The development of Christianity in Sri Lanka and its political implications, AD 50 - AD 2005

Term Paper, 2005

14 Pages, Grade: A



The development of Christianity in Sri Lanka has been a long and complex process. Christianity has been instrumental in the development of modern Sri Lankan politics and culture. In this paper I will attempt to map the development of Christianity on the island and assess its resultant political implications. I will also attempt to prove that Christianity has played a major role in the political development of present day Sri Lankan democracy.

I. Background

Christian development in Sri Lanka could have started as early as AD c.50 when, according to legend, St. Thomas the Apostle set foot upon the island to preach the message of the gospels.1 Since then, Sri Lanka has experienced several stages of Christian development- which can be loosely mapped as a transition from Roman Catholicism to Modern Denominationalism- primarily orchestrated by the ruling power that happened to be enjoying occupation of the island at the time. Because each of these powers (namely the Portuguese, Dutch and British) attempted to impose their own brand of Christianity on the region and met with varying degrees of success, modern Sri Lankan Christianity is a rich tapestry of denominational beliefs including, in order of primacy, Catholicism (over 85%), Anglicanism, Dutch Reformism and Non- Conformism (including Baptists and American Congregationalists).2 The number of Christians in Sri Lanka is considerable; of 20,064,776 residents, 6.2% (roughly 1.25 million) consider themselves Christian (2001 census data).3 Furthermore, Christians comprised over 10.6% of the population during the high British colonial period (c.1900). Thus, as a large minority group, Christian development inherently affected- and still affects- the development of Sri Lankan politics as a whole. The study of such development is thus important in order to better understand the evolution of Sri Lankan society and politics, and the present political situation of Sri Lanka and its’ people.

II. Study

It is possible that St. Thomas the Apostle did actually preach in Sri Lanka. By tradition, it is alleged that he was killed in India, stabbed with a spear sometime around AD 72.4 However, Thomas was apparently killed for verbally assaulting Brahmins in the province of Malabar; yet there are no records of there ever being Brahmins in this province until the eighth century. Modern historians are of the view that Christianity arrived in South India through settlers and merchants from Syria and Persia, starting sometime around the fourth century and through a steady trickle of immigrants continuing until the ninth century.5 The first of these immigrations is usually recognized as occurring in 345, and is said to have consisted of between three and four hundred families, including some clergy and led by a man called Thomas, who is variously known as Knaye Thoma, Thomas of Canaa and Thomas the Canaanite.6 The second immigration to South India is usually dated to AD 823, when a number of Christians from Persia, including two bishops, Mar Sapor and Mar Froth, arrived at the province of Kollam and settled there.7 However, whether any of these settlers proceeded as far east as Sri Lanka is uncertain. There could be a logical reason for the perpetuation of the myth of St. Thomas; by AD 450, the church of the East had severed its relation to the Patriarch of Antioch (bishop of the holy see at Antioch) and had installed St. Thomas as its’ founder.8 Accordingly, later settlers brought with them the tradition that it was St. Thomas to whom the Church in their homeland owed its ministry. It thus becomes difficult to ascertain whether St. Thomas ever personally set foot upon any part of India or whether the entire story of Thomas’s preaching is a combination of myth and/or misunderstanding. According to tradition however, the stone “footprint” atop Adam’s Peak, the highest point of Sri Lanka, is that of the Apostle, and thus the myth of St, Thomas is perpetuated until this day. More sound proof of early Christian development comes in the form of Cosmas Indicopleustes who, writing around AD 547, knew of Christians in “Taprobane”, which may be Sri Lanka. Similarly, the Story of Sigiri- Sri Lanka’s royal chronicle- suggests that foreign Christians were present in 473, although both references could be to the Tamraparni area of India rather than Sri Lanka itself.9

If one disregards speculative evidence regarding St. Thomas and early Christianity, the definitive date for the arrival of Christianity in Sri Lanka is 1505, when Portuguese merchants (under Francisco de Almeida) landed upon the island.10 The Portuguese were highly successful in spreading Christianity to the lowland Sinhalese people, however in doing so they angered the Buddhist majority, who longed for their ousting. Evidently, Christianity was a catalyst for political change very soon after its introduction. Christian development in Sri Lanka took a major step forward when Dutch traders, first visiting the island in 160111, brought the principals and practices of the Dutch Reform Church- and with it the ideals of Protestantism- to the islanders. The Dutch vastly improved educational infrastructure throughout the island. Although the influence of Sri Lankan Christians continued to grow during this period, it was not until the British conquest of Sri Lanka in 1796 (the island was officially ceded to British control in 1802) that Christianity became the foremost religious power in Sri Lanka. Whilst Christians remained only a significant minority, the British put such an emphasis and preference on Christianity and Christian moral values within their social hierarchy that the influence of Sri Lankan Christians, both as individuals and communities, was overly inflated and disproportionate to their numbers.12 Despite attempts to curb this political anomaly after Sri Lanka gained its’ independence in 1948, the Christian political muscle is still disproportionate to the number of voices it represents.

Methods of Christianisation and conversion

The methods by which “invading” western powers brought and disseminated Christian ideals amongst islanders are very important, as methods of Christianisation (realigning political and social structures to conform to the will of the Church) and religious conversion shaped attitudes towards the invading parties by existing religious sects and individual islanders alike. The earliest invading western powers put much emphasis on the spread of Christianity. The chief aim of the Portuguese was to convert islanders to Christianity,13 and so missionaries were zealous and conversion methods more radical. As aforementioned, the result was that the Portuguese became a hated power and cultivated much political unrest. Later, under the Dutch, more emphasis was put on fostering the economic development in the region,14 with the spread of Christianity being for the most part a desirable side effect. Accordingly, the Dutch missionaries went about their task with considerably less zeal than their Portuguese counterparts and as a result the Dutch Reform Church never took root in Sri Lanka15 (it still exists today, but the comparative number of followers compared to Catholics is tiny). However it is because of this more reserved approach that the Dutch were never hated by the Buddhist majority, unlike their Portuguese counterparts. The English approached the matter differently, preferring to subtly introduce Christianity through education, and making Christianity attractive through fiscal and social benefits; thus attracting baptismal candidates rather than actively attempting to convert them. Methods of Christianisation shaped political attitudes and opinions almost as much as Christianisation itself. Furthermore, different ethnic groups reacted differently to attempts at Christianisation. This was because of political reasons as well as social ones. The Karava, for example, have embraced Christianity more than other groups, primarily as Roman Catholics. This was not necessarily due to their comparative excessive love for Christian ideas, but rather because their settlements occupy a coastal position; the Sinhalese feudal system was able to exert less firm control on the area (the sea is not parley to landowners), and thus it more susceptible to foreign ideas and influence. In the Karava town of Negombo, fishermen are almost exclusively Catholic and local churches remain highly significant.16 Conversions in these areas did not anger the Buddhist majority as much as those in other areas, for as mentioned, the Buddhists already had less control over the people in these provinces. On the other hand, the region of Kandy took little interest either in Christianity or British rule, even though the British conquered the province in 1815.17 Initially, coastal and southern areas of the island were generally the easiest to convert and most accepting of western ideals; it is these areas that continue to display the largest Christian populations and hold a generally pro-Christian political consensus. Overall, however, it is fair to say that the number of conversions achieved in Sri Lanka was not as great as missionaries had expected, particularly in the early Anglican period,18 although there was impressive growth toward the end of the 19th century. This could, however, have been for socio-economic and political reasons rather than faithful ones. From the Dutch period onward, Christian missionaries began to entice islanders into the faith through fiscal reward and related benefits. Dutch schools were closed to all except the baptized; the baptism of their children was a small price to pay for quality education in the eyes of many parents. Later, as schools and other facilities opened up to include non-baptized islanders, there was a greater emphasis on fiscal reward. The fiscal benefits alone might have meant more than conviction about beliefs- some were Christian “so long as there was some small monthly allowance”.19 Christianity was also a prerequisite for a successful career; under the Portuguese and Dutch (and in the early British period), no governmental office was granted to anyone who did not recognize the Christian faith.20 On a similar vein, the British courts, under Sir Alexander Johnston, showed preferential treatment in terms of employment opportunities to Burgher Christians;21 another non-ecclesiastical reason why Christianity was appealing. Nevertheless, despite some evidence that islanders were baptized as much for personal benefit as for belief, there were authentic adherents to the faith.

Christian ideology and values influenced other religious bodies and were generally accepted as good things; through the latter half of the 19th century- a period of resurgent Buddhism- the new Buddhist leaders borrowed some ideas from Protestants (Anglicans in particular) in regard to work and sex.22 Christianity thus not only developed within itself but also helped develop other religions within Sri Lanka, further shaping and influencing the political scene. A further important political implication of Christianity on the island was the development of a new socio-ethnic class- the Burghers. These, along with a minority of Tamils, form the majority of Christians throughout Sri Lanka. The majority of Burghers are English speakers and are also Christians.23 They are descended from the Dutch and Portuguese who married into local castes; they primarily inhabit the western coastal regions, are generally are well educated, prefer Western traditions and are proud of their cultural heritage.24 Burghers played a prominent role in Sri Lankan politics since the colonial period; their mixed European-Sri Lankan decent and preference of English made them favourites with the British, and for a long period the proportion of Burghers in high office is in complete disproportion to their numbers.25 After 1981, however, this was not the case, as growing anti-Christian feeling had erased their “special status” regarding employment, and had prompted many to emigrate to the UK.26 Burghers have always been relatively affluent and as a result have frequently aroused jealousy and resentment from other sectors of Sri Lankan society. Burghers in this way are a direct political implication of the Christianisation of the island and represent yet another party in Sri Lanka’s multi-faceted socio-political makeup.

Christianity as a socio-political catalyst

Christianity has influenced many areas of Sri Lankan social, political and economic development. In particular, Christianity brought western education and traditions to the island, and also western political customs such as democracy and integrated bureaucracy. Christianity puts much emphasis on education as a means to better understand this world and, through it, the next.27 In Sri Lanka particularly, the development and spread of Christianity had a huge impact on educational development. The first Portuguese missionaries established schools in coastal areas very shortly after their arrival,28 and each wave of conquest brought with it new educational ideas and built upon existing educational institutions and infrastructure. Thus, by time the English had left the island, educational practices and infrastructure were very well developed.

The political and social impact of a Christian-led education cannot be overstated. Christian schools taught Christian (and western) values, meaning that they transformed the knowledge and language base of the country. The Dutch missionaries taught Latin, Dutch, theology, government and politics;29 thus shaping the youths of the island into western ways of political thought and inundating them with western knowledge and traditions. The Dutch were successful in their educational policy because schools were only opened to baptized Christians; by 1650 sixteen such schools had been established.30 As fore mentioned, after seeing what a high quality educational resource the missionaries provided, parents were willing to baptize their children in order to secure them a place. It must be noted, however, that the Dutch did not provide university education; educational policy seemed to be geared towards facilitating general understanding than creating specialists. This is logical, because during this time the island was not especially developed, and the Dutch would have little use for locals with specialist skills. Nevertheless, under Dutch development, the population as a whole became more educated. This is an important factor, as it has been suggested that more extensive education often leads to greater levels of political participation.31 The British continued this trend, however also extended their activities into higher education. Although the British understood the importance of schools as a medium through which Christianity could be preached, they also saw education as a way to maintain and promote social order.

Through major development in the educational system (such as liberalization of entry policy), the British Methodists and Anglicans were highly successful in spreading Christianity through education in the Jaffna province32 as well as elsewhere. Jaffna was a case in point; virtually all churches operated primary and secondary schools, and it was the primary focus of the American educational missions after 1812.33


1 Jones

2 De Sampayo

3 CIA World Factbook

4 Jones

5 Manathala

6 Manathala

7 Manathala

8 Adeney: 297

9 Ferguson, Norris and

10 Wikipedia

11 Ferguson, D: 369

12 Arasthanan: 22

13 Cook: 36

14 Jeffries: 6

15 Jeffries: 8

16 Ryan: 105

17 Wilson, A: 31

18 De Silva: 176

19 Ludowyk: 218

20 Cook: 36

21 Ludowyk: 221

22 Tambiah: 69

23 Baxter: 312

24 Ryan, 149

25 Pakeman: 19

26 De Silva: 5

27 Wilson, F: 17

28 Manogaran: 117

29 Ludowyk: 146

30 Pieris, P: 15

31 Rush and Althoff:

32 Manogaran: 117

33 De Silva: 179

Excerpt out of 14 pages


The development of Christianity in Sri Lanka and its political implications, AD 50 - AD 2005
Concordia University Montreal
BA Politics
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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433 KB
Double spaced
Christianity, Lanka, Politics
Quote paper
Andrew Lythall (Author), 2005, The development of Christianity in Sri Lanka and its political implications, AD 50 - AD 2005, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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