A Brief History of the Marthoma Church
Tradition dictates that in 52 AD, St. Thomas arrived on a trading vessel from Alexandria to Cranganore (Malankara), which was an early haven for Jews of the diaspora. He first went to the Jews of Kerala and then to the Gentiles. He had erected seven churches in the following locations:
- Chavakad (Palur)
- Parur near Alwaye
- Nilakkal (Chayal)
- Quilon (Kalyan)
The Apostle Thomas ordained two bishops, Kepha and Paul, for Malabar and Coromandal (Mylapore). On Dec. 19th, 72 AD, he was impaled while praying in Mylapore.
The St. Thomas Christians (Nazranis) accepted the caste system. The rulers regarded them as a high caste and they were called “Nazarani Mappilas” (son of kings, or first kings). The Nasranis also had a sizable military force, and they protected the lower castes. Their status rivaled that of the kings.
Migrations to Malabar
Christians from all over the world journeyed to Malabar to escape persecution. In 293 AD, seventy-two families from Kaveripoopatanam moved to what will be modern day Kollam. Moreover, In AD 345, Thomas of Cana (Knaye Thommen) brought 400 Christians from Nineveh, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. The reason for their immigration to Kerala is unknown, but they were generously received by Cheruman Perumal, the ruler of Crangalore.
Cheruman Perumal gave Thomas and his people 72 privileges that were inscribed on 2 sets of copper plates (cheppeds). The original plates existed until 1498, though many copies abound, and his people became known as the Kananaya Christians.
The Church maintained a cordial relationship with the Church of Persia. In 825 AD, a group of Persian immigrants led by Marwan Sabrisa and two bishops, Mar Sapo and Mar Prodh, landed in Quilon.
In 1502, Vasco De Gama found Christians in India and they asked him for protection from the Mahomedans. He was presented with a scepter, which made them loyal to Portugal. This led to the Portuguese establishing power in the 16th and 17th Centuries.
In 1592, Archbishop Alexio de Menezes arrived in Goa and convened the Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor) to establish the dominance of Rome. Representatives were sent to various congregations to burn ancient Nazrani texts and impose Catholic rule.
The Portuguese had created dioceses in Goa and Cochin in order to convert the Nazrani Christians to Catholicism
Ancient Christians in India
Divisions Within the St. Thomas Church
After 54 years of Catholic rule, the Nestorian church in Persia sent a bishop to the Chaldean Church. The bishop was captured by the Portuguese and thrown in prison, where he died under duress.
Enraged by his death, two thousand Malankara Christians rose up under the leadership of Archdeacon Thomas and took an oath proclaiming independence from Rome. This oath became known as the Koonan Kurishu Sathyam(Bent Cross Oath).
In 1665, Patriarch Mar Gregorius consecrated Archdeacon Thomas to Mar Thoma the First, the first Indian Metropolitan of the Malankara Church.
Mar Gregorius's arrival in Kerala created a schism within the St. Thomas Church. dividing the church into East Syrians(Puthenkoor) and West Syrians(Pazhayakoor). The East Syrians consisted of the Syro Malabar Church. The West Syrian division consisted of the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church.
Years later, Palakunnu Abraham Malpan (Malpan means professor) and Kaithayil Geevarghese Malpan were influenced by Anglican missionaries and they became concerned about the well-being of the Malankara Church and wanted to start a revival. They did not want to divide the church, they wanted to reform it. The main tenants of this reformation were as follows:
- Sola Scriptura(Teaching from Bible alone)
- Removing Catholic Influences from the church
- Sole Mediation of Christ
In 1836, he translated the Holy Qurbana from Syriac to Malayalam and he got rid of prayers to the saints, starting the Reformation. In 1841, a missionary by the name of William Bailey translated the Bible from Syriac to Malayalam, fueling the flames of the Reformation within the Malankara Church.
Metropolitan Chepat Mar Dionysius was not willing to accept these reforms and excommunicated Abraham Malpan from the church. Therefore, he went to his home parish in Maramon, where the congregation supported him. Abraham realized that he needed a bishop in order for the Reformation to gain momentum, so he sent his nephew, Deacon Mathew, to the Patriarch in Mardin. Mathew was consecrated as Mathew Mar Athanasius and he arrived in Cochin in 1843 with the backing of the Patriarch himself. Mar Dionysius opposed this and in 1852, Mathews Mar Athanasius received a royal proclamation declaring him the head of the Malankara Church. In 1868, Mathews Mar Athanasius ordained Abraham Malpan’s son to be Thomas mar Athanasius.
Years later, Joseph Ramban of Pulikottil, an opponent of the reformation, went to the Patriarch of Antioch, Peter III, and was ordained as Joseph Mar Dionysius and convened the Synod of Mulanthuruthy in 1876, where the church accepted the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch. Mathews Mar Athanasius died in 1877, leading to Thomas mar Athanasius to be the Metropolitan of the Malankara Church. After years of court cases, in 1889, the courts decided that Joseph Mar Dionysius was the true head of the Malankara Church, resulting in the excommunication of Thomas Mar Athanasius. After years of litigation, the reform movement only gained the Maramon, Kozhencherry, and the Kottarakara church.
The Church Today
Because of the faith of these reformists, the Marthoma Church currently has 1223 parishes divided into 13 dioceses all over the world with 852 priests in active duty.
Since 2003, the church has been working with the Choctaw and the Houma tribes in Alabama, Louisiana, and Oklahoma to reach out to foster faith and to provide mentoring for the parents and local leaders. Medical missions such as Home for the Homeless and foster care. For the past 6 years, restoration efforts were put in place to repair damage caused by Katrina for the Houma Indians in Dulac, Louisiana.
The Urban Mission Project aims to bring awareness to our members of the complex factors that influence poverty in poor urban communities ravaged by crime, poor education systems and homelessness. The next two trips will be on the following dates: March 24-28 2018 in Philadelphia and July 22-26 2018 in Chicago
The Diocese of North America and Europe has recently started the “Light to Life” project. This project aims to ensure that children in India obtain access to food, water, shelter and an education. Anyone can be a sponsor for these children. Each sponsor will be assigned a child and they will receive updates on their progress. Social workers will come to the children’s houses to ensure that the children are being raised in a nurturing environment. It is currently in the following places in India:
- Ameri in Chhattisgarh
- Kalahandi in Odisha
- Dewas in Madya Pradesh
- Vattavada in Kerala
The church has built a living complex for 45 families called “Colonia Marthoma” in metamoros Mexico to rehabilitate the families of poor fishermen. Food packets are provided on a weekly basis to minimize starvation and malnutrition, so that people can dedicate more time to find jobs. There are also children going to primary school and kindergarten in the complex. Middle school, high school and even college and medical students receive subsidies from the Marthoma Church.
All in all, the origins of the Marthoma Church trace as far back as 52 AD. The St. Thomas Christians have a long history of providing refuge to persecuted Christians and share a history unique to themselves. Although the Marthoma Church has been influenced by Anglican beliefs, it is still a uniquely Indian and Malayalee Church.
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- “Heritage.” Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, marthoma.in/the-church/heritage/.
- “Historical Divisions of Mar Thoma Nasranis.” Historical Divisions of Mar Thoma Nasranis, Nasrani Foundation, www.nasranifoundation.org/articles/historicaldivisions.html.
- “Mar Thomas Sabha History.” Marthoma.org Mar Thomas Sabha History, Sabha News, 28 June 2008, www.marthoma.org/portal/publish/FEATURED/Mar_Thomas_Sabha_History.shtml.
- “Mission Board.” The Marthoma Church: Diocese of North America and Europe, The Marthoma Church, www.marthomanae.org/website/portaltemplate.php?mainmenu=MISSION&submenu=Mission+Board+&subsubmenu=&subsubsubmenu=.
- “Mtc-Urban-Missions.” Mtc-Urban-Missions, Neighborhood Missions Ministry of Mar Thoma Church, Diocese of North America & Europe, 2018, www.mtcurbanmissions.org/.
- “Saint Thomas Christians.” New World Encyclopedia, New World Encyclopedia, 10 Aug. 2015, web.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Saint_Thomas_Christians.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Marcus T Caine