Christianity in India

Ancient Beginnings

52 According to tradition, the Apostle Thomas arrives in India and establishes seven congregations.

c. 189 Pantaenus, a missionary from Alexandria, arrives in India.

c. 200 The Syriac Chronicle of Edessa describes a “church of the Christians” in India.

345 During the Great Persecution in Persia, Thomas a Kana leads 400 Christian refugees to the Malabar coast.

883 Anglo-Saxons bishops sent by King Alfred visit the tomb of St. Thomas (Mylapore).

c. 1293 Marco Polo stays on the Coromandel Coast, describes the tomb of St. Thomas as a place of pilgrimage, and visits Christians and Jews in Quilon.

1502 Thomas Christian leaders ask Vasco da Gama for an alliance against Muslim predators.

The Dawn of Missions

1542 Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier and two Tamil assistants teach the Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Ten Commandments to Paravars (fisherfolk on Coromandel Coast), baptizing 10,000 in a single month.

1606 Roberto de Nobili begins a 50-year career in the Jesuit Madurai Mission, adopting Brahman culture and becoming a renowned scholar and poet.

1622 Congregatio de Propaganda Fide is created to send missionaries into areas of India outside of Portuguese Padroado authority.

1653 At Koonen Cross, some Thomas Christians declare independence from Roman Catholic authority.

1706 German Pietists Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau reach Tranquebar and establish a printing press and charity school.

1710 Jesuit missionary Constanzo Giuseppe Beschi begins a spectacular career as the greatest Tamil scholar of the age.

1733 Aaron becomes the first Tamil evangelical pastor in Thanjavur.

1750 C. F. Schwartz begins career as a renowned evangelical missionary-statesman-scholar, diplomat, and mentor to leaders of later mass conversion movements in Tirunelveli.

1773 Indian Empire (Raj) established.

1792 William Carey’s Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of Heathens evokes waves of evangelical missionary voluntarism.

1799 Serampore Mission established by William Carey, Joshua Marshman, and David Ward.

1813 American Congregationalists (A.B.C.F.M.) found the Maratha Mission. Other missions soon follow.

1833 Charter Renewal Act allows for full entry of missionaries into India.

1833 American Presbyterians begin work in Punjab and build a strong educational system.

1838 Jesuit order, restored by Gregory XVI, returns to its Madurai Mission after an absence of 64 years.

1841 Welsh Presbyterian missionaries in the Khasi Hills build educational infrastructures; local Christians later lead conversion movements until over 95% percent of all Khasis become Christians.

1844 First Synod of Pondicherry launches Catholic reforms.

1848 Nehemiah (Nilakantha) Goreh is ordained as an Anglican priest.

1855 Abolition of slavery in Travancore (Kerala) opens the way for mass conversions among untouchables, lower castes, and former slave castes.

The Age of Empire

1857 The Great Mutiny begins, followed the next year by the replacement of the East India Company by the British crown.

1866 Maulvi Imad id-din, ordained scholar-missionary, wins renown for apologetic writings reconciling Christian faith and Muslim culture.

1876 Naga Christians establish a “village of refuge” where American missionaries translate Scripture, set up schools, and lay the foundation for movements by which over 95% of Nagas eventually become Christians.

1886 Pandita Ramabai makes a triumphant tour of the United States.

1886 Catholic hierarchy of India established.

1888 Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association founded, with missionaries reaching out to low-caste peoples, forming ashram-like settlements.

1888–89 Salvadorians, led by German missionaries, arrive in Khasi Hills and gain first converts.

1891 Brahmabandhav Upadhyay is baptized as an Anglican; later joins the Catholic church.

1894 H. A. Krishna Pillai, renowned Christian poet, publishes a classical Tamil version of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

1894 National Papal Seminary established at Kandy (moves to Pune in 1950s) to promote indigenization of the Indian Catholic hierarchy.

1895 Narayan Vaman Tilak (1862–1919), celebrated Brahman poet, makes a quest of reconciling Hindu heritage with devotion to Christ.

1899 Two Mizos become Christians, five years after missionary arrival. (Today Mizo Christians make up 86% of the population of Mizoram.)

1904 Sundar Singh has a vision of Christ and becomes a wandering Christian sadhu.

1905 “Holy Spirit Revival” and speaking in tongues among devout school girls at Pandita Ramabai’s Mukti Mission attracts world-wide attention.

1905–06 Revival in the Khasi Hills, with 8,000 converts, spreads to surrounding areas.

1910 First World Missionary Conference meets in Edinburgh.

1912 V. S. Azariah becomes first Indian Anglican bishop; his efforts in Dornakal inspire the conversion of over 200,000 Malas and Madigas and provoke conflict with Gandhi.

1923 Bishop Tibertius Roche becomes first Indian head of a Latin Rite diocese (in Tamil Nadu).

1927 Amy Carmichael founds Dohnavur Fellowship for rescuing child temple prostitutes; becomes friend of Gandhi.

Toward the Contemporary Era

1947 Independence of India, accompanied by the Partition of the Indian Empire into India and Pakistan, followed the next year by the forming of independent Burma and Ceylon.

1947 Church of South India is formed, combining formerly Anglican, Congregationalist, Reformed, and Methodist denominations; soon followed by Church of North India (CNI).

1948 Mohandas K. Gandhi is assassinated.

1951 Mother Teresa (Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu) forms the Catholic Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta.

1960s Freedom of Religion Acts bolster Hindu efforts to stop Christian conversion

1961 Third World Council of Churches, held in New Delhi, leads to the formation of the World Council of Churches as a permanent body with headquarters in Geneva.

1977 Indian Supreme Court defines evangelist’s work as a threat to the “freedom of conscience” guaranteed to all citizens of India.

2002 Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance passed.

By Compiled by Robert Eric Frykenberg

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #87 in 2005]

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