Men of Might in India Missions: A Bigoted Book as a Mirror to the Decline of the Hindu Society

"Men of Might in India Missions" was a book written by Helen H. Holcomb and published in 1901. It extolled 16 Protestant missionaries who achieved impressive successes in converting Hindus in India over a 200-year-period. The book is still a warning and a glaring mirror to the decline of Hindu society.
Men of Might in India Missions: A Bigoted Book as a Mirror to the Decline of the Hindu Society

A GREAT INGREDIENT IN THE RECIPE of the enduring success of Christianity has been its two-pronged flexibility: one, to adapt to sweeping changes and two, to absorb and tide over existential threats. Both are premised on and enabled by institutional memory that stretches back to at least a millennium. This memory has been preserved through extensive documentation of even the smallest detail that includes both its triumphs and defeats. The former is the booster dose that provides encouragement for current and future generations of soul vultures. The latter is the raw material that helps the missionary apparatus to strategise and re-strategise. 

To the former category belongs the voluminous corpus of the accounts of Jesuits, missionaries, and every stripe of missionary who historically travelled to non-Christian countries to claim them for Christ. History is the best proof that shows how missionaries wrecked large parts of Africa (most notably, the Rwandan genocide engineered by missionaries), cut up East Timor and how they continue to disrupt the Hindu society in India. 

Several of these accounts are made prescribed reading material for Christians who wish to harvest souls, deceptively known as ‘missionary work.’ In the Indian context, a random list of such works include the French charlatan, Jean-Antoine Dubois’ Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, Bishop Caldwell’s Lectures on the Tinnevelly missions, descriptive of the field, the work, and the results, F.A. Plattner’s Jesuits go East, the Portugal-based Jesuits of the Fathers of the Society of Jesus’ The Conquest of the East for Jesus Christ, and Gaspar Correa’s Legends from India.

These books cover a period spanning about four centuries and are the primary sources for understanding the history of Christian missionaries in India. From the Hindu perspective, the specie of the predator doesn’t matter: Catholic, Roman Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, or Pentecostal. 

But there is another category of missionary literature, which can be generally called laudatory missionary literature. This includes books glorifying “great” missionaries who have: (1) delivered a record number of heathen souls to Christ (2) set up sprawling and effective missionary apparatuses in heathen lands (3) rendered ”service” along similar lines. This category of missionary literature closely resembles chronicles left behind by medieval Muslim chroniclers extolling a sultan or a Sufi’s exploits in expanding the territory of Islam.

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Men of Might in India Missions: A Bigoted Book as a Mirror to the Decline of the Hindu Society

IN 1901, HELEN H. HOLCOMB PUBLISHED a fat, celebratory volume of bigotry titled Men of Might in India Missions; The Leaders and their Epochs, 1706-1899. It is basically a rogues’ gallery of prominent Protestant missionaries who are profiled and extolled. That’s a list of sixteen eminent Protestant soul-harvesters   spread over a two-hundred-year period.  

The noteworthy soul-vultures in this list include Joshua Marshman who lulled Rajaram Mohan Roy into having “intellectual debates” with him thereby placing a prophetic creed, Christianity on equal footing with Sanatana Dharma. Marshman, along with William Carey and William Ward founded the Serampore College. Its original prospectus included a course in educating Indians about Christianity. 

The other vulture was Alexander Duff, the first overseas missionary of the Church of Scotland to India, and founder of Scottish Church College, Calcutta. It was Duff’s brainwave to convert “upper caste” Hindus to Christianity by introducing English education in India. The brainwave was so influential that it translated into policy and eventually led to the Macaulayisation of Indian education. 

Men of Might in India Missions was an instant success when it was published. It was highly lauded in missionary circles and copies sold in record numbers. Helen Holcomb makes no secret about the book’s agenda and purpose. In fact, she gloats about and glorifies bigotry in her dedication: 

To the young men and maidens whose hearts God has touched, and who in life's fair morning, looking out over the world's great harvest-field, are asking, " Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" This volume is dedicated with the prayer that some of those who read these pages, hearing the voice of the Lord saying as He did to His prophet Isaiah, " Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" may answer as did the prophet, " Here am I; send me."

Clearly, India was that great harvest-field, and according to Helen Holcomb, the soul-vultures she has profiled became “men of might” because “God intended India to be evangelised,” and “God’s purpose could not be thwarted.” She calls Serampore as “as one of the most sacred spots in India” for missionary activity.  Likewise, she mentions the Bombay Presidency and Tharangambadi (Tranquebar) as one of the virgin fields which witnessed impressive success in soul-harvesting.

However, there is another side to Helen’s blueprint of bigotry. The Hindu society — just 120 years ago — was not amused with the book and hit back on multiple fronts. A powerful intellectual rebuke came in the form a book review that appeared in the Indian Review. Helmed and edited by the indomitable G.A. Natesan, it was a Madras-based magazine distinguished for its scholarly standards. From G.A. Natesan to absolute garbage factories like today’s editors, the fall has been swift and appalling. 

Here are some excerpts from The Indian Review’s rebuttal to Men of Might in India Missions. Emphasis have been added. 

The World of Books: Men of Might in India Missions

THIS IS A WORK OF MUCH INTEREST TO INDIANS GENERALLY. It is written in a simple style and places before us the leading epochs in the evolution of Protestant Missions and the methods of work of those whose labours inaugurated and developed them. Not only to Christians, but to Hindus and Mohammedans also, this is a work of much interest.

It is not given to man to decide what shall be the results of his labour: the trend and the purpose of social evolution are beyond the limited range of human vision.

We are of opinion that the author has certainly made a successful attempt to place before us in clear and simple language the salient features of the lives and labours of those who have led the vanguard and determined the leading phases of the movement of Protestant proselytism. Her work will prove of value both to those who wish to advance the cause and to those who are labouring to oppose and thwart it.

Bartholomew Ziegenbalg was the founder of the Danish Mission in Tranquebar. His companion was Henry Plutschan, and others joined the mission afterwards, in particular, Schwartz of Tanjore fame. The chief work of these men was the Tamil translation of the Bible. They also, of course, built churches and made converts. 

The Rajahs of Tanjore, little dreaming how unscrupulous Christianity is apt to prove as a disruptive social force, gave every sort of encouragement to these missionaries. 

Schwartz, it is well known, helped the Tanjore Rajah a good deal in his relations with the Madras Government and Mohammed Ali. But to the great disappointment and annoyance of Schwartz, the Rajah himself remained a staunch Hindu, like the great majority of the people of India to-day.

But, then as now, starvation was the steady friend of the Christian Missionaries and it secured Schwartz a satisfactory harvest of converts from among the poorer classes.

William Carey, Marshman, Ward, and Duff in Bengal, John Wilson in Bombay, Anderson in Madras, and Noble in Masulipatnam are sketched in this book as representing the zealous and hardworking Protestant educational Missionary. These types of missionaries are well-known to Indians who have received high English education. These men have also done a good deal of valuable literary work in the way of translating the Bible into the vernaculars. But their main vocation was education and they are according to our author, “the exemplars of what educational work as an evangelising agency can do for India.”

It is worthy of note that these early educational missionaries made numerous and notable Brahmin converts, while their successors in this field of Mission work have notoriously failed in producing similar results.

The explanation lies on the surface. In those early days, our people had so strong a faith in the superiority of their own religion to all others that they could not even dream of the possibility of any members of the Hindu community preferring Christianity to Hinduism under any circumstances. They never suspected that young minds, unless carefully watched and looked after are, in the hands of clever and skilled tacticians as these Christian Missionaries are, merely like clay in the hands of the potter. 

Now-a-days, the Hindu castes and families are apt to be more vigilant when they send Hindu children to Christian Missionary schools. Moreover, English schools and colleges have sprung up everywhere. So, the danger of conversion is nowhere now so great as it once was.

Before concluding this review, we must protest against the way in which the author, in season and out of season, applies the contemptuous epithet of heathen to the people of India. Its use now is as justifiable as the use of the term Mlecha by Hindus in speaking of Europeans. The author is also apt to frequently to speak of India as “an idolatrous land” and of its “perishing millions.” Perishing, not by starvation but for want of knowledge in the absurd dogmas of the religion which the Church palms off as the religion of Jesus upon an ignorant and superstitious population in both Eastern and Western lands.

We can never excuse fanaticism like the author’s. 


Missionaries in India have come a long way since Helen Holcomb’s bigoted book was published more than a century ago. They have acquired frightening levels of political power — they are a decisive force in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and in Andhra Pradesh, they have bagged a sitting Chief Minister. And this has happened in “independent” India. For all their other faults, the colonial British arguably knew the art of putting the missionaries in their place. 

The other side of this is coin is found in the book reviewer’s observation: that the Hindus of his and preceding generations had unshakeable faith in Hindu Dharma. That faith was eroded decades ago. Today, if a Hindu by birth has to remain a Hindu till death, he or she must be a fully-informed and a fully-conscious and a practicing Hindu.      

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