Thomas Middleton, First Bishop of Calcutta

Dan Graves, MSL

Thomas Middleton, First Bishop of Calcutta

When Thomas Middleton was born on this day, January 28, 1769 at Kedleston, Derbyshire, England, no one knew that one day he would be awarded with one of the greatest tasks ever given a man. Twenty-three years later, after completing studies at Cambridge University, he was ordained in the Church of England. His future still was not apparent. For the next twenty-two years, he served in various church positions and earned distinction for research on the use of the Greek article, that is, the word that we translate "the."

Britain had conquered India. Evangelical Christians saw in this fact a God-given obligation to govern wisely, to spread the gospel among those who had never heard it and to prepare India for self-rule. They agitated for the appointment of a bishop to India.

Twenty-two years after his ordination, in 1814, Thomas Middleton became that man--the first bishop of Calcutta (Kolkata). Fearing that open introduction of Christianity would infuriate India's Hindus, Sikhs Buddhists and Muslims, the East India Company insisted that the consecration be a private, low-profile affair.

Thomas' see was enormous. Not only did it include all the millions of people of India--but all of the millions in all of the East India Company's territory--which included the continent of Australia, too! Since he preferred the more authoritarian forms and hierarchy of the high church (as opposed to the more democratic and evangelical low church), he was cautious--which perhaps made him the best choice to get a wedge in the door. He would not rock the boat.

He was perplexed, for instance, over what to do with the missionaries operating in North India. Not having established parishes, they didn't fit into his scheme of things. "I must either license them or silence them," he confided to a friend. (As it turned out, it was Reginald Heber, his successor who licensed the German Lutheran missions). Anyhow, Thomas was convinced missionaries would never shake the fabric of India's idolatry.

Thomas also wouldn't license Indians as clergymen. A stickler for the rules, he wasn't sure he had the authority. Nonetheless, the church grew greatly during his administration.

Thomas traveled widely and interested himself in the condition of India's existing Christians, some of whom had traditions that went all the way back to his namesake, the Apostle Thomas. He also founded the Bishop's College in Calcutta, for training young men for the church.

Thomas died in Calcutta in 1822.


  1. "Middleton, Thomas Fanshaw." Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica, 1967.
  2. "Middleton, Thomas Fanshaw." Dictionary of National Biography.
  3. "Middleton, Thomas Fanshawe." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
  4. Neill, Stephen. A History of Christian Missions. Hammondsworth: Penguin, 1964.
  5. Various internet sources.

Last updated June, 2007

Originally published April 28, 2010.

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