In Southern India there are thousands calling themselves Syrian Christians, still more frequently Christians of St. Thomas. Either the Apostle Thomas or some of his spiritual children went to India, and founded a Christian Church. Down through the ages the descendants of these first converts have clung to the profession of Christianity, and have kept up their connexion with their fellow Christians in Western Asia. They have the peculiarities of hereditary Christians exposed to a corrupting moral atmosphere, and possessing limited means of spiritual improvement. We are told that they have made great progress through their intercourse with European missionaries.
In Southern India and Ceylon there is a large body of native Christians, the descendants of the many baptized by Xavier and his companions. Every one who has read the life of Xavier knows how widely he opened the door of the Church; with what facility, to use his own favourite expression, he "made Christians." Many speedily relapsed into heathenism, but a sufficient number remained steadfast to form a large community, and their descendants are reckoned by tens, rather hundreds, of thousands. There is not -- at least there was not a short time ago -- any reliable census of their number. Protestant opinion of these native Christians is very unfavourable. It may be prejudiced, and yet it has been expressed by persons who have come into contact with them, who know them well, and who would shrink from doing injustice. Many facts have been stated in support of an unfavourable estimate. The Abbe Dubois condemned them as a scandal to the Christian name, and other Romanists have joined him in confirming the testimony of Protestants.
In Travancore and Tinnevelly, in the far south, there are large native churches, in connexion with the Propagation, Church, and London Missionary Societies, composed of Shanars, a people outside the Hindu pale and greatly despised by them, with a sprinkling of caste people. When whole villages come over to the profession of Christianity, we generally find a few who may be regarded as true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, with limited knowledge but genuine faith, while the many, though favourably impressed, simply assent to the action of their friends and neighbours, and are little changed except in name. They are on the way to a happy change by having come under new and elevating influences.
All over Southern India there are native Christian churches, the work of conversion having proceeded in some cases gradually, individual by individual, while in other cases numbers have been admitted at the same time.
[Sidenote: THE CONVERSION OF NON-ARYAN TRIBES.]
Among the non-Aryan tribes, the Kols and the Santhals, occupying the hills and forests of Central and Eastern India, a great work has been done during the last thirty years. Thousands have been brought into the fold of the Christian Church. In habits, character, and condition, these tribes bear a considerable resemblance to our rude Teutonic ancestors, and they have been brought to the profession of Christianity in a somewhat similar manner; with this difference, that they have not been headed by chiefs in the reception of baptism, and in many cases commanding it. The first converts were the direct fruit of mission labour; their number increased, inspired by zeal they told their countrymen the treasure they had found, and called on them to share it with them. Many listened to their words and accepted their message. The work thus spread from village to village, and from hamlet to hamlet, till it extended to parts of the country never visited by a missionary, and included many who had never seen a missionary's face, in some cases who had never seen a white face. A very dear friend and enterprising missionary, the late Rev. William Jones of Singrowlee, made his way through a wild roadless country to the border of the Kol region, and came to a hamlet where the people were startled by the appearance of a European, as they had never been visited by one before. Though from difference in language their intercourse was limited, they understood each other sufficiently to discover, to their mutual delight, that they had a common faith. The general character of a community formed of a rude people, emerging from fetish and demon worship, can be readily supposed. I suspect the converts made by the monk Augustine and his companions had not a little in their character and conduct to show the pit from which they had been taken; and yet that was the dawning of a day for the Anglian and Saxon race in our country for which we have abundant reason to be thankful. There is no doubt much imperfection in Kol and Santhal converts, but we may well anticipate for them a far less clouded day than that which dawned on our forefathers when Augustine went to them.
In Bengal there are two large native Christian communities, one in Krishnagurh in connexion with the Church Missionary Society, and the other in Backergunje connected with the Baptists. In both cases the conversion of individuals has led to numbers avowing themselves the followers of Christ. Where conversion is thus what may be called collective rather than individual, there may be in some a high degree of spiritual life, but the majority simply go with the stream. It will be observed that in the statistics of some missions so many are represented as baptized, so many members of the church, so many adherents, the last class often outnumbering the other two. These adherents openly declare their abandonment of idolatry, attend public worship with more or less regularity, call themselves Christians, and are called Christians by others. They may be described as in the outer court of the temple, from which not a few from time to time enter the inner.
In the great Presidency cities, Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras, and their immediate neighbourhood, the native churches connected with Protestant Missions are comparatively small. The members of these churches differ more widely in social position, mental culture, and I think I may add spiritual character, than any other native churches in India. Some of the members are highly educated, have acute and disciplined minds, and have an intimate acquaintance with our language and literature. Individuals among them have made sacrifices by becoming the followers of Christ, of which the only adequate explanation is that they have come under the power of an all-controlling faith, of the faith which gives the victory over self, the world, and the devil. Persons more established in the faith of Christ than some of these are, more thoroughly assured that He is the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, I have never met. In these churches there are degrees of culture and social standing, till we come to unlettered persons in the humblest rank of life, some of whom are, I doubt not, as genuine Christians and as devoted to the Saviour as their brethren of higher social standing and larger mental attainment.
[Sidenote: THE NATIVE CHRISTIANS OF NORTHERN INDIA.]
I now proceed to speak of the native Christians of Northern India, with whom for many years I have been closely associated, and of whom I can speak with a measure of confidence.
In the North-Western Provinces, as in other parts of India, we have different classes that go under the name of native Christians. Most drummers of native regiments have been Christians, in the sense that they have been baptized persons. Many are descendants of Portuguese, who have gradually become mixed with the lower classes of natives, and cannot, except by dress, be distinguished from them, their hue being often darker than that of the people. These Portuguese descendants are numerous all over India, in the South very numerous, and hold very different positions in society, but those I have known in the North have been mainly of the drummer class. To these have been added a considerable number of natives, the waifs of native society, who have attached themselves to European regiments as camp-followers, not a few of whom have so separated themselves from their own people that they have found it convenient to profess the Christian faith. I have known individuals of this class who bore a good character, and were regular in their attendance on public worship. We had a number of them in our native Christian congregation at Benares, and we had for years a weekly meeting in their quarters. I cannot, however, speak highly of them as a class, either as to intelligence or goodness. Not a few went to a place of Christian worship only on Christmas Day, or on the occasion of a marriage or baptism, and their general conduct was no honour to the Christian name. Yet these people are proud of being ranked as Christians. We had a striking illustration of this at Benares. A person died, the son of an English colonel by a Muhammadan wife. I knew the man well. He often called on me, and was eager for discussion. He continually avowed himself a follower of Muhammad. He was never seen in a place of Christian worship, and was often seen in the mosque. When he died, the relatives of his mother made arrangements for the funeral; but the drummers and Christian camp-followers gathered in numbers, went to the magistrate, and claimed the body on the ground that the man had been baptized in infancy. As the result of inquiry it was found that at the father's instance he had been baptized, and on this account the body was made over to the Christians, who carried it to the grave in triumph, as if they had achieved a great victory for their faith, the chaplain of the station reading the funeral service. The native Christians connected with the different missions in Benares for the most part kept aloof.
I have already spoken of orphans and their descendants, and need say nothing more about their character. They form a considerable portion of the native Christian community in the North-West.
[Sidenote: UNWORTHY ADHERENTS.]
All our missions have had accessions from both Hindus and Muhammadans, but chiefly from Hindus. I heartily wish I could say all have joined us from right motives. This I cannot say. It is undeniable that persons have joined us from unworthy motives, some because they have broken with their brethren, others who are pressed by want in hope of support, and others again in anticipation of a life of less toil if they can get under the wing of a missionary. There have even been individuals who have made it a trade to be baptized, who have told most plausible stories, have hung on missionaries for a time, and have then set out in quest of new pasture. They remind us of the wild Saxons, who submitted to baptism again and again that they might obtain the white dress given on each occasion to the baptized. Some missionaries have been far more ready than others to administer baptism, but as a rule they have examined candidates closely, have made all possible inquiry, and have baptized them only on obtaining what appeared satisfactory evidence of sincerity. Some who proved most unworthy manifested the greatest apparent earnestness, possessed a considerable degree of knowledge, and were hailed by us as a valuable accession. I narrowly escaped baptizing a man who turned out the leader of a band of thieves. He came to me professing an ardent desire for baptism, paid frequent visits, made marked progress in knowledge, and was well spoken of by persons who said they knew him; but circumstances occurred to bring suspicion over him, and he suddenly disappeared. Long afterwards we found out that he was a leader of an infamous following.
To give one of many illustrations of the way in which persons try to connect themselves with us, I may mention that one day a well-dressed native, mounted on a good horse, rode up to my door. On coming to my room he told me he had come to be baptized, as he was convinced Christ was the Saviour of the world. He was urgent for immediate baptism. Life was uncertain, he might die at any hour, and how could he know he was safe if he did not come under the wing of Christ? I told him if he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ it would be well with him, whether baptized or not, and that I could not baptize him till I should make inquiry and know more about him. It occurred to me that he had a motive for such urgency which I could not discover. I sent for one of the most judicious of our native Christians, and begged him to find out what the object of the man was. He took him away, and soon returned to tell me he had got it all out -- that the man had had a violent quarrel with his relatives, and had vowed to bring disgrace on the family by becoming a Kristan -- a Christian. I recalled the man, and told him he must come to me from another motive and in another temper, if I were to baptize him. He rode away, and I never saw him afterwards.