Sabbath Conversation: The Early Naga Christians

Dr. Joshua Lorin

Oriental Theological Seminary


The transference of the concept of “biblical Sabbath” (the seventh day) to “Sunday” (the first day of the week) with all its allegiances, prerogatives, and embargoes is the work of history. Though the “transference” aspect is not evident in the Early Church, the Church Fathers did establish the first day of the week as the “Lord’s Day,” but it was not necessarily a Sabbath day. This move hinges on one event, the “resurrection.”  A close reading of the excursion of the theme shows that our current and popular notion of “Sunday as Sabbath” emphatically stemmed from the Reformation era. The moral and civic implications of the fourth commandment superimposed on Sunday were thus firmly installed. Among many other appropriations from the Reformers, the Baptists integrated the teaching on Sabbath to its core practice. When the Baptist missions came to the Nagas they brought along such perception with them.


The forerunner of Edward W. Clark, Godhula Rufus Brown, the first Assamese missionary to the Nagas, on April 8, 1873 reported that their little chapel at Molungkimong would overflow on “Sabbath meetings” with eager listeners. It appears that Christian influence became predominant. Sunday worships, quite early on, was understood as fundamental expression of the new faith. As early as 1873, within year one of the establishment of the first church on the Naga soil at Molungkimong, a controversy broke out. The matter of contention was the observation of Sabbath. The observation of Sunday locked horns with the Naga context. Historical record shows that a certain chief official of the village levied heavy fines for the observation of the Sabbath. The chief’s concern arose from the fact that the observation of “a day of rest” had minimized economic productivity. On a deeper note, Clark observed an anti-Christian motive. It was evident that majority sided with the Christians in matters of governance in the village council and they were in a position to easily depose the chief official for harboring such ill sentiment. However, such a move was not attempted for the fear of reverse effect, in which a change in the Naga customary laws might stir bigger neighboring villages to retaliate in favor of the chief’s cause (Edward W. Clark’s letter to J. N. Murdock, November 18, 1873).


Revisiting the historical event, legitimate case can be argued for both the parties. Introduction of Sabbath rest was something drastic and extraordinary for the Naga mind. It was a break from the aged old tradition. Furthermore, sustainability was threatened, for losing a working day would mean reduction in output. On the other hand, the Christian message was emphatic, in that, a day out of seven be set aside for rest and worship. For an agrarian community, Sunday provided the only space for bonding in the body of Christ. Out of this conflict, did Edward W. Clark and his wife Mary Mead learn to recalibrate and recast a contextual theological vision? In spite of the dearth of historical resources, we believe, the duo attempted to define Naga Christianity, which was somewhat different from that of American Christianity. This is visible in traces and prints which they left behind.


The Clarks embraced the socio-religious culture of the Nagas beyond what could be tolerated among most mission colleagues of the era. Christianity co-existed or rather became incarnated in the Naga ethos, that is to say, the converts continued to eat and drink native food, wore traditional clothes, and participated in ancient festivals up until the early 1890s. The switch from the “old” religion to “new” was not as drastic as critics believe it was. The imposition of Sabbath was not as severe as it appeared to be, for many Christians would go down to the bazaar in Amguri for trade on Sundays (Fred P. Haggard to Samuel W. Duncan, February 28, 1895; and Samuel A. Perrine to Duncan, October 9, 1895).Therefore, his young colleagues, viz., Fred P. Haggard and Samuel A. Perrine as repugnant, viewed the enculturation of Clark. The historian Richard M. Eaton acknowledges this fact, when he writes: “two of these missionaries [Perrine and Haggard], arriving fresh from the United States and adamantly opposed to the compromises with Naga culture Clark had allowed his converts to make . . .” (Christianity Among the Nagas,12).


It should be noted that a strict observance of biblical Sabbath was not enforced at Molungyimsen well into 1893, which leads to the conclusion that by and large, Sabbath principles existed but not necessarily in rigid practice during Clark’s Molungyimsen era. Undoubtedly, this evidence places Clark in a league of his own, for he clearly understood the rural struggle and was compassionate enough to compromise his own perspective. It appears that Clark allowed a sufficient amount of freedom to the Christians to choose for themselves. Clark did not impose what he deemed to be right on the Christian community.


However, the new missionaries did not view themselves to be in continuity with the Clarks’ labor. Perrine claimed that Clark did not succeed in disciplining the Nagas when the situation demanded it (Perrine to Duncan, October 9, 1895). Haggard accused Clark of publicly breaking the sanctity of the Sabbath (Haggard to Duncan, February 28, 1895). It was Haggard and Perrine, who even before getting their feet wet, launched a reform, on the pretext that Clark started off the work among the Nagas badly. What was the result of the supposed “reform” of 1894? Assamese clothes were enforced on the school children, the old men and women of the village were denied their reserved seats in the church pews, regular Sunday preaching sessions were turned into purification rites where every frail spot in Naga character was picked upon with a lengthy questionnaire, festivals were outlawed, with an enforced strict observance of the Sabbath. Somewhat the later became the norm.


The transference of allegiances, prerogatives, and embargoes of biblical Sabbath to Sunday in the Naga context can be traced to 1894. It was a work of history, and unfortunately an imported hypothesis. Now, informed by historical consciousness, the inexorable question is -how should the Naga Christians reconstruct a contextual rendering of “Sunday” and its observance?


Dr. Joshua Lorin is the Principal of Oriental Theological Seminary. He teaches Global Christianity and Baptist Studies at Oriental Theological Seminary, Dimapur.


This is the twelfth article of the Sabbath/Sunday Series, an initiative of Oriental Theological Seminary.