C-30.51.032
"Children of syrian christians, India."
date late : 1902-05-31.0.


C-30.51.014
"Indian christian preaching to the parias (outcastes)." [Caption on mount].
- "Mr Pandian preaching to Pariahs - No. 203." [Caption on image].
date late : 1902-05-31.0.
unknown studio


C-30.52.004
"The indigenous pastor Salomo Dewade in Hubli. India."
date late : 1902-05-31.0.
unknown studio

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Early Asian Converts to Christianity

It is believed that Christianity arrived in India at the beginning of the Christian era, and it is said that St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Christ, first proclaimed Christinaity in the south-west corner of India. But Christianity’s impact in India was more marked after Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut in 1498 BCE. Catholicism picked up steam with the arrival of Francis Xavier in India in 1542. The first Protestant missionaries arrived in India in 1706. In China, Christianity arrived largely from the early nineteenth century, and it had a checkered history due to widespread nationalist disturbances between 1925 and 1927, which occasioned the mass exodus of missionaries. Though Christian missionaries returned, the revolution of 1949 represented a really comprehensive setback to missionary endeavor in China.

In C-30.51.032 we see two small girls described as children of Syrian Christians in India. Syrian Christians were older Christians who had converted before the missionary explosion in South India from the 18th century. These Syrian Christians represented the Indian Orthodox Church of Kerala and were of high caste background. In C-30.51.014, a Mr. Pandian preaches to Indian outcastes in a village with wattle and daub houses reminiscent of rural West Africa. A group of about ten men and two boys listen attentively to the preacher. Dr. S. Manickam, an expert in medieval and missionary history, defines caste in India as “essentially a Hindu phenomenon and that it is sanctioned by the Hindu religion and blessed by the gods. It is hierarchically arranged in an ascending order of reverence and descending degree of contempt and as such each caste or sub-caste is either superior or inferior to one another.” [S. Manickam, Studies in Missionary History (Madras, 1988), 58.] Some groupswere classified as untouchables or Pariahs, and the notion of pollution of contamination lies at the root of this distinction. But caste also structured social relations, so that one’s place in a caste – either high or low – was central to one’s social network. For outcastes, conversion in the early centuries of Portuguese Catholic presence could be a powerful phenomenon for it freed them from a caste-base and together with the Portuguese they became Parangis or people without caste. But conversion was also alienating, for one lost one’s mooring in the caste system, which ordered social life. Christianity entered outcaste communities largely in the 19th century. How did outcastes receive the Christian message when it was preached by an Indian from a superior caste? In C-30.52.004 we see the indigenous pastor Salomo Dewade in Hubli with his wife and three children elegantly dressed in Indian clothing. How transforming was Christian conversion in India where identity was concerned? In West Africa, many of the early converts were women, ex-slaves, slaves, pawns, and others in a weak social and political position. Christianity provided an entry into a new world, as missionary opposition to slavery and pawnage, mission schools, and missionary economic activities enabled early converts to re-negotiate their social identity. In India, caste remained central to social identity, and Indian Christians opposed missionary attempts to end caste in Church. It was only after 1850 that Mission Societies resolved firmly that caste was incompatible with Christianity. In C-30.57.011 we see a Christian Indian wedding. It is striking that the wedding couple is not conspicuous in this photograph unlike a European wedding, perhaps highlighting the fact that marriages in India were actually about the union of two families and not just two individuals. Christian missions provided the opportunity for new social groups to emerge, such as indigenous teachers, pastors, and catechists. In C-30.57.031 we are shown a “venerable catechist” from Karwar, an elderly Christian with a long white beard standing under a large tree, and probably one of the pillars of the local Christian community. In C-30.59.010, a group of ten or more Indian adults have come to the mission house to express their interest in becoming Christians. Conversion to Christianity was sometimes a family or a group decision, especially in communities where religion was always more than an individual affair.
In China, early Christian converts were often from lowly social backgrounds and they hoped conversion to Christianity and western education would provide some social mobility, especially as European missionaries were viewed by the Chinese scholarly gentry as rivals. In A-30.08.017 we see four male pastors in Chinese attire holding fans. What social class did such pastors occupy and how were they perceived by the Chinese scholarly gentry? In 19th century China, the disadvantaged in rural areas found Christianity particularly appealing.
A-30.01.030 and A-30.01.031 presents two groups of Christian men and Christian women. In West Africa, women seem on the whole to have converted to Christianity ahead of men. What was the situation in China? Are the women in
A-30.01.031 women who had converted independently, the wives of Christian men, or a mixture of both? A major study on Christianity in China, published in 1984, reported that women never constituted more than a third of the total number of communicants in the Protestant Church in China. But for women Christianity was particularly empowering, considering the low esteem of women where Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian orders were concerned. [Jane Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility (1984), 230.] In A-30.01.032 we see an elderly Chinese Christian couple sitting outdoors. The woman appears to be wearing a wedding band, though a ring is absent from the man’s fingers. The impact of Christianity on Chinese marriages, though intriguing, is beyond this interpreter’s expertise.

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