Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Early mission work in India

During the half-century that Christian Friedrich Schwartz labored in South India, Lutherans there were occupied with forming congregations, a series of wars, and figuring out how to be Christians among a Hindu population, soon to be under British rule. In the same years, Lutherans in North America were occupied with forming congregations, the American Revolution, and figuring out how to be citizens of a nation newly free of British rule. Schwartz was one of a series of pastoral leaders trained at the Halle Institutions, a center of German Pietism, who were sent to serve in both places. Along with theological studies, these men absorbed the Halle model of Christian mission that cultivated a warm spirituality and gave service to the whole person through schools and medical work as well as preaching.

Inspired by stories of earlier missionaries, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the so-called “patriarch of American Lutheranism,” contemplated a call to serve in India. However, he was sent instead to Pennsylvania in the early 1740s. Once settled, he took up his work and gathered scattered Lutherans into an organized church body. Half-a-generation younger, Christian Friedrich Schwartz (1726-98) studied at Halle, was ordained in Copenhagen, and preached in London before he reached the Danish colony of Tranquebar in 1750. There he joined the lineage of missionaries begun in 1706 by fellow Germans Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Henry Plutschau under the sponsorship of the Danish king.

Schwartz equipped local leaders for the growing Tamil churches.

L. DeAne Lagerquist

Throughout his ministry in South India, Schwartz emulated his predecessors and went beyond them. He equipped local leaders for the growing Tamil Evangelical churches, established schools, ministered to soldiers, supervised relief for victims of war, and served as a diplomatic emissary between the British and local rulers. After a decade stationed in Tranquebar, Schwartz shifted his work first to the English garrison in Trichinopoly, now known as Tiruchi (1762-72), and then to the princely state of Tanjore (1772-98). After 1767, Schwartz was supported by the English Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Like Muhlenberg in Pennsylvania, Schwartz was met by a growing Christian community. When he arrived in India, he joined three ordained Tamil preachers (Aaron, Diago, and Rajanayagam), a handful of other European missionaries, dozens of Tamil teacher/pastors, and nearly 17,000 Christian believers. His work took him outside church circles into contact with British merchants and administrators as well as Indian rulers. In order to carry out his work, he supplemented his previous study of Tamil and English by learning other Indian languages, Persian, and Portuguese. His directness, truth speaking, and piety earned him the trust and admiration of Indians and Europeans, of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims.

The Word in recognizable words

The mission program developed in Halle regarded literacy and access to the Bible in one’s native language as an essential foundation of Christian life. Beginning with Ziegenbalg, Schwartz’ predecessors had launched translation and publication projects that produced Tamil editions of the Bible and other Christian materials. Early converts composed Christian songs and literature in indigenous forms. Schwartz helped to build up the Tamil church by preparing and supporting Indian leaders and by contributing to construction of new facilities for worship and education.

Schwartz continued the practice of sending pairs of Indian Christians into villages to evangelize and to educate believers. He often accompanied these workers on their rounds. Every congregation was to have a school, a catechist, and a panchayat, or governing council. These workers gathered at the beginning and end of the day for prayers with Schwartz, as well as for monthly training sessions. On several occasions he was paid by secular authorities for services such as supervising food relief in time of famine or tending to the spiritual needs of English soldiers. He designated these funds for building schools or churches, rather than for his own use.

By establishing schools, preparing Indian catechists and pastors, and preaching the gospel, Schwartz did what was expected of a Halle-trained missionary in South Asia or North America. What distinguished Schwartz was his abiding concern for the welfare of the people beyond the realm of church. Perhaps this is illustrated most vividly in his diplomatic mission to Hyder Ali, ruler of Mysore, on behalf of the British East India Company. Unfortunately, although Schwartz received a hospitable reception, relations remained tense and Hyder Ali invaded Tanjore in 1781. Less dramatically, Schwartz served as chaplain to soldiers, both English and Indian, wounded in ongoing battles between English and French forces and their Indian allies.

Along with a financial endowment to support Christian mission, Schwartz’ legacy to South India was a cadre of leaders who regarded him as their father as well as their teacher. Among these was young Serfoji, who would become the Maharaj of Tanjore, and Christian poet and hymn writer Vandanayaka Sastri. Under Schwartz’ direction, the boys were tutored in a wide array of topics worthy of the Halle model including Bible, mathematics, leadership, and emerging European models of science. Serfoji erected a marble monument to Schwartz’ memory, but the schools the Maharaj sponsored for his subjects and his life-long friendship with Vandanayaka Sastri were a living memorial to the missionary’s godly efforts to secure peace and the well-being of the people of South India, Christian and non-Christian alike.

L. DeAne Lagerquist is professor of religion at St. Olaf College. She is the author of From Our Mothers’ Arms: A History of Women in the American Lutheran Church and The Lutherans, and is working on a jointly-authored introduction to world Lutheranism. (Mark Granquist, associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary, is project editor.)

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