Written by Faiza Mustafa

Many 18th and 19th-century societies experienced the great impact of Evangelicalism and Utilitarianism, not only in Europe but also throughout the world. The works of prominent ideologues of that time dominated the minds of Europeans and influenced their administration in the commonwealth realm. The term “evangelical” is derived from the Greek word ‘evangelion’, meaning ‘good news’ or the ‘Gospel’. This ideology refers to the worldwide movement within Protestant Christianity, with a belief in the essence of the Gospel (Christian message) which consists of the doctrine of salvation and specifically emphasizes the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth.

This movement gained momentum during the time of the Reformation when average citizens gained access to the Bible for the first time. Prior to this period, Christians may have only heard the Scriptures in church, as access to the Bible was limited to those in the upper classes. Moreover, it was centered around spiritual awakening by focusing on ‘true religion’, characterized by Conversionism (believing in the need for transformation through being ‘born again’), Activism (expressing and demonstrating the gospel through social reform efforts), Biblicism (the belief in the Bible as the ultimate authority), and Crucicentrism (the significance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice).

Utilitarianism, in normative ethics, emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries, proposed by English philosophers and economists Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. According to this theory, an action is right if it tends to promote happiness or pleasure and wrong if it tends to produce unhappiness or pain. This philosophy had a wide influence, pervading the intellectual life of the last two centuries, and played a significant role in the fields of law, politics, and economics. Before Bentham, English philosopher Bishop Richard Cumberland proposed the theory of Utility in the 17th century.

Mill’s utilitarian philosophy justified colonialism by arguing that colonial governance for indigenous people was necessary until they matured and acceded to rational thought and self-government. These ideologies brought about a fundamental change in the nature of the East India Company’s administration in India. There was a strong streak of Benthamite radicalism in the East India Company administration. James Mill became a senior company official in 1819 after writing a monumental history of India which showed a strong contempt for Indian institutions. From 1831 to 1836, he was the chief executive officer of the E.I.C., and his son John Stuart Mill worked for the Company from 1823 to 1858. Bentham himself was also consulted on the reform of Indian institutions. Moreover, the Utilitarians were strong supporters of laissez-faire and abhorred any kind of state interference to promote economic development.

As we know, historians divide the whole era of colonialism into different phases. During the early phase of colonialism – the ‘Mercantile phase’ – the main criterion of the British government was non-intervention into the social affairs of Indian people. Along with Pragmatism (solving problems in a more practical and traditional way rather than idealistic), there was some respect for traditional Indian culture. All this is reflected in the thoughts of Warren Hastings (1732-1818). In order to know about the customs, practices, and religion of the people of India, officers of the East India Company started studying Sanskrit, Persian, Bengali, Tamil, and other languages and began translating Indian texts to understand them.

Warren Hastings, the governor general from 1782 to 1795, had himself learned Sanskrit and Persian. Due to this, the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Calcutta Madrasas, and the Sanskrit College at Banaras were established. However, just after Hastings’ tenure, there was a gradual shift from non-intervention to cautious intervention into the social affairs, and these ideologies were more directly influenced by Utilitarianism, Evangelicalism, and Free Trade. In the beginning, the company’s government was still tentative about interfering for fear of adverse reactions. It could not be done until a section of society was in favor of the reforms; hence an English-educated Indian middle class emerged. One of the most significant steps the British took to Westernize India was the introduction of English education.

The major development in this regard was the Charter Act of 1813, which not only removed restrictions on Christian missionaries but also allocated one hundred thousand rupees per year for the revival of Indian classical literature and the promotion of science among the inhabitants of the country. It also made provision for an Anglican Hierarchy at Calcutta. After that, with the expansion of the British Empire, missionaries began to arrive, and Christianity started to spread in other parts of India. By 1880, the total number of English-educated Indians was 50,000, and in 1887, that number rapidly increased to 298,000 and then 505,000. On the other hand, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Keshab Chandra Sen, Devendra Nath Tagore, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Ram Krishna Paramhans, Swami Vivekananda, and other liberal intellectuals represented a generation of Indians who believed that modernization of Indians could only come through English education with the essence of Western Sciences.

One major landmark of Bentinck’s era was on 2 February 1835 when he issued a famous minute on ‘Indian education’, which later became the base or the blueprint for the introduction of English education in India, which is still followed to some extent. Macaulay, a law member in Bentinck’s council, asserted that “A single shelf of good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. Macaulay’s 1835 Minute on Education had a decisive impact on British educational policy and is a classic example of a Western rationalist approach to Indian civilization. Macaulay had no hesitation in deciding in favor of English education, but it was not meant for the masses: “It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people.

We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, opinions, morals, and intellect. To that class, we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population”. This is where the famous theory of ‘Downward Filtration’ came into existence, according to which English education was not meant for the masses, but for the ‘rich, the learned, the men of business’. They believed that once these men were trained, they would further educate the students of elementary education and percolate knowledge downward through regional languages.

Thus, in this way, Western knowledge would benefit the indigenous society. The later half of the nineteenth century witnessed Charles Woods Dispatch (1854), which recommended the establishment of at least one government school in each district, extension of vernacular elementary education, and the establishment of Universities in metropolitan areas like Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta on the model of the London University. The Megna Carta or Charles Woods Dispatch rejected the Downward Filtration Theory and promoted education in Vernacular languages, women’s education, teacher training, and made English the medium of instruction. Essentially, the Evangelicals wanted to generate a mission civilization rather than a philosophy of conquest which benefits the imperial regime in every possible way. Macaulay mentioned “to trade with civilized men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savage”. Therefore, these developments led to positive outcomes which ultimately played a huge role in the Socio-religious reform movement, which also indirectly gave birth to the neo-Hindu reformist movement led by educated Indians.

Evangelists started a crusade against Indian Barbarism and advocated the permanence of British rule with a mission to change the ‘Nature of Hinduism’. The major spokesperson of these ideas was Charles Grant, and the hub of these missionaries was located at Srirampur near Calcutta. Moreover, Indian intellectuals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy founded the socio-religious community Brahmo Samaj on the lines of monotheism. There were various other groups like Prathna Samaj, Satya Shodhak Samaj, and The Theosophical Society that give us insight into the social awakening of the educated middle class, based on rational and practical thinking, distinct from those who blindly believed in orthodox values and rituals of society. Another important movement was launched by Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, known as the Young Bengal movement, which was a group of Bengali free thinkers emerging from Hindu College Calcutta.

They posed an intellectual challenge to the religious and social orthodoxy of Hinduism. On the other hand, there were different intellectuals working in different parts of India, like Jyotiba Phule’s work in the field of education and specifically women’s education, which was undoubtedly remarkable. Veerasalingam Pantulu worked for widow remarriage and female education, while Swami Narayana Guru and Bankim Chandra Chatterji were some other prominent personalities. There were also revivalist movements among the Muslim communities, such as the Wahhabi Movement, Faraizi Movement, and Aligarh Movement. Hence, there were reforms in a wide variety among different communities of India, including Muslims, Hindus, Parsees, etc.

However, in the mid-19th century, the social and religious movements launched in India attracted the attention of the Company’s administration towards the country’s social evils. With the contributions of Christian missionaries, Indian intellectuals, and the help of the government, a fight against the barbarous practices prevalent in Indian society took place. These practices included Sati, Female Infanticide, the Purdah System, child sacrifice (prevalent in the Sagar Islands in the Bay of Bengal), Human sacrifice, and religious rituals like Hook Swinging. Their main aim was to convert the uncivilized society into a civilized one and encourage more rational and practical thinking.

They also believed that government intervention could only liberate Indians from superstitions, idolatry, and the tyranny of the priests. This spreading wave of intellectualism also impacted southern India, where a wide variety of reforms took place under various intellectuals like Swami Narayan Guru, who worked for the betterment of Izhavas, Dr. Palpu, Kumaran Asan, and many more. As a result of these efforts, we saw the introduction of Pre-mutiny reforms, which included the Abolition of Sati in 1829, the widow remarriage act in 1843, the abolition of Slavery in 1843, and the Caste Disability Removal act in 1850. Post mutiny reforms included the Brahmo Marriage Act in 1872, the Age of Consent Act in 1860 and 1891, the abolition of Female Infanticide, laws against hook swings, and the promotion of female education.


  1. Eric Stokes, “The English Utilitarians and India.”
  2. M.S.A, “Social Movement and Social Transformation.”
  3. Kenneth W. Jones, “Socio-Religious Movements in British India.”
  4. Shekhar Bandyopadhyay, “From Plassey to Partition.”
  5. Hudson, “Protestant Origin in India.”
  6. K. S. Bhattacharjee, “The Bengal Renaissance.”
  7. Saumyendra Tagore, “Ram Mohan Roy: His Role in Indian Renaissance.”
  8. M. Edwardes, “British India 1772-1947.”

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