It is believed that the Apostle St. Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, landed in Cranganore (now Kodungalloor) on the coast of Malabar in southern India in the year 52 A.D. He preached the Gospel among the Jewish settlers in and around Cochin, and then worked among the Hindus there. He established seven churches: Malankara (Cranganore), Palur (Chavakad), Parur, Gokamangalam, Niranam, Chayal (Nilakal), and Kalyan (Quilon). He died a martyr’s death at the hands of the natives at Mylapore, in what is now the city of Chennai in Tamilnadu. The first Christians were called Nazarenes, or Mar Thoma (Saint Thomas) Christians.
In 189 A.D. Pantaenus visited the Malabar Church at the request of the Malabar Christians. In 345 A.D. The Catholicos of Jerusalem sent Bishop Joseph of Edessa, some priests, deacons, and about 400 people under the leadership of Thomas of Cana. This was a time of severe persecution of Christians in Persia, from the 4th to 6th century A.D., called the Persian or Babylonian period.
Nestorian missionary movements were very active during the 5th and 6th centuries. The Alexandrian merchant Cosmas Indicopleustes visited India in the 6th century and recorded that the he saw Christian communities in Malabar and Ceylon.
In 825 A.D. a party of immigrants under the leadership of Marwan Sabriso and two Bishops Mar Sapro and Mar Prodh landed in Malabar. Around that time, the king of the land Cheraman Perumal who was a good king, left his kingdom and went to Arabia where he became a Muslim. Some however, say he became a Christian. The Malabar Era (Kollavarsham) begins with the traditional date of his leaving the kingdom (August 15, 825 A.D.). After Cheraman Perumal left, his kingdom was divided into small chiefdoms which later grouped into three kingdoms: that of Zamorin of Calicut, and those of the Rajahs of Travancore and Cochin. Marwan Sabriso and his party settled in Quilon and constructed a church there. A local ruler, the King of Venad, gave Marwan Sabriso and his community certain rights and privileges which were inscribed on two sets of copper plates. Five of these plates still exist — three in the Old Seminary in Kottayam, and two with the Mar Thoama Metropolitan. The Orthodox faith was retained, though Nestorian Episcopacy prevailed during this period.
In 1498 the Portugese explorer/trader Vasco de Gama landed in Calicut, at the north end of the Malabar coast. In 1542 the missionary monk Francis Xavier landed in Goa. Thereafter Latin missionaries also came to work among the Mar Thoma Christians, and in June 1599 at the Diamper Synod, the Mar Thoma Christians were brought under the Roman Catholic Church and Papal supremacy.
The Mar Thoma Christians were infuriated by the harshness of the Jesuit missionaries in their effort to carry out decrees of the Diamper Synod, and by the news that Bishop Mar Ahatalla, a representative of the Eastern Patriarch was killed by the Portuguese. In 1633 nearly 25,000 Christians and 633 clergy led by Archdeacon Thomas declared independence against the foreign aggression — by holding on to a rope which was tied around the stone cross in front of the church in Mattancherry, and took an oath rejecting the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church over them. Archdeacon Thomas was made Bishop with the title Mar Thoma I. He then sought support of sister churches in Antioch, Babylon, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Abyssinia.
In a response to this appeal, Mar Gregorios who belonged to a section of the Antiochean Church known as Jacobites, arrived from Jerusalem in 1665. He consecrated Mar Thoma I. Gradually the Mar Thoma Christians with their Metrans (Bishops) were brought under the influence of Antiochean Jacobite Church.
In 1806 Claudius Buchanan of The Church of England came, and met Mar Dionysius the Metropolitan. In 1810 Col. Munro who was a devout Christian, came to Travancore as the Resident. He realized that the social and religious life of the Church was at a low ebb. After the Oath of the Coonan Cross the ritualistic and administrative life continued on, but there was no spiritual vitality or missionary zeal. Church services were in Syriac — which the congregation did not understand, and the clergy understood imperfectly. In 1811, Buchanan got the Gospels translated into Malayalam. In 1813 a seminary for the education of Syrian Christian clergy was founded in Kottayam.
Many ecclesiastical irregularities such as failure to use the scriptures for instruction, praying for the dead, and keeping relics of the saints in churches started flourishing. Abraham Malpan then assumed leadership of a reform movement. The use of a revised liturgy and the changes he brought about in some practices offended the Metropolitan, and he was consequently excommunicated. Deacon Mathew (a nephew of Abraham Malpan) was sent to Mardin with a petition by supporters, and in 1843 he came back as Metropolitan. In 1852 Mathews Mar Athanasius was confirmed by Royal proclamation as the Metropolitan of the Malankara Church. He supported the reform movement of Abraham Malpan, and those who were with him restored the ancient faith of the Church along with its name Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church, and declared its autonomy and independence.
The reformed Church then started educational institutions. The famous large annual Convention at Maramon started in 1896. The liturgy was translated and printed in Malayalam. In 1905 the Sunday School Samajam was established. The Sevika Sangham was established in 1919. The Voluntary Evangelical Association was started in 1925, and the Vaideeka Seminary in 1926. The Yuvajana Sakhyam was established in 1938. In addition to these Church Organizations, schools, colleges, theological institutions, hospitals, homes for the destitute, old age homes, social welfare establishments, vanita (ladies’) hostels, technical institutions, study centers, camp centers, publications, ashrams, and mission fields were also started at various places in Kerala and elsewhere.
With the migration of Mar Thomites to other parts of India, congregations and parishes were formed outside Kerala in the later half of the 20th century. This trend continued to other parts of the world, and today we have Mar Thoma churches in all the continents except South America.
The oriental form of worship and traditional ritualistic practices were maintained. Mission work and evangelism were always given high importance. Worship was initiated and continued in the language of the people. The Holy elements of the Qurbana were served in both kinds. Necessary changes were made in the taksa (priestly order of worship).
Until the 4th century A.D., five ancient metropolises dominated the Christian world — Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. The first four were led by the Armenian, Syrian, Alexandrian (Coptic and Abysinian) and Greek Churches respectively, and the last by the Roman Catholic Church.
In the 11th century they became divided into two blocks — the Eastern, and the Western Churches. The first four became classified as the East, and the last one as the West.
The 16th century reformation led by Martin Luther divided the Roman Church into two — the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Churches. Over time, the Protestants divided further into various denominations.
The Eastern Churches may be further grouped into the Great Eastern Church and the Lesser Eastern Churches. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches belong to the Greater Eastern Church while the Coptic, Armenian, Syrian and Indian Churches come under the Lesser Eastern Churches group. The latter were (and still are) self governing churches.
The Mar Thoma Church retained its oriental form of worship and practices, and added to it a missionary zeal gained from study of the open Word of God and encouraged by the work of western missionaries.
The Mar Thoma Church therefore, is neither a Protestant Church of the Western type nor an Orthodox Church of the Eastern type. It is oriental in its worship, autonomous in its administration, and missionary in its actions. It is a bridge between the Eastern and Western ecclesiastical traditions.
The Church affirms its faith in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It accepts the first three ecumenical councils as authoritative, i.e. Nicea (325 A.D.), Constantinople (381 A.D.), and Ephesus (431 A.D.)
The Mar Thoma Church is an active member of the World Christian Council and the Council of Christian Churches in India. One of its Bishops, Rt. Rev. Dr. Zacharias Mar Theophilus is a member of the Executive Committee of WCC providing leadership to this world organization.