The Church of God
The Church of God in Meghalaya and Assam is an indigenous Church. Formed in 1902 at Mylliem (a village 12 miles south of Shillong) by a negligible group of people, the Church has by now grown not only in numbers touching close to 100,000 but by its geographical widespread having local churches in 563 villages and towns. It is at best one of the growing Protestant Churches which makes a significant impact on the people. Its head office is located at Qualapatty: Chapel Road, Shillong 793002, Meghalaya.
The Church is also one of the founding members of the comprehensive ecumenical body - the North East India Christian Council (NEICC) in 1937 and takes active part in other ecumenical ventures of the Bible Society of India, the Evangelical Fellowship of India and Union Christian College, Khwan in Meghalaya.
Rev. J.J. M. Nichols Roy (1884-1959) who was one of its pioneers and architect of this indigenous movement, was a staunch nationalist, a freedom fighter and a prominent member of the Constituent Assembly. It was he who authored the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India and designed for the integration of the hill areas with India. His speeches, writings and personal involvement in regional and national politics from 1920 till his death in 1959 bore testimonies of his contribution to nationalism, secularism an national integration. A reading of the history of the Church of God is thus becoming important. However, given the significance of an ecumenical perception in today’s thinking, it is more important to look at it in the light of an over all Christian role among the hill people in the 19th and 20th centuries and from a historical perspective. Given that, this essay will deal with the historical background, influence of the British government, Christian Missions and Churches; Pioneers of the Church of God and impact on the hill people.
II. Historical background
The cock shaped Northeast India comprises of seven sister states, viz., Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. It is a home of numerous ethnic groups, various religious faiths and different communities. These states are adjacent, closely inter-related and have a unified geographical identity
But the geographical compactness is belied by the presence of autonomous ethnic identities in various communities. Each tribal group had developed an advanced form of democratic system of administration but was lacking as it functioned only within a limited group of people and area and did not embrace the entire community.
Besides, the geographic physical condition in the pre-modern period with ups and downs and separated by high mountainous ranges, deep gorges, thick forests, rivers and waterfalls had contributed to people's isolation. Hill people had hardly any major contact with the outside world or even among themselves before the 19th century.
Language was an important channel for people's unity. Most hill tribes had experienced that cultural oneness in the ancient past but by the early part of the 19th century they could no longer understand among themselves because of the rise of numerous unintelligible dialects. They had lost even the written alphabet. Though the people had high thinking faculty and could make significant reasonable decision, they were, nevertheless, without a common standard language or a written literature.
Traditional religion was also not a strong unifying factor although most tribes like the Khasis of Meghalaya, had developed a kind of monotheism. Practically, traditional religion identified itself with a clan and so became culturally fragmented.
The social component based on the kinship code appeared to have been the only cultural factor which had vibrant solidifying element among most of the hill people. It strengthened the community through marriage and infused a sense of unity.
Cultural fragmentation though had weakened people's solidarity, yet it indicated positive development which might be explained as under :-
First, the hill people had had a long history of existence in the region. Though there was no internal record of how long they had been in the region but the fact that they had been able to choose their own way of administration, mode of communication, religious beliefs and practices, dresses, rule of inheritance, and had not scattered beyond their geographical boundary were ample evidences of their long history.
The second significant feature which gives pre-eminence to their strengths is that cultural fragmentation is a sign of people’s maturity in thinking, making decision, ruling, maintaining and defending their own jurisdictional integrity and identity. This development has far political, legislative, executive, judicial, religious, linguistic and economic implications.
III. Impact of Colonialism
The British power invaded the region in the early nineteenth century. After subdueing tribal chiefs, they brought all areas under one administration and military commander. They also brought outside personnel, labourers, soldiers, engineers in addition to the introduction of British laws and money economy.
The tribes who for the first time were ruled by an alien government and under a new set up, faced a crisis of living adjustment. The problem was how one could function effectively in a well established administrative system with a written culture based on educational qualification and reasoning. The imposition of a new scientific measurement and money exchange had also the effect of turning the tribal world upside own.
IV. Christian Missions and Churches
Christian Missions came to Northeast India at a time when the people faced a cultural trauma following the imposition of an alien government. Important among those which have made permanent establishment in the region were the American Baptist Mission, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists Foreign Mission, the Catholic Mission, the British Baptist Mission, the New Zealand Baptist Mission, the Salvation Army, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Gossner Lutheran Mission and other Mission agencies.
Indigenous Churches have also been organized in the process. The Nagaland Christian Revival Church, the Independent Church of India in Manipur, Isua Krista Kohhran in Mizoram, the Church of Jesus Christ (Full Gospel) in Meghalaya are among the emerging indigenous churches with a certain amount of following and influence. The Church of God is also one of the Churches of indigenous origins.
These Missions and churches have come to the region on their own decision and have not had any relation and understanding with the imperial power. Their presence has in due course contributed toward protecting the tribes from the traumatic change and helped in developing a new cultural synthesis through the imposition of a standard language and Latin alphabet, literature, educational schools and boarding houses, ecclesiastical structure, theological teachings and medical services. Although all these activities have connection with the objective of evangelizing the region it has however far subsequent impact on the people as a whole. Now, the Church of God though has its own mission objective, is nevertheless a part of the process of change and a participant of the larger movement toward the solidification of the hill people.
V. Pioneers of the Church of God
The Church of God was established in 1902. Its pioneers Rev.Wolley Mohon Roy, Rev. J. J. M. Nichols Roy, Bro.Jobin Roy Chyne and others were local converts. It was they who decided to start the new movement. Their decision was so costly as they had to brave themselves even at the behest of personal sacrifices. Unlike foreign sponsored Christian organizations, the Church of God began from the scratch and the pioneers carried out the mission work voluntarily for a good number of years. As a matter of fact, these leaders did not intend to start a new church rather desired to preach the now salvation within the Church itself but prohibition and excommunication precipitated for the formation of the New Testament-based indigenous Church of God.
Rev.Wolley Mohon Roy (1873-1940) was the son of U Babu Donrai Diengdoh from Saitsohpen, Cherrapunji. He had his education at the Welsh Mission School and was a communicant member of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists Foreign Mission. After completing his school education, he served as a teacher in a Mission School in Shillong. He was also a Sunday School teacher.
As an avowed student of the Bible, he was greatly aggrieved at the question: "Are you saved?" - a question which was prominently appeared in the teaching of the Salvation Army towards the end of the 19th century. Through his in-depth study of the Scriptures and search for a satisfactorily answer to the said question, he came to believe that a person must experience God's salvation and live a liberated life in holiness here and now. The key Biblical passage for his new found faith foundation was from St.Paul's letter to Titus 2:11-14.
Rev. W.M. Roy was an itinerant preacher who went around the Khasi-Jaintia hills region and Karbi Anglong for the good news of God's salvation. He knew no other books except the Bible. His preaching on most topics was usually accompanied by a reproduction of relevant Biblical passages and he was able to read long passages ad verbatim even without looking from the Bible. His honesty, uprightness and humility attracted most of the people in the region.
His ministry was characterized by his identification with the poor and the needy, involvement with the rural folks and personal visitation of the sick and the downtrodden. He died while he was on his outreach tour in a village Dewsawlia of about 100 Km. south west from Shillong on 11th June, 1940, away from his children, relatives and friends from Shillong and Cherrapunji alike.
The complex figure among the leaders of the Church of God was Rev.J.J.M. Nichols Roy. Born at Shella, Khasi Hills in 1884, he changed his primal faith to Christianity in 1898 - a year after his terrible experience of the great earthquake in 1897. He had the same spiritual understanding of the faith like that of Rev.Wolley M. Roy. He also took interest in preaching and church planting. But his understanding of the Christian ministry was different from his colleagues. Unlike his co-workers who understood it in terms of distancing from the world, Rev.Nichols Roy moved into it and involved himself fully in business, politics, social, ecumenical and literary activities.
After a few years of the formation of the Church in 1902, Rev. Nichols Roy started a joint stock co-operative company, the United Fruit Company Limited in 1918 for the general welfare of the tribal people. It devoted more to scientific processing of orange squash, planting of orange trees, selling of fruit juice, running a motor transport, starting an indigenous banking limited and bringing of essential commodities from the plains for sale to the people in the hills at reasonable prices.
His involvement in politics since the year 1920 has been significant for bringing a sense of political unity between the princely states and the non-states in Khasi-Jaintia hills, for achieving integration of the hill areas with India, for fighting for the inclusion of the freedom of faith in the section of the Fundamental Rights, for designing the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and approving the secular character of the country. As a Member of the Governor's Council in the erstwhile Assam province in the 1920s, he was the author of social acts against consumption of opium, drinking of alcoholic and other intoxicating drinks and against smoking. He took personal interest for the well being of all those who had been affected by the Partition in 1950 and fought for government help. He also fought against the discriminatory attitude of the Railways for not buying the coal reserves from Cherrapunji. In this way, Rev.Nichols Roy became a friend of the refugees, the poor, the illiterates and the neglected. Besides that, he understood the status of women and was successful in getting them secured the right to vote and of active participation in politics as well.
Ecumenism was another aspect of his multi-dimensional Christian ministry. He was one of the founding members of the Assam Christian Council (today NEICC) in 1937 and represented it at the International Missionary Council held at Tambaram in 1938. But he could not attend all the sessions of the Council because of his heavy pre-occupations with the Government of Assam. He was then Cabinet Minister under the Muslim League led ministry before it fell down to the Congress some months after the year 1938.
Rev. Nichols Roy was also a writer. He wrote not only on theological topics but on a variety of issues political, social and ethical.
Bro. Jobin Roy Chyne (d 1926) was another pioneer who had had a good educational background. He was among the first batch students of the Welsh Mission School of Theology in Cherrapunji in 1888. Though Bro. Chyne was not a full time minister of the Church because of his service with the Government of Assam in Shillong he was nevertheless one of the founding members of the Church and rendered voluntary service to the Church in various capacities. Therefore, the pioneers of the Church were all matured people whose married lives were without blemish. They were educated and secured high respect from the society. Any understanding of their decision may well be measured from that perspective.
The Church of God is primarily an indigenous Church. It was organized without any connection with foreign mission agencies. It is a self-supporting, self-administering, self-propagating and a self-motivating Church
VI. Impact of the Church of God
Though the Church of God is an indigenous and independent movement, the understanding of its attitude and role may however be perceived when it is seen in the larger context of the Christian involvement among the people. In other words, the Church is not an isolated frontier but a movement which actively participates in the acculturative role of Christianity.
Like other Protestant Missions and Churches, the Church of God adopted a mixed attitude toward tribal culture. The word culture is used here to mean the life history of humankind and the world around which relates to various inter-related political, religious, linguistic, social, economic, ecological and natural components. It is an organic process which evolves, grows, learns and re-learns.
Unlike the Catholics, the Church of God espouses a negative attitude to the traditional religious elements, like, sacrifices, cremation of the dead bodies, dances, sports, family deities and other rituals. All such beliefs and practices are no longer entertained in a Christian community. But it approves other political, social, economic and linguistic components.
Given the major changes that have happened among the people through the interaction with the British government in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church of God has taken active part in the larger Christian role of creating a sense of a unified ethnic identity by language and literature; education; spread and church structure; theology; integrated ministries; missionary outreach; uplifting victims of injustice; ecumenical activity and political involvement.
1. Language and Literature: In the context of the presence of numerous unintelligible dialects, the imposition of one standard language for the community was a blessing for it contributed to the unifying of the fragmented people. The Church of God has endorsed the move and made it compulsory in public meetings, churches, committees, Sunday schools, preaching, publication of books, journals, correspondences and in schools. In this way, people who were disunited linguistically could now understand each other, function effectively in a modern set up and imbibe a sense of commonality and oneness.
The problem of variation in dialects was further augmented by the absence of a written alphabet, but the successful introduction of Latin letter had saved the people from the bondage of inhumanity. Participating in the process of strengthening the people, the Church of God has made serious investment through publication of a journal, books and through the printing Press. The Church has published its journal entitled Ka Jingshai ka Gospel (The Light of the Gospel) since June 1905 and continued to publish it till today. This journal features various doctrinal topics, Church news, social and political issues and world news alike. Although this is not the first journal in Khasi, it is nevertheless the only journal that has a long history of continuity to the present. The publication of the hymn book Ki Jingrwai Shem Mynsiem (Experienced Spiritual Songs) in 1924 and other books and booklets though has far religious objective but has the consequence of not only solidifying the people but creating a modern written prose and poetry. The introduction of a printing press in the 1920s itself has contributed to the fullness of the ministry.
2. Educational activities : Education and Christianity went out synonymously in hill areas of the Northeast. It is through education that has liberated the people from ignorance, superstitions and alienation. Starting off its educational activity in the pre-World War II period among the rural inhabitants in South Khasi Hills, the Church has now established a wide network of schools in rural areas of the region and in towns as well. These schools and hostels become significant means of nurturing people’s solidarity in addition to providing knowledge and a sense of rationality.
Seeing the importance of this ministry, the Church created a separate body - the Central Education Committee in 1975 and handed over it the entire responsibility of supervising Church's schools in the region. School teachers take active role in the edification of the Church besides their duties in teaching.
3. The Spread of the Church and Ecclesiastical organization: Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya are hill states with a substantive Christian population. The spread of Christianity in these areas is attributed not only to the sacrificial labours of the missionaries but to the local itinerant evangelists and people's positive response. The Church of God concentrated more in Meghalaya and Assam although there are some following in few pockets in Manipur and Tripura.
As already indicated above, the Church has secured its foothold in many villages in Meghalaya and Assam and has established congregations in around 563 villages and towns. This means that the Church is an inclusive institution which embraces people from all walks of life, various ethnic affiliations, men and women, poor and rich, lame, blind, young and old.
The growth of the Church necessitated proper organization and discipline. The Church of God has from its inception adopted a democratic system of organization. It is now administered by the Ministerial Business Council, the Church of God Business Association and the Pastors' Fellowship. The Ministerial Business Council is the supreme assembly which links various departments through their respective delegated office bearers and with the people through the District, the Circle and the local church committees.
These democratic systems and procedures are similar to the traditional political organization in tribal societies. However, unlike the traditional system, the ecclesiastical structure is more comprehensive and inclusive because it transcends sub-ethnic identities and operates at the level of the community. This aspect lends credence to the incarnational character and contextual dimension of the indigenous Church.
4. Church's theology: Christian faith plays a pivotal role in the life of the people and shapes the traditional world view. Given the diversified and divergent emphasis of Christian Churches, it will be appropriate and relevant if this theological aspect is seen from a wider outlook.
The church's theology stresses on the principle of universality. Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all people and the Church is a community of human persons. Believing in Him breaks all tribal barriers of clanism and exclusivism. This dimension has tremendous unifying implication in the community.
The Church exists to remind the teachings of Jesus Christ. One of His teachings relates to human relationship. Jesus says to His disciples and to us today, "Love one another" and "Love your enemies". This agape love has transformed tribal life of social animosity, head hunting as among most hill tribes - the Khasi-Jaintias were not head hunting people, or tribal feud into a new life of searching for the lost ones and a life of faith in fellowship and sharing.
5. Missionary Outreach: The spirit of Christ brings spiritual revolution to the tribal world. In the situations where hunting for human head, intra-tribal warfare and u thlen (a family deity who sucks human blood) culture were prominent the sudden change to the spirit of love, care and seeking for the lost or reaching the unreached ones for salvation and worship together is a miraculous event in the history of the hill people in Northeast India.
The Church of God is a missionary Church. Members are endowed with high evangelistic motive and its rapid widespread in the region is mostly the result of the work of its lay members.
Long before the formation of the Mission Board in 1980, the Church has commissioned Bro. Arabinda Dey and his family to work in West Bengal in 1975. They were the first missionaries of the Church and their mission centre is located at Kadihati, Kolkata. With this venture, the Church of God becomes the first Protestant body from Meghalaya to have initiated mission work outside its own geographical areas. As of the present, the mission work in Kolkata is best known by the Christ’s Disciples’ Fellowship (CDF).
The CDF Mission progresses in many aspects. It has mission centres and churches in different parts of West Bengal, Northeast India, Orissa, Andaman & Nicobar Island and Nepal. Its dynamic work is well reflected on the establishment of schools for the poor, medical centres, orphanages, publication, book service, fishery, agriculture, self-employment programmes, Bible Institute and media.
Soon after the formation of the Mission Board in 1980, the Church has started work among the less evangelized Karbi people in Karbi Anglong, Nepal, among the Boros in Lower Assam, in North Bengal, Sikkim and Bhutan border, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Rev. A.C. Moore and his family are the first missionaries ever commissioned by the Board for missionary outreach in Nepal.
The universality of the Gospel is evident in its being inclusive. The Church has become not only a community of tribes but of all people around the world. It is a symbol of unity even in the midst of diversity. The concern for others is an attitude which has its roots in the pain of God and in the words of the risen Christ. The missionaries have fully involved with the people and mainly among the poor, the rural folks and the downtrodden and shaped their lives for a better living.
6. Integrated Ministries: Christianity has come among the isolated hill people in its fullness. That’s why its involvement is in various spheres for the liberation of the total person and of the total community. We have explained that the Church of God is a participating companion on the ongoing salvific movement and the integrated ministries that will be described here are by no means separate ministries but inter-related activities of the Church as a whole.
Young people are vital force of the Church. Though the Church has attended to the need of the youths from its inception, the real ministry began in 1989. The Youth department devotes to holding annual meetings, Conferences and Seminars in which they discuss on several topics of common interests. The other activities are publication or literature ministry and music ministry.
The role of the lay people is another important feature of the Church of God. With an exception of the ministry of the Sacrament which is solely supervised by ordained ministers, other major ecclesiastical responsibilities are carried out by men and women in the Church. It is they who tend the flock daily, visit the sick and the poor, bear the burden of the local church and minister to the Word among the people. But for the lay ministry, most local churches of the Church of God would remain lukewarm and static.
Lay people contribute much to making the Church self-supporting. They raise finances through tithes, contributions and collection of proceeds from sale of the first fruits and other Church’s collections like the collection of the handful rice income for the Church.
The other activity is the ministry among the children and this aspect too falls on the supervision and care of the lay people. Most churches oversee this programme side by side with the Sunday school.
The Church of God has however, not begun any active work on medical mission because of its belief on divine healing. Its pioneers strongly believe in the efficacy of prayers and discouraged any conventional use of allopathic medicines. However, the Welsh and Catholic missionaries, the first to introduce medical service to the people, have established first class hospitals and dispensaries. The role of medical mission is remarkable because it not only endows with a loving and caring spirit but has in the process the power of dispelling tribal superstitious beliefs.
7. Uplifting victims of injustice: Tribes in Northeast India were the alienated and marginalised people. There had never been any mission of compassion to help liberate the people before the advent of British government in the early 19th century. The arrival of the new administration though had broken down the plight of being in isolation, had however not given serious attention toward uplifting the people. It was Christianity which had shaped the destiny of the tribes through education, medical service and Church structure and through pastoral care. It will be a mission of failure if the present day Church does not see the plight of the people and eludes action.
Women force is another area of concern. Practically, women in the hill areas of the Northeast are liberated in a sense of openness, free movement, occupation and choice but captivated in areas of leadership and decision making. Christian missionaries have devoted much to the education of women in the 19th century and continued to do so till today by the present leadership.
The Church of God has produced outstanding women like Mrs. Enola Phira Chyne, the first Khasi woman to have achieved a B.A. degree from Calcutta University; Miss Drilsibon Franklin, Assistant Inspectress of School of the Government of Assam and many others. Miss Franklin, who was aware of the concern of women, initiated the Women’s meetings and Fellowships. The move brought about a sense of solidarity and awareness alike.
It was only in 1982 that the Church of God authority understood the voice of women and created a separate women department under the leadership of women themselves. Their activities include holding of conferences, seminars, publications of a woman journal entitled Ka Manna and raising funds for the church. It supervises the Sunday school department and provides study materials for teachers and students.
The dynamic role of the women department is well seen in its widening of its association with the Women Conference of the Asia-Pacific Church of God Conference, ecumenical involvement with the Regional Conference of the Bible Society of India and with the North East India Christian Council. However, tribal women though are born leader yet are in many ways subordinated in the realm of feeling.
8. Ecumenical development: The twentieth century has been a century of ecumenism. The Church of God was at the forefront at the time of the formation of the Assam Christian Council in 1937 because it understood that the Council's emphasis was on the supremacy of God's word, uniqueness of Christ and mission. Though it was missionaries of the Welsh Mission who initiated the move for an ecumenical fellowship but native representation had come mainly from the Church of God whose involvement had lent credence to its national character.
The Church continues to be an active member of the Council even during periods of misunderstandings. Besides that it opens its doors for fellowship and solidarity with other evangelical fellowships and Christian organisations.
9. Political Involvement: As we have seen, Rev.Nichols Roy was an active politician who had personally identified with the national freedom movement, participated in nation building and national integration and contributed to the secular democratic values of the country. He freely participated in politics not in his own personal capacity but in the capacity as a full time minister of the Gospel. The Church too approved his involvement in state and national politics.
Given his active political role both in the pre-independent and post-independent India and the positive support of the Church and Christian communities, it will be most unfortunate to look at Christianity in the region as an agent of anti-nationalism. Christian participation in politics and writings from responsible Christian leaders do not justify all false accusations against Christianity.
The Church has also not supported violence in the Church and society. It appreciates and imbibes Gandhian principles of satyagraha and ahimsa. The various activities carried out by the Church though have ecclesiastical objectives, are nevertheless national building measures base on love and non-violence. They are, therefore, institutional means for national integration.
The rise of insurgent movements in areas with high concentration of Christian population has produced all sorts of unprecedented allegations against the Christian Church in the recent past - though similar movements have emerged even in areas with negligible or without Christian presence. As of the development in hill areas of the Northeast, it may be true that some members of the insurgent outfits are Christians but Christian Churches have never and never supported insurgent movements nor approved movements which work against the nation.
We have surveyed the historical development of the Church of God in Northeast India from a broad Historical and Ecumenical perspectives. We have found out that in the midst of traumatic changes that have taken place among the people following the imposition of an alien authority in the early 19th century, the Church has actively participated in shaping a sense of unity by the application of a common language, a written script, education, faith, ecclesiastical structure, missionary outreach, political involvement and other creative means. The Church of God is an indigenous Church. It was started by the local native Christians without resources from outside India. It was under the leadership of Rev.J. J. M. Nichols Roy, the Church fully identified with the national freedom movement and creatively involved in nation building. The Church of God has also never supported violence in the society or insurgent movements in the region. Its activities are always aimed at promoting spiritual wholeness, peace, communal harmony and development.
Written by Rev(Dr).O.L. Snaitang