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Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg

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Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, was the father of Modern Protestant Mission and the first Protestant missionary to India, born on 10th July, 1682, at the village of Pulsnitz, Saxony, Germany. His Parents Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg Sr (1640-1694), a grain merchant and Catharin (1646-1692) were a poor and devout Christians. He showed an aptitude for music at an early age. He studied at the University of Halle under the teaching of A.H.Francke, then the center of Pietistic Lutheranism. Under the patronage of Frederick IV of Denmark, Ziegenbalg along with his fellow student, Heinrich Plutschau, answered the call of King for clergy who would spread the Gospel in India and they became the first Protestant missionaries to India. They arrived at the Danish colony of Tranquebar on 9th July 1706.

On 9th July, 1706, Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plutschau arrived at Danish Colony of Tranquebar, hence they becoming the first Protestant missionaries to arrive on the Indian sub-continent and starting the Danish-Halle Mission. Ziegenbalg was practicing a well-intentioned form of cultural imperialism. But due to the circumstances in which European culture was established and promoted, in the midst of indigenous, alien people, the bridge estranging the cultural differences posed many obstacles. He was publicly critical of some members of the Brahmin caste, accusing them of disregard for lower castes in Hindu society. For that reason, at least one group plotted to kill him. This reaction by native Indians was unusual and his work did not generally encounter unfriendly crowds; his lectures and classes drawing considerable interest from locals.

Zion Church, Built in 1702
They laboured intensively, despite opposition from the local Hindu and Danish authorities in Tranquebar, baptizing their first Indian converts on 12th May, 1707. It was obvious to Ziegenbalg that without a printing press all his effort would come to naught. Possibly as early as 1709, he requested a printing press from Denmark. The Danes forwarded the appeal to London to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. The SPCK not allowed a foothold in India by John Company's merchants was only too eager to help and in 1712 shipped out to the Tranquebar mission a printing press with type, paper, ink and a printer. He was also hindered by delays in the construction of a suitable Tamil typeface for his purposes. In the meantime he commenced translating the New Testament, in 1708 and completed it in 1711, though printing was delayed till 1714 and the New Testament was translated into Tamil by Ziegenbalg in 1715. This translation, with minor revisions by his successor, Johann Fabricius, is still in use today, as is the Church of the New Jerusalem, which he dedicated in 1718. Ziegenbalg also published the first book in English in Asia in 1716; this was a guide to English by Thomas Dyche.

A page from the Tamil New Testament published by Ziegenbalg

Despite opposition from the Copenhagen Mission Board which sponsored Ziegenbalg’s mission, he felt that the preaching of the Gospel also included the care of souls and concern for the social welfare of converts. The society had simply wanted missionaries to preach the Gospel and allow indigenous churches to develop without much further instruction out of a concern that such a church would be nothing more than a transplant of European Christianity.

Palm-leaf manuscripts
Ziegenbalg was publicly critical of some members of the Brahmin caste, accusing them of disregard for lower castes in Hindu society. For that reason, at least one group plotted to kill him. This reaction by native Indians was unusual and Ziegenbalg's work did not generally encounter unfriendly crowds; his lectures and classes drawing considerable interest from locals. During 1708-1709, Danish authorities jailed Ziegenbalg for four months for reasons which are connected to the rivalry between the different Christian clergy in Tranquebar. In 1708 a dispute over whether the illegitimate child of a Danish soldier and a non-Christian woman should be baptized and brought up as a Roman Catholic or a Protestant resulted in Heinrich Plutschau being brought before a court. Although Plutschau was released, Ziegenbalg wrote that "the Catholics rejoiced, that we were persecuted and they were authorized."


He connected this incident, which he took to have emboldened the Catholics, directly with a second nearly two weeks later, which resulted in his imprisonment. This incident arose from his intervention on behalf of the widow of a Tamil barber over a debt between her late husband and a Catholic who was employed by the Company as a translator. The commander of the Danish fort in Tranquebar, Hassius, regarded Ziegenbalg's repeated intervention in the case, including his advice that the widow kneel before him in the Danish church, as inappropriate and sent for Ziegenbalg to appear before him. When Ziegenbalg demurred, requesting a written summons, he was arrested and because he refused to answer questions, imprisoned.

Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg monument in Tranquebar

Grave of Ziegenbalg
Although released after a little more than four months, Ziegenbalg’s relationship with Hassius remained difficult and was one reason for Ziegenbalg's return to Europe in 1714-1716. Ziegenbalg was also married in 1716. He was also active in co-operation with the Anglican Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, making his work one of the first ecumenical ventures in the history of Protestant missionary work.

Ziegenbalg was troubled by ill health his entire life, a condition aggravated by his work in the mission field. He died on February 23, 1719 at the age of thirty-six in Tranquebar. His last 13 years were spent laying the foundations for German scholarship in Tamil that continues to this day. He left behind a dictionary and grammar in Tamil, his translations of the New Testament and the Old Testament up to the Book of Ruth, several tracts also in Tamil, two church buildings, a seminary for the training of indigenous clergy and over 250 baptized Indians.


Stephen Neill summaries Ziegenbalg’s failures and the cause of tragedy in his life, thus: “He was little too pleased with his position as a royal missionary, and too readily inclined to call on the help of the civil power in Denmark. In his controversies with the authorities at Tranquebar he was generally in the right, but a less impetuous and more temperate approach might in the end have been more beneficial to the mission. He was too ready to open the coffers of the mission to those who claimed to be needy Christians, though he was right that those who had lost all their property through becoming Christians could not be allowed to starve.”

Statue of Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg

Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg monument in Tranquebar

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