C T Ewald Rhenius

Rev.Charles Theophilus Ewald Rhenius, the Apostle of Tirunelveli, was born on 5th November 1790 at Germany, in the second son of Mr.Otto Gottlieb Nikolaus Rhenius, an officer in the Prussian army. Charles Rhenius was the first Church Mission Society (CMS) missionary to India. He was six years old, his father, Mr.Otto Gottieb Nikolaus Rhenius died. At fourteen years old, he left school and went to work in his uncle’s office. He had worked for three years, another uncle called him to come and live with him. He read many missionary magazines at his uncle’s house and he felt God was calling him to go overseas as a missionary. His uncle was unhappy about his decision, though he accepted it. But his aunt tried to get him to change his mind. Charles Rhenius had to struggle in prayer to overcome the request, since his uncle had no children and he planned to leave all his property to Charles Rhenius. He went to Berlin to study theology at a missionary college of Basel. When he left home, he did not dare to tell his family of his final plans. When his suspicious mother Catharina Dorothea Schiemann pleaded him not to go overseas, he replied "Dear mother, what am I to do if the Lord should so order it? After a year at the seminary, Charles Rhenius was ordained as a Lutheran pastor.

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Palayamkottai
In the early 19th century, the Church Mission Society was looking for missionaries for Dr.John’s Schools of the Danish Mission at Tharangambadi in India. Charles Rhenius and Schnarre were selected and given orientation on mission skills for eighteen months in England. In 1813, the British parliament passed a new Act. This Act allowed missionaries freedom to enter India. At the last minute his family tried to stop his going to India. His brother pleased to him by writing that their mother was weeping for him. CMS arranged a farewell meeting for him that was attended by more than 2,000 people. Charles Rhenius's journey to India was eventful: he experienced a fire aboard the ship and it was almost wrecked near Maldives. They reached safely Madras, only to learn that Dr.John, under whose aegis they had planned to work as missionaries, was dead. Charles Rhenius and Schnarre managed to stay for two weeks with the chaplain of the British East India Company in Madras. Then they went to Tharangambadi to learn the Tamil language.

Side view Holy Trinity Cathedral, Palayamkottai

After five months of language training, he was asked to come back to Madras as CMS had decided to engage him in their own mission called Mission in Madras, instead of helping the Danish Mission at Tharangambadi. The Madras Governor gave permission to work in the Black Town of Madras. They rented a house from a Hindu, this facilitated to study the Hindu scriptures and he visited the Kanchipuram temple as well. Rev.Charles Rhenius came to believe that Hindus had once believed in one supreme god and the current polytheism was a later development. He fashioned his proselytizing method according to the belief by appealing Hindus to go back to monotheism and the worship of Jesus Christ. He started a school in the Black Town, Madras. When the Hindus in Kanchipuram, invited him to start a school, he agreed. After starting several schools in Madras, he extended his missionary work to Palamaner of Chittoor District, Andra Pradesh in India and Vandavasi of Tamilnadu where he was exposed to the religious doctrines of Jainism. During his travel, he recorded in his diary that the caste Hindus did not allow him to enter their house and on one occasion he had to spend the night in a cow shed.

Tomb of Vedha Muthu Mukandar
In 1815, the Bible Society in Calcutta decided to revise the Johann Phillip Fabricius version of the Tamil Bible. Rev.Charles Rhenius was asked to help with the revision. He set to work on the revision assisted by a Munshi. On his travels, he had talked with many Hindus and found that very often they could not understand the Bible translation of Fabricius. He began a new translation of the New Testament. When he showed his translation to his Hindu friends, they had said that they could understand his translation. He wrote down some principles of translation. His ideas on translation were not accepted in his time, they are similar to the current ones followed by the Bible Society. On 5th November 1817, a group of Protestants, Roman Catholics and Hindus met in Madras and formed the Tamil Bible Association. Rev.Charles Rhenius also wrote a work of Tamil grammar titled "A Grammar of the Tamil Language: With Appendix", which was published by the American Mission Press at Madras in 1859.

In 1816, the historian, the Rev.James Hough, was the chaplain to the English garrison in the Palayamkottai Fort and Cantonment. He was interested in village ministry and wrote to the CMS asking for a missionary. By this time, the differences of opinion had grown greatly between Rev.Charles Rhenius and the Madras Committee of the CMS. He was at the point of resigning and going home. However, the CMS did not want to lose a skilled missionary and suggested that he could go to Palayamkottai to assist Hough. Rev.Charles Rhenius arrived in Tirunelveli on 7th July 1820. The first CMS congregation in Palayamkottai, the present Holy Trinity Cathedral Church, Palayamkottai came into existence on 10th March 1822 and adjutant to the CMS Church, Murugankuruchi, Charles Rhenius started the Palamcottah Preparandi Institution, now as Cathedral Higher Secondary School, Palayamkottai, In 1824, he purchased valuable property to the North of the High Road in Palayamkottai, now at the Bishop Sergeant Training School, Palayamkottai from his Hindu friend and philanthropist, Vengu Mudaliar, for a confessional price of just Rs.750.00 and shifted the Preparandi School to the newly acquired campus. Rev.Charles Rhenius build the Trinity Cathedral Church, Palayamkottai in 1826. From Palayamkottai, Rev.Charles Rhenius covered number of villages all over the Tirunelveli district, which include the current Thoothukudi district and part of Ramanathapuram district and planted small congregations. When Rev.Charles Rhenius visited Solaikudiyiruppu and he converted Velu Muthu who was baptisied as "Vedha Muthu".

St.Stephen's Church, Solaikudiyiruppu
Vedha Muthu Mukandar is the first Protestant Christian in the Megnanapuram Circle was born into the Nadar caste in Solaikudiriruppu, an oasis village in the Kudhremozhi Theri, part of the Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu state, and close to Korkai, the site of the capital of the ancient Pandyan Kingdom. He was a Hindu who converted to Christianity through the influence of missionary, Rev.C.T.E.Rhenius. He became a Mukandar of Megnanapuram village, through his apparent prophetic intuition and wisdom in solving disputes, an ancient title originally bestowed by Arab rulers of the Vijayanagar Empire.

During the 18th century, Christian missionaries had witnessed persecution of converts coinciding with the Polygar Wars, by clubmen from the state of Ramanathapuram. Mr.Sundaranandam David, a disciple of Rev.C.F.Schwartz, established a Christian satellite village, called Mudhalur, meaning First Village, near Sathankulam to protect the new converts, which served as a refuge for local Christians. Following the Mudalur pattern, Rev.Charles Rhenius started several Christian satellite villages, including Neduvilai, later known as Megnanapuram in 1825, Idayankulam in 1827, Asirvathapuram in 1828, Nallur in 1832 and Surandai in 1833. In 1827, Rev.Charles Rhenius created a settlement for the Christians of Puliakurichi in a village, he purchased with money donated by a Prussian nobleman, Count Dohna of Scholodin and named it after him as Dohnavur. The village later became the place where Amy Carmichael founded the Dohnavur Fellowship to protect women rescued from prostitution.

In side view of Megnanapuram CSI Church which is South India's Tallest Church

In 1832, Rev.Charles Rhenius wrote to the Madras Corresponding Committee of the CMS that an urgent need for more trained and ordained catechists, pastors and teachers had prompted him to provide special training for some of the most promising young men, seven of whom he had ordained. Until now, precedents going back to Thanjavur and Tharangambadi had been followed, whereby the local missionary enjoyed considerable autonomy in such matters. But the CMS Committee was now of the opinion that, although many Indians might have previously received ‘Lutheran orders’, the time for a change had arrived. Rev.Daniel Wilson, the new Bishop of Calcutta, indicated that loyalty to the Church of England required that workers under the CMS should henceforth be ordained, if at all, only according to the Church of England rites and not according to those of the Lutherans. Rev.Charles Rhenius and his colleague, Bernard Schmidt, replied that their newly trained workers, catechists, pastors and teachers, had conscientious objections to following this new instruction.

Megnanapuram, C.S.I Church
At about the same time, Rev.Charles Rhenius wrote to the new Bishop of Calcutta welcoming him to India and extending to him an invitation to visit Palaiyamkottai as soon as possible. His reports having lived at length on mass conversions then taking place, stressed the need for pastors to watch over new Christians and the recent ordination of seven promising young men. The reply he received, indirectly, declared that his actions were invalid and reprimanded him for violating the apostolic succession. Having waited in vain for the Archdeacon to publish his long dormant review, Rev.Charles Rhenius published the review himself.

No mention was made of a second pamphlet that Rev.Charles Rhenius had published at the very same time, entitled Union of Christians, an Address to all Christians, especially to all Ministers of the Gospel. He had attempted to bring about harmony among missionaries of different backgrounds. Instead publication of the first pamphlet provoked a drastic response. The conflict between the Anglican Diocese of Calcutta and Rev.Charles Rhenius reached a low point after six catechists of his choice refused to be ordained at Madras by the Anglican Bishop John Matthias Turner of Calcutta. A letter of dismissal was delivered to him by two CMS officers, informing that his connection with the CMS was at an end and that since the ‘territory’ in which he had been working belonged to the CMS, he should forthwith depart from Tirunelveli. He handed over all his belongings to Rev.John Tucker along with his German colleagues; he left for Thoothukudi and sailed to Madras. Rev.Charles Rhenius traveled to Arcot, where he planned to start his own mission.

Tomb of Rev.C.T.E.Rhenius
About the circumstances of his original appointment, Rev.Charles Rhenius wrote at length: “When my fellow-labourer, Schnarre and I were sent out to India, now twenty one years ago, no question was ever put to us on the subject of conformity to the Church of England nor have I received a single application from the Society to conform. I never concealed my sentiments and mode of proceeding I never promised to submit to the English bishops not even to observe the Church of England forms. No such promise was even asked of me. The Committee of the Society at that early period, did not even expect that German clergymen should conform to the Church of England”.

Several catechists from Tirunelveli appealed to him to return and Rev.Charles Rhenius decided to do so. There, in reduced circumstances, both in Suveshipuram, ‘Town of Salvation’, where a house was established in his honour and in Tirunelveli itself where houses were made available to him, he tried to carry on his work. In Palayamkottai, the supporters of Rev.Charles Rhenius stopped going to the CMS Church and started a prayer hall, the Present Chinna Koil "St.John Church" for their worship at Aadaikalapuram. Similar splits happened in all the places, where Rev.Charles Rhenius had planted churches, including Solaikudiyiruppu. Efforts to reconcile Charles Rhenius and the CMS failed.

Rev.Charles Rhenius' health began to fail under the tension and strain caused by the division in the churches. He wanted everyone to have a copy of the Bible in the language they could understand. On 5th June 1838, he signed notes to be sent to people in Palayamkottai. In these notes, he asked for subscriptions to the Madras Auxiliary of the Bible Society and on the same evening Rev.Charles Rhenius died. He was 48 years old at the time of his death. He was buried at Adaikalapuram, Palayamkottai. His missionary work was recognized by the Tirunelveli Diocese of the Church of South India (CSI) during the diocese's bicentenary Celebrations in 1978. Rev.Charles Rhenius tomb is currently being maintained by the Diocese. During his 15 years’ service in Tirunelveli, he had set up as many as 371 congregations. His contemporary, the Jewish missionary Dr.Wolf, who stayed with him for a week during September 1833, regarded him as the greatest missionary who had appeared since St.Paul.

For his missionary work in the Tirunelveli district, he came to be known as the "Apostle of Tirunelveli". His work was recognized in 1978 by Rev.Daniel Abraham, the then Bishop of Tirunelveli diocese of Church of South India (CSI). His work was given official recognition by the Anglican Communion during the Tirunelveli diocese bicentenary celebration in 1978, in which, all the bishops, including Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill and all the presbyters took an oath in front of the tomb of Rev.Charles Rhenius to follow the path of the resting soul, regard to evangelism.


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