A beginner’s guide to: The Moral Force of the Cross – The Social Legacy of Christian Mission

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Is Christianity detrimental to society? Many critics and opponents of Christian faith claim that it is repressive and destructive. This criticism has been most strongly voiced in previously colonised countries such as India where Christianity is often identified with imperial aggression. In this article, Dr Ashish Alexander examines the role of Christianity in his homeland, to see if the criticisms are valid, or whether India is a case-study for the idea that Christianity is beneficial for society.

Twenty-five years ago, in arguably the most erudite attack on Christian missions in post-Independence India, Arun Shourie called for undoing the lingering influence of Christian faith in the country. The editor of a national daily who had exhibited crusading zeal in exposing corruption in high places, Shourie repeated with renewed vigour a stock allegation against missionaries—that their influence symbolised the spiritual and cultural colonisation of the great Asian nation. His book Missionaries in India: Continuities, Challenges, Dilemmas (1994), written with characteristic flair, was a shot in the arm for religious extremists in India who have since then gained much strength and now control the country politically as well as culturally. Vishal Mangalwadi, a Christian social activist and author, began to respond to Shourie, former World Bank economist, in a series of letters that were eventually published as a book titled Missionary Conspiracy: Letters to a Postmodern Hindu (1996). This book by Mangalwadi not only defended the best of the missionary movement but also posed a question: Once the missionary influence is wiped out from India—most likely by force—what would replace it?  That might be the most important question in the first quarter of this twenty-first century when India is positioned delicately with regard to questions of human rights, freedom of press and justice for the traditionally oppressed peoples.

Contrary to the popular view that missionaries were spiritual aggressors allied with the British Empire, history tells us that the unpacking of the gospel humanised Indian society and helped rein in the aggressive and exploitative aspects of the colonial rule. The current crop of the so-called nationalists, driven by quest for pride and prestige, must by necessity deny the positive contribution of any outside agent, especially the missionaries. For them missionaries were failures who could not win enough adherents to their religion. However, the question was not always how many people converted to Christianity but how the moral-intellectual force exerted by the missionaries inspired many Indians, who did not clearly convert but carried forward the social vision of the missionaries—to create a free society where people freely choose what their conscience dictates.

In the year 1848, a young 21-year-old Indian man from the traditionally “lower” caste of vegetable growers opened a school for the untouchable girls in Pune. This city was the hub of religious and caste orthodoxy in the western part of India, which was then called the Bombay Presidency. The school was the first of its kind—established and managed by an Indian. Jotirao Phule had suffered searing humiliation at the hands of upper-caste guests in a friend’s wedding and knew first-hand the vulnerabilities that accompany people born in the so-called lower castes all the days of their lives. He wished to change it. A school for girls and that too from the untouchable castes was the revolutionary first step taken by the fiery young man, who once dreamt of adopting violent means to drive the British out of the country. But with the opening of the school, Phule accomplished something that no Indian had done or attempted before him.

It wasn’t that there had been no schools for untouchable girls before Phule started one. There were. They were run not by the local-born affluent philanthropists from the privileged castes but by foreign missionaries who were committed to uplift the wretched of Indian subcontinent. The model that Phule followed was presented by a missionary woman. Phule had visited Miss Farrar, an American missionary, in Ahmednagar in 1847. The commitment of the missionary lady deeply impacted the man who one day would be called the Mahatma, the great soul, for his reformist works. Impressed by the self-sacrificial love of the woman missionary, Phule started two schools, one in 1848 and another in 1851. He had realized that making intellectual resources available to the most neglected section of the society was the key to lift the country out of the quagmire of superstition, exploitation and poverty. He even wrote a play Tritya Ratna (Third Jewel) in 1855 in which a Christian missionary plays the central role in the intellectual awakening of the India’s poor and vulnerable peasants. Education became a lifelong mission of Jotirao. Later, his wife Savitribai became the first Indian woman teacher in one such school.  The Phule couple was the first lower-caste social entrepreneurs who worked for a community that is even lower than them in the caste hierarchy. The untouchables were the most neglected people and prior to the Phules, the only support they ever garnered was by the missionaries.

This is one of the most celebrated instances of the ripple effects created by the work of Christian missionary movement in India.

In the Eastern part of India, in the Bengal Presidency, the heroic struggle of Rev. James Long (1814–87) has become part of the Bengali folklore. A CMS missionary, Rev. Long fought valiantly on the behalf of the Indian peasants who were forced to grow indigo for the European planters. Before the missionaries arrived in the Lower Bengal, Indigo cultivation had already been going on for decades. It was the missionaries who in the 1850s began to complain against the unjust system that put the cultivator at considerable disadvantage. The peasants or the ryots, “appealed to missionaries to intercede”. While a number of missionaries involved themselves in highlighting the evils of indigo plantations, James Long was particularly effective as he ended up promoting a scathing critique of the system in a Bengali play Nil Darpan (Mirror of Indigo). The Bengali play by Dinbandhu Mitra was translated by Bengali Christian poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt “under Long’s supervision”. Rev. Long also wrote a preface to the play. The name of the translator was not made public as the assumption was that European backlash would be quite severe against an Indian. Rev. Long was understood to be the translator of the play. This act of support pushed Rev. Long into a protracted legal battle with the indigo planters that culminated in Long’s imprisonment in 1861, in the year India’s most celebrated poet Rabindranath Tagore was born. The planters, it seems, wished to make an example out of Rev. Long, and send a message to other missionaries that their intervention in social matters will be fought tooth and nail. Rev. Long, however, became an icon of resistance in colonial Bengal, and that reputation still remains.

A new moral dynamism accompanied the service of Christian missions in India.  A new grammar of public engagement appeared with the coming of the gospel, at the heart of which was the concern for the poor, the weak and the oppressed. As powerful elites in the Eastern and Western world seek to shake off the vestiges of their Christian past, the question has to be asked again—what will replace the moral anchor of our respective societies, an anchor that has been forged in the crucible of genuine Christian witness, service and worldview?


Ashish Alexander holds a Ph.D. in English from Panjab University, Chandigarh, India. He is currently the head of the English department and Dean, School of Film and Mass Communication in Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences,  Prayagraj (Allahabad), UP. India.

 Recommended Further Reading

1.     Kenneth Ingham. Reformers in India: An Account of the Work of Christian Missionaries on Behalf of Social Reform 1793–1833. Cambridge University Press, 1956.

2.    Rosalind O’Hanlon. Caste, Conflict and Ideology: Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in nineteenth-century Western India. Cambridge University Press, 1985.

3.    Vishal Mangalwadi. Missionary Conspiracy: Letters to a Postmodern Hindu. Nivedit Good Books, 1996.

4.    Geoffrey Oddie. Missionaries, Rebellion and Proto-nationalism: James Long of Bengal 1814–87. Curzon Press, 1999.