On 9th December 1908 a new era began in Aizawl. Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ returned from Wales with his wife and a new son Alwyn (1). With them came the first medical missionaries, Dr. and Mrs Peter Fraser (2), together with Watkin Roberts a friend of theirs. Robert Evans, who had taken care of the Aizawl mission for the past few years, returned to his work in the Mairang District of the Khasi Hills.
The presence of so many ‘zosahibs’ (missionaries) in their midst impressed the Mizos, and the fact that there was now a complete family was still more impressive. The children of the family are very precious to all Mizos. For them the new home set up in the heart of the Mission was both interesting and reassuring. For some years the work both in the North and the South had been conducted by bachelor missionaries. Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ says that in those years many Mizos thought that the missionaries would soon go away. Certainly after 1909 that seemed very unlikely.
The coming of a medical missionary was also a proof of the stability of the Mission, and of the determination of the Welsh Church to keep faith with their needs. Until 1964, when missionaries were no longer permitted to work in Mizoram, there were only short periods when there was a larger staff at Aizawl than in January 1909.
All the non-medical work rested on the shoulders of one man, Jones ‘Zosaphluia’. That included the growing Primary schools, the training of teachers, the churches, the training of men to take care of the Christian communities, and the outreach of the Gospel. As a result he was compelled to spend most of his time in Aizawl and travelled far less. Fortunately, because Aizawl was at the heart of Mizoram he was able to maintain contact with every corner.
The beginnings of Aizawl Theological College.
Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ soon formed a class of five evangelists, no doubt hoping that some would become pastors. Those who came were barely literate but were sure of their Christian faith and eager to know more about it. It was from these modest beginnings that the present flourishing Aizawl Theological College started. They had no building, only a few parts of the Scriptures were in Mizo, and students had no access to any other text books in their own language. It is doubtful whether all of them held a Primary School Certificate. However, Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ saw clearly from the beginning that the Mizo Church needed to train its own leaders. This he managed very successfully despite having no pretensions to being a great scholar. He had a sound theological training from Bala (3), he shared with other Welsh people a deep respect for higher education, and his background gave him a unique understanding of the problems and needs of people who had just crossed the magic threshold into literacy. His brief experience as a pastor in rural Wales was also helpful to him.
Chhuahkhama, a key conversion.
Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ was in close touch with a youth who was doing well in the local postal service. Chhuahkhama was the son of an important village elder and village priest. He came to Aizawl as a lad and had attended the Mission school. He had supported himself by doing odd jobs for the Ghurka soldiers of the Assam Rifles. He was one of those who came to be known as the ‘Bêl Nâwt’ Boys.
Initially Chhuahkhama wanted to learn, and was quick at it, but had no wish to be a Christian. He never joined in the morning and evening school prayers. One day Rowlands ‘Sapthara’, who took the class, noticed that Chhuahkhama, during prayers, kept his eyes open and his head erect. He asked the boy to stay on after the others left and asked why. Chhuahkhama explained his father’s special position in their village and added that he had no wish to be a Christian. In the quiet of that little schoolroom Rowlands ‘Sapthara’, to the boy’s great surprise, said that Christ had great work for him to do.
Later Chhuahkhama became a Christian and had to face his father’s wrath. The breach between the two never healed but Chhuahkhama remained firmly Christian. He did evangelistic work in his spare time while Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ was on furlough in Wales and became one of the better educated Mizos in Government service. When Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ returned in 1908 he found Chhuahkhama wholly prepared to dedicate himself to the Christian ministry. He asked his employer, the Superintendent of the Government Postal Service, if he could be released. Grudging permission was given but Chhuahkhama was warned never to apply for a Government position again.
In 1910 Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ arranged for Chhuahkhama to do the full three year theological course at the Welsh Presbyterian Cherrapunji College in the Khasi Hills, the senior theological institution in Assam. There he did well and won the affection of many. It was many years before another Mizo followed in his footsteps. By the time Chhuahkhama had completed his course and received ordination in 1913 the whole of Mizoram was undergoing more changes and another profound revival.
Families attend Sunday Schools together.
With Chhuahkhama’s theological training the foundation was laid for the present well qualified ministry, but lay training was developing too. In Wales the Sunday School Movement had grown with remarkable speed in the 19th century, in tandem with the tremendous growth of the Presbyterian churches there. A very efficient system of church government had grown up too with local elders becoming leaders. They were often self-taught and books, the most important objects in their households, were read and re-read. It was much the same in Mizoram at the beginning of the 20th century.
In Wales there was always a good proportion of adults as well as children in the Sunday Schools, and it was by this means that many adults learned to read in their own tongue. In Mizoram many adults started their journey to literacy through the intensive study of the Scriptures. Families went together to Sunday School on a Sunday morning. The Mizo church was thus on its way to becoming self-supporting and self-propagating. The problems thrown up by the 1906 ‘Mizo Revival’ needed to be solved by leadership training and church organization.
The election and ordination of church elders.
It was impossible for Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ to visit all the villages even once a year. In 1909 there were about twenty Christians who went out to preach from time to time. This was promising, and during the first half of the year many more had become candidates for membership.
Apart from the obvious need for evangelists, pastors and teachers the church needed important leadership of another kind. It needed local elders to attend to the everyday responsibilities of running a church. The quality of the church depended on the leadership of the church elders. As in Wales church elders are not merely appointed but ordained for life too. This emphasised the spiritual nature of the office and its importance.
Already in 1908/9 natural leaders were beginning to emerge, but many were self-appointed and ecstatic. They were persistently pushing themselves forward. A study of Mizo Church history shows how readily this occurs and how disruptive such a leadership can be. However, Jones’ ‘Zosaphluia’ insistence on the regular election of church elders, and their ordination in Presbytery, ensured the office of eldership was elevated in the sight of Christians, and the Mizo church has been very fortunate in its elders.
‘Upa’ is the Mizo word for elder and, to a large extent, it was the village elders, under the chief, who ran each village. Thus every Mizo was familiar with the word ‘Upa’ and its function, but there was an important difference between the village elder and the new church elder. The village elder was appointed by the chief, the church elder was appointed by the church members, who consciously made their choice under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For years the election of elders has been by secret ballot. The elders-to-be are questioned and then solemnly ordained at the Annual Presbytery.
The first Presbytery was held in 1910 under the leadership of Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ and Dr. Fraser. Chhunruma was its Secretary and the members of the Presbytery were chiefly from the Aizawl church, which was the largest and most central church. Most of the Mizo leaders, as well as the missionaries, were located there, and it continued to be the venue for some years. Three elders were ordained at that first meeting. One of them, Rosema remained an elder of the Aizawl church until his death in 1953. Another, Dala, later became an active evangelist, chiefly in the Manipur Hills, under Watkin Roberts. The third was called Darchhinga.
Dr. Fraser’s activities as a medical missionary.
Though the above events were important in their own way, the year 1909 was a landmark in the Mission’s activities with the start of Dr. Fraser’s work as a medical missionary. In Wales he had been a senior medical officer in the Caernarvonshire authority and was a friend of the then British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George. Fraser was also a man of intense evangelical conviction. He had made a considerable financial sacrifice to come to Mizoram and was deeply persuaded that God had called him to work there.
His wife was a woman of charm and ability and Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ says that she had a most lovely singing voice. She had attended the Royal Academy of Music in London and was able to teach the Mizos Tonic Sol-fa. They found her singing entrancing.
Dr. Fraser threw himself into the work of relieving pain and healing the sick. During 1919 alone he treated some 24,000 cases at a time when the population of North Mizoram was only 90,000. The number gives some idea of the vast amount of sickness and suffering among the Mizos. Mrs Fraser writes:
‘We are extremely busy and sometimes very tired in the evening, feeling “How can I face another day?”, but strength comes in the morning. We like the people very much. The harmonium given us by the people of Castle Square, [Caernarvon] is a great help. Hundreds of people come to the dispensary every week. We have family prayers in the open-air at seven in the morning and we are busy from then till dusk...’ (translated from Welsh)
Dr. Fraser’s favourite way of spreading the Gospel was to include appropriate texts on the medicine bottles along with the dosage instructions. He was no linguist, nor was he an eloquent preacher. Upa Laia, an Aizawl teacher, recalls an occasion when Dr. Fraser was returning to Aizawl from a trip to Shillong. A large and enthusiastic crowd was waiting for him two miles north of Aizawl, near Chaltlang. His sermon consisted of two sentences “Believe in the Lord Jesus. He died for you on the Cross”.
The last missionary member to arrive in Aizawl on 9th December 1908 was Watkin Roberts, a young friend of Dr. and Mrs. Roberts. Watkin Roberts was a Welshman from Caernarvon and was born in 1886. He was a quarryman and was converted by the sermons of one R. A. Torrey. During the ‘Welsh Revival’ of 1904 he decided to serve overseas. Roberts was a great friend of Dr. Fraser who was his senior by some years and Dr. Fraser had paid for his journey to Mizoram. Though much younger than the other missionaries the Mizos immediately dubbed him ‘Saptlangvala’, the ‘Youthful Sahib’. He was still being called that when he was in his eighties.
Watkin Roberts ‘Saptlangvala’ was, presumably, originally a Presbyterian and organized the churches he later established on Presbyterian principles, though they had no denominational attachment. Roberts ‘Saptlangvala’ was never on the staff of the Welsh Presbyterian Mission but was deeply interested in its work.
Over the northern border of Mizoram, in the Hmar village of Senvawn, Manipur State, the Hmar villagers were closely akin to the Mizos and had heard of the Gospel. In 1910 the village Chief sent an enquiry to Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ about the Gospel. Jones ‘Zosaphluia’ thought it was outside his province and the enquiry came to the attention of Watkin Roberts ‘Saptlangvala’ who sent the Chief a copy of St. Mark’s Gospel. The Chief’s response was to ask for someone from Aizawl to come and explain it. In 1911 five Mizo youths, aged between eighteen and twenty-six, set off with all their worldly goods on their backs and preached the Gospel in Senvawn and the surrounding area. The mission was successful and Senvawn became a centre for evangelism and a base for Watkin Roberts’ ‘Saptlangvala’ work. He called his mission the Thadou-Kuki Mission, which later became the North-East India General Mission. He visited the United States and received considerable financial support from there. Roberts ‘Saptlangvala’ later created his mission headquarters in the US.
(1). Alwyn was not in Mizoram for many years. He led a sheltered life to protect him from the diseases that were then very rife, which may explain why he was not given a Mizo name unlike other missionary children.
(2). Dr. Peter Fraser was born in July 1864 at Caernarfon, North Wales, and practised as a doctor in the Rhonda Valley, South Wales, and in Caernarfon. He was appointed as the first Mission doctor in Mizoram and he and his wife Mary Catherine arrived in Aizawl on 9th December 1908. He established a dispensary in Mission Veng, was involved in the ‘serf’ controversy and left Aizawl on 12th October 1912. He resigned from Mission work in 1913 and went on to work as a tea garden doctor in Assam. He died at Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales, on 29th December 1919.
(3). See: Bala-Bangor Theological Seminary in Wikipedia.
Palm Sunday in Aizawl, a part of the procession.
Aizawl Theological College.
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© Synod Publication Board 1991.
Palm Sunday 2007.
A Flickr.com image of a Canadian doctor treating a Mizo patient near the Myanmar border.
Memorial stone to Watkin Roberts, Parbung village, Manipur State.
A Hmar Gospel Choir from Saikot, Manipur.
A Thadou-Kuki Gospel Choir from Kholmun, Manipur.
A Thadou-Kuki Gospel Choir from Molnom, Manipur.
Page 17: The arrival of many ‘zosahibs’.
Bala Theological College.
A Tribute to Watkin Roberts by the ICI Central Choir of Manipur.