Indian Brethren have a history totally different from the history of assemblies elsewhere.
Saint Thomas and Early Christians
The Christian faith came to India in when Saint Thomas, the so called doubting disciple, landed in Kodungallur of Kerala with the gospel in AD 52. He received a warm welcome from Hindu kings and nobles and soon many professed faith in Christ, and an active community of Christians came into existence in India in the middle of the first century AD. He established seven churches in Kerala and later moved to Mylapore and he attained martyrdom in 72 AD at the St Thomas Mount in Chennai.
This community kept growing and soon there were churches all over the southern and western parts of India. This was an educated community of people, as opposed to the general illiteracy, and had business links with many countries. Many non Indian Christians also moved to India and merged into this mainstream, making it a culturally rich community.
In the first millennia the church in India kept faithful to biblical truths, but towards the close of it the Roman Catholic church treacherously (inducement, murder, politics, deception) took control of large segments of Non Catholic churches and established themselves firmly in the Indian soil. This admixture of error with truth led to more than one revival and several denominations oriented to the gospel came up, especially towards the second half of the second millennium. However, gradually ecclesiastical priesthood and religious rituals began sapping their strength and vigor. This coincided with the modern missionary movement in the west, and an increasing number of missionaries began coming to India. Gradually their work began replanting the seeds of gospel among Indians.
Start of Brethren Movement in India
This spiritual movement of Plymouth Brethren found its way to India in 1833 through Anthony Norris Groves, who was professionally a dentist. His activities centered in the Godavari delta area of Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. John Arulappan, who was a disciple of Groves, acted on Groves' principles and as a full-time worker lived "by faith." Through Arulappan's ministry, a revival broke out in Tinnevelly in South India and many congregations were formed.
Beginning of Kerala Brethren
In 1872, this movement was spearheaded in Kerala by Mathai Upadeshi, a disciple of John Arulappan, who took the baton from Groves. In December 1894, a well-known gospel preacher, Tamil David visited Kerala and preached on assurance on salvation and many were saved. During this period the Lord raised many men from the decaying church in India who began studying and teaching the pure word of God, denying the spiritual efficacy of church rituals. This eventually led to a greater interest in studying the pure word of God, and many began to gather in homes to search the scriptures -- particularly in the tiny south Indian state of Kerala. With the establishment of a printing press, Bible was easily available (though costly) in this language. These investigations eventually lead them to the discovery of the doctrines of justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, and the baptism of believers as opposed to infant baptism practices in their own churches.
J.G.Gregson, a Baptist preacher from England delivered sermons in the Convention at Maramon, Kerala. His Bible classes inspired several people in Kerala. In AD 1896 Gregson came to the place Ayroor near Kumbanad and preached gospel. Later he conducted a series of bible studies on the Epistle to Romans and taught that through water baptism a believer identifies with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and becomes a disciple of Christ.. The discovery led to action, and soon four men who accepted Christ as savior were baptized.
Rev PE Mammen (Kumbanattu Achen, a Priest of Marthoma Church) was one of the attendees of these meetings. Later he went to Kunnamkulam and took believers baptism. Bro Handley Bird administered the baptism. Later Rev P.E. Mammen left the MarThoma Church and became a gospel preacher.
Convinced of the need for believers to commemorate the death of the Lord in a non ritualistic manner, on March 9, 1899, four men celebrated the first Lord's Supper under a tree at Kumbanadu, without a priest. This marked the beginning of Brethren movement in Kerala. They were PE Mammen, his brother PE John, P.C. John, and PC Chacko. There were a few others who also attended but did not take part in bread and wine. This is reckoned by many to be technically the birth of the Brethren Assemblies in India. Just as the Lord raised a group of people for Himself in the West, He also raised a group unto Himself independently in the East Later the missionary work of V.Nagal, Handley Bird, E.H.Noel, Mahakavi K.V. Simon, and P.C. John went a long way in the growth of brethren Assembly in Kerala.
Many churches were being established all over India by the efforts of foreign missionaries, and this helped create an atmosphere of great spiritual zeal and expectation in the older Indian churches. The Missionaries started Schools, Hospital and Orphanages. Missionary Noel established several schools. These establishments helped the growth of the brethrens. This atmosphere in turn helped this new movement to spread the gospel and gain a large number of believers.
India being a extremely communal society, these conversions soon led to serious family and church problems. In a communal society the community is the dictating agency as to how people live and conduct themselves, and the individual has no freedom of choice in most things related to spiritual life, marriage rituals, and even burial. The community in turn creates these strong stipulations through the family unit, where everyone is subject to the authority of the oldest male member of the family. If this member stipulates that everyone should go to a certain church, none dare disobey it lest he or she be punished or even be removed from the family. And once a person is removed from the family, he has no existence other than that of a vagabond in a communal society. Freedom of conscience, or freedom to choose according to personal desires is not existent in such societies, and such indeed was the society in Kerala (South India) when the Brethren movement began here.
Soon the young believers were warned by their churches and families to either renounce their newfound faith or face expulsion from the church, the family, and even the town -- and in those days once thrown out of one's house there was practically no dwelling place available in one's town. Houses were not available on rent, and it was impossible to fine anyone in that communal society having the courage to employ or even help these social outcasts. However, all of them preferred to live on the streets with their newfound faith rather than living in their cozy homes but without God.
Many were thrown out, others were beaten and abused mercilessly, and still others were mocked in inhuman ways. At Kumbanad the priest of Marthoma Church hit P.C.John on his cheek. Then John showed the other cheek also. The priest hit him on the other cheek also. Then John kneeled down and started pray. At this time the priest pushed him down and hit him in both cheeks. When John reached home, his mother and wife started crying. John comforted them by reading to them from Acts 5:40, 41 "(And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name.)" As his cousin P.E. Mammen heard about this, he called John and they spent a long time in prayer together. This incident encouraged many to leave of the Episcopal churches.
They used to throw the excreta of pigs upon believers in places like Angamally. It is the same place where an evangelist (Lonappan Upadeshi) was stripped naked while he was publicly preaching the gospel, and where those opposed to this new faith exhumed the dead-body of a young girl and threw it in the courtyard of her father (Lonappan Upadeshi) for his "crime" of embracing Christ, compounding the pain of parents who had not yet recovered from the pain of the untimely death of their beloved daughter. Finally believers had to sleep over the grave for many days after burying the child again. Down south Koshy Mathunny was unable to find a place to bury his young wife who was only in her thirties, and had to take the bold and unheard of step of burying her in his own compound, just a few feet behind his residence. Incidentally, he had purchased this pieces of land from some generous Hindus who gave him shelter when he was thrown out of his house because of his newfound faith.
The Lord honored the faith of the new believers, and the people added to the church kept increasing by the day. Soon there were churches all over the state of Kerala, Tamil Nadu (Madras), and Andhra Pradesh. Meanwhile some foreign missionaries who had come to India care of non Brethren missions were also won over the New Testament truths, and they also started laboring with the people of God in India.
Goes Outside the State with Gospel
Many dedicated themselves to serve the Lord, and soon there was a large group of evangelists spreading the gospel throughout the southern parts of India. The late M. E. Cheriyan became one of the first Indians to resign from a full-time secular job to enter full-time Christian ministry. Though it met with some resistance from some foreign missionaries (and particularly their wives) who felt it a threat that qualified local people are entering full-time ministry, Mr. Cheriyan was not deterred. He became sort of a pioneer when he left his native place and moved to another state for cross-cultural evangelism. He was followed by other pioneering young men like T. A. Kurian (Saugor), K. M. Mathai (Bhopal), V. T. John (Chandigarh), T. E. Easow (Patna) and Philip Abraham (Gwalior). These men became models of the Missionary Wave among the brethren, that depended only upon Indian resources and logistical support for expanding the work indigenously throughout the country, and even beyond.
The second generation of the Brethren had their paths cut out by the first, so they were able to advance much beyond their predecessors. This then became the time for establishing assemblies, para church ministries, schools, orphanages, and hospitals. The third generation spread the flame throughout the country because they now had a strong army of people to support them. The fourth generation brought a lot of career-seekers from other denominations, mostly castaways from there and uncommitted to the assemblies, and created quite some problem due mainly to hoard the massive but untapped social and financial resources that suddenly became available to them in this group. These men also became the leading voices that challenged the values, biblical practices, fundamental doctrines, and the esteemed leaders that the Brethren Assemblies had held dear in the first seven to eight decades before this migration. Under the influence of the fourth-generation migrants to the Assemblies, groups of people even moved into cultistic directions, but the trend was arrested soon due to a remnant who sensed the danger and sounded the alarm.
The fifth generation of leaders and evangelists brought a new era in leadership, teaching, disciple-making, and planning. A large number of them were trained under non Brethren teachers, and therefore they were able to fill in the blind spots to which the leadership in the earlier generation was oblivious. What's more, a large number of them were men of high caliber and high professional background. This resulted in many changes, two of which are notable. First, they successfully put a cap to the rivalry for resources that was seen in the earlier generation. Second, they began emphasizing quality along with quantity, resulting in a quantum leap in the overall quality of teaching from assembly-based pulpits. This also became the generation that began producing high quality theological and doctrinal books.
The sixth generation is yet to emerge at the time of this writing, and only time will tell what it will be like. However, most observers at present are quite optimistic about the immediate future.
Open Versus Exclusive
Since the Open/Exclusive divide is more of European origin, it does not have much relevance for the Indian Brethren Assemblies, who generally tend to be open in nature. However, in the last two decades of the twentieth century some brethren from England and other countries began visiting India to contact preexisting assemblies, and this had led to a situation similar to the Open/Exclusive situation.
At present there are close to 2200 assemblies in India, almost all of which are Open Brethren in nature. Within them there is considerable variation in practices, some allowing non Brethren to participate in the Lord's Supper if they are born again and baptized, with others totally forbid such participation. This variation has more of historical reasons than Biblical, and has not created much problem with either the insiders of the outsiders.
Towards nineteen eighties, however, several Exclusive brethren from outside India came in contact with Indian evangelists, and persuaded them to align themselves the Exclusive Brethren. At the same time certain financially well endowed brethren from the United Kingdom also were able to carve out some of the preexisting assemblies to themselves, and make them "Exclusive" to the rest of the assemblies in India. Over the space of two decades these two groups have been able to take away about 100 assemblies of the formerly Open Brethren to the Exclusive fold.
While the Open Assemblies do not find it difficult to accommodate the brethren from the Exclusive fold, the brethren in the Exclusive assemblies exhibit marked animosity towards those in the Open group. What is more, it is common for brethren in the Exclusive group to speak contemptuously against the well respected leaders in the Open group. The basic reason is the imposition of separation by brethren who tend to control the strings from outside, mainly through financial incentives, with the aim to carve territories that they can presumably claim as their own in front of their people (the donors) in the West. It would be readily noticed that due to these historical reason the Closed assemblies are a minority in India, and also that they differ much from the Exclusive assemblies in West. Any kind of reconciliation between these groups seems to be difficult as long as the domination of the brethren from the outside continues.
The Brethren in India were Bibliophiles right from the beginning, and this brought many of them into much prominence. In addition many of them were capable and outspoken leaders, organizers, and visionaries. Thus the Brethren Assemblies in India have never lacked leaders of substance and prominence.
The first generation produced men like P. E. Mammen, Varky Upadeshi, P.C. John Upadeshi, Lonappan Upadeshi, and many others. Mahakavi K. V. Simon also became part of this generation when he was persuaded by many to join the Brethren instead of the Baptists. The second generation produced Stalwarts like K.G.Thomas, E. P. Varghese, C. T. Mathai, K. G. Kurian, V. T. Mathai, M. E. Cheriyan, T. K. Samuel, Y. Ezekiel, Mammen Kurian, M. P. John, T. G. Samuel, Dr. Justus Samuel, etc. Men committed unconditionally to the scriptures, they became able propagators and defenders of the New Testament truths. The second generation served as a link between the first and the rest of the generations so far, and in addition to providing many other benefits this produced a continuity in thoughts and practices among the brethren. The third generation of leaders includes men like M. M. Skaria, Prof. P. P. Skaria, K. Daniel Williams, E. J. Paily, E. V. John, K. A. Philip, K. Paul Thomas, M. A. Joy, Silas Nair, K. P. Samuel, etc. Many of them were involved in secular jobs, and devoted a considerable amount of time, energy and personal finances to support the ongoing growth of the Brethren Assemblies. There are numerous other notable figures belonging to each of the groups above, and they will eventually be featured in the "People" section of BrethrenAssembly.Com. This generation also saw pioneer missionaries like TA Kurian (saugor), Philip Abraham (Gwalior), PV Jacob (Bhilai), etc.
Since the fourth generation was populated with a lot of people who were career seekers, it is difficult to identify anyone who stood steadfast either in faith or commitment up to an advanced age in their lives. The fifth generation of prominent leaders now includes a large number of highly qualified and trained men who, because of their secular training on one hand and spiritual commitment on the other, have brought in much spiritual quality and professionalism in the assemblies. These include men like John Kurian, Dr. Alexander Kurian, Joy John, Jos Mathew, Abraham Thomas (Kochi), James Varghese, Varghese John, Dr. Oommen Philip, John P. Thomas, Dr. Johnson C. Philip, Shalu T. Ninan, Billy P. Jacob, etc.
The fifth generation also saw the rise of specialized ministries and also more organized outreaches. People like Abraham Thomas (Pullad), Abraham Thomas (Kochi), Johnson C. Philip(Kochi), Dr. Saneesh Cherian, and Thomas Mathew (Tiruvala) introduced and nurtured specialized ministry in India. Men like Rajan Thomas, PC Abraham pioneered similar work outside India. It is also in their period that Indian men like P. Jospeh Raju initiated outside India what was unthinkable a generation ago. Roji Varghese (USA) pioneered the use of Web for information-dissemination for the assemblies, and he was later joined by many enterprising assembly webmasters. John Sebastian pioneered Internet for evangelism, and many others followed.
In summary, the Brethren Assemblies in India never lacked leaders, visionaries, or pioneers, qualified in spiritual and secular fields. The greater the need, the larger tended to be the number of leaders the Lord raised.
Indian Brethren Websites
- Brethren Christian Churches Fellowship
- Brethren Assembly
- Discussions and Matrimonial etc
- Serving the Lord's Servants of India
- Grace & Peace E-Resources