Urban Identity of the Protestant Christians in Sri Lanka

The first Protestant church was introduced to Sri Lanka under Dutch rule, and it is the Dutch Reformed Church. This particular Christian denomination was established on the theology of Calvin, which is commonly known as Calvinism. Calvinism arose in the 16th century in Europe in the context of the Western Reformation, especially among the middle class. This particular theology was entirely contrary to the monastic Roman Catholic spirituality that mainly emphasised the inner life of believers. With Calvinist theology, the church gradually began to identify with the commercial world, and in the process, the Church-based Calvinist theology became an integral part of the field of commerce.

Yet under Dutch rule, this form of religion was not attractive to the common people of Sri Lanka who lived according to the Sri Lankan way of feudalism in their villages. Those who enjoyed privileges and positions under the Dutch and who became an urban community, especially in the coastal areas, did not want to leave the urban areas or the positions held by them there. Gradually these communities became established in the urban areas, having a culture of their own under the influence of this Calvinist theology. An urban area such as Rawatawatte in Moratuwa is a classic example of the above reality.

When the British conquered this island at the end of the 18th century the above group of people were already settled in the urban areas of Sri Lanka. These people had been made aware of Western concepts and of the Western way of life through the Portuguese and the Dutch. This enabled them to get on with the British more effectively than could the other people of Sri Lanka. Under the British most of these people accepted the Anglican Church or the Church of England. For this group of people, the Church of England secured their position and the status that they expected. The de Soysa and de Mel families of Moratuwa who became Anglicans and so became very rich under the British can be given as examples.

In this historical context, the Protestant Christian Church grew and became established in the urban areas of Sri Lanka, and so by the end of the 20th century, the chief identity of the Protestant Church was confined to the Christians living in the urban areas of Sri Lanka. Through the years these Protestant Christian communities have become very inward-looking. They don’t mind helping other people but are reluctant to get involved in the affairs of society. Often their church attendance is connected to a commercial need or desire; this is characteristic of a church influenced by Calvinist theology. In this regard, Weber has observed,

Weber thought that religion was capable of inducing social change, and that, specifically, Protestant doctrine created a climate in seventeenth-century Europe that encouraged capitalism to flourish (Weber, 1930).

The influence of religion was not so much through doctrine about economic activity, but more importantly, through a set of attitudes about the proper relation between the individual and God (Eisenstadt, 1968), Early Protestantism, and specifically Calvinism, espoused the concept of predestination - the fate of each person was determined at birth. Either the individual was one of the elect or one of the damned. There was no sure way of telling whether one was elected or damned, but the Calvinists believed that anybody who had the good fortune to be successful in his worldly endeavours probably had God’s blessing and, consequently, was probably one of the elect. Accordingly, hard work, self-discipline, and clean living were seen not only as virtues but as signs of salvation.

Every Calvinist also believed that the individual was alone before God and that he had a direct relationship with the deity. Therefore, because every man was essentially for himself, independence and competition were encouraged. The value of hard work, individualism, and competition were readily translated, Weber believed, into capitalism - an economic system that has thrived on individualism, the private ownership goods, the reinvestment of profits, competition, and the independence of decision.

The fact was that in urban areas, although people were physically crowded yet socially distant, this made it easier for Calvinist theology to be effective. Protestant churches coming up with Calvinist ethics paved the way to promote capitalism in urban areas. These churches emphasised personal salvation and thus promoted individualism. The competition was presented as something good and necessary in the sight of God. In this context, independence and individual decisions took precedence against the community decisions which are characteristic of rural and village areas. Private ownership and reinvestment of profit created the structure and base for these Christian communities to survive. In this context, the majority of the Protestant communities became confined to urban areas with an urban identity.

With the aforementioned Calvinist values and the rise of capitalism, some Christians became extremely rich. This was especially the case among some Protestant Christians. Charles Henry de Soysa and Sir Henry de Mel are the two main examples in this regard. These people became so rich that they were able to build fairly big churches and schools in Moratuwa. Holy Emmanuel Church at Rawatawatte, which Joronis de Soysa (the father of Charles Henry de Soysa) began to build, and which was completed by his son, is big enough to accommodate about 1000 people, and its tower is 120 feet high. This church was built in 1860 AD. The same Charles Henry de Soysa started the Prince of Wales College at Rawatawatte in 1876 AD, using his own wealth and money.