Missionary Life – Ziegenbalg

Missionary Life – Ziegenbalg

Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg was born in 1683 in Pulsnitz, Germany and was selected as a protestant missionary to India by Frederick IV, the king of Denmark. After being ordained in Copenhagen, he arrived at the Danish trade establishment of Tranquebar, South India, on July 9, 1706.

Upon arrival, Ziegenbalg met with severe resistance from all the authorities, including the local Danish governor of the colony.

The governor and the Danish East India Company authorities had already established an understanding with the local Roman Catholic Church, and the arrival of this Protestant missionary certainly meant trouble for them.

Because the spontaneous prayer, intensive Bible study, and baptism after catechism taught by Ziegenbalg went against the traditional Christian practices of that time, they did not want any “disturbance of the peace” through his teachings.

However, Ziegenbalg was determined in his mission. He first started learning the local language ‘Tamil’ so that he can communicate with the natives in their own language.  He then started learning to write in Tamil because of his plan to translate the Bible into Tamil language.

He invited the local Tamil Bandits (teachers) to come and stay with him and to run their school from his house.  While they were teaching, Ziegenbalg would sit with the young children in this school and Listen. He then practiced ‘written Tamil’ by writing the letters in sand, a very traditional practice that was in vogue even in early 1650s in Tamil Nadu villages.

After having trained well, he commenced the Tamil translation of the New Testament in the year 1708 and completed it in 1711, though printing was delayed till 1714, because of Ziegenbalg’s insistent, perfectionist revisions.

In spite of all this, it was obvious to Ziegenbalg that without a printing press his efforts would come to nought. So, he requested a printing press from Denmark possibly as early as 1709, and the Danes forwarded the appeal to London, to the ‘Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge’.

In 1712, the SPCK, shipped out to the Tranquebar Mission, a printing machine with type, paper, ink, and a printer. Ziegenbalg, even though hindered initially by delays in the construction of a suitable Tamil typeface, soon set up everything, and published the New Testament in Tamil language successfully.

Following this, Ziegenbalg then started translating the Old Testament also into Tamil Language. He built for himself a little house in a quiet area away from the centre of the town. He said that there is where he could pursue tranquilly what he regarded as the most important work of all.

He married Maria Dorothea in the year 1716, and about that time, a new and friendly governor arrived and supported his works. With the help of this governor, Ziegenbalg was then able to establish a seminary for training the native clergy.

He dearly loved the Tamils and their literature and language. He planned for their future wellbeing both spiritually and materially. His faith was always accompanied by his earnest works, and he laid the foundations for future Indian Christian theology and Churches.

He was always in a hurry to accomplish what the Lord had put in his heart because he knew in his spirit that he was given only a short life.

He was troubled by ill health his entire life, a condition aggravated by his work in the mission field. More than the opposition, he struggled coping with the climatic conditions in India., which he wrote saying “My skin was like a red cloth. The heat here is very great, especially in April, May, and June, at which season the wind blows from inland, so strongly that it seems as if the heat comes straight out of the oven” (Lehmann 1956:19).

On February 23, 1719, at the age of 37, thirteen years after his arrival in India, Ziegenbalg breathed his last breath and went home to be with his Master. He was surrounded by his family, co-workers of both Europe and India, who all sang his favorite German hymns as his journey toward Jesus Christ began. He was then buried at the New Jerusalem Church, which he helped establish in 1718 at Tranquebar.

His translation of the New Testament into Tamil in 1715, and the church building that he and his associates constructed in 1718, are still in use today. The life and work of Ziegenbalg is a great inspiration and light to all those who wish to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ all over the world.