Notable Swedish Christians: Johann Zachariah Kiernander

Some years ago I came by the 2-volume Dictionary of Evangelical Biography (1730-1860) which I admit is a bit obscure. But I thought I’d trawl its pages for entries on Swedish Christians to learn more about its notable figures and history. We’ll take the series alphabetically. 

j-kiernander-engravingJohann Kiernander (1710-1798) has the distinction of being the first protestant missionary to Bengal, India.

Born in a small village in central Sweden, he studied at Uppsala and then at Halle, Germany. He was ordained in 1739 after agreeing to go to Cuddalore, India for the British mission society SPCK. He arrived in 1740 and quickly set about learning Tamil, English and Portuguese as well as establishing a flourishing congregation.

Cuddalore was unfortunately caught up in fighting between the French and the East Indian Company and his work was destroyed. In 1758 at the invitation of Robert Clive he moved to Calcutta in Bengal and began learning Bengali and was committed to the mission.

Kiernander was a whole-hearted missionary. His missionary zeal, however, led him just as strongly towards the conversion of the Roman Catholic community as it did towards that of the non-Christian world. After eight years’ work in Calcutta, he reported to the S.P.C.K. that from December 1, 1758, to the end of the year 1766, he had made 189 converts, of whom one-half were Romanists, one-third the children of Roman Catholic parents, and thirty were heathen. Of his Roman Catholic converts no less than five were priests of that Church. Several of the priests afterwards assisted in his work.

However his years in Calcutta were also marked by loss, grief and trial. In 1761 two close friends, who were also chaplains in the city and his first wife died in a cholera epidemic.

With the help of his second wife’s money they built the Old Mission Church in Calcutta which was for many years a centre of evangelicalism in the region. However his wife died in 1773, in 1781 he was involved in a libel case against Hickey’s Bengal Gazette and won. In 1788 he was bankrupted by his son, Robert’s, property speculations. That plus SPCK’s erratic payment of his salary meant he often lived in poverty.

Kiernander’s closing days were clouded with sorrow. He had lost his second wife in 1773, and in 1778 his eyesight was seriously affected. An operation in 1782 gave him temporary relief, but as old age came on his eye-sight entirely failed. Bankrupt, almost blind, cut off by physical weakness from his beloved mission work, he presented indeed a pitiable old figure.

The Kiernander family remained in India & Pakistan and had a notable history there. You can read more at the online family archive.


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