Rev. John Thomas, a great missionary of Tinnevelly, South India, from 1837 until the time of his death in 1870.
Rev. John Thomas: A great missionary of Tinnevelly, South India. (Photos courtesy of Kutty Jaskar)
Rev. John Thomas was born in Wales in 1807, the fourth of the five children of Thomas Thomas of Penrhosgain Farm in Trelech a’r Bettws, Carmarthen. On somewhat dubious grounds the family claimed descent from Owen Glendower, who instigated a fierce and long-running but ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the English rule of Wales.
From a hill-farm boy John Thomas came to study at the Church Missionary College (C.M.S College) of Islington, London, between the years 1833 to 1835. Whilst still at college he was ordained a deacon by the Bishop of London in 1835 and was ordained a priest by the Bishop of Gloucester in 1836. He then went to Tinnevelly, India, where he was stationed at Mengnanapuram.[i]
Rev. John Thomas was a deeply religious man with many accomplishments and great organizational skills. Like so many of his countrymen he was a skilled musician with an attractive singing voice. He had a good working knowledge of architecture and a remarkable taste in designing and town planning. Bishop Robert Caldwell gave favourable remarks of Thomas:
“He . . . was an excellent lawyer. He had made himself by study and practice an excellent doctor. He was an excellent singer, a good musician and well acquainted with the science of music. As a builder he had no equal in Tinnevelly . . . In addition he was a good mechanician, a good rider and swimmer, and was a man of great bodily strength, though often ailing through the influence of the climate as time went on. . . He was a good Tamil scholar, a particularly good speaker of Tamil, a good preacher both in Tamil and English and an administrator of first-rate excellence”[ii]
[i] William Kemm, John Thomas Missionary to South
India ( ISPCK, Delhi,2010)
[ii] Rev. Dyron B. Daughrity, A Brief History of Missions in Tirunelveli (part one): From the beginnings to its creation as a Diocese in 1896 (2004)
Photo of St.Paul’s Church, Megnanapuram, in 1904. This church was built by Rev.John Thomas in 1844 but took many years to finish. His body was buried at a corner of the Church.(Photos courtesy of Kutty Jaskar)
Ambrose school (top left) and Elliot Tuxford Girls' school (top right) in Mengnanapuram started by Rev. John Thomas and his wife around 1842. Another photo is "Rev. John Thomas college of education for woman", named after him.
In that course of time he laid out a new village with broad streets, resolved some sanitary difficulties and erected schools. These schools were of outstanding quality as mentioned by a Government Inspector of schools who wrote:
“I was busy all day yesterday and find the boarding-schools here the best that I have ever seen…” [iii]
Rev. John Thomas also built a church of real magnificence, whose tower was a landmark for travelers for many miles. Helen Harriet Holcomb wrote in her book, ‘Bits about India’ in 1888 of the church with great admiration:
“Just as the day was breaking we saw against the sky the tall and graceful spire of a Christian church. We were in the midst of a great sandy desert where only thorn-bushes and castor-oil shrubs seemed to grow, and the only tree that thrived was the Palmyra palm. Yet here in the desert was an imposing Gothic church edifice crowned with a beautiful spire. Not far from the church was a village number in less than a thousand souls. Through this village was a broad street with rows of feathery palms on either side. Around the church the desert rejoiced and blossomed as the rose. There were fine trees luxuriant in foliage, graceful creepers and lovely flowers in profusion and variety.”
“Does anyone wonder why so noble a church-building and boarding-school were required in such a place? This desert land, rich only in Palmyra palms, has been a field greatly blessed of the Lord. There are in the district of Mengnanapuram alone more than eighteen thousand persons in connection with one hundred and eighty-seven congregations, and in the various schools in the district are gathered over four thousand children.” [iv]
Rev. John Thomas also visited the villages around Mengnanapuram and did similar improvements for them, but on a smaller scale. The story of these great undertakings is written in the Church Missionary Society Reports (C.M.S. Report) of the period. It is also referenced favorably by Bishops Spencer of Madras and Cotton of Calcutta in their published works. He was a very able, talented and remarkable leader.[v]
Rev. John Thomas died at Mengnanapuram in 1870 after 34 years of service. His eldest son, Rev. John Davies, followed in his steps as a missionary; others sons, James Byers pursued his career as a military doctor becoming a lieutenant colonel in the Indian Medical Service. Thomas Edward became an officer in the Madras police. Josiah Ragland became a barrister-at-law. George Tucker also became a lieutenant colonel in the Indian Medical Service. Samuel Chase died very young.
His widow, Mary and a daughter, Frances Elizabeth, survived him and carried on missionary work as managers of the Elliot-Tuxford Girls' School for many years. Another daughter Mary Jane married a C.M.S. missionary Ashton Dibb. Catherine Sophia married the son of a doctor Henry Porteous. His youngest daughter Matha Louisa also died very young while in a boarding school in England.[vi]
[iii] William Kemm, John Thomas Missionary to South India (ISPCK, Delhi, 2010)
[v] http://archive.org/stream/churchinmadrasbe03penn/churchinmadrasbe03penn_djvu.txt and http://anglicanhistory.org/india/stock_beginnings/04.html
[vi] William Kemm, John Thomas Missionary to South India (ISPCK, Delhi, 2010)
Tamil people in South India around 1870 (Photo from https://commons. wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Somewhere_in_South_India;_a_photo_from_c._ the_1870%27s.jpg)
Inside St.Paul’s Church: There are memorial name plaques of Rev. John Thomas, his wife Mary, his eldest son Rev. John Davies Thomas, and his son in law Rev. Ashton Dibb, mounted on the wall in their honors. (Photos courtesy of Kutty Jaskar)
Rev. John Thomas' name plaque, one of the four memorial name plagues inside the Church. (Photo from Chennai Meignanapuram Christian Association's Facebook)