Chapter VI. The S.P.C.K. Missions in South India in the Eighteenth Century, with some Account of Two Famous Roman Catholic Missionaries
Books of Reference.--The Church in Madras, by the Rev. Frank Penny; A History of Missions in India, by Julius Richter; The Conversion of India, by Dr. George Smith; Digest of S.P.G. Records, 1701-1900; Life of C. F. Schwartz, by Dean Pearson; Life of C. F. Schwartz, by Page.
IT will, I think, be well, before entering on the special subject of this chapter, to make some reference to the labours of the Roman Catholic Church in India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, if only to understand better the religious atmosphere in South India, when the S.P.C.K. began its work. We shall elsewhere have to describe somewhat fully the evangelisation of Travancore and Cochin, which took place during the third and fourth centuries of the Christian era. The rise of Islam had, cut off East from West for many centuries, and it was certainly a revelation to the Portuguese, when they came to India in the sixteenth century, to find this large body of Christians in Travancore. While, however, the Portuguese Roman Catholic missionaries in the second half of the sixteenth century were engaged in the sacrilegious act of upsetting the old Syrian Church at Travancore and endeavouring to Romanise it, the energies of the Roman missionaries during the first half of that century were directed entirely to the conversion of non-Christians.
Most famous of all these early Roman missionaries was the great Francis Xavier. There is a picture in the vestibule of the Church of Bom Jesu at Goa which interprets his life in a striking manner. He is to be seen landing in India, and angels are coming to him from various directions, each bearing a cross. It had, been Xavier's prayer that God would send him many crosses, and that he might have the strength to bear them. His prayer was certainly answered.
Of noble birth and highly gifted, both intellectually and spiritually, he had joined the Jesuit Order through the influence of Ignatius Loyola, when he was thirty-four years of age. The King of Portugal, who was a zealous Roman Catholic, had been dissatisfied with the progress of Christianity in his kingdom at Goa. He appealed to the Jesuit Order, who decided to send Xavier to India. No choice from their point of view could have been wiser. Aided by the authority of the King, Xavier started for the East and landed in Goa in May 1542. Richter, from whose history we shall quote frequently in this chapter, considers that Xavier "towered head and shoulders above all other Europeans then dwelling in India or Eastern Asia,--merchants and public officials as well as missionaries and priests--both in the thoroughness of his scholarship, the earnestness and fervour of his unquestionable piety, the consuming ardour of his work, his boundless self-denial and self-mortification, and his undissembled love of the truth." It is interesting to note that Xavier's whole period of service in the East lasted only ten years, for he died on the Island of Sanzian, near Canton, in May 1552. Of these ten years only four and a half were spent in India! So great, however, was the impression he left upon the men of his period that he has gone down to history as "the Apostle of India."
And yet from one point of view his work was radically defective, for he never learnt any Indian language and carried on his evangelisation by means of interpreters, many of whom were extremely ignorant. It is interesting to read what he himself says on this matter: "It is a difficult situation to find oneself in the midst of a people of strange language without an interpreter. Rodrigues tries, it is true, to act in that capacity, but he understands very little Portuguese. So you can imagine the life I lead here, and what my sermons are like, when neither the people can understand the interpreter, nor the interpreter the preacher, to wit, myself. I ought to be a past-master in the language of dumb-show. Nevertheless, I am not altogether idle, for I need no translator's help in the baptism of newly born children." In another letter he continues: 'As they were as unable to understand my speech as I theirs, I picked out from the crowd several intelligent and educated men and endeavoured to find some amongst them who understood both languages--Spanish and Malabarese (sic' Tamil). Then we entered into conference for several days, and together translated, though with great difficulty, the Catechism into the Malabarese (? Tamil) tongue." How faulty this translation was is strikingly illustrated by a complaint casually made by Xavier, that in the Creed the Christians had learnt "I want" in place of "I believe," and continued thoughtlessly to repeat it.
Xavier's greatest work in India was done amongst the low-caste Paravas far away from Goa, near Cape Comorin. These people, who had been for long years sorely oppressed by Mahomedan pirates, applied to the Portuguese for help. This they were promised on condition that they embraced Christianity. Amongst them Xavier spent two whole years of his Indian missionary career. "He went from village to village, calling crowds of men and boys together in a fitting place for instruction, by means of a hand-bell. Within a month the boys had almost learned by heart what he had recited to them, and they were then enjoined to teach it to their parents, comrades, and neighbours. On Sundays he assembled men and women, boys and girls, in a consecrated building, into which they streamed with joyful zeal. The service simply consisted in his repeating once more, very clearly, the aforesaid passages; they were then repeated by the congregation, the whole being interspersed with prayers offered at regular intervals." And yet, although he had himself baptised thousands of these people, Xavier was wholly dissatisfied with the result of his labours and doubted whether greater success were possible in India. In a letter to Ignatius Loyola, 1549, he writes: "The natives (of India) are so terribly wicked that they can never be expected to embrace Christianity. It is so repellent to them in every way that they have not even patience to listen when we address them on the subject; in fact, one might just as well invite them to allow themselves to be put to death as to become Christians. We must now therefore limit ourselves to retaining those who are already Christians."
After Xavier the most remarkable Roman missionary who ever came to India was unquestionably Robert de Nobili. Born in Rome, of a distinguished branch of the Italian nobility, a nephew of the famous Cardinal Bellarmine, and nearly related to the Pope, this brilliant man sacrificed all his prospects in his homeland to adopt the self-denying work of a missionary in India. Finding that a large number of these Parava Christians who had been evangelised by Francis Xavier had migrated to the city of Madura, at that time one of the most famous centres of South Indian learning, Robert de Nobili felt that his mission lay there. His one absorbing thought was, how can Christianity be brought within the reach of the people of India independently of all connection with Portugal? Xavier had relied on the strong arm of Portugal to help him when necessary. Robert de Nobili rejected entirely all considerations of State help, and determined to become "an Indian to the Indians" that he might win India to Christ. "He donned the light yellow robe of a Sannyasi (penitent) Brahman, engaged Brahmans as his servants, and confined his menu to the vegetarian diet of the Brahmans. He shrouded himself in mystery, as many of them love to do, seldom appeared in public, and only allowed visitors of the highest castes, and Brahmans in particular, to have access to him. He adopted exclusively the Indian custom of carrying on conversation by means of learned disputations, and sought to commend Christianity as the highest philosophy to the Hindus, so long trained in all the fineness of hair-splitting dialectics. Those who associated themselves with him a» disciples, he tried by means of a thirty or forty days' course to lead to a fuller knowledge of Christianity--again chiefly by disputation; he would then baptise them, though he accounted baptism as by no means implying a breaking with caste. The view now everywhere prevalent in India, that baptism in itself constitutes the breaking of caste, inevitably resulting in exclusion from heathen caste circles, had not yet come into existence. On the contrary, those who were baptised maintained all the forms and ceremonies of their old caste; they continued to wear the sacred thread, which Nobili himself now did, the only difference being that the Christian "sacred thread" consisted of three golden strands, symbolic of the Holy Trinity, and two silver ones, typifying the human and divine nature of Christ. But the uninitiated could not perceive the difference, and cases were not unknown in which Christians wore threads consecrated by heathen Brahmans. The Christians too, like the heathen, bore the caste mark on their forehead; they simply did not employ cow-dung ashes as the natives did, but used instead ashes of sandalwood over which a prescribed form of consecration had been spoken, de Nobili too had one of these sandalwood signs painted on his forehead. A special Church was erected for his converts, and they were organised into a self-contained community which had no dealings whatever with the older Church of the Parava Christians. "de Nobili allowed caste differences to exist in all their rigour between Church members of a higher and lower caste, even to the extent of countenancing the idea that contact between a Parava Christian and a Brahman Christian rendered the latter unclean. He called himself a Rajah from Rome, a Guru or Teacher of Religion, a Sannyasi or Penitent, and from 1611 onwards, a Brahman. He claimed to be the bringer of a fourth and lost Veda, which he termed the spiritual law; this alone could impart eternal life. Its contents were partly interspersed among those of the three other Vedas; to a very great extent, however, they had been up to the present wholly lost; this lost Veda he now restored to the Hindus. To support this fiction he acquired with astounding industry a knowledge not only of Tamil and Telugu, the two languages principally spoken in Madura, but also of Sanskrit, de Nobili was the first European to thoroughly master this difficult language, and he even came to use it with a certain degree of elegance. At the same time he made a profound study of the sacred and philosophical literature of India, and with great skill and a most enviable tenacity of memory he was able to pick out and ever hold in readiness for immediate use all such passages as served to strengthen his bold position. The study of Sanskrit and the ancient literature of the country were at that time wholly neglected, and the Brahmans themselves were not innocent of gross forgeries. All this gave such an able and shrewd individual as de Nobili his chance--and he seized it."
It was indeed a strange method of preaching the Gospel which, although connected in its leader with brilliant learning and immense self-sacrifice, was fatally marred by deliberate deceit as well as by fundamentally un-Christian principles. To pretend that he was a Brahman, to actually invent a Veda and to allow and even encourage caste, were acts which were sooner or later bound to bring a painful nemesis, de Nobili was attacked on all sides, both by influential Brahmans as well as the Parava Christians, who resented deeply the degrading position in which they were placed.
The matter was in the year 1623 brought to the notice of the Pope. At this time Jesuit influence was paramount in Rome, and a Bull of Pope Gregory entitled, "Romany sedis antistes," gave ecclesiastical sanction to de Nobili's system. It was an extremely astute utterance, which avoided the really big points at issue, such as the permitting of the caste system in the Christian Church, or the posing of de Nobili as a Brahman, and simply dwelling on minor points. Part of it runs as follows: "Out of compassion for human weakness," etc., de Nobili's converts are permitted "to retain the plait of hair, the Brahmanical thread, the sandalwood sign on the forehead, and the customary ablutions of their caste." They must, however, separate these things from all heathen superstition and envelop these old pagan customs with a cloak of Christianity. "The cord and the coil of hair shall not be received in idolatrous temples, nor, as appears to have been the case hitherto, at the hands of 'yogis' or 'bottis' (masters), or from any other unbeliever, but solely from Catholic priests, who shall consecrate these things with holy water and distribute them after reading the prayers appointed by the Bishop of the diocese."
For a time de Nobili's system was victorious. Associated with him were other missionaries of great ability and unquestionable devotion. Their work lay around Madura, Trichinopoly, Tanjore and in Mysore; later on it spread to Pondicherry and to certain stations in the Carnatic. At de Nobili's death 100,000 Christians are said to have belonged to the mission.
Fifty years later the controversy about this policy of the Jesuits broke out again, and this time it was no longer sanctioned. Pope Clement XI. despatched the Patriarch of Antioch to India with full power to pronounce a definite verdict on the practices of the Jesuits. On June 23, 1704, he published a decree in which sixteen malpractices were condemned. The most important of the sixteen was unquestionably that which runs as follows: "In future refusal of the Holy Sacrament to Pariahs who may be sick may no longer be permitted; such persons shall be visited by the missionaries in their homes, and the sacred unction given without distinction of sex or caste."
Later on Pope Benedict XIV. confirmed the decree of his predecessor in a Bull which runs as follows: "Should the members of the Society of Jesus not obey within the appointed time, they shall be deprived of all authority and missionaries of another order be sent out to India."
Before we attempt to condemn unreservedly de Nobili we must bear in mind the times in which he lived. "He had renounced all aid from the secular power and was alone in India, battling against enormous odds. He had to face the caprice of heathen and Mahomedan Rajahs, as well as the hostilities of the Brahmans and the fanatical sects of South India. At times members of his staff as well as his followers were cast into prison, cruelly scourged and banished from the country. One of them, Juan de Brito, was put to death. It was only, he felt, by laying claim . to the calling of a Sannyasi that he and his brethren could obtain any measure of protection, for no Hindu would dare to lay hand on a Sannyasi. He himself, after forty-two years of missionary labour, when almost blind, obeyed the authority of his superiors and retired first to Ceylon and then to a monastery near Madras. To the end of his life--he lived to the age of eighty--he observed the strictest ceremonial of a Sannyasi, limiting his diet to a few bitter herbs cooked in water. Unquestionably he was one of the most remarkable missionaries whom India has ever seen, and although we must condemn unreservedly his methods, yet we cannot deny to him a boundless devotion to what he believed to be the cause of Christ.
At the close of the seventeenth century it is said by Roman Catholic historians that they had no less than two and a half million converts. For their Madura mission they claimed about 150,000; at Goa, Diu, Bassein, Cochin, they claimed that four-fifths of the entire population were nominally Catholic. They had also large numbers of Christians in Ceylon.
Then during the course of the eighteenth century there seems to have come about a rapid collapse of Roman Catholic missionary effort which, according to Richter, reduced their numbers to about 660,000. The reasons which Richter gives for this downfall are decidedly interesting. First of all came the decline of the power of Portugal, which had always been a great champion of Roman Catholic Christianity. Then came the rise of Holland, England, France, and Denmark in India, and with this a change of opinion in the minds of the Indians. Hitherto they had regarded it as belonging to their worldly interests to become Christians. When they saw, however, that this was no longer the case, many relapsed to heathenism. Tippu Sahib, the fanatical Mahomedan ruler of Mysore, was also responsible for the forcible perversion of large masses of nominal Christians to Islam. The Abbe Dubois states that sixty thousand Christians accepted Mahomedanism without making the slightest demur. Then came the suppression of the Jesuit Order in 1773, and with it the Jesuit missionaries for a time ceased to come to India. Writing in 1815, the Abb6 Dubois describes in melancholy fashion the hopeless condition of their Roman Catholic missions in India. According to him there were at that time 300,000 Roman Catholic Christians in the Archbishopric of Goa, about 100,000 in Ceylon, about 70,000 in the Madura mission, and about 60,000 in the Diocese of Cochin. His description of their moral and spiritual state is sad to read. "By far the greater part of them, in fact, I might say the whole, present nothing but an empty show, a hollow mockery of Christianity, for in the long period of twenty-five years during which I learned to known them most intimately and lived amongst them as their spiritual director, I cannot say that I once found anywhere one single downright and straightforward Christian amongst the natives of India! "It is only right to add that this pessimistic utterance of the Abbé was attacked vigorously at that time and by no one more keenly than by Bishop Heber.
Up to the eighteenth century none of the Reformed Churches took any part in the evangelisation of India. Then came a remarkable change which in time has led to great results. It was a King of Denmark, Frederick Christian IV., who was the first person to feel the call to do something for Christ in India. Away to the south of Madras on the sea coast was a small Danish Settlement at Tranquebar, and it occurred to the King, who was proud of his little Eastern possession, that it was his duty to send missionaries to enlighten its people.
In the year 1706, he sent his Royal Mission which consisted of two missionaries: one a Saxon named Benjamin Ziegenbalg, the other a Dane named Plutscho. Though sent by the King, they were treated with painful discourtesy by the Governor of Tranquebar and those in authority. Insults were offered to them; they were told that their work was futile, and on one occasion Ziegenbalg was imprisoned to gratify the Governor's hatred. On another occasion, when a considerable sum of money in gold had arrived for the support of the missionaries, the boat which was conveying it from the ship to the shore was upset in six feet of water. The Governor Hassius, who seems to have been a most malignant person, took care that the money was never retrieved. In spite of all discouragements, however, these two missionaries persevered.
Ziegenbalg was a remarkable linguist and speedily acquired a working knowledge of Portuguese, which was then spoken widely, as well as a sound knowledge of Tamil. He translated a considerable part of the Bible into Tamil before his death. It is unnecessary for us to give a detailed account of the Tranquebar mission. In the year 1740 it numbered 3700 Christians, and before the end of the century it had increased to 18,000. Prom the first it was constantly hampered in its operations through lack of funds. Shortly after it started the S.P.G. felt drawn to give it liberal support. Then the S.P.G. handed over this task to the S.P.C.K. Before going to Europe in 1714, Ziegenbalg visited the two English Settlements at Cuddalore and Madras, where he was received with great courtesy. During his time in England he went so far as to address a letter to King George I., urging the duty as well as expediency of diffusing the Gospel in British territories in India. When returning to India, he was given a free passage, together with his wife, on one of the ships of the East India Company.
Mr. Penny, in his Church in Madras, has cleared away effectually many misunderstandings regarding the attitude of the East India Company towards missionary effort. He has made it clear to us that from the first the Chaplains of the East India Company, as well as its other officials, welcomed most heartily these Lutheran missionaries, and were prepared to give them any assistance in their power towards carrying out their missionary designs. We shall see later how they actually employed many of these missionaries in caring for their troops and looking after the schools they had started for subordinates in their service. So well were they disposed towards them that it was customary to give them free passages on their ships and to convey their goods from Europe to India free of charge.
In the year 1726 one of the leading missionaries of the Tranquebar mission, a German of the name of Schultz, decided to move northwards from Tranquebar to Madras. He was a man of great ability, but restless and of a masterful disposition, who did not always get on well with his colleagues. Shortly after his arrival in Madras, he was adopted entirely by the S.P.C.K. as one of their own missionaries, and from that time onwards for nearly a century the S.P.C.K. adopted quite a number of these Lutheran missionaries. Their reasons for doing so were obvious. There were at that time no Englishmen who were prepared to leave home and country to face the trials and loneliness of an Indian missionary's life. These men, who were devout and learned and who had made this great sacrifice, were naturally objects of admiration to many in England, as well as to many in India.
A century later, when English Bishops were sent to India and when at length the English Church woke up to a sense of its duty to send out missionaries of our own Church, the anomaly of an English Church Society employing ordained agents who were unable legally to minister in our consecrated Churches became apparent. There is a pasasge in one of Bishop Heber's letters which gives us his views on the subject.
"Still," said he, "there is a difference between them and us, in matters of discipline and external forms, which often meets the eye of the natives, and produces an unfavourable effect upon them. They are perplexed what character to assign to ministers of the Gospel, whom we support and send forth to them, while we do not admit them into our Churches. And so much of influence and authority, which the Church of England is gradually acquiring with the Christians of different Oriental stocks (the Greeks, Armenians, and Syrians), arises from our recognition of, and adherence to, the Apostolic institution of Episcopacy, that it is greatly to be desired that all who are brought forward under our auspices in these countries should, in this respect, agree with us. A strong perception of these inconveniences had induced three of the Lutheran missionaries employed in Bengal by the Church Missionary Society to apply to me for re-ordination according to the rites of the Church of England, and I had much satisfaction in admitting them to Deacon's Orders."
At the time we are writing of, however, these difficulties had not been considered, and the necessities of the work made men overlook them. The S.P.C.K. supported them whole-heartedly in their missionary work and, what is even more remarkable, the East India Company employed many of them as their Chaplains. They were led to do so for several reasons. At this time there were a considerable number of Portuguese, Eurasians, and Tamil converts who were in the service of the East India Company. These people had children who were in need of education. The Company felt that it was their duty to start Charity Schools for these children, but the real difficulty lay in finding fit persons to carry them on. The English Chaplains, who were not many in number, were short-service men, who did not know either Portuguese or Tamil, whereas the missionaries knew both. Again, there were a considerable number of mercenary soldiers in the employ of the Company who had been recruited in Germany, Hanover, Denmark, and Switzerland. The English Chaplains were unable to minister to these soldiers as they did not know their language, whereas the missionaries, who were excellent linguists, were able to render this service in an acceptable way. And so it came about that for nearly a century a body of Lutheran Clergy were supported by an English Church Society as well as by the East India Company. It would seem, however, that while they acted as Chaplains in India and received salaries from the Company, they were never formally recognised by the Directors of the Company at home in the same way as they recognised their own English Chaplains. While acting as Chaplains to the Company, looking after the troops and caring for their Charity Schools, they also did their missionary work and in some cases with marked success. By the middle of the eighteenth century there were more than two thousand converts at Vepery in Madras, and everywhere they were actively engaged in missionary work.
Some among them were men of remarkable ability: Sartorius, Gericke, Fabricius, and Kiernander were all outstanding men of their period. On various occasions they ministered to the English in the absence of English Chaplains. Clive was married by Fabricius, owing to the tragic death of the English Chaplain who was to have performed the ceremony. Fabricius was famous for his gifts as a linguist as well as a hymn-writer.
Most distinguished, however, of all these Lutheran missionaries was Christian Schwartz, who for nearly fifty years worked both as an S.P.C.K. missionary and Chaplain in South India. His first sixteen years were Spent in Tranquebar. After that he moved north to Tinnevelly and Tanjore, where his work attracted the attention of the East India Company, and for the future he was enrolled as one of their Chaplains and also adopted by the S.P.C.K. His reputation for goodness and wisdom was so remarkable that he was invited by the Rajah of Tanjore to come and settle in his capital. There he remained for many years, and on the death of the Rajah was appointed guardian of the young Rajah during his minority. His ability in dealing with delicate questions of diplomacy was remarkable, and on one occasion he was sent as an ambassador of the East India Company to the Court of Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore. He might unquestionably have amassed a large fortune, but he resolutely set himself against any such idea, and beyond the small amount he spent on himself, devoted all he received to the work of his mission. It might have been thought that, drawn into secular affairs as he constantly was, he would have grown cold in his evangelistic work, but no one who reads his life written by Dr. Pearson, can fail to see that he was never weary, "in season and out of season," of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unlike Xavier, whose methods of teaching Christianity seem to have been decidedly superficial, Schwartz took infinite pains in the instruction of each individual convert. It is, as a matter of fact, to Schwartz and these other Lutheran missionaries that we owe the large number of Indian Christians we have in South India to-day.
Over and over again Schwartz, Gericke, Fabricius, and other of these Lutheran missionaries acted as mediators between the English and other Europeans on the Coromandel Coast, when matters of dispute arose. So highly was the work of some of these missionaries esteemed by the East India Company, that on the death of Gericke a splendid monument was erected by the Company to his memory in the Fort Church, Madras. Schwartz, too, was in this respect honoured even more than Gericke. On the granite stone which covers his grave at Tanjore is the following inscription. The poem which is under the inscription, was written by the young Indian Rajah whose guardian he had been:--
"Sacred to the memory of
The Reverend Christian Frederick Schwartz
Missionary to the Honourable Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge
Who departed this life on the
13th of February 1798,
Aged Seventy-one years and four months.
Firm wast thou, humble and wise,
Honest, pure, free from disguise,
Father of orphans, the widow's support,
Comfort in sorrow of every sort.
To the benighted dispenser of light,
Doing, and pointing to, that which is right,
Blessing to princes, to people, to me.
May I, my father, be worthy of thee!
Wisheth and prayeth thy Sarabojee."
In the Fort Church at Madras is another monument erected by the East India Company in memory of this remarkable man who for nearly fifty years had laboured in India without once visiting Europe. The sculptured design on this monument and its inscription so beautifully epitomises bis life that I venture to quote Pearson's description at some length.
"The principal compartment of the monument is occupied with an alto-relievo, representing Schwartz surrounded by a group of his orphan pupils to whom he afforded an asylum in his house, and by several of his fellow-labourers who attended him in his last moments. One of the children is embracing his dying hand, and one of the missionaries is supporting his head; but the eyes of the departing saint are directed, and his hand is raised, towards the object in the upper part of the bas-relief, namely, the Cross, which is borne by a descending angel; implying that the death of Christ, the grand subject of his ministry, was now the chief support of his soul,"
The epitaph reads as follows:--
"Sacred to the memory of
The Rev. Christian Frederick Schwartz,
Whose life was one continued effort to imitate the
example of his Blessed Master.
Employed as a Protestant Missionary from the
Government of Denmark,
And in the same character by the Society in England for
The Promoting of Christian Knowledge,
He, during a period of fifty years, 'Went about doing good,'
Manifesting, in respect of himself, the most entire
Abstraction from temporal views,
But embracing every opportunity of promoting both the
Temporal and eternal welfare of others.
In him religion appeared not with a gloomy aspect
or forbidding mien,
But with a graceful form and placid dignity."