Improving the Public: Translating Protestant Values through Nineteenth-Century Bilingual Print Journalism in South Asia

  • Hephzibah Israel
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Translating and Interpreting book series (PTTI)


The term ‘Protestant’ is one that rose out of the specific religious and political contexts of Reformation Europe, but how did it travel to cultures outside Europe? In South Asia, the term ‘Protestant’ remained untranslated in most Indian languages. Israel explores the range of meanings, sacred and secular, that it acquired in nineteenth-century Tamil-speaking South India and Sri Lanka. Focusing on a bilingual (Tamil and English) journal Utaya Tārakai / Morning Star published from Jaffna (in present-day Sri Lanka) from 1841, she argues that the enterprise to shape a ‘rational’ and improved public opinion is possible by equating ‘Protestant’ with ‘rationality’ where the ‘Protestant’ position is the only ‘reasonable’ one.


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The term ‘Protestant’ is one that rose out of the very specific religious and political contexts of Reformation Europe, but how has it travelled to cultures outside Europe? And in what ways has the term functioned and resonated in societies beyond Europe? Whether translated or transliterated, the term comes packed with a range of meanings, some echoing the schisms and rivalries of European Christianity and others, developing nuances that stretch the term in response to new geographical and cultural terrains. Here, I wish to examine the travel of the term ‘Protestant’ to South Asia, and its use and circulation from the eighteenth century onwards: on the one hand, ostensibly used to refer to a specific branch of Christianity originating in Europe while, on the other, simultaneously codifying implicit values referencing a wider set of ideas beyond the sacred. My argument is that, by the nineteenth century, this term displays both ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ connotations in its use in English and in several Indian languages, making it available as a convenient evaluative category in response to a whole range of expanding intellectual, social, and political practices. In pointing out the relationship of the term ‘Protestant’ to the categories ‘sacred’ and ‘secular,’ I do not seek to reiterate the customary binary, but instead show how the same term was used in relation to both categories in nineteenth-century South Asia, where the one extended, qualified, or served to evaluate the Other.

The term ‘Protestant’ travelled to India and only began to circulate with any significance after the arrival in 1709 of German Lutheran missionaries in South India. But these early missionaries presented themselves as ‘Evangelicals’ preferring to use the term ‘Evangelische’ to describe their denomination and mission in South India. However, with the decline of the German Lutherans and increasing numbers of British Anglicans towards the end of the eighteenth century, it is the term ‘Protestant’ that predominantly comes into use. Tamil is one of the earliest Indian languages to acquire this new term as a result of its encounter with the first Lutheran missionaries in South India, who self-consciously presented themselves as distinct from the several religious communities they encountered in India, including their rival Roman Catholic missionaries and their converts. Over the centuries, it has come to function as a generic term to collectively represent, amongst Indian Christian denominations, all those who do not see themselves as in any way affiliated to Roman Catholicism.

Entering Indian language dictionaries from the nineteenth century onwards, this transliterated term has formally been ascribed the meaning of a branch of Christianity disagreeing with or ‘protesting’ against the Roman Catholic Church. However, Robert Frykenberg (2008: xi) in his Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present argues that the use of the term ‘Protestant’ is entirely inappropriate in the Indian context: ‘Viewed from an Indian rather than a European or “colonial” perspective, the term “Protestant” is Anglocentric and Eurocentric’. After all, ‘[a]gainst whom were non-Catholic Indian Christians “protesting”?’—he asks, and suggests the use of ‘Evangelical’ as more conceptually ‘accurate’ to the Indian context. But is this really the case? Frykenberg is offering a rather contradictory argument here: while suggesting that the term ‘Protestant’ has a valid conceptual meaning only in the European context, he believes that the term ‘Evangelical’, equally rooted in European, especially German, Reformation, does not carry with it ‘European’ conceptual ideas. My argument is that while both these terms, as well as a third related one, ‘Roman Catholic’, all conceptually convey one aspect of European Christianity or other, they attract further layers of conceptual meaning when circulating in the South Asian context.

In order to explore the ways in which this untranslated term, ‘Protestant,’ was used in the nineteenth century, acquired valency and was deployed in situations of religious competition, I will focus on its use in one of the Indian languages, Tamil, a language that spans large parts of South India and the northern tip of Sri Lanka. Religious rivalry between the four main religious players in the Tamil-speaking areas, Hinduism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Protestant Christianity, which had been building up through the previous century, intensified in the first half of the nineteenth century. Religious polemics between the Roman Catholics, Protestant Christians and Tamil Saivites (a dominant sect amongst Tamil Hindus) was particularly fierce, with a view to establishing the ‘true’ religion. From the early nineteenth century, competitive apologetic exchanges also found a new course through the print journalism burgeoning in Tamil and English. I wish to focus on this emerging writing practice where one can see how the term ‘Protestant’, in the context of religious rivalry and one-upmanship, acquires a range of sacred and secular conceptual values.

Journals in Tamil print had begun circulating in South India from 18311 largely founded and circulated by European missionaries. In 1841, however, for the first time in the hundred-odd years of Tamil print history, two Tamil men began editing a new journal. The Utaya Tārakai/Morning Star was a bilingual, bi-monthly journal published from Jaffna (a northern town in present day Sri Lanka) at the American Missionary Press. Some significant features of this publication are worth mentioning at the outset: its first editors were two Protestant Tamils; it was to function as a means to ‘educate’ its readers; it included articles from both Tamils and Europeans from a range of religious and political persuasions; and it was bilingual. The journal displays a self-consciousness regarding its role in the public sphere, which, in the conceptualization of the journal, was a Protestant public. Moreover, it did not simply address a ‘public’ that already existed out there, but actively sought to create a ‘public’ that was in the making.

The first Tamil editors of the journal were Henry Martyn (d. ?) and Seth Payson (d. 1907), two Jaffna Tamils. Seth Payson was a licensed preacher of the American Mission, subsequently better known as ‘Payson Udaiyar’ (Martyn 1923: 206). Henry Martyn, the more prominent editor, was appointed teacher at the Batticotta Seminary in 1831; a landowner and resident of Jaffna, he was apparently well-known as scholar, tutor, artist, preacher, journalist, and Government storekeeper (ibid.: 302). Martyn and Payson’s names are printed as the journal’s editors on the last page of each issue of volume 1.

The two editors address their readers in editorials in the first and last issues of each volume, state their aims and objectives for the journal, review its successes or failures annually, enumerate plans for the following year, and often include a plea for greater support from their readers in the form of committed subscriptions. Amongst a range of articles and addresses to readers, these editorials are a fascinating indicator of the public function that the editors envisaged for the journal. My intention is to examine these editorials and letters to editors from a few key journal issues from the early life of the Morning Star in order to examine in what terms they articulated an awareness of a Tamil ‘Protestant public’ and how this journal in particular could play a part in developing it.

Focusing on the first fifteen years of this journal’s life, I investigate three strategies deployed by the periodical’s editors to fashion a ‘rational’ and ‘Protestant’ (and thereby, ‘improved’?) public space: bilingualism and translation, developing a notion of ‘useful knowledge’ for dissemination, and lastly, an emphasis on reason and rationalism. First, by maintaining the bilingual nature of the periodical, with items translated between Tamil and English, the journal was envisaged as a forum for debate between European and Tamil intellectuals. Second, by keeping the journal open to all spheres of knowledge, historical and contemporary—establishing, thereby, a link between the past and present—the editors indicate how they view Tamil intellectual culture fitting within a scheme of progressive ‘rationality’ and ‘modernity,’ however nebulously defined. Third, by actively inviting critiques of opinions and practices current in the Tamil-speaking world, the editors offer a public space, to both Europeans and Tamils, where differences in perspective could apparently be aired in a democratic manner. This seemingly open invitation to participate in ‘rational-critical debate’ however, is not as entirely egalitarian as it would seem, as we shall see later.

I am interested in how the adoption of this new medium of communication of print journalism in the early nineteenth century, mediates ‘Protestant’ values and beliefs for a colonial public. The Morning Star offers a new arena in which hitherto unconnected Europeans and Tamils can be linked through acts of writing, reading, and advertising. This is, however, not a ‘secular’ space as argued in the classic formulation of the public sphere by Jürgen Habermas (1962; English trans. 1989) but an increasingly distinct and unapologetic Protestant space as the journal progresses through the 1840s. In the context of colonial Sri Lanka and Tamil-speaking South India, where the significant religions present were Sinhalese Buddhism, Tamil Saivism, Islam and Catholic and Protestant Christianity alongside the worship of a range of local and regional deities, the journal’s offer of a space to all for airing differing opinions is certainly remarkable. The journal becomes a physical embodiment of the public sphere through this public service and the space that it offers to all interested parties. However, as we shall see, several of its fundamental assumptions are premised on Protestant ideals and concepts, such that, without explicitly stating it, the editorial voice begins to imagine and represent Protestant interests as universally relevant and for the common good of the ‘public’. Loaded terms such as ‘improvement’ and ‘reason,’ calibrated to Protestant ideals (or wishful-thinking, depending on where one’s sympathies lie) are the basis for the selection of articles and their imagined effect on their readers.

The Bilingual Morning Star: Language and Translation in the Public Space

The Morning Star is one of the earliest and longest-running bilingual journals published in nineteenth-century South Asia.2 The bilingual nature of the journal widens public collaboration by inviting participation from those functioning in at least two of the three languages in the nineteenth century, Tamil, Sanskrit, or English. Tamil and Sanskrit had for long commanded status as languages of devotion and literary production, each vying for dominance. The journal’s disregard for Sanskrit in the 1840s indicates its response to two significant developments in recent decades: on the one hand it follows the keen interest in Tamil publishing shown by Tamil pundits from the 1820s onwards from their location at the College of Fort St. George in Madras (Blackburn 2003; Trautmann 2009; Venkatachalapathy 2012); and on the other, the Protestant missionary decision to adopt Tamil rather than Sanskrit to write, translate, and publish Protestant materials. While Sanskrit continued to be used as a language of devotion and literature, the more recent attention to editing, authenticating, and printing Tamil classics provided added impetus to the use of Tamil as a language of public discourse in print. English, on the other hand, being the language of the British East India Company, was simultaneously beginning to be perceived as essential for the upwardly mobile Tamil wanting to progress within its administrative system. The journal’s choice of translating between Tamil and English signals the rise of these two languages as the languages of public and political discourse in early nineteenth-century Tamil perception, emphasized further by its frequent recommendation to readers that they can ‘improve’ their knowledge and use of either language by reading its articles.

Despite its apparently democratic inclusion of Tamils and Europeans through translation, and a remarkable early effort in bringing these two groups in conversation in a colonial context, it is useful to remember that this was a conversation limited to elite and literate Tamil castes. The journal effectively keeps out larger portions of the population who are literate in none of the languages above. This caveat notwithstanding, I am interested not only in the use of two languages for the journal but the role of translation in creating the effects of a democratic space. For the bilingual significance of the journal lies not so much in the use of two languages with two separate sets of materials published in each, but that all items ascribed any importance are translated from one language to another.

The role that translation plays in the life of the journal is not insignificant. While translation between Indian languages had been part of established literary traditions, translations rarely circulated alongside their ‘originals’ for readers to choose between them. Besides, the simultaneous appearance of the two textual versions, in two scripts, on the same printed page was unusual this early in the nineteenth century, and when similar attempts were made in other Indian languages, they did not retain their bilingual character for fourteen years as the Morning Star did.3 The journal was in circulation in Sri Lanka and Tamil-speaking South India from 1841 to 1855 in more or less one format, after which its presentation was changed. The most significant change pertinent to this essay is the change from a bilingual to a monolingual journal, when, from 1856, it began to be published solely in Tamil. Until 1845, the journal was printed in two columns, with Tamil and English often appearing in sequence, one below the other. But from 1845, when the editors switch to a three-column format, the English text is presented in the central column with the Tamil on either side, or at times, in reverse. Such translated (and/or ‘transliterated’) texts were available to some limited extent in the missionary context from the sixteenth century onwards, in Catholic and Protestant texts, for example, where catechisms in Portuguese and in Tamil translation (but with the Tamil in Roman transliteration) were printed for missionaries serving Tamil Catholic and Protestant congregations (Zupanov 2005). But such interlinear translations were restricted to missionary use and their literate confessants and would not have circulated widely. The Morning Star, on the other hand, was meant for a general readership spread across northern Sri Lanka and Tamil-speaking South India, to whom this bilingual offering was made. Moreover, where previously the translation traditions in Indian languages were concerned with creative renderings of originals rather than literal versions in the target language, the appearance of both texts had been unnecessary. Now, however, the journal offered both versions, in most cases, with no editorial indication of which article was the ‘original’ and which its translation, but nevertheless inviting comparison of terminology, style, idiom, and even length of articles between the two languages.

The journal echoed this new sense of translation as accurate rendering of terms from one language to another, a concept not intrinsic to Indian aesthetics, where accuracy of the ‘repetition’4 in another language was not the point as much as creating a new text that contained reference to a previous text but had a distinct textual identity. Instead, the attitude to translation and the translations undertaken for the journal showed a preoccupation with accuracy. This accuracy is in turn linked with usefulness; what is accurate alone can be useful. The emphasis on accuracy, clarity, and perspicuity, proving that there is nothing hidden, missing, or mysterious in the conversion from one language to another perhaps functions as a metaphor for the supposed transparency that underlies the Protestant faith.

Let us examine in more detail the link between translation, bilingual publishing and Protestant claims. From the earliest records of Protestant missionaries in India and continuing into the twentieth century, whether German, British or American, a conceptual link was made between being Protestant and translating scripture. For instance, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg (1682–1719), the first Protestant missionary in India, focuses his attention primarily on Bible translation as key to the conversion of the ‘heathen’ very soon after his arrival.5 Through the combined efforts and complex network of royal patronage and funding from the Danish King, the donation of a printing press from the British Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in 1712, and the expertise of metalworkers in Halle who forged the first Tamil fonts for print, the first translation of the New Testament in any Asian language was printed in 1714–15. This emphasis on translating scripture is what distinguished them from all other religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic: an opinion that was ironically shared by Catholic missionaries in South India, except that they believed that this is exactly what made Protestant claims dangerous and unsustainable. In the dominant Protestant discourse in India, being Protestant equated with translating the Bible into all known human languages for circulation. Here, engaging with the act of translation was taken to be proof of a complex syllogism: one, that it was possible to translate the Bible into any human language, hence it alone was the message of the true God; and two, because Protestants alone emphasized the translation of the Bible and actively promoted it, Protestant Christianity alone was the true faith that held the key to that true God.

In the multi-religious setting of South India and northern Sri Lanka, not only Protestant missionaries, but Protestant Tamils too began to deploy the idea that attitudes to translation, support for or rejection of translation, illuminated most clearly the veracity of each religious claim. Challenges posed by these Protestant Tamil editors in India and Sri Lanka, intrinsically equating translation, Protestantism, and ‘Truth’,6 set the terms of the debate, and understandably compelled others to address and respond within these parameters. The Catholics were repeatedly drawn into the debate,7 as are Tamil Saivites and Muslims. For instance, when the editors of the Morning Star decided to publish George Sale’s English translation of the Qur’an (1734) in their columns, it attracted an angry letter of protest dated 17 February 1843 from a Sri Lankan Tamil Muslim:

(…) Truly, there is no reason whatever to believe that the Koran translated by Mr. Sale is the true one. As you entice the poor Sivas through your crafty and deceitful words, so you try to entice us also (…) (Morning Star, 25 May 1843, III (10): 113–114).

Significantly, this letter is not only published in the original Tamil, but its translation in English is given below to widen the debate on scripture translation beyond its Tamil-speaking readership. An editorial defence of the journal’s Protestant strategies follows the letter:

Has not God endowed all men with understandings that they may consider, and choose what is good, and reject what is evil? Why then is this desire on the part of Catholics, Sivas, and Moslems, to keep their sacred books in the hands of a few priests or religious teachers? (Morning Star, 25 May 1843, III (10): 115)

They expand on this to develop a wider challenge addressing all their other significant religious ‘others’8:

The Catholics pretend that the common version of the Bible is not correct, but they do not make any efforts to give the people what they esteem the true version. The Sivas do not publish their sacred books—the Mohammedans do not publish the Koran—and neither the Catholics—Sivas—nor Moslems—wish to have made known extensively the books from which they derive their doctrines. The conduct of the Protestants, in this particular, is totally different from that of Catholics, Sivas and Moslems. The Protestant freely distributes the Bible, because he believes it is from God (…) (Editors, ibid.)

What purpose does translation serve in and for the journal then? Its function on the one hand is utilitarian. It is integral to the journal’s strategy to reach a wider audience, linking missionaries, administrators, judges, teachers, traders, school and university students, and a host of traditional and colonial professional men (and presumably women, although the journal functions primarily as a masculine space with women featuring as subjects of discussion rather than as interlocutors themselves). Translation allows a debate between Tamil-speaking and English-speaking individuals and groups, with the intention of promoting the Protestant point of view not only through the contents of what was translated but through a new means of bilingual communication and visual representation. Translation serves as a tool to create a public by maintaining communication links between these various sections. But equally, there is a strong conceptual link between translation and Protestantism. The ability, and indeed the willingness, to translate scriptures is increasingly implied in the use of the term ‘Protestant’ in the nineteenth century: thus, in this context, the ‘translatability’ of Protestant claims and scriptures is conceptually used to evaluate these several religious traditions, including Protestant Christianity, as ‘true’ or ‘false’.

The Rational Morning Star: Catholics, ‘Popery’, and Superstition

The term ‘Protestant’ enters circulation in most Indian languages untranslated, but mostly transliterated according to the grammatical rules of specific languages: so for instance, mostly as puroṭesṭanṭu or Pirāṭṭasṭaṉṭu in Tamil. Similarly other Indian languages too acquire transliterations. The Bengali develops protistnt. In Hindi ‘Protestant’, is transliterated as just that, and Protestantism is partially transliterated into protestantpanth.9 In Malayalam, protestanth christiani and prothesthanthanaya and in Kannada proṭesṭānṭa are used. Despite the existence in most Indian languages of words that denoted the verb ‘to protest,’ or the noun ‘protester’ (for example, in Hindi, virodh or prativad, in Malayalam apekshikyunnavan, or in Bengali, apottikari) these are mostly not used to develop terminology to describe ‘Protestantism’. The Sanskrit is an exception, in that it gives a Sanskrit term for ‘Protestant’ as one who protests as well as the term romiyamatavirodhi, that is, one who is against the Roman religion. This is not surprising since, from the nineteenth century onwards, European scholar linguists in South Asia made an effort to develop precise terminological equivalents in Sanskrit across the range of disciplinary knowledges on the grounds that, as a ‘classical’ language at the foundation of all other Indian languages, establishing correct terminology in Sanskrit would ensure the same in other languages. As we have seen from the above examples, however, the Sanskrit term does not seem to have percolated to other languages in the case of ‘Protestant.’

The Tamil case adds a twist to this history. Significantly, one of the first Tamil-English dictionaries compiled using a European format for compiling dictionaries10 by the German scholar-translator, J.P. Fabricius, and printed in 1779 gives the term: etir maruppavar, Protestants (christ.) under the entry for the Tamil verb etir which means ‘to oppose’ or ‘to be placed in front of.’ The root maru means refusal or objection. Fabricius, who was a significant translator of the Bible into Tamil, always took care to mark terms that had been developed within the Christian context, which he does here as well. But while the sense of opposition is clear in the phrase, he does not explain what or who is being opposed. Eventually, this phrase disappears from Tamil dictionaries, and by 1862, when the next significant dictionary is compiled and published by Miron Winslow, another Tamil scholar and missionary, this term is not included. As a result, etir maruppavar is not used as the standard Tamil term for Protestant during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and neither does it make its way back into the standard Tamil dictionary still in use, the Tamil Lexicon, compiled by the University of Madras between 1924 and 1936. This brief appearance of a translation of ‘Protestant’ that is never effectively used in communication to be replaced by a transliteration of the term, which becomes the main carrier of conceptual ideas is a history worth further examination also across other Indian languages.

The term ‘Protestant’ appears repeatedly in the journal’s discourse as part of a wider self-conscious religious rivalry with Tamil Saivites and Tamil and missionary Catholics. I wish to focus specifically on the Protestant-Catholic polemics here,11 an intra-religious contest that exemplifies what purpose the term ‘Protestant’ serves in the religious context. While Christianity in general is referred to in Tamil as kiristu markam, that is, ‘the way of Christ,’ ‘Protestant’ is always transliterated as purotestantu. Catholics/ism usually features in English as ‘the Romanists’ or ‘Popery’ and in Tamil as poppar when referring to people and practices, and kattolikku when referring to places or objects. ‘Christian’ and ‘Protestant’ are also often used interchangeably, where the reader is meant to understand from the context of the entire text that by implication, one stands for the other, effectively excluding Catholicism. In other cases, it is in translation that we see how the two terms are linked: a letter to the editor by ‘persecuted Protestants’ in English appears as ‘persecuted Christians’ in the Tamil version (11 May 1843, III (9): 104).

Apart from the several ‘digs’ at Catholics scattered throughout the fourteen years, and bolstered by the triumphal recording of Catholic conversions to Protestantism, there are three interesting confrontations that stand out: the journal’s reporting of a ‘fracas’ at a Catholic mass celebrated in northern Sri Lanka on 1 January 1845, the Catholic claim that St. Francis Zavier’s body had survived in a state of ‘non-putrification’ in Goa in Western India,12 and finally, the Catholic response to Protestant print journalism in the form of a counter-journal titled The Touchstone launched in 1845 from the Sri Lankan city, Colombo. In the case of the first two above, there is a public exchange of opinions published in the Morning Star through letters written by Tamil Catholics and Protestant editorials and letters, each side battling for its right to assert its claims as ‘truth,’ vindicating its own brand of Christianity and denigrating the other’s. The Protestant strategy is to use both as occasions to display the ‘superstition,’ irrationality, and unhealthy dependence of the Catholics on their priests: ‘The argument in defence of the Catholic Priesthood in Para 2 is worthy of the dark ages, when the word of a priest was received as the word of God. It will not answer however for these days’ (January 1845, V(1): 14).

With the third case, The Touchstone, like the Morning Star, has a Tamil title, uraikallu (a literal translation of the English) and comprises articles in both Tamil and English. The item in the Morning Star that announces the appearance of The Touchstone clearly presents this as a direct Catholic challenge, but reassures its readers that it is in no way disconcerted by this rival: ‘It appears from the religious articles in the present No. that it is to be devoted to the promotion of the religious views of the Roman Catholics, and we as Protestants must therefore expect no small share of attention in its columns. (…) We (…) hail its appearance with pleasure, as we have nothing to fear, and much to hope for, from any examination of Protestantism or exposition of Romanism that may be given to the public through such a medium’ (8 May 1845, V (9): 65–72). The journal’s 1845 volume reveals several items of news on The Touchstone, includes excerpts from the rival journal with critical comment appended and usually uses these as a launching point from which to attack Catholic beliefs, practices, or reputation.

In parallel with such polemical exchanges with Catholics in South Asia, there is a shift in the editorial voice. While the early editorials emphasized the improving of ‘minds and hearts’ through a range of ‘secular’ topics in history, science, philosophy, languages, and literature, as the years progress, there are increasing numbers of articles with greater reference to religion and morality and to the Bible as the main point of rational reference for judging issues of truth, ethics, and morality. The editorials progressively hint at the moral, even Protestant principles, underlying this journalistic enterprise. Plans for 1842 for instance, promise not only a ‘full and varied intellectual repast’ but also ‘aim to explode prejudice and superstition, and to take truth and experience alone as guides.’ They plan to ‘make the Morning Star worthy of the confidence of the native community, by bringing to their notice, and urging upon their attention, through its columns – such facts and considerations as will lead them to think, investigate, and form their own opinions of things on the grounds of truth and reason [original emphasis].’ The editorial ends with the ‘standard of truth’ against which all its contents will be measured: ‘We need not tell our Readers, that our standard of truth on these subjects is THE BIBLE, and we shall hope, in the spirit of benevolence which the Bible inculcates, to advocate according to our ability, as time and occasion shall allow, the great principles of truth and righteousness which it reveals’ (16 December 1841: 238–240). Although this is not explicitly stated as a Protestant measure here, there are plenty of other occasions in the journal where a contrast between Protestant active reliance on the Bible and the misguided passive Catholic reliance on Church tradition and authority is drawn.

The Useful Morning Star: Creating a Protestant Public

As an emerging journalistic Protestant voice in Tamil-speaking areas in mid-nineteenth century India and Sri Lanka, the Morning Star also moves beyond the immediacy of religious polemics to comment on ‘secular’ aspects of social and cultural life. One such dominant strand is its preoccupation with offering ‘useful’ knowledge to its readers who made up the ‘public’ with which the journal desired to engage. By presenting what they term ‘useful’ knowledge in both Tamil and English, the editors seem to want to bridge existing gaps between these various social groups through translation. As a result, translation not only facilitates the process of making useful knowledge more useful, but is itself a ‘useful’ tool for the furtherance of knowledge.

The first issue of The Morning Star, dated 7 January 1841 enumerates a set of ‘terms’ for the reader, of which the first is its subject matter: ‘The MORNING STAR will be devoted to Education, Science, and general Literature, and to the dissemination of articles on Agriculture, Government, and Religion, with a brief summary of important News’ (p. 1). This tag line is repeated in all subsequent issues, advertising its intention to provide information on an eclectic mix of subject areas. This is not an empty promise: the editorials, letters received from readers, and the breadth of topics addressed in the articles do display a wealth of knowledge. The very first editorial tackles the question of what ‘knowledge’ is with a new emphasis on ‘useful knowledge’ that ‘improves’ the mind, a unifying theme, in fact, across the several editorial addresses of this journal, which suggests the increasing value placed on kinds of knowledge that make one ‘wealthy, powerful and renowned’ in a world experiencing rapid political and economic changes. Tamil poetry (valued traditionally) may no longer be ‘useful’ by itself, but serves to validate new forms of knowledge. These two competing forms of knowledge, however, are invigorated by a third kind, one that better prepares the reader for ‘the next world’. ‘Spiritual’ knowledge is presented as a further dimension of useful knowledge that supports and validates the secular useful, so that the two (sacred and secular) work in conjunction rather than in opposition. As we shall see, it is the Protestant perspective that ultimately obtains as the journal’s recommended sacred and most ‘useful’ knowledge.

The editors’ preoccupation with useful knowledge is evident throughout in the sheer range of subject materials covered by the Morning Star: articles on geology, astronomy, mathematics, world history, languages, social customs in India, geographical features of the Indian sub-continent and on animals wild and domestic (the camel, leopard, tiger, bear, monkey, for instance, with illustrations), rub shoulders with articles that address social issues such as education, caste, gender, toddy-drinking, religious conversion, and a comparison of Christian, Hindu, or Jewish beliefs and practices. Thrown in the mix are puzzles and problems (mathematical, algebraic, geometrical, and even religious) posed as challenges to the enterprising reader. Perusal of subsequent issues shows that many readers did respond with solutions, thus showing their willingness to engage in this public one-upmanship. News is another significant feature, starting from the local—Jaffna, Colombo, Madras, Madurai—to the regional (Afghanistan, Burmah, India, China, for instance) and international (Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa). The regular column ‘Summary of news’ thus creates an expanding awareness of the contemporary world. Clearly, the Morning Star seeks to keep its readers informed on current affairs as well as current debates worldwide. This range of articles has two effects. First, it locates readers within a global spatial grid, where individual readers are placed both geographically and conceptually in global space and time but one that is filtered through universal Protestant lenses. Although physically located in one of several Tamil towns named in the journal, Jaffna, Madura, or Madras for instance, each reader is linked to a wider community, a ‘public’ comprising not just the Tamil-speaking world but a ‘Protestant public’: spanning several continents but nonetheless sharing certain basic assumptions.

Second, such disparate topics juxtaposed spatially on the pages of this journal and linked together by editorial comments invite its readers to a critical engagement with the contents of the journal. Readers all at once are offered the opportunity to compare and contrast different pieces of information, whether ‘factual’ or ‘opinion’ pieces, and judge for themselves the veracity and usefulness of the information. There is an effort to carefully categorize different disciplines of knowledge. For instance, the introduction to a series of history articles published in 1845 draws a distinction between history and chronology in both languages (January 1845: 1). The articles are designed not only to widen the remit of knowledge, but demand a more critical and participatory involvement with the journal’s efforts to inform its readers and elicit a response.

Having outlined the range of materials and information addressed by the journal, I want to bring us back to the Protestant function of the journal’s contents. At several points in the editorials between 1841 and 1855 the editors chart a clear link between their journalistic endeavours and the Protestant lens through which these are presented:

We have among our readers heathens, Mohemmedans, Roman Catholics and Protestants, besides a considerable number, who, we suppose have a sort of deistical faith. We wish to adapt the matter in our columns to the edification of all these;--not to encourage them in adhering to an erroneous faith, or to cater to their vitiated appetites, but to give them that kind of reading which we consider best adapted to arouse their minds to thought and inquiry on practical and religious subjects (‘Prospectus of the Morning Star for 1844,’ 28 December 1843, III [24]: 264–265).

The implication here, and the journal’s self-appointed task, is that the best way forward for those unquestioningly following ‘erroneous faiths’ (i.e. heathens, Mohammedans, Roman Catholics, and those of deistical faiths) is to arouse their ‘minds to thought and inquiry on practical and religious subjects’.

The repeated commitment to providing ‘useful knowledge’ through the medium of the journal, echoed at times in readers’ letters to the editors, however, comes at a price. The editors expect a reciprocal obligation from the reader by way of contribution to content and finances. They indicate at several points that the journal is not financially self-sufficient and depends on the goodwill of its readers and that of the American Mission to pay off its debts. Despite doubts as to whether it should do so, the American Mission’s imputed rationale directly highlights the public role of the journal: ‘This loss was patiently borne by the American Mission from a conviction of the public utility of the publication’ (25 December 1851: 101). The journal’s life continues somewhat precariously, depending on the favours of the missionaries and a public largely unaccustomed to paying for the pleasure of reading a bi-monthly. The issue comes to a head in 1846, when they are faced with serious threat of closure after the American Mission voices its reluctance to carry on funding an activity that is not ‘consistent with its obligations to its patrons’ (31 December 1846: 185). This is prevented due to ‘[T]he firm belief however, that the paper has proved a useful publication, together with the representations received from various quarters that its discontinuance would be felt by many as a public loss’ (31 December 1846: 185). In subsequent years, contributing to the life of the journal was equated to contributing to their faith: ‘Will not our friends, help us in this matter, and thus subserve the interests of truth, civilization and Christianity?’ (28 December 1854: 109).

What is pertinent to our discussion here is that the editors are evidently faced with a public that has not yet learnt to pay for the privilege of participating in this Protestant public. An 1846 editorial ends with a reminder to readers of the important social role that the journal is seen as playing in the nineteenth-century Tamil world as well as offering individuals the space and means by which to communicate with a ‘public’:

Shall it [Morning Star] live to do good or shall it die and its influence cease? If it dies when will another Paper be offered for public patronage on terms so favourable? Before you decide to withhold your support, consider well the advantages it affords for supplying you with important intelligence, for furnishing a medium by which you may communicate your individual thoughts to the public and make known your wants for the consideration of government authorities (31 December 1846: 189).

The ‘public’ referred to in the editorials is different from previous kinship relationships that individuals held with family, caste and religious community, since it supposedly cuts across these traditional groupings to link ‘literate’ Tamils from across the social spectrum. This ability to speak simultaneously to various groups is clearly still relatively new enough for the editorials to make this point repeatedly. With Europeans included in this public—missionaries, catechists, teachers, colonial government officers—this appears to be a democratic space where missionary and confessant, teacher and pupil, government officers and individuals can debate issues of common interest. The question that begs to be asked is what are the issues of common interest for such a mixed public? And how are these points of commonality to be created? The range of articles, as I argue above, placing readers within local, regional, and international networks, suggests that shared concerns, whether social, intellectual, or political, needed to be first created before individuals could feel part of a public to a degree that they felt able to participate in it. This journal sought to set up a shared concern shaped by a Protestant perspective on what was ‘useful,’ ‘reasonable’ and could be subjected to rational inquiry. That is, every claim had to be scrutinized, categorized, then accepted or rejected based on this process of inquiry set up with a strong Protestant bias.


In practical terms, the term ‘Protestant’ circulated through this journal not only as a term demarcating individuals as belonging to a particular Christian tradition, but it began to serve as an evaluative category beyond the Christian context to assess ideas that were more frequently associated with the secular. Publishing contributions from Tamils and Europeans from across the religious spectrum, the journal displayed a certain self-consciousness regarding its ‘Protestant’ role in the public space. There were several appeals to and on behalf of the ‘public’, but despite an awareness of the eclectic mix in categories of participants in this public, this was not predominantly a secular space in the conceptualization of this Protestant journal. Instead, this was an attempt to fashion a Tamil-speaking ‘public’ in South India and Sri Lanka calibrated to Protestant conceptions of an ideal social and civic polity. The journal made the Protestant faith both a matter of private conviction and evaluative category for constructing a public concerned with a range of broad issues such as the education of young people, the status of ‘native women’, government and administration, issues of rights and liberties, and so forth. Although not always explicitly stated, the enterprise to engage with and shape a ‘rational’ public opinion was made possible by equating ‘Protestant’ with ‘rationality’ where the ‘Protestant’ position is and functions as the only ‘reasonable’ one.

Let us consider the bilingual nature of the journal and the shifts in reading practices that characterized this century. The translation of all significant content is used to emphasize the underlying characteristic of transparency as a fundamentally Protestant one. In this line of thinking, Protestants, unlike all other religious groups in South India, do not fear translation because they have nothing to hide. This linking of translation to transparency and truth is convenient, as it serves the Protestant purpose of representing itself as unique and invincible in religious polemics. Ultimately, by not choosing to translate the term ‘Protestant’ into Tamil and most Indian languages, it allows the term to acquire much wider valency than simply ‘one who opposes Roman Catholicism’. To follow the Protestant path best equips one for a conceptualization of the world and self as based on reason and rational enquiry. This encourages the journal’s readers to represent themselves in abstract terms: most Protestant correspondents to the journal sign themselves off as ‘a native Protestant’ or ‘a Protestant native’, whereas those of other faiths predominantly use their names. Since personal names represented a range of very specific data regarding individuals and their place in nineteenth-century South India (caste, religion, gender, and language, for instance), could using the Protestant ‘brand name’ signify an alternative range of attributes that were meant to challenge and qualify traditional modes of self-representation?

The untranslated term ‘Protestant’ circulated in the nineteenth-century Tamil intellectual and religious spheres loaded with values that were presented as particular to Protestant Christianity and unavailable to any of its rivals. Evaluations of ‘usefulness’ (i.e. what was to be considered useful and how best to acquire it), ‘rationality’ and importantly, the construction of the ‘public,’ and its improvement, were offered as the fruits of the Protestant labour of ‘translation’. The term ‘Protestant’ in such usage meant much more than a Christian denomination (or doctrinal in-fighting) but instead displayed a range of values drawn from mutually imbricated sacred and secular contexts to effect social and political re-organization.


  1. 1.

    According to Murdoch (1865: 234), ‘the first periodical issued in India seems to have been the Tamil Magazine,’ published by the Madras Tract Society.

  2. 2.

    Single language journals (in Bengali and Marathi) began to be published from before the 1840s. There was also a bilingual (Bengali and English) Protestant journal published in Calcutta, The Gospel Magazine, in 1819, but from January 1820, it changed to a Bengali magazine.

  3. 3.

    See note 1 on The Gospel Magazine.

  4. 4.

    In several Indian languages, the term for translation (anuvad) means ‘repetition’ rather than carrying across.

  5. 5.

    Ziegenbalg (1709)

  6. 6.

    See for example, Morning Star 1843, the editors’ response to a letter: ‘We ask our readers to account for this difference between Protestants, the Catholics, Sivas, and Mohammedans. Since there are many religions in the world, all claiming to be true; and since, if either one is true, the others must be essentially false, it is an object of the highest importance to every man, to learn which is the true religion; for this knowledge is as essential to man’s happiness in the next world, …We cannot obtain this knowledge, if the books from which the different religions are derived, are forbidden to be generally circulated.’ (Morning Star, 25 May 1843, III [10]: 115).

  7. 7.

    For more details please see Israel (2011), ch. 4.

  8. 8.

    There are several examples of such linking of scripture translation to the Protestant faith and opposition to scripture translation as representing the Catholic position. For example, the article, ‘Opposition of the Papacy to the Circulation of the Bible,’ March 1845, contrasts the ‘benevolent efforts of the Protestants to circulate the word of God’ to the ‘deep rooted abhorrence’ of ‘Popery’ to the Bible, listing their persecution of Bible translators as evidence.

  9. 9.

    The Hindi term panth denotes denomination, sect, religion, church, or creed.

  10. 10.

    Tamil has a long history of ‘dictionary’ compilation (called nikantukal) resembling the modern Thesaurus in style but with metrical glosses.

  11. 11.

    I have written about the Tamil Protestant and Saivite rivalry elsewhere (see Israel 2011, 2012).

  12. 12.

    Goa, currently a small state in Western India, came under Portuguese Catholic influence in the early sixteenth century and has since been predominantly Catholic.


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Copyright information

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hephzibah Israel
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Literatures, Languages and CulturesUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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