Reflections on the story of the First Protestant Missionary to India: On 9th July – Mission Thanksgiving Day
The just finished World Council of Churches’ Central Committee has envisioned embarking on a ‘pilgrimage for justice & peace’ for their directions for way forward in addressing the signs of our times with more creativity and relevance. At a time when the global Christian world in general and the global Lutheran Communion in particular is gearing up to celebrate the quincentenary (500 years) of the Luther’s Reformation, the ‘pilgrimage of reformation’ in a grand and big way across the world, it comes at a right moment, direction and sets the perspective to celebrate the memory, life, witness and contributions of Bartholomuas Zigenbalg, a young Lutheran pastor who toiled to make the gospel of Jesus Christ relevant to the context of his times, who paved the way for the ‘pilgrimage’ to carry on undeterred.
In our times, when theological articulations and missiological enterprises are more explored in new vistas, in creative panoramas and in modern and post modern methodologies, it is not an over statement to express that our memory towards the contributions of significant people in the history has been slowly fading away. Our generations today subscribe to the saying ‘live the today, forget the past and forego the future.’ Personalities who have toiled for the mission of God in the past are either neglected or even forgotten from our memories.
9th July has been a significant day in the pages of the Indian mission history. Some Churches in India earmarked this day to ordain their pastors and some Churches celebrate as ‘Mission Thanksgiving Day’ on this day. But I am afraid, whether the same is celebrated today in all enthuse and commitment as it was thought of. In our seminary days, I remember on this day, we were sent to different denominational Churches to speak about the ‘mission day’, explaining the significance of the day. You may ask, what is so special of 9th July? I believe the whole Protestant Christians in India cannot forget this day, for it was on this day the first Protestant missionary to India, Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg arrived at Tarangambadi, now know as Tranquebar in South India in 1706.
It was the day of the arrival of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to India through the Protestant missionaries and ever since then, the seed of Christianity, which like mustard seed grew into a huge tree, giving shade and solace to several people across the country. Thanks to all the contributions of Ziegenbalg, for his untiring and sacrificial missional engagements he had made, despite several hardships and hurdles. Ziegenbalg celebrated his 24th birthday on the very next day of his arrival in India, and I imagine probably he had to thank God for his life in a foreign land with out any friends as a stranger. However, in a span of 13 years he had had made an indelible impact in the lives of the people in India and breathed his last in 1719, at the age of 34 years. We need to thank God for the life and witness of Ziegenbalg and we all need to rededicate ourselves to participate in the widening and deepening of the reign of God here on our earth and in our times.
My only prayer is that our Christian nurtures need to include the mission contributions of Ziegenbalg in our curricula, for our children can get inspired and challenged by his efforts for the mission of God. Ziegenbalg continues to be a young icon in the world of mission, and let us all join in thanksgiving to carry forward the rich legacy of his service to the next generations, ‘celebrating Zigenbalg in the pilgrimage of justice & peace.’
Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, the first Protestant missionary to India, despite all his sufferings and ill health, worked day in and day out, in season and off-season for the mission of God in India. It was on the 9th July 1706, Ziegenbalg first landed on the coasts of Tranquebar of Tamil Nadu, and contributed creatively in teaching the Christian faith and gospel to the people of India. 9th July all across our Lutheran Churches in India is celebrated as ‘Mission Thanksgiving Day’, thanking God for the life, witness, and mission of all those faithful men and women of God who were committed to the calling of extending God’s reign here on earth and renewing the mission for our times today.
Born on 10th July 1682, Ziegenbalg as a Danish Missionary to India, lived a very short life of 35 years, 7 months and 18 days, but has made an indelible impression and influence on the Church in India in general and on the Protestant Church in India in particular. His untiring efforts for the extension of God’s reign in India prompted the genesis of the first protestant mission in India, which has now grown to a 300 plus years of history with above 30 million Indian Christians. Ziegenbalg permeates the Christian ethos of India in a way that nothing else does. His passion and zeal for mission can be captured in his own understanding of mission as a ‘service to the soul’ as well as a ‘service to the body’.
On this great historic mission day as we thank God for Ziegenbalg’s arrival to India we need to renew our missiological tasks for our times today. Though our context today is highly volatile, with every new day new issues of prominence prop up, I think we can still take lessons from Ziegenbalg. There are several voluminous contributions of Ziegenbalg, which have had its impact on the life of the Church today, but I would like to bring out three main areas of relevance from the life; witness and mission of Ziegenbalg to the present day Indian Church. These areas epitomize the heart and spirit of Ziegenbalg that continually challenge the Church today.
1 Word Becoming Flesh: Towards an Incarnational Mission
Ziegenbalg has preached on several themes from the Scriptures, and has related the Word to the context of his world. Besides preaching, he was the pioneer who translated the Scriptures to Tamil and Telugu. By translating the Bible to the indigenous languages, he has made ‘the Word became flesh’ more relevant and meaningful. Like Martin Luther, he has translated the Bible into the people’s language. It was only about 100 years after his translations of Bible to Indian languages; William Carey translated the Bible to many other Indian languages.
The contextual re-readings of the Scriptures perhaps can be the extension of the translations of the Scriptures to the local languages. The local hermeneutics have been a welcome move in this regard. Imagine the local Tamils, if at all were forced to learn and to read German in order to know the activity of God in the history that was recorded in the Bible, the historical activity of God would not have made any sense to them. Thanks to Ziegenbalg for his efforts in bringing the Word as flesh. Therefore Ziegenbalg’s translation of Scriptures challenges us today, to relate the Word to the local world and to work to bring out the relevance of the Word into our lives. Translations and interpretations of the Scriptures for our times become immanent. Today most people quote Scriptures in countering the life and life-giving activities. Probably I think, Ziegenbalg, as a true disciple of Jesus Christ challenges us to reinterpret our Scriptures in addressing our issues today, and would call on us to allow the fresh revelations of God to happen today
2 Wider Ecumenism: Towards an Inclusive Mission
Ziegenbalg always maintained healthy relationships with all people of faith. In spite of several differences with the Roman Catholics, he appreciated their commitment for the gospel and has adapted several words and phrases developed by Jesuit missionaries by reading their books and manuscripts. Ziegenbalg was also a pioneer in initiating the inter-faith dialogues with other people of faith. He had several discussions with Muslims and Hindus on several theological themes, and worked out the similarities and dissimilarities in their faith convictions and practices. He encouraged inter-cultural learning in their mother tongues. He always maintained high respect for the dialoguing partners and treated them on equal grounds. However, his conviction and faith in Jesus Christ made him to be wide open for new learning and friendship. He also worked for the liberation of the oppressed people who were exploited by the caste system from ages.
In the present context of violence in the name of religion, hatred and mistrust among religions, rise of religious fundamentalism, etc. Ziegenbalg’s relationship with all people of faith is challengingly relevant for our times. A point to note is that, to be an ecumenist one need not dilute or compromise ones convictions. That is what Ziegenbalg reminds us, his firm roots in the faith of Jesus Christ, his grounding in the Lutheran pietism made him to strive for healthy relations with other people of faith. Ecumenism means diluting ones convictions is a misconception that needs to be wiped off. Are our relationships with other denominations and with other people of faith healthy? The local congregations need to make this wider ecumenism (transcending all the boundaries of denominations, religions, regions, classes, caste, genders/sexualities etc.) as its agenda, and strive for the transformation of our creation and make our earth a better place to live in peace, happiness, justice and liberation.
3 Vibrant Missiology: Towards an Inspiring Mission
Ziegenbalg’s self-understanding of mission reveals his commitment for the mission of God. For him, Jesus Christ remains the source of mission, Christ always accompanies the missionaries, and missionaries are to engage in four-fold mission i.e. to go out, to teach, to baptize and to make the believers to enjoy the fruits of conversion. Conversion was not satisfactory for him, so he was engaged in translating his faith into actions. He made the gospel to reach to the people in deeds rather in mere words. Besides all his preaching, translations of Scriptures etc. he had established several mission schools, theological seminary, paper mill, and printing press etc. to make the gospel come alive to the people and for a dynamic witness of the gospel. He aimed that education should be given to all classes of people including the girl children and the children from the lower strata of the society.
What is mission today? This has been an old question put in new contexts and is asked from time to time. This questions reveals that since the context of every kairos is dynamic, so also is mission. Mission can never be static, and if it is so, it ceases to be mission. Mission is always vibrant and relevant. Ziegenbalg analyzed his context, and translated his faith to actions accordingly. In our present day context of globalization, oppressions in the name of class, caste and gender, discussions of different sexual orientations, ecological disasters, HIV and AIDS, religious fundamentalism, war and terrorism etc. how can we translate our faith to actions. Being Christo-centric was the key for Ziegenbalg in his mission for God, so also should be for the local congregations today. Sharing and not accumulating, overcoming consumerism, liberation, inclusion of all excluded groups, stewarding the creation, caring the positives, establishing peace, inter-faith relations etc. should all be on our congregations mission agenda. Ziegenbalg discerned the signs of his times and acted accordingly, so also should be the church today. Let our churches become sensitive, vibrant and dynamic in the mission of God.
On this mission thanksgiving day, let us all rededicate our call and commitment and strive for justice and transformation of our society. Thanks to the Ter-centenary celebrations of this historic day in 2006, which were celebrated in India that has further stimulated and inspired many young people. Our respects and tributes to Ziegenbalg would be honest only when we can live out our faith and when we become witness to the gospel values. Mere celebrations and commemorations will not be sufficient for this day, but a true renewal and revival of our commitment would strengthen the cause. May God grant us all God’s strength to become the proud heirs of Ziegenbalg in carrying along his legacy of vibrant mission to our generations. As we march into 2017 to celebrate globally the 500 years of Reformation, celebrating the lives and contributions of people like Zigenbalg is a fitting tribute and inspiration in moving forward to that great celebrations. Long Live Zeigenbalg!
Raj Bharath Patta,
9th July 2014
 Daniel Jeyaraj, Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg: the Father of Modern Protestant Mission An Indian Assessment (New Delhi: ISPCK,2006), p.133.
Commemorating the contributions to the church & society, the india Posts have issued a postal stamp in honour of Zigenbalg in 2006