Tranquebar and Europe
 Issues of Perspective and Method in re-evaluating the significance in Europe of the Tranquebar Mission.

John Roxborogh

1         Introduction

This paper was originally prepared to explore the implications of using the early 18th century Danish-Halle Christian mission to Tranquebar as a window into the issues which arise when we seek to trace the impact on Europe of European engagement with Asia. The religious and cultural traffic was two way. The issues include identification of the range of possible influences and taking seriously what is involved in interpreting sources from a different perspective. The range of possible perspectives include the rise of the modern missionary movement, the history of bible translation and of European knowledge of Asian languages, changes in the self-understanding of Anglican attitudes towards Lutheran orders and the ongoing place of the Tranquebar Mission in Anglican-Lutheran relations, revisionist historiography of the vitality of the 18th century church in Europe, and changes in the theology of religions of Europeans generally. Connected with these are the place of the Tranquebar Mission in the history of European contact with India, and of German, Danish, and British perceptions of India. There is space to comment on just some of these.


2         Methodology


It is important not to underestimate what is involved in trying to turn historical narratives on their head to produce an analysis from a new perspective and with a new set of questions. We may be able to learn from experience in the historiography of mission as the discipline has sought to move focus from the interests of senders and sent, to those of the cultures and peoples where they went, and now to their reverse impact on the cultures from whence they came. We should not underestimate the effort required to move from a focus on one mission, albeit connected with several countries and churches, to a perspective fully informed by an examination of all the countries, churches and religions involved. We cannot divorce our consideration of the Tranquebar Mission from Catholics and Mar Thoma Christians in India or from Dutch Protestants in Ceylon.[1]


Traditional sources may be capable of contributing to the shift in focus, but there is a need to consider other sources, and to realise the demands that are placed on the researcher. I am uneasy about the difficulties which arise when we think about whose questions these are. People must be free to ask the questions that they wish to ask, but it is not wrong to ask who are the owners of this research agenda and who are the beneficiaries.


It is necessary to be cautious about drawing conclusions of causality from links which are not capable of sustaining that weight of interpretation. Care needs to be taken in assessing the interpretations of others about the significance of Tranquebar. A distinction needs to be made between drawing on the opinions of other writers, as examples of possible interpretations, and assuming that their opinions are evidence of the reliability of their conclusions. Even an historian of mission who understood both India and Europe as well as Stephen Neill needs to be treated more as a source of theories to be tested than as conclusions to be relied on.


The methodological issues are not clear simply from a statement of the approach. Somewhere it is necessary to ask what are we looking for, what sort of evidence would we expect, and where do we need to look to make sure we have exhausted the possibilities of finding it. The period to be considered is also relevant. The significance for Lutheran self-understanding in Germany and Denmark into the present may be greater than the question of links into Carey. The importance for Anglican-Lutheran dialogue[2] of the charming stories of co-operation in support of Tranquebar is ongoing and no doubt could be traced as a factor in the developing relations between the two traditions. This ecumenism can only be reinforced by the meeting in 1919 called at Tranquebar by Bishop Azariah which was in due course to lead to the formation of the Church of South India.[3] The questions being asked here are not ones which stop at some previous point in time and we should not at all assume that the influence of the Tranquebar events of 290 years ago have ceased. Does the ecumenical work of Bishop Rajah B Manikam owe something to the example of the Tranquebar Mission as well as to his own Anglican and Lutheran heritage?[4] We still have symbols, precedents and ideals here which have a potency to change things in Europe.


There is much value in this, but what we seem to be talking about is not the influence of India on Europe, but the possible influence of India-based Europeans on Europe. Unless we address the impact of information about India on understanding in Europe that will continue. The difficulty with the larger project, of which this enquiry is a part, is that the intellectual ferment we are looking for is only very recent. Some might argue also that it is not due directly to the Missionary Movement, 18th century or 19th century, but to the experience of having India come to Europe in the 20th.


3         Theology of Religions


A connected problem is that looking at the rise of the missionary movement may not be the most appropriate focus if our larger picture is influence on Europe. Our attention needs to be more on the history of theology of religions than on the history of mission. Thanks initially to the distaste of Francke, Ziegenbalg’s Malabar Gods was not published until 1867. The possibility of its having an influence was thus largely removed during the 18th century and the rise of the missionary movement. It does highlight however that others interested in India, its languages and religions, would have been more significant players than the missionaries in this case. It would be useful to check the writings of Deists and others more open to a sympathetic view of other religions at the time, to see how much awareness of India influenced them and if so where that awareness came from. What did German theologians in particular think of all this mission in India? Should we be looking to Dutch writing in view of their earlier and greater engagement in growing a church in a South Asian environment? Where did Rousseau and Voltaire get their information on Asia religions?


The reluctance to publish Malabar Gods can suggest more than one possibility of the dynamics at work in the European mind. It may be fear, and ignorance – which should not be surprising. It may also be an indication of a debate about the significance of other religions for Christian mission which is starting to emerge. The intellectual challenges to 18th century Christian faith come from skepticism, fear of enthusiasm, and articulate alternative philosophies. We need to know whether this stream of thought was in any way stimulated by awareness of the Tranquebar Mission.[5]  It is perhaps more likely that it was the wider framework of contact with India and further East by European powers generally, and involving Roman Catholic missionaries which are the larger influences. Tranquebar adds to this awareness, but it does not create it.  It may have significance in circles which the other influences do not reach, but it is basically part of a range of intercultural and inter-religious contacts in this period. Among those contacts must be the story of the Dutch in Ceylon, Malacca and what is now Indonesia. The story of Tranquebar and its influence may be able to be researched and discussed in its own right, but its significance cannot be weighed apart from these parallel situations. Dutch Protestant missionaries were, for instance, active in nearby Jaffna from 1658.


4         The place of the Tranquebar Mission in the history of Christian missions


A concern of some narratives about the Tranquebar Mission after Carey has been to remind those who make Carey the founder of the modern missionary movement that there were others who got there first and who did an equally if not more remarkable job in their time.[6] This is part concern to set the record straight, part Anglican, Lutheran and Baptist rivalry. Presbyterians are not immune from a strained desire to show that they were doing it before Carey[7]. It tends to get forgotten in all this a factor in the English involvement in a Danish venture, albeit staffed by Germans, was the fact that Queen Anne had married a Danish prince.[8] It is also part of a theme of corrective historiography of the 18th century church. It has suffered by comparison with the energy and expansion of the 19th century when it has been rather too easy to highlight the perceived successes of 19th century Christianity in terms of the deficiencies of the 18th century. This is of course not confined to ecclesiastical history. The story of the Tranquebar Mission may be rightly about giving it and the 18th century their due, but our concerns here are wider.


Another area to be noted is the place of the Tranquebar Mission among changes in the agencies and methods of overseas mission during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Danish-Halle Mission can be seen as part of a shift from state sponsored mission to the voluntary society, but the transition is more strongly evident with the Moravians. These considerations are part of the explanation for the weakness of Protestant mission from the Reformation to the 19th century. The Catholic Church had worked through monasticism, missionary orders and through the Royal patronage of the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns. Protestants had no monasteries, no orders, no rulers wanting to exercise patronage in this kind of way and initially at least no place to exercise it. Carey’s Baptist Missionary Society, is a voluntary order responsible to virtually nobody besides its own supporters. The Dutch mission appears as much political as religious. The Tranquebar Mission has features of both royal patronage and voluntary society, but the SPCK connection is still very “royal”- its court relationships are just as important in England as they are in Denmark. The nuances of these developments need to be explored, particularly the place of the British and Dutch trading companies, and the role of the Moravians.[9] The observation of McManners that by 1800 “the German-Danish-English mission had 20,000 converts . . . a modest flock by comparison with the 300,000 in Ceylon under Dutch minister, though won by more Christian methods”[10] suggests further areas for investigation.


5         Awareness in Britain


The extent of awareness in Britain of the Tranquebar Mission early in the 18th century needs to be considered seriously. Robert Millar of Paisley included an account of the Danish mission in his two volume History of the Propagation of Christianity and the Overthrow of Paganism published in Edinburgh in 1723.[11] However Allan Davidson in his research on the East India Company chaplains, considered that the impact in Britain on attitudes towards India of the news and letters from Tranquebar was slight,[12] even though it was a “powerful influence” on supporters of missions.[13] This is consistent with the lack of archival material in Britain relating to Tranquebar, apart from the early period[14]. The story of Susannah Wesley reading to her sons around 1710 is often recalled. Whatever their interest, such awareness as existed in the first two decades of the mission, does not produce a movement. The Tranquebar Mission remains a foretaste of the missionary side of Pietism, an ingredient which will prove important from the 1790s in Britain. The Moravians multiply that influence and add ingredients of their own. By the time we get to the first decades of the 19th century, the Danish-Halle Mission is still known about (in terms which have little changed[15]) but it is the Moravians alongside Carey who provide the concrete examples which move people, Thomas Chalmers for instance, to actively support what only then becomes a missionary movement.


Within India, the role of Christian Frederick Schwartz was an essential link with the English as his memorial in the chapel at Fort St George, Madras, indicates. This was even at a time when the East India Company was opposed to missionaries in their territory. Claudius Buchanan, the chaplain whose advocacy was a key ingredient of the acceptance of the missionary clauses into the East India Company charter in 1813, had been impressed by Schwartz and had intended to write his a biography, a task that was left to his own biographer some years later[16]. If we are to think of factors necessary for the rise of the missionary movement in Britain, there are changes in the theological mood and political and economic circumstances of the country which are only distantly related to Tranquebar.


6         Ongoing influence


The modern period must also be noted. If we track when there has been European interest in the Tranquebar Mission there is a cluster of writings in the 1950s (taking their occasion from the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Tranquebar Mission in 1706) associated with Arno Lehman, then later from Hans-Werner Gensichen and Anders Nörgaard, and now Dr Jeyaraj. Are these, and the biographies of some more recent missionaries and bishops[17], writings which arise only because of the interest of the writers, or do they reflect a significance recognised by others? Historians create history and the ongoing influence will be something that the writings of contemporary scholars will continue. There is a sense in which this Symposium is not simply about analysing what may have happened, it is about helping determine what the future influence on Europe will be. It is essential for that task, that it is not just the European players in the history whose story is told, but those whose ideas they helped transmit. The success of this project, if it is to produce results which can withstand scholarly critique and sustain itself, requires ongoing commitment to the study of the other active contributors to the process of religious change which took place during the past two centuries.


Finally it is also interesting to locate and assess what can be found on the World Wide Web. One wonders what it means to note that at the time this paper was prepared in 1998 the story of Ziegenbalg and the Tranquebar Mission was to be found on a Anglican site[18] and in an article extracted from an airline magazine[19]. The web also carried the news that the National Council of Churches in India had launched a decade-long programme to commemorate the beginning of the Protestant mission in the country 300 years ago.[20] It is on the Web that the some of the role of Ziegenbalg in recording local culture can be located[21], together with information on the reprinting of his correspondence[22]. It is also on the Web that I have located the only statement I have been able to trace on the place of Ziegenbalg in the history of the German understanding of India[23].


7         Mapping the possiblilities:

        Possible interactive relationships.

a)      The Tranquebar Mission is a result of a common development in Europe.

b)      The Tranquebar Mission is a unique development in Europe.

c)      The Tranquebar Mission reinforces developments which are already taking place in Europe

d)      The Tranquebar Mission is a primary cause of new developments in Europe.

e)      The Tranquebar Mission is an ongoing source of self-understanding.

7.2        Possible developments

a)      Increase in interest in Christian mission to remote countries and religions

b)      Development in understanding in the theory and practice of mission.

c)      Study of the languages of the region

d)      Increase in understanding of other religions

e)      Changes in Christian theology of religion

f)        Changes in attitude towards the Christian religion

g)      Decrease in interest in Christian mission to other religions

h)      Changes in government and public attitudes towards other places, peoples and religions

i)        Changes in attitude of different streams of Christianity towards each other.

7.3        Types of evidence that might be expected:

a)      Support for the Tranquebar Mission itself as indicated by money, correspondents, minutes of societies etc.

b)      The formation of other groups which appeal to the Tranquebar Mission as an example, as a model to be followed, or as having methods which should be developed or applied in other places.

c)      Publications which refer to the Tranquebar Mission in other contexts, such as philosophy, theology, trade, politics.

d)      Sermons which refer to the Tranquebar Mission

e)      Missionary writings on Indian religion and on missionary methods

f)        Hymns whose imagery draws on the Tranquebar Mission experience.

g)      References in Lectionaries

h)      Writings, changes in mood, or attitude, which do not make direct reference to the Tranquebar Mission but which reflect issues known to be widely raised by knowledge of the Mission.


8         Additional References


Arasaratnam, S. “The first century of Protestant Christianity in Jaffna, 1919-1750”, Indian Church History Review 19(1), June 1985, 39-54.

Clarke, W. K. Lowther. A History of the SPCK. SPCK, 1959.

Classified Digest of the Records of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts 1701-1892, London: 1893.

Cracknell, Kenneth. Justice, Courtesy and Love. Theologians and Missionaries encountering World Religions, 1846-1914, Epworth Press, 1995.

Davidson, Allan K. Evangelicals and Attitudes to India 1786-1813, Sutton Courtenay Press, 1990.

Gray, John C. F. Tranquebar: a guide to the coins of Danish India, c.1620 to 1845, 1974. [Library of Congress]

Heike, Liebau. Die Quellen der Dänisch-Halleschen Mission in Tranquebar in deutschen Archiven: ihre Bedeutung für die Indieforschung, 1993. [Library of Congress]

Khan, S. A. Sources for the History of British India in the Seventeenth Century, 1926. [Wainwright and Matthews]

Kuriakose, M. K. History of Christianity in India: Source Materials, CLS, Madras, 1982.

Leifer, W. Indien und die Deutschen. 500 Jahre Begegnung und Partnerschaft, 1969.

McManners, John, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, Oxford University Press, 1990.Meersman, Achilles. “The Catholic church in Tranquebar and Tajore during the formative years of Lutheran mission”, Indian Church History Review 1, 1967, 93-112.

Pearson, H. Memoirs of the life and correspondence of the Rev. C.F. Schwartz, 1839.

Pearson, J. D. South Asian Bibliography. A handbook and Guide.Sussex: Harvester Press, 1979.

Sykes, Norman. Old Priest and New Presbyter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Thompson, H. P. Into All Lands. The History of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in foreign Parts 1701 –1950, SPCK, 1951.

Towlson, Clifford W. Moravian and Methodist. Relationships and Influences in the eighteenth century, London: Epworth Press, 1957.

Wainwright, M. D. and Noel Matthews, comps. A Guide to Western Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles relating to South and South East Asia, London: Oxford university Press, 1965.


[1] For example see John McManners, “The Expansion of Christianity (1500-1800)” in John McManners, ed., The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, Oxford University Press, 1990. p.331.

[2] For a discussion of its place in 18th century discussion of Church of England recognition of Lutheran ordination see Norman Sykes. Old Priest and New Presbyter, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957, 154-170.

[3] Carol Graham. “V.S. Azariah 1874-1945. Exponent of Indigenous Mission and Church Unity”, in Gerald Anderson, et al, eds., Mission Legacies, Orbis, 1994, 327.

[4] G. H. Anderson, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Christian Mission, Macmillan, 1997, 430.

[5] For example Alexander Rankin, Institutes of Theology, Glasgow, 1822, discusses “Religious knowledge among the Heathen” with reference to arguments about the necessity of revelation. None of this is informed by information about other religions more recent than Roman times. George Hill’s Lectures in Divinity were largely written before Carey went to India and published in 1821. The section on the “Propagation of Christianity” engages with Islam and Gibbon, and is informed by debates in Scotland not by any information from the missionary experience of Islam and Hinduism.

[6] Eg Arno Lehman, It began at Tranquebar, Madras: CLS, 1956, 15f. Lehman did not note that history of the SPG published in 1951 had no trouble acknowledging the importance of Ziegenbalg and the Tranquebar Mission, including pointing out that the Anglican Simeon had been interested in India before Carey got there. However it also claimed that the original Danish interest was sparked by the English initiative in founding the SPG. H. P. Thompson, Into All Lands, London: SPCK, 1951, 174-176.

[7] Jack Ramsay, “Scottish Presbyterian Foreign missions – a century before Carey”, Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, 39(4) December 1961, 201-218.

[8] Norman Sykes. Old Priest and New Presbyter, 154.

[9] Clifford W Towlson. Moravian and Methodist. Relationships and influences in the eighteenth century, London: Epworth Press, 1957.

[10] John McManners, ed., Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity p.331.

[11] Volume 2, 479-485.There were 468 subscribers and it had two further editions as well as being translated into Dutch.

[12] Allan K Davidson. Evangelicals and Attitudes to India 1786-1813, Sutton Courtenay Press, 1990, 32.

[13] Ibid., p33.

[14] From Wainwright, M. D. and Noel Matthews, comps. A Guide to Western Manuscripts and Documents in the British Isles relating to South and South East Asia, London: Oxford University Press, 1965, and the supplementary volumes complied by J. D. Pearson, Mansell, 1989, 1990, there is material in the Edmund Gibson Papers, Lambeth Palace Library (letters from Ziegenbalg and Grundler to the SPCK and to Archbishop Tenison, the SPCK (East India Mission Records 1710 –1847. Special committee minute books and letter books detail correspondence with Ziegenbalg and Grundler, also with Kiernander and Hutteman at Cuddalore) and the Bodleian (Minutes of the SPCK  1699-1728, and “Diary kept by the Danish missionaries at Tranquebar January and February 1728.”), but it is confined to the initial period.

[15] “Review of publications relation to the British and Foreign Bible Society”, Edinburgh Christian Instructor 23, 6(3) March 1813, 193.

[16] Davidson, ibid. Hugh Pearson, Memoirs of the Life of C. F. Schwartz, 1834.

[17] Eg Johannes Sandegren (1883-1962), Ernst Heuman, and Bertil Sjöstrand (?-1929). See J. D. Asirvadam. Joahannes Sandegren: the third bishop of Tranquebar, Madras, 1961. Gunnar Brundin, Ernst Heuman: Bishop av Tranquebar, Stockholm, 1926. Personligheten och Gärningen, Stockholm, 1929.




[21] “In the 17th century, few Europeans travelling or residing in India had recorded precious little of significance about Indian music. An exception is the refreshing, albeit biased account of southern India's poetry, music and dance appears in Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg's "Malabarisches Heidenthum" written in 1711, but not published until 1926. Ziegenbalg has accurately described as many as 32 musical instruments in his book”

[22] Johann Ernst Gründler / Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, Malabarische Korrespondenz, Thorbecke, 1998. Seiten/zeitreisen/fremde.html#Malabarische Korrespondenz