Christian Missionaries an organised group of people engaged in the evangelical work of spreading the gospel, were active in Bengal in the colonial period, though their contact started since the 16th century AD. Legend traces that St. Thomas was the first Christian missionary to come to India in 50 AD and convert a group of people of the Malabar coast by 58 AD. Since then various missionaries-Syrian, Roman Catholic and particularly the Jesuits-visited India at different times. But Christianity in India remained almost confined to the coastal areas in South India.
Bengal's contact with the Christian mission started with the coming of Jesuit missionaries-Father Antony Vaz and Father Peter Dias in 1576 and the group of Augustinian Friars in 1580. Bandel, a Dutch town, became the centre of their activities. Initially the Jesuits and Augustinians worked together and established a church and a monastery in 1599. A convent and the Jesuit College of St. Paul were also established. With the appointment of Father Peter Gomes as the Rector of the St. Paul College in 1622, education mission began to flourish. The sustained efforts of B Rodrigues, James Gomes, Simon de Figuredo and Andre Machado made it a great centre of learning and evangelical work. Within a decade some 10,000 people were claimed to have been converted. In 1633 shahjahan, through a farman, granted 777 bighas of rent-free land for the maintenance of the church, with some special privileges. The Bandel church continued its education mission throughout the 19th century though the Company's government revoked the Farman in 1797. As late as in 1928 Bandel Church was entrusted to the Roman Catholic group of the Salesians of Don Bosco. Throughout the colonial period and after, it established different branches of Don Bosco School, Auxilium Convent and St. Paul's School in different parts of Bengal. But with the advent of the British (Protestant) power in Bengal, the Roman Catholic mission was rather cornered while Protestant mission dominated the field.
The Christian mission started as an organised movement in Bengal with the arrival of British Protestant missionaries in the last decade of the 18th century. The great Evangelical Revival in contemporary England to preach the gospel to all nations resulted in the formation of quite a few missionary societies. The Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), the London Missionary Society (LMS) and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) formed in 1792, 1795 and 1799 respectively were the major ones. The first two were non-conformist bodies and the third was Anglican. The Church of Scotland started its mission in Bengal decades later in 1830 under alexander duff (1806-1878). But all these churches made an evangelical alliance in the field of Bengal mission. The formation of the interdenominational Calcutta Missionary Conference (CMC) in 1831 was the best illustration of such evangelical spirit.
The Christian missionaries in Bengal followed the humanitarian ideas of the early evangelicals in England and emphasised the 'social aspects' of the missionary programme. The Scottish Missionaries and the Irish Presbyterians, too, followed this programme. Their united efforts made the 19th century the greatest century of Christian missionary activities. This was also a great age of European colonial expansion. The Western commerce and culture began to dominate the colonized countries. This commercial expansion created favourable conditions for foreign missions. The Protestant powers like Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark entered the mission field.
It was only the English Protestant missionaries who showed ardent or permanent missionary zeal. With the growth of British power, Bengal became the main centre of their activities. The English east india company, however, initially opposed their organised work. The first organised missionary work in Bengal started under william carey, a Baptist, after his arrival in Bengal in 1800. Carey started the first Baptist Mission in that year at serampore, then under Danish control. His two associates were Joshua Marshman (1768-1837) and William Ward (1769-1823) and they formed the famous Serampore Trio. The LMS too started their mission work under Nathaniel Forsyth in 1798 in the Dutch town of chinsura. The CMS entered India after the company's charter of 1813 removed the restriction on missionary enterprise in India. Greenwood and Schroeter were the first church missionaries to arrive in Calcutta in 1816.
In the cultural encounter between Christianity and religions of the subcontinent the missionaries failed to influence the followers of Islam. As believers in one God Muslims could not accept the doctrine of 'Trinitarian' Christianity. Some adverse comments about the prophet Muhammad (Sm) in a pamphlet issued from Serampore Baptist Missionary press in 1809 created a widespread commotion among the Muslims. The Seramore Trio judged the publication as an imprudent act and never again published anything which could offend the Muslims. Henceforth the Baptists became more cautious about preaching among the Muslims. The Muslim society in general remained beyond the missionary efforts and there were very few mission stations in the Muslim dominated rural eastern Bengal.
The activities of Protestant missionaries in Bengal can roughly be divided into three periods: 1793-1834 and 1834-1857 known as Carey's and Duff's period respectively and finally from 1857 to the end of the century.
In the first period- the age of Carey- the main emphasis was laid on improvement of indigenous languages and literature and spread of education as preparatory work to evangelisation. The need of reform of some Hindu social institutions and usages, such as, caste system, sati, infanticide, Antarjali (exposure of the sick on river banks), etc, was also advocated by Serampore trio. They were instrumental in the passing of laws prohibiting some of these practices between 1804 and 1829.
They believed that only education based on Christian truth could remove these social evils. Primarily vernacularists, the Serampore trio tried to infuse Christian ideas in the existing educational system based on village pathshalas (schools). To reach education to the common people, Carey wanted to build up a scheme of mass education adopting some indigenous systems like sardar-pado (monitorial system).
Carey had no faith in the 'downward filtration theory' in education, made fashionable by the Anglicists in the 1830s, and wanted to build up a system from below. With this aim, his associate J Marshman worked out a complete scheme known as 'Hints relative to Native schools' for the establishment of village vernacular schools in 1816. It emphasized that the medium of instructions should be the mother-tongue of the people. The village schools should follow an 'improved' curriculum including arithmetic, elementary science, outlines of history and geography, natural philosophy, scripture and ethics. The scheme apparently succeeded; 103 elementary schools were set up with 6,703 students by 1818. The 'nonconformist conscience' of the Baptists prevented them initially from accepting any state aid. Another dissenting body, the LMS, established its first chain of village elementary schools under Robert May in Chinsura in 1814. It included 36 elementary schools with 2,695 students in 1818.
As a true 'Christian Orientalist' Carey combined the classicist and vernacularist ideas in his educational plan. As a Professor of fort william college (1800) and Professor of Sanskrit of Asiatic Society (1806), he encouraged studies of Oriental classics since he believed that the Bible should be translated in Sanskrit and Persian to pave the way for a cultural bridge between India and the West. Though primarily a vernacularist Carey did not ignore higher studies. He suggested government grant toward extension of European scientific teaching after the passing of the charter act in 1813. His 'plan for instructing native inhabitants of India in European sciences' (June 1814) may be considered as the first comprehensive educational programme in India. In 1818 the Serampore Trio founded the serampore college to give the Youth of Asia full instruction in Oriental literature and European science. Its ultimate purpose, however, was to train Indians to replace the Europeans as missionaries and instructors in Christian education.
The serampore mission was a pioneer in the field of printing and publication too. Carey was a great linguist. Under his guidance the serampore mission press printed the Bangla, Asamese, Oriya, Hindi, Marathi and Sanskrit versions of the complete Bible. Apart from Biblical translations, the Baptists and their Indian associates (like ramram basu and mrityunjay vidyalankar) translated the Ramayana and parts of other Indian classics. They translated, printed and distributed numerous tracts or pamphlets (about 33,050 by 1829). This example inspired the calcutta school-book society (1817) to publish text books in Bangla by 1821. These publications undoubtedly made notable contributions to the growth of Bangla prose literature.
The other Bangla publications from Serampore included Carey's Kathopakathan (Dialogues) which reflected contemporary social life of Bengal. British Baptist educationist John Mack's Principles of Chemistry (1824) introduced chemical terms and thought in Bengal. William Ward's Account of the Writings, Religion and Manners of the Hindus (1811) indicated the Baptist interest in Hindu beliefs and society.
Serampore missionaries were pioneers in the field of journalism too. JC Marshman's Digdarshan (the sign post), Magazine for Indian Youth (in English and Bangla), Samachar Darpan (News Mirror) published in 1818 and The Friend of India (1818) played significant roles in drawing government's attention to some contemporary social problems. From the 1840s, the missionary societies began to publish their denominational journals containing a wide range of information. The Calcutta Christian Intelligencer (CMS, 1840-1865), The Christian Spectator, the Oriental Baptist and the Missionary Herald (BMS, 1856-1910) were the most prominent among them. The first inter-denominational journal- The Calcutta Christian Observer was published as the organ of the CMC in 1831, which was followed by the Evangelical Review from 1873 to 1900. Most of these journals reflected some contemporary problems of Bengal Society and suggested their remedies.
With the arrival of Alexander Duff (1806-1878), the great Scottish missionary, in Calcutta (May 1830), Anglicanism cornered Orientalism in mission work. With a true Anglicist spirit he wanted to fulfil the yearning of a section of Bengali youth of possessing Western knowledge by opening the Scottish Church College on 13 July 1830. This English medium school (later turned into a college) was frankly Christian in character. It was meant for the middle class Calcutta boys, who, Duff believed, would help to disseminate Christian knowledge down to the mass. Duff's college became the main agency of conversion of 'high caste' Hindu youth.
Duff stayed in Calcutta in three different periods, 1830-34, 1840-49 and 1856-63. Impressed by his teaching and persuasion, a group of young Calcutta boys became Christians between 1832 and 1849 (Mahesh Chandra Ghose, Krishna Mohan Banerjee, Lal Behari Dey being most notable among them). These conversions created a stir in Calcutta society. rammohun roy warmly supported Duff's efforts in the field of education, but the process of conversion alienated the brahma samaj from Christian mission. Controversy between the two over this question went on throughout the 19th century. Success of the mission in the field of English education was limited. After wood's education despatch (1854) had introduced the grant-in-aid system to private schools (1855), missionaries failed to compete with the growing Bengali-managed schools. These schools nearly ousted the missionary schools from the field of English education. The latter, often failing to qualify for the aid, withdrew from the field. The CMS run Cathedral Mission College (1865) also failed to compete with the presidency college (1855) and the Metropolitan and City Colleges (both affiliated as Degree College in 1879). It was closed in 1880.
Missionaries now concentrated more on promotion of mass education and started a united effort through the CMC. Rev. james long, the leading figure of the Conference, formulated different schemes for promotion of mass education at the expense of higher education. The schemes that showed at times the genuine concern of the missionaries for the well-being of the Bengali masses often influenced the government policy. The recommendations of the Hunter Education Commission (1885) for promotion of mass education were considered by the CMC as a triumph of its efforts.
The CMC also championed Bengal peasants' cause. Contacts with the village reality made them aware of the anomalies of the colonial land revenue policy and judicial systems. The CMC wanted to create a public opinion in England and India in favour of reforms in the socio-economic system in Bengal. Their efforts started with the organisation of the first general conference of Protestant missionaries working in Bengal (Calcutta, 4-7 September 1855). In several petitions to the British Parliament and governments of India and Bengal (1852-1859), the CMC, along with other suggestions for remedies in the system, pleaded in favour of European colonisation in Bengal. A 'liberal, Christian' European settlement, they believed, would be able to remove the abuses of the land system. But they were thoroughly disillusioned about the 'boon' of such settlement during the indigo resistance movement of 1859-60. After Indigo crisis Bengal missionaries put increasing emphasis on mass education believing that 'a sound Christian education' alone would help peasants out of their plight and they actively participated in the mass education programme sponsored by the Bengal committee of the Christian Vernacular Education Society (founded in London in 1858).
The CMC, however, remained the champion of the peasant cause till the passing of the Bengal Tenancy Act in 1885, which the missionaries believed, remedied many abuses of the land system. Since then the Bengal missionaries dropped this 'political programme'.
The Christian missionaries were the first to get over the gender bias regarding admission of women missionaries to the CMC. In 1877, the women missionaries were admitted as full members with the same status and rights of men. Such inter-denominational missionary conferences were formed in Bombay, Madras and Bangalore between 1845 and 1858, where women, though allowed to attend the conferences, were not, however, allowed to speak or vote. Inclusion of women missionaries in CMC brought to the fore some gender issues like education and social status of Indian women.
Carey in Bengal realised, as early as in 1796, the need for women missionaries to address such issues. In 1820 William Ward, referring to degraded condition of Indian women, appealed to English women for joining mission to improve it. Responding to his call Miss Mary Ann Cooke, the first woman missionary, arrived in Calcutta in 1822. The first mission school for girls, was, however, established by Robert May (LMS) in Chinsura in 1818. By 1823 with the assistance of the CMS, Miss Cooke (later Mrs Wilson) established 15 schools in Calcutta and its vicinity with about 300 students. This sole woman missionary, finding it difficult to supervise these scattered schools, set up the 'central school' in Calcutta in 1828 amalgamating the local schools in it. The newly formed Ladies Society For Native Female Education (1824)- an association of European ladies presided over by Governor General's wife Lady Amherst, helped her in its management. The Baptists established such central schools in Calcutta (1829) and the CMS in Burdwan (1832). During the decade between 1823 and 1833 the missionaries established more of such girls' schools in their different mission stations in Bengal (such as those at Katwa, Suri, Bahrampur, Chinsura, Burdwan, Kalna, Bankura. Krishnanagar, Barisal, Dhaka, Chittagong). The missionaries' wives generally took charge of these schools in their respective mission stations. The curriculum here was similar to that in the boys' schools. Disillusioned over negligible success of the girls' day schools the missionaries began to concentrate more on the boarding schools. Every natural calamity brought more inmates to these schools. Shelter and food was provided to these destitute. With time these schools played a key role in conversion to Christianity.
After 1855, the government-aided girls' schools managed by Bengalis turned out to be rivals of the mission schools. The Indian Education Commission (hunter commission) of 1882 reported that most of the students attending 7,000 missionary girls' schools all over India were Christians. The boarding schools ultimately became the 'nurseries' of education of Christian women folk.
Along with it missionaries concentrated on the 'Zenana System' (a system of domestic instruction mostly by wives of missionaries). The Education Despatch of 1854 mentioned the system introduced in the early 19th century. Indicating its success the Education Commission (1882) recommended special grants for running the system. Some leading Brahma and Hindu families (such as those of debendranath tagore, manmohan ghosh and keshab chandra sen), encouraged this system since they wanted their women to be educated. In 1871 there were more 'Zenana' pupils in Bengal than in other presidencies put together.
With the arrival in Calcutta of Mary Carpenter and Annette Akroyd, Unitarian women educationists, in 1866 and 1872 respectively, a phase of co-operation between the Brahma/Hindu reformists and the Unitarian Christians regarding women's education began. Both of them helped in the foundation of the Brahma Normal School and the Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya. But the Christian missionaries mostly controlled the institutions for training women teachers. In 1932, five of the seven Teachers Training Colleges in India were Christian institutions and over 100 out of 157 students were Christians. By all means the Christian missionaries remained pioneers in the field of formal and professional education of women in colonial Bengal.
The Christian mission in 19th century Bengal also became involved in a crucial issue - the tribal question. The Santals, the largest tribe of Eastern India, attracted their attention for evangelisation. Considering the tribal tradition as a significant factor in the pluralist Bengal society, they penetrated the obscure Santal world and tried to identify themselves with their life and thinking. Apart from a few colonial bureaucrats, the missionaries had been the pioneers in 'Tribal Studies' - now an important stream of social science. They made invaluable contribution to it. The works of PO Bodding - A Santal Dictionary (5 vols., 1932-1936) and numerous outings of LO Skrefsrud in Santali and English still occupy a pre-eminent position in this study.
Misionaries were in favour of imparting education among the Santals through their mother tongue and were keen to improve their socio-economic condition as a prerequisite for evangelisation. The Santal mission of the Northern Churches (formerly the Indian Home Mission) later became the largest among the tribal missions and attracted considerable attention in India and abroad. The CMS and the BMS, were the two most active missionary societies in this field. The CMS started its work in 1854 and the BMS in 1867. Before that A Leslie and T Christian were sent out to preach among the Santals in 1824-41 and 1826 respectively, but Christian died within a year and Leslie, a victim of 'jungle fever' also left his station. E Droese, the German missionary of the CMS, started mission work in 1854.
Shortly afterward the santal rebellion (1855) marked a turning point in the Santal mission of the CMS. Believing that 'utter want of education', and 'gross absurdity of Santal's religious belief' caused the insurrection, the Bengal Government requested the CMS to prepare a plan for educating the Santals and agreed to provide financial assistance for this purpose. The scheme submitted by the Calcutta Committee stressed the need of vocational training along with formal primary education. The India government accepted the scheme (1856) but the outbreak of the sepoy revolt (1857) prevented its execution. Undaunted by this initial setback the CMS opened the Santal branch of Bhagalpur mission in 1859. The Santal mission was formed as an independent unit under EL Puxley.
New mission stations were established in some parts of the newly created Santal Parganas (1856) which included some parts of Bengal proper. Puxley stressed the need for 'Santalizing' the teaching organisations with cooperation of Santal manjhis (headmen). He established a Teachers' Training School (1863) with Santali as the medium of instruction. He gave Santali a written form in Roman character. By 1866 he completed the Santal vocabulary, Santal dictionary, Bible History, part of St. Mathew's Gospel and Anglican Prayer Book. Puxley's performance was quite impressive. Starting with 10 'useless' schools in 1862 he left 36 schools with 348 students at the time of his departure in 1868. The Training School proved to be a great success and a centre of 'movement towards Christianity'.
Puxley's success attracted a group of Church Missionaries (such as J Brown, ET Cole, A Stark, H Davies and HW Shackell) to the Santal mission between 1868 and 1871. More textbooks were published in Santali by the Calcutta Bible Society. Missionary efforts created a growing urge for education among the Santals since missionaries made them believe that education was the only safeguard against the oppression of zamindars and mahajans. The rise and growth of the Kherwar movement, 1871- 81 (the word, Kherwar was derived from the word 'khair' which meant man - a movement for spiritual and social regeneration of the Santal community) had also a role behind this zeal for education. A group of Santals, longing for English education, was ready to pay for it. Forty Santal students were admitted to English schools in Santal Parganas in 1880. George Campbell's (Lt-governor, 1871-74) keen interest in Santal mission and a special grant towards Santal education encouraged the missionaries. Up to the end of the 19th century the task of educating the Santals was exclusively left to the missionary societies.
The main aim of the Christian Missionaries-changing the cultural and social fabric of the Bengal society by Christianising it-was never fulfilled. The mission itself indeed remained outside the main stream of the Bengal society. Its future largely lay in the conversion of the 'outcastes and tribals, exiled communities as they themselves were'. The largest number of the converts of the Church and Baptist Missions came from the kartabhajas (worshippers of Lord), a Hindu egalitarian religious sect developing among the 'lowest' orders of the Hindus like Chandals and Namashudras. In 1838 - 39 about 3,000 Kartabhajas embraced Christianity after a flood of Jalangi river in the Krishnanagar district (CMS Station). Flood relief from the missionaries probably encouraged this 'great movement'. A large number of Kartabhajas from Barisal and Jessore (BMS Stations) also became Christians in 1840s. This was the first and most notable instance of 'mass movement' towards Christianity in 19th century Bengal.
In the 20th century, Christian churches adopted some new measures amounting to a 'revolution in missions'. Social welfare, vocational training, educational and medical institutions replaced the old methods of preaching and Christian teaching. With the growth of a more rational outlook to non-Christian religions and cultures, they also began to consider these new measures as different ways to the fulfilment of God's mission on earth; 'Not to destroy, but to fulfil' - this commandment became the watchword of many of them. Giving up Euro-centric views they were fast moving towards forming an international, inter-racial and inter-denominational church.
Ever since W Carey proposed a World Missionary Conference in 1810, a section of Bengal missionaries were thinking of forming such an organisation. The Calcutta Missionary Conference was the first step towards it. Such thinking led to the preparation for a universal movement that started with the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910