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The Growth of Christianity in the Kachin People
The early western missionaries contact to the Kachin people
From the time Judson landed in Rangoon to the meeting of the first Kachins by an American Baptist. In 1837 that intrepid missionary traveler, Eugenio Kaincaid, went as far as Mogaung, the northernmost city in Burma at that time, where he met and talked with several Kachins through a Shan interpreter.
But it was nearly four decades before any actual work was undertaken among the Kachins. Brief visits to Bhamo by missionaries A. Taylor Rose, Franscis, Mason, and Josiah N.Cushing challenged each with the opportunity for ministry among these hill tribesmen, though Cushing was designated for work among the Shans.
There accompanied him to two young Karen evangelists for missionary labors among the Kachins. These pioneers, Thra Shwe Lin and Thra Bo Gale, stayed only nine months before returning to lower Burma. They were shortly replaced by Thra Swa Pe (S’Peh). Thra Ne Hta, and Thra Ka Te from Bassein. The latter two, along with Saw Pe’s wife, accompanied Cushing with the first missionary couple assigned from America for work among the Kachins, Mr. and Mrs. Albert. Lyon.
Sowing the seed laid on the Kachin’s soil
Mr. and Mrs. Lyon reached Bhamo on February 13, 1878. Cushing, with the help of the Karen evangelists, had made a fair beginning in reducing the Kachin languages to written form, using a combination of Burmese, Shan, and Karen characters. Tragically, within a week after his arrival at Bhamo, Lyon fell ill with a fever and within one month of his arrival as the first American missionary to the Kachins, he passed away.
Mr. James A. Freiday, replacement for J.N. Cushing, undertook to supervise the work of the Karen evangelists in the hills. Word went out in America of Lyon’s death and the urgent need for an American missionary to the Kachins. William Henry Roberts, a young pastor in Illinois Volunteered with his wife, arriving in Bhamo on January 12, 1879. Karen evangelists Maw Keh and Shwe Gyaw accompanied them from Rangoon to Bhamo.
Mrs. Roberts laid down here life within a year and a
half of her arrival, though her husband pioneered among the Kachins for nearly forty years. These early years were trying, with political unrest and Kachin antagonism and indifference to
the appeal of the Christian gospel.
Roberts returned to America following the death of his wife, again leaving work among the Kachins to the Karen evangelists in the hills, with the assistance of Freiday. The difficulty under which they labored may be measured by a portion of Freiday’s letter to the Mission Headquarters in America, dated in early 1881.
”The past year has been a very trying one for the Bhamo mission …. Attacks and robberies from those who it was hoped would receive the Word gladly… and the destruction of our Shan mission house by fire, the removal of kind sister Roberts from earth to heaven, and the return of Mr. Roberts himself to America. To these losses must be added those occasioned by the sickness and return to British Burma of valuable native helpers much needed here.
These losses were easier to bear were there even a single active Christian, or even one known inquirer after the truth, to whom we might point as the fruit of all the labor of the many missionaries who have labored…….in Bhamo.”
Returning to Burma in December 1881, Mr. Roberts was married in Rangoon to Miss Alice Buell, serving at Kemmendine School. They proceeded to Bhamo with Mr. and Mrs. L.W. Cronkhite, newly appointed missionaries to the Kachins.
Conversion among the Kachin people
Mr. and Mrs. Roberts and Mr. Cronkhite, trudged up the steep paths into the Kachin Hills east of Bhamo. Freiday had informed them that in the village of Bumwa, where Thra Saw Pe had been serving for over four years, several had been asking for baptism. Saw Pe and his family met the missionary party and made them at home in the village. The candidates were carefully examined; Saw Pe had instructed them well. On March 19, 1882, the first Kachins were led down into the waters of baptism.
They numbered seven in all. Bawmung La (Paw Min
La), an elderly man, and his wife; his son Maran A Yung and his wife; Nangzing Yung and his wife, Lazum Kaw Lum; and finally a deformed man named Gawlu Htang Yawng. Besides the new converts
and the American missionaries, the four Karen evenglists, Maw Keh, Saw Peh, Ko The, and Shwe Gyaw, together with their wives, joined in the first communion service for Kachin
Development over the next several years was rapid. Baptisms were regular even though standards were high. The establishment of schools, translation of the Scriptures, preparation of a Christian hymnal and catechism in Kachin, Training of new leaders, and reaching out north and south to open new stations were all part of the expanding program of Kachin Baptist Church History.
Mrs. Roberts had taught a few children when she had first arrived in Bhamo. Roberts and his school boys made a beginning in translating the Bible into Kachin. He wrote home with great enthusiasm, that on August 2, 1885, he and they had completed the translation of the Gospel According to Matthew into Kachin, from the Burmese, However, he never conceived of himself as a translator. He repeatedly asked the Mission to recruit a scholar for this important work.
Ola Hanson arrived in Rangoon to being such work in 1890. Rev. and Mrs. Ola Hanson were appointed by the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society in 1890 to the Kachin people of Upper Burma and they arrived in December of that year. The task before them seemed hopeless. The Kachins in the early days of pioneer missions were described as revengeful, cruel, and treacherous.
Even the King of Burma addressed the missionaries who came to work with the Kachins as follows: “So you are to teach the Kachins! Do you see my dogs over there? I tell you, it will be easier to convert and teach these dogs. You are wasting your life.” When the missionaries came to Kachin land, they discovered that this people possessed an extensive mythology.
The stories were passed from generation to generation. There were stories dealing with creation, death, resurrection and even a flood. They also told of a book that they had lost. The Kachin version states that God gave each race a book. On their way home from their meeting with God, the Kachins became hungry, so they ate their copy. The Karens, a neighboring tribal group, had a prophecy stating that one day a foreigner would bring the copy of the book back to them.
When he heard the story of the lost book, Hanson determined that he would restore the book to the Kachins — he would give the Kachins the Bible in their own tongue. Hanson first gave himself to the task of clarifying the Kachin vocabulary. Hanson would peer into the mouths of the Kachins to see where they placed their tongues, teeth and lips when forming words. Because the Kachin language is tonal there are many difficulties in trying to determine the distinctive meaning depending on its tone. He collected a word list of 25,000 words. Later he edited and published a Kachin-English dictionary of 11,000 words.
The Kachins were 100% illiterate in 1890 and now 100 years later all Kachins can read and write in Kachin as well as Burmese the national language.On June 28, 1911, Hanson completed the New Testament translation. After he had completed the New Testament, he revised it three times.
Then he proceeded with the Old Testament translation. Hanson completed the Old Testament translation on August 11, 1926. Hanson called his wife and his faithful Kachin assistant to his study where they knelt and poured out their hearts to God in thanksgiving and praise that the Bible was now completed in the Kachin language. He expressed his own feelings in a letter of August 14, 1926:
”It is with heartfelt gratitude that I lay this work at the feet of my Master. I am conscious of the defects of my work. I have tried to master Kachin, and make a translation intelligible to all. Pray with us, that our Divine Master may bless this work to the salvation of the whole Kachin race, while we are still at work here.”73
He translated over 400 hymns from English and Swedish, he also composed 200 hymns for the Kachins, true to their style and culture. Further, he also wrote a catechism, spelling book, a primer, a grammar and Kachins: Their Customs and Traditions.
5.3 Period of Mission Expansion
Growth and outreach into new areas beyond Bhamo District Characterize the last years of the nineteenth century. George J. Geis and his wife arrived in Burma in 1892. He and Roberts journeyed up the Irrawaddy River over one hundred miles to secure land for a new station and myitkyina. There the Geises moved in 1893, happily reporting their first baptisms in 1897, three Kachins and one Burman.
South and eastward from Bhamo lay Namkham in the Shan states. Surrounding this center for Shan evangelism were hundreds of Kachin villages. Shan missionaries had been doing what they could to preach to them, but needed help.
Roberts reported in 1898:
”In March we sent three of our more advanced
pupils to teach school and conduct services in three villages during vacation and to help brother Cochrane commence a work among the Kachins in the mountains east of
By 1909, the Kachin Baptist Mission was roughly twenty – five years old. Myitkyina and Namkam established separate associations of Christian churches. In these twenty – five years several thousands in widely scattered places had heard the Christian gospel and many had responded. There were now one hundred and fifty Christians, eight of whom had been given sufficient private training to be unordained pastors. It was only a beginning, but it was good!
On December 15, 1901, the first ordination council convened in the Kachin Hills of Burma. The candidates had proven themselves to be called of God: Damau Naw had come as a school boy nearly twenty years before, and following his training in schools in Rangoon, had been helping Hanson in Literary work since 1893. Ning Grawng had accompanied Geis since 1894 in pioneering on the Myitkyina field. Shwe so, one of the Karen missionaries, had been serving since 1884.
Other ordinations followed, such as those of Zau Tu of Sinlum Kaba in 1914, Lashi Naw of Mungbaw in 1915, and Zau Mai of Mungmaw in 1919.75 These and others began taking over the responsibilities of the Kachin Baptist Mission formerly shouldered solely by American and Karen missionaries.
5.4 Pioneer period ends
With the passing of Geis, the missionary pioneer period of the Kachin Baptist Mission closed. William Henry Roberts had given thirty – five years of service, retiring to America in 1914 where he passed away five years later. Ola Hanson served from 1890 until retirement in 1928, passing away in 1929. Others have entered the service with deep dedication, but illness or transfer to another field of labor had cut short their services among the Kachins.
The World War II was testing, the Missionaries were forced to evacuate. Station after station was abandoned and schools were closed. Rumor spread that the Japanese invaders were strongly anti-Christian. Church members scattered; some apostatized, erecting once again their traditional Animistic altars. But rumor proved to be worse than reality. Certainly, some Christians suffered at the hands of soldiers, but there were Christians also among the troops! Before long, services were being resumed throughout Kachinland. In spite of some losses in membership, new converts were won.
The Shan states Association held its annual Bible conferences; the Bhamo District Association met for fellowship and business. Life settled down to something of a normal pattern during the years of Japanese occupation.
After the world War II,the missionaries returned – Tegenfeldt, England, Misses Bonney, Taylor, and Laughlin. They returned to scenes of destruction everywhere. They investments of sixty years in buildings were gone. Although the Kachins were destitute after the years of war, they gave freely of their time and energy.
New mission policies on schools and post – war independence for Burma created new situations for the Kachin Baptist Mission. These became feeding schools for the large all – Association institutions in the three districts.
Mission grants helped the Kachin Baptist School at Myitkyina and the Roberts school at Bhamo to begin re-building their school plants and reopen classes. The Sumprabum Station decided against a costly association school, choosing instead to emphasize a co-ed Christian boarding program. Scholl buildings and a new mission residence fitted out the station by 1949, but local financial support was not forthcoming. After the pioneer missionaries left from the Kachinland Damau Naw of Nbapa, Zau Tu of Sinlum Kaba, and Lashi Naw of Mungbaw appointed for the future of the Kachin people.
Among the Kachin people there are different dimension such as Baptist, Roman Catholic, Church or Christ, Anglica, Fundamental Baptist Church and the other Para-churches. The majority is Kachin Baptist Convention; according to Rev.S Sin Wa Naw’s recorded in 2000, there were (13) association and (270) churches, and the second is Roman Catholic Church.
In conclusion this research work had done by the brief history of the Kachins people such as economic system, political, religious and social structure. Basically the Kachins are Mogonglian speaking at least seven different languages and several dialects; they recognize Jinghpaw as their common tongue. They were a hunting people economically, though by the time of this research work, they were following a hillside rice cultivation way of life.
Sociologically, they are very friendly, understanding but determined, God fearing, and their social custom and tradition are very polite and formal. They have unbreakable chain of relationship among their clans and tribes. This is an important social contact with the other people.
Politically, in an early period Kachin people lived under the rule of their Chiefs such as “Duwas”. The leaders are responsibilities towards for the people of his domain. By this research work, we can find out the early arrival of Christianity in Myanmar. The foreign missionaries were difficulties to work mission under the Buddhism. Adoniram Judson landed the first American mission in Myanmar as well as he is one of the pioneers for the Kachin, Chins, and Karen as tribal people.
Religiously, the pioneer missionaries never dreamed of themselves as head of a Kachin Church. They longed and worked for the day when they should see Kachin Christians in Places of leadership throughout the Church.
We can say that the seed of Christian faith, which was sown in the hard soil, has begun to bear fruit. It has become responsible for the Kachin people and growth of the Kachin society. The Kachin people should nurture this faith with love and care.
In short, the Kachin people realize to restore our identity, culture, customs, and heritages. The researcher expect that the coming generations will do far well than what I had done on this chronological era of the Kachin people.
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Journals and magazines:
The Jinghpaw Times
Kachin National News Beacon.(Wunpawng Shi shaman)
Pyilan Lunghtawn Journal