“In those days, Nagas lived in constant fear of their enemies who might chop off their heads and the threat of their lives was an ever present reality. Village youths in turn would guard twenty-four hours a day. Into such a strange environment came Dr. Clark, and only with the gospel of life and Salvation” (Clark’s B-File, ABHS Archives).

The above quote clearly illustrates the everyday life of the Nagas before the advent of Christianity in Nagaland. 22nd December 2023 marks the 151st year since the inception of the First Church in Nagaland at Molungkimong. Today, it is no surprising to hear of moralizing accounts of a people who ‘once upon a time’ lived in ‘savagery’ to being ‘civilized’ and ‘Christianized’ as illustrated: “My forefathers were the most ferocious headhunters among the Naga tribes. We were living in the Stone Age. We were like animals. We didn’t know any other way of doing things. Christianity taught us tolerance. As God said, ‘Revenge is mine.’ Had missionaries not come, maybe we would still be living like animals.” (The Soul Hunters of Central Asia in Christianity Today, Feb 1, 2006).

With the coming of the St. Helena Act of 1833, the East India company lost all its commercial monopolies, and the inclusion of clauses relating to administrative reforms led to a flood of foreign missions to India from England, Netherlands, Germany and other European nations, and then, increasingly, from North America. The American Baptist Missionary Union occupied Assam in 1836 and subsequently carried out wide-scale conversions in the hill districts of Assam, and which also witnessed mission work among Nagas though there was not much progress.

After nearly 30 years Nagas came into the mission scene during Clark’s era. Once settled in Sibsagar beginning 30 March 1869, Rev. Clark did his own geographical mapping of the Naga Hills and the people residing in about 40 odd villages. As much as tea trade and production was important for the British in India, it also became an outreach area because of the concentration of people across 300 tea gardens stretching over 30,000 Acres and which had done much to render accessible to many hill tribes, the gardens being along the roads. This matrix became a turning point in Clark’s ‘Christianizing mission’ as he concluded: “tribe upon tribe of Nagas are accessible to the Gospel.” This was a time when the Home Board had been instructing Clark to acquire the language of the Assamese. It only became painful for him stationed at Sibsagar thinking about the many Nagas not having heard about the savior and the gospel of salvation.

The turning point for the Nagas happened at Sibsagar at the Mission school where children were learning to talk with white things on the blackboard, and which they considered “most wonderful!” (Bowers, 1929: 197). Then came the earnest invitation: “Come up to our village in the hills, Sahib, and teach our children to talk with the books.” In course of their meetings, the Nagas coming down for trade from the hills were told about a new God and religion – a God that will deliver them from hunger and famines, a God that will put an end to all wars. This was too good an alternative considering that not a day would pass by without a ritual or war. This persistence resulted in the Assamese Preacher Godhula going up the hills to Molungkimong in October of 1871. On his 6th visit, he and his wife Lucie took up residence beginning 6th April 1872.

One can draw the transforming effect from a correspondence of Godhula: “the Naga people are somewhat anxious about religion. Those calling themselves Christians do so understandingly, thus many people desire to meet me. At the present time there are 25 or 26 persons worshipping with me. The Naga people say that their forefathers, in worshipping evil spirits, found only the way to hell. We passed all our life time in fear. That there is death we know, besides this, that after death our spirits went below the earth in company with ghosts, this we learned from the mouth of our forefathers and so knew; that there is a heaven we knew, but that man could go to Heaven, this we never heard. But against the teachings of our forefathers a new doctrine has appeared; how true! how sweet! When we hear this new story, water appears from the eye.” (Clark. 31 October 1872, ABHS Archives)

In simple faith our forefathers embraced Christianity and the first Church was established at Molungkimong on 22nd December 1872. However, the transition was not a smooth one considering the ‘deliverer’ God as professed by Godhula did not respond within the ‘time frame’ of the villagers. Sabbath as a non-working day of rest became an economic issue in the eye of the non-Christians. However, with time, Christianity slowly progressed even as it spread out to other villages and other tribes of Nagas.

Within the self-supporting and contextual framework of mission, the Nagas became indispensable aides to the extent of being entrusted leading roles in the process of evangelism. Alongside, there was development of print literature in the Naga language which became the basis of learning. In the Clark’s era, the initial efforts started from the early part of 1870s and which led to development of the Naga language in manuscript format beginning with composition of Gospel hymns and the translation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Meanwhile, on the development of language, the initial focus was on vocabulary and grammar and primers which finally culminated in Clark’s magnum opus – the 1911 Ao Naga Dictionary. Coming to the Bible, it was in 1883, a 180 page Ao Naga translation of the Good News Gospel of Matthew by Clark and his Naga assistants was printed and published. This was followed by a 116 page book on the life of Joseph in 1884. What followed this was the publication Ao Naga Laishiba Kaket (Ao Naga Bible Book) in 1914 consisting of the epistles of Jacob, Peter, John and Jude.

As Christianity grew in numbers, it also led to the ignition of conflicts and more so the ‘Christian ways’ coming in the way of traditional religion and practices. The period beginning somewhere from 1900s up till at least 1945 saw heightened conflicts, and this period especially in the Ao context can be roughly considered as a period of ‘Christians vs. Heathens’ which is attested by the number of such conflict cases that were registered at Mokokchung. However, one may infer the growing number of conflicts as the Christian element acquiring a stronger foothold in the American Civilizing enterprise among the Nagas in contrast to the situation in the beginning when the Christians formed only a minority.

Within the process of the shift from traditional practices to the Christian way of life, the friction and conflict within the growing number of Christians only got heightened. However, for the British, it was a case of the British losing their leverage in their Tea enterprise. The American Missionaries were invited by them as a means to expedite their process of dominion and control thereby strengthening the ‘British Raj’ in India. However, as they lost their leverage, they became critical of the missionary’s ‘civilizing/evangelizing’ mission.

The British Administrators then started invoking the ‘loss’ of traditional Naga Culture, beliefs and practices and began to show their moral concern.

A very ‘concerned’ J. P. Mills, while writing about the Ao Nagas indicated:

“Another generation and hardly a memory will remain of the stories and songs which the        Ao’s have handed down from father to son for untold ages…the past is being allowed to die.”

And with much sarcasm he wrote:

“What care the well-oiled youths of the Impur Mission Training School for the foolish traditions of their ignorant heathen forbears? To bury the past is the tendency of the semi-educated generation which is growing up. Christians never join in the old songs; they are definitely forbidden to do so, I believe.” (Mills, p. 307)

Further, in the Missionaries evangelizing parlance, villages embracing Christianity were fondly referred to as a ‘Christian Village.’ In reference to one such ‘Christian village’, Mills wrote that in that particular village there were only a few householders that were not excommunicated as opium eaters, and though there was some reform, the proportion of those addicted to the vice was still higher in that particular ‘Christian village’ than in any other Ao tribe, Christian or non-Christian (Mills, J.P. The Ao Nagas. 147-148).

The transition was never smooth but a beginning was thus made in the process of the Civilizing and Christianizing mission among the Nagas. With reference to Clark being a pioneer missionary for work among the Nagas, his sole aim as can be seen from his prayer for Nagas on his very first visit to the Naga Hills on 18 December 1872 was: “Oh 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” (Clarks letter to Murdock. Dt. 19 Dec. 1872, ABHS Archives).

As Nagaland celebrates 151st year of Christianity, the wish and the prayer of Clark for Nagas seem to reverberate among the Naga people across the hills. The missionaries came to our land with the Bible and the word of God. However, they took it back upon the return to their land. The Nagas were left to chart their own Christian destiny even as conflicts and tension continue to exist even today between Culture and Religion.

As a ‘Christianized’ people today, many Nagas have no qualms in portraying our own past as ‘barbaric’ living in savagery and animal like. The civilizing mission resulted in Nagas becoming ‘civilized’ and transformed from a ‘naked’ to being ‘clothed’. Christianity and education taught Nagas the new ways of knowledge, life and learning and in the process gradually distanced away from cultural roots and traditional practices. This understanding of history was not entirely of our own making, but emerged out of our historical encounter with the American missionaries which led to the production of a certain kind of knowledge, which later became ‘naturalized’ among the Nagas, thereby producing a certain understanding of our history.

Now drawing upon the intent of the impact of Christianity on Nagas, the message of the civilizing mission was that ‘only the Christianized but not the heathen will be saved’, and for the first time Nagas heard about going to Heaven beyond the ‘traditional’ ‘land of the dead.’ Looking back, the American Missionaries leaving the comfort of their homeland came with their ‘Bible’ to tell Nagas about a Jehovah. However, Nagas continue to struggle to find the real path of the Jehovah.

Looking at the ‘condition’ or the ‘naturalized’ (or materialised) Naga Christianity today, the likes of Rev. Perrine and Rev. Haggard in particular, who started the ‘teetotal’ or ‘zero tolerance’ movement will ‘roll in their graves’. Rather than the ‘end’ objective of Christianity, we seem to be still engaged in taking pride in the number of Churches and ‘baptized Christian’ members of the Churches in Nagaland.  There seems to be more of ‘baptisms’ and less of Salvation. While the focus is mainly on the tangible, Christianity has also become more judgmental today. In context, one is rather tempted to seriously question whether the brand of Christianity that Nagas have so ‘dressed’ up is able to create that impact.

If Christianity is about living in the pursuit of Salvation and being Christ-like, then we need to retrace the path of salvation; and while on Earth as Christians, and Jesus as the embodiment, we need to be Christ-like, that, the ‘self’ of the Naga Christian should embrace the values of love, forgiveness, respect, truth, kindness, compassion, honesty etc. Ironically, as Christians, collectively, we seem to have only gone further away from these Christian ideals.

Christianity today is in dire need of rebuilding the ‘form’ within its ‘content’ which is essential to create a real impact. This rebuilding of the ‘form’ of Naga Christianity should begin by universalizing and imbibing the Christ-like values rather than focusing on tangible things. If not, Christianity will be continue to be in chaos.

 

Dr. Asangba Tzudir

 

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