Zion Church, Chintadripet
Zion Church, Chintadripet

Zion Church in Chintadripet is probably the only shrine in our city that owes its existence to the Americans. It was established by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), the first Christian missionary organisation from the USA, set up in 1810.

In 1820, Dr Myron Winslow moved from the USA to Ceylon and began the work of the ABCFM there. In 1836, he came to Madras to establish what would later become known as the Zion Church. He also did pioneering work in creating a Tamil-English lexicon, which he completed by 1856 or so and for which the Harvard University awarded him an honorary doctorate. One of Dr Winslow’s daughters was married to John Welsh Dulles who came from a Presbyterian family of Philadelphia. In 1849, Dulles, ordained as a minister, set sail for Madras, along with his wife. Arriving here, he began spreading the gospel among the natives, the Zion Church being his base. Ill-health forced his return to the USA in 1853 and there he was to write a book based on his stay in our city – Life In India, Or Madras, Neilgherries and Calcutta. Published in 1855 by the American Sunday-School Union of Philadelphia, it is a fascinating work. Accompanied by black and white sketches, it has detailed descriptions of Mount Road, Chintadripet, Town, Mahabalipuram, St Thomas Mount and other localities of the city and is available as a free download from the Internet. By the 1860s, the ABCFM began focusing on Madurai, where it established the American College. The Zion Church was handed over to the Christian Missionary Society. Today it falls under the Church of South India.

Back in America, John W. Dulles continued his work till 1887. His son Allen Macy Dulles carried on the Presbyterian tradition but not so grandsons John Foster and Allen Welsh Dulles, taking as they did after their mother’s family that was into politics and public office. The elder brother served as Secretary of State during Eisenhower’s tenure as President. Cancer cut short his career in 1959. During his tenure in office, his younger brother headed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States. Between them, the brothers advocated a strong stance against communism, which dictated much of Cold War policy including interventions in Iran and Guatemala.

The Kennedy administration however did not take kindly to Allen Welsh Dulles. Following the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, President John F Kennedy (JFK) forced him to resign, a day after he had awarded him the National Security Medal! More irony was to follow in 1963, when following JFK’s assassination President Lyndon B. Johnson inducted Allen Dulles into the Warren Commission that investigated the murder. Dulles’ appointment, given that Kennedy did not like him, came in for criticism and much of the botched up nature of the eventual report of the Warren Commission was indirectly attributed to Dulles.

Standing at the Zion Church, who would think of its link to the CIA?

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 12, 2014, under the Hidden Histories column.