The Arrival of Christianity Among the Kukis
By Onkhothang Haokip
When the fullness of the time came, the gospel of Christ reached and pierced the hearts of the Kuki people. Indeed, the coming of Christianity among the Kukis is now already one hundred year, and today the Kuki churches are flourishing and have a Christian population of approximately 98 percent. The coming of Christianity brought a life of spiritual salvation and also an end to the old ways of living.
The Northern Missionary, William Pettigrew
The missionary who is the father of the Kuki churches of northern Manipur is William Pettigrew. He was an Englishman born in Edinburg, Scotland on January 5, 1859 and was educated in Livingstone College, London. He was at first a member of the Anglican Church working as a Missionary under the Arlington Aborigines Mission. However, he joined the American Baptist Church at Sibsagar in 1896 (Johan M. Solo and K. Mahangthei, “Forty Years in Manipur Assam, An account of the work of Rev. and Mrs. William Pettigrew, pp. vii-viii, 1986).
When the British polity was set up in the soil of Manipur, he was given an opportunity to enter and work among the people. He landed at Imphal on the 6th February, 1894, which proved later to be Red-letter day in the history of Manipur as far as the history of Christianity is concerned, and he became the first missionary who ever landed in Manipur (Champhang Jajo, Rev. William Pettigrew’s Mission Reports and Letters 1891- 1932, p. 1). He started a school among the Manipuris, mainly the Hindus, and could work only six months due to opposition (Frederick S Downs, The Mighty Works of God, 1971,p 76 ).
The then Political Agent, Major Maxwell, advised Pettigrew to leave Imphal and work among the Hill People, the Kukis and the Nagas. This compelled him to move to the Tangkhul areas in Ukhrul district in the northern Manipur. He started a school at Ukhrul and began his ministry which he longed for a long time. He later worked with the Kukis.
The Beginning of Mission Work among the Kukis in Northern Manipur
The establishment of Kuki church in the northern area can be traced back to the first two converts of Kuki Baptists. The first convert among the Kuki Baptists was Nehseh Chongloi, from Makui who had accepted Christ with the help of Angami (Naga) Christians while in Nagaland, followed by Ngulhao Thomsong who was also from Nagaland. Both came to Manipur in 1910 to assist the mission work at Ukhrul centre. The next converts were the ones who attended Pettigrew’s school at Ukhrul. They were, Teba Kilong, Longkhobel Kilong, Seilut Singson, Jamkithang Sitlhou, Tongngul Gangte followed by Helkhup, Pakho Sitlhou ( K.B.C. Thusim Bu,1958-1993, p3).
The mission expanded to the Kuki areas and Tujangwaichong became the first Christian village among the Kuki Baptists in 1914 largely through the work of Ngulhao Thomsong. The first baptisms were conducted by U.M. Fox in December, 1914, while on his way from Imphal to Kohima for furlough. Altogether 26 people were baptized at that time. Rev. U.M. Fox also pronounced the establishment of the Church among the Kuki Baptists on the 12th December 1914. The Church was formally organized by Pettigrew in 1916 to become the third Baptist church in Manipur after Ukhrul and Keishamthong village churches near Imphal and the first Baptist church among the Kukis followed by Tongkoi and Chaljang in 1919, Karakhun, Songphel Khulen, Gelnel, Kachai Kuki all in 1920, and Lhongchin in 1922 (Thongkhosei Haokip, Towards overcoming Church division in Manipur: A perspective drawn from the Kuki people’s experiences, www.kukiforum.com).
The Growth of Mission Work among the Kukis in Northern Manipur
The growth of the mission is characterized by the responses of the people. After the war (Kuki Rebellion, 1917-1919), evangelization among the Kukis became effective. A report of William Pettigrew in 1917 reveals that in the north, most at Tujangwaichong, there were 86 members of the church which was established through Ngulhao. In Lankhong village (50 miles due west of Imphal), Longkhobel, the evangelist cared for his community in a small group and had at least 32 members. In Shenbang-yang, a village south-west of the capital about 30 miles, there were 21 adult baptized members (Elungkiebe Zeliang, History of Christianity in Manipur, 2005,p.55,56)The opening of Mission Headquarters at Kangpokpi (Northern Manipur) in 1919 also saw a great growth every year in the number of converts from the villages. In 1940-41 there were at least 660 baptized members of the Kuki churches. The great growth of the Kuki church actually began late in the 1940s and by 1945 there were 3,000 baptized believers (Prime Vaiphei, Church Growth among the Hill Tribes in Manipur, 1981, p 56).
The Southern Missionary, Watkin R. Roberts
Thirteen years after Pettigrew landed in Manipur, Mr. Roberts left England and sailed to India on October 14, 1908. He was physically born in Carneervon Village in Wales and spiritually born again through the reading of RR Torrey’s sermon on September 21, 1889. He joined Keswick convention in England in 1907. Through this convention he had a mind to step out for India (Thangkholal Singson, Houbung Kalsoun, 2000,p 6) Along with Dr. Peter Fraser of the Welsh Mission he reached Aizawl, the then British outpost towards the end of the same year. Dr Fraser, who came as a Welsh missionary took charge of the Medical Clinic and Mr. Roberts acted as a dispenser of medicine and a private helper of Dr. Fraser. It was from Aizawl that Roberts heard about the area and explored the place for evangelization (T.S Gangte, The Kukis of Manipur, a Historical Analysis, 1993, p. 38).
Roberts was a young man of only 24 years when he first came to Manipur. On the other hand, for others he was just a self-appointed, unpaid, unordained and untrained missionary who came to north-east India (John H Pulamte, Christianity in Manipur South West A Problem of Dating http://www.scribd.com) Through him the Kukis in the south heard the gospel and he became the second missionary who entered in Manipur. He was the founder of Thadou Kuki Pioneer Mission (TKPM).
The Beginning of Mission Work among the Kukis in Southern Manipur
In the south, while Roberts was assisting Dr. Fraser in the clinic and engaging in evangelistic works, some young men with a slightly different outlook came to the clinic. They were Hmar Kuki from Senvon in Tipaimukh, Manipur.. Robert’s heart was greatly touched and gave them a copy of St. John’s gospel. One copy was sent through some students to the chief of Senvon, Mr. Kamkholun.
Upon the request of Kamkholun which Roberts took as a ‘Macedonian call,’ he (Roberts) set off for Manipur with his two Vaiphei students, viz. Thangkai and Lungpao, as his porters. They arrived at Senvon on 5th February, 1910. Right away he reached out; he preached the Gospel to them and visited the neighboring villages preaching the good news. Six of them, including the chief were converted to Christianity on that day. Thus, the church was established at Senvon in 1910, which was the first Kuki Christian village in Manipur followed by Leisen, Khopibung, Malte, Bualtong and Chawngkhozo (Thongkhosei Haokip).
The Growth of Mission Work among the Kukis in Southern Manipur
Since the formation of TKPM by Roberts, the church in the south grew rapidly. The first conference of TKPM was held at Senvon, on December 26, 1914, and it was attended by nearly a hundred people. Another conference was held at Zekra-dawr, on the bank of the Tuilang River on January 12, 1922. Altogether, four hundred delegates attended the conference. It was also reported that in 1923, there were already two thousand eight hundred forty Christians in southern Manipur (Paokhohao Haokip, Re-Discovery of Traditional Institutions of the Kukis in Manipur with special Reference to Lawm and Sawm, 2006, p. 45).
The name TKPM was later changed to North East India General Mission (NEIGM) for a wider mission field. The General Secretary, H.H Coleman and the missionary Paul Rostad adopted more vigorous efforts towards consolidation to improve the Bible school with better curriculum and discipline and it paved the way for the growth of the church to a certain extent. When Dr. Crozier joined NEIGM he contributed medical assistance to the people. Thus the combination of education and medical work of the missionaries fostered the growth of the church. According to the statistic of 1940, the Christian population totaled to 30,000 consisting of 357 churches (Ibid, 46).
The Mission Work of the Kukis within Manipur
Pu Ngulhao Thomsong was the backbone of the establishment of the first Kuki Baptist Church at Tujangwaichong in 1914. He also served as a voluntary evangelist among the Anal Kuki and converted 334 during his three years of service (Downs, 170). Pu Teba and Longkhobel worked among their own tribe, the Kom Kuki. In 1923, they both witnessed the gospel to their hometown, and within a short period, they had gathered 200 believers. (Elungkiebe Zeliang, p.126). Both of them were also sent to the Anal Kuki group for evangelism, and within a short period of time they brought some 800 souls to the Lord (Ibid, p. 127-9). According to Downs (Mighty Work of God, 170) Pu Pakho Sitlhou gave most of his life to serving the Rongmei Nagas. He mastered their language and had translated many hymns and songs from Thadou Kuki into Rongmei. He also assisted in translating of the scriptures.
In the south, the Kuki people worked effectively under the Thadou Kuki Pioneer Mission till 1925. The evangelistic work was done through a total number of 22 workers. These workers were known as Teacher Evangelists with a payment of Rs 6 per month. In this way, the work was done and progress was made especially to the Gangte Kuki, Hmar Kuki, Paite Kuki, Thadou Kuki, Simte Kuki, Vaiphei Kuki, and Zou Kuki inhabited areas.
The Mission Work of the Kukis in North East India
In the course of time, the mission field was so vast that the name Thadou Kuki Pioneer Mission was thought too small in scope. So it was changed into North East India General Mission (NEIGM) in 1925 (EBC Secretariat, Evangelical Baptist Convention Tangthu, 1998, p. 7). They started working in different states in the northeast like, Tripura, Assam, etc. Pastor N. Luaia was sent to Tripura, Pastor Laibat and Thanghrim to Darlong, Pastor Khuma to Lakhipur (Evangelical Convention Church, Tangthupha gen Mite Kalsuan, 1974, p.5-6).
The Mission Work of the Kuki to Foreign Land
The Kuki people not only witnessed for the Lord in India but also to foreign lands like Myanmar in their post Christian dispensation, 1940s to 1980s. Tongkam Singsit was the first foreign missionary among the Kukis and he was a missionary to Burma in response to the request of the Haokip Kukis in the Joujang area in 1932 (Downs, p. 170-1). During his three years of service, he baptized some 60 persons. Letjavum Sitlhou replaced him in 1935. The churches were later organized into two associations-the Upper Chindwin Kuki Baptist Association with more than 3,500 members and the Kabo Valley Thadou Baptist Convention with more than 1,000 members, both of which are affiliated with the Burma Baptist Convention (Prime Vaiphei, p.56,57).
Tamu Area, upper Chindwin Kabaw valley of Burma, is also said to be one of the mission fields of NEIGM during 1925-1930. Seven tribes within some 38 villages with some 8,000 population inhabited the area. NEIGM sent Aikil as an Evangelist to this place and he baptized 13 people. After him Rev. Raltawn was sent, who worked some eight years and returned back to Manipur due to some inconveniences which occurred in the land (Thangkholal Singson, p. 17-18).
The writer is a Master of Theology student at Evangelical Theological Seminary of Asian Christian Academy, India.