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Religious Encounter between Christianity and Other Religions during the 19TH and 20th Century

Updated on February 3, 2015

The Christian religion emerged in what is today known as Palestine and Israel some 2000 years during the beginning of the common era. Christianity is based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ who was a prophet and Jewish teacher. The early followers of Jesus Christ who came to be referred as the Christians believed that Jesus was a divine being and that he was the son of God[1]. This is a deviation from Islam and Judaism, which are essentially monotheistic religions. Judaism does not belief that any of their Prophets were divine. On the other hand, although Muslims also believe that God spoke directly to Mohammed through angel Gabriel, Islam does not consider him as being divine[2] .

Early Christians suffered persecutions at the hands of Roman officials. However, the fact that Palestine was part of the Roman Empire greatly facilitated the rapid spread of Christianity. Just like Islam, Christianity is considered as a proselytizing religion. This translates that the followers of these religions have a belief that it is their responsibility to share their religion and try to bring others to their religion. Early Christians emanated from the Jewish tradition, but they had a believe that the message and teaching of Jesus Christ were supposed to be for all people in the world. They used the transportation networks such as shipping routes, roads in spreading the message of Jesus throughout the Roman empire and areas of the Mediterranean region of North Africa, Western Asia, Southern Europe and the Mediterranean sea[3].

Looking at the map of Christianity in Africa, it is apparent that Palestine, where Christianity first emerged is quite close to Africa in proximity. Owing to this aspect, there is no doubt that Christianity spread to North Africa and Egypt during the first century, especially in Alexandria, which later became a crucial center for the new religion[4].

Presently, among Christian scholars and theologians of comparative religion, a great extent of ink has been spilled in an attempt of defining the relationship between Christianity and other non-Christian religions around the world. The fact that majority if not all non Christians religions are existing in proximity with the Christian religion have lent the task of research a new urgency. Today, it is not a surprise to find churches among Buddhist, Hindu, Sick temples or synagogue. In this type of encounter of the other world religions in the world, plus their innumerable divisions and sub divisions, the character of Christian theology and scholarship has greatly changed (Kant, I (2011).


Christianity and Punjab during the 19th and 20th Century

Christianity first entered Punjab, India on a permanent basis in 1834. The first followers were largely urban, social diverse and literate people. The mass conversion movements for rural Dalits changed the community into a larger, but a backward and homogenous community. The influence of Christianity in Punjab was at its peak in the late nineteenth century[5]. However, when there was a replacement of politics with social cultural reform as the predominant concern for the elite, Christians in the country became marginalized, despite the fact that their institutional presence had become more conspicuous and that they had established good relationship with other religions in the country. Most Christians in Punjab India were largely Protestants, but since 1970s, the growing Pentecostalism and catholic missionaries had made Christianity in Punjab to be more diverse[6].

Upon entering Punjab, Christians found that the society was based on jati- or caste systems while Christians were for practical purposes one jati. In other words, Christians do believe that all humans have the same status before God. However, they took note of their traditional religious values, differentiation within the community with regard to income, occupation, denomination, education and their case backgrounds since most of the initial converts were from the lower caste systems. Although the Punjab do not regard the caste system highly within their community, the community was very much conscious of their low status and have noted that conversion to Christianity improved their status. It is because of Christianity that Punjab speaking people have now tolerated all kinds of food, practicing village exogamy, communal endogamy and free exchange with people of other cultures. Additionally, women in Punjab region are treated than they were before the advent of Christianity in the region[7].

However, the start of Christianity in Punjab was very gradual. This is because the missionaries had first to take time in studying the culture and languages of the local people. The spread of Christianity was also hampered by the stereotypes, which these Europeans harbored. Such stereotypes were largely due to conventional European wisdom concerning the Punjabis and the experience they acquired with the Punjabi people by themselves. This was the reason why the development of Christianity n the region was small. The missionaries and early Christian adventures in the region reported as being well received by members of the dominant communities in the villages, which they visited. The labors who were working for them developed a large interest for Christianity and converted in large numbers[8].

In essence, Christians have made tremendous contributions to the culture of Punjab people. The earliest of these was a production of the first dictionaries and grammars of the Punjabi people. Christians also translated the bible and some classics of the western religion including but not limited to Pilgrim’s Progress which transformed the new literary forms which were later used by other communities in their own writings. The cultural influence of Christianity in Punjab was at its peak during the second half of the 19th century. At this time, they were strongly felt in education and reform agendas within their religious communities. Similar, the culture of Punjab people also made a significant impact upon Christian practices. A notable milestone can be derived from Rev. Imam Shahbaz who set the psalms in such a way as to fit the meter of the popular Punjabi tunes. On the other hand, the Punjabi Zaburs (known as psalms) greatly added to the vitality of both the urban and rural Christian worship. Some of the Punjabi religious forms have also been incorporated in Christian churches. Worshipers used to leave their shoes outside the church door. In some churches, worshipers used to sit on the floor, with men on one side of the central aisle and women on the other side. Men who were wearing Turbans were allowed to keep them during worship[9].

The Encounter of Christian Faith and African Religions in the 19th and 20th Century

In Africa, Christianity encounter with African traditional religions was a major source of misunderstandings between the Europeans and Africans. The different denominations and missionaries have very varying views concerning materiality and religion. The catholic fathers for instance, sought to replace traditional religions and the objects used in religious rituals with catholic images. Protestants on the hand placed more focus on “inner belief” and shunned all religious objects on their entirety. This strategy was almost similar to the one adopted to some new Christian or Jewish settlers in West Africa. The broad and varied practices of employing religious objects in rituals for the purpose of protecting the people and the societies have been extensively studied and addressed by historians, archeologist and anthropologists in Africa. However, the changes that occurred during this time and in contact with the Europeans have not been clearly understood. How things, which were connected, to the material/visible material to the immaterial or invisible transform when African religions came into contact with Christianity in various parts of the continent. We would also like to know that materiality, deity and ancestor images, amulets, iconography, natural objects, prayer beards, crucifixes and relics in African traditional religions across space and time. In addition, we would also like to know the types of expectations, misinterpretations and conflicts that emerged from the use of material objects in religious life[10].

The European missionaries and Christians employed locally made and imported objects which helped them to spread their faith along the missionizing routes and regional trade. Through the half of the nineteenth century, the concurrent Christians connected with their larger counterparts through long-distance trade to Europe, Angola and Brazil as well as the religious and political ties to Portugal and Rome. The people’s movement, teachings and objects through rural and urban cities, led to varied religious blending, doctrinal adherence and conflicts between foreign missionaries, Christians and local religious teachings. The Christians also used diverse objects, which was a reflection of European and African visual vocabularies, expressive of individual and public devotion and political allegiance or individual status. Additionally, the objects also reflected the lateral and simultaneous nature of Christians and their view concerning political, religious and economic networks (Almeida, 2010). In South Africa for instance, the encounter between the Christian and Africa indigenous religions in the 19th and 20th century may be productively analyzed in terms of changing economic, political and cultural functions of material objects, both in religious perspectives and also in the comparative study of religions at this time[11].

The Church of England's CMS missionaries on Africa and specifically on Niger, which is now Nigeria were actively engaged with denunciation of the local religious practices and objects of individuals who had wanted to convert. Further, they actively involved themselves in sacralising and fetishing their own “missionaries” spaces, European exotic imports, architecture and books. There were reports of missionaries and Christians making disparaging statements and remarks concerning traditional ritual objects and cases of surrender or destruction of such objects or materials to missionaries and other Christian leaders[12]. The studied antagonism to conventional objects was a major means by which the missionaries and Christian leaders in the mid 19th century Nigeria projected the value of missionary Christianity which they advocated and measured its impact and influence on traditional religions. In the northern side of the Nigeria and Benue, the Muslim identity, dress code and religion intersection well with the Christian religion. This time also saw the demarcation of boundaries between the Muslims, Christians and pagans. Hence, contestation and denunciation of traditional and Muslim sacred materials and a reconstitution of materials that were related to Christianity, missionaries, and other Christian leaders as solemn and sacred were considered as important paradoxical trends which characterized the encounter between the Church Missionary Society missionaries and Africans on where they were stationed[13].

Christianity Encounter with Muslims during the 19th Century

Since the 7th century CE, there has always been some form of relationship between Muslims and Christians. Before the advent of Islam in Arabia, Nestorian Christian missionaries tried not to live in isolation or ignore their pagan counterparts as well as the Monophysite Christians from such places as Abyssinia and built a magnificent cathedral in Sana’a, (today’s Yemen). Prophet Muhammad was a trader and regularly travelled to incense and spice routes. History and writings indicate that he regularly related with Christians while crossing the pagan and tribal lands. Since 7th century CE, there has been some form of relations between Muslims and Christians. Before the emergency of Islam in Arabia, the Monophysite Christians who largely emanated from Abyssinia set out to establish magnificent churches in Arabia. However, after the death of Mohammed, Muslims and Christians began leading their separate ways. Remembering how important the Muslim- Christian religions were between the 632CE and the start of the 19th century both negative and positive. An example of the negative impact was seen in the growing violent class between Christians and Muslim slave traders[14].

In the beginning of the 19th century, there was an increased movement of Christian missionaries into the Muslim world. At this time and in particular the 20th century saw missionaries from the church missionary society, the missionaries for Africa the (identified as the white fathers), the reformed church of America among other Christians traverse the Muslim land spreading the Christian message. They also emphasized on giving the Christian followers as well as new or potential converts new ideas and principles of being a Christian among Muslims. The Christian missionaries went on to establish schools, social relief, hospitals and refugee camps[15].

Muslims on the other hand, took a very different approach from the Christians. There approach brought a real encounter between Muslims and Christians through their Islamic studies and Arabic language. For instance, Anglican missionary societies in the 20th century generated Islamicists and Arabists such as Charis Waddy, Kenneth Cragg, Spencer Trimingham, Constance Padwick, among others. These and many others were considered teachers of that generation and they were mandated to prepare indigenous Christians for the purpose of ordination and other Christians rituals[16].

Muslims on the other hand, began to thoughtful realize that since Islam and in particular at the time of Ottomans had become corrupt and seriously immoral, Christians could nonetheless be prone to judging them on such aberrations. Therefore, during the 19th and 20th century, Muslims began to revive out things and interests, which had marked out Islam during the medieval period. This included but not limited to literature, architecture, scholasticism, and philosophy. These influences actually paved the way for the interesting development in the Muslim- Christian relationship since the end of the Second World War to present[17].

Christianity and Judaism Encounter During the 19th Century

Jewish Christians are considered as the Jewish movement which later became to be Known as Christianity. In its earliest stage, the community consisted of all the Jews had believed Jesus as the messiah or a divine person and they were therefore considered as being equal with the rest of the Christians[18]. The evolution and growth of Christianity saw Jewish Christians become only one strand of the Christian society which was largely characterized by combining the confession of Jesus as the Messiah by with continued adherence of Jewish practices such as the Jewish calendar, Sabbath observance, Jewish laws , synagogue attendance, circumcision and relationship with the early Jewish Christianity[19].

In 19th century, the number of Jews who had converted to Christianity significantly increased. Many became members of Catholic congregations and Protestantism and they were no very strict about observing Mosaic laws, including those related to diet, the Sabbath and so forth. In addition, many Jews became generally assimilated into the mainstream Christianity, though they retained a strong sense of their Jewish identity. Most of these Jewish Christians also referred to themselves as Hebrew Christians. Many have also intermarried with non-Jews and come to embrace a mixed identity and culture[20].

The Anglican led Hebrew Christian movement in the 19th century was largely aimed at converting as many Jews as possible and changing their attitudes towards Christianity. This encounter between Christianity and Judaism resulted into an integration of initiatives between the two religions, with figures such as Solomon Michael Alexander who was the Bishop of Jerusalem between 1842-1845. Messianic Jews, people who adhered to Messianic Judaism, were syncretic. They were syncretic in the sense that they combined evangelical Christian belief with some Jewish religious practices[21]. Faithful of this religion, many of which were ethnically Jewish could be found worshipping in among Christian congregations. However, may still observe their Jewish religious customs and practices such as Hebrew prayers and use of Torah, circumcision, observing Kosher dietary laws and observance of Saturday as the Sabbath. Many also do not prefer using the title “Christians” in describing themselves, but they do recognize Christianity and the New Testament as being inspired of God. The many forms of Judaism are not completely distinct. For instance, while some adheres are in favor of Messianic congregations, they live freely in both worlds, which is in both Christendom and Judaism[22].

The Christian missionary practices that were aimed at converting the Jews inevitably influenced the direction and religious life for many Jews. However, there were also Other Jews who were also Jews who were also cautious and monitored the efforts of Christianity with much caution. Most of the Christian activities, which Christians viewed as being benevolent such as offering financial assistance, free education and other aid to the Jewish Poor, appeared provocative to some Jew. In addition, they were also viewed as inducements to converting and some of the took affront distinctions that were drawn by some protestants between the mythical Jews which they had learned in church and the neighboring Jews who totally seemed to be different[23].

Some of the Jews, who were not comfortable with the “neglect” and apathy which they had seen manifested towards their religion and partly influenced by the rapid spread of Unitarianism, fearing the activities of the Christian missionaries which were directed towards them in converting to Christianity established various societies to maintain and promote their religion. The reformed society of Israelites is one of such societies, which were aimed at promoting the actual principles of Judaism in accordance to its spirit and purity[24]. In reformed Israelite congregations, it was normal for one to find abbreviated service, regular sermons and vernacular prayers. In addition, some of their practices also became “Protestantized” by traditional congregations[25].


Through the preceding descriptions and analysis of religious encounter between Christianity and various other religions, one thing should be clear. That Christianity is not framed on a simple negation of religions or quasi religions, which it encounters. Rather, the relation is found to be profoundly dialectical and is not by itself a weakness. Instead, this dialectical nature of Christianity in its encounter with other religions can be termed as its greatness, particularly in its self-critical protestant form.

This leads us to the most global problem in our subject: whether the analysis has demanded a mixture of Christianity with other cultures or religions course altogether. According to our perspectives, none of these alternatives will suffice. A mixture of religions will destroy in every of them the concreteness which gives it its dynamic power. On the other hand, the victory of one religion could impose a specific religious answer on all other answers. Religion cannot end and a particular religion will be lasting to the extent at which it negates itself as a religion. Therefore, Christianity could be a bearer of a religious answer as long as it breaks through its particularity.



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