[Written for World Christianity taught by Dr. Guy Lytle, 5/8/04]
“[. . .] it is unfortunately the fashion in western thinking to doubt and deny everything. I protest this tendency. I never advise anyone to consult theologians because all too often they have completely lost all sense of spiritual reality. They can explain Greek words and all that, but they spend too much time among their books and not enough time with the Master in prayer. It is not that I oppose all education, but education without life is certainly dangerous. You must stop examining spiritual truths like dry bones! You must break open the bones and take in the life giving marrow.1
The nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth was a time of great and expressive personalities. Political and military figures cultivated humor and religiosity while writers, humorists and the religious were critical of and joined in politics with enthusiasm. The increased ease of transportation made interaction between various parts of the world more common and the ability of celebrity to spread from place to place increased. One example of this trend is the increasing interest citizens of western countries had with foreign and “exotic” people, especially religious figures. One of the exotics with which Americans and Europeans became enamored was an Indian convert to Christianity named Sundar Singh.
Born to a Sikh family in 1889 in the village of Rampur in the Punjab region of northern India, Sundar evidently expressed an interest in religion from an early age. This trait was encouraged by his mother who undertook his religious instruction.2 Although the family faith was Sikhism, Sundar’s mother also exposed him to many Hindu holy men or sahdu’s and she read from the religious texts of Hinduism, Sikhism and Islam. Additionally, she always insisted that Sundar say his prayers every morning before he ate. Later in life, Sundar often said that his mother made him a Sadhu but the Holy Spirit made him a Christian.3
Sundar’s gifts were recognized early on in the words of a Sikh priest who told Sundar’s father that his son was “not like the others. Either he will become a great man of God, or he will disgrace us all by going insane.”4 His mother died when he was 15 and Sundar descended into a deep depression, eventually turning violent towards his missionary teachers. Neither could he see a point to his daily religious practices:
Something is wrong. Why do the Shastaras no longer come alive before my eyes? Why does our holy book now seem so distant? Why do I return from the peace of yoga meditation to find my heart still burdened with unrest?5
Sundar’s anger only increased as he lashed out in frustration at his Christian teachers at the missionary school, even going so far as to rip apart and burn a Bible, an action which angered his father:
Are you insane? Why would you do such a thing? Is this the respect for sacred things you learned at your mother’s breast? Is this your thanks to those who teach you? You will not commit such blasphemy in my presence. As your father and head of this household, I command you to stop such insanity. There will be no more book burning here!6
If his father was angered by his blasphemy, then he was absolutely infuriated by what Sundar did next. Remaining restless and unable to find peace, Sundar arose at 3 am three days after burning the Gospel determined to have an answer to his unease. He planned to pray until 4:30 for a sign. If none was forthcoming, he was determined to lay his head on the railroad tracks close to his home and await the morning train. During his prayer time, Sundar experienced a vision, except that, rather than Krishna, Buddha or Siva as he had expected, it was Christ who appeared to him. Reports of exactly what Christ said to Sundar are somewhat varied, some say that Christ spoke to him in a manner reminiscent of Paul on the road to Damascus saying “How long are you going to persecute me? I died for thee. For thee I gave my life.”7 Alternatively, the message is said to have been:
“Sundar, how long will you mock me? I have come to save you because you have prayed to find the way of truth. Why then don’t you accept it?” It was then I saw the marks of blood on his hands and feet and knew that it was Yesu, the one proclaimed by the Christians.”8
After his vision, Sundar felt a great deal of guilt and shame for his denigration of Christianity something that became a powerful motivation in his faith and later mission. At first, Sundar’s father didn’t believe his son when he told him he wanted to become a Christian, understandably finding the pronouncement hard to believe when only a few days prior, his son had been burning the Christian scripture. Once it became clear that Sundar was not simply tired and shaken his father and family sought for nine months to change his mind, alternating between showing him examples of the wealth he could have by accepting his heritage, and highlighting the shame he would bring upon his family if he went through with such a conversion when he reached the legal age of 16.
After determining that Sundar wasn’t going to change his mind, his father reacted by casting him out, saying the appropriate formula of disinheritance; “We reject you forever and cast you from among us. You shall be no more my son. We shall know you no more. For us, you are as one who was never born. I have spoken.”9
In order to understand the reaction of Sundar’s father to his conversion, and his mother’s open attitude toward religion one must know some of the background of Sikhism as well as the milieu to which it belonged. Sikhism was founded in the fifteenth century by a high caste Hindu by the name of Nanak from the Punjab region of northern India. This region was home to both Muslims and Hindus, yet tended to attract a peculiar type of each. There were evidently quite a few Sufis in the area at the time, and they came into a great deal of contact with a Hindu school known as Bhakti. Originally from southern India, the Bhakti school emphasized devotion to a personal deity. “Bhaktism and Sufism drew inspiration from each other without sacrificing their identities or loyalty to their parent faith. Each was in thrall to the divine being, not to the rituals and symbols of religious power.”10 Through these influences, Nanak and his successors established a religion that was a blending of, and an alternative to, the dominant faiths of the region. Sikhism has been critical of the caste system from the beginning, and sought through many of its rituals to intentionally break it down. Through successive persecutions, the Sikhs became more and more militaristic in order to better defend themselves. This background, as well as his mother’s association with Bhaktism, explains in part some of the family ideals which helped shape Sundar. There would be a readily observable respect of sacred things and a fierce pride in their heritage as well as distaste for the dominant means of social organization, i.e. the caste system.
Though he may not have personally established missions, Sundar Singh’s service clearly had an impact upon the way Christians think about mission in India as well as other places around the globe. It has been said that Singh most notably illustrated the ideal “Christ of the Indian Road,” of whom Stanley Jones had written. The 1920’s saw him mostly as a mystic. As Eric Sharpe states:
During the desperate 1920’s, the Christian West had a number of human sources to help shape an image of India and things Indian. In particular there were four dominant personalities, all of them in varying degrees accessible to Europe and North America; of the four, three were Hindus. [. . .] The fourth, however, was a Christian; his name was Sundar Singh. He was known as a Sadhu (holy man), and he was not a politician, a philosopher, or an educationalist. He was a preacher and in later life a devotional writer.11
Singh began his first preaching tour only 33 days after his 16th birthday and baptism into the Christian faith on, September 3, 1905 by the Rev. J. Redman, a C.M.S missionary at St. Thomas’ Church in Silma. Although Sundar maintained a great level of ecumenical involvement and disliked denominational distinctions, he maintained a close relationship with the Anglican Church over the years, being confirmed by Bishop Lefroy of Lahore Diocese in 1907.
The Anglican Church in India dates from the days of the East India Company, and the Diocese of Lahore, of which the Punjab was a part, has been viewed as having a most interesting history, in part because of its location, the homeland of the “warrior races of India.”12 While Singh was baptized by a CMS missionary, he was also to have a great deal of contact the Cambridge Mission in Delhi (SPG), with which Bishop Lefroy was involved.
Between 1906 and 1907, Singh worked with a wealthy young American missionary named Samuel Stokes in a quasi-Franciscan order known as Brotherhood of the Imitation of Jesus. Singh met his good friend C.F. Andrews in the hills around Simla while working with the brotherhood. Andrews was a professor at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, as well as being involved in the Cambridge Mission and evidently having some interest in the work of the brotherhood.13 Singh evidently impressed his companions who recounted a bit of his early ministry among those stricken with plague and other sickness. Stokes is reported to have mentioned the following anecdote which took place as he and Singh were returning through “some very unhealthy country” from a mission to the interior:
He [Singh] was trembling with the chill which preceded the fever, and his face was drawn with the pain caused by his stomach trouble. I was anxious because we were alone and on foot and the weather was very cold. Bending close to his ear, I asked him how he was feeling. I knew that he would never complain, but I was unprepared for the answer which I received. He opened his eyes and smiled absently, then in a voice almost too low to be heard, said, “I am very happy; how sweet it is to suffer for his sake.”14
Sundar traveled all over India and into Tibet and Nepal in the robe of a sadhu, sharing the gospel with those he met. In 1909 Bishop Lefroy sought to have Sundar enrolled at St. John’s Divinity School in Lahore with a view towards ordination. While there it became apparent to Singh that this was not the right place for him to be. After staying a little over eight months, he left the Divinity school. Some commentators have suggested that the Sadhu’s volatile temper got the best of him and forced him to leave, but most believe that he simply felt out of place.
Singh kept no detailed records of his activities beyond his devotional writings which often took the form of dialogues and in which he made claims to experiences that defied the reason and belief of many, especially westerners. More detailed accounts exist of his tours to Western countries than of his activities during his first travels to the east or of his own evangelistic efforts in India, Tibet and surrounding areas.
Before his travels to the West, Singh was known primarily as a missionary and in 1920 upon his visit to England was seen as “a counter weight to Gandhi in one direction—and to Anne Besant and the Theosophists in another. In his own person, Sundar Singh was plainly and unequivocally evangelical—or seemed so.”15 This plain evangelicalism came under scrutiny by one B.H. Streeter and his “Indian tutee, A.J. Appasamy.” In 1921 Streeter and Appasamy published a book entitled The Sadhu: A Study of Mysticism and Practical religion. Within this work, Streeter placed a chapter entitled “Ecstasy and Vision” in which he included the warning that:
To him (Singh) Ecstasy may not only be without danger but may bring actual profit. It is not so with the rest of us. The light that we must walk by is the light of conscious thought, with prayer and meditation.16
His characterization as a mystic, in addition to his claims about the events of his journey’s led to accusations that he was a charlatan and fraud. Many attacked his “reliability as a witness, particularly where his own life was concerned:”
Had he ever met a 365-year old “Maharishi of Kailash?” Was there ever a “secret Sannyasi Mission?” Had he ever been thrown into, and plucked out of a Tibetan well? Had he ever been in Tibet at all? [. . .]17
Though very little of the Sundar Singh controversy took place in English—“or [was] even translated out of [the] ponderous Germanic originals,” it did spread to the English speaking world. Even many of his friends were incredulous about his claims, though they always maintained his Christian character. A.J. Appasamy explains how C.F. Andrew thought of Singh’s experiences:
as a Sikh boy in rural surroundings, Sundar Singh had come to believe implicitly in the supernatural. His own temperament, with long spells of prayer and meditation in which he was engaged, confirmed his early beliefs. It was easy for him to be sure that God was all the time working miracles to deliver his devotees from persecution and death. In other words, he lived continually in a land of dreams, visions, and miracles, and he was often unable to distinguish between the thoughts and visions he had and the happenings in the external world. He was inclined to believe that his dreams and visions had actually occurred in life and had not merely taken place in his own mind.18
The cynical response which met many of Sundar Singh’s claims, while being understandable to most modern people, upset the wandering preacher, and he took them to be a sign of the sickness within the Western Church. There were also many positive effects however; A.J. Appasamy then a student of Streeter’s at Oxford and later Bishop of Coimbatore, to whom Singh became a good friend and guru, recounts the effects of his first visit this way:
From 1919 to 1922, I was working for my Doctor of Philosophy degree at Oxford. That an Indian Christian leader had now begun to preach so effectively to Indians, baptizing some of the highest spiritual ideals of India in the name of Christ, made a tremendous appeal to me. After landing in England in February 1920, Sundar Singh spent a week with his Quaker friends at Woodbridge Settlement near Birmingham. From there he came to Cowley near Oxford, and stayed at the House of the Society of St. John the Evangelist with its high Anglo-Catholic worship and life. This was very characteristic of him. He moved freely among Christians of all churches and they all warmly welcomed him. I spent as much time as possible with him at Oxford, and when I was free I also followed him to London, Paris, Geneva, and Lausanne. I heard several of his addresses to immense congregations; I also heard him speak to small groups of people in which he answered their many questions with ready wit and insight.19
Despite the controversy that surrounded many of his accounts, Sundar returned to Europe in 1922 and began an impressive preaching tour of the continent. An account of his tour was written by Mrs. Arthur Parker, the wife of an LMS missionary in Travancore who had become a friend of the Sadhu during his travels, and was included within the 1927 revision of her original 1918 book Sadhu Sundar Singh: Called of God. Although the account is obviously weighted in his favor, it does contain some of Singh’s recorded comments from the sermons he gave. For example:
St. Paul was not ashamed to preach the Gospel of Christ, for he had experienced the power of the living Christ in his life. When the people of this world are not ashamed of committing sin, why should they be ashamed of salvation? The world is upside down. Men are ashamed to act according to the will of God, but have no shame in acting against his will.20
And the words he spoke to students studying under unbelieving professors:
Some young people, especially students, are disturbed in mind because many learned men who are their professors and teachers have no faith in Christ. They say: “How can I believe in Christ, when great and gifted men reject Him?” The answer is simple. Christ once said of those who did not use the gifts entrusted to them: “They that have not shall be deprived even of that which they have had.” [. . .] These people have received the knowledge and culture they possess through Christianity, and are rejecting the very teaching which brought these great blessings to them. They remind one of the words of Christ spoken to Judas: “He that eateth bread with Me hath lifted up his heel against Me.”21
While in Europe Singh preached at many different places to—if Mrs. Parker can be believed—thousands of people. In Geneva he spoke in Reformation Hall “where the League of Nations had held its meetings, and although this was a large building, thousands came and many had to be turned away.” It is claimed that Singh spoke to as many as ten thousand in Neuchatel and many more as he continued his preaching tour through Basle, Berne, Thun, Zurich, St. Galle, Wittenburg, Halle, Leipzig, Hamburg, Berlin, Keil, Tyringe, Copenhagen, Helsingborg, Lund, Uppsala (whose Bishop had just finished a book entitled Luther and Sundar Singh), as well as various other cities before fatigue got the better of him and he was forced to rest.22
While in Uppsala, Singh had visited the tomb of the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg’s tomb. Swedenborg was, according to Sharpe, to have a great impact on Singh who since the publication of Streeter’s chapter on “Ecstasy and Vision,” had learned to be much more cautious in relating his visionary experiences because of the negative reactions they elicited:
Evangelical Christians, whatever their virtues (and they are many) have never quite known what to do with ecstatic religion outside the pages of the Bible, save to praise it as divine inspiration or condemn it as satanic deception.23
Even more modern churchmen like Streeter, were “fearful of the consequences, should the visionary bull be let loose in the workaday Christian china shop.” In Swedenborg however, Singh found a kindred spirit, someone who understood visions:
That Swedenborg was regarded as unorthodox and unsound, measured by evangelical standards, mattered not at all: to Sundar “unorthodox” was a concept almost without meaning. Soon, Sundar was conversing with Swedenborg in the spirit world, as Swedenborg himself had done with the spirits or angels, of Luther and Calvin. At the end of his life, one might almost say that Swedenborg had become Sundar’s guru, filling the gap that Christianity otherwise scarcely acknowledged, but which was not without importance in the Christian context.24
After returning from this preaching tour, Singh’s health began to decline rapidly although he was still young. It is believed that he may have suffered from diabetes and other ailments which were only aggravated by his lifestyle.25 During his final years of life, Singh remained at the home he purchased in Sabathu with the inheritance his father, who had earlier reconciled with his son, left him. With his sight failing he traveled sparingly after suffering “many heart attacks. Once he began a tour but had to come back after a hemorrhage.”26 Because of his inability to travel and preach, Singh began to write books which enjoyed wide popularity. By 1929 however, Singh was ready to go on one final journey to Tibet—whether the actual country or his vision world. On April 18th, 1929 he wrote nearly identical letters to friends:
Each said that he was setting out for Tibet and quoted Acts 20:24: Paul’s word’s of farewell to the Elders of Ephesus. Clearly he had the whole of Paul’s address in mind, put particularly “I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, now knowing what shall befall me there” (v. 22) and “I know that all you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will see my face no more” (v. 25) [. . .] C.F. Andrews was surely right though, that when Sundar left Sabathu on that April day in 1929, “he had already counted the cost. He would seek to share the baptism where with Christ had been baptized, and to drink the cup which he had drunk. Deep down in his heart was the thought—almost the hope—that he would meet his death on this last journey.”27
Sundar Singh’s ministry was that of an itinerant preacher, and as such its impact is almost impossible to measure in a quantitative manner. Because his ministry was modeled upon the life of a Sadhu who traditionally did not take disciples or live in a fixed location, there is very little physical evidence of his lasting impact, such as schools, Churches etc. Despite this, Singh combined a rare popularity in the Indian Church with popularity in Western society. To Westerners he represented a romantic ideal, “tall, erect, black-bearded and almost military in his bearing. He closely resembled [. . .] the romantic Victorian image of Jesus Christ [. . . .] Most of all [. . .] he summed up in his own person a great deal of what Christians had long hoped and prayed for from mission and church in India.” Unlike many converts Singh did not seem uncomfortable with his identity there “was nothing of the pseudo-Westerner” or the “conspicuous convert about him.”28 Although Singh’s work has been in danger of being forgotten, it is now in danger of being co-opted by the forces of a popular new-age spirituality that takes comfort in reconstructing nearly forgotten aspects of the past in its own image. It is important to remember, as Sharpe points out:
In missiological terms, Sundar belonged far more to the nineteenth century in which he was born, than to the twentieth in which he became famous. “Mystic” or not, his real affinities were with the heroic missionary ideals of such as the China Inland Mission, and to the end of his life he disliked Catholics and “modernists” with equal passion (both, he suspected, were bent on assassinating his character.[this was probably because his most vocal religious opponents were Jesuits]) All the same, his evangelical Christianity was by no means that of Keswick, or Exeter Hall. Had it been suggested to him toward the end of his life that his revered Swedenborg was not among the saved, or that his unbaptized mother had been rejected by God, he would have reacted with anger.29
Singh’s practices definitely varied widely from the forms of Christianity most people, especially European people, were used too. As one onlooker commented during his preaching tour of Europe “This is a new religion but the same Savior.”30 Singh interacted with God in an ecstatic, mystical—some might say dangerous or pagan—way, yet his theology regarding the basics of the faith, i.e. the incarnation, the atonement, the Christian life etc. as presented in his writings seems orthodox, if heavily tinted by his culture—and whose is not.
While Singh may not have planted any Churches or established any schools, his influence is unmistakable upon others who did. In addition to being close friends with people such as C.F. Andrews and Bishop Appasamy, Singh’s work also helped inspire the work of missionaries such as John Copley Winslow who, with the establishment of his Anglo-Indian ashram and his decision to become a Christian sannyasi in order to “contribute something towards the healing of inter-racial strife,” fulfilled a portion of Singh’s experience; if there had been no actual Sannyasi Mission before, there would be now, in part through his influence.31
Appasamy, A.J., ed. The Cross Is Heaven: Life and Writings of Sadhu Sundar Singh. New York: Association Press, 1957.
Chatterton, Eyre. A History of the Church of England in India since the Early Days of the East India Company. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1924.
Comer, Kim, ed. Wisdom of the Sadhu: Teachings of Sundar Singh. Farmington: The Plough Publishing House of the Bruderhof Foundation, 2000.
Emilsen, William W. “The Legacy of John Copley Winslow.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21 (1997): 26-30.
Parker, Mrs. Arther. Sadhu Sundar Singh: Called of God. 6th ed. London: Student Christian Movement, 1927.
Sharpe, Eric J. “The Legacy of Sadhu Sundar Singh.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 14 (1990): 161-167.
Singh, Patwant. The Sikhs. New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2000.
- Kim Comer, ed., Wisdom of the Sadhu: Teachings of Sundar Singh (Farmington: The Plough Publishing House of the Bruderhof Foundation, 2000), 187. [↩]
- Ibid, 18 [↩]
- A.J. Appasamy, ed., The Cross Is Heaven: Life and Writings of Sadhu Sundar Singh (New York: Association Press, 1957). [↩]
- Comer, ed., 21. [↩]
- Ibid., 18. [↩]
- Ibid., 19-20 [↩]
- Appasamy, ed. [↩]
- Comer, ed., 28-29. [↩]
- Ibid., 32. [↩]
- Patwant Singh, The Sikhs (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2000), 17. [↩]
- Eric J. Sharpe, “The Legacy of Sadhu Sundar Singh,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 14 (1990): 161,
the first three figures were: “Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi contributed an enigmatic combination of politics and ethics; Rabindranath Tagore, winner in 1913 of the Nobel Prize for literature, answered for aesthetics and education; Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, that most famous alumnus of Madras Christian College, represented a broadly based hindu philosophy.” [↩]
- Eyre Chatterton, A History of the Church of England in India since the Early Days of the East India Company (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1924), 253. [↩]
- Sharpe: 162. & Appasamy, ed., 14. [↩]
- Appasamy, ed., 14. [↩]
- Sharpe: 163. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Appasamy, ed., 16. [↩]
- Ibid., 26 [↩]
- Mrs. Arther Parker, Sadhu Sundar Singh: Called of God, 6th ed. (London: Student Christian Movement, 1927), 160. [↩]
- Ibid., 166. In her short account “World Evangel” Mrs. Parker describes the beginning of Singh’s tour:
[. . .]so the decision was made even before visiting Tibet to return West if God brought him back safely. [. . .] On the 29th of January he embarked on S.S. Caledonia, and landing at Port Said, immediately crossed over to Palestine. [. . . ] He preached at the Cathedral in Jerusalem and spoke at other services, and in Cairo he preached to the American Church and again to Coptic Christians in Old Cairo. He visited the Pyramids, and was taken to a church which is supposed to occupy the sight of the house where Jesus lived after the flight into Egypt.
The following Sunday he preached in Marseilles, and thus commenced one of the most strenuous preaching tours he has accomplished. (p. 147-149) [↩]
- Ibid., 149-153. [↩]
- Sharpe: 164. [↩]
- Ibid.: 164-165. [↩]
- Ibid.: 165. [↩]
- Appasamy, ed., 29. [↩]
- Sharpe: 165. [↩]
- Ibid.: 161. [↩]
- Ibid.: 166. [↩]
- Parker, 150. [↩]
- William W. Emilsen, “The Legacy of John Copley Winslow,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 21 (1997): 2. [↩]