Five Twentieth Century Missionary Pioneers in Hindu Contexts


Five Twentieth Century Missionary Pioneers in Hindu Contexts

Despite a lot of reading and study on missionary contributions in Hindu contexts I have written very little on this topic. The main reason for this is that the most significant thought and action related to sharing Christ among Hindus has not come from outsiders, but from people born in Hindu families. Nonetheless, an impressive array of missionaries has served in India and some individuals creatively engaged with classical Hindu concerns. So this paper will introduce five pioneer missionaries who wrestled with issues in Hindu contexts in the twentieth century.

The decision to narrow this paper to the twentieth century, when more accurate understanding of Hindu traditions developed, is not to disparage important pioneers from earlier eras. Without question the greatest of the missionary pioneers in Hindu contexts was one of the earliest, Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656). There is a great deal of information (some good and some very unreliable) on him on the Internet, and Sauliere and Rajamanickam’s thorough biography, His Star in the East is still available (Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1995). Neglecting the study of de Nobili is inexcusable.

1. John Nelson Farquhar: Christ Fulfilling Hinduism

J. N. Farquhar (1861-1929) was a missionary from Scotland who worked as an educational missionary in Bengal in the 1890s. From 1902 he began working with the YMCA, and he became the primary figure in an approach to educated Hindus through high quality literature. The theology of the literature was based on a fulfillment paradigm. There were various types of fulfillment theology as this became a dominant missionary paradigm in the early twentieth century.

Farquhar was frustrated as an educationist as he desired to directly approach Hindus with the message of Christ. Since the 1860s ideas had been developing that simply condemning Hinduism was doing more harm than good, and a more positive approach was necessary. This came to classic expression in the great 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, where the volume on The Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions stated that “the missionary to Hindus should possess, and not merely assume, a sympathetic attitude towards India’s most ancient religion” (World Missionary Conference 1910:171, emphasis original).

Farquhar’s most famous book was The Crown of Hinduism, which presented Christ as the fulfillment of all that is best in Hindu traditions. Farquhar oversaw the production of three series of books, The Religious Quest of India, The Religious Life of India, and The Heritage of India. Many titles from those series have been reprinted and are still available. Numerous books have been written on fulfillment theology and there is much to learn from study in that field. Here only the most cursory critique of Farquhar and of fulfillment thought can be presented.

The fundamental problem with fulfillment thought was that it assumed that Hinduism was a religious tradition, rather than recognizing (as only came to clarity in the academic world from the 1960s onward) that this is an inadequate paradigm.1 Exactly what about Christ or Christianity fulfilled exactly what in the vast complexity of Hindu traditions could never be clearly defined. There also was a perceived triumphalism in much fulfillment writing that offended rather than impressed Hindus. But Farquhar was a noteworthy pioneer and his encouragement for a positive approach to Hindu traditions contributed to a much more sensitive understanding of Hindus and their faiths and practices.  

2. Charles Freer Andrews: Counter-Colonial Friend of India

C. F. Andrews (1871-1940) is a figure of unending fascination. He was English, raised in a very narrow sectarian denomination, the Catholic Apostolic Church. He split from his family by becoming a social-activist-oriented Anglican while studying at Cambridge University. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1897 and arrived in Delhi in 1904 as a member of the Cambridge Mission to Delhi, assigned to St. Stephen’s College.

“Charlie” Andrews was appalled by the snobbishness and blatant racism of his British people in India, and quickly grew to support the nascent Indian nationalist movement. For many subsequent years he referred to the 1907 appointment of Susil Rudra as president of St. Stephen’s College as an example of missionaries needing to step aside and support Indian nationals. Also in 1907 Andrews first met Sadhu Sundar Singh, who for a time was his ideal for the development of a new Indian church. In late 1912 he first met and became a friend of Rabindranath Tagore. In 1914 he went to South Africa to assist M.K. Gandhi in his non-violent agitation against colonial abuses. Later in 1914 he left St. Stephen’s College and the Cambridge Mission, renounced his Anglican ordination and had some kind of breakdown. Daniel O’Connor wrote that “This radical move [out of St. Stephen’s and the CMD] threw him into spiritual and psychological turmoil and it was something like a further ten years before he recovered his equilibrium and his faith” (2005:x).

Andrews’ story has too many twists and complexities to even attempt a further summary here. He is noted in church history for his 1937 dispute with Gandhiji over conversion. Gandhiji was opposed to conversion, and though Andrews agreed with many of Gandhi’s objections to Christian missionary activities and attitudes, he openly supported the right of a convinced individual to change religions and join the church through baptism. But Andrews’ primary legacy was for a socio-political spirituality; within a decade of his death India gained independence from British rule.

3. Samuel E. “Satyanand” Stokes: Embracing Hindu Identity

Samuel Stokes (1882-1946) was an American Anglican who became a missionary associated with the Church Missionary Society. As a young cross-cultural worker he gained attention promoting renunciation as the missing key in missionary work. Young Sundar Singh was sent to work with him and Stokes arranged for his baptism in Shimla on Sept. 3, 1905, the day he turned sixteen. Stokes claims he taught Sundar the Sadhu life-style, but Sundar claimed that he taught Stokes; the fact is that both of them wore the black robe of a Franciscan in those early days (1906-1910).

Stokes shocked the mission world by abruptly leaving a renunciant lifestyle and marrying in 1912; that he married a local Christian girl (16 years old) from the Shimla hills added to the shock. But Stokes abhorred Western racism towards Indians, and learned from his time as a renunciant that truly incarnational ministry calls for family life, not the elitism of asceticism. Stokes became a Gandhian activist who scored a great victory against indentured labor, and is most famous for introducing the cultivation of apples (he is renowned throughout Himachal Pradesh for this reason).

Stokes reserved one more shock for the mission world. Despite his early advocacy for contextualized ministry, in 1910 Stokes had bought stained-glass windows in London and brought them to India for the church he wanted to build. It never got built, and by 1920 Stokes was no longer comfortable even attending church, although his family did. In 1932 some of his Hindu neighbors approached Stokes and pointed out that he was one of them, but they were not free to intermarry their children due to religious and ritual differences. So Stokes “converted to Hinduism,” which he himself pointed out involved no change of theology, only a change of religious community identity. (William Emilsen suggests that already by 1908 Stokes had shifted theologically to believe in karma and reincarnation (1995:13). Stokes said that he could not have changed communities if he still believed in the divinity and uniqueness of Christ (Emilsen 1995: 199).)

Emilsen (1994) evaluates the work of Stokes and Verrier Elwin (1902-1964, another Gandhian missionary, but one who turned anti-Gandhi as well as anti-Christian in his advocacy for tribal peoples) as an example of mission as atonement; an effort to make reparation for the damaging wounds of colonialism in India. This is an interesting twist on traditional missionary work; people who listened carefully and adjusted to indigenous concerns about missionary work, but lost their bearings on biblical truth in the process.

4. Eli Stanley Jones: Optimistic Evangelist

E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973) was an American Methodist who arrived in India in 1907. He worked in Lucknow and Sitapur (north of Lucknow) as a traditional missionary with a wide range of responsibilities. After eight years of service he was burned out, and was only able to continue due to a transforming spiritual experience. (Jones himself tells this story in the first pages of the first chapter of his first and most important book, Christ of the Indian Road, 1925.)

Jones was appointed in 1920 as an evangelist to educated Indians, mostly Hindus. He developed a dialogical approach that supplemented a more traditional preaching-with-distribution-of-decision-cards style. He also promoted Christian ashrams, but was more successful in this endeavor as an exotic fad in international settings than in India. In the early 1940s Jones was refused entry to India due to his sympathy for the nationalist movement, and thereafter he was more of an international missionary rather than one focused on India.

Two important insights are central to Jones’ contribution to practical missiology. One, he focused on proclaiming Christ and not Christianity. Second, he focused on experience rather than ideas and doctrines. His Christ of the Indian Road tells many stories of his encounters with Hindus, and focused on indigenization (the word of the time, now replaced by contextualization). This material is rather challenging to read in the twenty-first century as Jones is so optimistic about the great impact Christ is having on Hindus, what he called a “mass movement in mind toward Christ” (2012:45), which it is now clear was only in Jones’ mind. The phrase about a Christ of an Indian road is impressive, but very little content is added to that in Jones’ work.

E. Stanley Jones is an example of how missionaries who accomplish less than national workers still achieve greater recognition. Jones’ work should not be despised, but that he is well-known in international Christian circles while even a fellow Methodist who could be considered his successor who made advances on his approaches, Daya Prakash Titus, is completely unknown, is a sad commentary on the state of Christianity. Noteworthy contemporaries of Jones and numerous true pioneers of Christian ashrams and indigenous communication are in his shadow, if noted at all. A major purpose of this paper is to register a protest against this reality.

5. Henri Le Saux / Swami Abhishiktananda: Immersion without Reconciliation

Henri Le Saux was born in Brittany, France, in 1910, entered India in 1948, adopted the name Abhishiktananda in 1950, and never left India, dying in 1973. With Jules Monchanin he founded the Shantivanam Ashram in Tamil Nadu, and was based there from 1950 until he left for the Himalayan foothills in 1968. From his early days in India he became a critic of institutional Christianity and sought a better way to represent Christ among Hindus.

A 1949 encounter with the Hindu sage Sri Ramana Maharshi began Abhishiktananda’s journey into a spiritual encounter with Hinduism. In his early years he held to a type of fulfillment theology, and sought to reconcile Christian and Hindu traditions. Later he rejected fulfillment and decided that no reconciliation was possible (he also later rejected most of the ideas expressed in his published books, which continue to be popular).

Abhishiktananda focused on spiritual experience as the key to Hindu-Christian encounter. More specifically, he sought an advaitic experience of an inner realization of the unity of human spirit and divine spirit; and he claimed at various time to have that experience, particularly during a heart attack a few months before his death. Based on this theology and such experiences he could say things like “the Christ I must present will be simply the I AM of my (every) deep heart, who can show himself in the dancing Shiva or the amorous Krishna!” (Stuart 1989:350). Note that this was stated in a private letter, and that Abhishiktananda never renounced a trinitarian faith in God while exploring such thoughts and experiences. His core conviction was that there could not be a contradiction in these things, even though he could not find a way to harmonize them.

Abhishiktananda continues to be studied and remains controversial even in Roman Catholic Christian circles, where dalit theologians have little concern for issues related to classical Hindu contexts. An Abhishiktananda Society was formed in 1978 and for thirty years produced a bulletin that kept a focus on his work. Without question he is one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable pioneer missionaries among Hindus.


Numerous books and doctoral dissertations have been written about each of these five pioneers so briefly introduced in this paper. Four of the five (Stokes being the exception) were themselves prolific writers that left behind impressive volumes of scholarship and accounts of their approach to Hinduism and ministry among Hindus. There are many insights, many points to which different students take exception, and much more still to be explored and written in relation to each person and their legacy. On the broadest level I will close with my own three observations.

First, it is clear that Western Christianity is not adequate as a representative of Christ to Hindus. That does not seem a very controversial statement anymore, although it still is in some circles. But what this actually means, and how it should impact practice, is far from clear. It seems unlikely that Christian institutions can adequately change, so contextualized approaches to Hindu traditions must primarily develop outside traditional Christian circles. The vast diversity of Hindu traditions points towards multiple approaches to representing Christ among Hindus; rather than seeking one right way forward, many creative individuals need to be empowered to develop their own ways forward.

Second, it is clear that fulfillment is not an adequate paradigm for the Hindu-Christian relationship. Up to now, however, no better paradigm has developed. J. H. Bavinck’s possessio approach is on the right line, but the reality is that Hindus taking possession of Christ is probably a better perspective than that of followers of Christ taking possession of Hindu traditions.2 There is great ferment in the field of religious studies, much of it related to what “Hinduism” means or should mean. This fact alone makes a clear position on Hindu-Christian relations exceedingly complex.

Third, there seems to be a consensus that a traditional apologetic approach to Hindus is not adequate, and an experiential encounter is vital. Again here, this statement might be agreed on without any agreement on just what this means in practice, as is clear from the conflicting applications of Stanley Jones and Abhishiktananda. Anubhava (experience) has many varying connotations in Hindu discourse, and can be merely a superficial talking point. Disciples of Christ certainly need to have a transformative experiential relationship with Christ, and Hindus who similarly experience Christ have indeed found the pearl of great price.

In the end, the study of missionary pioneers shows more the need for change than the direction of the change that is needed. Hindus in Christ who have moved beyond traditional Christian approaches present case studies of deeper engagement and more practical action.3 But the challenge of engaging Hindu contexts with the message and way of Christ remains daunting, and many more international pioneers need to join with Indian Christians and Hindus in Christ to find patterns of biblical communication and discipleship which resonate with Hindus.   


1. See my paper on “New Paradigms for Hinduism and Contextualization” for more on this point (Richard 2005).

2. I outline Bavinck’s position and develop this refinement of it as “mutual possessio” in my study of R. C. Das and the Christian Society for the Study of Hinduism, forthcoming from the Centre for Contemporary Christianity, Bangalore. See also Richard 2011a.

3. I summarize five approaches of Hindus in Christ to the traditional church in “The Church and the Hindu Heritage: Historical Case Studies in a Rocky Relationship” (Richard 2011b).

Select Bibliography and References Cited

Andrews, C. F.
1936  What I Owe to Christ. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Chaturvedi, Benarsidas and Marjorie Sykes
1971 (1949)  Charles Freer Andrews: A Narrative. Builders of Modern India. New Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India.

Emilsen, William W.
1994  Violence and Atonement: The Missionary Experiences of Mohandas Gandhi, Samuel Stokes and Verrier Elwin in India before 1935. New York: Peter Lang.
1995  The India of My Dreams: Samuel Stokes’s Challenge to Christian Mission. Delhi: ISPCK.

Jones, E. Stanley
2012 (1925)  The Christ of the Indian Road. Lucknow: Lucknow Publishing House.

Martin, Paul A. J.
1996  Missionary of the Indian Road: The Theology of Stanley Jones. Bangalore: Theological Book Trust.

O’Connor, Daniel
2005  A Clear Star: C. F. Andrews and India, 1904-1914. New Delhi: Chronicle Books.

Sauliere, A.
1995  His Star in the East. Revised and re-edited by S. Rajamanickam. Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash.

Richard, H. L.
1997  “A Survey of Protestant Evangelistic Efforts among High Caste Hindus in the 20th Century.” Missiology 25:4, Oct. 1997, pp. 419-445.
2005  “New Paradigms for Understanding Hinduism and Contextualization. ” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40:3, July 2005, pp. 308-315.
2011a  “All Things Are Yours.” Mission Frontiers 33:3, May-June 2011, pp. 13-14.
2011b  “The Church and the Hindu Heritage: Historical Case Studies in a Rocky Relationship.” In Rethinking Hindu Ministry: Papers from the Rethinking Forum. Pasadena: William Carey Library, pp. 61-74.

Sharma, Asha
1999  An American in Khadi: The Definitive Biography of Satyanand Stokes. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Stuart, James
1989  Swami Abhishiktananda: His Life Told through His Letters. Delhi: ISPCK.

Sunquist, Scott (ed.)
2001  A Dictionary of Asian Christianity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.

Taylor, Richard W.
1973  The Contribution of E. Stanley Jones. Confessing the Faith in India No. 9. Madras: CLS for Bangalore: The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society.

Tinker, Hugh
1979  The Ordeal of Love: C. F. Andrews and India. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
World Missionary Conference 1910  The Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions. Report of Commission IV. World Missionary Conference, 1910. London: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier.