- The mass conversion of entire populations, often out of all proportion to evangelistic activity, has now and then swelled the world Protestant community. Such mass movements were first recognized in India in the last half of the 19th century. In the 1860s, after decades of very slow progress, the Protestant churches suddenly began to receive large groups of converts from various ethnic-tribal groups, such as those inhabiting the hill country of northeast Bengal, and from the outcaste (Dalit) population. The initial movements, which occurred in every province of India and across the spectrum of Protestant groups, took missionaries by surprise. Over the next hundred years, mass movements accounted for up to 80 percent of Protestant growth in India. Approximately 1 million Dalits converted to Christianity before World War I. Mass movements into Sikhism and Islam also took place in the same era.The churches had previously targeted high caste individuals for conversion. They believed that Christianity could end the caste system by converting the upper class of Indian society. Once Dalits converted in large numbers, the church was forced to reorient its work to serve the lowest levels of Indian society. As a result, it lost much of its support among other groups, and it became deeply involved in the very caste system it opposed.The mass movements lifted Christianity into the spotlight in the 20th century The Hindu majority believes that losses to Christianity have reduced its standing relative to the Muslim community, which counts far more adherents than the 5 percent of Indians who are Christian. Christians are also more frequently involved in class struggles against the Indian elite. Mass conversions have helped provoke the growing Hindu hostility against Christians in India, which has led to laws designed to hinder conversions. Among the early church leaders who tried to confront the problems of mass movements was Anglican bishop V. S. Azariah (1874-1945), who proposed a program of allowing caste structures to exist for a time, especially as the church was attempting to solidify the gains of a mass movement, with the goal of eventually eliminating them. The process of eliminating caste has proved much more difficult than Azariah imagined.Further reading:■ Susan B. Harper, In the Shadow of Mahatma: Bishop V. S. Azatiah and the Travails of Christianity in British India (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2000)■ Mark Laing, "The Consequences of the 'Mass Movements': An Examination of the Consequences of Mass Conversion to Protestant Christianity in India," Church History Review 35, 2 (December 2001): 94-104. Available online. URL: http://www.ubs.ac.in/Cms/Mass%20Movements.pdf■ J. W Pickett, Christian Mass Movements in India (New York: Abingdon Press, 1933)■ J. C. B. Webster, The Dalit Christians: A History (Delhi: ISPCK, 1992).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.
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