The early story of Christianity in Northeast India

Roderick Wijunamai
Contd from previous issue
Within days he began his mission. In his journal, he wrote: “I am…very much like a Pastor at home, who is daily receiving some testimonial of good will and affection from his parishioners.” Things went fairly well for him subsequently, during this short winter visit (December 1839 to January 1840) in his arrangements for the new ‘Naga Mission’ base.
Trouble at Naga Mission base
After overseeing, and paying for, the construction of a bungalow that included a room to start a school and another to operate as a chapel, Reverend Bronson invited his family to the village. Their little school, which had started in January 1840, slowly increased in number. In just three months, the Bronson family was catering to ten students. However, only village boys from chiefly families had taken admission. “You cannot teach our females,” the aged chief told Mrs Bronson, “they are trained to bear burdens, to bring wood and water, and to make the salt by which we gain our subsistence.” “If they learn to read and to sew,” he continued, “they must give up these labors and remain at home; then who will do this work; as it is our [men’s] business to watch the village, hunt deer, and fight our enemies ? Our young men can learn, but not our women; it is not our custom.” While the Bronsons had wished to cater to all village children, they nevertheless hoped that the knowledge imparted to the privileged few would eventually find its way to all of the village.
In terms of division of labour, Mrs Bronson dedicated her time towards education, as did Bronson’s sister, Rhoda, after she arrived in Namsang a little later. Rev Bronson focused mostly on learning the language, translating parts of the gospels, and then trying to explain it to the villagers, especially to the old chief and other elders, who wielded considerable influence.
If the first Church in the Naga society was established among the Aos, and an Assamese was the first to convert members of the Aos, who converted the first Assamese Christian ?
No sooner had Rhoda arrived in Namsang, than sickness befell her. The climatic conditions at Namsang were not favourable for the family, especially for Rhoda and their little daughter Mary. Rev Bronson himself proved susceptible to jungle fever. Having an insufficient supply of medicine, and with Rhoda and Mary’s condition rapidly deteriorating, the Bronsons saw no option but to retreat to Jaipur in October 1840.
While the Bronsons were still up in the hills, missionaries stationed in Assam were debating whether peoples of the plains or the hills were more receptive to Christianity. Rev Brown had been insisting that Rev Bronson returned to the plains; he saw the plains as offering better opportunities. Noting that there were only about 6300 Nagas who spoke the Namsang language, Rev Brown felt it was not worth the effort of learning and translating the Scriptures into their language. The hills could wait.
Bronson found the decision to leave Namsang “very trying”, and he remarked: “It is indeed an affliction to us to be obliged to leave our field of labor destitute of any one to carry on its operations – particularly so, when we think of the difficulty with which we had obtain a footing among the people”. But he left, with the hope that winning the souls of the Assamese would at long last lead the gospel to the Nagas.
The chiefs and the other villagers expressed their regret on hearing their decision to leave. The aged chief, among all, was the most affected. “Before you return, I may be gone,” he sighed, “for my hair is ripe, but these my sons will stand pledged to be friends to you.” The chiefs requested Bronson to return to the village and “complete what was begun in the school”. But Bronson did not return. Instead he spent the remainder of his days as a missionary in Nowgong.
A lapse in mission activity
For almost three decades after Bronson left there were no missionary activities among the Nagas. Two plausible reasons for this were financial constraints because of the American civil war, and the aftermath of the rebellion of 1857 (also called the First Indian War of Independence). Reverend Edward Winter Clark, an Ivy League educated missionary, arrived in Sibsagar (in Assam) on 30 March 1869. By then, the ABM base had shifted from Jaipur to Sibsagar owing to diminishing population and the experienced “unhealthiness of the place”. Sibsagar, moreover, housed a physician and a hospital, an army headquarters, and it was very close to the Brahmaputra river for an easy commute.
Had there been no tea exploration in their foothills, the Nagas may not have become Christians, or at least not as early as the nineteenth century.
Clark first came in contact with a group of Ao Nagas, who habitually came down to the plains to trade, sometime in 1869. A year after, Gendhela Barua (more commonly known by the name he adopted after conversion, Godhula Rufus Brown) an Assamese evangelist then teaching in Sibsagar Mission School, introduced Clark to an Ao Naga man named Supongmeren, after having first introduced to him the new religion of Jesus. They baptised Supongmeren in 1871. In the fall of the same year, Godhula along with Supongmeren, went up to the latter’s village, Molungkimong (also known as Dekha Haimong among the Assamese).

(To be contd)