Sudhir Isaiah
M. S. Thirumalai



Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg was born in 1683 in Pulsnitz in Germany and was sent as a missionary to the Tranquebar port, a small Danish colony on the east coast (Bay of Bengal) in Tamilnadu, by the King of Denmark and Norway in the year 1705. There were other European ministers before him who ministered in various European settlements in India, but their work was only among the European tradesmen, artisans, and soldiers, and not among the Indian nationals. Ziegenbalg and his older companion, Plutschau, were the first missionaries. Plutschau did not have the initiative to embark on missionary work, and returned to Germany after five years to pursue a pastoral career showing no further interest in any missionary work.


Ziegenbalg (and Plutschau) left Denmark on 29 November 1705 and arrived in India on the 6th of July, 1706. Thus began a vibrant missionary engagement with the Hindus, Muslims, and various sorts of animist and cultic groups in the Indian subcontinent, which has now resulted in the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ by over forty million people in India.

That there is tremendous church growth in recent years in India is attested in many documents issued by the Census of India, as well as the opponents of the Christian faith. Christians in India and their brothers and sisters in Christ around the world pray for a still grater breakthrough for the glory of God in India. As India does not issue any missionary visas, short term missionaries and tent makers play a more crucial role in the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The life and work of Ziegenbalg is a great inspiration and light to all those who wish to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in India.


Tricentenary Celebration: Release of a Postal Stamp by the Government of India


Upon arrival in Tranquebar port, Ziegenbalg and Plutschau met with severe resistance from all quarters including the local Danish governor of the colony. The governor and the Danish East India Company did not want any “disturbance of the peace” through the teaching of the Gospel. They already had established some “understanding” with the local Roman Catholic Church, and the arrival of these Protestant missionaries certainly meant trouble. Also the missionaries were from the Pietist persuasion, which encouraged spontaneous prayer, intensive Bible study, and baptism after catechism, which went against the traditional Protestant practices of that time. At one time during this early period, Ziegenbalg was beaten by the local Danish officials, and put in jail for four months for his daring missionary pursuits!


Ziegenbalg was only 23 years old when he arrived in India. He never enjoyed wholesome health, even in Germany. He had good theological training in the Pietist tradition, and nothing else. He did not know the local language (Tamil), nor did he know Portuguese, the language of wider communication at that time in India among the Europeans and also their trading subjects in India. Upon arrival in Tranquebar, Ziegenbalg immediately plunged himself into learning Portuguese and Tamil, and was able to communicate with the nationals to some extent in a few months. He enrolled himself in a local Tamil traditional school for children as a student, a 23 year old among the very young Tamil children, sitting on the floor and learning from the monolingual Tamil teacher! The school actually moved into his house.


Ziegenbalg began preaching in these two languages before he could achieve any mastery over them. That means that he started his evangelistic career within just a few weeks after his arrival. Such was his earnest dedication and determination that he always displayed to give the Gospel to the nationals. Nothing – poor health, lack of money and other support, intense heat, separation from his country or from food that was familiar to him or prison and even threats from the local upper caste Hindus – would stop him from this task of bringing souls to God’s kingdom. Ziegenbalg didn’t want to postpone giving the Gospel simply because he was still only in the process of learning the local language. He must do what the Lord called him to do at any cost.

The cost was indeed heavy, and this first Protestant Missionary to India would die young not even completing the age of 36, while serving the Lord in Tranquebar, leaving behind a young wife and two children.


Despite his early faulty behavior such as breaking the clay idols that he came across in parts of the town, the nationals were largely friendly to him, because, like them, he was also shunned by the local authority, and also because he was accessible and hospitable to all. His house was an open house to which all were welcome. They found him to be an earnest learner and admirer of their language, Tamil, collecting books on and in that language, etc. He engaged his guests in lively conversations about his own faith and pursued a diligent enquiry of their faith.


Ziegenbalg had success early in his evangelistic pursuit in Tranquebar among the nationals. Several turned to Christ. His earnest desire was a quick success in bringing large number of Hindus to Christ. However, he found out that it was hard to convince the adult Hindus about the exclusive divine authority of Jesus Christ and His saving grace. And so he felt in his heart that winning souls for the Lord Jesus Christ might have to begin with young children. Moreover, he had developed a sincere interest in preserving the Tamil language. So, he turned his eyes toward establishing a school where children of the nationals would come and learn their Tamil language as well as modern European knowledge, and Christian morals and ethics. He was interested in spreading literacy among the Tamils, which he thought would help eradicate superstitions and help spread the Christian message. Ziegenbalg started his first school for children on October 1st, 1706 just within three months of his arrival in India. Since Ziegenbalg and Plutschau were not given any extra money to do their ministry, they used half of their salary every month to run the school and other ministry activities. It only meant additional suffering for them in terms of daily living, but these dedicated men did not worry about such things and looked only toward the progress of the Gospel in the land to which the Holy Spirit brought them.


Ziegenbalg and Plutschau came to India only for three to five years. Plutschau left for Germany at the end of the fifth year, but Ziegenbalg wrote early on in his letter dated the 12th of September, 1707, that he would remain in India for his life! So did he, despite all problems of finance, ill health, heat, and continuing hostility from the Hindus until his death thirteen years after his arrival in India.


Ziegenbalg was a pioneer in many fields, apart from his evangelistic work among the Indian nationals. He set up schools where all children, irrespective of caste and religion, could sit together and learn from the local teacher. The curriculum adopted in the school was innovative. He wrote a Tamil grammar as well as a dictionary of Tamil. He also collected a large number of Tamil texts written on palm leaves. His collection of texts at that time, spending his scarce resources, was an exemplary act. He wrote several tracts in Tamil, and also wrote in German a detailed study of Hindu beliefs and manners, which today is a major source material to understand the life and times of three hundred years ago among the Tamils. He set up a modern printing press in Tranquebar to print German, Portuguese, and Tamil materials. He even distributed the Portuguese materials printed in Tranquebar in Brazil! His translation, printing, and distribution of the New Testament in Tamil were an epoch making event, not only for the spread of the Gospel in India, but also in the history of Tamil language. Prose became the major channel of literate expression in that language through the subsequent Christian missionary work. Until that time, it was through poetic form that even science materials were written and taught. More than anything else, the Holy Spirit made use of him to establish the first Protestant church for the Indian nationals on the soil of Tranquebar called New Jerusalem.


There were many others before Ziegenbalg, but he is one of the few early missionaries who kept some record of the methods they adopted in learning foreign languages.

Ziegenbalg began his life in Tranquebar first with the help of interpreters and translators. However, he was determined to learn the local language Tamil, and master it in such a way that he would be able to use it for the translation of the Bible and to communicate with the natives in their own language. This lofty aim, however, ran into several difficulties. One of the major difficulties was the climatic condition. Ziegenbalg wrote: “My skin was like a red cloth. The heat here is very great, especially in April, May, and June, at which season the wind blows from inland, so strongly that it seems as if the heat comes straight out of the oven” (Lehmann 1956:19).


Ziegenbalg began his life in Tranquebar first with the help of interpreters and translators. However, he was determined to learn the local language Tamil, and master it in such a way that he would be able to use it for the translation of the Bible and to communicate with the natives in their own language. This lofty aim, however, ran into several difficulties. One of the major difficulties was the climatic condition. Ziegenbalg wrote: “My skin was like a red cloth. The heat here is very great, especially in April, May, and June, at which season the wind blows from inland, so strongly that it seems as if the heat comes straight out of the oven” (Lehmann 1956:19).


Ziegenbalg began to learn to write Tamil letters immediately after his arrival. The missionaries invited the local Tamil teacher to come and stay with them and run his school from their house. Ziegenbalg would sit with the young children in this school on the floor and practice writing the letters in the sand, a very traditional practice that was in vogue even in early 1950s in Tamil villages. One missionary who came to Tranquebar later wrote that these two early missionaries “settled down with all earnestness, with childish composure to the languages” (Lehmann 1956:23).


Ziegenbalg wrote in a letter: “We did indeed have a Malabar (Tamil) teacher of our own. However we did not know where we should get the vocabulary and an understanding of the construction of this language, since the school master could show us reading and writing but knew no Portuguese and could not explain anything to us. (Portuguese was the language of communication, not English, at that time among the Europeans in India. – Thirumalai) After this we got acquainted with a Malabaree (Tamil) who . . . besides his own language spoke Portuguese, Danish, Dutch, and German well. Him we employed at fixed pay as our translator, and through him daily acquired many Malabar (Tamil) words, up to several thousands, and memorized them well (emphasis added – Thirumalai). After that, we busied ourselves to get the declensions and conjugations, and began to read books in this language. God let everything progress well. Then the Commandant recommended to us a grammar in the Portuguese language, written by a missionary of the King of France. We obtained a number of books in the Malabar (Tamil) language, prepared by Catholics, which almost led us into dangerous heresies but not into an understanding of the language or a Christian style of writing. We had no means of knowing with what words and expressions we should explain spiritual matters in order not to give them a heathen flavour. The best book, so necessary and so useful, was their Gospel-book. This we examined first of all and took all the vocabulary and expressions to make ourselves well acquainted and use them in our daily conversations. After that we worked through other books so that I , B.Z., in eight months had come so far that with God’s grace I was able to read, write, and speak in this very difficult language and even understand the conversation of others” (Lehmann 1956: 24).


Ziegenbalg reported that during the first three years of his stay in India, he hardly read any books in German or Latin. He gave the following schedule of his language lessons: “from 7-8 a.m. he would repeat the vocabularies and phrases which he had previously learnt and written down; from8-12 he read only Malabar (Tamil) books which he had not previously read. This he did in the presence of an old poet (Tamil Pandit) and a writer who immediately wrote down all new words and expressions. The poet had to explain the text and in the case of linguistically complicated poetry put what had been read into colloquial language. At first he had also used the translator Aleppa, whom he later gave up to one of his colleagues. Even while eating he had someone read to him and from 3-5 he read some more Tamil books. In the evening from 7-8 he had someone read to him from Tamil literature in order to save his own eyes. He preferred authors whose style he could imitate in his own speaking and writing. ‘Thus it has happened that I sometimes the read the same author a hundred times, so that there was no world or expression in him which I did not know or imitate. Such practice in this language has given a sureness and certainty'” (Lehmann 1956:24).


Learning and mastering the language of the people, to whom he was called to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, became the primary focus for this early missionary. Through learning and mastering the foreign language he was able to understand and describe better their belief systems and social structure. Lehman (1956: 30) writes, “The prerequisite for directly obtaining information about the teaching and life of those about him was the knowledge of the language and the ability to have linguistic contact with his surroundings. With this equipment, Ziegenbalg used every opportunity: when visitors came, in conversations at home and outside, through extensive reading, through a large correspondence on his journeys, and through street preaching.”

Ziegenbalg realized the importance of local language for evangelism and preferred direct engagement with the nationals. He was not an armchair theologian or evangelist. He wrote in 1711 about those who suggested methods of evangelism from their seats in Europe, “They are only debating with themselves without a real opponent. Otherwise, they would soon have found out that the mentally active and eloquent Tamilians would set up ten arguments to their one!” (Lehmann 1956:30).

Because he learned and used the local language, Ziegenbalg was able to look deeper into the theology of the people group and find out their strengths and weaknesses. Ziegenbalg wrote once why he started translating some Tamil didactic works: he wanted to see how far these people, “even without the Holy Scriptures, would be able to come to the knowledge of the moral law by (their) intelligence . . . thus he raised the question of original revelation and the natural knowledge of God” (Lehmann 1956: 32).

Zieganbalg’s competence and performance in Tamil was criticized later on by his rival Catholic priests, in particular by the Italian Jesuit Beschi, who is considered to be a great scholar-poet in Tamil. However, native-like performance in a foreign language does take time for the adult learners, even when they are best motivated to learn their target language. What is noteworthy is the single-minded devotion of Ziegenbalg to learn a foreign language which is diglossic (extreme differences between the spoken and written forms of language; in Tamil, which Ziegenbalg learned and mastered, the spoken and written forms of the language are radically distinct from each other; so, in some sense, Ziegenbalg was actually learning and mastering two languages!).

Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg died in 1719 in Tranquebar, at the age of 37 years, leaving behind his young wife with two small sons. After ten weeks, the youngest boy died. His wife gave birth to a third son five months after Ziegenbalg’s death. This child also died in Tranquebar.


During his furlough in Europe, Ziegenbalg married Maria Dorothea Salzmann, known to him for many years. They arrived in Tranquebar on the 1st of September, 1716. Life in this phase was more demanding with inadequate monetary support and reproofs from the Missions Board in Europe. His own mentor in Halle, A. H. Francke, a great Pietist leader wrote to him, “the printing of the ‘Genealogy of the South-Indian Gods’ [a book by Ziegenbalg after much research] was not to be thought of, inasmuch as the Missionaries were sent out to extirpate heathenism, and not to spread heathenish non-sense in Europe” (Neill 1985:33). [In a sense Francke was right! Later on German scholars such as Max Mueller would do the very same thing, giving a foothold for the New Age movements in Christian communities through research and appreciation of the Hindu and Buddhist religion.] Christopher Wendt, the secretary of the mission council in Copenhagen, attacked him for alleged shortcomings vehemently, which indeed broke the body and spirit of this dedicated young missionary.


Ziegenbalg did his best to balance his duties to his family with ministry demands. The competition between the Protestant missionary effort and the already well-established Catholic Church was heating up, and Ziegenbalg was made the subject of derision in many ways. One Roman Catholic cartoon “showed him wanting to go out to the Indians but his wife holds him back by his coat and his children lie crying at his feet” (Singh 1999:37). Ziegenbalg and Maria had three children, two of them died in infancy. One of these children actually died soon after his death. His surviving son became a professor of mathematics in Germany and would return to India later in his life to work in Serampore, long before the arrival of William Carey, the father of the modern missionary movement in that small Danish enclave near Calcutta.


Ziegenbalg knew that his end was near; the treatment for his stomach ailment was failing. Twelve days before his death, he made arrangements for the mission work to continue long after his death by handing over his charge to another missionary. On February 23, 1719, thirteen years after his arrival in India, Ziegenbalg breathed his last breath and went home to be with his Master who had called him to cross the seas to serve Him faithfully and diligently. He was surrounded by his family, co-workers of both Europe and India, who all sang his favorite German hymns as his journey toward Jesus Christ began.

Ziegenbalg faced innumerable hardships for the spread of God’s Kingdom but always wanted a national church to be planted and nourished. He dearly loved the Tamils and their literature and language. He made a sincere effort to understand their belief systems and the Hindu religion. He planned for their future well being both spiritually and materially. His faith was always accompanied by his earnest works. And he laid the foundations for future Indian Christian theology and a glorious Church. He was always in a hurry to accomplish what the Lord had put in his heart. Perhaps he knew in his spirit that he was given only a short life and a mission that was truly short term with magnificent results, which the generations to come will celebrate as an everlasting gift from God.



Stephen Neill. A History of Christianity in India 1707-1858. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Brijraj Singh. The First Protestant Missionary to India: Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, 1683-1719. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Sudhir Isaiah
Bethany International University
M. S. Thirumalai
GlobeServe Project
Bethany International
6820 Auto Club Road Bloomington, MN 55438

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