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CHRISTIANITY IN CHURACHANDPUR (lamka)



By Rev. Lalrosiem Songate, General Director, Evangelical Congregational Church of India

"The people living in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned. (Math. 4:15-16 NIV)"

The above quotation taken from the Bible aptly describes the historic moment when Christianity sets its foot for the first time in the district almost a hundred years ago, that turned one of the most ferocious and war-like tribes into one of the most peace-loving and most faithful followers of Jesus Christ within a few decades.

The origin and development of Christianity in Churachandpur cannot be discussed a part from the history of the Evangelical Congregational Church of India (the erstwhile North East India General Mission) because this is the first church that was established and that many churches that have sprang up over the years are related to this church in one way or another.

Watkin Roberts: The Man behind the Christianization of Churachandpur:
Christianity made its first entrance in the district of Churachandpur from the neighboring Mizoram state in 1910. Watkin R. Roberts, a young missionary from Wales, who had come to help Dr. P Fraser a Missionary at Aizawl, Mizoram, became the man who was instrumental in bringing Christianity to the people of Churachandpur district. Roberts must have harbored the idea of establishing a mission field anywhere in North-East India and the turning point in this wishful fantasy was the invitation from heathen tribal chief which reads:

“Sir, come yourself, and tell us about this book and your God.” The appeal was taken as a
Macedonian call.1 The ‘heathen tribal chief’ in question here is Kamkholun Singson himself, chief of Senvawn, a village under Tipaimukh sub-division. The Gospel of John which was translated into Lushai dialect had been distributed among the people for evangelistic purpose, and a copy was brought to the attention of the chief of the village. On receiving the invitation to explain the gospel, Watkin Roberts accompanied by two of their supported students from Manipur, Thangkhai and Lungpau, came to the chief of Senvawn village to explain the gospel to him. That was in early 1910.2

Once the team was back in Aijawl, Dr. P. Fraser and Watkin R. Roberts went into immediate preparation to send missionaries to Senvawn village. They sent a telegraph message to the Political Agent in Manipur Lt. Major Cole requesting him permission to send their men into Manipur. As soon as an affirmative reply was received, they asked for volunteers among their supported students and three persons- Savawma, Vanzika and Thangchhingpuia (known as Taitea)- came forward to work among the people of Manipur South.

Within three months after their initial visit these three young men were sent to work among the people of Senvawn. Dr. Lal Dena also mentioned in his book that Watkin R. Roberts soon recruited native workers among the raw converts for the new pioneer mission at Senvawn.3

With regards to the entry of missionaries into Manipur South, Dr. Th. Lamboi Vaiphei writes:
The party left Aijawl and after a few days crossed the Tuivai river at Rahnamchhuah with the help of some Meiteis who carried them by their small boats across the river. This happened on May 7, 1910, and the date has been accepted as Missionary Day simply because of the fact that the missionary crossed into Manipur area on this day with a firm decision to spread the gospel in this remote jungle of Manipur south.”4

A part from the churches in Churachandpur District observing May 7 as a Missionary Day, it has also been incorporated in the Government holiday list by the District Administration for the last many years.

Birth and Deveoplemt of the Church During this time the region of north east India was divided between different mission agencies. The American Baptist Mission operated in the region of Manipur, while the Welsh Mission was to focus in the region of Mizoram. The American Baptist Missionary William Pettigrew concentrated mainly among the Naga tribes in the north, while the non Naga tribes in the south were still unreached. As Watkin Roberts started his work among the non-Naga tribes and as the work of mission began to expand quickly in the south of Manipur, he was compelled to start an independent Mission called Thadou-Kuki Pioneer Mission.5

This became necessary because of two reasons. First, the Welsh Mission could not simply take over this work in violation of their mutual agreement with the American Baptist Mission; and secondly, the people of Manipur South were unwilling to join the American Baptist Mission which was led by William Pettigrew.

By 1914 the Church that grew out of this mission was able to hold its first Presbytery Conference at Senvawn village where they are said to have adopted twenty-five resolutions and the first ordination service took place at this time in the ordination of R.Dalla. As the work began to expand and spread over the surrounding states like Tripura and Myanmar, the name of the Mission was changed to North East India General Mission a few years later. Dr. Lalsangkima Pachuau writes:
This new nondenominational agency, staffed entirely by native workers mainly sent from Mizoram, established itself in the area. When in 1919 this agency extended its work into the neighboring states of Assam and Tripura, it changed its name to North East India General Mission (NEIGM).

The work of the NEIGM Mission in the south of Manipur continued to expand, and Churachand Singh, Maharaja of Manipur, was also compelled to endorse the mission in order to prevent a possible clash between the workers of the American Baptist Mission and the workers of the NEIGM.8 In fact, as the Gospel advances, whole tribes of people living in the southern part of Manipur, who had hitherto remained cut off and isolated from the rest of the world, have been reached by the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.

Reasons for the fast Growth of Christianity: Several reasons may be pointed out to explain the fast growth and development of the church in this region. First what Donna Strom said about the Christians in Mizoram that the British occupation of the region and the subsequent prohibition of headhunting, infanticide, slavery, sorcery and other cultural practices weakened the structure of their society is also true of the people in Manipur south.

According to their religious belief, when their spirits depart for the village of the dead, they will be accompanied by the spirits of those whose heads they have hunted, thus providing a kind of security on the way. When they were no longer allowed to practice headhunting, their hope of reaching the village of the dead when they die is completely shattered. A story of Jesus who saves people and takes them safely to the village of the dead when they die appears to be a very attractive alternative to them.

Secondly, some elements of the animistic belief of the people like sacrifice of animal’s blood to appease the spirits could relate very well with the elements of Christianity. Donna Strom in her article mentioned about how their animistic religion must have prepared them for Christianity. Unlike Hinduism and Islam, their animism was unorganized and lacked tenacity. The people had no caste system and no written dogmas to hinder them from becoming Christians. Blood sacrifices prepared their minds for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Thirdly, the free education provided by the missionaries is another factor. During those days the people were totally isolated, the government has no policy of providing education for the people. The missionaries came and established schools to provide free education to the people.

Finally, the establishment of a Bible School in memory of Howard B. Dinwiddie, the then General Secretary of the American Home Board, North East India General Mission, who died in Mizoram during his visit of the churches in 1925, was another reason. Special mention may be made of the contribution of Paul Rostad and his wife who came and worked at this Bible school. The Bible school which was started in 1928 at Lakhipur, Assam was shifted to Churachandpur Mission Compound, Manipur in 1930. Rev. Paul Rostad and his wife arrived at the Mission Compound on May 7, 1930 where they became instrumental in training native people for Christian ministry for over twenty years.10 This Bible School was upgraded into a College level and is now called Evangelical College of Theology.

Division of the Church on Linguistic Lines: During this early period of the North East India General Mission, Lushai dialect was the lingua franca of the people. Lushai dialect was the only language in which the scripture was translated. All Christian hymns and songs were also written in Lushai. There was no language barrier and all the Christians of
those days, irrespective of the tribes to which they belonged, came under one administrative set-up of the church called the Assembly of the North East India General Mission. However, during the late forties, there came a general feeling among the Christian workers that they all must have the opportunity of worshipping God in their own respective dialects. The foreign mission leaders were also of the opinion that no matter how costly it would be, there is nothing better than to have people freely worshipping God in their own respective languages.

The first breakaway took place in 1949 when the Paite tribe separated themselves from the Assembly under the name of Convention but still maintaining their membership in the NEIGM. In the year 1953, during the Assembly at Saikot village, the remaining tribes such as Hmar, Thadou-Kuki, Vaiphei, Lushai and Gangte unanimously decided to break themselves up into five different presbyteries. The Hmar tribe came under the Assembly Church, the Thadou-Kuki came under Kuki Christian Association, the Vaiphei tribe came under Manipur Christian Organization. The Gangte tribe came under Manipur Christian Synod. In order to maintain the federal unity of the NEIGM, the leaders of these presbyteries meet together once a year to deliberate on the affairs of the NEIGM. This is called Leaders’ Conference.

The Lushai tribe, however, merged with the Mizoram Presbyterian Church and left the NEIGM shortly after this breakup. The Anal tribe was admitted into the membership of NEIGM by the Leaders’ Conference in 1978. In 1986, as per the agreement signed at a Consultation at Calcutta between the Evangelical Congregational Church of America and the NEIGM leaders during Dec. 7-10, 1984, the North East India General Mission was formally merged with the Evangelical Congregational Church of America and adopted the name of Evangelical Congregational Church of India.12 This has become necessary as the NEIGM Home Board, the supporting agency of the NEIGM in America was dissolved and the Evangelical Congregational Church of America decided to continue to partner with the NEIGM.

The E C Church of India Today: Today the Evangelical Congregational Church of India is a confederation of six different Conferences representing different tribes of the region. They are the Evangelical Assembly Church representing the Hmar tribe with Rev. Challienkung as its Executive Director, the Evangelical Churches Association representing the Thadou-Kuki tribe with Rev. T. Janglhun as its Executive Director, the Evangelical Organization Church representing the Vaiphei tribe with Elder Lamkhogin Khaute as its Executive Director, the Evangelical Synod Church representing the Gangte tribe with Rev. Lamkhosat as its Executive Director, the United Evangelical Church representing the Anal tribe with Rev. B. Thurnung as its Executive Director and the Bible Believing Evangelical Church representing the Lushai tribe in Mizoram with Rev. Sapchhawna as its Executive Director. It has a total membership of about fifty thousand that spread beyond the states of Manipur into the neighboring regions. Unfortunately a majority group from the Evangelical Organization Church separated themselves from ECCI in 2001 and were affiliated under the Mizoram Presbyterian Church under the name of EOC(P). The E C Church of India today runs a well-established theological institution called Evangelical College of Theology offering accredited degrees of Bachelor of Theology, and Master of Divinity. It is also extensively involved in missionary works in Manipur, Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Nepal and Myanmar. It has its Head Office at Congregational Center, Nehru Marg, Rengkai, Churachandpur, Manipur. Rev. Lalrosiem Songate is presently serving as the General Director of this Church since 2004.

The following is a list of churches and denominations that are directly or indirectly offshoots of the Evangelical Congregational Church of India, the erstwhile North East India General Mission.

Independent Church of India: A misunderstanding arose between Watkin Roberts the founder-leader of the young church and Mr. H.H. Coleman, General Secretary of the American NEIGM Home Board who had visited the churches in 1929. Watkin Roberts was removed from the leadership and Mr. H.H. Coleman became the leader in his place. Since there were still a few who stood on the side of Roberts, he was again compelled to start another mission known as Indo Burma Pioneer Mission (IBPM). However since two separate missions were not permitted to exist side by side in Manipur, the IBPM church in Manipur was changed into Independent Church in 1930.13 Most of its members are concentrating among the Hmar tribe with a total population of about 38000. Rev. Zathangsing Zate is the present Executive Secretary.

Manipur Presbyterian Church Synod: Following the grouping of churches on the basis of tribe under the NEIGM, the Lushai tribe which had been under the NEIGM merged with the Mizoram Presbyterian Church in 1959 and became a full-fledged Synod in 1978.
There are now several presbyteries under this Synod, such as Tuithaphai Presbytery representing the Lushai tribe and Rev. Lallarmawia serving as the Executive Secretary, Khuga Sadar Presbytery representing the Vaiphei tribe and Rev. S.T. Kaia serving as its Executive Secretary, Muollhangphai Presbytery representing the Thadou tribe and Rev. Lunkhongam serving as the Executive Secretary and Eastern Manipur Presbytery
representing the Baite tribe with Rev. Thangkhosei Baite serving as its Executive Secretary. The total membership is now more than 11000.14 Rev. Vanmawia is the present Senior Executive Secretary of the Manipur Presbyterian Synod.

Zou Presbyterian Synod: Christianity came among the Zou tribe during 1924, but a full-fledged church came to exist only in 1954 under the name of Jou Christian Association. It was changed again into Manipur Christian Convention and when it merged with the Presbyterian Church in 1958 it came to be known as Manipur Gam Presbytery under the Manipur Presbyterian Synod. As this presbytery continues to grow, another presbytery was formed out of this and was called Manipur Eastern Presbytery.

Since people of both these presbyteries speak the same language and as per their request, they were merged together and given a separate synod under the name of Zou Presbyterian Synod by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of India (Vide.Res.No.11.7 dated April 20, 2006).15 It has two presbyteries with a total population of 11347. Rev. Hangpi Manlun is the present Senior Executive Secretary.

Salvation Army: Several attempts to establish the Salvation Army in Churachandpur had failed since 1935. However at the end of World War II and following a mass migration of people from Mizoram to Manipur, the Salvation Army was finally established in Churachandpur in 1952 with a total member of 80 only. Today the Salvation Army has grown into a total membership of about 2629 with 36 corps (churches). It runs schools and children homes at various places among which The Children Training Higher Secondary School in Churachandpur is the most well-established. Major Sangchhunga is the Divisional Commander of this Army.

United Pentecostal Church: The United Pentecostal Church was first established in Churachandpur district at Rawvakawt village in 1950. It gradually grows and finally by 1958 it became well established even in Churachandpur town. Today it claims to have a total membership of 3200 with its headquarters at Salemveng, Churachandpur.

New Testament Baptist Churches Association: Formerly known as Simte Christian Association, the NTBC was established in the year 1951 at Mongawn village, Churachandpur district. There are over twenty local churches across the district with about three thousand believers.

Baptist Church of Manipur: This church was established in the year 1958 under the leadership of Rev. Siam Kung who was working under the then NEIGM as Inspector of Schools. The reason behind the founding of this church was basically the desire of the Tedim-Chin tribe to worship God in its own language. This was a time when churches under the NEIGM were divided on linguistic lines, and the desire of this group was also not out of place. Rev.Dr.T.K. Muana is the present leader of this church.

Catholic Church: The Catholic Church was first established in Churachandpur in the year 1958. It first began with prayer meetings conducted on Sundays at a village called Thingkangphai under the leadership of Mr. John Dengthuama. Another group was again established at Donbosco L.P. School at Salemveng, New Bazar through the initiative of Mrs. Nolly a staff of the L.P. School.19 Today the Catholic Church has grown into three Parishes such as St. Thomas Parish at Singat, started in 1978 and having 700 members, St. Xavier’s Parish at Thanlon, established in 1975 with 500 members and the Good Shepherd Parish, Churachandpur started in 1968 with 2000 members. It also has many small local gatherings in various places within the district. The Catholic Church is known for its contribution in the field of education by running high quality educational schools in the district.

The Church of Christ: The Church of Christ was first brought to Churachandpur when M. Nengkhozam Guite, L. Kamzakhup, Pumkhanlal Guite and T. Thangruai came in touch with this Faith while a student at Shillong. They were baptized in 1965 and after returning to Churachandpur they became instrumental in establishing this church. Today this Church has sixteen local congregations spreading across the district of Churachandpur. According to their setup, each congregation is independent, having no organization or Headquarters, no governing bodies and no clergy in the district.

Evangelical Free Church of India: This is also another church concentrating mainly among the Hmar people which separated itself from the Independent Church of India during 1969 under the leadership of the renowned Rev. Dr. Rochung Pudaite. Though originated in Manipur with still many of its churches in Churachandpur, it has its headquarters in Shillong, Meghalaya. It has a total population of about 40159 with many of its members outside of Manipur. Rev. J. Huoplien Neitham is the present President of this Church.

Reformed Presbyterian Church of North East India: This is also a fast growing church which was separated from the Evangelical Assembly Church during 1979. It takes up many developmental programs in partnership with the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Its total population is about 13000 now and Rev. Edwin Darsanglur is the present Executive Secretary.

Evangelical Baptist Convention: The erstwhile Evangelical Convention Church has been an active member of the Evangelical Congregational Church of India representing the Paite tribe since the beginning for many years. It separated itself from the Evangelical
Congregational Church of India in 1998 and became a member of the Baptist World Alliance. It runs a reputed Bible College called Grace Bible College and a high school called Ebenezer Academy at New Lamka, Churachandpur. It has a total population of about 50,000 and Rev. L. Khamkholun is the present General Secretary.

Chin Baptist Association: Founded in 1961, Chin Baptist Association now has 2592 baptized members with 15 churches. It is affiliated to Manipur Baptist Convention and Rev. Dr. En Za Sian is the present Executive Secretary.

Gangte Baptist Association: First formed under the name of Synod reformed Church and changed into Gangte Baptist Association and was affiliated to the Manipur Baptist Convention in 1973. Today it has more than 3000 members. Rev. Tongkhokap is the present Executive Secretary. There are also a few local churches in Churachandpur that belongs to Kuki Baptist Convention and Vaiphei Baptist Association whose headquarters are outside of the district.

Assemblies of God (AG): During the fifties, a young Bengali preacher called D.K. Beswas from West Bengal came and ministered God’s word in Churachandpur that finally resulted in the formation of the Assemblies of God church. The first AG church was started at Saidan village in 1962 which later spread over many other villages.23 It runs a reputed school called AG High School and Nazareth Bible College at Nehru Marg, Churachandpur. Rev. Dr. J. Khuma is the Superintendent of this Church.

Evangelical Lutheran Christian Church: First formed under the name of Asian Bible Fellowship Mission in 1980 from Manipur Gam Presbytery, it was again changed into Zomi Christian Church in 1982. It merged with the Evangelical Lutheran Church on September 15, 2002 under the name of Evangelical Lutheran Christian Church. It has a total member of more than 7200.24 Rev. Dr. Ginkhanmung Zou is the present Executive Secretary.
Zou Christian Bible Church: Following the ZCC’s merger with the Lutheran Church, there was a group who refused to ride along and continue with the Zou Christian Church under the leadership of Rev. David K. Samte. It was later changed into Zou Christian Bible Church following its connection with the Bible Churches in America.

Thangkhal Bible Church: Established in 1981 as Thangkhal Christian Association it became a constituent member of the Evangelical Congregational Church of India during 1998-2003 and then affiliated itself to Independent Fundamental Church of America from
2004 under the name of Thangkhal Bible Church. Its population is a little more than 2000 with 13 local churches. Rev. S. Khaisuanmang is the present Executive Director of this church.

Presbyterian Church in India Reformed: The Presbyterian Church in India Reformed was established on April 14, 1984 at Mualkoi, Churachandpur under the leadership of Vung D. Tombing. It was a result of doctrinal differences among the leaders of the then Evangelical Convention Church.25 It runs a well reputed institution called Rayburn College at New Lamka. Concentrating among the Zomi ethnic groups, this is also a fast growing church with Rev. Khen P. Tombing as the present Chief Coordinator.

Wesleyan Methodist Church of East India: This church was established in 1987 with its offices in Churachandpur and Assam under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Lalkhawlien Pulamte. Rev. Paul Lalsiemlien is the present Regional Superintendent. There are also many churches and local congregations across the district claiming to have maintained their own doctrinal distinctive and peculiarities. It will not only occupy too much space to include them all, in fact, even identifying them itself will be an enormous task that will require ample of time.

The fast growth of Christianity among the tribes of Churachandpur district that converts these whole tribal groups into Christianity within a few decades is a clear vindication of the saying that “The Church is a self-propagating body.”

Not only has the Church propagated itself within the district, in fact, the process of its self propagation has spilled over the state boundary crossing all political and ethnic barriers across the nation of India and into the neighboring countries as well. No wonder, Christianity exceeds 93% of the population in the district!

The impact of Christianity in the lives of the tribes in Churachandpur district can be discussed in great detail. For want of space I would like to point out a few here. First, the message of the Christianity sets us free from the bondage of fears. Our forefathers were perpetually gripped by the fear of evil spirits. Any unusual objects in the jungle or in the villages, including abnormal birth of babies in the families, are considered as the work of an angry spirit and have to be appeased by sacrifice. In fact, most of their religious practices are an attempt to appease such angry spirits. We have been set free from such a pathetic life.

Secondly, Christianity has opened our eyes to our deepest quest, and that is the assurance of eternal life in heaven with God after death. Our forefathers have realized that they no longer need to hunt heads so that their spirits may accompany them into the world of the death because Jesus Himself has promised to take them to heaven when they die.

Thirdly, the coming of Christianity not only brings spiritual freedom, it also brings education. Today the advanced of the people of Churachandpur District in the area of education is to be attributed mainly to the schools that are run by missionaries and churches.

Finally, the Christian message of love and freedom inculcate a spirit of love and trust between people of different villages and tribes that enabled us to coexist peacefully for the last many years. Though there are times when such spirit of peaceful co-existence is being challenged from some corners.

Therefore we accord our deepest respect and love to those pioneers like Watkin Roberts, Savawma, Thangchhingpuia, Vanzika and many more who were instrumental to bring the light of Christianity to every nook and corner of our district. Above all, we thank God Almighty for raising his servants to bring the light of the Gospel into this seemingly God-forsaken land of ours. To God be the Glory!!



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