Christians wasted no time taking the gospel to India. Some of the earliest details are difficult to nail down, but there’s no mistaking that the Church set roots in India very quickly.
The Apostle Thomas in India
Tradition tells us that Thomas (yes, the doubter, or, as I prefer to remember him, the one who volunteered to die with Jesus) sailed to India with an Indian merchant around 52 AD.
He planted eight churches among mostly Jewish communities on the western coast. The story goes, that Thomas ended up in the court of the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares, who converted to Christianity under Thomas’ ministry. He later crossed to southeast India on a second missionary journey, and was killed in Chennai.
“It must be admitted that a personal visit of the Apostle Thomas to South India was easily feasible in the traditional belief that he came by way of Socotra, where an ancient Christian settlement undoubtedly existed. I am now satisfied that the Christian church of South India is extremely ancient…” – Vincent A. Smith, Historian
Tradition, again, tells us that Thomas was martyred in 72 AD in Chennai by Hindu priests of Kali. Later versions of the story make his death—still at the hand of a Hindu priest—a hunting accident.
Martyrdom of St Thomas by Peter Paul Rubens
Protestant Missions in India
The Church continued to grow and missionaries kept coming. Two of the first Protestant missionaries in India were Lutherans: Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau. The Danish king requested missionaries, so these two men travelled to India together in 1705/1706.
Ziegenbalg worked hard to learn the Tamil language, and in three years completed a translation of the New Testament. The new mission in India baptized their first new disciples as early as 1708, but not without a battle.
Their work was opposed by local Hindus as well as the local Danish authorities. Ziegenbalg’s public critique of the Indian caste system that marginalized the poor, inspired death threats from the upper classes. Plütschau was brought to court over the issue of a local, illegitimate child, about which Ziegenbalg wrote, “the Catholics rejoiced, that we were persecuted and they were authorized.” Later, Ziegenbalg was arrested and imprisoned—some records say for his intervention on behalf of a Tamil widow, while others reference his conversion of locals to Christianity.
Other Protestant Missionaries to India
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Just a few of the many people that God has sent to shine His light in India.
- William Carey (1761-1834)—The “father of modern missions,” translated the bible into Bengali, Sanskrit, and other Indian languages and dialects.
- Nathan Brown (1807-1886)—American Baptist missionary. He and his wife spent about 20 years in India where he helped rescue the Assamese language by publishing a grammar and a New Testament in that language.
- Dr Samuel Henry Kellogg (1839-1899)—Kellogg developed a Hindi grammar textbook that is highly regarded to this day, and was the greater part of an effort in retranslating the bible into it’s current Hindi form.
- Paul Olaf Bodding (1865-1938)—Norwegian missionary and linguist. He spent 44 years in India creating a written language, grammar, and bible for the Santali language.
- Amy Carmichael (1867-1951)—Amy opened an orphanage to save children from temple prostitution during her 55 years (without furlough) in India. She is buried in India.
- Dame Edith Mary Brown (1864-1956)—Medical missionary. She founded the first medical school for women, and died in India at at 92.
- Dr. Paul Wilson Brand (1914-2003)—Medical missionary for 19 years in India.