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Benjamin Bailey was born in November 1791 in Dewsbury, England. Bailey was sent as a missionary by the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Before he was sent out, he was trained in Systematic Theology, exegesis and hermeneutics. After his training, he was ordained by the Anglican church. Bailey joined CMS and set sail for Kerala with his newlywed wife Elizabeth when he was a young man of 25 years, reaching the shores of Alleppey in Kerala a few months later.
Benjamin Bailey initially was sent to help reform the Syrian Orthodox church, which boasted that it was formed by the Apostle Thomas himself in the first century. The CMS was burdened to help reform this church and hopefully establish it as a base for other evangelistic work in India. There initially was no desire to plant new churches or start a new denomination. Bailey was appointed as the head of theological training for Syrian priests. He did this for 18 months, but later quit, wanting to use his time for translation work instead.
Bailey was deeply disturbed by the unbiblical traditions of the Syrian Orthodox Church, calling their traditions ‘rubbish’ and that the church was ‘popish.’ He wanted to get rid of all their traditions immediately and focus on Scripture, but a friend advised him to move very slowly. He advised him ‘Why don’t you first translate the Book of Common Prayer and the English Liturgy?’ He listened to his friend’s advice and moved slowly in trying to reform the church.
However, over time the Syrian Orthodox leadership grew more and more suspicious of Bailey’s reforms, and Bailey grew more and more frustrated by the Syrian leaders. When the head of the Syrian church died, the man who replaced him made it impossible for Bailey to continue working there. Bailey was forbidden to preach at any Syrian church. CMS then told Bailey: “Focus your work on the evangelization of the Hindus.” So he did.
Alongside translating the Bible into Malayalam, Bailey also started a printing press in Kottayam. He planted a large church in Kottayam consisting of Hindus and people from the Syrian churches who were truly converted by the preaching of the word. He was also instrumental in the formation of a seminary for training priests for the Anglican church. In 1842 he helped a Syrian church become another Anglican church in Travancore, which had 600 members on its first Sunday.
By this time (26 years) he had completed his translation of the Bible into Malayalam. Bailey’s Malayalam wasn’t the high Malayalam used by the elites, nor was it the colloquial language used by common people, but something in between. He translated the Bible from the English KJV into Malayalam. Initially, he supervised the work of translation that was done by the Syrian priests, but Bailey found their translation work to be poor, so he decided to do the translation work by himself (it is certainly a little embarrassing when a British guy has to correct a Malayalee’s Malayalam translation!).
After being in Kerala for 34 years, Benjamin Bailey returned to England because of his poor health. He left quietly, without much fanfare because he wanted to escape the sorrow of leaving all that he had built up, his home and friends that he had for over 30 years. Once back in England, Bailey worked as a dean of a college until his death 20 years later.
The reform that Bailey worked so hard for in the churches did not come as much in his life, even though there was notable fruit. But the major explosion in reformation came much later as the result of Bailey’s translation. People from the Syrian churches started to read the Bible in their own language. In time this caused a major reformation in the Syrian orthodox church, and it birthed the Marthoma denomination in Kerala, which claims to have 90,000 members and 1000 churches, 8 colleges, 18 schools, 23 orphanages and 10 hospitals spread across the globe.
Bailey is today credited with the formation of 2 new denominations in Kerala- the Anglican church in Kerala (which later became part of the CSI church) and the Marthoma church. It was the desire to have the Bible alone as the authority that caused the formation of these two churches. Bailey is also known as a pastor-scholar, the first of his kind in Kerala. He was a gifted preacher and a keen student of the Bible.
But there’s another major contribution that Benjamin Bailey is known for, and that is his contribution to the Malayalam language. His translation of the Bible was simpler and accessible to most people. Because the translation came from the KJV, Bailey’s work actually became the foundation for modern Malayalam prose. He wrote a Malayalam dictionary, which linked high Malayalam and its Sanskrit roots with common Malayalam. Thus he became Malayalam’s first lexicographer.
When it came to the printing of his materials, he couldn’t find a printing press in Kerala that would print in Malayalam. So he worked hard on this problem for 5 years and made his own Malayalam printing press out of wood, the first ever in Kerala. He created the type font. He started Kerala’s first printing press, called CMS press, and it printed both religious and secular literature. Because of this, it led to the expansion of public education in Kerala in the 19th century and the eventual literacy explosion.
All this work came at a great personal cost. Both Bailey and his wife suffered from many health issues. They lost 4 of their children during their time in Kerala. But he suffered without complaint because he greatly loved the people of Kerala, and more importantly, he loved Jesus.
Let me close with something he said “Whether God gives me health or not, may all the strength He gives to me be spent in the service of my blessed Redeemer… I would humbly and gladly accept any affliction, pain or trial which the Lord gives me. He does all things in wisdom. And mercy is described in all His works.”
Praise God for His servant Benjamin Bailey.