The early story of Christianity in Northeast India
Contd from previous issue
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). After staying there for a few days, Godhula later returned with his wife, Lucy. In just seven months, he converted nine men from the village, who helped establish a village chapel. He took them with him to Sibsagar, and they were baptised by Rev Clark in Dikhu River, on 11 November, 1872. On the same event, a date was fixed for Rev Clark to visit the village.
On 18 December, 1872, Rev Clark first entered Ao Naga land. Four days later, he and Godhula baptised fifteen more new converts. After a brief stay, Reverend Clark returned to Sibsagar, only to take up a more permanent settlement in the hills in 1876. It must be emphasised here that for the first five years, from 1871 to 1876, it was Godhula who went back and forth – from Sibsagar to the Naga Hills – doing all the ‘fieldwork’ of evangelising and converting the Ao Nagas. The first long-term missionary in the Naga Hills then was an Assamese, perhaps not something the Naga clergy wishes to accept today.
Following the arrival of Rev. Clark in Molungkimong, conflict erupted, with villagers divided on many issues, mostly along lines of tradition, customs, social organisation, and church membership. The then prevailing Naga ways, such as headhunting, offering sacrifices to deities, warfare, drinking of rice beer and so on were discouraged. Besides, a simmering conflict between two groups regarding the ever-sensitive transfer of power in the village already existed. Christianity, and the missionary now among them, played into these pre-existing fault-lines.
The missionary’s direct assault on old practices resulted in strong disunity, eventually leading to the splitting of the village. Rev Clark along with a few families including both converts and non-converts – interestingly more members of the latter – founded a new village, Molungyimsen, about five kilometres away from the old village, while Godhula and his wife Lucy stayed back in the old village looking after the first established church. Rev Clark and his wife Mary were to spend the best of four decades in the Naga Hills.
Nagas’ near-complete conversion to Christianity – and that too within the span of just a century –was accompanied by the cultural erasure of traditional practices.
A few decades later, after Christianity became an important subject in Nagaland, the two villages disputed about which one had the first church. Ultimately, it was resolved (based on factual historical evidence and records) that there were a few Christians who continued to stay on in Molungkimong, and hence their church continues to be the oldest on the Naga soil. Molungyimsen, however, continued to be an important centre under Rev Clark. Even after he shifted the mission base from Molungyimsen to Impur in 1894, for head-quartering in a central location within the Ao area, the first Ao Baptist Church Association (in vernacular called the Ao Baptist Arogo Mungdang or ABAM) met in Molungyimsen in 1897.
The first missionary
In narrating the arrival of Christianity among the Nagas, historical and popular precedence is given to the work of Rev Edward Winter Clark. While Reverend Clark was undoubtedly a great deal more successful compared to Bronson, it is mistaken to bequeath him with the status as ‘the first’ missionary among the Nagas. Besides, the earliest members of the oldest Naga church were evangelised and converted by Godhula Brown sometime in the fall of 1871 or early 1872. Considering that Godhula was not an ordained minister, the ‘official inauguration’ of the oldest church was done only on December 22, 1872, with the arrival of Rev Clark. Both Bronson and Godhula preceded Clark. As for the spread of Christianity in later years, Frederick Sheldon Downs, the Christian historian rightly observed:
The beginnings of Christianity among numbers of new tribes were almost always due to the work of members of other tribes rather than of foreign missionaries. The Assamese were the first evangelists among the Ao Nagas and played an important role in the establishment of Christianity among the Angamis; Ao and Angami evangelists in their turn preaching to members of neighboring tribes with whom they had previously fought.
Now, 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? While sources mention an Assamese by the name Atmaram Sharma, who was born in Nagaon district of Assam and later went on to help the missionaries in Serampore near Calcutta by designing a script for printing the first Assamese Bible in 1813, there is no definitive proof of Sharma being converted. The first known Assamese convert was Nidhiram Farwell (also called Nidhi Levi Farwell), a youth employed in the missionaries’ printing press. He was baptised by Rev Miles Bronson in Jaipur, in the year 1841. Godhula himself was also the son of a Christian, and his father therefore must have converted early on. This was what Bronson had hoped for; that, as noted, the winning of souls of the Assamese would eventually lead the gospel to the Nagas.
Bronson might not have succeeded in converting the Nagas, but his early groundwork led to local officials encouraging Naga youths to go to the plains to get themselves educated in later years. Bronson’s mission cannot be deemed a failure. Rather, it paved the way for missionaries who were to come after him. The ‘harvesting of souls’ was slow, but in progress. Bronson’s missionary progress was stunted because of a lack of reinforcements, and a replacement immediately after his departure. In all of this, what emerges is that the early history of Christianity among the Nagas is closely wound up with capitalist interests that were enabled by colonialism. 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. Nagas’ near-complete conversion to Christianity – and that too within the span of just a century –was accompanied by the cultural erasure of traditional practices, including headhunting, animal sacrifices, festivals, and rice-beer consumption, all of which were adjudged unbecoming of Christians by the foreign missionaries. As for the Konyak Naga, whom Reverend Bronson evangelised, a British travel writer and broadcaster recently reported, “Today, 99 percent of the Konyak are Baptists, and men who once sang lusty war songs sing ‘Praise the Lord!’ instead”.
Courtesy Himal Southeast Asian