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The Old Seminary and Two Centuries of Theological Education

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--- Rev. Dr. B. Varghese    

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Seminary Library:


                   Munro’s dream was to make the “Syrian College” (as the Seminary was called in the Missionary sources), one of the best educational institutions of the region. He planned to have a good library in the Seminary. In February 1817, he shared his ides with Norton: “ I trust that a select library of English books will in short period of time be attached to the College at Kottayam “.[1] Munro and the Missionaries wrote to the Committee of the CMS in this regard. The Missionary Register of 1821 appealed to its readers to contribute books for the Seminary Library.[2]

                   Col.Welsh, who visited the Seminary between 1820 and 1830, describes the library:

“ On the second storey is a library containing two thousand two hundred and fifty elegantly-bound volumes of theology, astronomy, mathematics, history – and, in short, every science – in the English, French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Malayalam, Persian, Arabic and German languages as well as repository of scientific instruments containing globes, orreries, telescopes, an electrifying machine, air-pump, magic lantern, microscopes, etc., all of the best quality. The professors, or gentlemen of the Mission, have rooms upon this floor in which they examine the students, etc., and the present establishment consists of three English gentlemen (Messrs. Fenn, Bailey and Baker)….. with a very clever young man, named Ryan, as a Greek and Latin tutor, and various native assistants. In the same compound the English gentlemen have lately built a small scale for their own use of the simplest and most modest construction, but perfectly adapted to the purpose of so small a congregation…”.[3]

As we will see later, the entire library had been shifted to the New College (the present CMS College) after 1838.

A Printing press at the Seminary:


                   “ I hope to have a press at the College, but we must not attempt too much at once”, wrote Munro to Norton in 1817.[4]  Munro thought that a press is necessary to print the Scriptures translated by the Kathanars at the Seminary and to publish tracts and books to propagate the Protestant doctrines and to provide textbooks for the Schools and the College.

                   In 1817, when the translation of a few books was ready, it was sent to Serampore to get printed at the famous Mission Press.[5]    Munro planned to send a few Kathanars to Culcutta to be trained in printing:

“ The present plan is to send the translation when completed to Culcutta and to send with it some learned Kathanars who would superintend and correct the impression and correct the impression and might also learn the art of printing. After the impression is made, the types may perhaps be presented to the College at Kottayam: and with this view it will be desirable that some of the Kathanars should be instructed in the business of printing. It would be also useful if they learned to make paper and bind books “.[6]

                   The missionaries, for their part, wrote to the Church Missionary Society, and the press arrived in October 1822 (three years after Munro had retired and left Travancore). It came by way of Bombay to Alleppey and finally reached Kottayam. The next step was to get Malayalam type. The Madras Government had obtained from Serampore the apparatus for making moulds. Unfortunately, the Malayalam fount casted by the Government was defective. But Bailey was determined and patient. He had never seen a type foundry. With the help of a few books on printing, chiefly the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a common carpenter and two silversmiths, Bailey casted the founts. The same team made a press also, which, though primitive in look was used for many years and is still preserved as a monument in the CMS Press, Kottayam. The Press was initially installed at the Seminary and was shifted to the site of the present CMS Press after the Cochin Award of 1840.

A Hospital attached to the Seminary?

                   V.Nagam Aiya makes a sweeping reference to the existence of a hospital:

“ In 1815, Rani Lakshmi Bai made a donation of Rs.20, 000 to the funds of the College and a monthly grant of Rs.70 for the hospital attached to it”.[7]   Nagam Aiya does not provide the reference to the source of this information. W.S.Hunt also speaks of a grant of “Rs.70 p.m. for a hospital to be attached to the College.[8]   However, we do not know, whether this hospital ever functioned.

Finance of the Seminary:

                   We have already noted that the Ranee of Travancore had donated about 29,000 Rupees in three installments, under the influence of Col.Munro. In that amount Rs.1, 000 was spent for the building of the Seminary and the Chapel. The remaining amount was invested in land, so that the Seminary gets regular income. The land of the Seminary and the Munro Island in Kallada were also received as grants from the Government of Travancore. As we have already mentioned, by 1816, Munro ensured that the Seminary gets a regular income for the support of 40 or 50 students.

                   Munro acted as if the Seminary is an institution under his supervision. Apparently Mar Philoxenos of Anjoor was staying in the Seminary since the demise of Joseph Mar Dionysius. Munro completely ignored him and Norton was asked to have ‘strict control over all the disbursements at the College’. With the arrival of Bailey and the consecration of Punnathara Mar Dionysius, the control became almost absolute.

                   Norton and Bailey apprised the Resident of the disbursements. Thus in a letter addressed to Bailey (6th August 1817), Munro made the following remarks:

“ The account of the College contained in your letter of the 14th July is not quite so promising as I had expected: and great exertions are necessary on the part of us all, in order to give proper effect to that institution “[9]

                   Then the Resident discussed the means to increase the income to meet the expenses of the Students and the teachers:

              With respect to  (….) the maintenance of at least 50 students at the College, I am unable to express a decided opinion until the state of the accounts is submitted to me. According to your calculation about 1,000 chukrums per annum will be requisite for the maintenance of each student, making 50,000 chukrums, or about 2,000 Rupees, necessary for the annual maintenance of 50 students, besides the pay of schoolmasters. I am very desirous to purchase lands in the name and on the part of the College sufficient to produce that annual income and I shall be obliged to you to make enquiries regarding the terms on which lands could be procured for that purpose. The lands should, if possible, be situated in the vicinity of the College (….). I am in hopes of being able to procure a considerable donation of money to the College; and if I should succeed I shall be desirous of vesting the money in the purchase of lands as an endowment for the support of the College, and the masters and students attached to it. I conclude that land may be procured near Kottayam at the rate of about ten or twelve years’ purchase: and that for 20,000 Rupees a sufficient extent of ground may be purchased to yield an annual income of 1,500 or 2,000 Rupees. But the present funds and resources of the College must be carefully examined: and rendered as productive as may be practicable. The sum of 240 Pagodas is paid annually to the Syrians from my treasury on account of the Bond of 3,000 Pagodas vested in the Company’s funds: and that sum of 240 Pagodas should be entirely appropriated to the College. (….) I must again request that you will assume yourself the direction and management of all the funds belonging to the College; employing with you a Committee of the principal authorities attached to it.”[10]


                   The Missionary Register of December 1821 gives a summary of the annual expenses of the Seminary:


“ The principal expenses of the College are, the Salaries of the Metropolitan at 70 Rupees per month, of the Senior Malpan at 20 Rupees per month, and of the servants required at the College, amounting altogether to 170 Rupees and upward.  Then expenses of each student per day is one chukram and three-quarters, besides their clothes and other incidental expenses”.[11]Following a request from the Missionaries, on 17th October 1821, the Corresponding Committee of the CMS granted “ a quarterly allowance of 125 Rupees, to supply the deficit in the resources of the College at Cotym “[12].


Seminary under Benjamin Bailey (March 1817- October 1818):


                   Bailey was the first English head of the ‘Syrian College’. He and his wife resided in the Seminary, where Mar Philoxenos of Anjoor was already living. The Baileys might have lived there until the arrival of Joseph Fenn and family in October 1818, when both of the families moved over to the houses specially built for them. The baileys shifted to a bungalow, where the CNI is situated and Fenns to another one, which later became the Residence of the Principals of the CMS College.[13]


                   As we have already noted, Munro gave instructions to Bailey to take control of the affairs of the Seminary and the Church. Though Bailey started a course in English at the Seminary, immediately after his arrival, instructions became regular and systematic only in 1818.  As Agur said: “ Though Mr.Bailey devoted himself to the instruction of the Kathanars, he was chiefly engaged in literary work, the translation of the Scriptures, the Book of Common Prayer &c. into Malayalam and the compilation of dictionaries “.[14]

                   During his tenure as ‘Principal’ of the Seminary, Bailey could not contribute much, as he did not have sufficient knowledge of Syriac and Malayalam. However, he mastered both in a couple of years. His important contribution to the ‘Mission’ was that he could win the confidence of the Syrian clergy and prepare the ground for ‘reformation’ under Fenn. In the words of Hunt: “ Mr.Fenn found on his arrival, that he (Bailey) had secured a degree beyond what could have been reasonably expected, the confidence of the Syrian clergy, no easy matter.”[15]


Seminary under Joseph Fenn (October 1818 – 1826):


                   Joseph Fenn was a successful barrister before becoming a missionary. It was Claudius Buchanan’s Christian Researches that impelled him offer himself to the Church Missionary Society.[16] In 1816, he was ordained, and in 1817 he sailed for Madras with his wife. Fenns reached Kottayam in October 1818. They took abode in the Seminary for sometime before moving into the present Bungalow of the CMS College.[17]

It was under Fenn that the branches of instruction as desired by Munro were introduced. English education, which was already started under Bailey, became systematic. Thus the instruction of English language had begun for the first time in Kerala in 1818. The prospect of the Serampore College was issued in 1818, and it was opened in 1821. The Nagercoil Seminary, forerunner of the Scott Christian College was started in 1819.[18] 

In fact the English education was introduced not merely for the sake of the clergy. The Government of Travancore, especially the Resident, looked to the Seminary as a place to train English-speaking officials. This was mentioned by the CMS Corresponding Committee for the year 1818, which insisted that ‘several branches of instruction foreign to a missionary’s office and objects’ must be provided[19]. 

Mr.Fenn seems to have assumed charge as Principal, immediately on arrival. Mr.Bailey spent most of his time to translation and to printing, which was begun a little later in the Seminary itself. Fenn’s first report mentions that three or four of the best students were learning English and that he himself taught three hours daily. Two young men from Madras, named Jones and Hamilton were appointed as English masters[20].

The Missionary Register of December 1821, contains a report of the Missionaries, which gives us a cleat picture of the Seminary:

“ The number of students is 42; of whom, 21 have passed through the five initiatory Ordinations. Their improvement has been tolerably good. Some can read English as well as the generality of our own youths, and are making advances in the real knowledge of it. All have acquired some knowledge of Figures: and some can go through the first four Rules of Arithmetic, according to our mode and in our language, with the same readiness as Youth at home. In Sanskrit and Malayalam, the progress is fair. With regard to the Syriac, we have hitherto refrained from any interference in the mode of teaching; but an alteration is absolutely necessary: no grammar is taught: the progress is uncommonly slow; and the knowledge acquired of no use beyond the simple translation of the parts of Scripture which have been learnt[21]: as the best foundation of a change, we have directed the attention of the most proficient Student to study Latin language. Dr.Watt’s First and Second Catechism for children are among the books which the students are learning; and, though simple in themselves, they contain what the Students have hitherto been very ignorant of. The Committee will be pleased to hear that the application of many of the students has been great. Many of them, not more than 12, 13 or 14 years old, were up till past twelve o’clock of a night, learning the tasks assigned to them”[22].

The Anglicans themselves criticized the use of Watt’s Catechism as a text for the Eastern Clergy[23]. Fenn found that a basic text is necessary and no equally simple manual was available. The little book long continued to be employed by Mission teachers.

In 1822, Bailey, Fenn and Baker jointly sent the following report on the Seminary to the British Resident Col.Newall:

“ The College was begun by the late Metropolitan Mar Dionysius; and continued by the present Metropolitan under the patronage of the late British Resident Colonel Munro. It was endowed with extensive grants of land and money by Her Highness the Rani; and is now in operation under the eye of the Metropolitan, who resides in it as its head. The establishment consists of two Malpans or Syrian Doctors, who, besides their lectures in Syriac officiate daily in the College Chapel; a learned Jew of Cochin, Teacher of Hebrew, toward which language the attention of the Malpans and others is excited; two native teachers of Sanskrit; an English teacher and his assistant. It is in contemplation to introduce the study of the Latin and Greek languages and a general acquaintance with European Literature. The number of students is 51. 18 of whom have received the initiatory Ordinations; and from the experience which we have already had, we feel fully justified in expressing our conviction, that the students will prosecute their studies with credit to themselves and the Institution. The annual revenue of the College, consisting of the interest arising from the investment of the Royal Grants above alluded to and from other sources, amounts to somewhat more than 2500 Rupees; and its expenditure, including the expenses of the Metropolitan and his attendants, exceeds 4500 Rupees. The excess of the expenditure is borne by the Church Missionary Society. Even with this assistance, the funds of the College are by no means sufficient. The building itself requires great alterations and improvements. The commencement of a very valuable library has been made; the completion of which, will, of course be a matter of considerable expenses. No income has yet accrued from the Royal Grant of the property near Quilon; on the contrary, it has been a very heavy burden upon the funds of the College, and will require the laying out of a much larger sum before it can be made productive.[24]

                   Bailey and others conclude their report with the hope that the Seminary will soon become an Institution of high academic standard :

“ We beg leave to observe that (….) considerable hope is entertained, that it will eventually be under the immediate guidance of men of regular academical habits, and of acknowledged reputation for learning in our English universities[25]”.

                   Col.Newal was not favorably disposed to the Mission. Therefore, the Missionaries had kept silence regarding their works in the Syrian Church and their control over the Seminary and the Metropolitan.

                   The missionaries always wanted to maintain high standard of education. In 1824, Mr.Fenn wrote: ‘ The great desideratum, which has been ever kept in view, has been the promoting of habits of study and reflection and investigation, as well as the inspiring of a certain confidence in their natural powers’. For this reason, he thought that Latin should be taught. It was expected to promote thinking as opposed to memorizing[26].

                   Col.Welsh, who visited the Seminary several times in 1820s, write that he was present at the examination of seven native students, apparently between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. ‘ The first book was Virgil, which they were learning; a passage from Caesar’s Commentaries, which they had never read before was given to them, which they immediately rendered into good English. They showed a ‘surprising proficiency in the grammars of two languages equally foreign to them’[27].

                   Richard Collins wrote on the subjects taught in 1826:

“The subjects read by the first class in 1826 were Virgil, Horace, Xenophon, St.John’s Gospel, Syriac (including instruction in the mode of performing mass, with the various crossings, waving of the hands, bowing, incensing, & c.), English, Elucid and history. A great attempt was made to cultivate the mind, but little regard to theology”[28].

                   This shows that the missionaries did not interfere with the traditional training in liturgical ceremonies given to the candidates for priesthood. Collins adds that  the missionaries were careful not to irritate the Syrians[29]. But they wanted to introduce more courses in Theology. In 1825, Fenn wrote:

“Catechisms, portions of the Scriptures and homilies, they read and learn, but he study of theology as a science, seems to me the last which should be taught, and till the mind is little enlarged, and emancipated from prejudice and passion”[30].

                   Unlike the Latin Portuguese Missionaries, hasty actions and take over by force were not part of the policy of the Anglican Missionaries. Their method was gradual reformation through education and persuasion.

                   Though virtual take over was planned and directed by Munro, later the Missionaries seem to have been cautious. They made diplomatic statements regarding their relationship with the Syrians. Thus Fenn said: “ It is the College of the Syrian Church, not of the mission. The missionaries have identified themselves with Syrian community, and have lived on that close and intimate footing with the prelates of the Church that all the affairs of it came under their notice.[31]

Fenn and the Mavelikara Assembly of 1818:


                   On December 3, 1818, more than 700 laymen and 40 Kathanars assembled at Mavelikara, following a circular issued by Punnathara Mar Dionysius. The Assembly was convened a few days after his consecration, which took place in Mid-November 1818 (ME 993 Thulam 26). The purpose of the assembly (obviously convened following the advice of the Missionaries) was to present the project of reformation and to get the approval. Fenn and Bailey assumed the direction of the Assembly. Ri