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The coming of Christianity to South Manipur

By Prof. Lal Dena* for Inpui.com]

Welsh flag Constrained by the love of Christ, the pioneer Welsh missionaries criss-crossed various continents and oceans of the world and without any forethought one of them happened to come to the dark distant hills in Manipur, a principality which had been closed to outsiders hitherto. The neighboring hill countries-Mizoram and Meghalaya were clearly potential Welsh mission fields. On the suggestion of the Rev. Jacob Tomlin, former missionary of the London Missionary Society, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Foreign Mission Society took over Meghalaya from the Serampore Mission under Baptist Missionary Society on 22 June 1841.

Envisioned to extend the horizon of their mission areas, Rev.William Williams, a Welsh missionary to Shella, Meghalaya, visited Mizoram in early 1899, and hastened to appeal to the Welsh Mission Directors through the Goleuad, the Welsh Presbyterian periodical magazine for opening a new mission station there. By resolution of the Machynlleth General Assembly, June 1892, Mizoram was adopted as a field for Welsh missionary operations. It was from Mizoram that God’s miracle worked and the forbidden gate of South Manipur was opened for an ambitious young man from Carnaervonshire, Mid-Wales, who was not formally trained or selected to be a missionary.

This young man was no other than Watkin R. Roberts, who was born on 21 September 1886. Burdened so much for lost souls, Roberts later dedicated his life ‘to serve the Lord in any capacity in which He ordains me to serve.’ At one afternoon meeting of the Keswick Conventions in 1908 before coming to Mizoram, he listened with rapt attention to Dr. Peter Fraser’s passionate plea: ‘Hundreds of tribes in Assam and North East India are in utter darkness. They need the gospel. They need Jesus to save them from their heathen darkness.’ The words inflamed Roberts’s enthusiasm. Placing himself at his Lord’s command, he began flying over mountains and oceans in wishful imagination. Amazing!

Knowing not what his Lord had planned for him, Roberts, a chemist, accompanied Dr Peter Fraser and his wife, the first medical missionary to Mizoram on 14 October 1908 to help them in their clinic. Both Watkin Roberts and Dr Fraser belonged to the same place and attended the Castle Square Presbyterian Church of Wales, Carnaevon, Mid-Wales. They left behind the conditions of ease, comparative luxury and comfort of their homes in Wales

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 who was, according to Roberts, ‘a great prayer-warrior’. Having prayerfully considered how the money might 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 booklet was made to most of the village chiefs in Mizoram 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 and also asking each one to acknowledge receipt and let Roberts know what was being done with the gospel sent to them. By chance, one stranger perhaps from Senvon village, Tipaimukh, Manipur, happened to visit the mission dispensary at Aizawl. On being told that no missionary work was done among their tribe and their chief could read Lushai dialect, Roberts also sent one copy of the booklet through the stranger to the chief of Senvon.

Knowing not the content and meaning of the booklet. Kamkhawlun, chief of Senvon sent back the same booklet with an appeal written on the fly-leaf. ‘Sir, come yourself, and tell us about this book and your God’ through Kailienhrawng, son of Lienhrawng, and his two friends who were then proceeding to Aizawl to learn tailoring. Several months passed. One evening at a church meeting D. E. Jones, the first Welsh missionary, publicly announced the receipt of the gospel of John from Manipur with a request for a missionary. This arrested Roberts’s attention. Prima facie, Roberts knew that it was the one he had personally sent to Manipur and that the touching request was for the sender to visit the country personally. It was, indeed, a Macedonian call: the call of a land and people still in spiritual bondage and darkness! So enthused, Roberts then looked for people who were familiar with the topography of the land between Mizoram and Manipur. Lungpau and Thangkhai who were studying there volunteered to accompany Watkin Roberts for such aggressive and dangerous journey. Despite the perils and hardship involved, Roberts could see the rich harvest ahead and his team, after a very hazardous journey on foot for several days, arrived at Senvawn on 5 February 1910.

The Lord worked wonders. Leaving aside their heathen practices, five people including the chief turned to the true and living God. The young converts went about telling other people of the unspeakable joy that was theirs. The good tidings soon swept across the mountains like a mighty tornado. Amazement and awe filled the hearts of all who heard it.

How could all this happen? It started with a humble but prayerful gift from a lady in Caernarfon. 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. It is not wonderful? Paul planted, Apollos watered and God gave the increase so that both he that planted and he that watered are one.

The north-east of Manipur hill territory had already been illuminated with the light of the gospel. This was as a result of the tireless efforts of the Rev. William Pettigrew who had formerly worked for the Arthington Aborigines Mission (named after Robert Arthington, a millionaire from Leeds) but who later joined the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society. The darkness of centuries passed away, and a new dawn of hope and love glowed brightly over the hills and mountains. 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 not 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 sacrifice to service 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 Northeast India with Wales (UK). More important, it is the precious blood of Jesus Christ which made us one - yes, we all are one in Christ Jesus.


[*Prof Lal Dena is a Hmar historian and teaches History at Manipur University, Imphal.]

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