indian women in nursing even today (Simon, Elizabeth B. ‘Christianity and Nursing in India: a remarkable impact’, in Journal of Christian Nursing. 26 (2): 88-94). It also led to the formation of the Interserve Mission agency.
Christians have always valued life, seeing all humans as being made in the image of God. Apart from health and education, they have promoted countless social reforms. They have consistently opposed widow-burning and infanticide and promoted caring for the deaf, blind and disabled.
Please join us in prayer that the gospel will continue to bless Indian society as Jesus’ followers let their light shine, to the glory of God the Father.
* Not his real name.
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