Writing a Social History of Christianity in India

By Webster, John C. B. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Writing a Social History of Christianity in India


Webster, John C. B., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


Back in February 1974 the editorial board selected by the Church History Association of India to oversee and publish a multivolume history of Christianity in India prepared a statement on the "New Perspective," from which this proposed history was to be written. This statement began by saying that "the history of Christianity in India has hitherto often been treated as an eastward extension of western ecclesiastical history." The editorial board proposed instead to set its history "in the context of Indian history," a perspective which would both "require a fresh evaluation of existing material" and bring new information to light. This "New Perspective" had four components: (1) the sociocultural, which focused attention on the Christian people in India as an integral part of India's sociocultural history; (2) the regional, as the basic working unit of study because of India's regional sociocultural diversity; (3) the national, to highlight common features and interconnections among India's Christians; and (4) the ecumenical, to explore both common features and denominational diversities within Christianity itself. (1)

The editorial board had much to react against. All the early general histories of Christianity in India, as well as the denominational histories, focused on foreign missionaries and their encounters, methods, work, issues, challenges, and accomplishments. The Indian Christian community was largely ignored. The textbook then used in theological seminaries for required courses in Indian church history, C.B. Firth's Introduction to Indian Church History, published in 1961, was basically an institutional history, giving space to the development of the Syrian, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches as independent entities. (2) An "Indian social history" framework, the editorial board believed, offered a better vehicle than a missiological or ecclesiological framework for what it wanted to achieve, namely, gaining a better "insight into the changing identity of the Christian people of India through the centuries." (3)

It was one thing, however, to propose a "New Perspective" and another to implement it. Teachers and researchers in Indian church history were not trained to write such a history. Moreover, the mission sources on which they were dependent for the information they needed paid little heed to the Christian people of India, concentrating instead upon the missionaries and their work. The authors of this new history thus found themselves operating at almost total cross-purposes with their source materials and did not know quite what to do. The Church History Association therefore conducted special workshops for them on research methodologies that might address this particular problem.

To date, the Church History Association of India has published three large volumes covering all of India for the first eighteen centuries and two shorter volumes on Tamil Nadu and Northeast India during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (4) The first volume, covering the period from Christianity's debated beginnings in India with the apostle Thomas in A.D. 52 up to the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in 1542, had to deal with stories embedded in legend, folklore, and very late sources. The next volume, going up to the end of the seventeenth century, posed the first serious challenge to the editorial board's ecumenical approach, as it dealt with major conflicts between the Roman Catholic Portuguese and the Syrian Christians in Kerala. The third volume, on the eighteenth century, probably the least-studied period of all, made extensive use of primary sources in a wide range of Indian and European libraries. The author's draft had to be revised by several scholars following his death. All three volumes were divided into sections that described regional histories separately, with generalizations for the period as a whole being reserved for the concluding section. The board soon found, however, that it was not possible to publish single volumes on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (originally one for North India and the other for South India), as there was simply too much history to be contained in a single volume or to be mastered by a single historian. …

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