FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–When Paige Patterson became president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he was surprised to find that 10 of his students were from Nagaland, India.
Once a nation of headhunters, the Naga people now are predominantly Christian.
The story of missionary work in Nagaland began 100 years ago. American Baptist missionaries ventured into the mountainous region, knowing that they might pay for their journey with their lives.
“These were real men and committed women. They were everything missionaries ought to be,” Patterson said. “And they were Baptists who left behind in less than 30 years a nation of Baptist churches. Their names are little known in history, but I have an idea that they sit close to Jesus in heaven’s throne room.”
Patterson, who participated in the centennial celebration of Baptist work in the Indian province Dec. 3-7, said he had always desired to see the Naga Baptist phenomenon for himself.
“I became acquainted with Rev. Hevukhu Achumi, a leader among the Naga Baptists, when his daughter came as a student at Southeastern [Baptist Theological] Seminary. Then when we came to Southwestern we discovered 10 to 12 students from Nagaland here.”
Patterson said he went to Nagaland with high expectations and was astounded at the number of Christians in the region.
“For the most part I would have to say that half of the story has not been told. Arriving in a land surrounded by hostile faiths, every time you go around a curve there is a Baptist church,” Patterson said. “There are 1,300 of them in all. Some of them have 12,000 or more members.”
Patterson said he and his wife, Dorothy, stopped to see a pastor in a small, remote village on a mountaintop. A large church was the most prominent building in the village.
“When I asked how many the pastor preached to on Sunday, he replied, ‘About 2,000, but that does not include Tuesday and Saturday services.’ Even all the government ministers are born-again believers. Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio gave his testimony one night in Zunheboto. It was as vibrant as any I have ever heard.”
Nagaland has, however, experienced its fair share of troubles, Patterson said, because the government of India fears a possible independence movement and, as a result, oppresses the Naga tribes. The people also face economic woes.
“Remember that only 100 years ago, these people were headhunters, illiterate and hostile,” Patterson said. “… They are very poor but copiously determined workers who provide for all their own basic needs. As far as I could tell, there are not more than a handful of well-to-do business people in all of Nagaland.”
In spite of their circumstances, Patterson said the people nevertheless are happy and give generously.
“Several times I wished I had not taken Dorothy. Nagaland is mountainous, and what can be euphemistically called ‘roads’ are not for wimps,” he said. “It took us a perilous eight hours to drive 120 miles. The food was outstanding but for queasy American stomachs each bite was an adventure with possible short- and long-term, shall we say, challenges.
“We had little hot water during the full week there. Once while we ate, just outside in clear view, they slaughtered a member of the bovine species for supper. Roads were littered with pigs, chickens, goats, dogs and fiercely cornering over-stuffed buses. But even the bus drivers had painted ‘Jesus Saves’ on the front and back. Our hosts gave the best they had, so much so, that as Americans we were shamed by the comparison of their generosity with ours.”
As successful as Baptist work has been among the Naga people, Patterson said the people group might face difficult days ahead. Their support system, the American Baptist Missionary Society, was “swamped by the encroaching typhoon of theological liberalism among American Baptists.”
“What an incredibly sad ending to one of the greatest mission societies in history. How easily the same thing could happen to us. It may not be good news to some, but I returned more the opponent of anything other than orthodoxy than I have ever been in my life.”
Patterson also said the Naga people are vulnerable to charismatic teachings “imbibed from some television preachers in the West.” He said that Southern Baptists should pray that the Nagas are not too heavily influenced by such elements.
“Because they are so vital to reaching the unsaved population for thousands of miles around them, they must remain pure in doctrine and practice,” Patterson said, “and we must pray that India will not restrict them.”