This short-lived missionary with the very long name marks the first in a series I’ll be doing on Lutheran saints. Yes, Lutheran saints! In good Lutheran fashion, they tend to remain hidden, and it’s been no small job to unearth them. But there’s almost no better way to expand our imaginations as to what a gospel-saturated life might look like. Proposed date for commemorating Bartholomäus: February 23.
Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg was only twenty-three years old when he landed at the south Indian fortress of Tranquebar on July 9, 1706, but his reputation already preceded him. The governor of this Danish colony refused to let him disembark for three days, and when he finally relented, denied Ziegenbalg lodging amidst the other Germans and Danes. The young man and his colleague Plütschau had no choice but to shift for themselves among the poor and despised Portuguese-speaking Indians of the city.
Their crime? They had arrived to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the local Tamil population.
This did not fit the agenda of the Danish East India Company or its governor at all. For one thing, they held the locals in contempt, as dark-skinned savages; for another, the Tamils’ becoming Christians would interfere with the nominally Christian Danes’ abuse of them; and finally, their own habits of drinking, whoring, and slaveholding—already inspiring disgust on the part of the Tamils—would come in for closer scrutiny. Anyway, the King of Denmark had never consulted with them about this mission business. He just decided by his absolute authority to sponsor Ziegenbalg and Plütschau because of his guilty conscience after the death of his mistress and their infant child. The board of the Danish East India Company back home had got a messenger to Governor Hassius before the missionaries arrived and instructed him in no uncertain terms: prevent them from doing what they’re there to do.
Their tactics finally got the better of Plütschau, who after a few years gave it up and returned home, never having fully accepted the humanity of the Tamils who looked, ate, and worshiped so differently from Germans. But Ziegenbalg was made of sterner stuff. The persecutions didn’t discourage him but sent him on the track that would overturn his own prejudices and make him not only the first Protestant missionary to India but also the first European Indologist, an educational pioneer, the founder of the Indian printing tradition, and—three hundred years later—the honored ancestor commemorated at a weeklong celebration attended by over ten thousand Christian, Muslim, and Hindu Indians.
Stuck in the bad part of town, Ziegenbalg realized he had no choice but to make the best of it. He found an elderly blind man who instructed Tamil youth in their language, so Ziegenbalg squatted down on the floor with the children and learned to write the letters in the sand just as they did. Blessed with a prodigious memory, he soon committed thousands of words to memory. There was just one problem: he didn’t know what they meant, and the instructor didn’t know how to explain.
So Ziegenbalg got hold of a Tamil named ALakappan, a former interpreter for the Danish East India Company, who helped him out. Ziegenbalg read and re-read Tamil palm-leaf manuscripts up to a hundred times till he mastered them. Within eight months Ziegenbalg was speaking Tamil—and translating into Tamil, too, works such as the Small Catechism and the Bible. Within two years of his arrival he’d assembled a Tamil lexicon of twenty thousand words; by 1712 he had doubled the number. And Tamil was no easy language to master: it had both a poetical and a colloquial form, and the latter had not yet been codified in written form. Ziegenbalg gave the written colloquial language to the Tamils, which is still in use to this day, and in 1716 published his Grammatica Damulica, the first Tamil grammar to use Tamil characters.
Ziegenbalg also realized the importance of Portuguese to the colony, the language of the Jesuit Catholics who’d settled there earlier, so he put his mind to that task as well and soon was cranking out Portugese translations. He also translated a number of Tamil works into German, as impressed by their ethical sophistication as he was horrified by their polytheism.
It wasn’t long before locals were moved by the gospel story and longed for baptism. But again, it was the European colonists who posed the biggest obstacle: even if the Indians were going to be Christians, they didn’t want them in their own church. They were simply forbidden to set foot inside of it.
Ziegenbalg’s response? Build another one. The foundation of the Jerusalem Church was laid on June 14, 1707, less than a year after Ziegenbalg’s arrival, and dedicated on August 14, 1707. And that was just the start. Ziegenbalg opened schools—for boys and girls, contrary to local practice, and deliberately disregarding caste distinctions—and took preaching tours in the surrounding areas. All this despite no money coming in from the king, who had gotten himself into an inconvenient little war with Sweden. When a long overdue payment did arrive, the careless captain let it fall into the water, and the governor refused to recoup the mission its losses.
But all this time, the conflict with the political authorities was brewing, and in late 1708 it came to a head. Governor Hassius, who had identified Ziegenbalg as “the servant of the devil,” finally tossed him in prison on November 19 and refused to grant him books, pen, or paper. For a month poor Ziegenbalg, never of a strong physical constitution, lay in a state of shock. But when some brave friends smuggled writing supplies in to him, he recovered and set to work. He wrote two books, The God-Pleasing Pastor and The God-Pleasing Christian, expressions of the passionate Pietism he had learned during his studies at Halle in Germany with à August Hermann Francke.
For that was, after all, what had brought him to India in the first place. Raised not far from Dresden, his early life seemed to be little short of a series of disasters. His mother died when he was ten. His father, anticipating his death when a plague broke out, died two years later while lying in his own coffin on the town square! Their family home burned down, and both of Ziegenbalg’s sisters died while he was yet a teenager. He himself was repeatedly ill and for extended periods of time.
Yet none of this made him doubt God’s providence or love. A friend in a musical group pointed out to him the importance of harmony in music, and exhorted the young Ziegenbalg to seek harmony between himself and his creator as well. This awoke the youth’s faith to a new and impassioned commitment. He studied languages and eventually found his way to the center of the Pietist renewal in Halle. He expected to serve in the ministry, but the turning point came when his professor Justus Breithaupt remarked, “It is much better to properly lead a single non-Christian to God than to gain one hundred Europeans for Christ, because every day these Europeans have enough means and many opportunities for their conversion and salvation, but the non-Christians do not have them.” Isaiah’s prophecy about all the lands coming to know the God of Israel moved the young man deeply. So when the call finally came from the Danish king, Ziegenbalg was ready to accept it.
Four months after being tossed in prison, in March 1709, the governor let Ziegenbalg out again. And slowly his fortunes began to turn. In July of that year two new missionaries arrived with books, money, and medicine. One of them, Johann Ernst Gründler, would quickly become Ziegenbalg’s closest friend and colleague. Fortified by the new friendship, Ziegenbalg translated the New Testament from Greek to Tamil, double-checked by an equally linguistically gifted Gründler. It was finally published in YEAR. In 1709 he also published, in English, The Propagation of the Gospel in the East, a report of his mission work that so moved the Anglican Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge that it decided to support the Tranquebar schools. A six-month stay in Madras—not least to escape the depradations of the Tranquebar leadership—brought Ziegenbalg in contact Armenian merchants, who were also eager to support and launch mission work. And none too soon, since by 1712 four years had gone by without a ship or funding from Denmark.
Nevertheless, Ziegenbalg and Gründler kept on sending letters to Denmark pleading for help. One from late 1713 describes in detail their mission strategy.
“1) We missionaries request God to use us as His instruments. 2) Conversion is entirely God’s work; it happens through God’s power, support, work and the blessings. We commit everything to God in prayer. 3) We teach the Tamil people in their own mother tongue and write books about the pure Word of God. 4) We have established charity schools to train able co-workers for our congregations and schools. 5) We seek to teach God’s Word in our schools, and print books about the Word of God so that many people can read and understand God’s Word. 6) We teach catechism to inquirers. Our catechists visit the inquirers in their homes and teach them. 7) We are not satisfied with an outward change of religion. We insist on complete transformation of the heart in obedience to faith. Therefore we are not interested in increasing the number of converts. Rather, we make sure that those who become Lutherans grow in active knowledge of the truth, holy life, and real Christianity. 8) We establish good institutions to achieve our final goal, and keep them in good order. 9) We depend on Indian coworkers and other staff members who follow our instructions. Every week they give us a report on their work, and receive our guidance. 10) We suffer for the sake of the Gospel.”
Indeed they did. It was only in 1714 that the hot-and-cold governor (who had sometimes, unpredictably, helped out the mission with building supplies and cash) finally confessed over dinner with the missionaries that he was only carrying out orders; the source of their oppression was the governing board back in Denmark. At that point the matter was clear to Ziegenbalg: he would have to go back to the king and plead his case in person. It was a long trip, but it would be temporary. Ziegenbalg had already resolved to give the rest of his life to the Tamils and to die and be buried in Tamil soil. He brought along with him a Tamil, Peter Malaiyappan, to converse with him in Tamil and help him with the Old Testament translation. On his return to India, Peter continued to translate and taught at the mission school.
The king of Denmark was not a little surprised to have Ziegenbalg show up on his doorstep unannounced—but he was delighted. He guaranteed ongoing support for the Tranquebar mission and, despite an initially outraged response from the Danish East India Company, new leadership was installed that tolerated the mission. That marked the end of political opposition. But sadly, another form of opposition awaited Ziegenbalg on his return home.
In the meanwhile, however, Ziegenbalg paid one final trip to his homeland, and while there met a former student, Maria Dorothea Saltzmann, whom he swiftly courted and married. She proved to be an outstanding companion and loved the Tamils as well as her husband did, earning her the distinction of being the first female Protestant missionary. And when they got back to India, they discovered that Gründler had gone and gotten himself married in their absence, too, to Utilia Elisabeth Krahe, a Danish East India Company widow who proved enormously helpful in resolving the lingering tensions between mission and colony.
By this time the mission was really humming. The printing press got underway and, despite all kinds of business and technical difficulties, turned out a huge number of Tamil and Portuguese books. The first complete Tamil New Testament was printed on July 13, 1715. On October 23, 1716, the first Protestant seminary in India was established. Though Ziegenbalg wouldn’t live to see it, one of the seminary’s students, ĀRumukam Pillai or à Aaron, became the first ordained Indian Protestant pastor on December 28, 1733. The number of converts grew so steadily that the Jerusalem Church would no longer hold them—and might not hold out against the frequent tsunamis striking the coastal town, either—so the New Jerusalem Church was built and dedicated on October 11, 1718.
Unhappily, that same year a new director was appointed head of the Danish mission board. Christian Wendt held Pietists like Ziegenbalg in contempt. He had no firsthand experience of mission work or cross-cultural encounter, but that in no way deterred him from shaming, slandering, and attacking every last undertaking of Ziegenbalg and Gründler’s. Wendt thought they should simply preach the gospel and move on, not wasting their time building churches, schools, orphanages, hospitals, or printing presses. Accordingly, he cut off their funding. He had no understanding of the social cost to Tamils of turning their backs on caste and family, or the need of the church to provide them with a new family and a new vocation along with the new faith. Ziegenbalg, by contrast, had cultivated Tamil doctors, poets, and teachers and hired a vast staff to do everything from operating the printing press to fetching the water. His church was truly an ekklesia, a body “called out” of its society and yet commissioned to serve that same society.
Wendt’s letters were so nasty that Ziegenbalg fell ill again, a relapse of his youthful malady, complete with fatigue, headaches, chest pains, and vomiting. He declined steadily and in February of 1719 commended care of the mission to Gründler. He died while his friends and family around him sang Jesu, Meine Zuversicht, at the age of thirty-five. Dorothea was left bereft with two small sons and a third on the way, but the second died three months after his father and the newborn just days after his birth. In time she remarried and moved back to Denmark. Gründler also fell to the attacks of Wendt and followed Ziegenbalg to the grave just a year later. By then other missionaries who shared their point of view were ready to take up the torch, and the Tamil faithful were already taking the mission into their own hands.
Ziegenbalg didn’t arrive in India already knowing how to relate to people so culturally and religiously different from himself. He rued and regretted the contemptous attitude of his fellow Europeans toward the Tamils, but he also admitted, “Before I lived among them, I too had similar prejudices. Nevertheless, after I learned to speak the Tamil language, at least to some extent, and to discuss with them all kinds of things, I gradually gave up my wrong ideas. I learned to understand the people better. Finally, when I read their books, I realized that they have an orderly way of teaching complex philosophical doctrines, and other disciplines.”
The result was that he did not condemn everything about the Indian way of life. Quite the contrary, he found much to admire. Spiritual ignorance, akkiyānam, was not unique to India but afflicted people in every corner of the world—including “Christian” Europe. When Ziegenbalg engaged locals in dialogue, whether they were Hindus following bhakti devotional practices or Muslims of the sufi strain, his concern was that they would come to know fully and clearly the God they already knew through “a glass, darkly” (I Corinthians 13:12, kjv). He rejoiced in bringing to their vocabulary new words introducing this hitherto unknown God: CaRuvecuran for “the Supreme God,” Tirittuvam to qualify Him as “triune,” and Naracīvatayāparar to describe Him as “the One who is merciful toward all living things.” Ziegenbalg wrote a moral treatise called The Way of Dharma, translated the Danish liturgy into Tamil, and borrowed Jesuit translations of Christian terms, like NaRkaruNai, literally “good grace,” for holy communion.
Ziegenbalg’s mission method was without precedent. Indeed, it was almost inconceivable to most Lutherans back in Europe. They could not fathom how one would go about introducing the gospel to a place that had not heard it, excusing their apathy on the grounds that the apostles had already taken the gospel everywhere God intended it to go. The bishop of Denmark initially refused to ordain Ziegenbalg because there was no pre-existing congregation to which he could be ordained!
But Ziegenbalg’s intuitions about cross-cultural friendship, his burning desire to share the good news about Jesus Christ, and his very Lutheran commitment to the vernacular prepared him to rise to every challenge that his mission work posed. He mastered the technical skills of analyzing a foreign language and thought-structure, but also the personal skills of expressing love and commitment to others, even those with whom disagreement remained vast. He gave his all and yet prepared for others to take his place.
In his thirteen years of mission work, Ziegenbalg welcomed a mere two hundred and fifty converts to baptism. And yet his ministry and his church became the mother of Protestant Christianity in India. “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:18–19).
If you enjoyed this story,
definitely check out Christopher Gilbert’s film about Ziegenbalg’s life and work,