In India – Dalit Conversions to the Methodist Episcopal Church


It was not until 1891 that the sources became clearer about the interest of Dalits in Christianity, Church and the attitudes of missionaries towards Dalits. Ernsberger’s choice of Indian clothing was a conspicuous example of a Methodist missionary’s attitude toward the social hierarchy in India.

Brenton T. Bradley argues that Ernsberger opted for Indian clothing under the assumption that his western clothing might become a barrier in the preaching of Christianity.

Badley also narrated an incident in which Ernsberger had cause to become grateful to Brahmins, making one wonder if his Indian clothing was due to his gratitude towards that community or with a view to proselytising them. We cannot be sure if this gravitation towards ‘higher’ castes was typical of the rest of the Methodist missionaries of the time.

We cannot be sure if this gravitation towards ‘higher’ castes was typical of the rest of the Methodist missionaries of the time.

The first recorded contact with Dalits came in 1891 when Wesleyan Methodist missionaries invited the Episcopal Methodist missionaries to take up the work in the Bidar area.

It was prompted by an inquiring Madiga family who placed the Wesleyan missionaries in a delicate position in which they could neither shun their Mala converts nor completely refuse interested Madiga families because the Mala converts hesitated to socialise with the Madigas.

24 Muttayya and Munnayya, two members of the Madiga family, were the first Dalits whose conversion was recorded. There is confusion about whether there were two or more baptisms at Kandi on January 1, 1892.

K.  E. Anderson gives an impression that more than two members of the family were baptised on the day, while J. H. Garden recorded only two baptisms.25 Garden’s report seems more reliable because he baptised them.

However, both accounts agree that it was the beginning of the conversion of many more Madigas in the neighbouring villages like Mirampur and Nealkal.

The time between the first recorded Dalit conversions of 1892 and when Dalit conversions slowed down due to the accession of the Nizam’s Dominion to the Indian Union in 1948 can be divided into three phases.

I considered the gravity of Dalit conversions and the missionaries’ responses toward the movement while dividing the period.

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The first phase, 1892-1925, marked the period when Dalits took the initiative to join Christianity, but the missionaries were reluctant to admit them into the Church.

The second phase, 1926-1935, was characterised by persistent Dalits forcing missionaries to become involved in their movement though with a different agenda.

The final thirteen years, from 1936-1948, witnessed heightened Dalit assertion and the systematic attempts of missionaries to stamp out Dalit consciousness.

Perhaps the increased interest of Dalits in conversion to Christianity can be explained in light of the larger developments in Indian society and especially within the modern Dalit movement.

The beginning of the century marked the evolution of Adi-ideology in 1904, when Dalits asserted them- selves as the original inhabitants of Indian soil. With Dalit consciousness heightened and the unmasked Brahminical agenda of the Indian National Congress, Dalits began to look to Christianity as an alternative culture wherein their status would be uplifted.

At the same time Methodist missionaries, with their enthusiasm to Christianize the local communities, did not hesitate to dislocate the converts from their communities and insist on a new lifestyle.

31 Missionaries were more stubbornly focused on what they wanted the Dalits to become than sympathetic to what the Dalits wanted to be when converted. Therefore, missionaries saw a need for teachers to affect permanent change in the lifestyles of the converts and even hesitated to baptise Dalits due to this lack of teachers.

Thus the clash between interests and motives hampered the pace of conversions to Christianity. Even so, the end of this phase witnessed a “sweeping” movement of Dalits towards Christianity.

Author – James Elisha Taneti, Dalit Conversions to the Methodist Episcopal Church in Karnataka

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