Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg: The Pioneer-Protestant Missionary

In the wake of the Counter-Reformation and the increasing spread of the Jesuit missions movement, the King of Denmark, Fredrick IV (1671–1730), responded by launching the first Protestant mission. Franz Julius Lutkens, the chaplain to the king, founded the Danish Royal Mission in Copenhagen in order to send Protestant missionaries to reach the pagans through the channels developed by the Dutch East India Company. Lutkens was tasked to identify a suitable candidate to be ordained for missions but was unsuccessful. The king then turned to August Hermann Franke in Halle, Germany.1 Franke hand-picked Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg (1682–1719) to be the pioneer Protestant missionary to India. This was considered to be the first organized Protestant overseas mission to India.2

The Indian Context

At the turn of the seventeenth century, the British East India Company and the Dutch East India Company had colonized a handful of provinces across India. The main aim of setting up these colonies was trade. In keeping with this aim, there was little or no activity of a missional nature to report. There was the solitary case of a youth who had converted to Christianity and had been shipped back to Great Britain with the hope that he would somehow influence his countrymen in the future. We do not have any evidence, however, that this was successful. Although chaplains were deployed among the colonies, they were tasked to look after the spiritual welfare of those serving the British and Dutch.

The Roman Catholic church had already made inroads into the Western Coast of Southern India when Alfonse de Alberguergue captured the city of Goa and its adjoining territories in 1510.3 In 1542, St. Francis Xavier landed on the Coromandel Coast and had begun baptizing the locals in return for protection against pirates and northern land raiders.4 Later, between 1700–1742, an Italian Roman Catholic missionary by the name of Beschi served in Madura, which is located on the East coast of India. Beshci’s approach to missions was quite antithetical to that of Rome. He and his predecessor, De Nobili, pushed the limits of contextualization, taking on a culturally Hindu identity in order to reach the priestly Brahmin caste.5 Rome wanted to impose a thoroughly Western form of worship in its churches overseas. Similarly, Rome did not prioritize the translation of the Scriptures into the local languages. Although Beschi himself was a renowned scholar in the local language, Tamil, the Bible had not been translated into the local language apart from a few passages here and there.6

The Early Years of Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg

Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg was born on July 10, 1682, in Pulsnitz, Germany to a corn merchant. His Mother was a pious woman who brought him and his two sisters up in the teaching of the Bible. She died when he was ten years old, and his father when he was twelve. On her deathbed, his mother said to her children “My dear children! Search for the wealth in the Bible. You will find it there; for your sake I have moistened every page of the Bible with my tears.” These words undoubtedly seem to have stayed with him. He went on to study Hebrew and Greek under Joachim Lange at a school in Friedrichswerder in Berlin, which had an anti-Aristotelian influence. Before going to study in Berlin, he consulted with Philip Jacob Spener and August Hermann Franke, among others, who encouraged him to pursue his studies in Berlin. The connection he had with these two men in particular is what eventually led to his missionary call and later his marriage to a relative of Spener.7

His studies in Berlin would have to be cut short due to an illness, which would reemerge at various points in his life and ultimately lead to his untimely death at thirty-six.8 In 1703, after mourning the loss of his sister, he enrolled in the University of Halle where he studied under Franke. There he was also entrusted with the task of catechizing children. Once again, he had to discontinue his education due to illness. After dropping out of Halle, he was hired as a teacher in Merseburg. The minister at the church was Justus Breithaupt, who planted the seed of missions in Ziegenbalg’s heart by saying, “It is much better to properly lead a single non-Christian to God than to gain one hundred Europeans for Christ because every day these Europeans have enough means and many opportunities for their conversion and salvation, but these non-Christians do not have them.”9 In 1705, he returned to Halle to continue studying Hebrew. It was near this time that he lost his youngest sister, the last of his siblings. He would then move to Werder to continue teaching.10 The first two decades of his life were filled with loss and failure. Every time he tried to advance himself, he would experience a major setback. His attempts to enhance his knowledge through education were unfruitful, but he learned wisdom and endurance which would later produce fruit on the mission field.

The Call to Missions

When Ziegenbalg was called to missions through the agency of Franke, he was hesitant at first, given his physical condition and the fact that he had not completed his education. He felt he would not be of much use on the field.11 Added to this was the opposition that he faced from the bishop of Zeeland due to his pietistic views.12 Finally, due to the persistence of Lutkens, both Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau were commissioned to carry out the mission by the Danish Crown. The initial plan was that they would be sent to West Africa, but various factors led to their boarding the ship Princess Sophie Hedwig bound for India. After a brief layover at the Cape of Good Hope, they finally reached the Danish Colony of Tranquebar on the Eastern shores of India. Their arrival was rather unpleasant as they were not allowed to disembark the ship since the port authorities received instructions from Ziegenbalg’s opponents in Denmark to cause trouble. After a few days, and the providential help of a Danish official, they were finally allowed on shore without fanfare.

Fruitful Labor Among the Tamil People

Almost immediately, both missionaries realized that they had to learn Portuguese and Tamil. Plütschau focused on Portuguese while Ziegenbalg began to learn Tamil, which is derived from Sanskrit and is one of the hardest languages to learn in India. Within eight months he was able to speak and read Tamil. The first converts were mostly servants, baptized in 1708–1709. As his labors began to bear fruit on the mission field, opposition was also on the rise and he was imprisoned by the governor of Tranquebar for four months in 1712. He also began to translate the New Testament into Tamil, which was printed in 1716.13 The year before this, he convinced the Danish crown to send a printing press to Tranquebar.

In addition to translating the New Testament into Tamil, Ziegenbalg also translated the book of Ruth into Tamil. He left no stone unturned in the study of the Hindu religion and culture. He sent manuscripts to Halle of his work entitled, The Genealogy of the Malabar Gods. This work was greeted with skepticism for fear that if it was published, it would serve to further the spread of Hinduism in the Western world. This work was rediscovered and published long after his death. He also wrote a Tamil grammar and established schools including the first school for girls in Tamil. Ziegenbalg did not stop there but established a seminary with a vision to see indigenous ministers trained and ordained for the work of the gospel in India.14 He also established the Jerusalem Church in 1707, which was then expanded to form the New Jerusalem Church in 1718, and is still in existence to this day.15 Although he did not live a long life, he left behind a legacy of fruitful missions work: “Having married during his European furlough (1714–1716) he became the father of two sons and died in 1719 in Tranquebar.”16

Five Areas of Impact on Protestant Missions

Ziegenbalg was essentially a prototype for generations of Protestant missionaries to come. In order to appreciate the impact that he would have on Protestant missions, we can look at five key areas:

Firstly, Ziegenbalg set the blueprint for cross-cultural missions. A Hindu author by the name of Singh, writing on Ziegenbalg’s life, observes that he “had come to establish an Indian and not an European church”.17 It was clear from his ministry that he did not want to impose a Western way of life upon the Hindus. He wanted to see change in the sphere of religious belief and not cultural practices. It is evident from his work that he believed Hindus were essentially monotheistic and could be persuaded of Christianity through intellectual engagement.

Secondly, he believed that the translation of the New Testament is of the highest importance in missions. The task of translating the New Testament into Tamil began as soon as he landed in Tranquebar. The first step he took was to learn the Tamil language in order to translate the New Testament and put it in the hands of the locals.

Thirdly, flowing from this zeal to see the Scriptures translated into the local language arose the need to educate the locals so that they understood what they were reading from the translated Scriptures. Thus, he made an immense contribution to the Tamil language by writing the first Tamil dictionary.18 This was in addition to setting up the first printing press on the east coast of India and also setting up schools including the first school for the education of girls in India, in a society where only boys were given the privilege of education. Also, he set up a seminary for higher theological studies in Tamil in connection with the University of Halle, Germany.

Fourthly, through his own example, he showed the world what it meant to be a missionary for life. He did not live beyond thirty-six years of age and succumbed to an illness that plagued him for most of his life. He died on the mission field and was buried at the New Jerusalem Church in Tranquebar. His life would inspire fifty-six missionaries to serve on the Danish Missions Board in the eighteenth century.

Finally, he showed us how churches can cooperate in missions. This is seen in his persuading the Anglican Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge to send the printing press to India. This printing press would use Tamil types that were cast in Halle, Germany.19 Eventually the Anglican Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge would financially support German Lutherans who wished to work in non-Danish territories through the English mission. The Lutherans would reciprocate by translating the Book of Common Prayer into Tamil.20

In these and many other ways, the pioneer Protestant missionary Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg embodied the core principles of missions which have influenced the spread of the gospel through innumerable missionaries after him across the globe.


  1. Stephen Neill, The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan (1970), 53.
  2. David Hempton, The Church in the Long Eighteenth Century (2011), 5.
  3. Neill, The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan, 29.
  4. Neill, The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan, 30.
  5. Neill, The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan, 39.
  6. Neill, The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan, 40.
  7. Daniel Jeyaraj, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, the Father of Modern Protestant Mission (2006), 54.
  8. Jeyaraj, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, 55.
  9. Jeyaraj, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, 56.
  10. Jeyaraj, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, 57.
  11. Jeyaraj, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, 58.
  12. Neill, The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan, 53.
  13. Stephen Neill, Gerald Anderson, and John Goodwin, Concise Dictionary of the Christian World Mission (1971), 679.
  14. Neill, Anderson, and Goodwin, 679.
  15. Jeyaraj, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg, 148.
  16. A. Scott Moreau, Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions (2000), 1044.
  17. Neill, The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan, 56.
  18. Brijraj Singh, The First Protestant Missionary to India (1999), 3.
  19. Neill, The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan, 56.
  20. Neill, The Story of the Christian Church in India and Pakistan, 58.

©William Thomas. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. What a great article. I really enjoyed the historical context for understanding 19th-century missionary work in India. Thank you, William Thomas!

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