The Early Years
Dr. Eli Stanley Jones (1884–1973) was one of the pioneering proponents of using dialogue as means of evangelism and interfaith communication. Born January 3, 1884, in Clarksville, Maryland, Jones had his upbringing under the aegis of the Methodist Church. In fact, he would never have come to India if the Methodist Missionary Society had not requested him to do so.
Jones first served in India as a pastor and district superintendent in the Methodist Episcopal Mission beginning in 1907. He was called into a wider field of service as an evangelist to the educated and student classes of the land. It is said of him, “In his great days Jones was probably the best known Western Christian in the whole of India.”1 Such was his influence among the members of the Indian intelligentsia. He was a highly skilled orator, known to easily draw an audience of four to five hundred educated Hindus and Muslims in any city that he visited.2
Jones felt a special call to work as a missionary to highcaste Hindus and to Muslims. He was one of those few of his generation who recognized himself as having the vocation of an evangelist to the intellectuals. Jones’s deep interest in India is exceptionally motivating, and regardless of seasons and generations it is beneficial to look at his life and his innovations—both as examples of style and approach with special reference to India. Jones was a missionary with a difference, and this essay is concerned primarily with that difference.
Interfaith Work and Roundtable Conferences
Unlike many other missionaries of his age, Jones treated other religions with much sympathy and respect. During the summer holidays, he conducted an ashram in the Himalaya Mountains where representatives of all groups and classes of people gathered for refreshment of body, mind and spirit. Jones tried his best to remove the misconception of the Indian people that Christianity is a Western religion. His conviction of the Person of Christ, contributions, and thoughts are prominent. In his attempt to present Christ, he found out that the method of comparative religions—studying parallel ideas in each religion—was beside the point. He concluded that such an attempt would only end up in controversy; moreover, it is unnecessary and unwise.3 He wrote:
“I present what I have and leave him to come to his own conclusion. Again and again I am pressed by a Hindu to show the differences between the faiths. I always refuse. For the moment I call attention to differences, there is controversy. And Christianity cannot be seen in a controversy.”4
To reach non-Christians with the gospel of Jesus Christ, Jones came up with the innovative idea that is so popularly known as the Round Table Conferences. He was determined always to approach all such conferences with an attitude of sympathy towards the viewpoints of others—to sit where people of other faiths sit. In his opinion, the deepest things of religion need a sympathetic atmosphere. In an atmosphere of debate and controversy, the deepest things and hence the real things of religion wither and die.5 Through the Round Table Conferences, he wanted to make dialogue more intimate and personal in approach than a professional meeting. In the very first such meeting, he had an audience of several Hindu friends to whom he began to narrate his own personal conversion and subsequent experience. The Christ of experience was the point that touched the vital chords of his listeners.
One of the greatest detriments to the growth of Christianity in India, according to Jones, was the inseparable relationship between Christianity and Western civilization, and Western missionaries were the malefactors in continuing this ill-advised marriage. This alien element in Christianity is the one that often separates Christ from Christianity. Jones was convinced that if the educated Indians had the opportunity to see Christ, without all the Western garb, they would gladly receive him. He urged that Christianity must be identified with the people of India: “the Indian must remain Indian. He must stand in the stream of Indian culture and life and let the force of that stream go through his soul so that the expression of his Christianity must be Eastern and not Western.”6
Manner of Dialogue
According to Jones, “the word ‘dialogue’ means ‘through words,’ an exchange of words that can be helpful to get understanding of each other’s standpoint and outlook. But it can be very shallow, inconclusive, and fruitless.”7 Therefore, he made sure that his conferences were different. He usually invited about fifteen members of other faiths and about five or six Christians to compose the Round Table. The participants comprised representatives who were not exposed to Western education and who spoke the vernacular language, that is to say, Pundits, Sadhus, Muslim Maulvis. The Christian representatives were also mostly Indian. The forum did not highlight questions pertaining to a certain civilization or the prominence of East against West, or vice versa, not Christ or Krishna, but only what each person’s religion meant to that person in his or her own experience. The method used by Jones had three exceptional elements: experimentation, verification, and sharing of results. He invited others to tell what their religions meant to them and what the religion had brought to them. Their discussions revolved around what religion brought in terms of light, of inward peace and harmony, of redemption from sin and from the power of this world, of God and what they are verifying as true in experience.8
Jones once said that in the thirty years of his experience in holding such conferences, he never came across a single person who claimed to have found God previously. This, he said, is due to the fact that the Indian mind seeks for the impossible—seeking not communion with God, but union with God, for a Hindu meditates on himself as God. I am God is the inner refrain. However, he adds, “It is a refrain but not a realization. Life doesn’t back it. At the same time, he could find those in contact with Jesus Christ who could tell of finding God. God was real to them all and they were in communion with Him. This is the uniqueness of the Christian approach.”9
When Jones sat in the Round Table Conferences, he did not sit as an enemy of India’s heritage, but as a friend presenting a Savior. In the meeting, there were many who believed that all religions are fundamentally the same and that all roads lead to the same God. However, after the conference they reported to Jones that “Jesus is the Way of the New Testament.” Jones’s attitude toward people of other faiths was positive, with a delicate sense of spiritual appreciation. He argued, “No one has right to teach others who is not learning from them.”10 Jones’s outlook was that humanity is fundamentally one. He declared, “I can no longer think of a man as a mere Hindu or Muslim or Parsee or Christian. He is a brother, man facing the same problems and perplexities which I face.”11
Jones also took care that the good, noble, and great in the Indian outlook on life need not be destroyed by the presentation of the gospel because he understood that Jesus not only saved people from evil but saved the good in them. According to him, the servant-type evangelist’s profound need for interfaith dialogue will always persist in India. He said that one conquers not by haughtiness and pride, but by humility and self-sacrifice.12
Christian Ashram Movement as Supplement to Institutional Churches
Jones established a Christian ashram in 1930 at Sat Tal (seven lakes) in the Nanithal district of Uttar Pradesh. An ashram was not an institution in the modern sense, but the residence of a personality who was primarily a mand of God who had attained outer and inner peace through the reconciliation of the conflicting aspects of life. In ancient India it was the residence of a Rishi or a sage who had renounced all his earthly possessions and attachments and who concentrated entirely on a life of meditation for attaining union with God. Often the Rishi had sishyas or disciples who lived with him to be trained in this life more by living in intimate contact with the Rishi rather than by any oral teaching. They lived together as one family. The Rishi was always available as a guide, counselor, and spiritual father to his disciples. All were possessed by the one dominating passion to enter into an intimate relationship with God. The objective of Christian ashrams was not to transplant these ancient ideals completely, but to adapt the same idea into a modern context without lowering the inner spiritual significance.
Jones believed that the Christian ashram should be deeply church-centered: not a separatist movement,13 but a permeative movement, permeating the churches with transformed people. Church is the koinonia that was born out of Pentecost. This koinonia became the soul out of which the organization grew. He said, “Where you have the koinonia, you have the Church; where you do not have the koinonia, you have an organization, but not the Church, except in name.”14 He discovered that the Indian mind wanted both a corporate and individual life.
Jones did not discount the church and its need for growth, but doubted whether it was big enough, responsive enough, and Christlike enough to be the medium and organ through which Christ would come to India. The church in India must give an ear to the cry of the Indian mind. It must emphasize a corporate life and strong fellowship of the people who come to it. Life is corporate as well as individual. In Christian ashrams, Jones found both a corporate and individual life. It is said that 95 percent of those who come to these Christian ashrams go away transformed. It is a remarkable example of missionary adaptation in both intra-cultural and cross-cultural mission.
Though many viewed these conferences with skepticism, Jones was elated to see many lives being transformed at the end of the conference. In his words, “God has become reality in the life of many who attended the Conferences.”15 In Jones’s view, “the valuable thing for us as Christians in the Round Table Conferences with non-Christians lay in the fact that we were compelled to rethink our problems in the light of the non-Christian faiths and in the light of the religious experiences of non-Christians. So while these conferences have been valuable in our approach to the non-Christian faiths, they have proved of even greater value to us in facing our own problems, spiritual and intellectual.”16
We can highlight many lessons and insights to learn and continue to ponder from Jones’s interfaith endeavors:
1. Jones approached representatives of different religious systems with utter respect, humility, and transparency. He did not sit back, waiting for them to make contact; he took the initiative to invite them for discussion.
2. Each conference was a time for mutual learning and understanding. Though these Round Table Conferences were for intellectual discussion, Jones cleverly used it as an avenue for evangelism.
3. Even when Jones was appreciative of everything good in other religions, he held on to the unique identity of the Person of Christ. In fact, he used Christ as the ultimate “trump card” to convince his audience. The unique Christ was the irreducible minimum for his interfaith dialogue.
4. The deep and unique insight of the ashrams and their model for the church—as the corporate life of continuing fellowship that is also connected through the everyday life of a person—should be a challenging method and model for our day.
5. The social involvement and service of the church in the pains and sufferings of the common people of our society and presenting a Christ who emancipates people and brings newness of life and meaning is unassailable, without parallel in its entirety.
This unique approach of Jones is relevant and applicable today more than any other time in the past, particularly when interreligious dialogues are happening at greater frequencies the world over. Particularly in the present situation of increasing religious intolerance, Jones’s efforts can be replicated effectively by the Church for her mission in the world. In doing so, however, let us not forget the necessity of projecting a contextually appropriate figure of Christ, for the person of Christ alone can make the difference.
1Stephen Neill, Salvation Tomorrow (London: Lutterworth Press, 1976), 26.
3Matthew Philip, The Unique Christ: Dialogue in Missions (Bangalore: Centre for Contemporary Christianity, 2006), 32.
4E. Stanley Jones, Along the Indian Road (London: Hodder and Stoughon, 1939), 104.
5E. Stanley Jones, The Christ at the Round Table (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1928), 67.
6Jones, Indian Road, 12.
7Jones, Ascents, 236.
8Jones, Round Table, 9, 10; Philip, Unique Christ, 62–63. He explains on pp. 21–22 about the experiences of the people of other faiths. Look into the book by Jose Kuttianimattathil, SDB, Practice and Theology of Interrelations Dialogue (Bangalore: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 1998), 57.
9Jones, Ascents, 238.
10Jones, Round Table, 48.
13Jones, Ascents, 226.
14Ibid., 232, 233.
15Jones, Round Table, 54.