Germany has been blessed with an abundance of history-changing Christians: theologians and pastors who have become household names. Martin Luther, for one; and Karl Barth; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and, of course, Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg.

If that last name on the list doesn’t roll off your tongue quite as easily as the three prior, there's no cause for embarrassment. At least not yet. Christopher Gilbert had never heard of him before, either, when a Tamil church planter in New York City showed up one day in 2006 and pleaded with him to make a movie about Ziegenbalg. It was the 300th anniversary of Ziegenbalg’s landing on Indian shores, and wasn’t that cause enough for celebration around the world?

In short order Gilbert discovered that while Ziegenbalg’s may not be a household name in North America or his native Australia, it certainly is in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Ten thousand people joined the week-long festivities celebrating the tercentenary, for which the national government issued a commemorative stamp. And not only Christians were there. Hindus and Muslims came to sing his praises just as loudly. In fact, the first English-language study of Ziegenbalg’s life and ministry, The First Protestant Missionary to India, was by Brijraj Singh, a Hindu. The title is correct—the Pietist Lutheran Ziegenbalg preceded the better-known Anglican and Reformed missionaries in India by a century. More recently, Tamil scholar Daniel Jeyaraj has awarded Ziegenbalg the moniker “the father of modern Protestant mission.”

This is an impressive designation for someone who was only in the mission field for a total of 13 years, made a mere 250 converts, and was roundly persecuted by the governor, the colonists, and even his own Pietist supervisors.

Though himself a German, Ziegenbalg’s mission was located in Tranquebar, a Danish colony, and he was granted permission to evangelize only because the Danish King Friedrik IV’s mistress died in childbirth, which prompted some soul-searching on the monarch’s part.

Despite the royal imprimatur, the colonial governor made Ziegenbalg’s life as difficult as possible—refusing to punish a drunken captain who tossed the missionary’s funds overboard or to recoup the loss; depriving converts of their work and forcing them out of the colony; imprisoning Ziegenbalg himself for defending the rights of a common-law Tamil widow of a Dane. (The missionary got his revenge by taking the four months of solitary confinement to write The God-Pleasing Life of Pastors and The God-Pleasing Life of Christians). And sometimes even the king failed him: for the years that Denmark was at war with Sweden, Ziegenbalg got none of his promised funding whatsoever.

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Then there were the colonists in the employ of the Danish East India Company. They knew full well that nothing was as subversive to their enslavement and abuse of the native population as the gospel, so they took every measure they could to expel Ziegenbalg and his associates. They flatly refused to worship in the same building with the Tamils; the Jerusalem Church, built for the new converts, still stands to today and hosted the anniversary celebrations.

The First Real Conversion

Worst of all, without a doubt, was the treachery of the church. This began in Ziegenbalg’s own heart, where the first real conversion took place. He had implicitly assumed that to become a Christian religiously meant to become a European culturally—a point of view that can still be held today, though it seems at last to be in remission. What changed him was shared life with the Tamil people. He moved into their quarter instead of enjoying the privileges of the Danes; he learned their language; he began to study their religion. Instead of seeing barbarism that needed to be discarded whole cloth, he saw fellow human beings, created equally in the image of God.

Some of his colleagues came to share this view; others insisted on seeing the Tamils as dirty and inferior. The indirect cause of Ziegenbalg’s untimely death at the age of 36 was the constant persecution of a new mission director who, without any mission experience of his own, condemned Ziegenbalg’s every move. Ziegenbalg’s close associate Johann Gründler died a year later under the same pressure.

One of the reasons we need mission stories so badly is to show us that what we think now is not self-evident but, in fact, has been a truth hard-won over centuries of struggle. It’s difficult to believe anyone ever thought that to be a good Christian you had to dress and eat like a European, but the fact is that the case had to be made, and Ziegenbalg was one of the first to make it.

Likewise, it’s hard to imagine a time when knowledge of other religions was considered irrelevant, if not blasphemous, but Ziegenbalg gave that gift also to the Western Christian world: as “the first Indologist,” he became an expert on Hinduism, collecting palm-leaf religious texts and compiling Hindu stories and myths for further study. He went so far as to find points of contact between the bhakti spirituality that dominated Tamil Hinduism and his own Pietist form of Christianity, both of which longed for a personal relationship with God. In Jesus Christ, Ziegenbalg was able at last to offer what the Tamil practitioners of bhakti had been waiting for. But he didn’t condemn the desire that bhakti had formed in them. Even 300 years later, that insight might not sit easily with all Christians today.

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It’s difficult to believe anyone ever thought that to be a good Christian you had to dress and eat like a European, but the fact is that the case had to be made, and Ziegenbalg was one of the first to make it.

As if his respect for cultural integrity, recognition of the image of God in other races, and initiation of interreligious studies weren’t enough, Ziegenbalg transformed the social reality of the Tamil people, too. He adapted their ancient script to suit the contemporary spoken language, a script that is still in use today. He started schools for both boys and girls, laying the foundation for modern elementary education in India. He empowered women, condemning abusive practices and paving the way for their eventual appearance in the workplace and politics. Ziegenbalg is exemplary, in fact, of recent findings that demonstrate the positive good missionaries have brought to the far-flung corners of the world, contrary to the still popular myth of universal missionary destruction.

This whole tale unfolds in Gilbert’s new and beautifully wrought documentary "Beyond Empires: Why India Still Celebrates Ziegenbalg." From period illustrations of missionaries baptizing converts to black-and-white footage from a 1931 reenactment of Ziegenbalg’s landing; from vignettes of Ziegenbalg (played by Mark Stevick) with voiceovers from his journals to interviews with mission scholars; and above all through interviews with contemporary Indians testifying to their affection and gratitude toward Ziegenbalg, this is a story that needs to be seen and heard and retold. It captures mission at its best and gently teaches lessons that privileged Western Christians needs to hear.

Ziegenbalg may be the long-forgotten father of modern Protestant mission, but perhaps this documentary will help ensure that he continues to have many mission-bearing children.

“Beyond Empires” will be broadcast in the United States on the NRB Network twice the night of October 2, 2014: at 9 p.m. Eastern / 8 p.m. Central / 6 p.m. Pacific and at 1 a.m. Eastern / midnight Central / 10 p.m. Pacific.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is Assistant Research Professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the editor of Lutheran Forum.