The East India Company and Religion, 1698-1858

By Maxwell, Mary Jane | The Historian, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

The East India Company and Religion, 1698-1858


Maxwell, Mary Jane, The Historian


The East India Company and Religion, 1698-1858. By Penelope Carson. (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 277. $115.00.)

The religious policy of the East India Company, according to its own rhetoric and often repeated in the scholarly literature, was one of noninterference with the various religious traditions of India and staunch resistance against Christian missionary activity in Company territories. Religious tolerance was key to sepoy loyalty, which ensured the Company's presence and profit in India. Yet seldom has this maxim of noninterference been systematically examined, and Penelope Carson's fine analysis reveals that the East India Company "never operated a policy of non-interference" (239). Rather, from its very beginnings the Company dictated which missionaries and churches (Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican) could operate and where, and determined what and how each establishment could preach and teach. Moreover, the Company openly privileged Hindu and Muslim festivals by participating in their annual events and collecting the pilgrim taxes (239). What is so significant in Carson's work is her detailed investigation of the "battle" being waged in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries between the Anglican Church and the "New Dissenters," and how the conflict at home affected Company religious policy in India.

Carson traces the Company's engagement "with religious issues in India from its mercantile beginnings to the bloody end of its rule in 1858" from the perspective of Britain's own religious history, especially the rapid growth in the late eighteenth century of a new religious revival movement from congregations within both the Anglican and other Protestant churches (2). By the late eighteenth century, the term "Evangelical" was often used as a pejorative for the "New Dissenters," who collectively perceived themselves as extremely sinful and were "reborn" into a new life of total commitment to God and, especially, missionary activity (25). …

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