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Reverend Aaron

(circa 1698-1745), First Indian preacher

Sitter in 2 portraits
Born into a Vellala caste family in Cuddalore in the South India state of Tamil Nadu, he was originally named Arumugam by his father, a merchant. When the first Protestant mission in India opened a school in his neighbourhood, he was one of the first students at the school to learn from Tamil books printed by the Tranquebar Lutheran Mission. In 1718 he travelled to Tranquebar where he was baptised and Christened 'Aaron' by Bartholomaeus Ziegenbaig a pioneer of Protestant missionary activity in India. Aaron ordained as a minister on 20 December, 1733. During his short lived ministry (which ended with his death on 25 June 1745) he built a strong reputation as a man of courage and integrity. He was mourned by both Hindus and Christians.

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Reverend Aaron, by George Vertue, after  Unknown artist - NPG D31635

Reverend Aaron

by George Vertue, after Unknown artist
line engraving, circa 1744-1756
NPG D31635


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Maria O'Brien

06 March 2016, 01:41

Rev C Aaron, born in a Saivite family in Cuddalore in 1698, was named Arumugam by his father, Chokkanatha Pillai, a well-to-do merchant who had unfortunately failed. He was by caste a Vellala (also, Velalars, Vellalars, Vellalas) were, originally an elite caste of Tamil agricultural landlords in Tamil Nadu, Kerala states in India and in neighbouring Sri Lanka; they were the aristocracy of the ancient Tamil order (Chera/Chola/Pandya/Sagnam era) and had close relations with the different royal dynasties. The Vellalar were during ancient and medieval period landlords and part of the elite caste who were major patrons of literature.
When the Tranquebar Lutheran Mission - the first Protestant mission in India - established a school in front of his house, Arumugam was on his way to becoming Aaron. He was one of the first students of the school and learnt from Tamil books printed in Tranquebar - the first educational texts printed in the country.
In 1718, he went to Tranquebar to be baptised by Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg, who had pioneered Protestant missionary activity in India, and was christened Aaron. These missionaries proceeded systematically. As early as 1728 they had written to Copenhagen for permission to ordain an Indian colleague. In 1733 the decision to ordain an Indian pastor was reached, partly on grounds of principle and partly as a matter of necessity. Permission for foreigners to travel and preach in the dominions of the Raja of Thanjavur had not been given. The numbers of converts in the villages was growing, but they could not always come to Tranquebar for sacramental ministries. The only remedy was to provide them with an Indian minister, one of their own who could travel among them without the restrictions under which foreigners suffered. At Eastertide 1733, the purpose to ordain was communicated to the congregation, and the three town catechists, Savarimuttu, Aaron and Diogo, whom the missionaries had had for a considerable period under their personal observation, were put forward as candidates to be considered. The senior catechist, Savarimutt, withdrew on the ground of age. When the vote of the heads of families was taken, it was found that exactly half had voted for Aaron and half for Diogo; the division among the six missionaries was precisely the same. After further conference with the assembled catechists, it was announced to the congregation that a unanimous decision had been reached in favour of Aaron.
On 20 December, 1733 (28th Dec in some places on google), he was ordained a minister at the New Jerusalem Church and it was made an occasion of considerable solemnity. No fewer than eleven ministers took part in the ceremony – the six missionaries resident in Tranquebar, Sartorius from Madras, the two Danish chaplains in Tranquebar and two ship’s chaplains who happened to be in India at the time. A German newspaper report described the Rev. Aaron as "the first coloured Protestant pastor in the whole world". After ordination Aaron as assigned to the district of Mayavaram.
His ministry was not of long duration; he died on 25 June 1745. He bore throughout a high reputation, having behaved himself in such a way as to earn the respect and love of both Hindus and Christians. He was a man of courage and integrity, and wise in the handling of individuals.
Aaron had four daughters and one of them married G. Devasahayam Pillai. Their daughter married John Devasahayam who was ordained in 1896 the first Indian Anglican priest. The Devasahayams' daughter married William Thomas Satthianadhan, whom many felt should have become the first Indian Anglican Bishop. But those were still British times, and so Rev. Satthianadhan established a different precedent.
The erudite Rev. Sundar Clarke, the Church of South India's Bishop of Madras in the 1980s, has descended from one of the daughters of the Rev. Aaron. Her son, John Devasahayam, was the first South Indian to be ordained into the Anglican Church. Since that Ordination on November 2, 1830, there have been six successive generations of the Devasahayam family who have served the Anglican Church as pastors. Yet, when their ancestor the Rev. Aaron was trying to persuade the Tranquebar Mission to ordain more Indian members of the church as priests in the early 18th Century, it was a suggestion that was discouraged.