Missionary Ziegenbalg, from 1706

Mission Sunday Sermon given in two churches in Chennai, India, 1998

The reason for Gurukul Theological School to be focused in several Chennai, India churches during the month of July is because Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary to India, first arrived on July 9, 1706. A convinced Lutheran from Germany, he arrived with Heinrich Plutschau at Tranquebar, a Danish colony founded in 1620. They were invited by Denmark’s King Frederick IV to go to India. Yet, neither the Danish East India Company leaders in the area nor Tamil people welcomed them on arrival.

Prior to husband John and my recent coming to India, I knew very little about Ziegenbalg. So, I must credit those who have written articles out of their research into his life. I wish to credit Daniel Jeyaraj of the Gurukul faculty who has studied writings by and about Ziegenbalg, in India, Germany, and London. Other resources that I found helpful were by Brijraj Singh and men named Baierlein and Gensicken. Perhaps some of you will teach me more. Do read the information found in the brochure that you receive today. As we celebrate his eleven years in India, early in seventeen hundred, may we ponder how we witness to our Christian faith.

I wish to note certain qualities and achievements of Ziegenbalg’s: his commitment to learn the common people’s language and the complex nature of their Bhakti religion; his skill as a writer and translator; his loyalty to the task of sharing the Good News; and his willingness to take risks. We speak of a pioneer, one who went before us with vision. We claim a mentor, one whose example teaches us. And we learn from a disciple of Jesus the Christ.

Ziegenbalg, who was himself influenced by his pietistic mother, credited the living piety of the Hindu people that he met. He believed that the Tamils were created in God’s image and he credited their efforts to reach toward God in their own way. Their views of God, people, salvation, plus good and evil, known largely through bhakti or devotion, were used as stepping stones to talk about Jesus’ grace and forgiveness. Ziegenbalg’s piety was of the practical type. “Service to fellow human beings consisted of ‘serving the soul’ and ‘serving the body.’” He both proclaimed and practiced God’s Word.

While depending on the Bible to lead people to the Source of life, he “showed special sensitivity to the good present in the religion of the land.” He took what is now called Hinduism seriously and engaged in frank discussions with its adherents. Doing so did not diminish his own faith. He took detailed minutes of fifty-four conferences held over eight years. Intent to correct preconceived, European ideas about Tamils, he was bold to say, “they quite frequently in their way of life would put to shame most Christians.” While a European missionary to India, he interpreted and was an advocate for India to Europe.

Ziegenbalg’s efforts to understand the bhakti goal of reaching God resulted in his book The Genealogy of South Indian Gods. This resource explained Hindu iconography, its three main depictions of God (Trimurty), protective deities, and demi gods or angels. With first-hand accounts from those who practiced their religion, he explained Hindu virtues and their critiques of Christianity. Those who research his life now realize how European interpreters toned down both those judgments and Ziegenbalg’s respect for bhakti depth. They declared “the work of Christian missionaries is not to spread knowledge of Hinduism, in the west.”

The challenge lingers: how objectively will Christians describe their neighbors who differ? Ziegenbalg’s information about Hinduism also had gaps; he had little awareness of movements within it. He knew little about the Upanishads, the Gita, or Shankara’s thought. His ministry was primarily among the lower castes, so he had few contacts with Tanjore, the near-by, great center of Hindu learning. But his library of three hundred books on Hindu writings was impressive.

Zigenbalg’s skill with the Tamil language reflects his intent to engage with the common people. He read some Tamil books one hundred times, to better learn words and their meanings. And he learned from writings of Roman Catholics in India before him, missionaries named de Nobili and Henriques, for example. In 1548 Henriques, who “learned the spoken language of the fisher folk,” wrote down its grammar, which Ziegenbalg later found most helpful.

He learned a great deal from twenty-six sermons—on themes like creation, rebirth, Trinity, and last judgment—written by de Nobili. And a Jesuit resource in Tamil, titled Sunday Gospel and Epistle Readings, helped Ziegenbalg in his own work of translation. After two years, problems with Danish authorities were so severe that he quit preaching to non-Christians. Instead, he translated scripture; Tamil speaker Peter Maleiappen provided necessary help. That endeavor was interrupted for four months when Ziegenbalg was imprisoned at Fort Dongsburg in Tranquebar. The mission’s intent to instill self-worth in Tamil people—for them to be conscious of their rights—directly countered the Danish intent to gain profit for the East India Company.

After Ziegenbalg sent a copy of the first complete Tamil translation of the New Testament to King Fredrick IV in 1711, the London Society of Promoting Christian Knowledge sent a printing press to Tranquebar. “Tamil was the first Asian language into which the New Testament was printed” and, up to that time, the largest prose text in Tamil. Tamils preferred their writings to be in poetic form. Ziegenbalg also provided labor for poor Christians by building a paper mill.

Both schools and churches were built prior to Ziegenbalg’s 1714 return to Europe to secure further funds. While there, he married Maria Dorothea Salzmann. Also, while there, his Tamil grammar, completed in Latin in 1715, was “the first book ever to be printed with Tamil characters in Europe.” Ziegenbalg compiled a dictionary of forty thousand words as well as a more scholarly lexicon, used later by an important translator named Fabricius.

Translation work begun before Ziegenbalg was improved upon after him; such development, including inter-personal conflicts that emerged, is inevitable. I hope that you value insight into the formation of the Indian Protestant church, even as part of worship. The intent is to see how it both reflects and extends the Early Church reported in the biblical book of Acts. We know that the early church encountered the world around it. Young Christians dealt directly with their Jewish heritage. Many attended the synagogue as well as house churches. Disciples were of different language groups. Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews; they were more conversant with the non-Jewish world. Hebrew people were Aramaic-speaking Jews. These groups represented different cultures; some centered in Jerusalem while some scattered into more rural areas. They experienced conflict, especially as the membership increased.

One example of “growing pains” appears in Acts 6:1-6. Since we never read or write history without interpreting it, we bring our point of view to texts. The account states: “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.” Through much of Christian history, this text has been explained as a complaint that widows—those without identity, since all were socialized to think only a husband had worth—were being missed through the regular channels of charity.

So, a division of Christian labor took place. The official apostles, meaning “sent ones,” appointed seven others, also official, to help the poor. These are often called deacons. But we know that Stephen and Philip, two of the seven, also did work other than social work with the poor. Philip the missionary encountered and included Gentiles, those different from the Jews. The seven were appointed—as Jesus did earlier with the Twelve—to spread the Good News of inclusion.

I fear that because Christians, especially leaders who have interpreted texts, have wished to perpetuate or justify a division or hierarchy of church workers, the heart of this Acts text may have been distorted. More could be said about this, if time permitted. But, a valid option for explaining this text is that complaint emerged because Hellenist women, those more used to cooperate in leadership tasks in Greek settings, were being neglected or by-passed in the daily distribution. That task likely refers to the daily experience of distributing the Lord’s table, or Holy Communion. Because of a more Jewish socialization, in which only men served as priests, the Greek-speaking women leaders who came into Jerusalem were being left out. They were deprived of a role with which they were familiar each time that they gathered to worship—serving the symbols that Jesus had inaugurated as reminders of his life and death.

I have read only a little about how Ziegenbalg shared church tasks. But he determined to establish indigenous worship. And he expected the Indian church to have Indian pastors. We learn of Aaron, his important Tamil co-worker who was ordained in 1733. The church built in Tranquebar, called New Jerusalem, complemented the smaller one near the seashore called Jerusalem. Ziegenbalg was buried at the former and Aaron at the latter, which has since washed away into the bay. Not dependent on numbers, or not thinking that his effectiveness depended on accumulating converts, Ziegenbalg called those people interested in the Christian faith catechumens. Those friends he instructed for six months to two years, through a disciplined question and answer method. His concern to provide scripture in the local language and to support those who preached combined with his emphasis on clear, personal conversion.

Ziegenbalg’s wisdom or greatness shows through in his ability to listen to others, to support rather than suppress their insight. Confident in his faith, he explained the need for faith and then expected the seeker to pray to God to provide it. Faith resided or developed in God the source of salvation, not in the missioner or human leader. Yet, a patron-client relationship did develop; new believers came to depend on the more enclosed world of the mission for economic support. According to Brijraj Singh’s article “Ziegenbalg, Hindus, and Hinduism,” Ziegenbalg created “a center of power with his Christian congregation of followers.” Further, he retained caste in his church, although they were all of lower groupings. Such features continue to be of serious concern within Indian churches, I hear.

A final quality of Ziegenbalg’s to re-affirm was his willingness to take risks. To travel to India in early seventeen hundred was part of that risk. That he countered the Danish East India Company, on behalf of poor Tamils, reflects risk. That he knew when not to agitate through preaching but found the outlet of translation work to be equally vital shows wisdom. That the mission personnel back in Europe differed with his conviction of the rightness to listen to and learn from Hindu believers caused him deep agony. In fact, his last year and a half in India became increasingly stressful. He died a man of a broken spirit, physically and mentally. In spite of his deep faith, the Mission Fathers in Halle, Germany failed to support him.

Our experience of worship today focused a Christian’s story. Jesus often told stories, not in as much detail as this one. I apologize, as a westerner, to have talked about a westerner rather than Indian. I was asked to do so. While here, I expect to learn stories of Indian Christians who have patterned early church believers in sharing God’s Good News of inclusion. My hope is that within a setting of worship of the One God, we have been challenged to be sincere ministers, here close to Tranquebar, during this coming week.