“May This Boy Be a Living Witness of the Blessed Jesus”: Church of the Brethren Mission Work in India

By Kelley Brenneman

This past summer Warren Garner donated letters to BHLA that were written between his parents and his mother to her parents. These letters were written while the Garner family was living in India, and the letters were written while the Garner family was Church of the Brethren Missionaries in India. By the time the Garners arrived in India the Church of the Brethren already had a history of mission work in India. The Church started here in 1895 and continued until the Church of the Brethren in India became an independent church. The Garner family was in India from 1916 until 1932, and these family letters give us the chance to see the mission field through a different lens.

Bulsar Boarding School. Courtesy of BHLA

“Wilber B. and Mary Emmert Stover and Bertha Ryan (Shirk) opened what became the Church of the Brethren mission in India in Bulsar in Jan., 1895.” Missionaries constructed an orphanage and residence place in 1899. The goal of the Brethren missionaries was two parts: spread the gospel and helping the people of the area. On April 3, 1898, 13 people were baptized at Bulsar, and by 1902 the mission work had expanded south into the Marathi language area, and the mission’s boundaries encompassed more than 7000 square miles of the western coast of India. “In response to severe famine, orphanages were started at several stations in the early years. Elementary schools, training schools, and medical facilities soon followed.” In 1912 The Bulsar Bible Training School was established. Missionaries also established a Vocational Training School and a Rural Service Center in Anklesvar. These places taught teacher training, carpentry, agriculture, adult literacy, public health and Christian service.

There were many challenges that faced the Brethren Missionaries in India; one was the rigid caste system in the country. “Because of the awful caste system of this country the people will not let us educate their children for fear they will break caste and become defiled.”1 There were also difficulties for the families of the missionaries, but as Kathy Garner says in the same letter “They [incidents between the Indians and the missionaries] are funny to tell after they are over, but just at the time one does not always appreciate the joke.”2 She goes on to tell a story about her cook; “On this occasion I have given this boy beans to cook and meat to be fried. I was busy in the house when I smelled something burning. Knowing that my boy was not reliable I feared it was something I should investigate. I went to do so and found Babu (the cook) standing by the stove turning the meat from side to side allowing no time for it fry and wholly unconscious of the fact that the beans in the vessel beside the pan over which he was working were burning to a crisp. When I asked him why he didn’t look at the beans, he said, ‘My whole attention was given to frying the meat how could I know the beans were dry.’”

Jasper and Warren in front of mission motor. Courtesy of BHLA

Despite the many challenges that faced the missionaries the Church of the Brethren were successful and in 1945 the Church of the Brethren in India became autonomous church. “It was after World War II and India’s independence (1947) that major changes took place. Indian church leadership developed rapidly and the expatriate missionary staff declined in numbers. Most of the mission schools were turned over to the government. Goals of self-support were set. In 1970 the Church of the Brethren in India united with five other denominations to form the Church of the North India.”

What was family life like in the mission field of India? The Garner family letters give great insight into what daily life was like and what it was like to raise a family. For example on July 7, 1922 Kathy Garner describes a wedding that Holly and she attended at the mission. “Last night Nettie Brown and Benjamin Summer were married. They had a very nice wedding. Every one pitched in and helped to make things go as nice as possible for them. Bro. Blough married them. For the dinner we had chicken salad, peas, sandwiches, pickles, oranges, bananas, mints, peanuts, and fruit punch…. Had a big white cake nicely decorated for the bride.”3

Drawing done by Warren Garner for his grandparents. Courtesy of BHLA

The letters also contain happy news that Kathy and Holly sent back home. One from June 30, 1926 informed the Barkdolls that they were again grandparents; “We have been waiting for the arrival of the new member of our family… We have named this young gentleman Warren Kenneth Garner.” And like any family when a new baby arrives there are always stories about how the older sibling reacts. “Jasper had been looking for a sister but he is now satisfied with a brother. However for a day or two he seemed to want to say “SHE” instead of “HE” when he spoke about him. Jasper is quite proud of him.”4

This leopard was shot by Holly Garner at the back door of the bungalow where they lived in Ahwa, India. Courtesy of BHLA

Later letters in this collection show what schooling was like for the children of the missionaries. Jasper was sent to Woodstock School which was started to educate children of missionaries. Part of the BHLA collection contains a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from the school. Jasper Garner also sent home letters while he was at school that show what school was like. “The A Class will start its fifth reader on Monday. The B Class is reading its third one now.”5A later letter Jasper informs his family that the school received new coloring books that were a lot of fun.

The Church of the Brethren has a long history with mission work in India and still has ties with the Indian church today. Through the Warren Garner Letter Collection here at BHLA, we have the unique opportunity to see the mission field through the eyes of a family.

1 Kathy Garner, Letter to Co-Workers in the Lora, April 17, 1921.
2 Kathy Garner, Letter to Co-Workers in the Lora, April 17, 1921.
3 Kathy Garner, Letter to her parents, July 7, 1922.
4 Holly Garner, Letter to his in-laws, June 30, 1926.
5 Jasper Garner, Letter to his family, September 26, 1930

[gt-link lang="en" label="English" widget_look="flags_name"]