How Christianity Came to Manipur

Published on May 16, 2010

How Christianity Came to Manipur

By Lal Dena

The first missionary who came to Manipur was Rev. William Pettigrew, Edinburgh, Scotland, under the sponsorship of the Arthington Aborigines’ Mission which was named after its founder, Robert Arthington, a millionaire at Leeds. By denomination, William Pettigrew belonged to the Church of England. He left England for India on 16 December, 1890 and came to Bengal.

Lal DenaOn being told that Manipur, an erstwhile princely state was still a virgin area, Pettigrew came to Cachar, Assam to enter Manipur. As the Anglo-Manipur war, 1891 was then going on, Pettigrew was made to wait for three years at Cachar and during that time he learnt Bengali and Manipuri (Meiteilon).

Consequent upon the conclusion of the war in 1891, followed by the consolidation of the British colonial rule over the state of Manipur, A.Porteos, officiating political agent, 1893-95, had given permission to William Pettigrew to enter Manipur without referring the matter to the government of India. Pettigrew came to Imphal on 6 January, 1894 and began to think that his missionary call must have been among the Hindu Meiteis of the Manipur valley and soon started his proselytizing activities by opening schools.

No sooner had he started his work then, some orthodox Hindu Meitei leaders began to suspect that Pettigrew’s preaching was a deliberate attempt to impose upon them (Meiteis) the ‘government’s (British) religion.’ On return to Imphal from his furlough in 1895, Lt. Col. H. St. P. Maxwell soon met with Hindu Meitei leaders who demanded that William Pettigrew be sent away from Manipur immediately. Fearing that trouble might arise if William Pettigrew was allowed to continue his proselytizing work, the school was taken out of his hand and brought under the management of the state government. Propagation of Christianity among the Meiteis was also prohibited forthwith.

Given a choice between political stability and Christian proselytism, the colonial officials definitely preferred political stability, but in hill areas where missionary work was likely to sustain colonial rule, the colonial officials spared no pains to find any suitable place for the missionary. According to F.S. Downs, a church historian and American missionary, there are two traditions as to where William Pettigrew had to start his new mission station.

The first or the southern tradition proposed Senvon, a Hmar village near Tipaimukh in South West Manipur, but it is said that permission was denied to Pettigrew by the chief of the village. As per the second tradition, Pettigrew went to a Mao village at Songsong on the Imphal-Dimapur road in North Manipur and tried to buy land from one government interpreter. But a meeting of sixteen village chiefs of Mao tribe intervened and stopped the selling of the land saying that they did not like the new religion.

Out of desperation, William Pettigrew finally left Imphal on 7 January, 1895 in his continued search for a suitable place to establish his mission station in the Ukhrul areas of East Manipur. After touring all these places like Hundung, Khangkhui, Paoyi, Shiroi Kashong, etc. with Raihao, chief of Hungphun, Ukhrul, Pettigrew felt that Hungphun was the most suitable place considering the climate, drinking water and various other things necessary for carrying on his work.

Foretold by his father and great grand fathers about the coming of the white missionary to Ukhrul, Raihao could not reject Pettigrew’s request for a land and granted him enough land at the present Hungphun village. Pettigrew thus started his work at Hungphun, Ukhrul with a new hope on 6 February, 1896. Prior to his settlement at Ukhrul, he left the Arthington Aborigines’ Mission and joined the American Baptist Union in Assam in 1895.

Accordingly, Pettigrew was formally recognized as a Baptist missionary for Manipur and the whole hill areas of Manipur was claimed to be the field of American Baptist Mission. Despite William Pettigrew’s intensive and extensive evangelical itineraries in and around Ukhrul for fourteen years, southern part of Manipur hill had still remained beyond the reach of the new gospel till the end of 1909.

In the mean time, on the foundation laid by J.H. Lorrain and F.W. Savidge, another Arthington’s missionaries at Aizawl, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Foreign Mission Society (WCMFMS) had been carrying on their work in Mizoram through their missionaries, Rev. D.E. Jones and Edwin Rowlands since 1896. It was from Mizoram that the light of the gospel came to the southern hills of Manipur through a young man called Watkin R. Roberts, Carnaevon, Mid-Wales. 

Knowing not what his Lord had planned for him, Roberts, a chemist, accompanied Peter Fraser and his wife who came to Aizawl as the first medical missionary on 14 October, 1908. Both Roberts and Fraser came from Carnaevon and also attended the same church – Castle Square Presbyterian Church where Fraser was a church elder.

There is nothing too small for God. It was the small gift of five pounds sent to Watkin Roberts by his lady friend Ms. Emily Davies that set the evangelization movement its initial impetus in the southern hills of Manipur. Having prayerfully considered how the money would be used to the best advantage for the furtherance of the gospel, Roberts decided to purchase enough bound copies of the gospel of John in Mizo language to present one to each village chief in Mizoram.

One copy of the gospel booklet cost only eight cents. Presentation of the gospel booklet was made to most of the village chiefs in Mizoram and even beyond, along with a letter explaining the way of salvation through Christ, suggesting that the recipient should read carefully the 3rd chapter, verse 16 of St. John’s gospel and also asking each one to acknowledge receipt and let Roberts know what was being done with the gospel sent to them. One day one stranger perhaps from Senvawn village, Manipur happened to visit the mission clinic at Aizawl.

On being told that no missionary work was done in that part of the region and the chief of that village could read Lushai dialect, Roberts sent one copy of the gospel booklet through the messenger to Senvawn. Kamkhawlun, chief of Senvawn, did receive the booklet. Taken aback and knowing not what to do with the booklet, he sent it back to the sender with a letter written on its back cover, “Sir, please come yourself and explain about the book to us” through Kaikhawhrang, son of Lienhrawng, Senvawn, and his three friends who were going to Aizawl to learn tailoring.

Since the delivery of the letter was the order of the chief, the four friends took utmost care and Kaikhawhrang, the youngest among them was told to keep the booklet in his shirt’s side pocket and pinned it carefully fearing that the loss of it might land them to punishment in the form of salam (fine).

One evening Rev. D.E. Jones, the first Welsh missionary at Aizawl, announced at a church meeting the receipt of the gospel of St. John from Manipur with a request for a missionary. Prima facie Roberts soon knew that it was the one he had personally sent to Manipur, and that the request was for the sender personally to visit the country and open up work there. It was, indeed, a Macedonian call: the call of a land and people still in spiritual bondage and darkness! So enthused, Roberts soon contacted Lungpau Vaiphei and Thangkhai Vaiphei who were then studying at Aizawl under the sponsorship of P. Fraser.

Lungpau and Thangkhai, being from Manipur, were well familiar with the hills and topography of the land between Manipur and Mizoram. With some native porters, Watkin Roberts and his party lost no time in preparing for the journey. As per the official statement made by D. Lloyd Jones, honourable treasurer and Watkin R. Roberts, honourable secretary of the Thado-Kuki Pioneer Mission on 20 February, 1914, Roberts and his two guides, Lungpau and Thangkhai followed by other porters set out on their journey towards Manipur on Monday, 31 January, 1910, and by passing through several villages on the way reached Senvawn on Saturday, 5 February, 1910.

The following day being Sunday, Roberts and his party halted at Senvawn. Watkin Roberts, it is said, read out his favourite Bible verse of St John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” and concluded saying, “believe in Jesus Christ now.”  On Monday, 7 February, 1910 Watkin Roberts and his party went back towards Aizawl via Vangai range by passing through many Hmar villages within Manipur and Mizoram and at Vervek Lungpau and Thangkhai accepted Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour.

Recalling this momentous event, Watkin Roberts wrote in his letter on 7 December, 1960 on the occasion of the Golden Jubilee celebration of the Independent Church of India thus: “Our first two converts from South West Manipur were my beloved Thangkhai and Lungpau (both Vaiphei). I well remembered the place where they accepted the Lord in a house in one of the Hmar villages in Lushai Hills as we returned to Aizawl in February, 1910 after my visit to Senvawn and the surrounding villages.”

The pioneer missionaries were convinced that without education, the new faith would not be able to take deep root. They considered the three R’s as the most effective means for winning converts and also for enabling the converts to learn the basic tenets of the Christian faith. According to them, educational institutions served two double purposes: first as a means of teaching the Christian truth, and secondly, as a means for recruitment or training of future native workers. Therefore, soon after reaching Aizawl, Watkin Roberts deputed three newly Mizo converts – Savawma, Thangchhingpuia and Vanzika to start a school at Senvawn on 7 May, 1910.

Since then, the new faith spread like wild fire starting from Senvawn and in no time the whole of South Manipur got the light of the gospel mainly through the new converts. The people were receptive to the new faith because it came to them as light to the dark. It set them free from their burdensome taboos and superstitions associated with their animism. The new faith preached economic, social and spiritual salvation. Within so short a time, all the tribes and communities in the region were turned from darkness to light and had become one of the most progressive tribes of North East India.

How could all this happen? As we have stated before, it started with a humble but prayerful gift from Roberts’ lady friend from Carnaevon. It was indeed an imperishable monumental work for the glory of the Lord. Roberts was simply an instrument and the lady spoke indirectly from her home in Wales to the hungry souls living thousands and thousands of miles away. Is it not wonderful? Paul planted, Apollos watered and God gave the increase so that both he that planted and he that watered are one (I Cor.3:6).

The darkness of centuries passed away, and a new dawn of hope and love glowed brightly over the hills and mountains of Manipur. The churches grew and flourished in the best tradition of apostolic times – self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating. This was the secret of the success of the missionary movement in this part of the world.

The apostle Paul has said that the gospel is ‘the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes’ (Rom. 1:16). It was neither British imperialism nor Western civilization which changed the people. It was the gospel which conquered the unconquerable. It was the power of the gospel of Christ which marvelously transformed the ignorant into enlightened ones. What a victory! For revenge, the missionaries taught forgiveness; for hatred, love and for cruelty, kindness.

Filled with the love of Christ, the missionaries devoted their entire lives at tremendous personal sacrifices to serve among the people. For the sake of the cross, some missionaries laid down their lives and were buried in our country. It was the blood of those who died and the dedicated services of those who are still alive which united the distant hills of Manipur with the Christian world. More important, it is the precious blood of Jesus Christ which made us one – yes, we all are one in Christ Jesus.

The writer, author of eight books and numerous articles, is a professor at the history department in Manipur university, India. He was also president of Northeast India History Association, visiting professor at Dibrugarh University, Assam, and visiting fellow at Korea Foundation, South Korea.

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