History of Christianity in Kerala

The most popularly accepted theory among the Christians in Kerala is that St.Thomas the Apostle of the Lord Jesus founded the church in Kerala. It is believed that he landed in Cranganore near Cochin in about 52 A.D. He is said to have preached to the Jewish Colony settled there and to have made converts both among them and their neighbors. After preaching the gospel and establishing churches in Kerala he is believed to have travelled to the east coast and eastward from there to Malacca and even to China, and finally to have returned to Mylapore, now part of the city of Chennai. Here his preaching aroused the hostility of the local Brahmins, who raised a riot against him, during which he was speared to death. The year of his martyrdom is said to have been about 72 A.D. In later centuries there were migrations from Syria which finally resulted in the formation of a strong Christian community in Kerala having their liturgy in Syriac and known as Syrian Chrstians. The relations of the Kerala Church and other oriental churches in the Middle East might have had started from the time of the first Syrian migration to Kerala in the year A.D.345 and it continued in the following centuries. It is clear from the early history that the church in Kerala used to depend upon the oriental churches for preserving the apostolic succession of its priesthood. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church on the Church in Malabar began with the arrival of Vasco-da-gama, who landed at Calicut in 1498. At this time the Portuguese who were Roman Catholics, were powerful in the East and had control of the sea routes.

Synod of Diamper

Alexio-de- Menezes, a powerful Archbishop arrived in Goa in 1592. He came to Malabar and managed to win over to his side many of the leaders of the church by friendly visits, bribery and threats. He also won the support of the Raja of Cochin. He then convened a synod at Udayamperoor (Diamper), south of Ernakulam from 20 th to 26 th June 1599, which made vigorous attempt to win the St. Thomas Christians to the Roman Catholic faith. The representatives sent from various congregations were forced to accept the decrees read out by the Arch Bishop. Thus the Syrian Church of Malabar was brought under the Pope. For half a century from AD 1600 the Malabar Church continued under the Roman domination. But with the decline of the Portuguese power in India the Syrian church found its way to assert its independence.

Vow at the Coonen Cross

The Jesuit missionaries, to whom the work of carrying out the Decree of Diamper was entrusted, offended many by their harshness. Appeals, which the Syrians made to Rome, went unheeded. There were also some provocative incidents. So a crowd of about twenty thousand people marched into Cochin in 1653 under the leadership of Arch Deacon Thomas. They marched to the open space in front of the church at Mattancherry, a part of the town in Cochin. There was stone cross in front of the church. The people wanted to take an oath, touching the cross. As everyone could not touch the cross for taking the vow, they tied ropes to the cross and holding the ropes in their hands took an oath severing connection with Rome. When all the people pulled the ropes the cross became Coonen, means slanted or bend. This incident is known as the “vow at the Coonen Cross”. Thus independence was re-established in the Malabar church. But later yielding to the propaganda and pressures of the Roman Catholic Church, a large number of those who took the oath re-entered the Roman fold. And there were clashes between the followers of both groups and a large number of Christians who were opposed to the Roman Church had to flee their settlements to safer places for a peaceful living and to protect their faith. More than the physical division in the church there was severe doctrinal division also. Many of the hitherto unheard heresies crept into the church as a result of the Roman dominion. Under the Papal supremacy, the decrees of the Council of Trent and of the inquisition were introduced; the doctrine of Transubstantiation was accepted; the adoration of images, the prayers for the dead, intercession of saints and doctrine of purgatory were adopted. When the Malabar church remained under the Roman yoke for half a century, the new doctrines and practices introduced by the Catholics destroyed the freedom of the church and paved the way for a number of heretical practices to get rooted in the life of the church.
The heresies that emerged in the Mar Thoma church in later years ,which resulted in the launching of a reform movement(Pathyopadeshasamithy) and the formation of the St Thomas Evangelical Church of India in 1961 has its roots in the Roman bondage of half a century in the former half of the 17 th century. The Mar Thoma Church, which came out of the Jacobite Church in the latter part of the 19 th century as a reformed church, later drifted away from the Evangelical doctrines and gone back many times to the Roman Catholic and Jacobite heresies and practices. That resulted in the formation of the St Thomas Evangelical Church of India, which committed itself to safeguard the Sound Evangelical Doctrines in their pristine purity.

The CMS Mission of Help

Claudius Buchanan, the East India Company Chaplain from Calcutta, prepared the way for the noble venture of helping the Malankara church. He visited the Malankara Church at the instance of Lord Wellesley, Governor General of India. Buchanan published his report in the famous document known as “Christian Researches in Asia”He urged the idea of “Anglican aid” to the Syrian Christians This created a genuine interest in England. He also took the initiative to translate the four Gospels into Malayalam. Col.Monroe who was the British Resident in Travancore also took great interest in helping the Syrian Church. He wrote to the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the CMS readily responded to Munro’s request. In the course of the next few years they sent a number of missionaries to Kerala. The coming of the missionaries sent by the society was a great blessing to the Christian Church in Malabar. The first to arrive was the Rev. Thomas Norton who lived and worked in Alleppey. After him came the Revds. Benjamin Bailey, Joseph Fenn and Henry Baker. Benjamin Bailey was active in literary work. He set up a press in Kottayam and translated the Bible and the English Book of Common Prayer into Malayalam in the year 1841. Schools were started at different places under CMS. These pioneer efforts in the field of education were of immense value to the people of Kerala.

Reformation in the Malankara Church

A Reformation similar to the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther took place in the Kerala church in the 19 th century. This is very much linked to the formation history of the St Thomas Evangelical Church of India. The serious charge leveled against the leadership of the Mar Thoma Church by the founding fathers of the breakaway church, the STECI was that the former deviated from the Reformation and faith principles of the reformers. The preaching of the missionaries and the printing and distribution of the Bible in the local language went along way in opening the eyes of the people to the spiritual truths. Naturally this paved the way for a reformation in the church. The Reformation movement in the Syrian Church was spearheaded by two Syrian Christian priests, Abraham Malpan of Maramon and Kaithayil Geevarghese Malpan of Kottayam, who were at that time professors in the Theological Seminary at Kottayam . By coming into contact with the missionaries and by studying the Bible carefully, they realized that there were many errors in the form of the worship and prevailing practices of the church. The reformers then decided upon making changes in the liturgy and working for reform. Abraham Malpan began to use the revised liturgy in accordance with the Biblical principles whenever he celebrated the Holy Communion. The use of the revised liturgy and the changes he brought about in practices offended the Metropolitan and he was excommunicated. Disowned by the Jacobite Church for his faith and convictions, what was he to do now? Under the guidance of Anglican Missionaries,prominent among whom was Thomas Walker of Tinnevely, the reforming party decided to constitute themselves an independent Indian Church, called the Mar Thoma church. In keeping with the spirit of reformation, the Mar Thoma Evangelistic Association was formed in 1888 to train evangelists and to send them to unreached areas to preach the Gospel. In 1895 the great Maramon Convention was started, where thousands of people gathered to listen to evangelical preachers.

Revivals in the Malankara Church

Malankara Church witnessed great revivals in the following years. As a result, the reformation principles of 1836 began to be demonstrated in the lives and experiences of people.A great concern for the spread of the gospel emerged in the church. God used several humble servants of the cross such as Vidwankutty, Tamil David, Preacher Wordsworth, Great Anglican Missionary Thomas Walker of Tinnevely and the native itinerant preachers Punchamannil Mammen Upadesi and Sadhu Kochukunj Upadesi to keep the spirit of reformation and revival alive in the church. A vigorous evangelistic spirit prevailed in the church in those years. In the years that followed, proclamation of the gospel was considered an integral aspect of the life of the reformed church. The Mar Thoma Church grew up as an independent, indigenous, Episcopal and evangelical church. Its sole basis for all matters of faith was the open Bible. The Church grew in strength extending its sphere of influence to distant places. The repeated revivals in the Church played a very significant part in the phenomenal development of the MarThoma Church in its early days. Bishop Abraham Mar Thoma was great missionary bishop and through him the Church came into close contacts with several Western missionaries, and the mission scene on the International arena impacted its mission thinking.

Problems in the Mar Thoma Church

It was the problems in the Mar Thoma Church that resulted in the formation of the STECI. The problems started when an attempt was made in the church to annul the reformation of the great reformer Abraham Malpan and bring back Jacobite doctrines and practices. It was a counter move and it had the blessings of the Metropolitan and some others in the leadership.The newly inherited enthusiasm for the spread of the gospel resulting in the emergence of new mission trends in the Church was to remain only during the lifetime of Bishop Abraham. While the Church was making rapid progress in all spheres of its life, there was an Anti-reformist group silently working its way up from the early decades of the 20 th century. A band of young educated men, who were opposed to the open Bible and the evangelical tradition, slowly started to undo the work of the reformers. Bishop Abraham passed away in the year 1947. Following his demise, the Church witnessed a major shift in its theology of mission. There was difference of opinion on the meaning and goal of mission between Bishop Abraham and his successor Bishop Juhanon Mar Thoma. The former defined salvation as the redemption of souls submerged in darkness without knowing the saving gospel of Lord Jesus, while the latter defined it as social gospel or humanization. Attempts were made to take the church back to the old Jacobite practices. Bishop Juhanon was a broadminded humanist, having Gandhian values. But he failed to grasp the crux of the gospel. Right from the beginning of his ministry, he has been making disparaging statements regarding the reformation in the Church. When he was a bishop-elect he wrote in one of the leading newspapers that the Reformation had taken a devious course.

Formation of the STECI

The attitude of the then leadership of the Mar Thoma Church against the reformation principles of Abraham Malpan caused a large number of people in the Church to unite and resist those destabilizing tendencies. This led to the formation of the Mar Thoma Pathiopadesa Samithy (Association for the preservation of the sound doctrines of the Mar Thoma Church) on 29 October1952 . Bible classes, fellowship groups and evangelical gatherings were held in many places under the auspices of the Samithy and people began to be conscious of the danger confronting their dear Church. The history of the Mar Thoma church for the next ten years since the formation of the Pathiopadesa Samithy was dark with high-handed repression of those holding the evangelical view, and discrimination against them in all spheres of church life. Those who held on to the reformed faith were denied all facilities to meet together or to strengthen their fellowship. They were denied all opportunities to occupy any position of influence in the Church or in any of its organizations. After struggling almost over a decade in the mother Church over purging it from the heresies that crept into it, the faithful and zealous believers in the church decided to separate from the mother church The Mar Thoma Church came into existence to be a reformed church according to the scriptures in the Old and New Testaments. Over the years a position was reached in that church where the sixty-six books of the Bible alone were not sufficient for her faith and practices. And also those who held to the sound doctrines of evangelical faith were not tolerable in the Mar Thoma church. A separation became unavoidable when four evangelically minded Presbyters were summarily ex-communicated from the church in 1960, totally against the constitutional norms and justice.
The STECI was formed for the three cardinal principles of safeguarding the sound doctrine, living out an evangelical lifestyle or holy life, and for obeying the Great commission of the Master by evangelizing the Mother land India. When the church was formally launched on 26 th January 1961, at Thymala near Tiruvalla, 25,000 believers stood up, raised their right hands and took a pledge that they and their children would stand for the Gospel. Growth of the church in the initial years was marvelous. The key verse of the STECI is, “For the Word of God and for the testimony of Jesus”
(Rev. 1:9).