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The Fading of an Era: The Last Missionaries in the Punjab

by Mark Juergensmeyer

Dr. Juergensmeyer is associate professor of ethics and the phenomenology of religions at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 22, 1976, 1144-1149. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The great missionary era of the church is over. An equality among Christian communities is beginning to replace the dependency and inequity of the past. That is a welcome change. Still, there is something poignant about the shifting of eras, and a small event may signal the shape of a much larger history.

Several years ago, I witnessed the farewell to the last evangelistic missionaries in the north Indian state of Punjab. I had been doing research in the Punjab on the social movements of the oppressed untouchables, many of whom had joined the Christian church during the great missionary era; so it was an event of sociological interest to me and to the lower-caste community of converts. But perhaps it was a historical event as well: a moment of meaning for a community in transition, a world church in change.

I

That event began for me with a visit to Y. C. Mall, an impish old-time indigenous pastor of the united Protestant church in Jullundur, a busy town in central Punjab. It was a hot day, dust churning in the crowded streets; the mission compound, where the church was located, was set away from the main roads, with room to breathe. Aging cream-colored bungalows, their arched verandas burdened with vines, were surrounded by a geometry of flower gardens and thick trees; early missionaries must have found the only eucalyptus grove in Jullundur. It was a place of great calm, perhaps calmer than the church would like it to be.

But there were some gestures of excitement in the compound that day. Morgan and Dorothy McKelvey, a missionary couple, were retiring, leaving the next night on the Frontier Mail. Mr. Mall suggested that we visit them. I didn’t know the McKelveys very well, but I did remember being struck by the fact that they were doing adult education and rural evangelism in the villages. Few missionaries did that sort of thing anymore. The roles of missionaries had changed. In fact, they were the only ones I could think of who were doing strictly church work, as opposed to work with Christian institutions -- schools and hospitals -- in the whole of the Punjab.

As Mr. Mall and I walked along the dusty road, a thought occurred to me. "Tomorrow is a historical occasion."

"How’s that?" he asked.

I told him that by my calculations, the missionary era in the Punjab spanned 137 years. The first missionary came for evangelistic work in October 1834, and tomorrow -- April 26, 1971 -- the last missionaries would leave.

"Well," said Mr. Mall, "Praise the Lord, that means our church has finally grown up.

The McKelveys were sitting in the middle of the high-vaulted room of their mission house, a bit of packing clutter strewn about, the walls naked. They did not seem quite fit for their roles. She was round-faced, motherly, and seemed suited for baking pies on the Colorado plains -- where, in fact, they intended to live when they returned to the States. He had full white hair and trim features; one imagined him as a sweet-faced, athletic lad 60 years ago when he was growing up in the Punjab, the son of missionary parents, and when he joined the mission himself in 1944. Nor did they act as if they were performing a scene in history. Rather, they seemed tired and pensive.

Mr. Mall and I mentioned our discovery that they were the last of their kind, and that tomorrow would be the closing of an era. If that was true, they said, they were not too happy about it. They had seen their colleagues, good ones, retired early, shipped off to bureaucratic roles; they felt that the newcomers -- teachers and doctors -- had time only for their institutions, and none for the church. The principle of shifting the leadership of the church to indigenous hands was undoubtedly a good one, they said, but if that meant shoving out all the church-related missionaries, that was pushing principle to a fault.

The McKelveys did not say so, but the implication seemed to be that the local church needed the soothing hands of at least a few missionaries before it could ride totally alone. And in fact, the stories of the past couple of years -- the fights over church property rights, the factional struggles among the leadership -- had given an unpleasant air to the church’s reputation. McKelvey was apparently one of the few remaining missionaries who had the courage, or the interest, to wade into these messes and try to straighten them out. The missionaries in the institutions just didn’t have the time.

Mrs. McKelvey looked at me sternly and said, "The only true missionary is an evangelistic missionary, you know. Once the Punjab had hundreds. And after tomorrow, there’ll be none.

II

The big years for the missionaries, apparently, were around the turn of the century. The Punjab was bigger, then, before Pakistan claimed the western half, and the English ruled with a sense of destiny matched only by that of Ranjit Singh, the "one-eyed lion of the Punjab," whose empire had been routed by the British a century before. The missionaries caught that sense of destiny.

Once while rummaging through old missionary reports in a storage room of Baring Union Christian College in the Punjab, I came across old letters and reports from the field. Urgent, vibrant reports -- the writers felt that they were onto something big. Gospel Romance Among the Huts of the Punjab was the title of one book, and the letters were full of passionate appeals to send more missionaries to "reap the mighty harvest." The crop at that time was composed almost entirely of the lowest untouchable caste, the sweepers, who came unsolicited by the tens of thousands to receive baptism and the benefits of getting out of the Hindu caste system. The Protestant church of the Punjab was born from that mass movement.

The McKelveys were busy with packing and presents for the servants, so Mr. Mall and I went outside, where evening was coming on. We walked past the old church. I asked him to show me around, since I had never been inside. The church was in the middle of the trees, far from the road, and perhaps a century from Jullundur. It was a structure of old, weather-worn bricks, topped with a large bell, surrounded by flowers, shrubs and a brick wall. A plaque on the wall, commemorating the first pastor, a Bengali missionary whose descendants still form a strong arm of the church, placed the date of its construction at about 80 years ago. The floors were solid marble tile; there were carved altar and brass ornaments, and Bible inscriptions written in the florid Arabic script of the Urdu language, outlining the chancel and the side doors. The small church, with its straight-backed pews, could seat about a hundred, and on most Sundays it was fairly full, said Mr. Mall, the 67 local members complemented by students and visitors: four or five families were well-to-do; they drove cars to church. The others, members of the lower classes, walked.

"But there’s no caste or class in here," Mr. Mall exclaimed, waving at the walls. The congregation drank communion wine from one unhygienic but beautiful old brass chalice, rather than shifting to the modern style of individual communion cups. At issue was the symbolism of overcoming intercaste eating restrictions, a problem that persisted in many churches.

Outside, in the approaching dark, the sense of musty historical calm carried over to the rest of the compound. The missionary bungalows were almost all empty. The one where the McKelveys were now packing would become a literature center. The indigenous Church of North India used other bungalows as offices. And the old Christian high school near the church -- the first high school in Jullundur district -- was no longer a school; it was now used for conferences. The city these days was full of high schools run by the government, and by other religious groups, the Hindus and Sikhs.

Directly across the street from the mission compound, to the east, crowds were gathering in the early evening for the satsang -- religious services not unlike Christian services -- of the Radhasoami sect, a new religion based in the Punjab which, like the new religions of Japan, was gaining followers rapidly in Europe and the U.S. In India, Radhasoami was attracting thousands of new converts yearly, especially from those lower classes which once provided Christian converts during the days of the mass movement earlier this century. The bustle of the crowds arriving at the Radhasoami meeting place was in marked contrast to the quiet of the church within the eucalyptus grove.

III

The next day the last missionaries in the Punjab were to leave. It was a historical day for the church, but a working day for me, as I had several people to see in connection with my project on social movements among the lower classes. Since Christianity in the Punjab, particularly in the rural areas, has its origins in that stratum of society, my attention had been drawn to some erstwhile "Christian Associations" (Masihi Sabhas) formed to exert political pressure, and to run candidates in recent parliamentary elections. A leader of one of these groups, I was told, could be found as a teacher at the Christian schools in Suranassi, a town perhaps four miles from Jullundur.

Those four miles comprised a small adventure in discomfort, since I had determined to take the local buses, and spent a good part of the journey hanging out of the rear doorway by one arm. The bus reached the Christian schools and slowed down, and I dropped off, like a mail sack from a slow train. The Christian schools were a modern version of the mission compound: new buildings, wide lawns and, seemingly ubiquitous with things Christian in India, lots of flowers in neat little plots.

The Christian schools at Suranassi were relatively a new thing. They were built mostly after Independence in 1948, when the new government’s policies of providing primary schools on a vast scale wiped out the missionary institutional efforts prior to that time. The church switched to high schools and technical schools, consolidating their old institutions into a few major centers. On the high school and college level, however, the Christian institutions had to compete with the large networks of Hindu and Sikh institutions which, paradoxically, were begun earlier in this century in response to the Christian institutions, the conversion appeal of which seemed to challenge the Indian religions. The rationale for continuing Christian enterprises along this line was that the poorest people, many of them Christians, needed special opportunities, and that religious training in the schools helped keep alive the faith. But half the 650 students were Hindu and Sikh, tuition-paying, to supplement the money from America which kept the schools solvent.

The compound where the schools were located was orderly, purposeful; well-dressed students were sipping tea at a clean little stand. I imagined the incredible culture shock which most of the village youth must have experienced on their arrival at the boarding schools. Straight from mud huts to all this brick and plumbing, the narrow village society of caste and family replaced by Boy Scouts, the 4-H, and evening Bible studies. It struck me that it would be hard for a graduate from an institution like this to go back to the village -- and it was either that or the competition for scarce jobs in the cities.

I had tea with Dr. Theophilus, the director of the schools. A pleasant sort, obviously devoted to his administrative and educational duties, he reminded me a little of a Methodist district superintendent I once knew in southern Illinois. He was Indian, of course, and from the lower classes at that. I had no idea how he came by his name; I speculated briefly that it might have been a Greek translation of an original Hindi name such as "Ram Das" or "Dev Anand" -- which mean "lover of God."

Dr. Theophilus once went to the United States on a church grant, and managed to complete a Ph.D. in education from Iowa State in only two and a half years. He rhapsodized about Iowa as if it were Paris, and I could picture Theophilus as guest speaker at Ames’s church socials and Rotary clubs.

His house was modern ranch-style, full of bookshelves, and I had the feeling that it must have been originally built for a missionary. The kitchen gave it away: modern, convenient, made for American wives rather than Indian servants. His books were light novels, theology and school administration. And his kitchen was American.

We talked a bit about the schools, their problems. Aside from the new library cum administration building under construction, Dr. Theophilus was concerned about two other matters: getting a volunteer from the German Peace Corps to teach in the mechanics’ training course, and completing a wall that was being constructed around the school buildings. Its purpose, he explained, was to demarcate the land used by the schools from the land used for boarding hostels, homes and general church use. The point of all this was that in the event of nationalization of church institutions, the government could claim only so much and no more.

IV

Through Dr. Theophilus I was introduced to the fellow I came to see, Amar Nath Singh, a young teacher with a well-trimmed beard and fiery eyes who turned out to be a nephew of Y. C. Mall. He said he could indeed give me the inside story on Christian politics. After some poking around for a quiet place to talk, we settled on a storage room about the size of a large closet, next to the tea stall. Amar Nath produced two folding chairs and some tea, and we talked for three hours.

Amar Nath Singh was one of those fellows who came from a poor family in a poor village, was educated at the Christian schools, and never went back to the village. Around 1900, his grandfather was swept up on the edges of the mass movement and became a Christian. The conversion didn’t stick, however, as village intimidation forced him to redeclare himself a Hindu. Similarly, Amar Nath Singh’s father claimed Christianity for a time, then went to Sikhism, a religion which is as strong as, or stronger than, Hinduism in this part of the Punjab. His father’s liaison with Sikhism explained the Sikh name "Singh" attached to Amar Nath’s otherwise Hindu name. Amar Nath also went through religious wavering, despite his association with the Christian schools. He believed that Christianity could put a "new man in new clothes," and other groups, religious or political, emphasized only one or the other, the man or the clothes.

From what I had seen of village Christians, and from what Amar Nath told me, they were in need of both. Their family incomes hovered around 100 rupees per month ($14), and most lived in one- or two-room houses made of mud, straw and cow dung. Many couldn’t afford to send their children even to a free school because the kids earned money tending cattle. India’s "green revolution" seemed to have passed these people by, since they didn’t own land, and the new farming machines simply took away their old jobs. It was no surprise that those who could get away, through employment or education, did so as quickly as possible, and those who stayed in the village, or returned there, turned to quarreling and drinking bootleg liquor -- familiar diversions of the poor everywhere.

No one knows exactly how many village Christians there are. Once there were around 500,000 in the Punjab; the latest census figure gives 162,000. But because of a chronic shortage of pastors (the congregations are not equipped to support them, and missionary funds were cut off several years ago), the church tends to be only dimly aware of Christians more than ten or 20 miles from the cities. Since Christian doctrine has never been particularly well learned in the villages, and because many villagers didn’t bother to keep the westernized or biblical names given them when they became Christian, Christianity could be an ambiguous matter. Wesley Samuel could be, on other occasions, Ravi Ram, and no one would be the wiser.

The erosion of Christian membership continued not only for lack of nurture from the church but also because the jobs which the government reserved for "scheduled castes" (the official term for the so-called untouchables) in government employment were not open to those who claimed to be adherents of a non-Hindu religion, and therefore no longer in any caste at all, "scheduled" or otherwise.

Amar Nath fixed the blame for the government’s policy decision on the church leadership at the time the government was drawing up the list of scheduled castes, before Independence. That leadership was composed of a missionary-trained elite and a few converts from high-caste, Muslim, and Maharahas families. They had some influence on the British government because of their status, but out of pride and a refusal to confuse Christian identity with caste identity, they refused to allow Christianity to be placed on the list. There were a few leaders, like Dr. Theophilus, who stood up for the masses of Christians, but they lost out, and now the poor Christians were paying for that mistake.

But the thing that intrigued both of us was not that so many villagers were leaving Christianity, but that so many still hung on to their Christian identities despite the obvious liabilities. This was particularly remarkable in-light of the fact that the village Christians’ forebears, joining the faith in mass movements, had but the vaguest notion of what they were getting into -- just that it was likely to be better than being an untouchable Hindu. And if they were treated as badly as before, the ex-untouchables, with their Christian names and pictures of Jesus, were free only within their own minds.

V

Christianity, however, gave pride to the former untouchables in the villages. They renamed their caste "Christian." And if they eschewed the economic benefits of reserved places in government service by refusing to claim any relationship with their ancestors castes, this was as much a testimony to their sense of dignity as human beings as it was a witness to their Christian faith.

Given their economic situation and the sense of estrangement from the old society that belonging to a new faith brings, it was natural that some political movements emerged to protect the Christians’ rights and promote their welfare. This was happening at the same time that political groups of all sorts proliferated in India -- during the heightened political sensitivity of the nationalist movement (especially 1925-1940), and after Nehru but before Indira (i.e., 1964-1970).

Some of the Christian organizations were of the social-uplift type, encouraging education and better living conditions, with no overt political schemes. Other groups were political in the narrowest sense, running candidates in various elections. Amar Nath speculated that these people had simply wanted to see their names on the ballots, or had hopes of being bought off at a good price by the dominant parties.

Amar Nath’s organization, the Bharatiya Masihi Dal (Indian Christian Party), was a new group with a half-dozen organizers, centered in Jullundur and Amritsar, another city 6o miles away. Aside from Amar Nath, the other two officers were Bilaur Masih, an illiterate laborer from Jullundur, and Samuel Mal, who had a scrap-metal shop in Amritsar and lived in the mental hospital where his wife worked. Mal had run for a parliamentary seat as an Independent in the last election, and the newspapers had made something of the fact that he gave his address as the mental hospital. Out of approximately 350,000 votes cast, Mal received 874.

In India, voters tend to follow along caste and religious lines, and in an area where Christians have perhaps 1 per cent of the population, the prospects for Christian candidates didn’t seem particularly bright. Amar Nath seemed to be a reasonably sensible fellow, so I asked him why they persisted in running candidates in elections they didn’t have the slightest prayer of winning. According to Amar Nath, it was to publicize their demands, which were essentially six: (1) land for poor landless Christians, (2) reserved places for Christians in government jobs, (3) reserved places in government schools, (4) protection from intimidation, (5) protection against anti-Christian and anti-missionary legislation, and (6) protection against the government’s occupation of church land.

Mostly, they wanted the rights and benefits the scheduled castes were getting. The biggest problem, Amar Nath felt, was organization. The poor people didn’t have the money, and rich Christians couldn’t be bothered. Amar Nath tried to do what organizing he could, on his bicycle on weekends, but that wasn’t enough, The educated Christians, if they passed the state examinations, got government jobs; and by law government employees were prohibited from being involved in politics. Amar Nath speculated that this rule might be a way of co-opting the scarce leadership of the poor.

So far, the Bharatiya Masihi Dal had relied on old men and weekend politicians for the organizing, but Amar Nath wanted to tap another source -- the unemployed college graduates, who often wandered about for a couple of years before they found jobs. This volatile segment of the population was a mainstay of other parties’ organizing and formed the core of the Maoist Naxalite movement; so, Amar Nath reasoned, the Christian unemployed could certainly be used for organizing among poor Christians. Knowing quite a few Indian Christian students, I wondered how many would eagerly soil their nylon shirts in the villages. And Amar Nath admitted that the idea had yet to get off the ground.

Someone brought a bowl of fruit in, and Amar Nath enthusiastically chopped up the oranges, mangoes and bananas into little pieces with a large knife. As we ate the bits of fruit, Amar Nath began to wax eloquent on his millenarian vision of Christian rule in India. After all, he said, the Romans gave Christianity to the British and they conquered the world; now, he said, the British and Americans have brought Christianity to us. I tried to complete the parallel in my mind, but it was difficult.

VI

I said good-bye to Amar Nath, and stopped by to pay my respects to Dr. Theophilus before returning to the city. I asked him about the Bharatiya Masihi Dal; he said he didn’t know anything about it, as he wasn’t interested in politics himself, but that Amar Nath was a nice fellow.

I caught a ride back to Jullundur with Dr. Theophilus and his wife, which was pleasant, despite the rich, middle-aged couple who also joined us. They were considering sending their daughter to the Christian girls’ school, and were asking about the plumbing and the fans -- the sort of things parents of boarding-school children fret about.

Dr. and Mrs. Theophilus were going to Jullundur for a reception at the home of Bishop S. Ghulam Qadir honoring the McKelveys, the last missionaries to leave the Punjab. I had planned to get out before we got to the bishop’s house, but before I realized where we were, the car had stopped in the mission compound. Dr. and Mrs. Theophilus insisted that I come in for the tea.

There were maybe a dozen people sitting in the dark parlor, waiting for something to happen. Besides Dr. Theophilus and his wife, there were the chaplain of the military cantonment and his wife; a retired woman principal of a girls’ school, dressed in an immaculate white sari; and some other people associated with the local church. The bishop’s wife, looking dazzling in a splendid sari, was fussing over the cakes and tea in the next room. The McKelveys were sitting like statuary in one corner of the room, looking very white in the ring of brown faces. I must have looked fairly white myself, I thought; seeing them reminded me how foreign whites look in India, simply by the color of their skin.

Soon Bishop Qadir came in, looking youngish in a sport shirt and full curly hair. He ducked into a side room and in a moment returned as if from an Anglican chrysalis, elegant in white robe and golden embroidered stole. He read some Bible passages in Urdu, gave a long prayer in impossible Panjabi, and then made a little speech, in simpler Panjabi, illuminating the significance of the day’s event.

Finally he recited a list of some of the more illustrious foreign missionaries in the Punjab -- John Lowrie and William Reed, the first missionaries in 1834; Charles Forman, who founded the distinguished college which bears his name; Hervey Griswold, the missionary scholar who pioneered in Pun-jab sociology; and some of the more recent missionary heroes, such as Ernie Campbell, who received an Indian government citation for helping resettle refugees; James Alter, who established a center for interreligious understanding; and Clinton Loehlin, who founded the Institute for Sikh Studies at Baring College. The list was long -- and it culminated, of course, with the McKelveys.

Then each person in turn stood up and gave little testimonies about the McKelveys and their work. When Mr. McKelvey stood, he told the gathering with quiet emotion that he’d miss them and his years of service in this place. His little speech was in English, which seemed unusual, since everybody else spoke in Panjabi, and Mr. McKelvey’s Panjabi, which he had learned in childhood, was absolutely flawless. Later, Mrs. McKelvey told me she always had trouble with language, so perhaps the English was for her; or perhaps it was intended for me.

Just when it appeared that the formalities were over, my old friend Pastor Mall came bustling in, apologized profusely, and sat down. There was silence. When it seemed clear that he was expected to give a speech, he stood up and mentioned what we had discussed on our afternoon walk: that this was something of a historical event, the last of the old-style missionaries, and that to him it meant that now the church was 100 per cent on its own for indigenous leadership. That, Mr. Mall said, was cause for celebration, though, he hastened to add, the McKelveys would of course be missed.

Then garlands of garish red and gold foil were put on the McKelveys, in the Indian tradition. Then the tea, lots of munchy Indian snacks and pastry with chocolate icing.

It was about time for the McKelveys to catch the Frontier Mail, and the party moved outside. They shook hands all around, and the group waved as they walked off. I waited to talk with the bishop, who was busily discussing church politics with a couple of the men. Mr. McKelvey reappeared briefly with a handful of American church magazines he thought someone might like; there was no immediate response, so he handed them to the bishop’s wife, who looked at them uncertainly, and thanked him for his thoughtfulness.

I had my chat with Bishop Qadir about the lower-class village Christian community, from which he himself had emerged; and I waved goodbye to Dr. Theophilus, who was getting into his car, and to Mr. Mall, who left by motorscooter. Outside the mission compound the dark was coming on, and I caught a cycle-rickshaw in front of the Radhasoami meeting hall, where the evening crowds were beginning to gather.

Later that evening in my hotel room, I tried to frame some of my questions regarding the sociopolitical character of lower-class Punjabi Christianity: was it a movement of the oppressed, or a movement of the oppressors? Was it an escape from reality, or a shift to a more authentic alternative society? Was Christianity perceived as the ideology of the foreigner, or as the vision of an India fulfilled, its deep divisions made whole?

But then another question surfaced, which seemed more compelling and immediate than my rather esoteric concerns. Would Punjabi Christianity survive at all, given the formidable pressures to assimilate into the dominant culture, and given the absence now of foreign rewards?

And yet, I felt that that question would resolve itself positively, despite the perils, the tensions and the fears. The Christian community had become a fact on the landscape of the Punjab. It had an identity, a culture, an internal world of its own, as secure in the Punjab’s future as the Muslim community had become after the departure of the Moghuls some centuries before.

It would not be the same Christian community, of course, as it had been during the great missionary epoch. For the eras had changed and I had seen it happen, that evening when the last missionaries boarded the Frontier Mail.


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