In this blog post, we look at a brief history of the Serampore Mission. By the close of the 18th century, the British established power in most parts of India. Three Presidencies were under their control. They were Bengal, Madras, and Bombay. In the 19th century, England saw the beginning of the modern missionary movement. This was the fruit of the evangelical revival which was the counterpart of Pietism in Germany.
Sometime earlier England saw the formation of the organizations like SPCK and SPG which engaged themselves in the field of mission in various capacities. Now, new societies were formed. The first one was the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) in the year 1792.
This was followed by the formation of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in the year 1795; Then the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1799 and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society in 1813.
Starting of Missions
With the consolidation of British power, new societies began to think about starting missions in India. In India, East India Company officials were sympathizers of German Missionaries. At the same time, they were not willing to take up missionary work as a policy.
In fact, there was staunch opposition to involving indirect mission work. In England, William Wilberforce who was an evangelical reformer advocated that the company should take direct responsibility for promoting the spiritual welfare of the people in India.
But this proposal was rejected and this negative policy continued for almost twenty years. This rejection was purely based on material consequences. They did not want to lose any trade in the conflict of religious conversion.
Even though a negative attitude was taken by the official policymakers, the idea of involving in the mission gained more and more strength. Even inside the East India Company itself, many influential people were perceiving this idea.
During this period William Carey came to Bengal. He was a self-educated company pastor. William Carey got a stipend by teaching in a village school. He also worked as a cobbler for his living.
William Carey was one behind the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society. On reflecting upon the Old Testament portion Isaiah 54: 2-3 he observed “Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God”.
So, he himself became the first missionary of the Baptist Mission. He got a companion Dr. John Thomas. He was already in India and was doing some missionary work under Charles Grant. He was a zealous but erratic doctor.
Carey tried to get permission from the British authorities to do mission work. But he was disappointed by the authorities. So, he was not able to get a British ship. Therefore, he took a Danish ship and reached Calcutta in the year 1793.
William Carey and his families
They were provided with goods for sale. This was to generate funds for the living. But John Thomas’ unthinking management spent the whole within two months.
Carey and his family were in a fix. They sustained by the charity of a Hindu family. He sought a livelihood. In February he obtained a land (wasteland) at Sunderbans, southeast of Calcutta. He moved to that place and cleared the land for cultivation.
Meanwhile, Thomas’ friend George Udney, who was the Company’s commercial resident at Malda came for help. He gave them the post of managers of two new indigo factories under him. They accepted the offer.
Carey placed at Madnabatt in Malda. He started working in June 1794. He struck with unexpected problems. In the first year, there was an outbreak of sickness. In that, he lost one child.
This created a serious impact on his wife. She was already not willing to come to India. Now, this loss made her lose the balance of her mind.
William Carey’s Mission work
He was there for five and a half years. During this time he learned Bengali and Sanskrit. Apart from his work in the factory, he started preaching. He also started school. With the help of the pundit and some from Thomas, he started the translation of the New Testament.
He also completed a large part of the Old Testament. Udney helped him to get a printing press. But the continuous floods caused the shutdown of the factory and finally, the company gave up the factory.
With his personal savings, he bought another factory. He planned there a mission community with common life like Moravian Brothers, especially when BMS was able to send more missionaries.
In 1799 four families of missionaries came in an American Ship. But the East India Company denied permission for them to work in the British territory. They were advised to move to the Danish settlement of Serampore which was 15 miles away from Calcutta.
Danish governor gladly accepted the missionaries and he defended them against the hostility of the British authorities. As a result, they were left in peace. But they were not able to join Carey. So, Carey came to them. He sold the factory and came to Serampore in 1800. Thomas also came there later.
Thus began the Serampore Mission. They bought a large house near the river. A community that planned by Carey took shape. They also developed various activities of the mission. Again tragedy struck them.
Some of the newcomers died. But Joshua Marshman and William Ward survived. Marshman was a school teacher and Ward was a printer by trade. The first concern of the missionaries were to get the New Testament translated by Carey printed. Carey’s press was set up and entrusted with Ward.
The policy of the mission was to self-support it. So, they started Boarding schools for Anglo Indian children. Marshman and his wife were put in charge. Soon it became popular and generated a good income.
Press also started generating income through orders catered from outside. Five and half years of work at Madnabatt did not produce any convert.
But the work at Serampore within one year produced the baptism of Krishnapal. He baptized in Hoogly in December 1800, in the presence of the Governor. Krishnapal was a carpenter.
Soon his wife and sister-in-law and a neighboring family also joined Christianity. Different castes added one by one. It was quite interesting to note that Brahmin Krishna Prasad at his first communion received a cup after Sudra Krishan Pal. He even married the daughter of Krishna Pal.
Contributions of Serampore Mission
In 1801 the translated New Testament was printed. This created a significant effect. Carey appointed as Professor of Bengali in the College of Fort William. Lord Wellesly became the governor of this college where junior officials of the East India Company trained. Carey accepted the post.
It generated a good salary. As per the prior arrangement the salary gave to the common fund of the missionaries. Further, he made a professor of Sanskrit and Marathi. This appointment created a great influence.
He found a wide prospect as the professor. Most of the major languages were taught there. There were about 50 Pandits, working there. In Carey’s department itself, there were 12. He used these linguistic talents for Bible Translations. Above all Calcutta was a port city. It was open to South-east Asia.
So, work to translate the Bible into non-Indian languages also envisaged. Claudius Buchanan was also of the same opinion. Wellesley patronized the project. So, a scheme organized to translate the Bible into fifteen oriental languages.
This scheme circulated to Directors, Bishops, Universities, and other influential bodies in England. It created large subscriptions. Some translations did by missionaries with the help of Pandits. Carey himself was responsible for Bengali, Hindi, Sanskrit, and Marathi translations.
When Carey died in 1834; six versions of the whole Bible 23 New Testament and small portions in ten other languages already made. Many of these translations were imperfect. But as a novel attempt, they are worth mentioning.
Serampore Missionary Trio
Missionary trio, Carey, Marshman, and Ward planned Serampore as a base mission for India and beyond. Carey, in the second year of his stay in Calcutta; started mission preaching in Lal Bazaar. Anglo Indian and Indian evangelistic work extended to Dinajpur, Malda, and Katwa.
From 1895 they planned a number of subordinate mission stations with each one having one missionary with one or two helpers. Following the Vellore mutiny in 1806, East India Company’s attitude to missions became hostile. However, the mission under Serampore continued.
The trio was running the mission. It caused friction with BMS in England. Much of the mission self-supported and most of the money raised by the missionaries’ contact. Earlier BMS officials trusted the trio and gave them freehand.
But after the death of the original members, new people started objecting to the way the trio was running the mission. New missionaries also took the side of the BMS and complained that the trio was dictatorial.
But the trio refused to surrender their freedom. This resulted in this parathion of the junior missionaries from the Serampore mission in 1816. The long and unhappy confrontation continued with the home committee.
In 1827 Marshmann visited England and tried to sort out things, but it failed. This resulted in the separation of the mission with the BMS.
Contributions of Serampore Missionary Trio
During the controversy, the trio planned and carried their permanent memorial, Serampore College. They already had elementary schools. There were 126 schools in 1818. This new College was for the instruction of Asiatic, Christian, and in English literature and European Science.
The intention was to create a class of enlightened men conversant with classical literature of India and Western learning of the day. It particularly aimed to raise educated men to serve and lead the Indian Church as ministers and teachers.
They bought land and built buildings from their own resources. They further raised money in India, England, Denmark, and America for other expenses. The building was done in 1818. Classes started in 1819 with 37 students. Of the 19 students were resident Christians and 18 non-resident non-Christians. The curriculum included Sanskrit, Arabic, Bengali, English, Natural Science, and Medicine.
In the early period, most subjects taught in Bengali. In 1829 King of Denmark granted the College charter empowering it to Confer Degree. Here we see the beginning of a Christian University.
Serampore Mission as Social Reformer
At the same time as the starting of the College, they entered the field of journalism. Marshman and his son started a weekly in Bengali. It’s named “Samachar Darpan”.
This was the first-ever published Oriental language weekly. They also published an English Monthly called “The Friend of India”. Carey was a humanist. Upon his report, Lord Wellesly prohibited the practice called “child sacrifice”. The first issue of “The Friend of India” carried an article on “Sati”.
It continued to keep the matter before the public when an actual case happened. Strong-minded officials where the pupils of Carey prohibited Sati at their districts. Along with these voices of Hindu reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy also became loud.
Finally, in 1829 Lord William Bentick issued the famous order prohibiting Sati. In 1823 Ward died of Cholera. William Carey died in the year 1834 and Marshman died in 1837.