Tuesday, April 13, 2021

And those who never took bath baptized

Remembering the Baptist Church foundation day in Nagaland

Dr. Songsongsangba Tzudir

In October of 1871 the Good News Gospel was first brought to Molungkimong (Deka Haimong) of the erstwhile Naga Hills through the Assamese preacher Godhula. The coming of Christianity to Nagaland is a story of wonder and the unfolding of God’s plan for Nagas though they were never in the initial plan of the American Baptist Missionary Union. Stationed at Assam, the plan was to enter western China. It was during this time that Supongmeren of Molungkimong who had gone down to Sibsagar in search of his son met Godhula and then Dr. Clark, and through them Supongmeren learnt about a new God. About this new God he was told that this God will never die and whosoever believed in Him shall never thirst or hunger. A God that will stop wars and head-hunting among villages and bring peace, and a God that will bring an end to all epidemics. This new God was a wonder among wonders for Supongmeren because it was a time when head-hunting and wars was a routine affair, and the villagers lived in constant fear of enemy raids. Head-hunting being a term used in common parlance for Nagas, one has to see the context and its implication. Head-hunting was not simply about taking heads but the village that was raided would be burnt down completely never to be reestablished and the place is deserted for birds and animals to graze. It was also the time when most of the Ao villages in the Naga Hills were coming out from a deadly epidemic. So, considering the circumstances of their life in constant peril and fear, Supongmeren became favorably excited about this new religion and God.
Since the times when the Clarks began settling in Sibsagar, they started encountering the Naga Hills people who had come down from the hills to trade and seeing their war hardened face but soft character Clark saw that these hills people would make a favorable subject for a Christianizing field of labor. It was also a time when Clark saw that a critical point where the Hindu faith had began to show symptoms of a general breaking up though Clark was not sure whether the Hindus would become Christians or infidels. And when Clark was thinking that it was a “time for the truths about Christianity to be lovingly, yet forcibly presented”, but not sure about the Hindus, he set his eyes on the Nagas.
Knowing that language and culture was an integral tool for localizing evangelism, Clark through Godhula persuaded Supongmeren to come evenings to Godhula’s place to teach the Ao language and culture for about 5 to 6 months and for which Supongmeren was paid. Thus, Supongmeren became the channel of Christianity and Education to Nagaland. Towards the end of 1871, these tutoring sessions also paved the way for translation of the Lord’s Prayer in Ao and the first Gospel hymn was also composed giving new words to a traditional Moatsü song. Thus Ao Naga literature took its birth at Sibsagar through the efforts of Supongmeren, some elders of Molungkimong, Godhula and Clark.
About Nagas Baptizing and becoming Christians, the new God and religion was not automatically accepted. Not much can be said about how the first Nagas accepted Christ. (Hube Konyak baptised on September 12, 1847; Longjanglepzuk Ao of Merangkong village baptized on September 7, 1851 who was working at the printing press at Sibsagar; Yahukonsi baptized on January 4, 1852; Aklong Konyak and Amlai Konyak both baptized in 1855. It was only after a long break that the Nagas re-emerged in the missionary map through Supongmeren who himself was converted and Baptized through the efforts of Clark and Godhula).
In the same way as Godhula had described about the new Religion and God to Supongmeren, the same was expressed to the natives of Molungkimong declaring himself as the bearer of a new religion since his first visit to Molungkimong in October 1871 and through his subsequent visits and finally during his settlement starting April 6, 1872. At his house the villagers visited his place and they were made to sit in the machan and “much instruction was given in the new religion” especially about who the new God was – an eternal God that would once and for all stop all head-hunting raids and the land will see peace instead of living in constant fear; a God that will never let them go hungry, and a God that will deliver them from all epidemics. This new God was well accepted considering the circumstances in which they lived.
About Godhula’s evangelizing mission one can see the effect on the natives of Molungkimong from one of Clark’s letter to ABMU Executive Committee dated August 10, 1872. He wrote that the natives that appreciate Christianity the most were talking about gathering their crops and others and bring them down to Sibsagar as a present to Clark or to the mission. Clark further wrote about what Godhula had written to him about a particular Naga: “one Christian Naga has remarkable power in using wisely and effectively the facts of Christianity. He shakes every man. The new religion and the Padre Sahib are the constant topics of conversation.” In another letter Clark wrote: “One year ago, a native preacher at my request went with his wife to live in a village of a tribe of Nagas. About half, probably more than half of the village are now apparently Christians, not all baptized, but Christian in sentiment. The predominating influence is now Christian and hence the village in a loose way may be called a Christian village. Many of them are evidently true Christians.” (ABHS. Clark’s letter to Corresponding Secretary Rev. J. N. Murdock, DD. Dt. April 10, 1873).
Even though Godhula had been preaching about the new religion and God, one may wonder how Godhula must have preached about the ordinance of Baptism in water to a people who had never taken bath. Godhula had taught them about cleanliness but apart from physical cleanliness how would the natives envisage and respond when taught about the doctrine of rebirth in Christ by immersing in water as an act of cleansing the many sins, and most importantly being a requisite to become a true Christian.
Though those favorable to Christianity had decided to accept the new religion, the final decision to accept Christianity and baptize was decided in the Village Council. The older folks thought that the new religion was not for them being disposed to their old ways and told the young men to it give a try. Meanwhile, Godhula’s residence at the village and his preaching about the new religion had spread far and wide that there were opponents of Christianity. As such, Molungkimong had to live in constant fear and threat of warnings to bring down the entire village. But the villagers decided to embrace and put their trust and faith in the God that never dies as professed by Godhula, and would rather be enemies in the eye of those villages sending the warnings.
Finally in the great Council, as a sign of the whole of Molungkimong embracing Christianity, it was decided that a representative from each clan would baptize. Though there was a great liking for the new religion it was still ‘untested’ and so the new religion was accepted by committing to baptize in an uncertain pretext of either blessing or curse upon the entire village. That was the context and situation under which the 9 natives of Molungkimong decided to baptize.
Godhula had already relayed the news to Clark about the presence of fit subjects for baptism but however due to Clark’s paucity of time caused by his overloaded mission and printing engagements he himself could not come up to the village for Baptism. As such, having trust in the new God to protect them from head-hunters on the way, they headed to Sibsagar. Finally with stammering tongues the 9 men confessed the new found savior pledging to follow the ordinances, and they were baptized by Clark on November 10, 1872. On their return they built a Chapel hall after taking permission from the Village Council and started having services. After this, on the insistence of the Village Council, Clark arrived at Molungkimong on December 18, 1872 and the following Sabbath on December 22, fifteen (15) more men who related their Christian experience before Clark were baptised. A devotional service was held where Clark delivered the sermon and after which he administered the first Lord’s Supper. This event in history marks the formal establishment of the first Baptist Church in Nagaland.
Nagas should never forget the sacrificial works of the pioneer missionaries because from atop the hills of Molungkimong Clark said a prayer for all Nagas: “O that the Lord would protect my life, and give me strength to live and labor many years among these people, till these many hills shall be vocal with His praise.” When Clark entered his bungalow upon his return, he exclaimed to his wife Mary Mead – “I have found my lifework.” Indeed he had truly found his lifework and he lived and made the Naga Mission his lifework.
Today the 22nd December 2020, the 148th year since the establishment of the first Baptist Church in Nagaland at Molungkimong, as the Christian community in Nagaland remembers the Baptist Church foundation day of Nagaland, let all Nagas celebrate this shared history – a history for all Nagas, and reaffirm Clark’s prayer for Nagas by making God’s praise more vocal.
(On E-Mail)