Jones, John Peter (1847-1916)
American Congregational missionary to India
Of Welsh birth and extraction, Jones graduated from Western Reserve University, Ohio (which awarded him its D.D. in 1895), and Andover Theological Seminary, Massachusetts. He joined the Madura Mission of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1878. He was among the founders of Union Theological Seminary in Pasumalai (forerunner of Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary in Madurai) and was founding editor of the Year Book of Missions in India. His books and articles, which include India’s Problem: Krishna or Christ (1903), India, Its Life and Thought (1908), and The Modern Missionary Challenge (1911), contributed to early twentieth-century reflection on the theology of religion. These writings influenced the reformulation of missionary policy in the period of the 1910 World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh, in which he took an active part. In 1914 he became a professor at the Kennedy School of Missions in Hartford, Connecticut, where he served until his death.
Kenneth R. Cracknell, “Jones, John Peter,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 341.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Ecumenist and theologian
Born in Wrexham Wales, John Peter Jones immigrated with his parents to the United States at a young age. In Shenandoah City, Pennsylvania he professed faith in Christ, and after graduating from Western Reserve College in Ohio, he immediately began studies at Andover Theological Seminary. Jones assumed new responsibilities upon graduation in 1875: he married Sarah Amy Hosford, and became pastor of a Congregational church in Chittendon, Vermont. A friend passing through the area encouraged Jones to consider teaching at a school for the Cherokee or Choctaw Indians. When his service at the church came to an abrupt end in 1877, Jones applied to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), offering to teach Native Americans.
Jones, however, was sent to the Madura mission in India. Arriving in 1878 with his wife and the first of his five children, he was assigned to Manamadura—a rural station in South India. While studying Tamil and travelling widely through rural India, Jones had extensive exposure to the religious beliefs of the people. Sustained encounters with other religions forced Jones to reconsider his original purpose of “extirpating heathen superstition.”(1)
In 1883, Jones was transferred to Madura where he assumed the role of secretary and treasurer of the Mission. For seven years, Jones administered the work of the ABCFM in south India, overseeing its elementary schools, boys’ and girls’ high schools, training schools for men and women, industrial schools, a college, a hospital, a boarding school, as well as the many churches. During this time, Christian and Hindu believers clashed in Madura. The conflict was ultimately taken to court, where a Hindu cleric charged, “Christians defamed the Hindu gods.”(2) However, court testimony indicated that Jones demanded Christian preachers only proclaim Christ without abusing Hindu gods. Such an irenic position is indicative of the tone Jones took in his various English books on Christianity and Hinduism published both in the West and in India. Jones stressed that Christians “must accept and believe that God has been dealing directly with [Indian] people through the many centuries of their history, leading them to important truths…”(3) Hinduism sheds real Gospel light, Jones argued, even if it appears faint—like the stars—in the light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jones later moved to Pasumalai in 1890 to lead the seminary. He devoted the remaining twenty-two years of his career to training Indian ministers. This focus on ministerial preparation was not limited to the classroom. It included long stints of travel with students and sharing in their ministries. It also meant taking leadership over the Christian printing press. In that role, Jones oversaw the transition from Christian literature as an expense of the ABCFM to a source of income. He personally wrote multiple books in Tamil to be printed and used in the seminary. These, he confessed, were unoriginal adaptations of Western texts. Nevertheless, he crafted sections that sought to connect Western theology and Biblical scholarship with Indian thought-patterns and religious experience. In particular, Jones always stressed the centrality of Jesus Christ, arguing that He (not Christianity) was the one who would draw India. At the same time, Jones oversaw and contributed to an abundance of devotional literature that was printed and distributed widely throughout the sub-continent.
Exasperated by the divisions among Christians that fractured the tiny minority of Indian Christians into ever more miniscule groups, Jones encouraged the ABCFM churches to join the United Churches of Southern India in 1901. More a federation than a union of churches, Jones approved of the move as a positive first step. Later, in 1908, the ABCFM united their churches with two other missions under the South India United Church (later to become the Church of South India). For Jones, such ecumenical action was the harbinger of a truly Indian Christianity.
When Jones arrived in Edinburgh for the World Missionary Conference in 1910, he was approaching the end of his thirty-five year career as a missionary. During the various Reports, Jones was frequently quoted, or rose to speak on the many issues with which he had concerned himself for decades. Memorably, Jones pleaded with the Home Base to grant mission churches the freedom to unite; permitted cooperation was not enough. Unification, Jones predicted, would form strong blocks of Christianity outside of the West. On the subject of Christianity’s relationship to non-Christian traditions, Jones insisted on a more generous approach: “Even what we would regard as the greatest error…is really but an over-emphasis on the truth, a perversion of a glorious doctrine, and I believe that there are many [non-Christian] doctrines…which can be brought into subservience to the thought of Christ.”(4) Such pronouncements at the conference, which arose out of his extensive writings on the subject, helped missionaries solidify a more open approach to the presence of God in non-Christian religions, while not compromising the supremacy of Christ.
Jones returned briefly to India. He compiled The Yearbook of Missions in India, Burma and Ceylon—an enormous task—and published it in 1912. Shortly thereafter, though, his health forced him to return to the United States. In 1914 he became a professor at the Kennedy School of Missions in Hartford, Connecticut where he served until his death in 1916.
By Daryl R. Ireland
(1) Kenneth R. Cracknell, Justice, Courtesy and Love: Theologians and Missionaries Encountering World Religions, 1846-1914 (London: Epworth Press, 1995), 144.
(2) Rev. John Peter Jones, American Board of Commissioners: Individual Biography Collection 77.1, Box 38, Harvard University Houghton Library, Cambridge, MA.
(3) J.P. Jones, India’s Problem: Krishna or Christ (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1903), 81.
(4) World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, Report of Commission IV: The Missionary in Relation to Non-Christian Religions (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910), 318.
Jones, J.P. India’s Problem: Krishna or Christ. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1903.
_____. Pasumalai: A Half Century Record of a Mission Institution. Madura: Lenox Press, 1895.
_____. Some American Opinions on the Indian Empire. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1916.
_____. The Teaching of Jesus our Lord. London: Christian Literature Society, 1908.
Jones, J.P. The Christ and the Buddha. Papers for Thoughtful Hindus; no.28. Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1906.
_____. The Church Member’s Manual, for the church, the home and the closet: prepared for the churches of the American Madura mission. [Tamil] Madras: American Mission Lenox Press, 1889.
_____. A Few Representative Men : A Lecture. Madura: Pandiyan Press, 1885.
_____. Gospel Studies in the Christian Life. [Tamil] Pasumalai, American Mission Lenox press, 1913.
_____. Hinduism and Christianity : A Comparison and a Contrast. 1st ed. London: Christian Literature Society for India, 1898.
_____. India: Its Life and Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1908.
_____. India’s Problem: Krishna or Christ. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1903.
_____. India’s Womanhood. Chicago: Woman’s Board of Mission of the Interior, 1915.
_____. Kali Yuga. Papers for Thoughtful Hindus; no. 24. Madras: The Christian Literature Society, 1904.
_____. The Life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Words of the Scriptures. [Tamil] Madras: Religious Tract and Book Society, 1895.
_____. A Manual of Christian evidences, 1st ed. [Tamil] Madras: Religious Tract and Book Society, 1896.
_____. Ministry of the Native Church in India. Madura: American Mission Lenox Press, 1892.
_____. Modern Hinduism : Does it Meet the Needs of India? New York: Laymen’s Missionary Movement, 1909.
_____. The Modern Missionary Challenge: A Study of the Present Day World Missionary Enterprise, its Problems and Results. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910.
_____. Outlines of Systematic Theology. 1st edition. [Tamil] Madras: Christian Literature Society for India, 1901.
_____. Pasumalai: A Half Century Record of a Mission Instition. Madura: Lenox Press, 1895.
_____. Preaching to Non-Christians. Madura: American Mission Lenox Press, 1889.
_____. The Presentation of Christianity to Hindus. New York, 1917.
_____. The Religious Ideals of the East and the West. Papers for Thoughtful Hindus; no. 17. 1st ed. London: Christian Literature Society for India, 1900.
_____. A Student’s Life of Christ. 2nd edition. [Tamil] Madras: Christian Literature Society for India, 1906.
_____. The Teachings of Jesus. Pasumalai: American Mission Lenox Press, 1908.
_____. The Teaching of Jesus our Lord. London: Christian Literature Society, 1908.
_____. Telyn Yr Undeb: Sef Casgliad o Anthemau a Thonau Corawl a Chynulleidfaol, Cyhoeddedig Gan Undeb Cerddorol Cymreig Wisconsin. [Welsh] Racine, Wis: Sanford, 1873.
_____. The Wonders of God’s Works of Grace in the Nineteenth Century, 1st edition. [Tamil] Madras: Religious Tract and Book Society, 1899.
_____, ed. A Volume in Commemoration of the Opening of the Twentieth Century by South India Protestant Missions. Pasumalai: American Mission Lenox Press, 1900.
_____. A Year’s Work and a Thirty Year’s Retrospect in Madura, South India. Pasumalai: American Mission Lenxo Press, 1908.
_____, ed. The Yearbook of Missions in India, Burma and Ceylon, 1912. Madras, India: Christian Literature Society of India, 1912.
Cracknell, Kenneth R. “Jones, John Peter,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, edited by Gerald H. Anderson. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1998.
_____. Justice, Courtesy and Love: Theologians and Missionaries Encountering World Religions, 1846-1914. London: Epworth Press, 1995.
“Dr. J.P. Jones, of India,” Missionary Herald 112 (1916): 488 – 490.
John P. Jones. American Board of Commissioners: Candidate Department, Vol. 18. Harvard University Houghton Library, Cambridge, MA.
Madura Mission. American Board of Commissioners: Map and Plan Collection, Box 3: Oversize Maps. Harvard University Houghton Library, Cambridge, MA.
Rev. John Peter Jones. American Board of Commisioners: Individual Biography Collection 77.1, Box 38. Harvard University Houghton Library, Cambridge, MA.
World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910. Report of Commission I: Carrying the Gospel to All the Non-Christian World. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910.
_____. Report of Commission II: The Church in the Mission Field. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910.
_____. Report of Commission III: Education in Relation to the Christianisation of National Life. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910.
_____. Report of Commission IV: The Missionary Message in Relation to Non-Christian Religions. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910.
_____. Report of Commision VI: The Home Base of Missions. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910.
_____. Report of Commission VIII: Co-operation and the Promotion of Unity. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1910.
“Edinburgh World Missionary Conference,” Henry Martyn Centre. [The archival collection of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, 1910 which has a John Peter Jones collection.]
“The Rev. Dr. John Peter Jones.” The New York Times, October 4, 1916 [Obituary]
Rev. J. J. Banninga and Rev. J. S. Chandler. “Dr. J. P. Jones, of India.” The Missionary Herald at Home and Abroad. November 1916. [Obituary contains some factual errors in dates.]
“Dr. J.P. Jones, of India,” The Missionary Herald 112 (November 1916): 488.