Bartholomew Ziegenbalg died on February 23, 1719.
Born in Saxony in 1682 and raised in the university town of Halle, Germany, Ziegenbalg became a pioneer Protestant missionary to India, and the first to translate the Scriptures into an Indian language … some 80 years before the more famous William Carey.
This young German had been converted at the age of 17, and fired with Christian zeal by the Pietist movement within the Lutheran Church.
It was King Frederick IV of Denmark who saw the need to send missionaries to the fledgling Danish settlement of Tranquebar, on the southeast coast of India (in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu). August Francke, who was the leader of Pietism at the University of Halle, recommended Ziegenbalg as one of two men for the task.
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On 9 July, 1706, at the age of 22, Ziegenbald arrived at the Coromandel Coast in South East India with Heinrich Plütschau; the pair being the first protestant missionaries to India and encountering opposition both from Roman Catholicism and ungodly merchants. But within eight months Ziegenbalg was able to converse in the native Malabar Tamil tongue, within 10 months of his arrival he was baptising the first five converts, and on 14 June, 1707, he laid the foundation stone of his church “in spite of official jeers and opposition.” By 14 August, 1707, he could write that “63 persons gathered for worship and another to be baptised tomorrow”.
Ziegenbalg took keen interest in the new printing technology emerging in Europe. He preferred the printed word to the spoken sermon. He began writing books on Tamil language, dictionaries and manuals on printing.
After 2 years in India Ziegenbalg had compiled Biblithece Malabarke, a list of 161 Tamil books he had read, describing the content of each book.
However all was not clear sailing for this enterprising and gifted missionary. Militant Hindus opposed the work of the missionaries and the local Danish authorities did not want unrest in their new settlement.
In 1708 opposition reached its height, and Zeigenbalg was imprisoned for four months, charged with encouraging rebellion by converting the natives. But “the converts multiplied.” In October, 1708, free from prison, he commenced his translation of the Tamil New Testament, a task that was completed in three years.
Ziebenbalg found the weather a further challenge, added to the religious and official opposition. He wrote, “My skin was like a red cloth. The heat here is very great, especially during April, May and June, in which season the wind blows from the inland so strongly that it seems as if the heat comes straight out of the oven”.
In 1709 Ziegenbalg asked that a printing press be sent from Denmark and he sent back drawings of Tamil type faces he needed made into printing blocks. When the Tamil type blocks arrived in 1712 they were too large, so Ziegenbalg had locals caste smaller type blocks, from cheese tins.
The first press and paper came through the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in London, arriving in 1713, but the printing hand sent with the press ran away. Ziegenbalg then recruited and trained a German soldier to print his first book in India, in Portuguese.
Ziegenbalg was further assisted by Johanne Adler, a printer who arrived in Tamil Nadu in 1713 and who set up a type-making factory near Tranquebar to supply Ziegenbalg’s press. In 1715 a paper mill was set up in the village. And then Adler began making printing ink as well. Ziegenbalg’s printing ambitions were ready to be met, locally.
In 1716, the press produced the first English language book printed in Asia; “A Guide to the English Tongue”. Next year, the press produced a Portuguese ABC book.
Ziegenbalg and Plütschau encouraged the indigenous Indian Christians into positions of leadership. In 1733 they ordained the first Indian pastor, whom they had converted from Hinduism.
When Ziegenbalg died, at the age of 36, he left behind 350 converts, a missionary seminary, a grammar and lexicon of nearly 60,000 Tamil words, and the entire Bible in the Tamil language, along with Luther’s Catechisms, and other works translated into Tamil. We might add that he brought to India a respect for Christian missionaries, and an example for others to follow.
Ziegenbalg is credited for not only printing the first English book in Asia but also writing the first Tamil dictionary.
Ziegenbalg married in 1716 and at the same time official opposition lessened with the arrival of a friendlier governor. He set up a seminary to train the native pastors.
Another contribution from Ziegenbalg is seen in his keenness to reach the marginalised. He reached out to the untouchables and others whose place in the caste system restricted them. He sought to elevate them socially, as equals in the gospel. He also started the first school for girls, so they could be given opportunities previously denied them.
We are told that on his deathbed he shaded his eyes and cried out: “How is it so bright, as if the sun shone in my face …”
Upon his death in 1719 he was buried at The New Jerusalem church in Tranquebar, which he and his associates completed the previous year.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com