Earlier appeared in Mission Focus Annual Review, vol. 18, 2010, 100-23
Appears here by permission.
Writers about historic times choose contexts for reflecting on events. In addition to presenting details of the missionary gathering of a century ago, this article focuses several aspects of Commission IV. Among eight Commissions, the fourth focused “The Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions.” What understandings did some Christians have then of Hinduism? Did “fulfillment theology,” growing in influence then, enhance evangelical or ecumenical thought? How did Mennonite Board of Missions endeavor, started in India in 1899, engage aspects from Edinburgh 1910?
Not the first or last missionary conference,1 why was the Edinburgh, Scotland one of 1910 considered a landmark? Calls recurred for Christians to be more united—“not unified but coming together”—to present the one gospel. Ecumenical efforts to overcome Christian division did follow 1910. Seeds for better understanding other living faiths like Hinduism took deeper root. But missionary decline also followed from 1910 forward.
Mission endeavor ever evolves. Those gathering at Edinburgh wished to assess what “achievement” after more than a century meant. What problems had surfaced? As new vision for a “world church” with deep religious roots on all continents emerged, the importance of cooperation in presenting Jesus the Christ seemed imperative. Shifts in mandate, direction, and agenda mattered. Michael Nazir-Ali’s view that “Mission is from everywhere to everywhere” challenged the former pattern of “from the west to the rest.” That mission is God’s effort (missio dei) had not yet birthed in 1910. Nor had sharing, listening, and serving distinct from evangelizing arrived.
The World Missionary Conference took place from June 14-23 in Assembly Hall of the United Free Church of Scotland on Edinburgh’s ‘the Mound.’ Of 1200 Protestant delegates, roughly 500 were from Britain (serving 46 Societies), 500 from North America (60 Societies), and 170 from continental Europe. About 200 delegates were women; often seated in the balcony, they seldom shaped reports. Christian converts represented “younger” churches: 8 from India, 4 Japan, 3 China, 1 each from Korea and Burma, 1 each of Liberian and Turkish origin. To call young converts “natives” showed paternalism. The absence of Africans and Latin Americans reflected travel restrictions and west/north attitudes; Africans were seen as “primitive.” With few Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Anglicans present, narrow views of Christian held. With most delegates white, male, middle-age and subtly linked with western imperialism, self-confidence and condescension toward colonized folk lingered.
Five thousand people attended the Conference’s opening session marked by imperial greetings and the crowd’s standing to sing “God save the King.” Meditations, prayer, hymn singing, and significant silences (making God’s presence clear) supplemented business and key Commission Reports. At the closing session, Chairman John Mott summarized the conference as the “first attempt at a systemic and careful study of the missionary problems of the world.”2 Four years later, World War I pitted churches and governments against each other. Due in part to a late, unanimous action to form a Continuation Committee, hope for unity was not lost. The century that followed had a basis for ongoing activity.
Details about the “word-heavy,” landmark Conference show order, color, and recurring themes. “Widely differing view-points were offered without compromise.”3 Informed John R. Mott (American Methodist, Student Christian Movement leader, who three decades later received the Nobel Peace Prize) effectively chaired the conference. With doors that might close open to Christian missions, he presented a ‘triumphal’ message. Scotsman Joseph H. Oldham, 35, aware of confusing planning sessions, proved to be a ‘meticulous’ secretary. In India for two earlier years, people had noted his spiritual depth, keen mind, and well-balanced judgment.
Over three hundred speeches limited to seven minutes each marked daytime sessions. After forty-five-minute Commission reports of the day, delegates who wished to address a point submitted a card to the chair. Mott chose which speakers to hear; he privileged minority voices. Fifty spoke after one Commission report. Twenty-four evening addresses (40-minute limit) reflected broader public interest on mission themes. Only one resolution occurred: prior to singing the final Doxology, a Continuation Committee to carry out specific tasks during the years that followed was formed.
The recurring refrain: “that they may be one; that the world may believe” heralded twentieth century ecumenism next to missioning. A slogan from the zealous Student Christian Movement—“evangelization of the world in this generation”—raised debate at Edinburgh, between conversion and truly valuing the religious heritage of others. Some Christians wished to examine anew the ‘Great Commission.’ Others confessed that Jesus’ “fulfils” what others hold sacred. Tension marked discussion.
Commission work on eight themes, beginning two years in advance, also marked the Edinburgh Conference. Titled “Carrying the Gospel to All the Non-Christian World,” Commission I tried to create an Atlas of World Christianity. Protestants differed over calling Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics ‘Christian,’ over ‘converting’ them. They disagreed on how to count the few Protestants who lived among Roman Catholics in Latin America, or Coptic Christians living among Muslims. One type of issue before Commission II—“The Church in the Mission Field and Its Workers—regarded whether the Chinese church could sustain or manage its own life, how it propagated faith. Commission III focused “Education in Relation to Non-Christian religions.” Commission V—“The Preparation of Missionaries,” VI—“The Home Base of Missions,” VII “Missions and Governments” and VIII—“Co-operation and Promotion of Unity.” Whereas the first four Commissions focused on peoples and religions central to missionary work, V-VIII dealt with concerns for Societies and Boards.4
Commission IV. Based on feedback from experience in mission effort, Commission IV “The Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions” proved to be provocative. David S. Cairns, friend and co-Scotsman of secretary Oldham and key respondent A. G. Hogg, chaired the Commission. Five religions were studied: Animistic (tribal), Chinese, Japanese, Islam, and Hinduism. (Giving but minor attention to Buddhism was a flaw.) Hinduism, focused by one-third of the respondents, engaged broad Commission time. Commission thought stressed the need for more complete, deep training of mission candidates, for example, education in Confucian classics for those engaged in China or clarity about what Christ satisfies for people loyal to other religions. Twenty people served on Commission IV: five North Americans, six missionaries with long-term exposure to another religion, and one woman.
Chairman Cairns created eleven questions, both personal and theological, to send to respondents. Responses returned totaled 187. Long responses came from T. E. Slater and A. G. Hogg.5 While Pandita Ramabai, a former Hindu whose life story has become noted in India, sent a short response, her wisdom prevails. Response originals no longer exist; copies appear in select libraries. The writer read copies of seventeen respondents, including Slater, Hogg, and Ramabai’s.6 Key responses to sample questions appear here (respondents named). Comments reflect varied knowledge of Hinduism.
Some Commission IV Questionnaire Responses
Identify your location of work, class of people, and religions among which present.
1. In India: Bangalore, Allahabad, Delhi, Mussoorie, Cawnpore, Calcutta, Arcot Mission, Kedgaon, Poona, Mysore, Madras (therefore north and south, east and west); Kandy, Ceylon.
2. A few worked with those loyal to Islam or Buddhism; one involved in translation work had little contact with non-Christians; the rest primarily engaged with Hinduism.
3. Some engaged with educated class or Brahmins, or as a professor with students; one with women of all classes; others with poor, more illiterate, simple village folk.
Slater, for example, worked with educated Hindus (“India’s future”), some who “conform to rites and practices that they might inwardly despise”; some who are strong nationalists inclined to become anti-Christian. Questioning whether lower castes are even Hindus, he defines Hinduism as the “sum total of manifest shades of belief and accumulated customs, the amalgam of all religious ideas and usages of the past.” He also distinguishes two classes of priests—ceremonial celebrants and religious teachers/gurus—and explains that the “everlasting now” is more real and important than any historical event.7
What hindrances (moral, intellectual, social) to full acceptance of Christianity exist where you work?
1. Immoral, inconsistent, deficient, nominal lives of Christians; worldliness; intellectual pride. Hindus believe that Christian moral law and renunciation do not go far enough. New Testament morality is not attainable; Christians differ so much among themselves. – Ideas from: Chamberlain, MacNichol, Slater, Gulleford, Hooper, James
2. Christianity viewed as foreign, paid for externally, representing a conqueror (anti-Indian national interest). Hindus call all Europeans Christians. . . Part of a proud heritage, people who become Christian become foreigners. Outcaste, “outside the real India,” left to despise their Hindu heritage, they are despised by it. They prompt anti-foreign patriotism. – Slater, Gulleford, Hogg
3. Not a philosophy like Hinduism (except for ritual acts), Christianity is presented as life based on certain facts. Its series of dogmas can fail. Mohammedans oppose the Trinity, Jesus’ being divine or the Son of God. Jesus’ atonement strikes a Hindu as immoral. Hindus understand Jesus as an incarnation (avatara) of God, “not that all fullness dwells in him.” . . .One perceives “Hinduism as a mood.” It is a social system made concrete through religious rituals, not a defined system of beliefs. Since all rivers reach the sea as all religions lead to God, why bother to produce a systematic conclusion? . . .The near-deification (incarnation of God) of a teacher (guru). The non-ascetic character of much Christianity. – Gulleford, Hooper, Goreh, Farquhar, Hogg, James
4. A Hindu sense of sin is slow to awaken. . .Little sense of responsibility or lack of discernment between right and wrong. To consider anything wrong with religion of the country is seen as unpatriotic. . .Need to awaken desire for the spiritual in religion. . .Traditional customs, spirit in worship, is performed for merit. Hindu life and thought are pervaded by the idea of merit. The need to obey certain laws, recite texts, or pray provides merit for Muslims also. . .A defective sense of guilt exists. . .With an impersonal God, sin is known less. Divine grace is not possible because justice is not averted but to be worked out in another life. Sacrifice (which gods enable) is the “boat for getting across the ocean of sin.” . . .Salvation means release from good or bad actions and being absorbed into Divine Essence, not human wholeness. – MacNichol, Ramabai, Farquhar, Davie, Hogg, Slater
5, Karma – Misfortune or suffering results from past action, robbing the present of moral struggle; belief in fate, transmigration of the soul (many lives), a future of endless rebirths and a pessimistic present. . .Every wrong act produces fruit, making forgiveness/atonement difficult. . .Misery (fruit of prior action) is deserved, not to be pitied. Release means to escape from World Process which is eternal and repetitive. . . Hindu speculative philosophy begins with suffering; mystery of pain is the most acute problem. Solution to the problem that existence is evil is found in Karma and transmigration; divine justice is vindicated through working off merit and demerit in future lives. – MacNichol, Slater, Farquhar, Banerjea
6, Hard, fast rules of caste prompt social expectations and customs. With pride in the heritage of caste, to distinguish across caste lines is difficult. . . The system is divinely appointed, not to be disturbed. . . Through tenacious social bonds, caste obstructs normal development and counters distinct social and religious life (Hinduism is a social system and impossible to leave without severe consequences.). . . Caste can become a great social barrier; many long to be freed of its bondage to ceremony and life patterns. While some people give up ceremonies or idols or turn to political agitation, they will not give up caste. Others may long for the social but not spiritual freedom of Christianity. To become Christian often means being banned from one’s family. . . With key caste rules, external authority can substitute for personal responsibility, for example, compulsory, higher-caste widowhood. . . To distinguish between caste as a religious system and as a social institution becomes important. – Ramabai, Farquhar, Davie, Gulleford, James, Slater
What attitude should a Christian preacher/professor/follower take toward the religion prominent in your area?
1. Respect and reverence, never attack, another’s ancestral religion. Teach to construct, not destruct or misrepresent others. Show respect and deep [empathy] for, not argumentation with, people. . . You do not intimately know others until seeing them at their best; you do not understand your own religion if you know nothing of other faiths. . . avoid assuming that your own beliefs are ultimate truth. Recognize Hindus as children of, loved and blessed by, God in light of their trust. Present yourself as a pilgrim of faith willing to learn new lessons of faith and life from others who value their truth, while presenting Jesus as Great Awakener, Spiritual Satisfier.
2. Face questions asked fairly, and point fairly to non-Christian errors. . . Be well trained in fundamentals of others’ faiths; know points of contact (as ethics or unity in all with Buddhism) and fundamental differences. Grow in Christian faith alongside study of others. Use illustrations familiar from other religions. . . Using Hindu resources for illustration (not argument), admit that Christians may not understand the point as a Hindu does. Being knowledgeable of people’s habits of thought enables empathy, well-informed critique of another.
3. Present Christianity as divine Life (Jesus the Christ and Spirit) not as a doctrinal system. . . Use Jesus’ pattern toward Jews and prophets. . . Understand that another’s assent to Christianity does not mean acceptance. . . Hindus accept Christ (love, renunciation of life), not Christianity. . . Hindu philosophy teaches that theism is not the ultimate truth about things. . . An intelligent Christian with experience of Christ never loses faith through thorough, candid examination of other religions. Similarities, strange features, and fascinating problems discovered inspire praise to God for what is also therein learned about Jesus Christ.
4. Through a reverent, non-critical, wooing way (not mere contrast of religions), lead people to Christ as fulfillment. . . Find good in other religions but also describe what is better about Christianity. . . Lead people by the light in their scripture/heart to Christian ‘fuller’ light. . . While Jesus Christ fulfills in many ways, to compare his fulfilling Hinduism or Islam implied with Judaism is unwise. [Discussion of Slater and Farquhar’s Fulfilment idea and Hogg’s Karma and Redemption follows.] . . “The Christian in India who presumes to profess what Indians vainly sought for centuries is seen as presumptuous.”. . Throughout history, religious people in India have sought and found sacred experience. For a missionary to suggest that Hindu thought is irrational while Christian doctrine is rational causes Hindu hearers amusement or disdain. – Singh, Davie, Ramabai, Slater, Hogg, Campbell, Fraser, Gulleford, Farquhar, Davie8
For readers to have access to such personalized insight is an important ‘gift’ of this article.
Brian Stanley’s History of WMC In addition to such primary respondent statements, reports of the eight Commissions of the 1910 Conference are printed in separate volumes.9 Numerous scholars report on the events, but noted church historian Brian Stanley recently wrote the definitive history: The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910.10 Stanley states: “. . . Christianity is most true to itself when engaged in the risky business of mission.”11 Having gone to great length to secure facts and impressions, Stanley presents them with integrity. About Conference spirituality, he notes: rarely Trinitarian, it was Christocentric. Alongside little reference to the Holy Spirit, the main thought of God was as Jesus Christ. Had Pentecostals existed or Muslims or Hindus been present, that approach would need to have changed. One expects to read about Conference planning and how sessions were conducted. Stanley gives an entire chapter, of eleven, to the few “younger” delegates from “non-western” countries, reflecting the significant mission issues raised by those few spokesmen. It suggests the reality of racial, political, and economic factors for mission engagement. Regarding the legacy of the event, Stanley presents both the “boundless optimism” and crisis or challenge that remained.
Stanley’s discussion of Commission IV in his eighth chapter addresses key issues. Asian, Roman Catholic Peter Phan commends the historian’s approach and content.12 Chairman David Cairns was “deeply impressed” by how reflective those responding from India were. Despite “fulfillment theology” becoming popular for some Christians, Stanley directly notes Alfred G. Hogg’s “penetrating contemporary critique” of it.13 He observes that European respondents were “less committed” to fulfillment thought than Anglo-Americans. The issue matters when relating with people loyal to diverse world religions. Within a range of replies about Hinduism appears J. E. Padfield’s comment from experience: Even if many lower or outcaste people ‘converted’ to Christianity, the core of Hinduism might not have been touched in the process. This suggests that beliefs and practices of common people can fail to reflect ‘true’ Hinduism. It suggests why caring missioners need to understand the Brahmanic tradition of Vedanta, as Hindus explain it. They need to admit the view of religion, custom, or devotion that each brings to a culture not their own, and how that view impacts responses to a questionnaire.14
Delegates at Edinburgh processed theology of religions even if that term—about God’s presence in all religions—was unknown to them. A. G. Hogg knew the value of humbly exploring “points of contact,” of difference or similarity, with people of other living faiths. Such points offer vital channels for exchange, as about Divine revelation through avatar or Jesus the Christ. Rather than start with judgment or negation of another—as what the Christian offers fulfils or completes another’s partial being—‘points of contact’ permit each to claim strength, credit the other, and ‘go from there’ with God/Ultimate Being.
Fulfilment, Yes or No: 1910 views on a missiology issue. Stanley calls T. E. Slater the most important pioneer of a theology of fulfillment. Some writers identify J. N. Farquhar with the concept, in part because of Eric Sharpe’s book about him.15 Noted Indian scholar K. P. Aleaz corrects them all: K. M. Banerjea nearly four decades earlier proposed the ‘fulfilment theory,’ doing so without negating criticisms of Hinduism, like Farquhar used.16 While Farquhar and some Commission IV questionnaire respondents mention fulfillment, chairman Cairns quotes Slater’s content nine times in the Hinduism report. Stanley explains that Slater described the missionary task as bringing India to Christ. For “leaving Indians in their own way to systematize what they saw in Christ according to eastern thought,” Slater was faulted. Although charged with “diluting the uniqueness of Christianity,” he perceived that even if old religions were fragmented, strength made them “capable of uniting with Christ.”17
As Sharpe reports, J. N. Farquhar arrived in India early in 1891. Never having studied theology, he also chose not to study Hinduism during his first decade. Located in or near Calcutta, his missionary activity grew after 1913. Like many evangelicals obsessed to convert, he was “intent to lead a people to change its religion,” often through teaching young men. Over time, he learned that students often profess admiration for Jesus but lose respect for organized Christianity. Anti-Christian propaganda, growing defense of Hinduism, and a renaissance of Vedic teaching increased in the region from 1891-1902. Groups like Arya Samaj or Theosophists and persons like Ramakrishna and Vivekananda prompted such revival. Farquhar had to learn that empathy toward Hinduism was needed, not attacks or antagonism. Yet, he named Christianity the “supreme and sole, final validity among religions.”18
Farquhar’s first book, The Crossbearer, preceded his The Crown of Hinduism by twelve years. In the latter he “confronted all main features of Hinduism—as a religion and as a social system—with the Christian message.” For Farquhar, fulfillment meant that Christianity replaces Hinduism, that Hindu truths appear in “higher form” in Christianity, and that Christ answers Hindu questions, resolves its problems. Reviewing The Crown of Hinduism, A. G. Hogg calls the fulfillment idea vague and inadequate. It provides little more than a debating point, for Christ fulfills a “sense of need,” not Hinduism.19
While Farquhar sensed that Christian writers need knowledge of Hindu thought and people, they were to hide such knowledge. They were to value the “good and true” about Hinduism and reflect humility and empathy, not scorn. Through four types of activity—preaching, volunteer bible classes, private interviews (not long trusted), and literature (preferred method of evangelism)—he insisted on Christ’s centrality. As editor of the Inquirer, he perpetuated ‘fulfilment.’ For Hindus “crippled” without a moral idea of God or without the Gospel, salvation is available. For Farquhar, Christianity remains the only purely spiritual and ethical source, with significant history and emotional ability to complete a person. He commended the Hindu Gita’s religious feeling and Krishna’s mythical story, but faulted their lack of historicity. Several Hindu writers faulted Farquhar for failure to fully know the Upanishads, the Gita, or Hindu insight into images. Neo-Hinduism “arose as reaction against Christian missions.”20
Alternative views D. Mackichan’s 1914 article in the journal begun shortly after Edinburgh 1910, International Review of Missions, raises issues.21 Missionaries at the Conference called for new attitudes and methods—deeper sympathy with other religions enhanced by higher appreciation of their spiritual content. The new view, suggests Mackichan, meant not to supplant other systems but to supplement them. Christian complementing or perfect coming together (consummation) avoids negation. Mission persists to enable nations and ages to achieve religious thought. Not totally new, Paul had witnessed strong search for and God’s leading in Athens through Christ’s revelation alongside ancient philosophies. Jesus’ coming to fulfill, not destroy, placed himself “in the same relation to all other systems of human thought and religious practice.” He fulfilled law, nothing else. Mackichan faults Farquhar’s irrelevant title The Crown of Hinduism; to see Christianity as crown of Hellenism makes more sense than that it ‘tops’ preparation started, for example, through Hindu sati or dedication of a young girl married to a god.
Missioners do well to present the positive life, teaching, and model of sacrifice—Jesus’ ethics—as a new way of spiritual depth, not coming together perfectly (consummate) through abstract Hindu metaphysics. They would best avoid denouncing cherished beliefs of a religious people, being hostile to a great religious history. In the context of renewed nationalism, Hindus who heard Christians promote ‘fulfillment’ considered it treason. Mackichan asks whether mission to India might not better present Christ’s offer of grace for human need than his achieving or completing a nation’s striving. Better to commend Jesus’ radical inclusion or interpret India’s noble religious history as a move toward further “true knowledge of God” than reflect arrogance. Peter Phan observes that while fulfillment theology of religion informed Commission IV reporting, it “was by no means monolithic and unchallenged.”22
Hogg’s Karma and Redemption A. G. Hogg responded to fulfillment in several publications.23 Brian Stanley calls Hogg a most creative theologian, lay missionary, professor . . . “the most penetrating contemporary critic of ‘fulfilment theology.”24 Hogg counters ideas about non-Christians being destined for hell, Christianity being foremost a rational system of ideas, and missionaries having found what India spent ages seeking. He credits Indian religions with both seeking and finding truth. Hogg seeks “points of contact” between traditions, points of difference, not only convergence. He nudges Indians to shape their distinct type of Christianity and Christians to “challenging relevancy.”25 He knows that dissatisfaction with one’s religion prompts a believer to learn or change, whether Hindu or Christian.
Hogg’s approach strengthens his Christian commitment. Stanley notes affirmations: “that God was active Will, self-expressed in history and culminating in the fact of Jesus Christ’s coming” and that Divine grace always treats people better than they deserve. Hogg explains how the latter conviction differs from the key Hindu concept of Karma where good or ill results from what each deserves. For Hindus, all suffering follows continuously from previous existence, making life increasingly wearisome. Christianity did not offer a solution to Hinduism’s greatest dilemma—undeserved suffering. As long as that gap or injustice persists, Christianity neither fulfills nor offers remedy for Hindus. Hogg thinks that Karma “reduces the moral order to a judicial system,” while unmerited suffering in Christianity “finds its place in the moral order.” To suffer what another deserves is a human privilege, as Jesus exemplified. In that process, love, the very essence of Divine nature, most fully reveals itself. Christ’s power to redeem comes through being willing to bear unmerited suffering when revealing Divine mercy—readiness to forgive and love. Indian leader M. M. Thomas observes that since Mahatma Gandhi and others have also modeled suffering in other’s behalf, Hindu Karma can be modified.26
Eric Sharpe in The Theology of A. G. Hogg notes Hogg’s dissatisfaction with missionary doctrinal rigidity, with views that only Christians escape damnation or have a rational system of ideas. He calls missionaries to join Hindus as pilgrims of faith intent to teach and learn from each other, with each judged by its best fruits and neither thought superior. Sharpe also found Farquhar’s theology—never a student of theology—to be weak. Hindus react negatively to views that Christian beliefs reflect ultimate truth—climax or fulfillment of Hinduism—that whereas Christians witness to divine revelation, other religions simply result from human ‘religious consciousness.’ Hogg also questioned if mission work reflects proselytizing when centered too much in rescuing others from humanitarian problems.27
For Hogg, the Gospel’s challenge must be relevant. Emphasis or key points must persuade. Missioners need to present Jesus as the one who delivers from or heals “all mysterious powers of evil.”28 How does a Hindu escape being born again and again, such escape being their idea of salvation? To end repeated bodily existence and achieve union with the Absolute are what matter. If a missioner fails to talk about these two aspects, why listen? If a foreigner suggests that an endless chain of rebirths does not exist, what proof does that person offer? To challenge a Hindu to prove the truth of transmigration might only prompt dispute. Hogg turns to the “Master-Missionary,” even a foreigner. Jesus provides an example of one who explains eternal truth in ideas known to his hearers; he turns also to suffering that rewards. And he adds a challenging yet relevant cue: God’s time is now. The Divine always was and is.
Rather than suggest that another’s religion is partial, Hogg emphasizes the positive. God is: past, present, and future. God does not and will not forsake—even if suffering exists. Time, not one religion compared to another, is fulfilled and fulfilling. Divine nature loves; it is relevant. For a Hindu who longs to be rescued from “unbreakable continuity between deeds and their fruit,” Hogg suggests that even through 100,000 lives, life in God’s time need not make one weary. Oneness with Ultimate Being enables joy and peace because others share it. Life offers purpose (amidst suffering or bliss) because, beyond self. Holy reign includes kin, neighbor, and creation, making it relevant and a spiritual challenge.
Non-western speakers Nineteen non-western delegates to Edinburgh 1910 contributed insight disproportionate to their numbers. What did attendees hear from only twelve educated Asians noted for church or school positions? Sri Lankan Wesley Ariarajah, among others, informs.29 The one Korean named Yun Ch’iho promoted national reform and independence. Aware of Buddhist and Confucian revivals, he reported shallow doctrine despite recent Protestant growth to nearly 200,000. Thirty years later his memory of the Edinburgh event was of Anglo-Saxon arrogance.
Only 28, Cheng Jingyi spoke frankly the “mind of the Chinese.” He challenged mission groups to allow Chinese churches to sustain and manage their own life. Valuing an indigenous, united church respectful of traditional culture, Chinese resisted western denominations, culture, and values imposed by missionaries. Before the Edinburgh event, Chinese churches had promoted the three-self principles: self-governance, self-support (partial at best), and self-propagation. But mission societies resisted losing control and continued to perceive of ‘younger’ churches as less able or resourceful to manage alone. Gairdner’s early report saw the Chinese as “completely unaware of the difficulties and essentialities of the question.”30 Cheng Jingyi persisted, calling for a united Christian church, not a particular denomination or mission. Chairman Mott himself knew that to transplant or maintain such divisions was a “major drawback of the missionary enterprise.”31 He likely welcomed Cheng Jingyi’s appointment to the Continuation Committee.
Of the four high-profile delegates from Japan, Harada Tasuku made a strong case for “the reality and strength of Asian nationalisms.” Japanese Christians wished to identify with national culture, to show loyalty to the Emperor even as missionaries advised them to move away from traditional festivals, rituals, and loyalties. Neighbors questioned the loyalty of new Christians when they failed to venerate the Emperor or worship ancestors. In discussion of Commission II (“The Church on the Mission Field”), Tasuku challenged transplanting western doctrines in Asia. Spirituality and patterns for teaching the Bible need to stem from the local context. In Commission IV’s discussion of relating to other religions, Tasuku called missions to preach the “courage, sympathy, serenity, and self-sacrifice” of the hero Jesus Christ, not doctrines. And his evening address critiqued European views of the Gospel, views which need enrichment from other ‘races.’ As Indians had inherited “a deep religious consciousness” and Chinese Christians learned from the Confucian ethic about obedience to superiors, so Japanese spirituality of intense loyalty could enable Christian faith.32
An ardent evangelist and lower caste Nadar, V. S. Azariah had begun two missionary societies, run entirely by Indians, before going to Edinburgh. His evening address, well-remembered if not valued by all who heard it, was frank and prophetic. He dealt honestly with race relations, with disparity between missionaries and “natives.” He saw failed, aloof mutual relations as faulty spirituality. When national workers are not invited to share meals in missioner homes, when frank exchange escapes or foreigners refuse to transfer their tasks and privileges to Indians, fellowship diminishes. Azariah concluded: “You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us FRIENDS!”33 Azariah’s message embarrassed missioners; too few western churches seemed prepared to listen. Scotsman Robert Burn’s couplet from “To a Louse” surfaced for reporter Gairdner: “Oh, wad some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as ithers see us.”
Two years later, Azariah became the first Indian Anglican bishop. He supported indigenous traditions for liturgy, architecture, and festivals; hailed the church’s primary vocation: “share the gospel”; asked that negative views toward ‘untouchables’ be softened, that denominations not endorse caste divisions; and never ruled out God’s achieving purposes through Hinduism. By 1935 his Dornakal diocese had 250 ordained Indian clergy and over 2,000 village teachers to network with and pastor over 200,000 Anglicans.34
Mennonite Perspectives Several Mennonite historians have studied mission efforts in India during the past century. This writer wonders about early views of Mennonites’ toward other religions, Hinduism in particular. What insights were gleaned from Christians who attended or heard of the 1910 event? What sense of ecumenism grew through mission effort? Were Mennonites, in North America or India, too isolated from information about religious difference or narrowly inclined toward conversion?
With apology for no space to engage Mennonite anthropology and sociology specialists on such questions, two dissertations are mentioned. Stanley Friesen’s study, Missionary Responses to Tribal Religions at Edinburgh 1910,35 deals with twenty-five Commission IV questionnaire responses entitled “Animistic Religions.” No African pastors or church men or women received the questionnaire. Friesen prefers the term Tribal Religions to Animist. He notes a “harsh and exclusive” conclusion reached at Edinburgh: traditional religions of Africa contain “no preparation for Christianity.” More recent research from India’s Central Province by professor Chad Bauman studies Christian relations with Dalits (the broken) or Satnampanth (Satnamis), a group founded by an illiterate Guru Ghasidas in the early nineteenth century.36 Located in the now, newly-formed Chhattisgarh state, missionaries first arrived in Chhattisgarh in 1868. Themes that Bauman addresses include: religion, ruptures of social order, politically charged conversion with reasons why people choose or do not choose to pursue change from one religious loyalty to another, individual stories, and non-Christian judgments of missionaries (defined by Hindutva promoters): inducements, Hindu-abuse, and anti-national talk.
Theron Schlabach’s forty-page booklet37 describes Mennonite Church missionary effort from 1860-1890. Much earlier in the sixteenth century, Anabaptists had sent out lay women and men missioners to European districts by twos and threes. They emphasized community as “new life in Christ” or “walking in Christ’s resurrection.” Schlabach suggests that ‘Old’ Mennonites later in North America distorted such calling of others to faith into “legalism and schism.” Linked with other denominations—as through YMCA, Sunday School, or evangelical, world-conquering vision—some confused their religious heritage with American culture. Some replaced discipleship and ethics with focus on salvation centered on guilt for sin. Like mainstream Protestants convinced of their superior ways, some determined to “uplift inferiors, plant churches, and obey Christ’s call to ‘go, teach, and baptize all nations.’”
Another perspective comes from mission historian Wilbert R. Shenk’s By Faith They Went Out.38 Shenk details Brethren in Christ and Mennonite mission agencies and locations over 150 years beginning in 1850. From 1847 when Dutch Mennonites chose to work separately from English Baptists in the Dutch Indies, through the 1950s when diverse Mennonite groups started thirty-seven programs, to 1999 when Mennonite World Conference surveyed missionary activity of all Anabaptist-descent churches, Shenk proceeds. Distinct to the last survey is the fact that half of fifty new, 1990s efforts began from churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Mennonite engagement with India has distinct history: Russian Mennonites, the evangelistic branch of which had formed Mennonite Brethren in 1860, entered Hyderabad, A.P., India in 1890. Individual Mennonites like George Lambert traveled to Asia, including to Pandita Ramabai’s Mukti mission, on return pleading for funds to help starving Indians after an 1897 famine. After an appeal for missionaries to India that same year, the first three Mennonite Church (Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities) missioners arrived in Dhamtari, C.P. in 1899. Four North American Mennonite Brethren workers joined their Russian colleagues in Andhra Pradesh in 1899, and the first General Conference Mennonites entered the central location of Champa in late 1900. Reflecting both splintered and linking Mennonites, Evangelical Mennonite Brethren joined MBM personnel in 1907, and Brethren in Christ work began in Bihar state in 1913. This article segment will focus the MBM story around Dhamtari, population then 10,000.
Early Missioners: Ressler, Pages, Burkhards, and Lapps. For nearly a year after arriving in 1899, J. A. Ressler with doctor A. B. Page, his spouse Alice and child endured most primitive living conditions. With limited language skill (a mixture of Urdu, Hindi, and the Chhattisgarhi dialect), they aimed to rescue the “poorest of the poor” famine sufferers. They bought nine acres, employed workers, listened to “pitiful tales,” managed feeding fifteen hundred children twice a day housed in orphanages quickly built, and saw medical patients. Unpaid, Ressler oversaw Government kitchens in thirty-eight villages. Working with barely any rest from a small ‘hospital’ newly constructed, Dr. Page and family returned to America by late August 1900, due to his failed health.39
On their arrival several months later, Mary and Jacob Burkhard took charge of orphanage work, bookkeeping, construction sites, and whatever needed attention with other new institutions for widows, elderly men, or babies. Alongside such duties, they studied language and enabled national evangelists and Bible women. The former, often Chhattisgarhi men, witnessed or sold hundreds of religious books and literature in near-by villages or bazaars. The latter retold stories to clusters of interested women under trees or secluded in zenanas. Within a dozen years, thirty-four Indians gave leadership to tasks. Decades after Jacob’s death, only six years after arriving, Mary wrote about his life.40 The Introduction includes this comment from first missioner J. A. Ressler: “People with whom missionaries came into contact learned more about the religion of Jesus Christ from seeing the lives of workers in action than they would have from much so-called ‘direct teaching.’”41
The Burkhards describe their tasks with feeling. First, deciding which orphan children who appeared each day to accept, which to turn away—aware that death might soon follow. After several months, they visited other orphanages to learn from and be refreshed by those in similar work. When a rabid jackal attacked two girls in the orphanage, Jacob, in trying to rescue them, was also attacked. When confronting a Head Master who soon left, Burkhard reflected on honesty while being gracious and God-directed in dealing with personnel. He longed to express thoughts in Hindi as well as in English; after presenting a biblical text, he wrote: “Talking went hard.” A letter to a relative pined: “I sometimes wish that I could go to school some more, but that’s out of the question.” To engage with ecumenical missionaries enriched the Burkhards: with Brethren Mission folk near Bombay, Methodists and Gasses of the German Evangel Mission at Raipur, Lee Memorial Mission in Calcutta—“good to get away with a chance to think, be in touch with other people.”42 General Conference Mennonites named Krocker and Penner lived for ten months in Dhamtari while finding their location for community 150 miles northeast of there. “The two Missions have always enjoyed the happiest fellowship and neighborliness,” Mary notes.43 Three weeks after daughter Esther’s birth, as Mary recovered in Nagpur city, she learned of Jacob’s bout with a barnacle; they returned to Dhamtari a few hours before he died of blood poisoning.
Missioner journals offer a prime source of information. Several hours spent with George J. Lapp’s personal account reveal feelings and facts.44
“Jan. 1, 1910 – Esther (wife) met with the committee to create a course of study for Bible women. . . Jan. 2 – Read ‘Life of Lilanati Singh’ today; she seems to rank with Ramabai. “India will be redeemed through her women.”. . . Jan. 6 – Read with Pandit [language teacher] today. He knows his “Ramayana” [major Hindu epic] real well and knows how to teach it too. We will learn to love him yet. . . . Jan. 17 – Mary Burkhard started on “tour” [bible teaching] today [a few days earlier discussion centered on how to answer questions asked in bazaars]. . . Jan. 18 – Each day so filled with duties . . . we have no time to rest or think. . . . Jan. 20 – “I read some of Hindu philosophy by the modern writer Ramakrishnanda. . . Jan. 24 – I hope to get the history of the festival of the Moslems in which they throw the tajyas into the tank; got a splendid picture of one today. Finished reading “Divine Heritage of Man” by Swami Abhihananda, writer on Vedanta Philosophy. I am extremely sorry that the author misrepresents Christianity about the low status of women, for through Christ they are equal. . . Jan. 29 – I am growing more interested in Hindu writings but find quite a difference of opinion between Indian and European writers. Hope I may be able to sift out truth. . . . Feb. 15 – To Kare to visit the Gonds whose beliefs are very similar to Christianity. . .Throughout the journal, references to: Mission school events, book keeping and correspondence, writing to papers like The Monitor or Herald. Foreign mail arrived [or not]; complements for Indian workers’ preaching, comments about personal devotion texts, comments about disputes between orphan boys or workers, land purchases or building progress, other mission visitors, health issues. . .
March 14 – Communion today—people hold the emblems with reverence. Feet washing is a great blessing too as it brings us all on a level—no distinction when we stoop to wash each others’ feet. . . Sept. 10 – Spending energy on language—to get ready for exam this fall and to pass. . . Sept. 21 – Shoemaker and Hartzler arrived. 300 gathered for program of welcome including “high men” of Dhamtari. . .Oct. 4 – my first experience of Malaria—high fever and chills. . . Oct. 8 – Shoemaker and Hartzler are such a help with various phases of work; they inspire us but also need to share their criticism. They want to learn “ins/outs” of the mission. Hartzler encourages us to start a High School and Industrial Training College, but we lack teachers. Hartzler makes practical suggestions for shifts in building use. . . Hartzler wants me to write about “The Strength and Weakness of Hinduism,” to base my B.A. thesis on this when on furlough next year. I want to learn Urdu letters and get Sanskrit and Philosophy. . . Nov. 16 – Exam over; grade 86.
Shoemaker and Hartzler J. S. Shoemaker and J. S. Hartzler briefly report on Edinburgh 1910 when en route to India.45 Chapter II reports on the 1910 Conference; other chapters report on stops before or after spending six months with Mission personnel in India. For these administrators, key questions centered on denominational difference: whether diverse boards working in proximity mar effort harmony; whether ‘the work’ is greater than such divisions; whether encouragement of and respect for all church groups could emerge.46 From three Commissions reported, statements of these delegates resonate:
I – The most crucial problem for carrying the Gospel to the world is “the state of the home Church.”
V – The successful missionary must know pedagogy, philosophy, psychology, and “native” traditions and customs. “Most devoted workers could have done much more if trained.”47
Of the four Commissions not discussed because “not so directly of concern to people in the homeland” is IV – Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions. This writer doubts the wisdom of that lack of concern among administrators or those at home.
Highlights from Hartzler and Shoemaker’s experience in India also reveal. “Knowing so little about the problems that missionaries confront,” they were intent to learn. In order to “see work from different angles,” they traveled to and exchanged with ecumenical workers of several of the sixty Christian missionary societies present in India in 1910: to Jubbulpore’s Methodist headquarters, with Church Missionary Society (Church of England), Christian and Missionary Alliance, Episcopalian, and five Church of the Brethren ‘stations.’ Why their visit to General Conference Mennonites occurred so late in the tour raises inter-Mennonite support issues. They were also exposed to India’s religious diversity—Hindu temples and festivals, a Mohammadan tomb where both Muslims and Hindus worship, and Jumma Masjid. Hindus seemed to them “more approachable” than Mohammadans.48
Space limits extensive reporting on medical, educational, and evangelistic aspects of mission ‘work.’ Repeated calls for missioners, funds, and supplies were sent to North America. Equipment needs followed the arrival of doctors: Dr.s Esch (1910), Florence Cooprider (Friesen) (1916, when the site of Dhamtari Christian Hospital was chosen), and Troyer (1923) and later nurses (Lena Graber, Blanche Sell, Florence Nafziger, and Betty Erb). From among 160 leprosy patients, twenty-four were baptized in December of 1902. Gospel stories were presented to patients at an increased number of village clinics; “If ever India is to be won for Christ, it will be through the witness of Indian Christians themselves.”49 Three worship events on Sundays (some patterned after American churches), yearly conferences begun during the first decade, and holiday celebrations for “festival loving Indians” soon followed. Education in eight schools—separated by sex in addition to Middle, Academy, Bible and Normal, and Industrial—by 1949 helped to banish ignorance, enable a literate church, and provide teachers for village schools. Yearly “touring” weeks took place when a missioner and several local, trained Christians camped in locations from which they moved among villages to share religious insight.
Indian Voice For westerners to hear from Indian voices separate from western filters matters. In 1952, P. J. Malagar wrote for Today in India.50 The first ten years of the Indian Mennonite Church (IMC) revealed a “perplexing diversity of socio-economic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and evils of illiteracy, superstition, and witchcraft,” Malagar reports. For new Christians to quit old patterns in order to accept a foreign faith was not simple. To be called ‘Christian’ or to follow American disciplines and social ways caused public reproach. New members were persecuted and expelled from families and caste. Indian and western methods for shaping strategy, keeping finances, and meeting church aims differed. Wishing for more freedom at times, the IMC felt obliged to imitate American Mennonite customs.51 Two economic solutions emerged: 1. the “mission compound” (later ‘station’) on which baptized, village families built homes for a sense of community and 2. Mission purchase and administration of an entire village (Balodgahan, seven miles from Dhamtari, church members numbering 400 by 1923) where new Christians bought acres on which to become independent.
Concluding with The Century Past—a Glance. Starting with W. H. T. Gairdner’s early report, Brian Stanley and other church writers have reflected on the 1910 event and mission endeavor since. Some wrote in anticipation of Edinburgh 2010.52 Especially relevant are reasons that Kenneth Ross and Kirsteen Kim give to remember Edinburgh 1910: a legacy of research that prompted new mission studies; a conference atmosphere of revival that founded then published the International Review of Mission(s) journal which continues; a passion for evangelization and mission education; and church leaders who promoted ecumenical committees.53 Two movements assisted in forming the World Council of Churches in 1948: Life and Work—church cooperation in education, humanitarian aid, or against injustice—and Faith and Order which “seeks Christian unity through theological dialogue among members of various churches.” Willem Visser t’Hooft, WCC’s first general secretary, had led efforts for a decade, despite WWII, to form the Orthodox and Protestant ecumenical body. Roman Catholics formed a “Joint Working Group” in 1965; the issue of authority hinders “full communion.” The International Missionary Council, formed from the 1910 Continuation Committee in 1921 to shape the missionary task, as through missionary conferences, merged with WCC in 1961.
Not all problems were resolved. The threat of Islam, affecting views of Africa in the early 1900s, remains strong. Whereas strengths in Hinduism were noted in 1910, few positive views of Islam emerged. Evangelical/Pentecostal (since 1970s) and conciliar/‘mainline’ division persists despite greater coming together of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant believers. Peter Phan notes controversy and sharp theological difference today, as with internal Roman Catholic discussion of doctrine or censure of theologians. Christian conflict continues around indigenization. Denomination barriers persist. Localized calls for patterns of self-governing, self-support, and self-propagation face resistance from other world sectors. Those dependent on traditional or region-influenced views resist learning from other religions. Some fear intra-and interreligious dialogue that may prompt their own need to change (improve) worship patterns or ‘sacred’ priorities.
Pre-Edinburgh 1910, G. A. Oddie observed British Protestant missionary intent to convert people, not only preach.54 Whereas noted S. Radhakrishnan stressed how conversion makes a person ‘illegitimate’—not at home within their spiritual heritage—an all-India conference in Allahabad in 1872-3 focused on how best to pursue that goal. Church folk ‘back home’ complained about slow ‘results.’ People at a distance knew less than missioners about difficulties of conversion in India. Christian growth became further hampered by Hindu resistance to reforms of millennia-old caste or oppression. At times missioners supported untouchables or joined Hindu protests of injustice; at other times protest increased non-Christian views that newcomers came to destroy their systems of society and nation.
Christians in India had been Syrian Orthodox from the first century, when the apostle Thomas is presumed to have preached, until Jesuits arrived in the 1500s. With Lutherans arriving a couple centuries later followed by SPG, Baptist and Wesleyan groups, denomination loyalty came to be an obstacle. V. S. Azariah actively countered the “sin and scandal” of Christian divisions. A 1919 ecumenical conference produced the Tranquebar Manifesto, a call for unity, for “senseless sectarianism in India to cease.”55 That Anglicans joined Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians to birth the Church of South India in 1947 was unique. Presbyterian Lesslie Newbigin became the first CSI bishop. The Church of North India merger occurred in 1970. This writer has worshiped repeatedly in CSI congregations.
Merging does not require identical views or rituals. In Chennai at St. Mary’s, blessed with an Anglican heritage since 1680, the priest serves weekly communion to worshipers kneeling at the altar. At St. Andrews, with Scottish Presbyterian roots, the Bible is carried in to begin and out to end each worship service. A brigade of lay elders passes the Eucharist elements through the pews to five hundred believers, once a month. With hymns sung and the Word proclaimed, worshippers leave sacred settings to acknowledge God’s grace among neighbors.56
Conclusion To examine the World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910 reveals that some Christian missioners in India did honor religions like Hinduism. Views, actions, and vision differed. Respect for and understanding of those whose religious loyalty differs ever needs new depth, in order to better shape and engage personal faith. Primary resources, national speakers, and open-minded reporters offer vital insight. To counter Christian division, as envisioned in 1910, ever needs momentum.
Interpreters, including this one, hold bias. The view that Christ or Christianity ‘fulfills’ other living faiths was not as prominent at Edinburgh 1910 as some Christians have wanted to believe. Those who endorse such superior categories or negate Divine truth in diverse religions or fear learning from other ways to praise or know the One God risk negating Jesus’ life and ministry. Genuine reconciling witness to the Healer available to all will insist on missio Dei, as Jesus endorsed God’s inclusive, multi-channeled relating with all people of faith. God’s presence (by diverse forms or names) cannot be exhausted. The ‘world church’ of 2010 and beyond has “miles to go” to overcome fears, to celebrate coming together.