Monday, May 17, 2021

22nd December 1872: Historical Beginnings of the Baptist Church in Nagaland

— Molungkimong Baptist Church—

This day 147 years ago in 1872, the first Church in Nagaland was established by Dr. Clark. Here’s a look at how history of Christianity unfolded in our land. Dr. E. W. Clark and his wife Mary Mead following his appointment as missionary to India, left Boston in October 20, 1868 and sailed for one hundred and sixty days in the bark “Pearl” bound for Calcutta, and after travelling by trains, steamer and elephant, arrived at Sibsagar in March 30, 1869. Clark took charge as superintendent of the Mission Press and general mission work of the Assam Mission. During the mission work of Clark among the tea garden workers, he became associated with a zealous Assamese Evangelist, Godhula, and also came in contact with the Ao Nagas who came down for trade.


Since the first contacts with the “strange, uncivilized” Nagas from the hills, dubbed by the Assamese as “head-cutters,” Clark’s eyes were set on the Naga hills burdened by the Lord’s voice to ‘go and teach all nations’ thinking about the many people who were accessible to the Gospel but had no knowledge of Christ. It was during this time that Supongmeren of Molungkimong had gone down to Sibsagar to search for his son, got acquainted with Godhula and started living with him. Supongmeren also met Dr. Clark through Godhula and within a short time of acquaintance, the three developed a strong friendship with reciprocal interests. While Godhula and Clark were drawn into evangelizing the headhunters, Supongmeren was fascinated by the teachings of Christianity and school system at Sibsagar. Clark recounts the event in the following words – “These men were down from the hills to trade …they stood peering in at the children who were studying and reciting.”(Bowers 1929:197) What ensued was Supongmeren’s act of teaching Ao language, custom and culture to Godhula and Clark and the former’s acquisition of basic English and Assamese. Clark recounts the event in the following words – “Becoming interested in these simple people, I learnt a little of their language, and as they knew some Assamese I was able to talk to them.”(Bowers 1929:198) Godhula explained everything about the new religion and further assured that the God of the new religion will stop head-hunting, sickness and famine in the village and that God would deliver peace and harmony among the people. Supongmeren was fascinated to hear the good news since the natives lived with threat of enemies, deadly diseases and famine. As his interest grew in the promise of the Gospel, he was convinced that this God would liberate them from every possible problem and fear. Supongmeren lived with Godhula and his wife Lucy from December 1870 till October 1871 at Sibsagar and was baptized in 1871 by Clark at Sibsagar (Philips 1976:53-54). Supongmeren, along with other natives of the village, persistently invited Godhula and Clark to their village to teach them the gospel and also teach the ways of knowledge to their children especially after what they saw in the classroom at Sibsagar. We see the same event in Clark’s own words – “During the next few months the number of parties coming to see the school increased. Time after time they called on me and insisted that I go with them to the hills. I refused every invitation for I knew that there was no security there. I saw that they were anxious for something better for their children…but as for me the risk was too great to be taken at that time.”(Bowers 1929:198). More so, Naga Hills was beyond the control of the British flag, but the Natives of Molungkimong assured to protect him and as such Dr. Clark promised to visit Molungkimong. To Clark’s surprise, Godhula, volunteered to go with them saying that he is a servant of the Master and in His name and strength he can go with them. Thus Godhula, the young Assamese, became the first to carry the Gospel to the Naga hills. Eventually, Godhula made a trip to Molungkimong village with Supongmeren and some other Molungkimong natives in October 1871.
However, on their arrival at Molungkimong, though Godhula “proclaimed himself as teacher of a new religion,” some village elders suspected Godhula as a spy of the British and kept Godhula in a small rude hut and guards were assigned to watch him. “For three days no man, woman or child would speak with him socially. All the talk was official, – with the officers of the village.” In his confinement, he sang the sweet gospel hymn “Nearer, still nearer” in Assamese, as the villagers flocked around him and listened. “Jesus and heaven were names now heard for the first time.” At the end of three days they were convinced that he was not a government spy but a true friend and a messenger of the Gospel, and he was bestowed every favor and honor and entire freedom of conversation was allowed. Another song he sang with passionate zeal that touched the natives was ‘Temolung Meyipang, Temolung Meyipangma No! (“To-day, hear His voice”). The influence of peace and love began to soften their hard hearts and they called this rude hut “the sweet home,” the peaceful place. After a week, when Godhula proposed to return to Sibsagar, women and children wept, and to do him proper honour fourty men was sent by the Village Council to accompany him to his house in sibsagor.
In the winter of 1871, Godhula made several trips to the village and in the following year on April 6, Godhula, with his wife Lucy, went to Molungkimong to live and further evangelize the Ao natives. The natives went on talking about the new stories in their houses, jhum fields and every possible space and they hurried back to the village in the evening from their fields and huddled around Godhula and listened to newer Biblical stories. The story telling sessions included moralizing accounts of Abraham, Elijah, Solomon, Daniel, Noah, Jesus and others to the amazement of the natives. Godhula also professed that God would free and save them from the adversaries of head-hunting, famine and plague and that they will be alleviated of all suffering if they accept the new religion. Talking of Godhula’s Christianizing labor and the nature of the work, Clark writes, “the news from the Naga hills continues highly favorable. Some of those who appreciate Christianity the most, some twenty-three or thirty, Godhula says, have been talking seriously of gathering up, at harvest time, their crops and all, bringing all down as a present to me or to the mission. The new religion and the ‘Padre Sahib’ were the constant topics of conversation.” (BMM, 1872, Aug. 10)
As the hearts of the villagers were drawn in closer to the new religion, the Village Council of Molungkimong resolved to accept the new religion. The Council decided that the new religion will be accepted with collective responsibility of consequent adversity or fortune and to that end, one representative of every clan would be baptized. As the names of representatives were given out, some other zealous natives also volunteered to baptize. Godhula accompanied by nine natives, his first fruits of labor, reached Sibsagar on November 8. Mary Mead narrates the touching, solemn scene at the Mission Chapel as the new converts accepted the ordinances in broken Assamese. Following Sabbath, on November 10, 1872, they were baptized by Clark. Oral sources recounts that Supongmeren also shared with them about his baptism by Clark at the same Dikhu river in the same way while they received baptism. The nine names were then registered as members of the Sibsagar Baptist Church. Rev. S. W. Rivenburg records, “On their return to their mountain home, a small chapel was built in the village” with the permission of the Kosasanger Village Council.
In a short while, with the seeds of evangelism, fifteen more natives were ready to accept the new religion. The Village Council decided to invite Clark and made an appointment with him and fixed a certain phase of the next moon by using the traditional Yongsük method of counting as the date to take him to the village. Since it was a dangerous expedition for Clark, more so it was beyond the British flag, and a very risky task on the part of the natives to protect the life of the White man, the Village Council sent sixty warriors to escort Clark. The group along with Clark, Godhula and Supongmeren set out for Molungkimong from Sibsagar on December 16 through the ‘Rongsensü Lenmang’ (Ao-Ahom Trade Route that ran through Molungkimong and connected Ao villages with Assam). After the tiring day’s trip, they slept the first night in the tea garden Manager Col. Buckingham’s Bungalow at Amguri. The next day at about mid-day, they set out into the realm of wild animals and head hunters and after the exhausting day’s journey, took rest by the bank of Tzürang (Tero) river in the perilous jungle under the vigilant eyes of the warriors. The third day after the fatiguing uphill journey, they reached Angotzükong hillock from where, as part of their strategic plan, the natives sent out smoke to signal the arrival of the White man in their village, which prepared the eager villagers to receive the group. Clark, safe yet exhausted, arrived at the Molungkimong village gate escorted by the sixty warriors on Wednesday, December 18, 1872 about 12 o’clock.
On reaching the village stockade Clark knelt down and prayed for the Nagas: “Lord protect my life, and give me strength to live and labor many years among these people, till these many hills shall be vocal with Your praise.” Entering the village, followed by the curious villagers, Clark first went to see the Chapel hall for prayer. Later, talk began for the baptism, and the Village Council authorised the village pond (Chungli Tzübo) for baptism. Clark engaged two persons to dig and enlarge the smaller pond beside the drinking pond. In the evenings, the villagers along with the nine newly baptized members and those fifteen members who were ready for baptism gathered at the Chapel to hear the words of the Gospel from Godhula and Clark. Consequently, the following Sabbath on December 22, 1872, the fifteen converts were baptized by Clark. Then, a devotional service was conducted at the Chapel hall where Clark delivered the sermon and also administered the first Lord’s Supper which marking the establishment of the first Baptist Church in Nagaland.
This event in Naga history unfolded with a lot of danger, threat and sacrifice. This part of history was carved out in an uncertain pretext of better or worse, blessing or curse upon their clan of those who decided to accept the new religion and on the whole village. Amidst criticism and warning from other villages, our great Naga forefathers accepted the Gospel with courage, transparency and simplicity which transformed the life of the Nagas. The tremendous growth of Baptist Churches in Nagaland which started at Molungkimong (1872), then at Molungyimsen (1876), and on to Impur (1894), and beyond, is indeed a spiritual fruition of Dr. Clark’s visionary prayer at Molungkimong on his first arrival. This coming of Christianity has been marked by God’s own hands which will stand as monuments of God’s miraculous work and His sustaining Grace for all Nagas.
On this momentous day, we are once again reminded of the mighty works of Gods for Nagas, and the Molungkimong Baptist Church extends greetings and God’s blessings to all the Churches in Nagaland and to all laborers’ in God’s vineyard.