In 1840, Reverend Miles Bronson wrote to the Political Agent and Commissioner of Assam Francis Jenkins about the difficulties he was facing in converting Nagas to Christianity, and about a year later, his decision to withdraw from the Naga highlands, then still largely terra incognita to the British. A century after, Christian convictions formed the heart of the emergent struggle for Naga independence. Today, the state of Nagaland is popularly dubbed a ‘Christian state’. Amidst the escalating influence of Hindutva in India, Naga politicians and pastors remind their electorate to protect their Christian faith, culture and identity at any cost.
The Nocte Naga village of Namsang (in modern day Arunachal Pradesh) where Reverend Bronson set up the first Naga mission station in 1839 was the cradle of Naga Christianity. Strangely, however, the story of Reverend Bronson and his mission field is largely forgotten today, perhaps because it was so short-lived (less than a year) or because it did not yield any converts. Instead it is Reverend Edward Winter Clark and his wife Mary who are often foregrounded. On 22 November, 2013, a statue of Rev. Edward Winter Clark was unveiled in Akhoya village, in Nagaland, casting him as ‘the first missionary to the Naga soil.’ This description, however, is not substantiated by historical fact.
In its initial years, the British East India Company prohibited evangelising amongst the colonies. They feared it could hurt local sentiments and consequently hurt British commerce. Their stance changed with the Charter Act of 1813, which allowed missionary activities, and was enacted in response to pressure from the British public.
In 1792, prior to the Charter Act, the British missionaries William Carey and John Thomas had arrived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and had begun their ‘groundwork’ while camouflaging themselves as indigo makers. Not permitted to evangelise in public, they set up a base in Serampore, which at the time fell under the Danish flag. They stayed on in Serampore after the new legislation was passed, which formally opened up the Indian mission field.
Tea and Christianity
By the time of the Charter Act, the Assam Valley and the hills surrounding it were still situated outside the Company’s ambit. However, Burmese incursions and the first Indo-Burmese war led the British into the region, which became formally annexed in 1826. Soon, Company officials discovered tea, and the manufacture and trade in it came to define politics and policy-making in the region for a long time to come.
An early key-player in tea cultivation was Charles Alexander Bruce, who became the Superintendent of Tea Culture in Assam. Tellingly, it was also Bruce who insisted on the need for Christian missionaries and offered significant financial donations to that end. His interest in promoting the gospel in the Naga Hills was arguably due to his conviction that conversion would pacify the Nagas, and thus end their regular raids on his plantations, which encroached on their ancestral lands. A similar sentiment was shared by several other Company men, who were also traders with high stakes in the resources and potential revenue of the region. This interest served the missionary enterprise.
On 22 November, 2013, a statue of Rev. Edward Winter Clark was unveiled in Akhoya village, in Nagaland, casting him as ‘the first missionary to the Naga soil.’ This description, however, is not substantiated by historical fact.
In 1835, spurred on behind the scenes by Bruce, then Political Agent and Commissioner Captain Francis Jenkins wrote to the American Baptist Mission (ABM) Board, requesting for missionaries to be sent to the region. The Board gladly seized the opportunity to expand its mission field. Two ABM missionaries, Nathan Brown and O T Cutter were already stationed in Burma and were now relocated to Assam. The ABM was ambitious and intended to evangelise the highlands between Burma and India, which, they reasoned, would open a gateway to the ultimate target population: China.
Missionaries had visited the region earlier. After the annexation of Assam, on the invitation of the first Political Agent, David Scott, the English Baptist Missionary Society (BMS) missionaries James Rae and Robinson Williams (Jr) were already imparting Christian education in the Garo Hills. And in 1813, a Bengali convert, Krishna Pal, had been sent by Carey from the Serampore base to Sylhet, where he had made some inroads among the upland Khasis. Seven years after the establishment of the Assam mission, in 1836, the English Baptists officially left the mission field in the hands of the ABM, due to financial constraints and stillborn converts.
Sometime in March 1836, Brown, a trained linguist, and Cutter, a printer, arrived with their families in Sadiya, in the northeast corner of Assam, along the banks of the Brahmaputra. The site was chosen for the convenience of both parties: the Company could offer them protection, and the location was thought to provide easy access to the Shan communities the missionaries hoped to evangelise. Before long, as the two missionaries commenced their mission work, they realised the need for more manpower, and so requested the ABM headquarters to send reinforcement.
The missionary struggle
While the above situation unfolded in the hinterlands of the Northeast, Miles Bronson was studying at Hamilton Literary and Theological Institution (now known as Colgate University) in New York. On 17 October 1836, Bronson and his wife, Ruth Montague Lucas, who he had just married, set off from Boston for Calcutta. They were accompanied by another missionary family, Jacob Thomas and Sarah Maria Willsey. Both families arrived safely on the shore of Calcutta six months later, on 11 April 1837. From Calcutta they headed by a smaller boat up the Brahmaputra. During the journey, Bronson fell very ill; he caught jungle fever, and they had to halt the journey midway to Sadiya. In his attempt to bring medical help, Jacob Thomas was killed by the sudden fall of a tree. Thus began the first of many misfortunes that was to befall the Bronsons.
With heavy hearts, and accompanying a bereaved Sarah Maria, the Bronsons arrived at Sadiya on 17 July 1837. The Cutter and Brown families welcomed and comforted them. Eventful years however awaited them, and a later missionary Victor Hugo Sword (1935) wrote:
The following two years were full of incidents… The struggle which these missionaries experienced in order to sustain life was not small, and sickness and death were their ever near companions. They were in constant danger of hostile raids by the Khamtis and Singhpos. Their missionary activities were checked by continuous tribal warfare; and their hopes to enter among the hills tribes were shattered.
One such raid made the missionaries resolve to relocate further west, to Jaipur. From Jaipur, Bronson first looked at the Singphos, but soon found them “to be extremely difficult if not impossible”. His next target became the highland Nagas.
Bronson made his first attempt to come in contact with the Nagas in the year 1838. In his letter dated 5 June 1838, he writes about two Naga youths he was expecting to enrol in the school that he along with Mrs Hannay (wife of Captain Hannay, who would soon be appointed Second in Command of Upper Assam) had established in the Jaipur plains. In the same letter, he also mentioned, with “high hopes”, his plan to visit the Namsang Naga Hills that winter, to ascertain their stance on setting up a mission base.
Bronson also discussed his mission plans with Capt Hannay, who discouraged Bronson from working among Singphos, citing the population as “treacherous and revengeful”. An advantage of evangelising among the Naga, Hannay said, was that they already knew Assamese due to their long-standing salt trade with the plains. Like CA Bruce, Hannay’s nudging Bronson to the Naga was also, in part, spurred by self-interest. He had only recently discovered a coal bed in the Naga foothills, the exploitation of which was made difficult by political instability. Christian conversion would bridge this difficulty in many ways, or so he hoped. Time and again, capitalist investments and their protection would surface as a central motivation to Christian evangelisation.
The first long-term missionary in the Naga Hills then was an Assamese, perhaps not something the Naga clergy wishes to accept today.
Having decided on his mission field, in 1839 Bronson ascended for his first survey tour of the Naga Hills, inhabited by the Noctes. A three-day walk brought him to the gates of Namsang village, some of whose inhabitants he had met around the tea-gardens of Jaipur. Here he was met with suspicion. The Naga Chief and his attendants thought him to be a spy, a ‘Company Man’, and therefore a potential threat. It took Reverend Bronson several days to convince the villagers that this was not the case, and that his sole intention was to bring ‘book’ to the villagers. ‘Book’ here referred to both education and the Bible. After finally convincing them of his non-political intentions, he readied himself to begin his evangelising, only to hear of an impending Khamti attack on Jaipur. This news made him rush back to protect his family.
By December that year, Bronson had printed two elementary Naga books, which he had prepared through an interpreter, and with these in hand he ascended to Namsang for the second time, now “hoping to be able to communicate to them some of the truths of gospel”. On reaching the village, he was again met with an opposition by one of the [lower-ranked] chiefs, who rebuked him: “Who wants a religion from a foreigner, and who will alter the customs of their father to receive books?” After a gentle appeal to the people in the crowd, reminding them about their previous agreement, he was invited in. 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). 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”.