- The life and work of the Danish missionary Anne Marie Petersen
A short introduction
By Tine Elisabeth Larsen
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, an increasing interest for mission arose in the western world. It spread from Germany through Great Britain reaching Denmark, and as a result The Danish Mission Society (DMS) was founded in 1821. The work carried out by the DMS in the Arcot area in South India, goes back to 1863, when the German missionary C.C. Ochs was employed in the DMS, working in Pattambakkam. The first Danish missionary in India, who founded a mission station in Tirukoilur in 1869 was Peter Andersen. From 1900 the DMS had an extensive missionary work in the Arcot field, including hospitals, schools and mission stations.
The Danish Mission Society represented one mainstream in the Danish Evangelical tradition and was founded in a strict Lutheran piety. The other one being the Grundtvigian, a cultural more liberal trend, established by the Danish priest, philosopher and hymn writer: N.F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872). The Grundtvigian movement supported the two missionaries Eduard Loeventhal and Anne Marie Petersen.(AMP)
The Loeventhal Mission was the first attempt to conduct a mission work based on the ideas and visions regarding man, people and Christianity formed by Grundtvig. Grundtvig believed that some day a great Christian community would rise in India, on the banks of the river Ganges. This prophesy became essential to further mission work.in India and for the followers of his ideas. Eduard Loeventhal was working in South India from 1872 - until 1914. (The Loeventhal Mission). In 1909, the Danish schoolteacher, Anne Marie Petersen arrived to India, in order to follow her vocation as a missionary and to become Loeventhals assistant.
Five years later, in 1914, Loeventhal left India for the last time, and AMP was taken on as a missionary by the DMS, where she worked as a schoolteacher various places in the Arcot field.
In 1916 Anne Marie Petersen visited Mahatma Gandhis ashram Sabarmati near Ahmedabad. This experience should prove a turning point to her mission work. From this moment her aim was to establish a Christian nation school for girls based upon the model used by the Danish Folk High School and the living- and working conditions in Gandhis ashram.
The First World War meant a new agenda for Christian mission in India, especially at the time when Gandhi entered the Indian scene. As a result missionary work became conditioned by political loyalty toward the British colonial power. The missionaries was forced to take a stand concerning their personal viewpoints with respect to the national question and regarding the independence movement, which had emerged.
At the DMS´ Missionary Conference held in 1920, a debate and referendum was going to take place among the participants in order to clarify whether or not, Indian missionaries could obtain equal rights and enjoy the same privileges as the Danish missionaries. Anne Marie Petersen and two other Danish missionaries were in favor of this, nevertheless the proposal failed and shortly after, AMP stopped her cooperation with th DMS.
After her resignation from DMS, she became a wholehearted supporter to the national movement lead by Gandhi and she wrote to him:
"I cannot thank you enough for your kindness and the way in which you received me and I feel that our meeting more or less decided my future. I have thrown myself at the feet of India...and I feel for India, and I can see she (India) has no other way to protest against being trampled down and crushed than non-cooperation. I also want you to know that many people in Denmark and all over the world, yes, I am sure every true Christian will feel with and be in sympathy with India in the struggle which is now going on. God forbid that in the struggle between might and right, truth and untruth, the spirit and the flesh, there should be a division of race. There is not. The same struggle is going on all over the world. What does it matter then that we are a few? God is on our side."
About education she wrote:
"The movement would lead to a spontaneous rise of national schools. Let them be few, but let them spring up through self sacrifice. Only by indigenous education can India be truly uplifted. Why this appeals so much to me is perhaps because I belong to the part of Danish people who started their own independent indigenous national schools. The Danish Free Schools and Folk High Schools of which you may have heard were started against the opposition and persecution of the state. The organizers won and thus have regenerated the Nation."
Mahatma Gandhi published her letter in in the paper Young India.
Soon after her resignation from the DMS, she realized her school project supported by the Grundtvigian home board and Indian friends. In 1921 Mahatma Gandhi laid the foundation stone to AMPs boarding school, named Seva Mandir (The temple of the Service) in Porto Novo, near Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. Seva Mandir had two purposes i.e to serve the children of India and to serve God. A new mission society was established: The Porto Novo Mission.
In many cases, the missionaries arriving to India, possessed an ideology based on the idea of white superiority and its rights to subdue another country in any ways. AMP saw the existing mission in India, as a mere extension of historical colonialism and colonial power. AMP believed, that if Christianity was ever going to be implemented in India, it would have to be on the terms of the Indian people. The message had to be contextualized and subsequently she identified herself with the national movement and the struggles of the people. The Indians were to create an Indian theology, and an Indian church, enriched with their own cultural and philosophical traditions, independent of western doctrines and attitudes.
There were two sides of Anne Marie Petersens work as a missionary. First and foremost, the public issue, which manifested itself in her involvement and sympathy toward Gandhi and the National Movement. Then the religious and missionary aspect, which was closely connected to the Indians, who wanted to establish an Indian theology, among those were Sadhu Sundar Singh and V. Chakkarai. AMP supported their interpretation of Christianity, where the main emphasis was to be laid on Bhakti, being devotion and love, rather than truth and wisdom.
AMP was the first person to arrange a meeting between Sadhu Sundar Singh and Mahatma Gandhi. A meeting arranged in order "to turn all Christian Indians into nationalist and all nationalist into Christians". The meeting took place in January 1922 in Gandhis ashram.
Anne Marie Petersen chose the side of the Indian people, in solidarity with the suppressed. By doing so, she became a problem to the British colonial government, because solidarity toward the National Movement was seen as a rebellion toward the later. Therefore her school was not acknowledged by the government and further did not receive any financial support for a great number of years. Besides, it influenced her arrivals to and departs from India. Twice she was denied entrance to India and was blacklisted at the government office in Madras.
Still it was not only the authorities in India, which opposed itself toward AMP. Also her work gave rise to concern among the home board and the Grundtvigian supporters. They looked upon her work as being political, rather than mission work aiming at conversion. Their attitude was a result of her close connection with the national Movement and further her view on the baptism and its problems in India.
During Anne Marie Petersens stay in India, Christianity was often regarded a foreign religion identified with the British control. This expressed anger and antagonism toward Christianity and the Christian church. Among many Indians, baptism implied becoming a members of a new society separated from ones own society and family, and from ones national, cultural and spiritual inheritance. A new society, which was very often anti-national and out of context with the Indian reality. AMP never denied the importance of baptism and its crucial place in Christianity. However, she realized the problems it caused to the Indians, to such an extent, that most of her supporters in Denmark accused her of denying the baptism. Thus, the result was an ultimate split in her supporting group, and those who supported her establish a new Porto Novo Mission in 1927.
The school in Porto Novo was working according to her ideas, as described in her book, "Our School" from 1918. The teaching took place in Tamil and during the classes there was a vivid interaction going on between the students and teachers. Also, the daily work was carried out by all the students and teachers together. AMP and Chakkarai held the service and even though it was a Christian school, no one was ever forced to convert to Christianity. Over the years, the school expanded and thousands of girls have been given a home and an education in Seva Mandir.
All mission work from its outset until today has always something to do with transfer of ideas to other people and other cultures. In this context The Loeventhal Mission and later on The Porto Novo Mission differs from any otter Danish mission work, exemplified by its very positive approach to Indian customs and traditions, and further its attempt to implement mission work based on Indian foundations.
Anne Marie Petersens engagement in the National Movement and her strong belief that Christianity should be implemented on Indian terms, as seen in her school and in her relationship with a group of national-minded and highly educated Indians like Chakkarai, can be traced back to her Grundtvigian philosophy.
Throughout her life, Grundtvigs paramount theme: "First a man - then a Christian" continued being an inseparable notion and to her this was the only way to work as a missionary. The respect for the people, whom she worked amongst, her believe in their wishes and their ideas, and not least their desire for freedom was a guiding star, not only to her being a missionary, but being a human being.
Anne Marie Petersen is one of the most remarkable mission worker, who ever worked in India. She died in 1951 and the newspaper Harijan wrote:
"There was a pecuilar spiritual understanding between herself and Gandhi, who used to call her, "My Anni Marie"...To the last she remained a devoted admirer and follower of Gandhi and she belongs to the blessed group of foreign friends, who served India in complete harmony."
Dansk – Indisk Historie- & Forskningsselskab
v/ Tine Elisabeth Larsen