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India Methodists celebrate 150 years of ministry

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A UMNS photo by James S. Murthy

Delegates process on the campus of Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow in celebration of 25 years of the Methodist Church in India.
Oct. 31, 2006

By James S. Murthy*

LUCKNOW, India (UMNS)ญญ--Nearly 700 Indians and dignitaries from other nations celebrated 150 years of ministry in this South Asian nation.

Meeting Oct. 20-23 at Isabella Thoburn College, delegates from the 12 regional conferences of the Indian church and Methodist leaders from other nations celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Methodist Church of India, a 649,000-member autonomous denomination affiliated with the United Methodist Church.

Dignitaries came from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Retired United Methodist Bishop S. Clifton Ives spoke at the opening service of thanksgiving and Holy Communion. "Give thanks to God for he has placed us to bring the Gospel -- the love and peace of Jesus Christ -- to this fractured world and to people living in a multi-religious milieu," he said.

Earlier in the morning, Mulayam Singh Yadav, chief minister of the state, lauded Methodist schools and colleges for educating the masses, especially illiterate girls and women. A member of the Uttar Pradesh legislative assembly since 1965, Yadav noted that, since 1956, Methodist institutions and churches "have played an important role in spreading the message of brotherhood, peace and humanity in India."

Yadav told the assembly that he wants to make sure the status of Isabella Thoburn College is changed to a university. "I am aware of the great service being rendered by IT College under the dynamic leadership of its president, Dr. E.S. Charles," he said.

The college was begun in 1870 by Isabella Thoburn, a missionary sponsored by the Women's Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Founders recalled

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A UMNS photo by James S. Murthy

C.K. Tiwari, director of the Nur Manzil Psychiatric Center in Lucknow, stands next to a bust of Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones.
The Rev. William and Clementina Butler arrived in India in 1856 and began ministry at Bareilly near Lucknow. They later moved to Nainital. "India shall yet be one of the brightest gems in the diadem of Christ," William Butler said.

James M. Thoburn became a missionary to India in 1859. In 1888, General Conference elected him missionary bishop for India, a role he filled until 1908.

William Taylor, a preacher at spiritual revival meetings, won many souls for Christ and organized followers into Methodist congregations in Bareilly, Nainital, Poona, Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta, Baroda, Hyderabad, Jabalpur and Khandwa.

Another renowned evangelist, the Rev. E.A. Seamonds, came to Bidar near Hyderabad and started mass spiritual revival meetings; these revivals at Dharur continue after 83 years.

The first women missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal Church arrived in 1870; they included Isabella Thoburn and Clara Swain, who was the first female doctor in Asia.

E. Stanley Jones

E. Stanley Jones, perhaps the best-known Methodist missionary, arrived in India in 1907. His innovations in proclaiming the Gospel caught the attention of high-caste Hindus who wished to learn about Jesus Christ. In 1930, "Brother Stanley," as he was addressed, founded the "ashram" or "forest retreat" at Sat Tal, at the foot of the Himalayan mountains. It was there that people of all faiths could join in a common quest to experience the spirit of Jesus Christ.

Judges, bureaucrats, lawyers, doctors and administrators went to Sat Tal Ashram, and many accepted Jesus as savior though the experience. The confession, "Jesus is Lord," was used as a greeting by Jones and is now used throughout the International Movement of Ashrams in 40 countries.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by James S. Murthy

A plaque in Hawabagh Women’s College in Jabalpur, India, commemorates 150 years of Methodism in India, when the Rev. William Butler began his ministry there.
Jai Singh, 74, is a Methodist who converted from Hinduism. At the assembly, he described how he accepted Jesus Christ after attending the Sat Tal Ashram in 1963. "The Lord has led me to share his blessings with three Methodist churches in and around Lucknow," said Singh. "I have found peace and joy in Jesus Christ."

In a keynote address at the three-day gathering, Bishop Robert Solomon of Singapore related an incident from Jones' life. Brother Stanley told Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation, "You are an ardent practitioner of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount; why don't you join the church?"

Gandhi replied: "I have no problem with Christ; my problem is with church."

Solomon encouraged his listeners to follow Jones' example by reflecting Christ in their lives. The bishop said Jones' life and spirit will continue to invite people to experience the love of God.

Church growth

At the assembly, Bishop S.V. Sampath Kumar of the Bangalore Area celebrated the growth of Methodism in India. The Madras Regional Conference, the youngest of the 12 regional conferences of the denomination, had only two churches in 1974 and now is a separate conference.

Kumar said the growth is an eloquent testimony to the commitment to evangelism and mission of the Emmanuel Methodist Church and the Tamil Methodist Church. "It is true that God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform, and his ways are not our ways," the bishop said.

The denomination has six episcopal areas with 12 conferences. It has 2,500 local churches with a membership close to 649,000, served by 2,200 clergy, 10 of whom are female.

Murder and violence

While the denomination continues to witness to the prince of peace, India has experienced a rise in unprovoked violence.

Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burned to death in a remote village in the Indian state of Orissa for allegedly engaging in conversion activities.

Father Ignazio Bara, an Indian Catholic priest, was killed when he tried to intervene during an attack by Hindu fundamentalists on Christian villagers in Simdega, India.

Methodist pastors have been beaten during worship services.

These ugly acts were premeditated and carried out by the so-called guardians of Chauvinist Hindu ideology. Their slogan is "Hindu India," a challenge to the church in India.

Indian political and educational leaders who were educated in Methodist schools, colleges and institutions disapprove of Hindu hegemony. They participate in interfaith dialogue, where they gain better understanding of Methodist goals. These Indian leaders join Methodists in efforts to aid nearly 45 percent of the Indian population who live in poverty, irrespective of their creed, class and ethnicity.

The future

Elizabeth S. Charles, president of Isabella Thoburn College, says she foresees the Methodist Church growing stronger in the next 25 years. "Education is important as India is poised to become a global power for education opens the mind." She said the denomination is aware of India's social, political and economic problems.

"I shall work for removing gender bias and many social problems, (such) as girl infanticide, promoting women literacy and empowerment, which I believe were also envisioned by pioneer educationist Isabella Thoburn," Charles said. "I endorse the recent government legislation to protect the Indian women from domestic and external violence."

In addition to empowering women, Methodist leaders want to focus on young people in the church.

"My predecessors of the past five generations ministered in Methodist congregations starting in 1863, when the first convert in the family was ordained a local deacon," said the Rev. Isaac P. Mann, a pastor in the Delhi Regional Conference. "My vision is to lead the youth of the Methodist Church to Jesus Christ through biblical values in these changing situations of our society."

*Murthy is a freelance writer based in Lucknow, India.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

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