1999 Student-Faculty Fellows: Coe College

India: A Study in the Sociology of Religion: The Thomas Christians of Kerala

Mentor: Elizabeth C. Galbraith, Religion
Student: Jennifer Lawrence, ’99, Sociology/Religion


Jennifer Lawrence

My experience in South India this summer was unforgettable. The sensory experience alone was like nothing else I have ever had the opportunity to appreciate. I believe strongly that being immersed in the country, its culture, and all that it includes is an absolutely invaluable, educational experience. The field research that was accomplished and my cultural experiences will most definitely enliven and enrich my future research on the subject of St. Thomas Christianity and life in general.

Prof. Elizabeth Galbraith

As a faculty member at a small Liberal Arts College (Coe) in Iowa, I have benefited immensely from the opportunity to provide mentorship to Jennifer Lawrence as she and I conducted a field research project on the Kerala Christians of India this summer. I witnessed the value of study abroad for broadening one’s own self-identity in a student who had previously not set foot out of the United States. I also learned important skills for preparing and aiding students in their encounter with a foreign culture. More than anything, however, I was reminded once again of the extreme significance, irreplacability even, of experiential learning. Our field research in Kerala provided us with knowledge that it would have been impossible to reap from textbooks, and with personal encounters that help us to better appreciate and value the diversity of cultures both between and within countries. As well as the immediate academic benefits to be gained from documenting and presenting the findings of our research, I have gained a wealth of sources that will prove most valuable to me in the classroom. The personal contacts we made in Kerala this summer will also aid me immensely when I return to India next summer to continue my dual role of mentor and research scholar.

Research Findings

The first main objective of our research involved documenting and examining the evidence for the traditions of St. Thomas in Southern India. This involved visiting the sites of churches supposedly founded by St. Thomas as well as pilgrimage sites, such as the place of St. Thomas’ martyrdom. We also accumulated materials on the legends and traditions of St. Thomas. The second main objective of our research was to assess the case for the Syrian origin of St. Thomas tradition in India. We were able to uncover various interpretations of the relationship between Syrian Christianity and the origin of St. Thomas tradition in Southern India. Our third main objective was to come to a clear understanding of the divisions between the St. Thomas Christians and in particular the idiosyncracies of each tradition. Our research concentrates upon the Syro Malabar and Syro Malankara Catholic churches, but we are also able to give a comprehensive account of the distinctions between the Mar Thoma, Orthodox Syrian and Jacobite traditions. The final objective of our research was an attempt to assess correlations between the progressive nature of the state of Kerala and the impact of Christianity upon Keralan culture. Though our findings are preliminary, there is some evidence to suggest that Christianity has had a positive impact upon the standard of living in Kerala.

Venues for Sharing

Jennifer Lawrence intends to prepare an article based upon her Kerala experience and research for publication in ASIANetwork’s student journal. Also, in order to further share our research findings and experience, we plan to co-author a paper for presentation at one of the American Academy of Religion Conferences, if at all possible, as early as the Spring of 2000. In addition, we hope to organize a workshop at Coe College, our undergraduate and teaching institution, on the subject of our research. Along with these endeavors, we expect to have many local community opportunities for sharing our findings.