History of the MTOC - THE ST. THOMAS CHRISTIANS OF INDIA

52 A.D. - 1889 A.D.

St. Thomas Christians throughout the world honor the Apostle of India as their common patron saint.  In the lush jungles of Kerala, you can still visit these ancient sites and learn about the arrival and mission of Mar Thoma going back to 52 A.D. There are many resources online on this great tradition (see resources section for further study).  Here we will share just a few highlights of our history.

 

The ancient Thomasine tradition thrived in India without significant interference from western influence for nearly 1500 years.  During much of this long period, the "Mar Thoma" Christians maintained a close relationship with the Church of the East, also known as the East Syrian tradition of Edessa (Persia) and the West Syrian orthodox tradition (Jacobite) of Antioch.  Each of these ancient church jurisdictions shares a connection with St. Thomas the Apostle.

Although there are several Christian jurisdictions which honor the common lineage of St. Thomas, there are several differences of opinion regarding the ecclesiology (church leadership) and history of the Indian Church. These divergent views are still hotly debated by the St. Thomas Christians. This is important to remember when studying the various histories from the different Christian bodies as they differ in specific historical details in their respective accounts. For our purposes here, we shall only touch briefly upon these arguments.  

 

Despite these differences in ecclesiology and historical perspective, it can be positively ascertained that the original Christian tradition in India was rooted in both Middle Eastern and native Hindu culture. Certainly, there were St. Thomas communities that very early on formed relationships with Christians from the Middle East. South India was an important trade destination, bringing many travelers from other regions. Some of these travelers remained in India, among them were East Syrian (Persian/Chaldean) Christians. The extent to which these relationships determined the identity and autonomy of the St. Thomas Christians is debatable, but it is clear that the presence of the Syriac tradition was established early in Indian church history.

 

This all began to change when the western colonial powers arrived in India, bringing with them their respective religions, cultures, and political affiliations. Colonialism caused great confusion to the Indian church as the new powers attempted to replace the traditions of St. Thomas with Roman Catholicism (via the Portuguese), and later with Anglican Protestantism (via the British Empire).  Colonialism did manage to divide the Indian Church, but despite many attempts to destroy or alter the St. Thomas tradition, it had managed, by the grace of God, to survive.

 

During the years of colonial occupation of India, various church jurisdictions emerged, but many of them maintained their identity as St. Thomas Christians. In their struggle to preserve their autonomy, some St. Thomas Christians sought the help of the West Syrian Patriarchate of Antioch. However, the self-determination of these Syriac Christians was often threatened by the overwhelming influence of the Roman See, backed by the colonial political powers.  This struggle for identity and autonomy has been longstanding and remains to this day.

 

It was in the midst of this turbulent period that the American Church of St. Thomas was born. For our purposes here, we shall only briefly mention that currently in North America, there are many St. Thomas Christians of Indian and Syrian descent.  Since their arrival in the latter half of the 21st century, these communities have built many churches throughout the United States and Canada.  They have organized themselves according to their respective native jurisdictions and have brought with them their own clergy and Episcopal representatives. 

 

Interactions between these communities and the indigenous American church have been few, but some relationships have developed.  There have even been some non-Indian clergy who have joined with Malankara (Indian) jurisdictions.  However, we will turn now to the story of those St. Thomas Christians that trace their roots to the earlier period beginning in 1892.

A photo taken in 1892 - Bishops of Malankara
Sitting from Left: Mar Timotheos I (Rene Vilatte), Mar Ivanious (Catholicose Basalios Paulose I), Malankara Metropolitan Mar Dionysius Joseph II, Mar Athanasious Paulose of Aluva, Mar Gregorios Geevargheese of Parumala, Mar Julios Alvaris of Goa (Picture from the archives of the Malankara Orthodox Seminary in Kottayam).

One of the ancient sites of St. Thomas the Apostle in South India (Kerala).  Tradition holds that this was previously a sacred pond where Thomas baptized the first Indian disciples.  The first of the seven churches believed to have been founded by St. Thomas is known as "Payalur" church today.

A photo taken in 1892 - Bishops of Malankara
Sitting from Left: Mar Timotheos I (Rene Vilatte), Mar Ivanious (Catholicose Basalios Paulose I), Malankara Metropolitan Mar Dionysius Joseph II, Mar Athanasious Paulose of Aluva, Mar Gregorios Geevargheese of Parumala, Mar Julios Alvaris of Goa (Picture from the archives of the Malankara Orthodox Seminary in Kottayam).

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