Conversion from Slavery to Plantation Labour
Christian Mission in South India (19th Century)
Missionaries working in British India often felt disappointed, when they had to admit that their converts were not led by 'pure', i.e. exclusively spiritual motives. Conversions to ChristianityŚit was impossible to denyŚwere largely motivated by social and economic considerations.1 With a sense of despair some missionaries wrote home that they were so much overburdened with the every day problems of their village congregations, from mediatory efforts with the authorities to all sorts of litigation, that there was hardly any time left to explain the Gospel. Signs of genuine faith were not altogether wanting, but generally the groups that associated with the mission tended to understand the message of the Gospel in terms of immediate interests and practical concerns. Deliverance from evil sounded promising enough to people who had to cope with so many kinds of evil in their daily existence.
In the same way as the missionaries, many social scientists have attributed impure motives to the poor Indian Christians. Their conversion is alleged to have been prompted not by religious conviction but by social ambition. We should, however, bear in mind that in Indian society religion encompasses all aspects of life. Where Hinduism lends religious sanction to a situation of oppression and exploitation, a change of religion may offer an opportunity to social improvement to the victims of that oppression. Economic considerations should not be seen as the opposite of turning to religion, but rather as an essential part of it. One might attempt to distinguish different kinds of motives and even evaluate their particular worth, as most nineteenth century missionaries had no hesitation in doing. But it ought to be emphasized that the people themselves did not make these clear-cut distinctions, and expected the missionary to act as their leader both in spiritual and temporal affairs.
Taking a closer view, one may be surprised to discover that a change
* Free University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam.
Social Scientist, Vol. 19, Nos. 8-9, August-September, 1991