Headhunter tribes, dense forest and evil spirits were the welcome awaiting missionaries to the Lushai Hills of India (now known as Mizoram).
However, despite the apparent challenges, this scene would host a total change in the tribal beliefs, fears and development. In the 74 years of the Western missionary era there, the ‘unreached’ tribes of the Lushai Hills became a missionary-sending people.
At the end of the 19th century, various tribes inhabited the thick tropical forest-covered Lushai Hills. One of these tribes were the Lushai (who referred to themselves as the Mizo). They were nomadic cultivators, but were also known for less pleasant practices: the Lushai would raid the tribes living on the foothills and plains, decapitating some victims and carrying their heads back to the mountains as trophies, and capturing others alive and keeping them as slaves.
Tribes: fear in the mountains
Inter-tribal fighting was commonplace and just as the people of the plains feared the Lushai headhunters, the Lushai feared raids from the Pawi tribes living in the mountains to the east.
In terms of religion, all hill people lived in fear of the evil spirits that were believed to inhabit the mountains, valleys, forests and streams. Misfortune, sickness and death were all attributed to these spirits and innumerable sacrifices of domestic animals and poultry were made to appease them.
Pioneer message-bearers to the unreached tribes
This was the situation awaiting two missionaries, J H Lorrain and F W Savidge, who entered the region in 1894 with the backing of the ‘Arthington Aborigines Mission’. The strategy of the Arthington mission was to send out missionaries two-by-two to unevangelised tribes. Within four years, Lorrain and Savidge learnt the Lushai language, translated Luke, John and Acts and published a Lushai grammar and dictionary.
In 1897, the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists extended their work to Lushai, so Arthington withdrew his workers to avoid the duplication of missionary resources. However, Lorrain and Savidge desired to stay in the area and so formed their own mission, the ‘Assam Frontier Province Mission’, staying in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. In 1901, the Welsh mission agreed to cede the work in the south Lushai Hills to BMS. The BMS India Secretary wrote to Lorrain and Savidge suggesting that they return to Lushai under the auspices of BMS, and they arrived at Lunglei in March 1903.
In Lunglei there was an existing Christian community of 125 who had been converted by Welsh missionaries during visits from their station further north. Lorrain and Savidge began by preaching a traditional evangelical message of salvation from sin, but found that the Mizos had ‘no sense of sin and felt no need for such a Saviour’. So they changed their approach to fit in with the Mizo worldview, proclaiming Jesus as the vanquisher of the devil and his powers – and found a radically different response.
News of the revival that had swept through Wales spread to the Welsh mission field to the north of the Lushai Hills and encouraged prayers for a similar revival in Mizoram. The pace of conversions quickened noticeably, with chiefs professing Christianity and whole villages turning to Christ.
Until 1913 there was no organised church life because believers were scattered in over 80 different villages. Lorrain’s approach was to appoint the most mature Christian in each village as a ‘Sunday school superintendent’, charged with teaching all the other believers basic doctrine, hymns and reading skills. Thus the Sunday school became a key agent of both education and evangelism.
The duty of every convert to bring others to Christ was stressed from the outset. All converts were taught to tithe their crops to the church, which supported four evangelists from 1905.
Thus an unorganised church was already self-propagating and self-supporting. In his reports to BMS, Lorrain emphasised that they were not making Mizo Christians like western Baptists, but developing a national Lushai church.
The church-planting strategy adopted in Mizoram attracted the admiration of the rest of the BMS India mission; it was imaginative and had transcended denominational boundaries. In the years following World War One, Mizoram was experiencing the most spectacular example of church growth in any BMS field in the 20th century. Between 1919 and 1924, the total Baptist community grew from 3,670 to 8,770, and church membership from 1,017 to 3,198.
With what must have felt a great weight of achievement behind them, Savidge retired in 1925 and Lorrain in 1932. These pioneers were replaced by two couples that were to serve the Mizo church continuously almost to the close of the missionary era there: Horace and Betty Carter (1930-59) and Frank and Florence Raper (1932-61).
The Baptist churches continued to grow during the 1930s and 40s. By 1949, the Christian community was over 31,079 strong and church membership stood at 12,133. In 2008, the Baptist Church in Mizoram reports a membership of 120,589 in 410 local churches.
Education, healthcare and translation
The work of communicating the gospel was not only down to the missionaries. The first Sunday school superintendents evolved into elders in charge of village congregations and the first native pastor, Chuautera, was ordained in 1914.
Meanwhile the work expanded with summer schools from 1915, training classes for pastoral and evangelistic ministry from 1918, schools both for boys and girls, medical work, and the continuation of the translating and printing of Christian literature. Girls’ education and women’s work was pioneered by two long-serving missionaries – Edith Chapman and Marjorie Clark. In a society which originally regarded girls as not worth educating, by 1953, these ladies had trained nearly 80 Christian girls as certified teachers and leaders of women’s work in the villages.
Taking the message to others
The north east of India was the first to see the door close on the Western missionary presence. The rebellion of the Mizo National Front against rule from Delhi beginning in 1966 made the Indian government very sensitive to foreign influence in the territory and the last BMS missionaries had to leave in 1968. The establishment of the Union Territory of Mizoram in 1972 restored stability but the Western missionary era there had effectively ended.
However, the year the missionaries were leaving, the Zoram Baptist Mission was formed to co-ordinate the missionary outreach of the Baptist Church of the Mizo District. By 1989, the mission had 88 home missionaries working among non-Mizos in Mizoram, 50 working in other parts of India and 18 in training. This represented a Baptist communicant membership of just over 41,000 supporting more than 580 full time workers.
The Mizo Church is a powerful illustration of a poor rural community taking on the Christian principles and responsibilities of stewardship and evangelism instilled by Lorrain and the other pioneer missionaries.
It also shows that end of Western mission work does not mean the end of mission, but the start of a new and creative phase of mission.