Parumala Thirumeni, among his many accomplishments, showed us how to counter Protestants who raid our churches for members, seek to confuse the faithful, and treat our traditions as insignificant or even worse, as heretical. As Syrian Orthodox are in Diaspora throughout the world, Syrian faithful find themselves confused by the competing claims of protestant denominations. Even in the lands where Syrian Orthodox faith is long established there are Protestant missionaries who assume their brand of Christianity is superior to what is offered by the Syrian Orthodox.
Parumala Thirumeni lived in a turbulent age in India when the Syrian Orthodox Church of India was also under severe threat by Protestant incursions. The very life of the church was under such threat that Syrian Patriarch Peter III appealed to Queen Victoria of England to halt the missionary attempts to confiscate the historic Syrian Orthodox Church of India. Fortunately, the work and genius of His Grace Parumala Thirumeni was building a strong wall of defense against the arrows of the enemy. At the same time he was building institutional infrastructures against a Eurocentric brand of Christianity that had no respect for the venerable rites and presence of Indian Christianity, Parumala Thirumeni was equipping his saints with an understanding of scripture and orthodox tradition. But most importantly, he led a life of prayerful holiness that stands as an eternal example of the way of gratefulness to God. After all, institutions come and go but a life of prayer carves stones in the kingdom cemented together by the tears of fasting.
Protestantism in India began in the first half of the 18th century. There were three significant Protestant missions in India :
(1) the Tranquebar mission started in 1706 by Lutherans from Halle in Germany, which was patronized by King Frederick IV of Denmark and supported by such British associations as the "Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge" (SPCK) and the "Society for the Propagation of Gospel" (SPG);
(2) the Serampur mission founded by William Carrey (1793-1834) in collaboration with two other Englishmen, Joshua Marshman and William Ward;
(3) the Mission Movement started in Calcutta by Alexander Duff in 1830.
These early missionary movements did three things to attract people to their form of Christianity.
1) They translated the Bible into the local languages.
2) They built schools.
3) They established printing houses.
By the time of the birth of Parumala Thirumeni in 1848, protestant missionaries were aggressive proselytizing under the protection of British rule which was a cause of resentment among Hindus and Muslims in the 19th century, who felt that their cultures were being attacked. This was one of the causes of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British Raj.
In many ways, the Syrian Orthodox Church in India was under more direct attack than were the Hindus or Muslims. The Anglican Church sought to absorb the Syrian Orthodox Church of India into their orb of influence. In fact there was an outright plan by the fifth Anglican Metropolitan bishop Daniel Wilson who blatantly presented a plan to conscript Syrian Christians into the Church of England by fiat. So arrogant and disrespectful of Indian Christians were the British, that one of their clergy, the Rev. Joseph Peet, committed a despicable crime by breaking into a Syrian Orthodox Seminary and stealing valuable books and documents. Although this crime was later repudiated by the Church of England, it revealed a seething and murderous intent against a Holy and Ancient, and I might add, true form of Christianity.
The genius of Parumala Thirumeni countered the protestant attacks in ways that did not lead to bloodshed as in the Indian Rebellion. His work to build up the Church was done in love and without rancor. His counter-attack was not only a demonstration of Christian charity but a fine example of his administrative and political skills. Parumala Thirumeni countered protestant aggression by being the first to translate Syriac texts and liturgies into Malayalum. He established schools for the teaching of the Syrian Orthodox faith, and he published many books and periodicals. It exactly mirrored the protestant challenge. He knew that the people needed to understand the richness of the Orthodox faith in order to defend their beliefs against the nearly overpowering arguments of protestant missionaries.
Today there are protestant denominations that are more Arian in theology than Christian. In some ways they are even more dangerous than the protestant denominations of Parumala Thirmeni’s day. The Jehovah Witness Church, Latter Day Saints, and Seventh Day Adventists are converting Syrian Orthodox to their churches. It is hardly imaginable that such a thing could happen, unless the leaders of the church fail in their responsibility to educate the youth, publish contemporary books, and translate venerable texts into modern languages. I have listened to our clergy in Europe and North America be-moan the fact that so many of our church have drifted off to these above-mentioned churches. It is a scandal in the making. Yet, we have great lights in our midst, such as the late Parumala Thirumeni who has shown us how to counter such pending disasters.
Books, institutions, and feverish work for the church mean nothing unless we are committed and disciplined in prayer. Our example of a true Christian life and the ultimate answer to protestant assaults is in the prayerful example of Parumala Thirumeni.
Let us study his life and be guided by it.
Fr. Dale A. Johnson (Bar Yohanon)