Christian Friedrich Swartz Impacts Southern India

This is the day that Christian Friedrich Swartz was born in Prussia (now Poland), in 1726.

He has been described as “one of the most energetic and successful missionaries of the 18th century (Schaff/Herzog Encyclopaedia, page 2131).

His youth was spent at Halle, the centre of German pietism. Founded by Jacob Spener, this was a movement that sought to add spiritual life to a moribund Lutheranism. Young Swartz here studied the Indian dialect, Tamil, that he might superintend the translation of a Bible in that tongue.

Lutheran Missions to India had seen success under several missionaries, notably two eminent Germans, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1683-1719) and Heinrich Plütschau (1678-1747). Both of these men had preceded Swartz at Halle. Ziegenbalg’s work in southern India was an inspiration to William Carey for the latter’s later work in northern India.

In 1750 Swartz sailed for India, where he lived for the next 48 years, and where he died. When Schwartz arrived in south India, the Tamil-speaking Christian community established by Ziegenbalg and others was close to 2,000 persons.

Swartz threw himself into the missionary work. “His passion to save men made all labour and sacrifice seem little. He studied the habits, modes of thought and idioms of speech, and even the mazes of mythology, which are the paths to the hearts of the Hindus” (New Acts of the Apostles, by A.T. Pierson, page 91).

In 1768, the East India Company appointed Schwartz as a chaplain in Trichonopoly. Ten years later in 1778, Schwartz moved to Tanjore where he lived the rest of his life. During his service with the British, Schwartz was known as a peacemaker (i.e., diplomat) during times of war caused by the East India Company’s aggressive policies in India. Schwartz’s linguistic abilities became legendary as he related easily among Germans, English, Portuguese, and many different Indian peoples. Schwartz learned Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Persian, Hindustani, Marathi, and Portuguese.

He established many schools for native Indians and orphaned Indian children, which greatly endeared him to the Indian people.

Swartz never married; indeed he was critical of fellow missionaries who did! (Christian Missionaries, by O. Milton, page 33.) Rajahs, governors-general, haughty Brahmins, English military officers, all seemed to look upon him as a man of God.

It was Wednesday, 13 February, 1798, that he lay upon his deathbed and, “with clear and melodious voice”, joined with the friends gathered around him, singing, “Only to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ”.

The Rajah’s son, Serfojee, acted as chief mourner a few days later.

It is estimated that Swartz was responsible for the conversion of over 6,000 Hindus and Moslems during his years in India.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.