Amid Chennai’s multicultural Christian population, one small denomination that is quietly growing in strength without much hue and cry is the Mormons. Originally from Utah in Salt Lake City, USA, the group that is also known as Latter-day Saints has about 850 members in Chennai and many in the city might have only heard about them, when a spectacular church came up in the Little Mount area of Saidapet almost two years ago.
The name Mormon might have been popularised in the Indian psyche, probably, when we were following the 2012 US Presidential elections that saw Mitt Romney, a Mormon, in the fray with President Barack Obama.
However, the Mormons had first forayed into India a little close to two centuries ago during a mission that brought a group of Mormons to the subcontinent. “In 1856, a group of Mormons came to India from Salt Lake City, Utah in the US. As it was the norm to travel without any arrangements for food, or shelter, it was difficult for them here, but they stayed back for almost two years. They had visited Chennai as part of the mission and they found a few followers in Vepery, Pallavaram and St Thomas—a few from the British army and the elite and upper-class. They were baptised in the waters of the Adyar River,” says David Chelladurai, former branch president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Chennai.
He adds that it wasn’t a very successful mission. But, it was the second round of missionaries, who visited the city again in the seventies that brought more into the fold.
Today, apart from Chennai, Mormons can be found in parts of the South in Erode, Coimbatore, Bangalore and in other parts of India like Delhi and Kolkata. In Chennai, they are spread across the length and breadth of the city from Thiruvanmiyur to Anna Nagar, from OMR to as far as Ennore and Tiruvottriyur to Tambaram. The sect has four branches with the church in Chinnamalai having two and the other two in Anna Nagar.
The Mormon way of living embraces the change of heart in people through the preaching of the gospel. It emphasises on a life free of smoking, drinking and pornography and stresses on monogamy as a basic guideline, says C H Paul, the current branch president.
He, however, adds that despite the differences the Mormons don’t believe in living as an isolated group.
“We are a small group in Chennai, and there are several first generation Mormons in the fold, while there are families that have three generations of Mormons as members of the church,” he adds
Inter-caste marriages are not uncommon in the sect, as they admit that being a small number it is often difficult for them to find Mormon partners. “Being a small group, it is not possible for us to find people from the same sect. It is a big huddle for us. But then we are brought back in our fold—by the lifestyle that we practise,” says Chelladurai. But there are members, whose spouses may not be members of the sect or the church – like Sagaya Sharmila, who is the first Mormon in her family, while her husband is not.
“My father used to visit this church regularly, but he wasn’t a member either. Today, my son and I are members of the church,” she says.
There are 80,000 Mormon missionaries serving throughout the world, voluntarily, with a two-year stint in their respective mission. There are couple missionaries too, who serve the sect after retirement. The head of missionaries assigns the postings for men and women, who could be designated to any part of the world. They are transferred from place to place by the head of the mission and upon completion of their tenure, they can choose to either pursue studies or get married.