Lutherans in Early Modern Missions
by Thomas Curry, M.A., William Carey International University
After two centuries had passed since Luther’s nailing of his famous 95 Theses on the door of All Saints Church, Protestantism might have appeared to much of the world to be a Caucasian religion severely battered by dissension and threatened by the wave of rationalism and enlightenment thinking. Catholic missionaries had followed the colonizing Portuguese and Spaniards to South and North America, Africa, and as far east as India. Protestants were consumed with “getting it right” as to church polity and doctrine. After about 200 years, the dust of denominationalism was starting to settle.
The 19th century would prove to be the “Great Century” as to global missions and Protestantism. It saw an explosion of mission societies with great passion and fervor to take the message of salvation to the far ends of the earth. In a relatively short time, common people turned a declining, western religion into the largest and most dynamic religious faith in the world. Though often accused of being agents of imperialism and colonialism, these pioneering souls, “led the way in establishing all around the world the democratic apparatus of government, the schools, the hospitals, the universities, and the political foundations for new nations” (Winter 1999).
If you ask most any missiologist who is the “father of modern missions” they will be quick to say William Carey, the famous Baptist missionary who spent forty one years at Serampore, near Calcutta,
India. Arriving in 1793, he suffered through the tragic loss of a wife due to insanity, and a son to a tropical disease. Among his many inventions and social improvements, he translated the entire Bible into six languages. One of my most sobering moments, while in India as a residential missionary, was standing at the foot of Carey’s grave reading the words etched on his tombstone, “A wretched, poor, and helpless worm, On Thy kind arms I fall.”
After Carey, the genie was out of the bottle for Protestant missions and Christianity going global.
Earlier German Lutheran Missionaries
What is not known by much of the Protestant world, and even most Lutherans, is the earlier role played by German Lutheran missionaries in this world transforming movement. William Carey may not have had the illustrious missionary career had it not been for Lutheran missionaries, Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau.
Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg (1682–1719)
As students of Joachim Lange at the University of Halle almost a century earlier, their young hearts had been stirred by the evangelical pietism that later inspired Count Zinzendorf and the Moravian movement.
Meanwhile in Denmark, the enterprising King Fredrick IV (1671–1730) was pursuing the idea of sending missionaries to Denmark’s colonies in the Far East. We may never know what motivated this womanizing king to play such a major role in Protestant missions. We do know he was touched by the pietism of the German Lutherans at the University of Halle. We know he was well aware that the Roman Catholic Church commissioned missionaries to its colonies, converting people by the thousands. We also know the future kings of Denmark for the next century would maintain an interest in Christian missions, as it was a Danish colony near Calcuatta (Serampore) that would give William Carey refuge from the British East India Company and further support Carey’s missionary work. Presently at the entrance
of Serampore College is an attractive, large iron gate given to the college by the King of Denmark. It is in good repair and still is in use to this day.
King Fredrick’s plan to send missionaries to India was not received well by the Lutheran Bishop of Copenhagen. Frustrated with such lack of cooperation, having heard of German Lutheran pietists and their zeal for world evangelism, Frederick recruited Ziegenbalg and Plutschau for his Danish Colony in Tranquebar along the southeastern coast of India (presently in the state of Tamil Nadu). They established “The Danish-Halle Mission” in 1706, the first organized missionary undertaking in the history of Protestantism, some 87 years prior to William Carey’s arrival in India (http://18.104.22.168/cgi-bin/dhmeng.pl).
Tranquebar was a small fishing town where trading companies from Denmark, Britain, Portugal, France, and Germany competed. These companies aggressively opposed missionary work fearing it would disturb the fragile social equilibrium resulting in a decline of profits. Within a year after arrival, the two missionaries started a church, the Jerusalem Church, composed of some forty Indians. The worship followed the Danish Lutheran order but was in the native language of Tamil. They pioneered Tamil schools for both boys and girls and developed a catechism based on Luther.
A mission board composed of Lutheran laymen in Denmark was established in 1710 to encourage other Protestant rulers in Europe to follow the example of Ziegenbalg and to support the work of missions. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), an Anglican Missionary organization supported the Danish-Halle mission from 1712 onwards.
Plutschau returned to Germany after five years. Though tireless in his missionary zeal, Ziegenbalg showed great respect and appreciation for Indian culture. Due to stress, discouragement, grief over loss of two out of three children, and tropical diseases, Ziegenbalg survived India for only 13 years. Remarkably, he learned the Tamil language, translated the entire New Testament in Tamil from Greek, and composed a Tamil dictionary, all the while evangelizing and providing pastoral care. Accomplishing more by the age of 35 than most of us could in a lifetime, one can only wonder what he could have done if he had lived longer.
Ziegenbalg had a profound influence on John Wesley’s mother through letters and published articles coming from the Danish-Halle Mission in Tranquebar. Susanna Wesley had a significant influence on her son who in turn led the evangelical revival that rocked England and found its way to America.
Though William Carey is given the credit as the “Father of Modern Missions” by most missiologists, and though the 19th century would prove to be the Great Century for Protestant missions, the untiring zeal and missionary labors of two German Lutherans by the names of Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau in the 18th century laid the groundwork for William Carey and the subsequent explosive missionary work of Protestants around the world. From 1800 to 1950, more people groups were reached with the gospel of Jesus Christ, through the work of Protestant missions, than the combined missionary efforts of all major Christian groups since the time of Christ. Today this work is still in progress.
Winter, Ralph D. 1999. The Kingdom Strikes Back. In Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. 4th ed. Trans. Steven C. Hawthorne, 7-23. Pasadena: William Carey Library.