The Famine That Never Was: Christian Missionaries in India, 1918-1919

By Harnetty, Peter | The Historian, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Famine That Never Was: Christian Missionaries in India, 1918-1919


Harnetty, Peter, The Historian


The visit of Pope John Paul II to India in November 1999 brought to international attention an issue that has disturbed Indians and other Asians almost from the beginning of the Western contact: religious conversion. In a major address, the pope boldly declared the evangelization of Asia to be one of his Church's top priorities for the next millennium, a prospect that found little favor with Indian religious leaders. The moderate Hindu leader Shankaracharya Madhavananda Saraswati, though welcoming the pope personally, expressed misgivings about Christian evangelization, and prominent Buddhists and members of the Jain religion shared his skepticism. Hindu fundamentalists accused Christian missionaries--most active in poor rural and tribal areas--of preying on the most susceptible in Indian society and "buying" their souls with education, medical aid, and economic assistance. Equating conversion with colonialism, they claimed missionaries were "enslaving the country once again" and accused them of deceit in their quest for converts.(1) Even Mahatma Gandhi, while appreciative of missionaries' zeal and self-sacrifice, had opposed the political aspect of the missionary effort because of its association with the foreign government. If he had the power, Gandhi said in 1935, he would certainly legislate to stop all proselytizing.(2)

Such views are deeply rooted in the historical encounter between Hindus and Christians. Christianity was associated with imperial dominion and subjugation from the arrival of the Portuguese at the end of the fifteenth century, and this connection strengthened with British ascendancy in India in the nineteenth century. The British East India Company, the instrument by which British hegemony in India was established between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, actually opposed missionary activity in the territories it controlled for fear of a backlash from both the sepoy army and the civil population. But evangelical pressure on the government in London, to which the company was ultimately responsible, forced it to admit Protestant missionaries from Britain in 1813 and missionaries from other countries in 1833. Hindus and Muslims alike resented their activities, and the animosity aroused by their attempts at conversion was a major cause of the Rebellion of 1857, during which missionaries were killed and churches destroyed.(3)

In the aftermath, when Crown rule was established in India, the missionaries revised their tactics: Outright proselytization gave way to indirect methods of attracting converts, especially through educational work and medical care. Such activities represented a genuine ideal of service, though the underlying objective of securing converts remained. The resulting confusion of means and ends led to the widespread belief that missionaries took advantage of the weak, especially in times of famine, to win them for Christianity. This paper will examine an event in India in 1919 that left missionaries open to charges of predatory conduct. Stressful economic conditions, coupled with unreliable communications and their own previous experience with famine, led a number of Canadian and American missionaries to mistakenly conclude that a critical food shortage was imminent, and they appealed to Christians in the northeastern United States and particularly in eastern Canada for funds to meet the impending disaster. As a primary means by which Canadians heard news of other countries, missionary reports carried special weight with readers. Publicized in newspapers and religious publications, packaged by a professional advertising agency to appeal to Christian charity and imperial sentiment, their exaggerated accounts of starvation resulted in the "famine that never was."

In 1918, a partial failure of the rains occurred in some parts of India. While the situation was not disastrous, authorities were concerned, and famine or scarcity were declared in numerous areas (see map). …

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