They called themselves the “Wanderers Branch” for good reason. Most were far from home, and they were few in number.
The “wanderers” were the first group of Latter-day Saints to meet in India. Composed of a handful of soldiers and sailors from England and a few Indian converts from Calcutta, the branch was one of several organized throughout the country during what proved to be short and discouraging missionary seasons from 1851 to 1856 and again from 1884 to 1888.
Following those years of limited success, missionary efforts in India ceased for a time. Unable to overcome barriers posed by language and culture, the mission was closed, and the missionaries returned home. Some British converts immigrated to the United States, while Indian members carried on as best they could without missionaries.
The challenges that greeted these first missionaries still exist. India remains a land of diversity, tradition, and devotion to Eastern religions. It is a land where the ancient wrestles with the modern, where poverty defies prosperity, and where teeming millions merge into a kaleidoscope of customs and castes.
Indians honor their dead by perpetuating the centuries-old beliefs and practices of their forefathers. Because some religious traditions resist the truths of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, change comes slowly. Conversion, still illegal in some states, is difficult. Yet because of tradition, paradoxically, the appeal of the gospel is growing. Church doctrine dispels the traditional belief in India that people cannot improve their lot in this life and that they must accept the position into which they are born.
“The gospel frees them by breaking that belief,” says Gurcharan Singh Gill, president of the India Bangalore Mission. “The gospel teaches people that they are on equal ground and that they are children of God with the potential to become like him. That knowledge alone gives them so much self-respect that they are willing to work hard and not be held back just because they were born into a particular place or into a particular caste. They are breaking the cycle of poverty. They find out who they are, that they have potential and talents, and that they can develop them.”
Few Indians have had the opportunity to hear and accept the message of the Restoration. But Church membership, about 500 prior to the opening of the mission in 1993, has more than doubled in the past two years.
Previously, when India was part of the Singapore Mission, mission leaders were unable to visit branches frequently, and full-time missionaries were in short supply. The Church grew slowly, some members struggled, and local leaders battled discouragement. Today, first-generation Latter-day Saints who joined the Church in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s are gratified to see the growth and are grateful for the expanding missionary force, which numbers 60 elders and sisters, plus several couples.
Some might be daunted by the task of taking the gospel to a nation of 950 million people who speak two dozen major languages and a thousand dialects, but India’s young and vibrant Latter-day Saints are enthusiastic about laboring in their country’s ample vineyard. They see great opportunities in the challenges they face as member missionaries.
“To be a member of the Church in India is to be a missionary,” says President Gill, who was born in northern India and joined the Church in 1956 after moving to the United States. “If we are to teach 950 million Indians, sooner or later the members are going to have to teach their own people. That message is getting through. The members are becoming involved and are working with the missionaries. It’s amazing. I didn’t think this would happen so fast, but in the past few months the work has taken off.”
In a country with fewer than two Latter-day Saints per million people, the Lord’s declaration that every member be a missionary (see D&C 88:81) is being taken seriously. As a result, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, like India’s meandering Ganges River, is beginning to spread throughout the land of Gandhi.
When full-time missionaries returned to the city of Rajahmundry in August 1993 after a three-year absence, they found that the small branch was struggling.
Full-time missionaries and faithful members worked together to strengthen the branch by emphasizing gospel doctrine, organizing auxiliaries, offering leadership training, and arranging for members to hold meetings together in a rented home. Renewed spiritual vigor resulted in increased baptisms. Sacrament meeting attendance skyrocketed from 36 members in September 1993 to more than 200 when the branch was divided seven months later.
Members realized that by working with the missionaries they could convert family and friends rather than lose them. Resulting enthusiasm led to the initiation of member-missionary efforts, a local motto of “Each One Catch One,” and the calling of full-time district missionaries.
Rajahmundry, situated along the wide Godavari River near its meeting with the Bay of Bengal in southeast India, is known among full-time missionaries as “missionary heaven”—the area’s high humidity and sauna-like temperatures notwithstanding.
“Everybody is excited about the success of our member-missionary efforts,” says Job Cyril, a full-time missionary who serves as branch president of the Rajahmundry Second Branch. Elder Cyril, who baptized his mother in 1993 while he was serving in his home city of Hyderabad, feels that the Church is overcoming its slow start in India.
“The first missionaries in the 1850s may have found the country unprepared to accept the truth,” he says. “But now India is ready for the gospel. Many people are searching for the truth, including the young and educated.”
The biggest challenge facing the Church in Rajahmundry today is building a broader base of leadership: the branch that was struggling in 1993 is now preparing to be divided again.
In Hyderabad, located west of Rajahmundry on central India’s vast Deccan Plateau, 90 percent of those who joined the Church during the past two years were either friends or relatives of members. Hyderabad, once home to powerful Persian kings, is a thriving metropolis of several million people where the Church has three growing branches.
Sunitha, Santosh, and Sanjay Murala welcome the increased membership. The three siblings were the only Latter-day Saint youths in Hyderabad for most of the 1980s after being introduced to the Church in 1978 by their aunt and uncle, Elsie and Edwin Dharmaraju, who had been baptized in Samoa. Sunitha, Santosh, and Sanjay say that study habits developed over years of Church service and teaching, coupled with prayer, helped them all to pass stringent entrance examinations required by India’s highly competitive medical colleges.
Sunitha, who attended medical school in Hyderabad, generated curiosity and discussion among fellow medical students because of her Word of Wisdom observance. Her brothers Santosh and Sanjay, the only Latter-day Saints attending an exclusive Christian medical college near Madras in southeast India, worked hard to clear up misconceptions about the Church. Santosh became so popular that he was elected student body president. “We learned the importance of being an example,” Sanjay says. “It is more effective than preaching and arguing.”
India’s current generation of young people is increasingly receptive to the message of the restored gospel. Like Sunitha, Santosh, and Sanjay, most Church members are young. A branch with most of its leaders in their 20s and 30s is common.
On Sundays in the Hyderabad Second Branch, 27-year-old Raju Gutty, an electrical engineer, busies himself with duties in the Sunday School presidency. As Primary president, his wife, Swapna, teaches hymns and lessons to branch children. Raju’s 25-year-old brother, Victor, takes time out from his studies for a master’s degree in business administration to attend to his calling in the branch presidency. Their younger sister, Hema, 22, and brother, John, 19, also college students, reach out to branch youth in their respective callings as Young Women president and Young Men president. In addition, these five family members all make time during the week to serve as district missionaries.
Hema and John hope to serve missions, which Hema says is “the greatest thing in this world to do.” She may have to postpone a mission, however, for an arranged marriage—depending on the wishes of her nonmember father. “In my daily prayers, I ask the Lord to convert my parents so that they will send me on a mission,” Hema says. “A mission is very important to me, but I must honor my father.”
Given a choice, Hema and many other young women would opt for what is known in India as a “love marriage,” in which they have a say regarding their spouse, rather than for an arranged marriage. Dating, once taboo, has found its way to India’s cities and is increasing the number of love marriages. Young Latter-day Saint women hope to marry a priesthood holder who can someday take them to the nearest temple—in the Philippines thousands of miles away. Meanwhile, members work and pray for the day when a temple eventually will be built in India.
Because Church membership is so small in number and the distances between cities are so great, few young adults are able to marry a member. And those who marry outside the Church find it difficult to remain active. That quandary has prompted India’s mission president to introduce young adult Latter-day Saints to one another and to encourage marriages among members.
Seema John, who served a mission in the Philippines, does not consider herself a returned missionary. “I feel that I am still always a missionary,” she says. Seema is from India’s capital of New Delhi in northern India, where the Church has two small branches in a virtual forest of nearly 10 million people. “Everywhere I go, my testimony goes with me.”
Seema has done vicarious work in the Manila Philippines Temple for her deceased mother, and she has worked tirelessly to activate family members. “I am very grateful for my gospel knowledge,” she says. “It is difficult to know the things I know and not have family and friends who share those beliefs.” Like many Indian returned missionaries, Seema loves missionary work and the joy that accompanies conversion and activation.
In Bangalore, located in southern India, the growing strength of the Church can be attributed to returned missionaries who serve as branch leaders. Bangalore First Branch president Michael Anthony, his two counselors, and his executive secretary bring an enthusiasm to their callings that they gained on their missions. Baptisms are up in their branch, and sacrament meeting attendance is nearly 80 percent.
“We now have 10 temple recommend holders in the branch,” says President Anthony, the first Church member in Bangalore. “Members cannot afford to go to the temple, but they want to show the Lord that they are trying to be faithful.”
Members of the Bangalore Second Branch have loved almost all less-active families back to church. Branch president Raja Doraiswamy says, “Like Lehi, who wanted to give the fruit of the tree of life to his entire family, we desire that everybody be baptized and active.”
To spread awareness of the Church, the Bangalore branches participate in community service projects with other churches. Last December, a combined-branch choir joined several other choirs at a Christmas program attended by 4,000 people. “They expected the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but they liked us anyway,” President Doraiswamy says. “People were saying, ‘Now we know who the Mormons are.’”
Sacred cows wander India’s paved streets and rural back ways. Moslem mosques call the faithful to prayer as mantras and wisps of incense rise heavenward from Hindu temples. Christians gather in their chapels to sing hymns of praise, while red-turbaned Sikhs attend to their religious devotions.
From the towering Himalayas, western deserts, and fertile eastern plains of the north to the Deccan Plateau and green coastal plains of the south, ritual and devotion are observed daily in India. As the birthplace of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism, India is a land with many religious paths. About 83 percent of Indians are Hindus; another 11 percent are Muslims. Christians, most of whom live in the nation’s southern states where Indians believe the Apostle Thomas visited around A.D. 50, compose just under 3 percent of the population.
Into this religious tapestry, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is weaving its way. Given the traditional attitudes of many Indians toward changing one’s religion, recent growth in Church membership is phenomenal.
Historically, Christian missionaries often gleaned converts known as “rice Christians” by offering people food and money. In a nation familiar with the faces of hunger and suffering, the “rice Christian” attitude persists today. People are surprised to learn that converts join the Church to give and serve, not to receive handouts.
“Until the Spirit witnesses to people that the gospel offers them much beyond the material, it’s not unusual for investigators to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’” says Ebenezer Solomon, first counselor in the mission presidency and Church director for temporal affairs in India.
The Church, recognized officially as a “society,” does not yet own any property or buildings, and it has no legal authority to perform marriages. Some religious leaders use those conditions to discourage their members from investigating the restored gospel. Interest in the Church is growing nevertheless, and preparations are under way to reach beyond India’s English-speaking population.
Translations of Church materials and scriptures are proceeding in the country’s major languages. When materials are fully available in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, and Bengali, the gospel message can be extended to approximately 75 percent of the population.
In 1992, when Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told Indian Church members that the time had arrived for the work to go forward in their nation, members renewed their missionary efforts. Today, they rejoice in the growing number of Indians who are answering the call of the Good Shepherd.
“It is a challenging thing for us to be Church members, but we are as one big family,” says former Hyderabad Branch president Vasanth Raj Braganza. “India needs the Church badly, and we are grateful to the missionaries who have sacrificed their time and resources to bring the gospel to our land. The wonderful seeds they planted in our hearts are now growing and bearing fruit.”
Upon closing the original India Mission in 1856, missionary Robert Skelton wrote of the people he had grown to love, “I now leave them in the hands of God, feeling assured that He will reward them according to the Divine attributes of His perfections.”1
Nearly 150 years later, the task facing missionaries and members alike remains a daunting one. But the Spirit is touching the people, and God is blessing the faithful who are opening the way for others to follow.
“The lovely season has come to my country, the good season has come to my country,” sing people in the desert state of Rajasthan as they herald the arrival of the rainy season in northern India.2 So, too, proclaim India’s Latter-day Saints. Unlike the nation’s first Church members, those joining the fold today are wanderers no more.
Laxhmi Tulaseeswari Mada speaks with reverence of the missionaries who brought her into the Church. From them, “Tulasee” learned that she was a child of God. “Before, I didn’t feel like I was worth much,” she says. “But now I have the gospel. I know I am a daughter of God.”
Prior to her conversion, Tulasee lived her life as do many Indian women—under the waning vestiges of purdah, a tradition rooted in modesty that, for centuries, has veiled and secluded women. Brought up by her stepparents, mistreated as a child and adolescent, Tulasee had little sense of self-worth and little hope for the future. “Many times I was crying inside and outside,” she says of her life before finding the gospel.
Learning that she was valuable in God’s eyes offered spiritual balm to Tulasee’s troubled life, but she was reluctant to tell her parents of her baptism. Her father, a prominent Hindu religious teacher known as a guru, noticed a change in her and wanted to know why she seemed happy. When he found out that she had rejected his beliefs, he felt dishonored and disowned her.
Tulasee says the knowledge that she has eternal potential and that she can be exalted prompted her to accept a call as a district missionary in Rajahmundry. “The knowledge I have gained is what my people need,” says Tulasee, named after a Hindu goddess. She retains her given name because “I want people to know that I am a convert. I love missionary work, but it is hard for me to be a missionary in Rajahmundry, because people know who I am.”
It is also hard because Tulasee is a woman. The sight of women missionaries sharing the gospel is not only unusual but unnerving to some Indian men. Male investigators are often surprised to learn that they cannot be exalted without their wives. In the Church, the doctrine of eternal marriage generates increased respect for women and has helped marriages, most of which are still arranged.
Today, Tulasee’s face and bright clothing radiate her newfound optimism and sense of worth. Her baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost that followed gave her “a most precious feeling I had never felt before. Everybody needs that feeling,” she says. “Through the Holy Ghost, God gave me great answers. I love serving, and I need to share my testimony.”