E-Pao! Manipur Religion - The Gospel in the North East India

The Gospel in the North East India
- A rapid survey -

By: Dr Lal Dena *

On this historic occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, our memory naturally goes back to the late Watkin R. Roberts who first brought the Gospel amongst us seventy-five years ago. The coming of Watkin Roberts to South Manipur hills in 1910 was not an isolated movement.

It is to be seen in the wider perspective of what other missionaries and British officers did towards the onward movement of the Gospel in the Northeast India. For want of space, let us make only a passing reference to some mission societies here.

The Jesuit Missionaries:

The first missionaries who had toured Northeast India in 1926 where the Jesuit missionaries, the Reverends Stephen Cacells and J. Gabral. The purpose of their tour was in the nature of exploratory ostensibly to find a route into China and Tibet.

Soon after their visit, there grew up two Catholic Churches: one dedicated to 'Lord Lady of the Rosary' and the other to 'Our Lady of Guadolope' at Rangamati, Nowgong district. This is how the first Christian contact with Northeast India was made by the Jesuit missionaries.

British Baptist Mission (Serampore Mission):

The Second and more significant contact was by the Serampore mission of the Baptist Mission Society at the beginning of the 19th century. On the invitation of British Magistrate, Rev. William Carey sent Krishna Chandra Pal, the first Serampore convert, to Sylhet. Krishna Pal stayed at Sylhet for eight months during which two Khasis and five natives of Assam were baptised.

Encouraged by their response, the Serampore mission began at think in terms of establishing a permanent mission station at Cherrapunji and sent Alexander B. Lish, an Anglo Indian missionary in 1833. In the meantime, one Baptist Church and school were also established at Guwahati on the initiative of David Scott, Chief Commissioner.

But because of financial constraint and inadequacy of man-power, the newly established stations were abandoned; the Khasi mission was handed over to the Welsh mission and the Guwahati station was given to the American Baptist Mission Society.

American Baptist Mission :

The primary objective of the American Baptist Mission was to open a mission station in China. It was not their original plan to work in Northeast India. As a part of the Central Asian strategy, the American Baptist first established the Shan Mission in Northern Burma and using the Shan Mission as a base, they planned to enter China.

At this time, Francis Jenkins (who succeeded David Scott) contacted the American Baptists and even championed their cause before the British authorities at Fort William Calcutta. Jenkins took personal interest in missionary work and also went to the extent of corresponding with the Home Board in U.S.A. by making proposals for new field sweetened with offer of financial assistance.

Till his death in 1866, Jenkins spared no pains to help the missionaries. Left to themselves, the missionaries would have faced many unsurmountable difficulties. But God had His own chosen vessels even among the British officials and the onward movement of Gospel in Northeast India had really benefited from the support of the Government officials.

On Francis Jenkins's request, the two missionary families, the Nathan Browns and the Oliver Cutters, moved to Sadya in 1836. Jenkins offered Rs. 2000/- for installation of a printing press at Sadya stations. Miles Brownson and Jacob Thomas came in 1837 to help them. In 1838, Brownson and his wife moved to Jaipur and further on to Nowgong in October 1841.

On Jenkins's suggestion again, Cyrus Bakers came to occupy the mission compound at Guwahati (Now CBCNEI compound). It should however be pointed out that the missionary work among the Assamese looked rather gloomy and the question of abandoning Assam mission was even contemplated. Because of the marvellous response from the Garos and the Nagas, the American Baptist focussed their attention more on the hill tribes of Assam.

Welsh Mission :

As we have said, the Welsh Mission inherited the Baptist Mission Centre in Khasi hills and Rev. Thomas Jones landed at Cherrapunji in June 22, 1841. When the capital of Assam was shifted to Shillong in 1866 the Welsh Mission also thought it expedient to move to the new capital.

With the gradual consolidation of their hold over the Khasi Hills, the Welsh Mission continuously kept an eye over virgin area where the Gospel was to be preached. As Lushai Hills succumbed to the onslaught of British imperialism in 1891, Rev. William Williams, who was then in Khasi hills, rushed to Aizawl in March 20,1891 and immediately appealed to the home board in Liverpool on the urgency of the need for missionary work in Lushai hills.

Soon, the Machynlleth General Assembly, June, 1892 formally adopted Lushai hills as one of their Mission fields. In 1899 Rev. D.E. Jones came to Aizawl and got settled comfortably as the foundation of the Mission station had already been laid by J.H. Lorrains & F.W. Savidge, from the Arthington Mission. The first converts were Khara and Khuma Hmar. Khara backslided after sometime but Khuma remained faithful to his Lord till he breathed his last.

Arthington Mission:

The Arthington Mission was a mission with a difference. It was named after Robert Arthington, a millionaire at Leeds. It was purely a private organisation. Arthington himself was the sole contributor, the only member of the Board of Directors.

He also determined its policy and employed or dismissed its missionaries. Later on, St. John Dalmas was appointed as organiser and director in the mission field and through him, 13 missionaries were deputed to India by the end of 1890.

Of whom mention may be made of JH Lorrains, FW Savidge and William Pettegrew. Having found the doors of Lushai hills and Manipur closed against them as fighting was going on, the young pioneer missionaries decided to stay at Silchar.

William Pettigrew began to learn Meiteilon from the Manipuries in Silchar, and Lorrains and Savidge also learned Lushai from the Lushai traders at Silchar. As soon as the two countries came under British control, the pioneer missionaries were given permission to cross the border.

Knowing not that Lushai hills was already chosen by the Welsh Mission, Lorrains and Savidge plunged into the mountainous tracts and began their humble work at Fort Aizawl in January, 1894. AM Chirgwin wrote of their works thus: "In the next four years they learnt the vernacular, carried out the stupendous task of reducing the language to writing, published a Lushai primer, a catechism on the Bible, a hymn book, a grammer and a dictionary, started simple medical and education work, taught many of the Lushais to read and preach the Good News. It was a great beginning".

When Rev. DE Jones, from the Welsh Mission, came to Aizawl, the two friends had to leave the newly established mission station and set sail for England in March, 1898. In the autumn of 1899, they sailed again for India and started a new mission known as the Assam Frontier Pioneer Mission among the AborMiri tribes.

Man proposed but God disposed. After 2 years' stay at Sadya, Lorrains and Savidge received an urgent request from British Baptist Mission to return to Lushai hills and on March 13, 1903 reached Fort Lungleh and with funds from the Arthington bequest, Arthington's dream of evangelizing the wild hillmen of the north eastern frontier was moving towards realisation.

In Manipur, William Pettigrew started his work by opening school at Imphal on February 6, 1894 with full patronge from A. Porteous - acting political Agent. Soon the orthodox Hindu Meiteis interpreted Pettigrew's activity as a deliberate attempt to impose the government's religion upon them. Maxwell, Political Agent, who had just returned from his furlough felt alarmed and instructed Pettigrew to work among any hill tribes. There were two traditions as to the place where Pettigrew was to start his mission station.

The first or Southern tradition holds that Senvawn was the first proposed site for mission work. The second or Northern tradition has it that Pettigrew went to Songsang, near Mao gate. Rejected in these two places, Pettigrew had to go to Ukhrul to work among the Tangkhul Nagas.

Later on, Pettigrew memorandumed the Sibsagar Baptist Missionary Conference in 1895 for admission into American Baptist Mission and in January, 1896, Manipur was taken over as the American Baptist comity area.

The coming of WR Roberts in South Manipur: Dedicated his life to "serve the Lord under any capacity He ordains me to serve" the young Roberts (b September 21, 1866, Brydenly, Dinorwic Street, Caernarfon, North Wales), accompanied Dr. Fraser and his wife to Aizawl.

In response to the Macedonian call from Senvawn, the biggest Hmar village in South Manipur, "Sir, come yourself, and tell us about this book and your God" Roberts, accompanied by native converts arrived at Senvawn on February 5, 1910. The main concern of this section is to examine the basis and authenticity of this date.

The basis of this date is an unpublished original document enttled, "The Thado-Kookie Pioneer Mission : Official Statement " Which was written by Rev. D. Lloyd Jones and Watkin R. Roberts, the founder of the Mission.

The document runs thus : "About the end of January 1910 Mr. Roberts, and few of the Lushai Christians and others started for Manipur. The sunday evening before they left, Mr. Jones (Rev D.E. Jones, Welsh Missionary at Aizawl) drew the Church's attention to the fact that they were leaving on the morrow to Manipur and prayers were offered for the safety of the party and God's blessing on the undertaking.

The morning Mr. Roberts was leaving, Major Cole asked him to call there; he did so along with Dr. Fraser and Mr. Jones who were to interview him regarding the slave question. Dr. Fraser & Mr. Jones were present when Mr. Roberts asked Major Cole to telegraph to the Political Agent of Manipur for permission to cross the border'.

What is the date of the last Sunday of January, 1910 on which the announcement of Roberts' departure for the next day (that is Monday) was made in the Church meeting ? The Longlife Calendar tells us that this Sunday fell on January 30, 1910. This means that Mr. Roberts' party left on Monday, January 31, 1910 for Senvawn.

Now it is important to know on which place (villages) Roberts' party spent the night on the way or how many days did they took to reach Senvawn. There are two opinions on this.

The Late HL Thangneirum, Senvawn (a former student of Roberts) who met Roberts' party on the outskirts of Senvawn village on the day the latter arrived, listed the villages where Roberts spent the night as follows:
(1) Khawruhlian
(2) Kepran
(3) Vanbawng
(4) Khawlien
(5) Parvachawm &
(6) Senvawn.

Rev. Ruolneikhum Pakhongte is of the view that the party possibly visited these villages :
(1) Nausel
(2) Kepran
(3) Vanbawng,
(4) Khawlien
(5) Parvachawm &
(6) Senvawn.

In either of the cases, using Monday, January 31, 1910 as the starting day, the party took six days and on the 6th day in the afternoon of Saturday, February 5, 1910, they arrived at Senvawn.

H.L. Thanga (Son of the Late Thangneirum, Senvawn) who was the present on that occasion also told me that Roberts reached Senvawn in the afternoon. He further said that Roberts' party stayed in the house of the late Hrangthang's father at Kawnzar and the next day (Sunday, February 6, 1910) Roberts read out John 3 : 16 and concluded "Believe in the word of God now ".

What is the authenticity of this date February 5, 1910 as the exact date for the planting of the Gospel in South Manipur? The following historical evidences can be cited in support of this view. First, it is based on the official statement of the Thado-Kookie Pioneer Mission which is a primary source.

Secondly, H.L. Thangneirum's account, Rev. R. Pakhuongte's opinion and the said official statement supplement one another directly or indirectly.

Thirdly, Rev. Darsanglien Ruolngul, in his book "Chanchintha Kalchawi "(Onward Movement of the Gospel) said that Roberts left Senvawn in February, 1910. This implies that Roberts reached Senvawn possibly on February 5, 1910.

Fourthly, Roberts must have counted the days carefully and it is quite certain that he would have liked to spend Sunday (February 6, 1910) at Senvawn village from which he got the call.

Fifthly, Rev. Rulneikhum Pakhuongte, in his booklet "The power of the Gospel" wrote that Roberts set out in January 1910 for Senvawn. This also points to the same conclusion. Lastly, even Roberts' personal letter on December 7, 1960 written on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee of the coming of Gospel in South Manipur testified and confirmed this date directly or indirectly.

Surely, Roberts first visited Parvachawm and passed through Leisen before he reached Senvawn But historical significance is from where he first planted the Gospel which soon spread throughout the length and breath of the South Manipur hills.

It should be pointed out that some church groups take May 7, 1910 as the date for the advent of the Gospel in South Manipur and even celebrated Diamond Jubilee on this particular day. Of course, this is a significant date because it was the day on which the national Christian workers themselves began their work for the Lord. Rev. Darsanglien Ruolngul, however, pointed out that May 7 was the date on which the national workers left Aizawl for the second time to begin their work at Senvawn and open schools.

Rev. F.S. Downs, an authority on the Church History of North East India also wrote thus : "The three students (meaning the national workers arrived at Senvawn in May 1910". This clearly shows that May 7, 1910 was not the date on which the Gospel was first planted in South Manipur and for that matter, at Senvawn.

Concluding remarks :

This is in brief the history of the onward movement of the Gospel in North east India and South Manipur. God used not only missionaries and national Christian workers but also the rich and even high Government officials as has been shown for the spread of His words.

No power on earth can resist the wave of the Gospel and wherever there is opposition, the Gospel explodes and works wonders. For the Gospel is the power of God.

In short, the Gospel enlightens the ignorant and civilizes the uncivilized. It brings about both spiritual and physical progress wherever it goes. Praise the Lord, it is only because of the Gospel that we, the most backward people on this part of the planet-earth, can be counted among the rank and file of civilized people.

This Diamond Jubilee really symbolizes the full "Victory of Cavalry" and we thank God upon every remembrance of the Pioneer missionary, the late WR Roberts.

Dr Lal Dena, Associate Professor, MU , wrote this article for The Sangai Express . This article was written on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee celebration of ICI in 1985. This article was webcasted on March 22nd, 2007.

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