A Brief History of the Church in India
Every country has an origin story. A story of how it came to be that country. Most often these origin stories contain wars, wins and defeats. New ideas are created and different levels of democracy exist. In some ways, the origin stories of the church in a country are much the same. Throughout all of church history, there are patches in the road that are rough and patches where everything is going well. one might even ask ‘why does the history of the church even matter to someone that is living in this day of modern advancement?’ No matter what period of time that we live in history is always important. History helps us to see the flaws that have happened in the past so that we are less likely to make those same flaws in the future. The history of the church in India is interesting, so let's learn together.
The church in India has had a very long history starting from around 50AD with the visit of the Apostle Thomas to India. There were interactions that the Jews had with the people of India before this point, but it was mostly for trade and had nothing to do with the Gospel.
Anyways, the Apostle Thomas, from Antioch, shows up on the Malabar coast of India in 50AD. He starts building a network of believers in India, and he plants the first 7 churches. These first Christians were known as the Syrian Malabar Christians. After all the work that Thomas did in India, he was eventually martyred for his faith.
The Dawn of the Catholic Church through the Portuguese Inquisition
In 1497 Portugal came to India to secure the spice trade for themselves. This expedition was headed up by a man named Vasco De Gama. The Portuguese introduced the Indians to Catholicism and they started a war within the church over who was wrong or right. While the Portuguese are there they find that there are some believers in India already. However, these believers are from the churches that the Apostle Thomas had started 1500 years prior. These people were deeply offended by catholicism. The term ‘mother of God’ was even offensive to their ears. Needless to say, they did not appreciate the Portuguese taking over as they did.
While the Portuguese were in India on their first voyage, the Muslim people that were living in India attacked their ships that were in the harbour. De Gama went back to Portugal, but he vowed to come back to India to save the innocent people from “the savages” in the name of the catholic church.
In 1502 Vasco De Gama came back to India with many ships filled with military and religious people. As he approached land, he was met with some Muslim ships coming back from their pilgrimage to Meca. Because he had a powerful military with him, he destroyed the Muslim ships. That is how De Gama came to India the second time. The Portuguese insisted that the catholic church be the only church in India. This caused more persecution for the church that was already there. The Portuguese Catholics built a church over the grave of the Apostle Thomas as a way of showing that he was a catholic saint. Even though this was a lie because Catholicism did not exist at the time of the Apostle Thomas. The Catholic church used this lie to help expand itself rapidly into India, and to help gain recognition with the Syrian Malabar Christians. This did not work as well as it should, though. Some of the Syrian Malabar Christians did not convert and this lead to some schisms and martyrdom.
In 1599, a new Catholic archbishop, Aleixo de Menezes, came to power. He tried to force the Thomasites to join the catholic church and adopt its practices. With this, the church of St. Thomas dwindled greatly. A few years later some of the Thomasites left the Catholic church and reignited the church that they were in before they switched over to Catholicism.
In 1606, a Jesuit named Robert de Nobili arrived in India and started his mission. His idea was to become like the people that he ministered to. He chose to minister to only the high castes in India. He was somewhat successful in his ministry endeavours but could have done better. Nobili had a weird idea that did not help his mission to grow amongst the lower castes in India. He told the people he converted that they could continue to follow their old customs and they could choose to not interact with the other castes. We can see that this exclusivity of the Gospel did not lead to great things. As the European church spread into India they brought some egalitarian thoughts that started to break up the church that Nobili started. The one great thing about Nobili’s mission was that he became like the people that he ministered to. Most people would not be willing to give up everything just so that a group of foreigners could come to faith in Jesus. In many ways, this was a great thing.
When the protestants came to India, they did so with the idea of bringing change to the country and introducing nation-states and other social reforms. The protestants translated the bible into the Indian languages making the word of God accessible to anyone. However, their message on a large scale was unsuccessful in India. This may be due to the fact that they were dwarfed by the Catholic mission in India.
The church in India has continued to grow and to change over the years in many different. Many different protestants have come to India over the years from different denominations many of them have not just founded churches but also orphanages.
The history of the church in India has been very interesting. different methods of evangelism have been used with some being more successful than others. All of this leads us to the current state of the church of India which I will talk about in my next blog.
Spickard, Paul R., and Kevin M. Cragg. A Global History of Christians: How Everyday Believers Experienced Their World. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2008.