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Beginnings in India

By Eugene Stock, D.C.L.

London: Central Board of Missions and SPCK, 1917.

Chapter IV. The First Christian Villages

SUPPOSE we are at Allahabad, the capital of the "United Provinces of Agra and Oudh": we shall probably, besides being shown much that is interesting in the city, be invited to visit a neighbouring village embosomed in a grove of fine mango-trees, with its pleasant little church in the midst. This, we shall be told, is the Christian village of Muirabad, named after its great patron, a former Governor of the Province, Sir William Muir, and inhabited by Indian Christians employed in the city, who maintain their own church and pastor. Suppose, again, we are at Nasik, in the Deccan: here, too, we shall be invited to go two miles out of the city to the village of Sharanpur, where we find a band of Christians engaged in agricultural industries; and we shall be told how another excellent statesman, Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of Bombay, sent to this settlement the East African lads rescued in his days from the Arab slave-ships, and how Livingstone came here and got the famous "Nasik boys" who were with him in his last journeys and brought his body to England. Suppose, once more, we are at Delhi: here we find poor Christians gathered in bastis, small groups of houses with an open courtyard, where they can live apart from their heathen neighbours. How came this system of segregation to be adopted?

In the early days of our Missions, the perplexing question was, what is to become of the newly baptized Indian? His trade or calling had probably a caste of its own, and no one would employ him or do business with him. Hence the commencement at many Mission Stations of industrial work, to enable converts to earn their living. In the rural districts, those with ever so little land could go on cultivating it; but often their cows would be stolen and their wells stopped. The Rev. J. L. Kearns, of the S.P.G., wrote in 1858: "The whole community combine to give the Christian no fire or water, or even to sell him food. If he is a creditor, his debtors are forbidden to pay him. Charges are got up against him, false witnesses suborned, and he is arrested and punished "--and so on.

The ideal, no doubt, would be for the Christians to live among their heathen neighbours, and seek occasions of influencing them; but this was often impracticable, so Christian settlements became common. It is in the south that they have been most useful; and we will pay them a visit in the southernmost province of British India.

The province of Tinnevelly is about the size of Yorkshire, and has been the scene of one of the most interesting of Anglican Missions, carried on by both the S.P.G. and the C.M.S. Corresponding nearly to the position of Leeds in our great county is Tinnevelly Town, dominated, as the visitor cannot help feeling, by the great temple of Siva, with its extensive grounds, numerous shrines, large revenues, and army of Brahman priests. Three miles off is another town, Palamcotta, the seat of British administration and the centre of the C.M.S. Mission. Corresponding nearly to Bridlington on the Yorkshire coast is the port of Tuticorin, an important S.P.G. station. The river Tambraparni fairly corresponds with the Humber and its affluents. On the west, as Yorkshire is bounded by the Pennine range, so is Tinnevelly by the Ghats. But the southern part of the Province, where the largest Missions are, is very different from South Yorkshire, being a vast sandy plain covered with groves of the palmyra-tree, which is in various ways the main sustenance of the people. Its sap is their food, its leaves their writing-paper, its fibres their string, its roots their drums, its trunk their timber.

The famous missionary Schwartz, of whom we read in our first chapter, twice visited Tinnevelly, and baptized a Brahman woman who had been taught by an English officer with whom she lived, and had built a little church. At Schwartz's second visit, in 1786, there was a congregation of 160 persons, and it was to minister to them that he ordained the Tamil catechist Satyanadan, before mentioned. The numbers grew to a few thousand, but when James Hough, the missionary-hearted chaplain, went to Palamcotta in 1816, he found the remnants (about 3,000) scattered among many villages, and ministered to by the Tamil "country priests." The S.P.C.K. was unable to respond to his appeal for a missionary, and in 1820 he obtained from the C.M.S. two Lutherans lately arrived at Madras, one of them, Rhenius, a man of great ability and devotion, who for nearly ten years watched over the scattered Christians. At last, in 1836, the S.P.G., which had taken over the Missions, was able to spare an English clergyman, and in 1841 came R. Caldwell, who had gone to India under the L.M.S., but joined the Church and the S.P.G. He was a great man in every way. Dr. George Smith reckons him and Duff and John Wilson as "the three most remarkable benefactors of the peoples of India." [Twelve Pioneer Missionaries, p. 186. This book, like all Dr. Smith's, is a brilliant work.] Meanwhile, the C.M.S. Lutherans, who had yielded to anti-Church influences, had been superseded by English clergymen, among whom was Edward Sargent. Thirty-five years later, Caldwell and Sargent became Assistant Bishops together under the Bishop of Madras.

From early days the Tinnevelly Christians gathered into villages of their own. One of the earliest was Mudalur, in the S.P.G. district, where in 1841 Bishop Spencer found 1,000 people, palmyra-climbers, and declared that he "could not describe the effect on the mind" of a visit to such a" little Christian colony." From there he went to another, which the people had christened Nazareth, a name now very familiar in S.P.G. circles, and there he confirmed 441 candidates. It was at Nazareth that Caldwell preached his first sermon in Tinnevelly; and no wonder that his text was "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." It has, indeed, always been a model Mission Station, particularly under A.F. Caemmerer in early days and A. Margoschis in later times, the latter's thirty years' fruitful service ending with his death so recently as 1908. With its primary and middle and high schools, its art industrial school, its orphanage, its medical work, its success in self-support, its evangelistic preaching by the Christians themselves, we can understand how Bishop Gell of Madras could say in 1892: "In the whole Presidency there is not another place where so much useful work of different kinds is going on as at Nazareth." Another early village was Sawyerpuram, named after a trader who helped the Mission in business matters, and who himself bought the land that some persecuted converts might settle on it, 500 of whom were found in 1842, without any missionary having yet come to them, besides inquirers and adherents in seventy neighbouring villages.

In the C.M.S. districts, which are more extensive, a Dharma Sangam, or Native Philanthropic Society, was formed in the time of Rhenius for the purchase of land for such villages, and several sprang up under its auspices, as Kadachapuram (Grace Village), Suviseshapuram (Gospel Village), Nallur (Good Town). One illustration maybe given of the persecution endured by the poor Christians. They had transformed their little devil-temple or shrine into a chapel or "prayer-house," and the transformed hut had been pulled down in the night. In this case an appeal was made to the magistrate at Palamcotta. The members of the "Sacred Ashes Society," who had destroyed the prayer-house, pleaded that no such building had existed. The magistrate dispatched a police-officer to see the place and report. The heathen party instantly sent men to run all night and reach the village first, thirty miles off. When the policeman arrived, he was shown a bit of ploughed land, with grain growing. A Christian bystander, however, quietly said, "Please, sir, take up one or two of those blades of grain by the roots." The ground had been ploughed, watered, and planted in the night, to remove all traces of the ruined building!

One village is notable in several ways. A Welshman, John Thomas, who landed in India on Christmas Day, 1836, and preached his first Tamil sermon on the next Christmas Day, was stationed where there was a small Christian settlement in the midst of a desert swept by storms of sand and dust. The natives called the district sabanilam, "soil under a curse." But Thomas resolved that the settlement should live up to its name, Mengnanapuram, "True Wisdom Village." He dug wells and created an oasis, and very soon, both physically and spiritually, the desert rejoiced and blossomed as the rose. Ten years later he crowned his work by building a large church, with a tower and tall spire, and room for 2,000 people to sit on the floor; and, as a true Welshman, he named it St. David's. Bishop Cotton wrote in 1864:

"On the floor are seated 1,400 dusky Tamils, the catechists, and schoolmasters, in full suits of white, the poorer men only with waist-cloths, the women in gay colours; the school-children massed in two squares; all profoundly attentive, kneeling reverentially in the prayers, joining heartily in the responses, listening eagerly to the sermon. It is in catechetical form: Can you finish that text? What was my second head? And an answer is given in full chorus. The more intelligent make notes on strips of palmyra leaf. The singing is soft, melodious, reverential."

Thomas continued in charge thirty-three years, and when he died, in 1870, he left 11,000 Christians in 125 villages--that is, in the Mengnanapuram "circle" alone (one of ten circles). His widow continued at the village thirty years more, and his daughter superintends an important boarding-school there to this day, after fifty years' service. The pastoral and evangelistic work has long been entirely in Indian hands, there being nine Tamil clergymen in the circle.

The whole number of Christians in Tinnevelly now exceeds 100,000, with about 100 Indian clergymen; and the church funds, for pastoral expenses, stipends of clergy and teachers under the Church Council, etc., exceed £10,000 a year. The Church has supplied doctors, lawyers, magistrates, etc., to the civil community, several of them graduates of Madras University. Although the work under the two Societies respectively is still separately administered, this is only pending the complete synodical organization of the Church under the Bishop; and meanwhile the two sections are united in spirit, and have common meetings and services from time to time. When the C.M.S. Centenary was celebrated, a Memorial Hall was erected at Palamcotta, to the cost of which S.P.G. Christians contributed as well as their brethren. When Prince Edward of Wales (afterwards Edward VII.) visited South India in 1874, he met 7,000 of the Christians gathered at a railway station, and Caldwell (not then Bishop) presented him with an address from the whole body; and the Prince replied, "It is a great satisfaction to me to find my countrymen engaged in offering to our Indian fellow-subjects those truths which form the foundation of our own social and political system, and which we ourselves esteem as our most valued possession."

Bishop Cotton, in 1864, wrote to his successor as Headmaster of Marlborough, Dr. Bradley, that he was "deeply impressed with the reality and thoroughgoing character of the whole business," and begged him "never to believe insinuations against missionary work in India," or "to scruple to plead in the school chapel for either S.P.G. or C.M.S." "My own faith in the Gospel," he said, "has been strengthened by the sight of what Christianity can do. 'I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee.' "

There is a recent interesting development of the village system in the Punjab. By splendid works of irrigation the Government has reclaimed large regions between the great rivers, and these are now colonized by villagers from over-populated districts. Some thousands of these immigrants are Christians, the fruit of the recent mass movement; and, owing to the intervention of Colonel Montgomery (brother of the Bishop), certain villages have been assigned to them. One is named Montgomerywala after him, and another Batemanabad after the late distinguished missionary Rowland Bateman. The Christians are permanent tenants under Government, a status which avoids the difficulties occasioned by direct missionary ownership.

The old village system assuredly justified itself in Tinnevelly; and the new system will doubtless justify itself in the Punjab.

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