Erwin F. Chell
Erwin Frank Chell was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on May 2, 1918. Though both Erwin’s parents were born Lutheran, the fact that one was of Swedish heritage and the other of German heritage had the effect that their family was not tightly identified with one synod alone. Erwin’s childhood of devout religious observance, coupled with his parents’ broad Lutheranism, instilled in the boy a mixture of religious ambition and tolerance. Erwin’s future career as a missionary lasted only twelve years as at its end he no longer believed that theological differences among Christians were enough to justify the continued separation of their mission fields.
In 1941 Erwin enrolled in Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa. Being a seminary student and also something of a pacifist, he was given the Conscientious Objector status and did not serve in World War II. Erwin graduated from Wartburg in the spring of 1944 and was ordained on June 4, 1944, at Christ Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. As he had already decided upon becoming a missionary he soon enrolled in the Kennedy School of Missions at Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Connecticut, for the school year of 1944-1945. Erwin was awarded an M.A. from Hartford after he completed his thesis while serving as a missionary in India.
The Chells arrived by ship at Karachi in India, now part of Pakistan, on November 17, 1945. Their first station was at Renigunta, in the modern state of Andhra Pradesh. In March 1946 the Chells relocated from Renigunta to Kodaikanal, Tamilnadu, where they remained until October. They then relocated to Puttur, where they stayed until February 1947. Much of the time spent at these initial stations involved learning the Telugu language. March to July of 1947 saw Erwin’s final language instructions at Kodaikanal, after which he was assigned to active duty at Gudur, in the modern state of Karnataka.
At Gudur, Erwin was associated with the South Andhra Lutheran Church (SALC), an Indian church body which had gained its independence from mission societies in 1945 but which still involved European and North American missionaries in key positions of field responsibility. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Erwin also began preaching in Telugu in villages around his station and would teach classes at the high school when required.
In April 1950 the Chells departed India for the U.S. and their first furlough, during which Erwin spoke widely at Minneapolis area churches concerning the India mission. Upon their return to India in July 1951 the Chells were assigned to Puttur, in the modern state of Andhra Pradesh. Erwin’s work was much as it had been at Gudur, which involved the visiting of villages and supervising various budgets. At Puttur he also took the lead in training local laymen so they could bear more of the responsibility for the growing church. His other major initiative while at Puttur was to set up a nine-year plan so that by January 1, 1965, the SALC would be independent of support from Western churches. Erwin believed that the Christian churches in India would remain vulnerable to the charge of being agents of Western imperialism unless they cut the financial tie. After much discussion the SALC adopted Erwin’s plan as policy.
In January 1955 Erwin relocated with his family to Kodaikanal, where he became the School Pastor at the boarding school which served the children of Protestant missionaries (mainly American) in south India. Erwin standardized the curriculum, attempting to meld and harmonize as many of the different theological positions as possible, and in the process learned that there was much more commonality between them than he had supposed. This had a major impact on his thinking.
Following the eighteen months at Kodaikanal, the Chells moved to Gudur. They remained there from July 1956 to May 1957. Erwin then resigned his missionary position in India and the family returned to the U.S., where Erwin struggled with the realization that his theology had become simpler while in India and that perhaps he would not feel comfortable leading a strictly Lutheran congregation in the U.S. After a period of reflection he resigned from the ministry and relocated his family to California. In their first year back in the U.S., Erwin and Betty tried their hand at a variety of new occupations. Their retirement years have been filled with extensive domestic and overseas travel, as well as genealogy work.
This series almost exclusively dates from the period of Erwin's residence in India, from 1945 to 1957, with only a few documents predating his arrival. The pre-1945 items consist of a few Indian maps and publications. The rest of the series consists of documents directly relating to Erwin’s work in India, personal documents, assorted India publications, and an artifact.