Writing the History of Indian Christianity: A Review Essay

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Historiography of Christianity in India.

By John C. B. Webster. New Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012. Pp. x, 273. Rs 725/$59.75.

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This volume presents a compilation of essays written from 1978 to 2011 by John Webster, a dedicated scholar of Indian Christian history. Webster draws upon a lifetime of research and interaction with South Asians as he narrates different approaches to the study of India's Christian communities. Eschewing a disengaged church history written mainly for seminarians or missiologists, Webster connects Indian Christian history to issues addressed more widely in the history of modern South Asia, including nationalism, caste, subalternism, postmodernity, and gender. Webster's own important contributions to Dalit studies equip him to set Christian history against a larger thematic canvas. Indeed, the chief contributions of the book lie in (1) its capacity to narrate the historiography of Indian Christianity to multiple audiences, (2) its inclusion of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Syrian Christian studies, and (3) its balance of details and broader themes.

Webster's relationship to many audiences--Indian and Western, secular and Christian--enhances the breadth of his treatment of Indian Christianity. His essays address both methodological and substantive topics with thoroughness and insight. At the same time, each essay reflects issues that concerned the author at the time of its writing, which accounts for the greater focus on some issues than on others.

The early section of the book describes a transition in historiography from Eurocentric models (28) to those more influenced by Indian nationalism (43-53). This discussion includes pre-nineteenth-century studies of Catholic and Syrian Christian missions, early and late nineteenth-century Protestant histories, and the emergence of histories "told by Indians." We often forget that old books are often still worth consulting, a point that Webster's summaries demonstrate. John William Kaye's Christianity in India (1859), for instance, addresses the 1857 Rebellion and its implications for ties between missionaries and the British Raj. While previously missionaries had viewed British rule as providentially ordained to promote the Christianization of India, Kaye uses history to argue for religious neutrality on the part of the Raj. Despite his plea, a tone of Protestant/European triumphalism persisted through much of the nineteenth century. This is evident in attitudes ranging from the anti-Catholic polemics of James Hough (1839) to the expansionist vision of M. A. Sherring (1875). (1)

The literature surrounding the 1857 Rebellion (or Sepoy Mutiny, as it is often called) is a matter that warrants considerable attention, perhaps more than Webster's book affords. Writers have tended to assign an enduring place to Christians in the historiography of modern India. (2) Christians, Protestant missionaries in particular, were those who attacked and interrogated Indian culture and religion. Through inflammatory preaching and tracts that exposed the deficiencies of Hinduism and Islam, Evangelicals awakened anti-British sentiments; and when those sentiments reached their boiling point, Indians engaged in their "first war of independence." Regardless of how much of this narrative one accepts, one cannot deny the role of cultural and religious factors in various accounts of the Rebellion. The Rebellion, it appears, figures more prominently in the historiography of modern India than it does in that of Indian Christianity. Given this disparity, we should perhaps consider whether the historiography of Indian Christianity should not cast its net more broadly so as to place discussion of Christians in India more fully within the wider stream of India's national history and not limit the field to histories of Indian Christians alone.

Amid the political climate of the twentieth century when Indians were fighting for home rule, Christian history writing became centered less on foreign missions and more on the Indian church. …