Types of Christians in IndiaIndia is a diverse country with a rich cultural heritage, and Christianity is one of the many religions practiced in the country. There are several types of Christians in India, each with their own unique beliefs and practices. In this article, we will explore some of the different types of Christians in India.
Types of Christians in India
- Roman Catholic Christians
Roman Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination in India, with over 19 million followers1. The Roman Catholic Church has a long history in India, dating back to the arrival of Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. Today, there are over 170 dioceses in India, and the Church plays an important role in the country’s social and educational development.
- Protestant Christians
Protestantism is the second-largest Christian denomination in India, with over 5 million followers1. There are several Protestant denominations in India, including the Church of South India, the Church of North India, and the Presbyterian Church. Protestantism first arrived in India with the arrival of British colonizers in the 18th century.
- Orthodox Christians
Orthodox Christianity has a small but significant presence in India, with over 2 million followers1. The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is the largest Orthodox denomination in India, and it traces its origins back to the arrival of St. Thomas the Apostle in India in the 1st century AD.
- Syro-Malabar Christians
The Syro-Malabar Church is a major Christian denomination in India, with over 4 million followers1. It is an Eastern Catholic Church that follows the Syriac tradition of Christianity. The Syro-Malabar Church has a strong presence in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
- Pentecostal Christians
Pentecostalism is a relatively new form of Christianity in India, but it has grown rapidly in recent years. Pentecostal Christians emphasize the importance of the Holy Spirit and believe in the gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and healing. There are several Pentecostal denominations in India, including the Assemblies of God and the Pentecostal Mission.
History of Christianity in India
Christianity in India has a long history dating back to the 1st century AD. According to tradition, Christianity was introduced to India by Thomas the Apostle, one of the original disciples of Jesus Christ.
The Saint Thomas Christians trace their origins to Thomas’s missionary work along the Malabar Coast in modern-day Kerala. This community became affiliated with the Church of the East, Nestorian Christianity, starting in the 4th century.
In the 16th century, Christianity experienced a new chapter with the arrival of European colonial powers like the Portuguese and the growth of Roman Catholicism.
Catholic orders such as the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Carmelites established missions across India, leading to many conversions. Protestant missionaries later arrived from countries like England, Germany, and Denmark during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today, Christianity is India’s third largest religion after Hinduism and Islam. Christians have contributed significantly to India’s education, health, and social welfare spheres. However, there have also been periodic instances of communal violence and anti-conversion laws enacted in some states.
Number of Christians in India
According to the 2011 census, there are approximately 28 million Christians in India, making up about 2.3% of the country’s population. This makes Christianity the third largest religion in India after Hinduism and Islam. The states with the highest concentrations of Christians include Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa, and the Northeast.
Percentage of India’s Population that is Christian
Christians comprise about 2.3% of India’s total population of 1.3 billion, according to the 2011 census data. This makes Christianity a significant minority religion.
The Christian population has grown from 2.4% in 1971 to 2.3% in 2011. While the growth rate has slowed, the absolute number of Christians in India has increased due to the overall population growth.
Parts of India with Highest Concentrations of Christians
Some states and regions of India have particularly high concentrations of Christians:
- Kerala: 18% Christian, the highest in India
- Tamil Nadu: 6% Christian
- Goa: 26% Christian
- Nagaland: 90% Christian
- Mizoram: 87% Christian
- Meghalaya: 70% Christian
Christians also have significant populations in big cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, and Hyderabad.
Different Denominations of Christianity in India
The major denominations of Christianity found in India include:
- Roman Catholic – Around 17 million followers, the largest denomination
- Protestant – Major groups include Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc.
- Orthodox – Divided into Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church, Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, etc.
- Pentecostal – Assemblies of God, The Pentecostal Mission, Indian Pentecostal Church of God, etc.
- Independent churches like the Church of South India and Church of North India
There are also smaller denominations like Seventh-day Adventists, The Salvation Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others.
Largest Christian Denomination in India
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in India with around 17 million followers, making up about 60% of the total Christian population. The Catholic community traces its origins to the missionary works of various orders including the Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans and others starting in the 15th century.
Goa was a major center of Portuguese Catholic missionary activity. Today, significant Catholic populations are found in places like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Meghalaya, parts of Karnataka and Maharashtra. There are over 130 Catholic dioceses across India.
How Roman Catholicism Became Largest Denomination in India
Roman Catholicism grew to become the largest Christian denomination in India due to:
- Extensive missionary activity by various Catholic religious orders starting from Portuguese colonization in the 15th century
- Patronage from Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian rulers who controlled different territories
- Establishment of seminaries and formation of native clergy in places like Goa, Kochi and Pondicherry
- Setting up of schools, colleges, and welfare institutions which imparted Catholic religious education
- Social service and charitable works among marginalized communities
- Syncretism with native cultures, adapting liturgy and practices
- Conversions from lower castes and tribals attracted by Catholic teachings of equality
Over centuries, these efforts translated into millions of native conversions, cementing Catholicism’s dominance over other denominations.
History of Protestantism in India
The history of Protestantism in India goes back to the early 18th century when Lutheran and Anglican missionaries first arrived. The first Protestant church was established by Danish missionaries in 1706 at Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu.
In the 19th century, American denominations such as Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and others established missions across India. Notable missionaries included William Carey and Alexander Duff. Many schools and colleges like the Scottish Church College (1830) were founded.
Key Indian Protestant figures included Nehemiah Goreh (Anglican) and K.M. Banerjea (Presbyterian). From the late 19th century, India saw Home Church movements like the Church of South India (1947), Church of North India (1970), etc. Today, major Protestant denominations in India include Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran and Independent churches.
Presbyterian Church in India
The Presbyterian Church in India traces its origins to the work of American missionaries in the 19th century belonging to the Presbyterian Church in the USA. It is based on the theology and tradition of Presbyterian Protestantism, adhering to Reformed doctrine and a presbyterian church governance system.
The Presbyterian Church of India has nearly 1.4 million members today. It has presence across states like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. It is a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and World Council of Churches.
Church of South India
The Church of South India (CSI) is one of the largest Protestant churches in India with over 4 million members. It came into existence in 1947 with the union of Anglican, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.
The CSI follows a synodal system combining episcopacy, conciliarity and democracy. It has dioceses across South Indian states and is a member of the World Council of Churches and World Methodist Council. It is the second largest church in India after the Roman Catholic Church.
Church of North India
The Church of North India (CNI) was formed in 1970 by the union of Protestant denominations including Methodist, Anglican, Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Church of the Brethren and the United Church of Northern India.
Headquartered in New Delhi, the CNI has over 1.5 million members in 24 dioceses, mainly spread across North Indian states. It is a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and World Methodist Council. The CNI runs schools, hospitals and social welfare programs across Northern India.
Orthodox Christianity in India
Orthodox Christianity in India is traditionally traced back to apostle St. Thomas. Today there are three main oriental Orthodox churches – the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
The ethnic Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church follows a non-chalcedonian, antiochene rite and is based in Kerala led by the Catholicos. The Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church is an autonomous Oriental Orthodox Church centred in Kerala and has ties with the Syriac Orthodox Church. The Syro-Malabar Church is East Syrian in origin and today is in full communion with Rome.
Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is an autocephalous Oriental Orthodox church based in Kerala. It traces its origins to St.Thomas and the evangelistic works of Thomas of Cana in the 1st century. In the 17th century it came under the West Syrian tradition of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The Catholicos position was re-established in India in 1912.
The Church follows a liturgy based on the West Syrian tradition and has around 2.5 million members, mainly in Kerala, other parts of South India and diaspora centers. It is a member of the World Council of Churches.
Syro-Malabar Christianity is a Catholic Eastern Christian Church with East Syrian origins and Syriac liturgical tradition. It arose from the evangelistic activity of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century in Kerala. The community came under the jurisdiction of Assyrian Church of the East in the 4th century.
In the 16th century, ties were established with Roman Catholicism. Today the Syro-Malabar Church is the largest of the St. Thomas Christians based in Kerala with over 4 million followers. It is one of the 22 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome.
Pentecostalism in India
Pentecostalism arrived in India in the early 20th century through the work of Western missionaries. Two key early missions were the Apostolic Faith Mission led by Minnie F. Abrams which began in Mumbai in 1907 and the Pentecostal Mission started by Robert F. Cook in Tamil Nadu in 1909.
Pentecostalism stresses spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy based on the biblical account of the Pentecost.
Indian Pentecostals are known for passionate prayer, revival meetings and use of musical instruments. Key denominations include Assemblies of God, The Pentecostal Mission, Church of God and New Apostolic Church.
Beliefs and Practices of Pentecostal Christians in India
Some key beliefs and practices of Indian Pentecostal Christians include:
- Baptism in the Holy Spirit evidenced by speaking in tongues
- Emphasis on spiritual gifts like faith healing, exorcism, prophecy
- Strict morality and holiness living
- Belief in Jesus Christ’s imminent Second Coming
- Emotive worship style including singing, dancing, testimonies
- Tithing and generous giving to the church
- Abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and drugs
- Evangelism and missionary zeal to bring unbelievers to the faith
Assemblies of God Denomination
The Assemblies of God is one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in India with over 3 million members. It has its origins in a revival movement in Los Angeles in 1906 which then spread worldwide.
The Indian Assemblies of God organised itself as an independent church in 1927 in Karnataka. It has rapidly grown since and has members across India divided into around 100 district councils and local churches. It is part of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship and emphasizes evangelism, divine healing and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
The Pentecostal Mission
The Pentecostal Mission is a Pentecostal church founded in Tamil Nadu, India in 1909 by Christian missionary Robert F. Cook from the Azusa Street Revival. It was one of the first Pentecostal missions in India advocating baptism by the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues.
From its base in Tamil Nadu, the Church has spread to other parts of India establishing churches, prayer groups, educational institutions, orphanages and other social welfare works. It has over 1,000 churches and a membership of around 1 million across India and among Indian diaspora communities.
Role of Christianity in India’s Social and Educational Development
Christianity has played a major role in India’s social and educational development through:
- Setting up of schools, colleges and technical institutes by missionaries and churches
- Imparting education to girls, lower castes and marginalized sections of society
- Establishing hospitals, clinics, orphanages to provide social service
- Campaigning against social evils like caste discrimination, dowry system and child marriage
- Fighting for lower caste rights, pumps for Dalits, reservation for backward communities
- Contribution of Christian scholars, educators, doctors, nurses, philanthropists
- Inculcating ethics, discipline and a spirit of service through educational institutions
- Promoting women’s education through convent schools and colleges
Relationship Between Christians and Muslims in India
The relationship between Christians and Muslims in India has been complex, with periods of mutual harmony and cooperation as well as conflict.
In parts of India, Christians and Muslims have lived peacefully together for centuries with shared customs and festivals. Intermarriages have taken place. Christians have held prominent positions in Muslim administrations like actor Dilip Kumar (Yousuf Khan).
However, there have also been instances of communal tensions and violence. In the Mappila Rebellion of 1921 in Kerala, Muslim tenants targeted Christian landlords. Sporadic riots have occurred in places like Sholapur, Aligarh, Meerut, etc. Post-Independence migrations during Partition also impacted communal relations.
Evangelical Christian efforts have sometimes provoked tensions with Muslims. But many churches today actively pursue interfaith dialogue with Islamic clerics and institutions to foster better understanding.
Relationship Between Christians and Hindus in India
Hindu-Christian relations in India have evolved from the historical rivalry between colonial missionaries and native communities to a more harmonious equation at present.
Missionary denigration of Hinduism led to distrust among Indians. But Christian contributions in education, healthcare and social change led to gradual acceptance. While active conversions create tensions in some areas, many Christians play an integral economic and cultural role in Indian society.
Inter-marriages between Hindus and minority Christians are on the rise. The Hindu nationalism of groups like RSS, VHP and concerns of forceful conversions have strained ties occasionally.
But most churches now focus on social service rather than conversions. Leaders like Pope Francis, Dalai Lama and Mohan Bhagwat have called for Hindu-Christian dialogue and tolerance.
Indian National Congress and Indian Christians
The Indian National Congress was at the forefront of India’s freedom struggle and several Christians played an important role within it:
- Prominent Christian Congress presidents: Pattom A. Thanu Pillai, T. John, Bonnerjee, Annie Besant
- Christian leaders in Congress like I.C. Chacko, Oomen Chandy, George Joseph, Margaret Alva
- Christian congressmen who signed a Nehru Report, drafted the Constitution
- Christians in the Constituent Assembly – Frank Anthony, Jerome D’Souza
- Christian congressmen in states like Kerala, Meghalaya and Nagaland
The secular and inclusive nature of Congress attracted Christians. They participated in the freedom movement through marches, picketing and civil disobedience. Congress governments have generally protected the rights and interests of minority Christians.
World Council of Churches and Christianity in India
The World Council of Churches is a global fellowship of 350 churches and denominations representing 590 million Christians. The National Council of Churches in India represents 16 million Indian Christians across Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic traditions.
The WCC has facilitated dialogue between Indian churches. It has helped channel development aid, run educational institutions and spread ecumenism. The NCCI engages with the government and civil society on behalf of Indian Christians. It has aided inter-faith harmony and understanding.
Indian Christians and churches have greatly benefitted from their participation and leadership in the worldwide ecumenical movement through bodies like WCC and NCCI.
Tamil Nadu Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance
The Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Ordinance is an anti-conversion law passed in Tamil Nadu, India in 2002 during J. Jayalalithaa’s rule. It prohibits conversion from one religion to any other religion by the use of “force”, “allurement” or “fraudulent means”.
All conversions require prior permission from the district collector. Infractions can lead to imprisonment up to 3 years. Critics allege the law discriminates against religious minorities and obstructs freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution.
Proponents argue it prevents forced conversions protecting religious harmony. Several states like Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, etc. have enacted similar laws.
Role of Christianity in India’s Independence Movement
While the Indian independence movement was predominantly led by the Indian National Congress party, Indian Christians made several important contributions:
- Prominent Christian founding members of Congress – Allan Octavian Hume, C.I. Joseph, Lal Mohan Ghose
- Dadabhai Naoroji, president of Congress and Grand Old Man of India, was Zoroastrian Christian
- Christian leaders in Congress like Joseph Baptista, John Mathai, I.C. Chacko, Jerome D’Souza
- Christian Congress Chief Ministers like A. Thanu Pillai, Rishang Keishing, D.D. Lapang
- Christians participated in mass campaigns like the Salt March, boycotts of foreign goods, and the Quit India Movement
- Educated Christians drafted memorandums, petitions and letters to the British government demanding freedom
- Christian newspapers and journals spread nationalist ideals and news on freedom struggle
- Christians founded the All India Christian Association in 1860 to voice political demands
So while the movement was predominantly Hindu, Indian Christians played an active role in India’s long independence struggle.
History of Christian Missions in India
The history of organized Christian missionary activity in India dates back to the arrival of Portuguese friars and Jesuits in the 16th century, particularly under imperial patronage in Goa.
In the 18th century, Protestant missionaries belonging to various denominations from Europe and America began arriving – Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists and others established missions across India.
Famous missionaries included Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, William Carey and Amy Carmichael. They focused on evangelism, education through schools, social reform and providing health care.
Many Indians converted owing to the missionaries’ humanitarian works. This rapid growth of Christianity alarmed Hindu and Muslim communities eventually leading to resistance and anti-conversion laws.
Today while evangelism continues to an extent, Indian churches and missionaries mainly focus on social service and relief activities across the country.
Jesuit Mission in India
The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, were one of the prominent Catholic missionary orders that established Christian missions across India.
The first Jesuits arrived in Goa along with Portuguese colonists in 1542. Under superior Francis Xavier, they started evangelizing activities on the western coast converting thousands, especially from fishing communities.
Jesuit missionary strategy involved adapting to local culture. They studied native languages, translated prayers and catechism, and trained native clergy. They allowed caste segregation and Brahmin converts to maintain their status.
By 1580 the Jesuits had established missions not just in Goa but also Cochin, Pallipuram and Tuticorin down the Coromandel Coast all the way to Bengal. Prominent missionaries included Rodolfo Acquaviva, Francisco Ros SJ, Ippolito Desideri, Anthony Monserrate and others.
Jesuit missions were noted for adopting temple design styles and incorporating Hindu elements into buildings, paintings, music and liturgy to attract converts. They also ran hospitals, orphanages and educational institutions.
While the Jesuits encountered resistance from communities, their missionary zeal, patronage from local rulers and perseverance led to thousands of converts being baptized across Portuguese and Spanish India.
Contribution of Christianity to Indian Society
Christianity has made several important contributions to Indian society:
- Education – Establishing 100s of schools, colleges and vocational institutes that provided modern education.
- Healthcare – Building hospitals and health centers that gave Indian access to Western medicine.
- Social Reform – Campaigning against child marriage, caste discrimination, untouchability, dowry system.
- Women’s Rights – Promoting women’s education, welfare and equal status through schools and social service initiatives.
- Literature & Journalism – Contribution of Christian writers, poets, journalists towards India’s literary sphere.
- Welfare – Setting up orphanages, care homes, shelters houses and rehabilitation centers for the marginalized and poor.
- Philanthropy – Undertaking famine and natural disaster relief works. Setting up charity missions.
- Nation Building – Involvement of Christian leaders in the independence movement, lawmaking and governance of independent India.
Future of Christianity in India
While the rate of growth has slowed in recent decades, Christianity is expected to continue playing a prominent role in India’s religious landscape given:
- Increase in absolute Christian population due to demographic growth
- Continued missionary activity among tribals and economically deprived communities
- Rise in interfaith marriages leading to new generations with Christian heritage
- Migration of Christians from other countries and growth of Christain diaspora in India
- Greater social mobility and urban integration of lower caste converts seeking equality
- Utilization of tools like social media, satellite TV and radio to spread Christian message
However, anti-conversion sentiments among Hindu right-wing groups may lead to social and legal hurdles limiting evangelism and conversions.
Current State of Religious Tolerance and Segregation in India
While India’s Constitution enshrines freedom of religion and the Indian state is officially secular, issues of intolerance and segregation exist:
- Sporadic communal violence between religious communities in places like Odisha, Gujarat, Delhi etc.
- ‘Ghar wapsi’ or reconversion efforts by Hindu groups like RSS, VHP targeting Muslims, Christians and tribals
- Social ostracization of Dalits in rural areas for pursuing non-Hindu faiths
- Cow protection vigilante groups attacking cattle traders from minority communities
- Anti-conversion laws restricting evangelism in states like Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh etc.
However, the strong syncretic tradition and inherent pluralism allows India’s diverse faiths to co-exist. Inter-faith initiatives between youth and women’s groups aim to build greater trust and cooperation. The Constitution and legal framework still upholds liberty of conscience for all citizens.
Christianity is a diverse religion in India, with several different denominations and traditions. Roman Catholicism is the largest denomination, followed by Protestantism, Orthodox Christianity, Syro-Malabar Christianity, and Pentecostalism.
Each denomination has its own unique beliefs and practices, but they all share a common faith in Jesus Christ. Consider reading >>>>> Do Hindus Believe in God? to learn more.
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