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The Lutheran Churches of India

by Peter Vethanayagamony — December 15, 2009

India is home to the oldest Lutheran body outside Europe and North America. One-third of all Asian Lutherans live in India. Thanks to the commitment, labor, and investment of Europeans and North Americans, Lutheran churches have put down deep roots all over India and thrive today as a vibrant Christian communion. This survey is an attempt to paint a big picture of Lutheranism in India today, building on the story of Lutheran missions to India in the Winter 2009 print edition of Lutheran Forum. Lutheranism is spread out all over India, encompassing several ethnic and linguistic groups, the oldest being the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. Today Indian Lutheranism is organized into eleven autonomous church bodies under the banner of the United Evangelical Church in India. We will begin our quick overview of this communion with the southernmost part of India...

India is home to the oldest Lutheran body outside Europe and North America. One-third of all Asian Lutherans live in India. Thanks to the commitment, labor, and investment of Europeans and North Americans, Lutheran churches have put down deep roots all over India and thrive today as a vibrant Christian communion. This survey is an attempt to paint a big picture of Lutheranism in India today, building on the story of Lutheran missions to India in the Winter 2009 print edition of Lutheran Forum.

Lutheranism is spread out all over India, encompassing several ethnic and linguistic groups, the oldest being the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. Today Indian Lutheranism is organized into eleven autonomous church bodies under the banner of the United Evangelical Church in India. We will begin our quick overview of this communion with the southernmost part of India.

Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC)

On January 14, 1919, the Tamil Lutheran congregations that had been tended by Swedish and German missionaries with the assistance of Indian pastors formed the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church. Churches of the TELC are the oldest Lutheran congregations in India, founded by Danish Halle Mission in Tranquebar, a Danish colony since 1706. Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, Benjamin Schultze, Philip Fabricius, and Christian Frederick Schwartz were instrumental in providing a strong foundation for the Lutheran churches among the Tamils in the eighteenth century.1 The first Indian minister to be ordained was Aaron way back in 1730. The Leipzig Evanglical Lutheran Mission LELM] continued the mission work of the Tranquebar mission when the Danish East India Company sold its property to the British East India Company in 1845.2 Karl Graul (1814–1864), LELM’s first director and a famous exponent of the concept of Volkskirche, visited India during from 1849 to 1853, strengthening the local churches. Graul opposed the tendency among the churches connected with Anglo missions not to tolerate caste system in the church, for he saw caste as a social system that gave a sense of dignity and belonging.3 This attitude toward caste led C. E. Ochs to sever his connection with LELM and start Danish Missionary Society, resulting in the emergence of Arcot Lutheran Church among the Tamil speaking people. The main contribution of LELM was the formulation of a constitution for an independent Tamil Lutheran church in the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1881 it also introduced the Gemeinde Ordnung. Another important contribution of LELM to the Lutheran ecumenism was its gift of property at Kilpauk, Chennai, for the United Lutheran Theological College in Madras.4 Swedish Lutherans also had contributed toward the emergence of Lutheranism among the Tamils. They began to assist LELM starting in 1848. In 1901 the newly formed Church of Sweden mission assumed responsibility for a share of the enlarged field, establishing it as a separate Swedish diocese.5 During World Wars I and II, when LELM personnel were removed from their work for prolonged periods, Swedish Lutherans kept things going. The joint enterprises of the Danish Halle mission, the LELM, and the Swedish mission led to the formation of the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1919.

The developments in worldwide ecumenism and the First World War that orphaned the missionary work of the Germans mission gave the impetus for the union. The next year, the Swedish mission director Brundin came to the TELC’s area along with Bishop Danell of Shara in Sweden. Their arrival brought a change in attitude toward episcopacy among Indian Lutherans. Those who considered episcopacy to be non-essential factor and a non-Lutheran (Anglican) tradition made a strong decision to adopt this church polity in their own church. Consequently in March 1921, the constitution of the TELC was revised to include episcopal structure. This was unanimously adopted by the synod. On March 7, 1921, the Swedish missionary E. Heuman was consecrated the first bishop of Tranquebar. Thus, one of the legacies of Church of the Sweden mission was the episcopal form of polity.6 However, it took until 1956 for an Indian to be elected as bishop. Dr. R. B. Manickam, consecrated in 1956 was the first national Lutheran bishop in Asia. Bishop Manickam was a well-known ecumenist and had served as secretary of the National Christian Council of India and then as the first secretary of East Asia Christian Council of the then-International Missionary Council. He was the bishop till his retirement in 1967.

After the formation of the TELC in 1919, it took a great deal of initiative to unite the other Lutherans in India. They donated the property to start an all-India Lutheran seminary in 1928 worth 60,000 Rupees then.7 They also closed the Tranquebar seminary to facilitate the opening of the new seminary.8 More than any other single person, TELC bishop Sandegren worked untiringly to bring this project to fruition. Today, the Gurkul Lutheran Theological Seminary and Research Institute is a premier theological school, training men and women for the Lutheran churches as well other Christian communions. It also serves as a rallying point for Lutherans in India.

In the formation of the TELC, Tamil Christians played significant role right from the days of the arrival of German missionaries in 1706. Despite their meager salary, they accepted it with gratitude to the western missions for introducing them to Christ. Today the TELC has 1,05,773 members in about 110 pastorates and its headquarters is in Trichy.

The Arcot Lutheran Church (ALC)

The ALC, organized in 1913, is another Tamil-speaking Lutheran church that had its origin in the work of missionaries of the Danish Missionary Society (DMS) that started working in 1863. Pastor C. C. Ochs, who had served as a Leipzig missionary, disassociated himself from LELM because of his disagreement on the LELM’s toleration of caste. He began a new mission in Pattambakkam. Three years later DMS took over the work of Ochs. Peter Andersen, the first Danish missionary in India, founded a mission station in Tirukoilur in 1869. From 1900 the DMS had extensive missionary work in the Arcot region, including hospitals, schools, and mission stations. Receiving by transfer a station from the English Baptists in 1882, the Danish Lutherans established centers in Madras, Bangalore, and South Arcot. It is primarily located in North and South Arcot districts, Salem and Dharmapuri districts of Tamil Nadu.9

One of the outstanding characteristics of ALC is the zeal it had for larger ecumenism in India. Though ALC actively participated in union talks with other Lutheran churches in India, they showed more enthusiasm to join the Church of South India.10 Their commitment to wider ecumenism was such that they even “hesitated to join the Lutheran union, fearing it would prevent a future wider union with the CSI.”11

Among the several missionaries DMS had, two names stand out: Lars Peter Larsen (1862–1940) and Anne Marie Petersen (1909–1951). Lars was one of the early missionaries and became an outstanding professor of Old Testament and the History of Religions at the United Theological College, Bangalore. He also served as principal of the UTC for several years. He was one among those who were interested in wider ecumenism and did a lot to promote it. Anne Marie Petersen came in 1909 as a missionary in the so-called Loventhal Mission. She is well known for her positive approach to Indian culture and customs. Anne Marie Petersen took strong engagement in girls’ education, putting great effort in starting a girls school based on the model of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram. The most remarkable feature connected with Anne Marie Petersen’s work was her long-standing friendship with Mahatma Gandhi. She was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s educational ideas, and she was from an early time a wholehearted supporter of his campaign for an independent India, even to the extent that she was accused of giving priority to nationalism at the expense of Christianity.

The ALC has around 30,000 members today in 40 parishes with nearly 50 ordained pastors and many evangelists. It embraced episcopacy in 1981 and Bishop Durai Raj Peter was its first bishop.

The Indian Evangelical Lutheran Church

The IELC, the third of the Tamil-speaking Lutheran churches, came into being in 1958. It owes its origin to the missionary endeavors of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The Missouri Evangelical Lutheran India Mission (MELIM) was established in India because of the doctrinal controversy that arose in Leipzig Mission in 1876.12 Its early missionaries were Germans from the Leipzig Mission. It started in the far south around Nagercoil and gradually moved north toward Madras.13 The untiring efforts of Rev. Naether and Rev. Mohn from 1894 onwards resulted in the formation of the churches that spoke Tamil, Malayalam, and Kanada. The subsequent missionaries who came in due course started schools, orphanages, and hospitals. The efforts of Alice Brauer resulted in the establishment of three hospitals. They were slow to cooperate with fellow Lutherans and others in South India. The IELC today has a congregational strength of 80,000 spread over 400 parishes with its headquarters at Nagercoil. The Concordia Seminary, Nagercoil offers theological education to its ministers.In polity it combines congregational and synodical features and is the only Lutheran church in India not to have episcopacy. In 1970 it became a member of the Lutheran World Federation, the only LCMS-related church to do so.

The Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tamil Nadu (LELCT)

The LELCT is fourth among the Tamil-speaking churches and the smallest of the Indian Lutheran bodies with fourteen congregations, organized in December 1981. The work supported by Latvian church began in 1924 when Anna Irbe arrived in the Trichy district. Initially she worked under the auspices of the TELC before beginning work independently. The work was hindered due to Second World War, as funds from the West ceased. In 1968 a Latvian pastor living in Australia at the request of the Canadian Latvians came to India. He called Anna Irbe back into active service and support for the work came from Latvians settled in different parts of the world: the US, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany, and other places.14 The church was formed in 1981, bringing together two agencies, the Progressive Charity Board and the Karuneipuri Foundation.

The Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC)

The AELC is the second largest Lutheran church in India and the third largest in Asia, with more than 5,000 congregations and about one million members. It is a Telugu-speaking church located primarily in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The AELC came into being in 1927 though its origins go back to arrival of John Frederick Heyer (1793–1873) of the Pennsylvania Ministerium in 1841 at Guntur. Heyer, fondly remembered as “Fr. Heyer,” has the distinction of being the first American Lutheran missionary to India. Soon another station was opened at Rajahmundry. It is not surprising that, following the model of Lutheran churches in North America, a synodical form of government was adapted on January 20, 1853, when the first Lutheran synod in India was organized by Fr. Heyer,15 who was elected president. In 1854 when the synod met for the second time, he recommended that steps be taken to contact other Lutheran churches in India, with a view to forming a general synod in India.16

The developments among the Lutherans in the USA cast their shadow on India. In 1867 when the General Synod split and General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of North America was formed, the Lutheran churches in Andhra Pradesh were divided. The General Synod took the southern portion with headquarters at Guntur, and the General Council focused on northern part with headquarters in Rajahmundry.17 Nevertheless, the churches still worked in closer cooperation with each other. From 1879, the former Augustana Synod also worked in this region, and from 1895, the Lutheran missions working in Andhra Pradesh held joint conferences biennially. Starting in 1905, a monthly called “The Gospel Writers” was published jointly. In 1908, they organized the All India Lutheran Conferences at Guntur, which served as a representative body of all Lutheran missions and churches in India.18 By 1918 when United Lutheran Church in America (ULCA) was formed, the missions merged again into the Indian Mission of the ULCA in 1920. The continued efforts of the former United Lutheran Church in America was instrumental in laying the strong foundation of Lutheranism in Andhra Pradesh.19 After the merger, the Schleswig-Holstein Evangelical Lutheran Missionary Society, also known as Breklum, headquartered in the Rajahmundry since 1845, also joined with it to form the AELC on April 19, 1927.20

The remarkable feature of AELC today is its commitment to evangelism led by laity, especially women known as “Bible women.” The membership has more than doubled in the last twenty years.21 The AELC also once had eight hospitals, products of the work of pioneer missionary Dr. Anna S. Kugler of Philadelphia.22 In recent years, many of the hospitals have been turned over to the government or private agencies, but the AELC continues to operate two. The AELC has several educational institutions, including a theological college. More than eighty percent of members are from a rural dalit background.

The South Andhra Lutheran Church (SALC)

The SALC is the second Telugu-speaking Lutheran church, which came into existence in 1947. However, the origins of the church can be dated back to the year 1865 when Rev. August Mylius of Hermannsburg Evangelical Lutheran Mission (HELM) in Germanybegan his evangelistic work in the southern part of Andhra.23 World War I forced German missionaries to leave India in 1915. Five years later, American missionaries from the Ohio Lutheran Evangelical Mission (OLEM) took charge of the abruptly-ended work of the German missionaries. Today the church encompasses the southern part of Andhra (the Nellore, Cuddapah, and Chittor districts) and a few parts of Tamil Nadu, with “diaspora” congregations in Chennai.24 The American connection led to the synodical form of the government. Today the SALC has 33,863 members in 44 parishes. 95% of its members are dalits and low on the economic scale.

Educational ministry was always of foremost importance to this church. One of its schools in Tirupati, a Hindu pilgrim center and the home for the headquarters of SALC, was visited by a former student during the celebration on its seventy-fifth year in 1955. It was none another than the president of India himself, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888–1975), a noted scholar and philosopher.25 It was a true vindication for the educational undertaking of the church. The SALC has been a partner in the Telugu Indigenous Curriculum Project, working with other Telugu-speaking churches as well as the AELC. “This educational effort includes the use of festivals, songs, dramas, and traditional Indian forms of communication.”26

Good Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church (GSELC)

The GSELC, formed in 1972, is one of the fastest growing Lutheran churches in India. Unlike the others that were established by foreign missions, the GSELC was established by Rev. Dr. Paul Raj, an Indian national. There are presently 41,786 members in forty-one pastorates situated mainly in the forest areas of East and West Godhavari, the Warangal districts of Andhra Pradesh, and the southern parts of the Baster district of Madhya Pradesh. The Church’s uniqueness lies in its translation of the Bible into the Koya language, which hitherto was not even written down. The invention of a Koya alphabet is seen as an important phase in the history of the tribe and is expected to provide a new value system both in the economic and social sphere to the entire tribal community.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in Madhya Pradesh (ELCMP)

The ELCMP is a Hindi-speaking Lutheran church that came into being in 1949 with the name Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Central Province. Its current name was adapted along with episcopacy in 1968. It is located in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa, and Maharashtra. Its historical background can be traced back to 1877 when A. G. Danielson from the Swedish Evangelical Mission started his pioneering work among the Gonds who were early adherents to the Lutheran faith. Later high-caste Hindu Uraons, Panka, Kewat, Pabhiyas, and Baris also joined the fold.27 The ELCMP now has a total of 13,546 members in around 52 pastorates.

Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church (GELC)

The GELC is one of the largest and most widespread Lutheran churches in India. Its origins can be traced back to 1845 when the Johannes Gossner Evangelical Missionary Society in Germany sent four missionaries, Emil Satz, August Brandt, Fredrick Basch, and Theodore Yankey. These four missionaries, who were chiefly farmers and artisans rather than theologians, arrrived in Calcutta. In Calcutta they came into contact with some street laborers of aboriginal origin, known as “Kols.” They had resolved to follow them to their native habitat in Chota Nagpur. Arriving in Ranchi in 1845 they established a base there and supported themselves by farming. After much initial frustration a few converts were made in 1850. Missionary work was begun among Kols people who migrated to the province of Assam. Work was carried on among ten language groups. By 1984 the church had 336,524 baptized members.

After a period of very slow growth, Lutheranism thrived among the Orans and Mundas tribes due to a large-scale conversion to Lutheranism. Particularly after the Sepoy Mutiny (1857), the people began to embrace Christianity in increasing numbers, so that by 1900 a community of 100,000 had arisen. Christianity brought a “sense of liberation from many factors operative in those days, including the exploitation and oppression they endured under the landlords and kings.”28 The fast growth did not happen without difficulties. A conflict that broke out among the missionaries in the 1869 divided the mission in two. Some of them joined the Anglican Church, thus interrupting the work.29 Further disturbance to the work came when the Belgian Roman Catholic Mission came to Ranchi. A number of Lutheran adivasi (aboriginal) converts embraced Roman Catholicism because of the extensive material benefits extended to them.30 Despite the losses to Lutheranism, the Gossner church thrived.

During the crisis created by World War I, when all German missionaries were deported and no other Lutheran missions came forward to take their place, the church was restructured and given to local people, leading to the birth of first fully self-governing and property-owning church on July 10, 1919, the Gossner Evangelical Church.31 A central committee was set up to administer its affairs. Pastors and other workers carried on in spite of financial privation. Despite Anglican offers to assume financial responsibility, Indian Gossner leaders expressed their staunch desire to remain confessionally Lutheran Christians learned to give what was available to them—rice. In many Christian homes, a handful of rice is set aside each time a meal is cooked. The rice collected during the week is brought to the altar. This sacrificial giving sustained the church during those crucial years.32 German missionaries were able to return in 1925, but their service is to an autonomous church. In 1928 the church framed its constitution and Rev. Hanukk Datto Lakra became its first president.

The composition of different tribal and language people groups has caused strife and tension since 1935. At times the church was pushed almost to the point of division, especially in the 1950s. These tensions and conflict, fortunately, affected mostly only the top-level leadership and a few congregations. Life in most of the parishes went on quietly. This is both the strength and weakness of the GELC.

The GELC has five dioceses headed by a bishop. Ranchi, Jharkand (formerly Bihar) is the headquarters and a dean heads its congregation. The main concentration of this church is Chotanagpur, Assam, the area surrounding Ranchi. At present it has around 500,000 congregational members spread over 1687 pastorates in the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa, Assam, and Haryana, and the major cities like Delhi, Kolkata, etc. It has a presence in the northeastern states as well. The women and youth in the church play a vital role in conducting relief and awareness programs, especially during the Bhopal gas tragedy and the cyclone in Orissa. The GELC continues to be a lay-driven church. Most of the parish work and evangelism is carried out by catechists and women workers.

Jeypore Evangelical Lutheran Church (JELC)

The JELC, located mainly in the southeastern part of the state of Orissa, the former Jeypore kingdom, in the district of Koraput, came into being due to the missionary activity in these tribal areas that began with the pioneering works of pastors Earnest Pohl and Herman Bothman since in 1882. It was mainly due to the initiative taken by Rev. Christian Jensen, the pioneering missionary of Breklum, Germany (the Schleswig-Holstein Evangelical Lutheran Missionary Society, now known as Nordelbisches Missionzentrum), from which many more missionaries were sent. The mass movement from an outcaste group called Dambas in the beginning of twentieth century led to the fast growth.33

The JELC was organized into a church when the first synod met in 1928. The languages used are Oriya, Kuvi, Gadaba, Bonda, Bhotra, Dedei, and Koya. The church suffered a reversal during the two World Wars when missionaries from Germany were forced to leave. On both occasions temporary help was extended by the United Lutheran Church in North America and after 1955 by the LWF Commission on World Mission.34 1954 was the year of the culmination of missionary assistance and the beginning of Indian leadership. In 1966 episcopacy was adopted. At present the JELC consists of 143,000 members spread over 96 parishes in 926 villages. Apart from the establishment of a number of schools and training institutes for the tribal children, the JELC’s sustaining work in the emancipation of the status of the aboriginals is commendable. Initiatives such as Research and Development, Mapping of Resource, Identification of Training Need, Identification of Model Parishes, Infrastructure Development, Constitution Amendment, Environmental Concerns, and Dialogue with People of Other Faiths are presently undertaken by JELC.

The Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church (NELC)

The NELC is principally spread over four North Eastern states in India: Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Bengal, and Assam. The majority of its members belong to the Santals, Boros, Bengalis, and Biharis.35 The beginnings of this church can be traced back to the year 1867 when two missionaries, the Norwegian Lars Olsen Skrefsrud (1840–1910) and the Danish Hans Peter Boerresen (1825–1901) started evangelizing the Santals. Both Skrefsrud and Boerresen had been working with the German Gossner Missionary Society. In 1867 they left Gossner society on their own and began to work among the Santals. While Skrefsrud gave the mission its dynamic character and resolute sense of purpose, Boerresen became great fundraiser for the mission.36 There was some support of work with the Santals by American Lutherans for this mission. The World Mission Prayer League voted in 1891 to form the American Board of the Norwegian Santal Mission. In 1904 they sent missionaries to work in that field. As early as 1900, the Santal Christians themselves organized a mission society to help with expanding work.37

The services of the Lutheran mission brought to the Santals several opportunities for the advancement of their socioeconomic conditions. The government made about 25 square miles of land for a leper colony. The mission leadership was able to convert the land for farming. The tea estate owned by the mission is a unique economic project which furnishes employment and income.38

In the middle of the twentieth century the NELC witnessed and benefitted from the outstanding service of Olav and Britt Waagbo Hodne, a Norwegian couple. The Norwegian Santal Mission sent them to work in the newly independent India in 1948. The then-Ebenezer Evangelical Lutheran Church commissioned them to be missionaries in Cooch Bihar, West Bengal, in today’s Bangladesh. The population in this region swelled, though not very fertile, because of the refugees running away from present-day Bangladesh. Hodne worked among these refugees first through the Bengal Service and then with the LWF Department of World Service. After Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, Hodne became director of the LWF Rangpur Dinajpur Rehabilitation Service in Bangladesh, assisting the refugees to return to their former homes. The refugee services were later expanded to several districts in Bangladesh as well as in India under the new name Lutheran World Service-India. Hodne became its director and served in the states of Bihar and Orissa. Britt Waagbo Hodne, Olav’s wife, founded a school for blind children in Cooch Bihar in 1965 and was its principal for a number of years. Besides providing the NELC with advanced methods of work among blind children, putting to work her degrees in both special education and Christian education, she wrote an instruction book for confirmation, published in Santali and Bengali.39

The NELC benefitted from a number of lesser luminaries hailing from abroad as well as locally. The most prominent local leader was Rev. Munshi M. Tudu. He led the NELC for nearly three decades (1958–1987). His wife Elbina was a delegate to the Vancouver Assembly of WCC (1983) and elected to the WCC Central Committee.40 Before it received its current name in 1958, the NELC was known by two other names: the Indian Home Mission to the Santals and later Ebenezer Lutheran Church.

No other Lutheran church in India has such a diverse membership as the NELC. The Santals, living west of the Ganges River in Bihar, northeast Assam, and the plains of northwest Bengal, form the majority. No wonder that this mission was originally called “the India Home Mission to the Santals.” The Boros living in Assam are the second linguistic group. They are of Mongolian descent. Bengalis were the third major group. There also has converts from Hindu and Muslim backgrounds.

At the moment, the NELC has 85,000 members spread over 453 pastorates. Beside running a number of colleges, schools, hospitals and dispensaries, it focuses on development programs such as Agricultural Development, Irrigational Projects, and the Construction of Community Infrastructure and Emergency Relief.

Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Himalayan States (ELCITHS)

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Himalayan States was created in November 2003. The Bodo Evangelical Diocese, the Assam Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Eastern Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Christian Church, Manipur, came together to constitute the ELCITHS. In four dioceses it brings together five distinct ethnic communities: the Bodos, the Assamese and the Oriyas in the Himalayan States, the Zomis of North East India, and the Manipuris. The amalgamation of these churches with its rich experiences in its own ministerial fields has enriched the activities of ELCITHS. It has a combined membership of around 30,000.

The Formation of United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India (UELCI)

After almost 150 years of Lutheranism in India, in 1853 attempts were taken to unify Lutherans. In 1908 the first of several All-India Lutheran conferences were held. However, only in 1926, despite the language, ethnic, and regional diversity, nine of these Lutheran churches formed the Federation of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India (FELCI) without surrendering their autonomy and identity. This Lutheran union was able to formulate a common liturgy and maintain a theological college, Gurukul in Madras. The plan to have the All-India Lutheran Theological College with a potential development into an All-Asia Lutheran Institute became a symbol and instrument of Lutheran unity in India.41 The FELCI was able to send personnel to work among the Bataks in Indonesia and the Indians in Tanganyika, Africa. After 49 years, in 1975, its name was changed to United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India (UELCI).

Major Issues Facing Indian Lutheranism Today

The context of religious plurality, poverty, and the presence of diverse Christian traditions shape the life of Lutherans in India today. The two million Lutherans living in India today are demographically a minority within the Christian minority in India. Their multireligious and multicultural context, further complicated by widespread poverty and injustice, provides the context for its Christian witness.

The earliest Lutheran mission was successful because the Lutherans from various European countries were able to pool their resources and reach out to the Anglicans to join hands with them. However, as other church bodies from the West began to work in India and establish churches along their own confessional lines, unhealthy competition and rivalry set in. As the 19th century was drawing to a close, Christian leaders realized how division marred their common witness in India, so they began to come together to form united churches. The creation of the FELCI and later the UELCI helped to strengthen the Lutheran identity in India. This Lutheran identity, as Rajashekar points out, “represents primarily a historical identity or a denominational label than a distinctive theological profile.”42 Much work remains to be done to articulate Lutheran confessional theology that is culturally and contextually relevant to the diverse Indian context.

In contrast to the developments within Lutheranism, ecumenism in India among the non-Lutheran Protestant bodies reached new heights. The formation of the Church of South India (CSI) that brought together Anglican, British Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian churches in 1947, is certainly acclaimed to be a milestone in the history of ecumenism. Later several other non-Lutheran Protestant bodies came together to form of Church of North India (CNI). The Lutherans entered into dialog with the CSI in response to the initiative that came from CSI. Eleven years of theological dialogue in the years 1948 to 1959 concluded with theological agreement. They were even plans to unite the Lutheran churches, the CSI, and the CNI under the name the Church of Christ in India. As Paul Rajashekar, a veteran Lutheran theologian from India, points out: “Dependence on economic support from Western churches, mission societies, denominational relief and service agencies, and the politics of the Christian World Communions (such as the Lutheran World Federation) have contributed to the continuation and reinforcement of denominational identities and loyalties.”43 Though the impetus for further church unions have died out, the churches in India are exploring new ways of working together. However, the Lutheran Churches on India are in full communion with a number of major Protestant churches. The areas of cooperation are in theological education and a number of joint enterprises like the Vellore Medical College.

Another challenge the Lutherans in India confront today is engaging Indian cultures and religions. What religious beliefs and cultural practices can be incorporated or rejected in the light of the gospel is still an ongoing debate. The question of appropriate attitude and relationship toward other religions has been a burning issue for centuries and more important now than ever before. Resurgent nationalist and fanatical Hindu movements have proceeded to enact legislation prohibiting conversion. There were several cases of attempts to convert Christians back to Hinduism by force. The Indian experience of living in the midst of other religions has lot to contribute in the development of a theology of religions that is faithful to Christian convictions and at the same time respectful to other faiths.

Another reality that defines the context of Indian Lutheranism is the abject poverty and social inequality in spite of the recent economic growth. In spite of the recent economic growth, the majority remains under poverty line. A majority of the Lutherans comes from a low caste origin (dalits) and tribal backgrounds. The discrimination of people based on the caste is still a major factor contributing to conflict and dissension in India. The emerging dalit and tribal theologies have attempted to articulate the dalit Christian experience of oppression and exploitation in the religiocultural context of India. In the patriarchal culture of India, women also have been victims of poverty and exploitation in society. Perhaps Christianity’s greatest single contribution has been the new sense of hope that it has brought to oppressed millions, though much is yet to be done in terms of liberation women and dalits.

Peter Vethanayagamony is Associate Professor of Modern Church History and Director of D.Min. Program at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.


1. For a detailed account of the eighteenth century Indian Lutheranism, see to Arno Lehmann, It Began in Tranquebar: The Story of the Tranquebar Mission and the Beginning of Protestant Christianity in India Published to Celebrate the 250th Anniversary of the Landing of the Protestant Missionaries at Tranquebar in 1706, trans. M. J. Lutz. (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1956); J. Ferd Fenger, History of Tranquebar Mission, 2nd ed., trans. E. Francke (Madras: Leipzig Evangelical Lutheran Mission, 1906); Daniel Jeyaraj, Inkulturation in Tranquebar: Der Beitrag der Frühen Danische-Halleschen Mission zum Werden einer Indisch-Einheimischen Kirsche (1706–1730), Ph.D. dissertation (Erlangen: Ev.-Luth. Mission, 1996); P. Daniel Jeyaraj, “Lutheran Churches in Eighteenth-Century India,” Lutheran Quarterly 17 (2003); Peter Vethanayagamony, It Began in Madras: The Eighteenth Century Lutheran- Anglican Ecumenical Ventures in Mission and Benjamin Schultze, forthcoming (ISPCK: New Delhi, 2010), and Peter Vethanayagamony, “Serving Body and Soul in Early Lutheran Mission to India” Lutheran Forum 43/4 (Winter 2009).
2. Jeyaraj, “Lutheran Churches in Eighteenth-Century India,” 90.
3. Ibid., 91.
4. Sunder Singh, “The Federation of Evangelical Lutheran Church in India: A Study of Its Relationship to the Movements for the Lutheran Unity, with Special Reference to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh,” M.Th. Thesis, Senate of Serampore College (1992).
5. E. Theodore Bachman and Mercia Brenne Bachmann, Lutheran Churches in the World: A Handbook (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 217.
6. Rajah B. Manikam, “The Lutheran Church in India,” in Lutheran Churches in the Third World, ed. Andrew S. Burgess (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970), 100.
7. J. D. Asirvadam, “The Lutheran Theological College (Gurukul) Madras,” Gospel Witness 28/7 (March 1933): 239, cited in Singh, “The Federation of Evangelical Lutheran Church in India,” 38.
8. E. Theodore Bachman, Lutheran Churches in the World: A Handbook (Geneva: LWF, 1977), 178.
9. For a detailed account of the ALC, see Povl Wandall, The Origin and Growth of the Arcot Lutheran Church (Madras: CLS, 1978).
10. The Church of South India is a united church of Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Anglicans. Though this union came into being only in 1947, the negotiation leading to it began in 1919.
11. Wandall, 103.
12. Herbert M. Zorn, “Relations between Missouri Lutherans and London Missionary Society,” Indian Church History Review 1:2 (December 1967): 135.
13. For a brief account of the beginnings of IELC churches, see Paul M. Heerboth, “The Beginnings of LCMs Work in India.” Missio Apostolica 2/1 (May 1994): 25-35 and Herbert M. Zorn, Much Cause for Joy-And Some for Learning: A Report on 75 Years of Mission in India (Vaniyambadi: Concordia, 1970).
14. Bachman and Bachmann, Lutheran Churches in the World, 212.
15. Swavley, Lutheran Enterprise in India (Madras: Federation of Evangelical Churches, 1952), 36.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., 38.
18. Ibid., 46.
19. For a detailed account of the beginnings of AELC churches, see Martin Luther Dolbeer Jr., A History of Lutheranism in the Andhra Desa: the Telugu Territory of India, 1842-1920 (New York: Board of Foreign Missions ULCA, 1959).
20. Bachman, 172–173.
21. The membership cited in Lutheran Churches in the World: A Handbook in 1989 is 400,000 and the membership cited in the ELCA Global Mission Report is one million.
22. For detailed account of the medical work in its early days, see Anna S. Kugler Guntur Mission Hospital, Guntur, India (Philadelphia: Women's Missionary Society ULCA, 1928).
23. Hermannsburg Evangelical Lutheran Mission was founded in 1849 by Pastor Louis Harms. Under his ministry in the village of Hermannsburg the whole congregation became a mission society, not merely a few members. The congregation was also known as the “Farmers’ Missionary Society.”
24. For a detailed account of SALC see Souvenir of the Centennial (1865-1965): Celebrated by the South Andhra Lutheran Church and Her Founding Missions at Tirupati, Chittoor District, Andhra Pradesh (Madras: Diocesan Press, 1966).
25. Bachman and Bachmann, 214.
26. Ibid.
27. For a detailed account of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Madhya Pradesh, see Christopher Polson, Then and Now: Fifty Years of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Madhya Pradesh (1923-1973) (Chhindwara: Vijay Printing Press, 1973).
28. Ibid., 52.
29. Nirmal Minz, “Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chotanagpur and Assam, Ranchi, India,” Lutheran World (1976): 52.
30. Ibid.
31. Ibid., 53.
32. Manikam, 106.
33. For a detailed account on Jeypore Evangelical Lutheran Church, see Otto Waack, Church and Mission in India: The History of the Jeypore Church and the Breklum Mission (1876-1914), 2 vols., trans. Cynthia C. Lies (Delhi: Northelbian Center for World Mission and Church World Service and the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1997).
34. Bachman and Bachmann, 211.
35. For detailed account of the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church, see Sagenan Kisku, A Short History of the Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church (n.c.: n.p., 1986).
36. Ibid., 213.
37. Manikam, 105.
38. Ibid.
39. Bachman and Bachmann, 213.
40. Ibid., 214.
41. Ibid., 219.
42. J. Paul Rajashekar, “Lutheranism in Asia and the Indian Subcontinent,” in The Future of Lutheranism in Global Context, ed. Arland Jacobson and James Aageson (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2007), 71.
43. Ibid., 67.

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