Roberts, William

William Roberts (1768-1838) (born Thiruvenkatam Vellala), a Tamil Unitarian missionary, educator, and writer, was the founder of the Madras Unitarian Christian Church. He engaged the support of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association (BFUA). His mission was for many years the focus of international Unitarian interest in India.

Thiruvenkatam was born in Mahkarai, Chingleput about 50 miles west of Madras (present-day Chennai) in South India. He was the second of five children in the family of Mudaliar Lakshmanan from the land owning agriculturalist Vellala caste (in the feudal system of that time). Life in the region was disrupted by the conflicts (Mysore Wars 1780-82) between the British East India Company and the Muslim ruler of Mysore, Hyder Ali. Thiruvenkatam wrote that he grew up in “very indigent circumstances.” His parents died during this period. No more is heard of his siblings.

In 1784 the 16-year-old Thiruvenkatam went to Madras in search of work. “Here,” he wrote, “a Mahometan Moor-man took me in his family, and about six months afterward artfully sold me as a slave” on board the East India Company ship Hastings and put him into the service of an English officer named Robison. While at sea he converted to Islam. Three years later, just before he died, Robison granted Thiruvenkatam his freedom. The ship’s captain, Alexander Jamison, who executed Robison’s last wishes, hired Thiruvenkatam as one of his personal servants.

Thiruvenkatam accompanied Jamison to Europe, where for 18 months he worked in the Jamison households at Dunkirk and Boulogne. There he learned to read in English, was introduced to Christianity, and joined the Church of England. In 1789 he was baptized at St. James’s Church in London, taking the baptismal name, William Roberts. His godfather was a fellow servant, of African origin, named Butler. Roberts commemorated the occasion by purchasing a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and a New Testament.

As the time taken by the baptismal ceremonies had delayed Mrs. Jamison’s own arrangements, Roberts was dismissed from service for want of punctuality. After a period of near destitution, Roberts returned to Madras in 1790. He worked his passage as a servant to George Hoar, in whose home he continued as a butler. During this time he studied the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. He experienced difficulties with the Athanasian Creed. He wrote, “Three persons of the same power and attributes, each separately God and Lord, yet altogether no more than one God, was a thing too hard for me to make anything of.” He later commented that, had he been better instructed in Islam, he “would never have given a favourable hearing to those who would pay little or no attention at all to the doctrine of the Unity of God.”

Roberts first encountered Unitarianism in 1793, when he went back to England with the Hoars. There, a fellow servant, Miss Raw, lent him a tract which included a list of publications by Joseph Priestley and Theophilus Lindsey. Roberts immediately purchased Lindsey’s A List of False Readings and Mistranslations of the Scripture, which helped him to resolve his theological difficulties: “I was astonished to see that my doubts were not without foundation; and that the doctrine of the Trinity, at which I stumbled, was not the doctrine of the Bible.” Thereafter Roberts considered himself a Unitarian, “one of those who own the crucified man, Jesus of Nazareth, to be their only spiritual head under God the Creator.”

After acquiring more books by Priestley and Lindsey, in 1794 Roberts returned to Madras. He moved to work for the the Harrington family. He was their butler for 27 years. Here he continued his reading and study of religion. He acquired a Tamil translation of the Bible, an English translation of the Koran, more books by Priestley and Lindsay, and works by the anti-trinitarian theologians, Samuel Clarke and Hopton Haynes. Around 1795 he began to instruct others about Unitarianism. He wrote, “Though my poverty and mean situation in life, and also my disqualification and incapability to teach, be two great impediments; yet as far as lay in my power I always made a point of answering, and instructing, and giving all the information I was master of to all those of my countrymen who would.”

The first gathering of Unitarian Christians in Madras was made up of ten families. Roberts drew up forms of prayers and services in Tamil, modeled on Lindsey’s Reformed Prayer Book. In 1813 the group opened a small chapel. Roberts and his friend Meguel Annathy led the services. The congregation was able to celebrate baptisms, the Lord’s Supper, marriages, and bury their dead.

Up to this point, Roberts’s only contact with organized Unitarianism was a single meeting with Jeremiah Joyce, the Secretary of the London Unitarian Society, while on a brief trip to London in 1806 with Mrs. Harrington and her children. In December 1816 he wrote to the London Unitarian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Practice of Virtue by the Distribution of Books, requesting missionary assistance, a channel of communication between Madras and London, guidance for his work, and that new publications be sent to him when they became available. Thomas Belsham, Secretary of the London Society, in his 1817 reply included a parcel of books and some counsel. Since the London Society did not send out missionaries, Belsham advised that if Roberts could “select two or three young men of good talents and character, with proper instruction from him, they would be much better qualified to teach the Gospel to their countrymen than any missionaries we could send from England.” Belsham set up a channel of communication between Roberts and the Society and, unasked, offered to raise money to have the manuscript Tamil-language liturgy and catechisms printed, allowing for a wider circulation.

Beginning in 1822 the British Unitarians provided financial support for Roberts’s mission. In 1825, with the formation of the BFUA, Roberts became its agent and missionary in Madras, at a salary of £100 per annum. In all Roberts received £2200 from the BFUA for the Madras mission. The BFUA published extracts from Roberts’s letters in their publications. This stimulated readers to make financial contributions. Roberts also corresponded with and received financial support from William Adam, the Scottish Unitarian in Calcutta. After the collapse of the Calcutta Unitarian Committee, the Madras Mission became the largest recipient of BFUA financial support.

In the early years, Roberts’s ministry was to members of his own station in life. Citing the example of Jesus, he asked, “Were His followers the rich, wealthy and learned men of the time?” As his reputation grew, his mission began to attract the attention of inquirers from “country-born gentlemen and respected natives” and from a “European regiment and artillery which now lies at Secundrabad.”

Roberts tried to teach others to think for themselves about religion. He attributed his own early conversions, to Islam and then to Anglicanism, to peer pressure and the acceptance of religious values at second hand. Though he commended the educational efforts of Protestant missionaries, he felt that the conversions they made were superficial and that their trinitarian doctrines were “truly insurmountable iron bars against the natives reading the Bible and comparing its insurmountable beauties for themselves.” A few months before his death, he reiterated, “You must read and search the Scriptures for yourselves, and base your religious opinions not on what men say, but on what our Lord himself and his disciples say.”

In accordance with their belief in the importance of education, Roberts and his associates established several small schools. Despite the devoted efforts of teachers and the support of the BFUA, however, the schools were always financially insecure. An 1833 BFUA annual report noted that Roberts’s “efforts in printing and circulating tracts have been much curtailed in consequence of additional expenses in paying schoolmasters and assisting small societies.”

Roberts made Tamil versions of works of Priestley, Lindsey, Richard Wright and Timothy Kenrick. He explained that these were not translations “but only an endeavour to express (their) meaning in Tamil to the best of (his) abilities.” He also composed numerous works of his own in Tamil. The BFUA highly praised his “Anantachary answered, or Unitarian Christianity vindicated against the Attacks of the Gentlemen’s Gooroos”, in a tract entitled, Some additional Reasons in answer to the Question, Why do you go to the (so called) Unitarian Chapel? To which is added a list of false readings and mistranslations of the Scriptures, 1831. He was proudest of his Notes and Discourses on the Harmony of the Gospel, which he hoped would be “a lasting monument of pure Christianity in my native language.” In Irusamiattharass, or Scale of Siva’s and Vishnoo’s Religion he presented a humanistic understanding of Hindu scriptures and anticipated later efforts by indigenous and non-European Christians to use their own ancient narratives to create an “Old Testament” more congruent with their history.

In and around Madras Roberts debated Hindu theologians and Protestant missionaries. The Sastheree of Tanjore wrote a lengthy refutation of Roberts’s the Corruptions of Christianity and its claims on behalf of Unitarian Christianity. Roberts welcomed the ensuing controversy as a form of publicity. He repudiated the caste system and argued, “When many have entered into our religious views, the distinction of castes will wear out by itself, for I have no doubt that my countrymen, when they thoroughly understand the beauty and purity of Christianity in its own light, will no longer domineer over their neighbours as themselves superior by birth.”

Roberts committed his sons, Theophilus, Joseph, and William Jr., to the Unitarian cause. Joseph Roberts was educated by ministers in Britain, 1830-34, in the hope that he would succeed his father. William Roberts died in 1838 and was buried in the Unitarian burial-ground in Madras. Mrs. Roberts and their eldest son Theophilus, who were leading members of the mission, died within a year. Shortly thereafter, in 1840, the BFUA withdrew its support for the Madras mission. It was in fact William Roberts Jr., the third son, who succeeded his father in a much weakened mission in Madras. In 1847 the BFUA recommenced its support with a token contribution of £20. The Madras Unitarian Christian Church remains in existence to this day.

Primary materials for Roberts’s biography are gathered from extracts of Roberts’s letters, 1816-1838, published in the annual reports of the BFUA. Alongside these extracts were printed commentaries by the leading officers of the BFUA. Another source is An Introduction by the Reverend Thomas Belsham, published together with Roberts’s first letter. Secondary sources are an unpublished essay by Nathaniel A. Samuel, date unknown, a former Minister of the Madras Unitarian Christian Church and Spencer Lavan, Unitarians and India: A Study in Encounter and Response (1991). There is background on South India during the 18th Century in Susan Bayly, Saints, Goddesses, and Kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900 (1989); David Washbrook, Colonialism, Globalization and the Economy of South-East India, C.1700-1900; and Eugene F. Irschick. Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795-1895 (1994).

Article by Thurairaja Mylvaganam
Posted October 16, 2007