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Bishop Wilson and the Origins of Dalit Liberation

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by Dr. Charles Hoole, Principal, Baldaeus Theological College, June 2003

In many parts of South Asia Hindu revivalist parties are presently engaged in a violent crusade against religious and ethnic minorities, whose goal is to establish a Hindudom or Hindutva. Their politics of purity and hatred is attempting to transform the subcontinent's pluralistic cultural landscape into a more homogeneous one. Under these circumstances both in India and neighbouring Sri Lanka the question of conversion to non-Hindu faiths of the Untouchables or Dalits has become a politically explosive issue 1. In some Indian states anti-conversion bills have been passed, making religious conversion a punishable offence.

The Hindu crusade's strong opposition to religious conversion serves to remind us of the extent of conversion, mainly to Christinaity, as well as the problems of the depressed within the Hindu fold. But the church seems theologically ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of militant Hinduism. The general tendency is to withdraw from the public arena, from the real world of politics and society in search of closer union with God. This is because contemporary South Asian spirituality expressed as Christian bhakti, an adaptation of European Pietism and American Revivalism, tends to draw a sharp distinction between the inward (akam, the inner sphere) and the outward (puram, the wider community) 2. Owing to this dualist outlook, many today regard politics, culture and even forms of church government as irrelevant to Christian faith. Such an outlook is precarious. It would lead to an erosion of Christian distinctiveness, pushing the church to become a sect encapsulated within the Hindu society.

Historical backdrop: Jesuits and Pietists
The issue of conversion and discipleship of low castes is not new and there are important salutary lessons to be learned from the past, particularly from the nineteenth century when the Protestant missionary societies developed a new strategy for dealing with the problems of low castes and outcastes. Behind these efforts stands the towering figure of Daniel Wilson, Bishop of Calcutta from 1832-1858, who became instrumental in forging a new approach based on a different theological outlook.

It is pertinent to note that the missionary policy on conversion and discipleship was initially shaped by Roman Catholic and Pietist German Lutheran missionaries. Their policy tended to separate religious matters from social, and by implication, conversion from repentance and discipleship. Converts were neither required nor encouraged to break caste, in consequence they continued to observe the Hindu customs relating to marriage and commensality. Robert de Nobli (1577-1656), the celebrated Catholic missionary to the Brahmins allowed his converts to retain their sacred thread (punul), their sacred tuft of hair (kudumi), their customary bathings and food rules, and all regulations governing social intercourse 3. "By becoming a Christian," he wrote, "one does not renounce his caste, nobility or usages. The idea that Christianity interfered with them has been impressed upon the people by the devil and is the great obstacle to Christianity" 4. As a result of adopting this kind of missionary policy, Catholic Christianity became a caste lifestyle for the group, distinguished by common marriage customs, dress styles, eating habits and other codes of behaviour that mark off one jati from another.

To a great extent the two Pietist German missionary pioneers, Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau, who arrived in Tranquebar in 1706 continued the tradition laid down by the Jesuit missionaries, albeit in a fashion that reflected their background in German pietism. Hence they accepted caste behaviour in congregations. In the churches, the Pariahs were seated separately from the higher castes and had to use separate entrances; until 1778, the two groups did not receive communion from the same chalice 5. Christian Friederich Schwartz (1726-1798) of the Tranquebar Mission worked in close co-operation with the British; under his influence the mission expanded in the remaining decades of the eighteenth century, establishing congregations in Tanjore, Trichinopoly and Tinnevelly. Tranquebar mission's policy of tolerance of caste and caste Christians exemplified by Schwartz influenced all the southern churches. Owing to this policy of tolerance, Anglican churches in Vepery, Trichinopoly and Tanjore by the beginning of the nineteenth century had become indisciplined, corrupt, riven with internal conflicts and experienced a steady flow of reversions to Hinduism.

Wilson line: mission as social transformation
It was in this context that Daniel Wilson (1778-1858) was installed as the Bishop of Calcutta in 1832. His approach to mission is an important corrective to the traditional pietist approach outlined above. With his Calvinistic 6 vision he would set out to fight social evils, to legislate an ideal social relationship between believers, with the view to creating an alternative society of believers bound by a common disciplinary code in opposition to caste-rules. Named after the bishop as the "Wilson line" this approach to mission would have a far reaching effect on the plight of Untouchables.

Bishop Wilson was a prominent Evanglical much involved with the reformist group known as the "Clapham sect" in England and a friend in particular of Charles Grant, Zachary Macaulay and William Wilberforce. Macaulay and Wilberforce were also members of his congregation at St. John's Bedford Row, which was a "propriety chapel" often regarded as a halfway house between the established church and dissent.7 Immediately after his installation, Wilson attempted to deal with the problems within the churches. He was convinced that the retention of caste customs among Christians was not only a scandal to their religion, but also provided a convenient bridge which increasing numbers were now using to return to their previous faith. In short retention of caste encouraged apostasy. Wilson's anti-caste feelings seem to have been shaped by the Evangelical pressure group with which he was associated in England.

Letters to churches in India and Ceylon.
On 5 July 1833 Bishop Wilson of Calcutta issued his famous letter to Anglican missionaries and congregations throughout his diocese (which then included the whole of India and Ceylon) in which he declared that "the distinction of castes must be abandoned, decidedly, immediately, finally; and those who profess to belong to Christ must give this proof of their having really put off, concerning the former conversation, the old, and having really put on the new man, in Jesus Christ. The Gospel recognizes no distinctions such as those of castes, imposed by a heathen usage, bearing in some respect a supposed religious obligation, condemning those in the lower ranks to perpetual abasement, placing an immovable barrier against all general advance and improvement in society, cutting asunder the bonds of human fellowship on the one hand, and preventing those of Christian love on the other".8

Wilson's letter roused a hurricane of unrest in the southern churches. When the letter, translated into Tamil, was read at Vepery Church in January 1834, "the sudras in the congregation left in body and their children were afterwards withdrawn from the school. The catechists and schoolmasters among them were consequently after due notice, dismissed".9 Similarly, in Tanjore, when the Bishop's letter was read from the pulpit, "there were scenes of noisy confusion in the church". And to ensure that all would comply with the ecclesiastical requirements "the seating arrangements in the church were changed, so as to abolish caste distinctions".10

While the storm of protest was still raging in the southern churches of India, another letter was issued on 17 January, 1834, requiring the churches in Calcutta diocese to comply with the following:

a. The converts all sit together in church.
b. They come without distinction to the Lord's table.
c. The country priest or catechist receives into his house anyone that comes to him ... whatever the caste.
d. Godfathers and godmothers are taken indiscriminately from whatever caste.
e. In the church yard no separate place is allotted for the interment of those of the higher castes, as they are called.

Pastoral visitation: boundary-breaking
In 1835 he visited the disturbed missions and faced the storm without budging an inch from his resolution to abolish caste. In Vepery, Tanjore and Trichinopoly he went to considerable lengths to ensure that dissidents complied with his demands. At the church in Trichinopoly, prior to the celebration of the holy communion, the Bishop "took by the hand the members of little groups of Christians who were standing apart, and led them firmly to the seats in front.. Thus Sudra sat by Pariah, and no kind of resistance was made." Following his example "the European residents voluntarily mixed themselves among the Indians to show the example of union in Christ, a Pariah, being placed between the Collector and his wife".11

The Wilson line it may be observed was diverging not only from the traditional Christian one but also from the Government line of non-interference with social and religious customs. The caste Christians of Tanjore well aware of this, appealed to the Government and the matter was referred to London. Many simply moved into Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches while others used the existing bridge to return to their previous faith. There is little doubt that Wilson's insistence that converts cross the boundaries imposed by caste had directly contributed to the decline in numbers within his diocese.

Wilson's impact: Protestant Consensus
Despite the exodus, Wilson and his supporters remained steadfast, persisting in their common conviction that "if caste be retained, Christianity will be destroyed".12 It led to a gradual consolidation of feelings and practice in the Anglo Saxon Protestant missions in favour of the Wilson line. A Protestant consensus was emerging by the middle of the nineteenth century, when all the Protestant missions with the solitary exception of the Leipzig Mission were in agreement in holding that caste was a great evil that must be ruthlessly uprooted from the church. A resolution of the Madras missionary conference in 1848 fully endorsed the Wilson line when it laid down that only those who broke caste by eating food prepared by a Pariah should be entitled to baptism.13 In other words, boundary-crossing was now made a condition for baptism.

Throughout the 1840's and 1850's almost all the Protestant missions lost members, owing to their tough stand on what they clearly saw as an egalitarian principle too fundamental to be sacrificed for the sake of short-term advantages. The American Madurai Mission insisted that all employees should demonstrate their rejection of caste by taking part in "love-feasts", eating with missionaries and Christians from various castes, food usually prepared by a low-caste cook. The "love-feasts" forced the issue and became a focus for dissension so that "all stations suffered from the dismissal of catechists and nearly all lost in membership of their churches.14

Dalits: Mass movement to Christianity
However the unexpected and dramatic part of the story is that in the 1860's and 1870's these same missions that had been almost static or even declined in numbers, began to grow at a rapid rate through mass conversions from depressed castes. Group conversions were something most Protestant missions had neither sought nor expected, and were no doubt puzzled by this rather dramatic development.

In retrospect this phenomenon is readily explicable. The "Wilson line" on caste had developed out of the conviction that Christians of low-caste origin were entitled to equality of treatment within the church. Wilson and his associates had already shown themselves willing to act as advocates of the lowest in society through a series of controversies about equal access to public facilities and so forth, the best known of which is perhaps the "breast cloth dispute" - the right of Shanar or Nadar women to change their traditional dress by covering the upper part of their bodies - in southern Travanore.15 A corollary of the missionaries detestation of caste was their acceptance of the role of protagonists and patrons of the poor, virtually the only people of influence willing to risk schism in the churches or public disturbance for the sake of the depressed.16

Those from the depressed castes were naturally attracted to the Protestant form of Christianity since it espoused the values of dignity and equality of all. When the Nadars, Malas, Maligas, Sambavars and Chuhras embraced Protestant Christianity they also gained in esteem as the missionaries mixed freely with them and treated them with respect. There was also the real possibility of social uplift for them as converts. By contrast, Roman Catholics and Lutherans, because they were eager to maintain and christianize the existing caste structures of society, made conversion to their churches a less plausible escape from a religious system of oppression. This was indeed the verdict of Bishop Caldwell who worked among the Nadars. He compared the Paravar fisherfolk converts to Catholicism very unfavourably with the Protestant converts when he stated that "in intellect, habits and morals the Romanist Hindus do not differ from the heathen in the smallest degree."17 Caldwell's judgment may well be too sweeping, but there is enough truth in it to explain why those who discourage boundary crossing, and in effect, adopted and christianized existing structures, simply failed to attract mass movement converts.

In the last analysis, Bishop Wilson's approach to mission emphasizes what is at the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the centrality of repentance and forgiveness, of love and acceptance of the marginalized, of justice and fairness in inter-human relationships. In particular, this gospel was acted out in Jesus' own attitudes and relationships as well as responses toward the "poor": the women, tax collectors, Samaritans and other marginalized people. The church in turn is called to emulate Jesus' practice of boundary- breaking compassion towards the poor. This is precisely what Bishop Wilson and his colleagues did in India and Ceylon in the nineteenth century. Their action towards the oppressed Dalits also reveals the power of the gospel which brought freedom and dignity to millions in captivity.

Dr. Charles R. A. Hoole
Principal, Baldaeus Theological College
Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
June 2003


  1. See my article "Challenge of Militant Hindusim", Direction, (Feb.2003) 3-4. Untouchables are now called Dalits, meaning `oppressed'. There are also other terms, Scheduled Castes, Harijans and Pariahs.
  2. In the Indian context, loving devotion that clings to the feet of a personal saviour is called bhakti. The contrast between inner (akam) and outer (puram) forms a major division in Tamil culture. The ideal Tamil woman illustrates this distinction, who is considered inwardly powerful but outwardly enslaved, encompassed and dominated by men.
  3. Robert de Nobli, Adaptation, ed. S. Rajamanickam (Palayamkottai, Tirunelveli: de Nobli Research Institute, 1971), 87ff
  4. cited in C.B. Firth, An Introduction to Indian Church History, (Madras, ISPCK:1961),114
  5. Henriette Bugge, Mission and Tamil Society, Social and Religious Change in South India 1840-1900 (Richmond:Curzon Press, 1994), 56-57
  6. In contrast to the Pietist tendency to turn away from the social world in order to seek closer union with God John Calvin worked to reform the social world in obedience to God. He thus insisted that reformation must extend beyond the doors of the church. What went on in the Town Hall, the law courts, in the spheres of education, trade and commerce, all of this was to be judged and governed by principles of justice and truth derived from the Bible. Thus, wherever it became influential Calvinism led to "systematic endeavour to mould the life of society as a whole." (Troeltsch:1931,ii,602)
  7. Mildred E. Gibbs, The Anglican Church in India 1600-1970 (New Delhi:SPCK, 1972), 104
  8. J. Bateman, The Life of the Right Rev. Daniel Wilson, Late Lord Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan India (London: John Murray, 1869), 437-443
  9. Gibbs, 108
  10. ibid, 109 It should be mentioned that in 1814 two "new missionaries" named C. T. Rhenius and L. P. Hanbroe made an abortive attempt to change the seating arrangements in the Vepery congregation. They antagonized the Vellalars and set off a controversy that would reverberate in southern churches. See D. Dennis Hudson, Protestant Origins in India. Tamil Evangelical Christians, 1706-1835 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 28
  11. ibid, 109-110
  12. Bateman, 434-435
  13. Julius Richter, A History of Mission in India (Edinburgh 1908), 170
  14. John Chandler, Seventy-five years in the Madura Mission (Madura: American Mission, n.d.), 144
  15. Geoff A. Oddie, Social Protest in India. British Protestant Missionaries and Social Reforms 1850- 1900 (New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1978), 70; Robert L. Hardgrave, The Nadars of Tamilnadu: The Political Culture of a Community in Change (Berkeley: University of Calafornia Press, 1969), 55-70
  16. Duncan Forrester, Caste and Christianity. Attitudes and Policies on caste of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Missions in India (London: Curzon Press, 1980), 71-73.
  17. Forrester, 83

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