Challenges faced by Protestant missionaries in Dutch and British Ceylon

By PKBalachandran

Colombo, September 8 (Ceylon Today): Protestant missionaries have faced various challenges to convert the people of Ceylon, be they Buddhist, Hindu or Roman Catholic. Islam is not included in this list as there are no authenticated cases of a Ceylonese Muslim converting to Christianity in any form. The Portuguese had made vigorous attempts to convert them but without any success.

The problems faced by missionaries in the north of Sri Lanka, where Tamil Hindus were the majority, and in the south, where the majority were Sinhalese Buddhists, were different, although some characteristics were common. Roman Catholics, converted during Portuguese rule, were also very resistant to Protestant efforts. Neither force nor pleas worked for them.

However, Tennent points out that although the number of conversions was not impressive, Christianity, Western ideas and the educational system that developed had a gradual influence on the population of both North and South. The contrasting and common elements between the Tamil-Hindu north and the Sinhalese-Buddhist south are brought out in great detail by Sir James Emerson Tennent, Colonial Secretary in Ceylon from 1841 to 1850, in his book Christianity in Ceylon (London, John Murray, 1850).

In the North, Protestant missionaries faced open hostility from Hindus who were heavily influenced by “Brahmanism” (Tennent’s term for Hinduism). In the South, they encountered “habitual apathy and apathetic indifference.” Both of these attitudes were detrimental to conversion.

In the South, many converted to escape persecution or were attracted by political and/or economic advantages. But true conversion, characterized by turnaround, was rare in both the North and the South, Tennent says. This is why, even after five centuries of Western Christian rule, with missionaries benefiting from the patronage of the State, Christians no longer represent only 7 to 8% of the Ceylonese population.

After 30 years of labor in Jaffna, American missionaries have concluded that “true Christians can only be known to God.” However, Tennent felt that the scene was not so dismal. There has been a parallel movement to Christianize “Brahmanism” in an ingenious way, he said, giving him hope that one day all Northern Tamils ​​will embrace Christianity in its undiluted form.

He reasoned thus: “Since the natives had every day the opportunity to witness the blameless life of the missionaries and the social happiness which was diffused even by the partial observance of their purer and more benevolent ethics, it arose among the Hindus of Jaffna, a new party of Goorooswho profess to have grafted on Brahmanism many of the principal moralities of Christianity, and claim them as originating from their own system of religion.

Further: “The wise and observant Tamils ​​have not failed to perceive that there are worldly, as well as spiritual, advantages which distinguish the teachers of Christianity, and that even as a social institution it has the promise of this life as well as that. which is to come. Compared to themselves, they see those who have been educated by Christians becoming more capable men than their uneducated companions. They see in themselves a more cultured demeanor and a superior bearing, which gains confidence and paves the way for advancement.

According to Tennent, in Jaffna, caste became less stringent due to exposure to Christianity. “The pernicious influence of caste has been shaken, and throughout the people of Jaffna there is an air of independence which immediately strikes a foreigner as very different from that exhibited by the Tamils ​​of the Indian mainland.”

Commenting on the coexistence of Christian and Hindu ideas among the Tamils ​​of the North, the Church of England reports: “The temples and festivals are not deserted, but their influence has declined. The Brahman is still attached, but the deep reverence with which it was once regarded has ceased to exist; and though the system of Hinduism is still ostensibly maintained, the number of its rigid adherents becomes comparatively large.

The influence of education increased during British rule. American missions were allowed to work in the North and their path to proselytizing was modern education, a path Tamils ​​easily took. But before that, especially during Dutch rule, the authorities were resolutely coercive. Baptism was necessary to qualify for any state facility, including education, government office, or even marriage registration. Mass conversion was the order of the day.

The Portuguese also used force, but their type of Roman Catholicism was more acceptable to the Ceylonese. “The natives quickly became attached to their (Roman Catholic) ceremonies and ways of worship.” In color and size, these were similar to those of the Sinhalese Buddhists. The Ceylonese had remained faithful to Roman Catholicism “with remarkable tenacity”.

Writing in the mid-19th century, Tennant notes that the religion and discipline of the Dutch Presbyterians was nearly extinct among the natives of Ceylon. “Even in Jaffna, where the reception of these doctrines has been almost unanimous among Tamils, not a single congregation now exists,” he reported. In the Maritime Provinces and in Colombo, there were barely 50 families, he said.

One of the reasons for the failure of the Dutch was their inability to use the local language, either Tamil or Sinhalese. They used interpreters. Roman Catholics, on the contrary (especially the Jesuits of Goa) learned, spoke and preached in either Tamil or Sinhalese, often both.

The Dutch also made the mistake of using corruption (apart from coercion) in proselytizing. This created “doubts and contempt in the minds of the naturally wary minds of the Sinhalese”, comments Tennent. No wonder, as soon as the Dutch left, most Hindus reverted to Hinduism and around 300 temples were built, according to historian Tikiri Abeysinghe. Those who had been converted to Roman Catholicism by the Portuguese returned to that faith.

The Dutch established schools, with conversion in mind, but the education provided was “infinitely small” as they believed that “reading and writing are things not so absolutely necessary for the edification of these poor here”. But the American Protestant missionaries, who came to the Northern Province under British rule, emphasized education, and it paid off.

In 1816 Governor Robert Brownrigg helped the Church of England establish itself on the island. As before, the Tamils ​​of Jaffna adopted the Protestant religion, but again, only nominally. Cordiner, the first colonial chaplain, took nominal membership for genuine conversion and declared in 1801 that the “natives of Ceylon are perfectly free from sectarianism and prejudice, having wandered so long in darkness that they gladly follow the slightest glimmer of light”. said.

However, Cordiner’s hope was unfounded. By 1806 the number had fallen sharply by 136,000. Catholics converted to Protestantism, returned to Catholicism which they practiced secretly with the help of priests from Goa. In the South, the Sinhalese returned to Buddhism. Even the “Christians” were actually worshipers of the Buddha.

A concerned Colonial Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, wrote to Governor Sir Tomas Maitland to press for proper conversions. But when Maitland tells him of the failure of the tough Dutch policy, Castlereagh decides to invest in education which he believes will lead to conversion.

While the Ceylonese accepted education eagerly, it did not change their religious beliefs although officially many in the schools were “Christian”. Tennent says these “nominal Christians” openly referred to themselves as “Buddhist Christians” or “Government Christians.” As Reverend J. Davies, a Baptist missionary, observed, “When we ask people their religion, the common response is: We are of the religion of the government!

Tennent says, “There are vast areas in which it will be difficult to discover an unbaptized Sinhalese, and yet in the midst of these the religion of Buddhu flourishes and priests and temples abound. The majority ostensibly profess Christianity but support all the ceremonies of their own national idolatry and more or less openly frequent temples and make votive offerings to the idol.


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