Schooling, Identity, and Belonging in a Tamil Lutheran Congregation

  • Geoffrey L. Burkhart
Part of the Anthropological Studies of Education book series (ASE)


Based on fieldwork in 1983 with a congregation of the Arcot Lutheran Church in a Tamil Nadu town, I focus on self-representations of Christian identity in speech and action in local activities. Many Lutherans, themselves converts or from families who converted in recent generations, originated in oppressed Dalit castes. The histories of most are tied to the Danish Mission Society’s early establishment of village schools. Anomalous in the 1980s, however, was the fact that the growth of a social justice movement, based in Dalit consciousness and strongly emergent among Dalit Christians elsewhere, was little evident in the local congregation. I show how the context of this stance is related to the aim and modes of social betterment of individuals, families, and their social circles which was facilitated by educational opportunities provided by mission and church.


Tamil Nadu Protestants Identity 



I am deeply grateful to Polur ALC members for accepting me into their church community and families and for giving me to understand something of their lives. The Rev., now Bishop (retired), R.D. Vijayakumar, pastor in Polur in 1983, showed me good humor, much consideration and interest. I can express only inadequately my debt to Mr. D. Gnanamani, Mrs. Kanakarathinam and their family and to Mr. A.S. Mani, Mrs. Edith Lily and their family, who have shown me, in 1983 and since, innumerable kindnesses, steady encouragement and personal support. Mr. K. Rajendran worked most ably as my assistant in 1983. I thank Mr. P. Rattinakumar who conducted village censuses. The interest which the families of Dr. P. Paulraj, Mr. M.A. Jeyasingh and Mr. D. Durairaj showed in my work was unwavering. Mr. B. Narasimmalu and Mr. P. Sadhusiluvaidas most helpfully introduced me to a wide range of Polur residents at the beginning of my work.

In Vellore, Dr. Pauline King, at the Christian Medical College Hospital and the Family Village Farm, took an immediate interest in my work and welcomed me into her family. Miss Else Krog, DMS missionary at Libanon, Tiruvannamalai, was generous in speaking with me about the work there.

Prof. N. Subba Reddy, Head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Madras in 1983, granted me a research affiliation and an institutional home for which I remain most grateful. The continuing support, beginning in 1983 of Dr. M.A. Kalam and his family and of Dr. V. Sudarsen, both of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Madras, has sustained me academically and personally. Mr. Vincent Peters generously conducted a census among the members of the ALC Madras congregation; his father, the Rev. Apolos Peter and his family welcomed me in Madras and later in Polur and Tirukoilur. Discussions in Copenhagen in 1985 and 1986 with retired DMS missionaries Mrs. Kirsten (Jensen) Lange, Ms. Lydia Larsen, Ms. Ingeborg Depping and Ms. Helga Olesen greatly expanded my understanding of the DMS and ALC settings of Polur Lutheran life. I am grateful to Mr. Leif Munksgaard, then Secretary of the DMS for his help and to Mr. Carl Rise Hansen who aided me in gaining access to the Danish Royal Archives.

I thank the American Institute of Indian Studies for the award of a Senior Fellowship and American University for a grant of sabbatical leave which funded my Polur field trip in 1983. An American University Summer Research Grant supported my 1986 Copenhagen research.

A comment of Dr. Malcolm Rodger’s led me to examine the school celebration I discuss here. I am much indebted to Dr. Sara Dickey for encouragement and help in thinking about this paper. I thank Dr. Helen Ullrich for her excellence as editor of this volume and for her incisive comments on my paper.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Geoffrey L. Burkhart
    • 1
  1. 1.American UniversityWashingtonUSA

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