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The British missionary who became a friend of India's poor

The 150th birth anniversary of Charles Freer Andrews, who played a crucial role in India's independence, passed unnoticed

The British missionary who became a friend of India's poor

Anglican priest Charles Freer Andrews, pictured in 1935, influenced Mahatma Gandhi to return to India from South Africa and take up the non-violent movement against the British.

Many Englishmen came to India during the British Raj era and some fell in love and stayed on. Of them, Charles Freer Andrews, an Anglican priest, took a different path with his political, social and theological views in public life and became India’s Deenabandhu (a friend of the poor).

To navigate India’s large and diverse religious and complex sociopolitical systems, Andrews parted ways with the orthodox belief that “only Christians go to heaven.”

That was more than a century ago when neither Christian theology nor the British empire would appreciate such positions. Andrews made Christian theologians and the empire rethink their morality and ethics, demanding equality and justice for the poor.

The 150th birth anniversary of this British missionary, who played a crucial role in India’s independence struggle, passed unnoticed and unsung in February. He was born on Feb. 2, 1871, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northeast England.

History tells us that Andrews influenced Mahatma Gandhi to return to India from South Africa and take up the non-violent movement against the British. Without Andrews and Gandhi, the history of modern India could have been very different.

For most of his adult life, the Englishman's close friends were practicing Hindu leaders — Gandhi and Nobel laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore — because Andrews simply rejected the idea that there was one privileged path to God.

Expected of a radical, Andrews soon felt uneasy with the mission’s preference for Anglo-Saxon morals and teachings

Friendship had a major role in the life of Andrews, about whom Gandhi once said: “I do not think I can claim a deeper attachment to anyone.” For Andrews, each new friend was “dearer than a brother.”

He severed ties with his father’s faith, Irvingism, named after deposed Presbyterian minister Edward Irving (1792-1834), which sought to build a religious body exactly on the lines of the ancient Apostolic Church.

In 1897, Andrews was ordained an Anglican priest and went on to became a missionary and a member of the Cambridge Mission in Delhi, an Anglican platform that worked as a forerunner of the Indian independence movement.

He reached India as a missionary in 1904 and taught philosophy at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, for 10 years. Andrews was admired for his persuasive ways, intellect and keen sense of moral firmness.

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Expected of a radical, Andrews soon felt uneasy with the mission’s preference for Anglo-Saxon morals and teachings and wanted more local participation.

At a time when Europeans and Indians often found personal relationships difficult, Andrews had no shortage of Indian friends.

S.K. Rudra, who remained a Hindu in outward actions but was inwardly a Christian, and Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929), a Christian who dressed and lived a life of a Hindu sage, came under his influence.

While in India, his public activities were mostly political in nature. He often mediated between Indian freedom fighters and British imperialism.

But as a liberal Andrews had his own views and stood against the imperial game plan called by its pet name, the Indian indenture system, by which more than 3.5 million Indians were transported to imperial colonies around the world after curtains fell on the slave trade in the early 19th century.

His concern for indentured laborers took him to South Africa, another imperial colony, in 1913. Awaiting him was M.K. Gandhi, a barrister championing the cause of Indians who later called Andrews a 20th-century St. Francis.

He went to major centers where the modern-day slave labor network was in full throttle. In Fiji, Malaya and Kenya, he took up the cause of Indian workers and his efforts bore fruit. By 1920, the British rulers had abandoned the Indian indentured labor system.

He was made president of the All-India Trade Union Congress, affiliated to the Indian National Congress, in 1925 and later became a member of the India Conciliation Group, which lobbied Britain for independence.

We may surely believe that the Eternal Word was the Light of the Buddha and Tulsi Das

Andrews overcame all divisions and became a universalist in the land of faiths. Unusual among missionaries of that time, he recognized that each religion had a message for all humanity.

On this count, Andrews drew inspiration from the teachings of Brook Foss Westcott, a leading exponent of the Lux Mundi (Light of the World) tradition in Anglicanism, which stressed incarnation rather than Jesus’ atoning death.

Andrews said on one occasion: “We may surely believe that the Eternal Word was the Light of the Buddha and Tulsi Das.”

He was a prolific writer and his works include an autobiography, What I Owe to Christ (1932), and several volumes on social and religious topics. His theology was centered around “high church pietism” with a strong social component.

Andrews enjoyed cordial ties with Gandhi after they met in South Africa. In fact, it was Andrews who urged Gandhi to return to India in 1915 and take up the cause of independence.

He addressed Gandhi, who achieved a larger-than-life personality, by his first name, Mohan.

Gandhi, who rejected conversion and missionary work, had no qualms in admitting Andrews to his scheme of things in India’s freedom movement. Andrews wrote three books on Gandhi, which helped to dispel mistrust in Britain of Gandhi’s motives.

After Gandhi suggested it was best for sympathetic Englishmen like him to leave the freedom struggle to Indians, Andrews spent more time back in Britain from 1935

Though Andrews considered Gandhi a saint of the heroic type, Rabindranath Tagore was a “saint of contemplation” for him. During their first meeting in London in 1912, Andrews had the privilege of hearing Tagore's poetry read no less by the acclaimed poet William Butler Yeats. And Andrews was floored.

Two years later, he resigned his job and his visits to Tagore’s ashram and educational center at Santiniketan (The Abode of Peace) became regular. He decided to live and move among the people of India “not as an alien and a foreigner.” He was at ease with Tagore’s calls for the synthesis of Eastern and Western cultures.

After Gandhi suggested it was best for sympathetic Englishmen like him to leave the freedom struggle to Indians, Andrews spent more time back in Britain from 1935.

He did not rest on his oars in Britain. Andrews began to teach all over the country about Christ’s call to radical discipleship.

Andrews breathed his last on April 5, 1940, during a visit to Calcutta and was buried there with the inscription "The friend of the poor."

In his last days at a Calcutta hospital, Andrews turned down an offer to receive special treatment as he wanted to die among the common people.

There is hardly any celebration in India in memory of this great soul. Maybe it is because India is trying to forget its poor. Why keep the memory of a Deenabandhu alive?

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