What is Methodist Day ? This is the day- 29th June, (1814)- on which five of the original band of seven Methodist missionaries set foot on Sri Lankan soil. The leader of the group, Dr Thomas Coke died at sea and never reached Sri Lanka. The seventh arrived later on 23rd February 1815. The work started by these seven missionaries has had a great impact on progress of the nation. Hence, June 29th has become a very significant date in the history of Sri Lanka.
Why a Methodist Day?
Methodist Day is not simply a day on which a tiny group of 20,000 or so Methodists, in the midst of a population of 19 million Sri Lankans, celebrate the arrival of their religion. It is a day of notable significance in the history of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has not been the same ever since that day. Methodism has made its contribution to the development of the nation in every sphere of human activity- education, development of Sinhala and Tamil languages, printing and publications, culture and traditions, economic and social progress, etc. The chief motive for the labours of the missionaries was to teach and preach the Gospel but in doing so they introduced very positive and permanent strands in National ethos of Sri Lanka.
What are the significant contributions of Methodism and Methodists to the history of Sri Lanka?
The most significant and lasting contribution of Methodism was in the field of education. Methodists spearheaded the development of English education in our country in the 19th and 20th centuries. They sustained well-organized, high-class schools where English language was thoroughly taught.
English was gaining the status of an international language at this time; becoming the lingua franca of the world The Methodists established first class English schools all over the island. The people themselves realizing the value of learning English demanded the setting up of these schools. Their immediate aim was to study English and gain employment in Government and private sectors because English was the language of administration at this time. But learning of English ultimately led to receding of insular attitudes and the broadening of an international outlook: For English, as Nehru pointed out, became the ‘window on the world’ to us. We were empowering ourselves with an efficient tool to deal with universal progress in Science and technology. Now, after many years of reversion to swabasha only, the nation has realized the value of English. As a result, English medium schools in the form of International schools are being established in every part of the island. The Education Ministry has also adopted a policy of allowing English as a medium of instruction; to co-exist with Sinhala and Tamil streams in many government schools today. English in its race against the other four international languages, namely French, Chinese, Russian and German, has gained much ground. We should be thankful that at least the missionaries have left us on the winning side.
Further the great educational system established by the Methodist missionaries provided a rich legacy of Liberal education to the nation. To mention a few examples, Richmond College was founded in 1876. Richmond had tremendous impact in raising the national consciousness, promotion of Buddhist education and the advancement of the Southern Province. The liberal education provided at Richmond was able to produce many national leaders, reformers and outstanding Buddhist laymen. Foremost among them are P. de.S. Kularatne, C.W.W.Kannangara. W. Dahanayake, Dr.J.H.F.Jayasuriya and Thomas de Silva. At the Diamond Jubilee of Richmond, Mr C.W.W.Kannangara, who helped to make education freely available to the rich and poor said these words when he was Minister of Education: “The place where I stand is for me holy ground, sanctified by the tread of Mr Darrel (a distinguished Principal of the school) … I stand here as one who remembers the time when he was the poorest of the poor. If I have done, any little thing in the world, the credit belongs entirely to this institution.”
Other Methodist schools, which have played a distinctive role in shaping national life, are Southlands and Rippon in Galle; Girls’ High School in Matara; Wesley and Methodist Colleges in Colombo (Wesley has the unique honor of counting Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the first Governor General as its old boy. The first Prime minister of independent Sri Lanka, the late Mr. D.S. Senanayake, who was the Chief Guest at the 75th Anniversary of Wesley College, Colombo said, with a voice charged with emotion when he recalled the panic action of the Colonial Secretary who during the Sinhala-Muslim riots of 1915, jailed all Sinhala leaders, “ We Sinhalese can never forget the contribution that the missionaries made to this land. Highfield was here and we were there” – he pointed dramatically to the Welikade Remand Prison on the opposite side of the road - - “and he was the only man who had the courage to go up to the Governor and tell him that those Sinhalese leaders were his friends and were innocent and must be released immediately!” And released they were. It is worthy of mention here that Highfield went on a collecting campaign on bicycle all over the length and breadth of the country for funds to expand the buildings of the school. Wesley was also the nursery for the promotion of cricket.); Kingswood and Girls’ High School in Kandy, Newstead in Negambo, Methodist Central and Vincent in Batticaloa, Jaffna Central (Among a galaxy of eminent men produced by this school, two men strode this country as distinguished men, Dr S.C.Paul and Dr W.G.Rockwood, while a third Mr Nevins Selvadurai became a member of the state Council) and Vembadi in Jaffna; Hartley and Methodist High School in Poimt Pedro (Prof.A.C. Eliezar the Cambridge Wrangler in Mathematics studied at Hartley College); besides these, many other schools have contributed in no small measure to the social, political, economic and cultural life of the country. Before schools like Zahira College were established most of the leading Muslim politicians and thinkers were educated at Methodist Institutions like Wesley, Richmond, Kingswood and Batticaloa Central Colleges.
In the early part of the 19th century conservative and traditional view was to accept that the woman’s place was the home and the kitchen. But the establishment of fine Girls’ High Schools in all the towns of the island helped to liberate women from their inferior status. Through the education she received a woman was able to become a better mother, a more understanding helpmate to her husband and also take up various public functions like teachers, nurses and even enter the higher echelons of public service such as managers, doctors and lawyers. One can only imagine the numbers of educated women produced by such Girls’ High Schools as Methodist College, Vembadi, Jaffna, Girls’ High School, Kandy, and Vincent School, Batticaloa who were liberated during this period.
Modern Science-based Education
Modern system of primary and secondary and high school education was introduced at this time.
The missionaries often challenged the government to establish state schools. When government policy favored English schools, the Church relentlessly fought for vernacular primary education. Teacher training colleges were established for this purpose as far back as 1845. Methodists established over 500 Sinhala and Tamil schools in the island.
The English High Schools were first to teach Modern Sciences like Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. In addition to the Classical Languages like Latin and Greek that were taught; semi scientific subjects like Geography and Economics were on Curricula. When Sri Lanka’s economy was changing from subsistence cultivation to plantation agriculture and this in turn led to the development of a network of roads and railways and there was a growing need for surveyors, engineers and administrators. It’s the mission schools that produced such quality personnel to satisfy this need.
Sinhala and Tamil Research and Studies
Some missionaries were instrumental in the development and promotion of the Sinhala language. Rev. B. Clough produced the first English-Sinhala Dictionary in 1821. He also produced a Sinhala-English dictionary in 1840. These were only dictionaries until the close of the 19th century. Rev. Peter Percival of Jaffna, an outstanding Tamil scholar, who wrote many books in Tamil, produced an English-Tamil dictionary. . Rev. Peter Percival translated Bible into Tamil in collaboration with Arumuga Navalar. Rev J.D. Gogerly was acknowledged authority on Pali. Many of his research papers were published in the Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Printing and Publishing
The Methodist introduced printing technology to Sri Lanka. The Wesleyan Mission Press established in 1815 in Pettah was the first printing and publishing establishment in this country. The chief contribution of this press was the casting of Sinhala types in 1816 by Harvard. So began the production of Sinhala and Tamil books for use in schools and the publishing of Sinhala and Tamil literary works. Some scholarly missionaries like Rev John de Silva (‘Sinhalese Grammar for Lower Schools’) and Rev. Samuel Langdon (‘Notes on Science Teaching’; ‘Punchi Nona’) wrote books, which became acceptable textbooks for use in Schools.
Culture and Traditions
During the British Period of Sri Lanka’s history, there were significant changes in the administrative system. A personal form of government through a hierarchy of chiefs that came down from ancient times changed into a bureaucracy, which was responsible to the Governor. This in turn gave way gradually to a parliamentary democracy. The Courts applied The Roman-Dutch Law. In matters of commerce British law was adopted All these administrative, constitutional and legal changes needed men of understanding with new attitudes and outlook. The English Schools run by the missionaries produced, by changes in popular sentiment, mutations of thought and vibrations of conviction such men of standing and intelligence who could implement these changes that have become a permanent feature of Sri Lankan Society. It is possible to claim that Independence would hardly have been a practicable proposition in Ceylon but for the leaders who have been provided by the Christian schools.
The missionaries sometimes went beyond the field of education and helped to record culture and practices of the native people Rev. Benjamin Clough wrote the first Pali grammar and vocabulary in English, which was published in 1824. “ The Ritual of the Buddhist priesthood” translated from the Pali Kamawachaa was printed by him for Oriental Translation Fund of the Royal Asiatic Society. Rev. Callaway was another missionary who published “Yakkun Natanawa” and “ Kolam Natanawa” in English. “It is by far the most reliable source we have for the reconstruction of Kolam”, says Prof.E.R.Sarachandra in his book, ‘The Folk Drama of Ceylon’. Methodists showed a keen interest in the Buddhist renaissance. Gogerly and Spence Hardy studied Sinhala, Pali and Buddhism genuinely. John Wesley’s new concept of community life, “ Gain all you can, Save all you can and Give all you can”, became the maxim of President Premadasa- one of the most charismatic leaders of Sri Lanka. He received his primary education at Harvard Methodist School in Pettah.
In sports, Wesley College became early nursery of cricket. Football and Tennis were also introduced. Sri Lanka In cricket, a game introduced by the missionaries, Sri Lanka has excelled on the world stage in recent times
Pic courtesy - Wikipedia
Traditionally the church took its stand with the poor and underprivileged. Thee Methodist missionaries were alive to the many evils of their time as their leader John Wesley to the social barbarities and evils of 19th century England. The Church spearheaded Temperance movement intensifying its cause and criticizing the action of governments’ policy on making liquor freely available. The Social Service Leagues established by the Church in every district led to a general awakening of the ‘social conscience’. “Papers on Social Service’ by Rev. J. S. de Silva had great influence in this direction. The Social Service leagues of the Methodist churches raised people’s awareness on such social evils as Depressed Classes, Usury, Child marriages and on matters sanitary and hygienic. Rev.G.A.F.Senaratne and the Colombo City Mission lost no time in organizing public relief for the wounded and homeless when the riots of 1915 shook the nation. Hon.P.Ramanathan makes reference to the work of Rev. Senaratne in his book “Riots and Martial Law in Ceylon”
In England, the principal works of social reform of the 19th century were achieved by a few individuals whose social enthusiasm was the direct influence of the Methodist Movement. These men were Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Richard Oastler, etc. They were spiritual sons of John Wesley. In Sri Lanka too most of the social reformers C.W.W. Kannangara, A.E.Goonesinha, R. Premadasa and Leslie Goonewardene and a host of others were men who came into contact with the Methodist tradition. These men resolutely opposed the philosophy that held that human happiness was best secured by giving capital absolute control over the lives and liberties of men and women. They opposed the idea of placing a value on man as mere unit of energy in a mechanical system. It is these ideas, which are still exercising our political decisions even today.
A lot of devoted work by the missionaries among the depressed Tamil community in North Ceylon brought response. Under tyrannical the caste system, crime was measured not by the character of the deed but by the caste of the offender. A fine will expiate the crime when a Brahmin did it; death or torture was reserved for the man from the lower caste. These attitudes were changed. The novel idea of trade and commerce and the new relationship pf Credit and Debit leveled down other distinctions. The knowledge of western medicine the missionaries brought with them vastly improved on state where yearly thousands died through various plagues. Dr J.H.F Jayasuriya’s greatest and most permanent work was the establishment of the National Association for the Prevention Tuberculosis of which he was the first President. He raised public consciousness on problem, which at time threatened health of the nation seriously. His work led to chiefly to the elimination of this threat. He studied under the guidance of great teachers like Darrel and Small of Richmond College. The abatement of disease and the conservation of life by sanitary practices were some concepts introduced through the schools.. The whole fabric Sri Lankan home life changed in the matters of dress, furniture, food and housing during these times.
Spiritual, Moral and Ethical reforms
The dissemination of Christian ethics and morals through schools among a great people, who at this juncture were demoralized and depressed due to the economic and political conditions of times had a salutary effect on Society as whole. Superstitions and the observance of Omens had almost paralyzed the capacity for free actions of men. Animism and devil worship had even crept into the Temples. Rational and Scientific attitudes brought in by the missionaries helped cleanse society of these unfortunate practices.
The first Methodist Church in Asia was founded in Sri Lanka. The oldest Methodist Church in Asia still stands in Pettah, Colombo. Ceylon, as it was then known, was the scene of the beginning of Methodist work in Asia. Methodism was taken from Sri Lanka to India and China, Burma and Indonesia
The famous Panadura Debate of 1873 between Migettuwatte Sri Gunananda Thero and Rev. David de Silva, the Methodist Minister, was an early example of significant inter-religious dialogue.” Communities in dialogue” is very much in vogue today as a result of concept put forward by the late Pope John Paul II. But Sri Lankans introduced this practice as far back as the 19th century. The dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism attracted the attention of Col. H.S. Olcott who founded the Buddhist Theosophical Society and through it the development of Buddhist education.
Methodist leaders have been known for their courageous stand on National Questions. Rev Soma Perera took a bold stand and spoke up for a political solution to the ethnic conflict through negotiation.
Rev. Harold Fernando, at the height of the National Crises demanded the dissolution of Parliament and the holding of elections. Both spoke as the leaders of the Methodist Church.
Rev. Theodore Perera founded the Dewa Suwa Sevawa the healing mission in Moratuwa
“The influence of the Methodist Church, Sri Lanka has extended far beyond its shores, with Sri Lankan Methodists taking their places in significant areas of proclamation and service both in Methodist Churches and ecumenically in many lands. The penetration of Sri Lankan Methodism throughout the world in a far greater ratio in numbers to most other churches is indeed remarkable”, said Rev Joe. Hale, General Secretary, World Methodist Council Rev. Dr D.T. Niles became the President of the World Council of Churches. Rev. Dr. Lynn de Silva became the Director of the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue.
Thus, it is not an exaggeration to say that Methodism and Methodists have had a positive influence on Sri Lankan Society far beyond their size or numbers would warrant. A small but vibrant community has indeed touched the soul of the nation and made an elegant and ancient culture and society more beautiful and richer by its presence.
It is important to take balanced view of the work and influence of Methodist missionaries during the British rule in Ceylon. The business of belittling their work began in the period of restoring Sinhalese and Tamil languages and Buddhist and Hindu cultures. It would be wrong to judge the work of the Christian missionaries solely in the light of events connected to the development of National culture. The scope of history, as Professor G.C.Mendis points out. Is far wider than cultural developments. It covers political, economic and social movements. The changes that took in these three spheres as result of the exertions of the missionaries were radical indeed
[This article was written by
B.A. (Ceylon). Diploma in ELT (UK)
Former Asst. of Director Education
A former Editor of 'REACH'
[Journal of the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka]
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