The Mar Thoma (St. Thomas) Christians of Malabar (Kerala) are one of the earliest Christian communities in the world and as old as the Church in Rome and older than the Church of England. It is traditionally believed that St. Thomas, an Apostle of Jesus Christ came to India in A. D. 52 and landed at Kodungalloor, which was a port near Cochin, on the Malabar coast. According to tradition the ‘Namboodiri Brahmins’ were attracted to the new teaching and several of them received baptism. A few families among them were chosen to be responsible for the government of the new Christian community. Mar Thoma then continued his mission and reached the east coast of India. He died a martyr’s death at a place called St. Thomas Mount and was buried at Mylapore in Madras (Chennai). His relics were taken to Edessa in A.D. 232.
It has been believed that Mar Thoma established seven Churches in the Chera Kingdom (Kerala): (1) Kodungalloor (Malankara), (2) Chavakad (Palur), (3) Parur near Alwaye, (4) Gokamangalam, (5) Niranam, (6) Nilakkal (Chayal) and (7) Kollam (Kalyan). The seven congregations began to grow very slowly. They made an impact around their surroundings. The neighbours of these Christians called them “Nazarenes’ (meaning ‘followers of the man of Nazareth’). Very little is known about the detailed history of this early period of the Church except the reference of Eusebius on the visit of Pantaenus, a missionary from Alexandria, to India. The record of the Council on Nicea (325 A D.) mentioned the presence of Bishop John of India.
The Syrian / Persian Connection
In A. D. 345 a significant group of about 400 families, from east Syria migrated to Kerala under Thomas of Cana (Knaye Thomman), a merchant. The Nazarenes kindly received the newly arrived Christians, who later settled in the land and absorbed the local culture. It is known that following Cana Thoma, several others including priests and prelates visited Kerala from Persia. In the 6th century the Persian influence began to make a big thrust through a great missionary movement from the Nestorian Church. The Mar Thoma Christians were drawn to this new movement and soon Nestorianism began to flourish in the Church.
Very little is known about the condition of the Church in those days. Obviously there was ecclesiastical connection with the Church in the Middle East from where Bishops came and rendered spiritual ministrations and ordained priests, irrespective of doctrinal differences. But the Malankara Church remained independent in administration under the Arch Deacons.
The Roman Catholics
In 1498, Vasco de Gama and the Portuguese arrived at Kozhikode on the Malabar coast. The Pope wanted to use this opportunity to bring the Church of Malabar under the supremacy of Rome. The Roman Church sent in Catholic missionaries and started Seminaries to train young men, but the Mar Thoma Christians did not accept them. The Portuguese used their power to prevent Babylonian and Persian Bishops to come to India. The powerful Archbishop Alexio de Menzes of Goa managed to win over to his side many of the leaders of the Church by friendly visits, bribery and threats. By 1599, the Mar Thoma Christians were asked to recant their faith and practice and embrace the Latin version of Roman Catholicism. This was done at the Synod at Diamper (Udayamperoor, near Ernakulam) in which Arch Deacon Geevarghese of the Syrian Christians was forced to sign a document prepared by the Archbishop. Thus the Syrian Christians of Malabar (Malankara Church) was made part of the Roman Catholic Church under the Pope. The records and prayer books of the old Church were destroyed. The Malankara Church was under the Roman power for half a century.
Declaration of Independence
Agonized and offended under the Portuguese-led Catholicism, Arch Deacon Thomas mustered his people against Rome and the Portuguese. In 1653, 25,000 Christians and 633 clergy marched to Cochin Fort. Confronted by the Portuguese canons, they withdrew to the Church at Mattancherry and took the following pledge touching the ropes tied to the Cross there: “We and our children shall never be under Rome”. The granite Cross was slightly leaning and hence this oath is known as the Coonen Kurishu Sathyam (Oath of the bent Cross), a declaration of independence against foreign aggression over the sovereign right of the Christians in India. Thus independence was reestablished in the Malankara Church. But later yielding to the propaganda of the Catholics, a large number of those who took oath reentered the Roman fold. The ancient Malankara Church was thus divided into two branches, viz, those who sided with Rome known as Roman Catholics and those who preferred to be independent known as Malankara Syrian Christians. Arch deacon Thomas was made a Bishop by his supporters with the title Mar Thoma I, the first Indian Metran of the Church. He sought the support of sister Churches in Antioch, Babylon, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Abysinia.
As a response to the appeal sent, Mar Gregorios arrived from Jerusalem in 1665. He duly ‘laid hands’ and consecrated Mar Thoma I as Bishop, thus restoring the Episcopal continuity. Mar Gregorios belonged to that section of the Antiochan Church known as Jacobites. In course of time the independent Church of the Mar Thoma Christians, with their Mar Thoma Metrans was brought under the influence of the Antiochan Jacobite Church. The Church which declared freedom from Rome came under the yoke of Jacobitism.
The Anglicans & Mission of Help
In 1806, Claudius Buchanan, a chaplain of the Church of England at Calcutta visited Travancore and Cochin. He met the then Metropolitan, Mar Dionysius the Great. He got the Gospels translated into Malayalam in 1811. The British Resident Colonel Monro also took a very keen interest in the welfare of the Syrian Christians By his initiative a seminary for the education of the Syrian Christian clergy was established at Kottayam in 1813, on a property given to the Church.
The Malankara Church at this time was at a very low spiritual level. Public worship was conducted in Syriac language. People understood very little of it. The Bible was a closed book. There was no exposition of the Word of God during the services. Religious life consisted of certain ceremonies, rituals and festivals. People were steeped in ignorance and superstitions. Offerings were made to the saints to avoid calamities and to gain personal advantages. Special festivals were held when the images of the saints were taken in procession to please them and win their favour. Some of the vestiges of the Roman connections remained even though independence was established. Celibacy of the priests was insisted upon. Prayers to the Saints and masses for the departed continued. Compulsory fees levied on the occasion for rites and ceremonies were the main source of income for the clergy. The clergy had very little training.
By the request of Col. Monro, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in London sent Thomas Norton as a ‘Mission of Help’, not to create a new Church, but to bring the light of the Gospel and rebuild the dilapidated Church. More CMS missionaries came in the following years. Benjamin Bailey was active in literary work. He established the first printing press, making it with his own hands for printing the Bible. He got the New Testament translated into Malayalam and published it. Later the whole Malayalam Bible was published in 1841. Joseph Fenn was the Principal of the Seminary and was engaged in the training of the clergy. Henry Baker was active in educational work and started educational institutions in many places.
The relationship between subsequent CMS Missionaries and Chepat Mar Dionysius, the then Metropolitan, deteriorated due to vested interests of the people who did not favour reforms. The Metropolitan called a Synod of the Church at Mavelikara in 1836. The Synod resolved not to accept the reforms suggested by the CMS Missionaries and reiterated their allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch. Thus the relationship between the Metropolitan and the Missionaries severed. The claims on properties between the Metropolitan and the Missionaries were settled through arbitration.
Abraham Malpan (Malpan means Professor) was one of the professors at the Seminary. The study and learning of the open Word of God combined with saintly life persuaded Abraham Malpan to question some of the practices continued in the Church. He realized that the Mavelikara Synod (1836) was not heeding to any kind of reform in the Church. Instead the synod openly and irrevocably declared that the Malankara Church belonged to the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch and was thus obliged to continue its faith and practice. Malpan along with eleven clergymen submitted a memorandum consisting of 24 theses to Col. Fraser, the British Resident in 1836. This is known as the ‘Trumpet Call of Reformation’. The memorandum clearly stated the ecclesial irregularities committed by the Metropolitan Chepat Mar Dionysius and his associates and also the wrong religious practices carried on in the Church. Col. Fraser was not able to enquire into these matters. Abraham Malpan, Kaithayil Geevarghese Malpan and others were not discouraged. They took upon themselves the God-given task of reformation in the Malankara Church.
In 1837 Abraham Malpan celebrated Holy Qurbana in his own Maramon Church for the first time in Malayalam language using a revised liturgy. He also took courage to send deacon Mathew to Mardin in Syria with a petition to the Patriarch of Antioch. The Patriarch received him, the first ever Christian of the Mar Thoma tradition to visit him in person. The Patriarch being pleased, consecrated Mathews as Metropolitan with the title Mar Athanasius. In 1843, he returned to Kerala and assumed responsibility as the Metropolitan of the entire Malankara Mar Thoma Christians. Since he supported the reform movement of Abraham Malpan, a section of the people led by Chepat Mar Dionysius opposed him. Mathews Mar Athanasius got royal proclamation in 1852 declaring him as the Metropolitan of the Malankara Church. To oppose the reformists, Chepat Mar Dionysius sent Pulicot Joseph Kathanar to Mardin, who was consecrated as Bishop with the title Joseph Mar Dionysius. Meanwhile Mathews Mar Athanasius consecrated Abraham Malpan’s son as Bishop with the name Thomas Mar Athanasius. The Patriarch of Antioch himself came to Kerala in 1875. A prolonged litigation followed as to who was the rightful Malankara Metropolitan. Finally the case was decided in the Royal Court of Appeal in Trivandrum in 1889. Two Judges in the High Court declared that Joseph Mar Dionysius was the rightful Metropolitan of the Malankara Church as he expressed allegiance to the Patriarch of Antioch. One Christian Judge gave the verdict in favour of Thomas Mar Athanasius because of his conviction that the Malankara Church has been an independent Church from the very beginning. The majority view prevailed and Thomas Mar Athanasius had to leave the old Seminary and the properties there because he upheld the autonomy of the Church. Thus the Royal Court Judgement set the seal on division of the Malankara Church, one who accepted the supremacy of the Patriarch of Antioch known as the Jacobite Church and the other who restored the ancient faith and independence of the Malabar Church known as the Mar Thoma Syrian Church.
Again Court cases continued for the possession of the individual churches. The Mar Thoma Church got only Maramon and Kozhencherry churches by court decision and the Kottarakara church without contest. The old Syrian Church at Chengannur is a common property of the Orthodox and Mar Thoma Churches. Other churches in Thevalakara, Mallappally, Kurthamala and Thalavady were to be used by both Churches on alternate Sundays.
The Mar Thoma Church maintained its oriental form of worship and practice, and gave lead in the mission of the Church. The Church initiated worship in the language of the people (liturgy was translated from Syriac into Malayalam). Certain prayers and practices were discarded in the light of the Gospel, e.g. Prayers to the Saints, Prayer and adoration of Virgin Mary, Prayers for the dead. The Church experienced a great spiritual revival in the aftermath of reformation. It grew from strength to strength attaining a position of usefulness and service through the farsighted leadership of Bishops, enlightened priests and devoted laity.
The faith and practice of the Mar Thoma Church is entirely based on Biblical teachings. The Church is neither a protestant Church of the western type nor an orthodox church of the eastern type. It is oriental in worship, autonomous in administration and missionary in action. The Church follows an orthodox (true worship) liturgy and a catholic (to all, for all) mission and evangelism. Truly it is a ‘bridge church’ between the eastern and western ecclesial traditions. The Church affirms its faith in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. It accepts the first three ecumenical councils as authoritative, viz. Nicea (A. D. 325.), Constantinople (A. D. 381) and Ephesus (A. D. 431) In the modern ecumenical movement the Mar Thoma Syrian Church plays a significant role, as a Church with oriental heritage and occidental zeal for mission.