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From Darkness to Light – Lest We Forget January 11, 1894


From Darkness to Light – Lest We Forget January 11, 1894

Today is a very special government holiday in Mizoram but many people often do not think about the historical significance of this day and how God used young James Herbert Lorrain and Frederick William Savidge from England to bring the gospel that forever changed the lives of the once-feared head hunting tribes of Mizoram, formerly known as the Lushai Hills.

January 11 is officially known as Missionary Day because it marks the day the missionaries to the Mizo people arrived in the Mizoram with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It can be safely argued that Mizoram entered a new chapter and was brought from darkness to light when the two young English lads set foot on the soil of Mizoram.

Carol MacNeill, a medical missionary with the Baptist Missionary Society in Zaire, wrote a booklet back in 1993 titled “…and there was light (The Story of The Baptist Church of Mizoram)” where she traced the history of how Savidge and Lorrain were guided by God to bring the light of the good news of Jesus Christ to the Mizo people.

In her book, MacNeill opened with a captivating story of how God planted a vision in James’ heart long before he even realised God was going to appoint him and his friend to become missionaries to the Mizo people –

The little boy sat curled up in the old armchair, completely oblivious that his mother had already called twice for him to get ready for bed. His eyes were glued to a picture in a magazine and, in his mind, he had been transported to the mountainous jungles of north east India back in 1871. He looked with fascination at the artist’s impression of a very frightened little white girl being carried off by night through the thick forest, the blazing torches of her captors lighting the pathway and casting weird among the trees. How frightened she must have been, he thought. Her father a British tea-planter had been killed by Lushai warriors and now she and others were being taken to a hilltop village to become the property of the village chief. Not surprisingly, the little boy’s young mind could understand nothing of the Lushais’ anguish about the British administration’s encroachment on their hunting ground.

He imagined that the little girl must have been very miserable and so it was a surprise to read that, on the contrary, she had settled down to a happy Lushai childhood! She had been given into the care of a kindly village couple whom she came to love and it was not long before she was speaking the language, learning to weave and even enjoying a smoke of homegrown tobacco! Little Mary Winchester had no idea of the extent to which public interest within Britain had been aroused by her capture, nor that three army units had been mobilised to rescue her. When at last the army reached her, early in 1872, sadly destroying villages and killing many people on the way, it was with great difficulty that they persuaded her to leave her “granny” and accept her “freedom”.

The little boy (James Herbert Lorrain) was brought back rapidly to the present as he realised that he was being summoned to bed for the third time by an increasingly irate parent. The picture, however, left an indelible impression on him, although at that time, he never thought that one day he would meet Mary Winchester, or that he himself, as he wrote later, “would have the inestimable privilege of threading those same forest paths as a Christian missionary.”

Carol’s account of what God was doing in the hearts of other missionaries in Britain and the Khasi Hills is perhaps an eye opener to many –

While the hearts of the people of the Lushai Hills were being prepared for the coming of the gospel, God was at work as well in the hearts of many Christians in Britain. In 1891 missionaries of what was to become the Welsh Presbyterian Mission were working in the Khasi Hills of north east India. They became interested in the people of the Lushai Hills and sent one of their number, William Williams, to investigate. So, early in 1891, the first Christian missionary set foot in the Lushai Hills. He arrived at Fort Aizawl which the British were building for their administrative headquarters but due to conditions being so unsettled, he was only able to remain for about a month in the country.

Around this time, an eccentric Christian millionaire in England, called Robert Arthington, set about organising the “Arthington Aborigines Mission” in order to reach these hills tribes. One of his missionaries, a telegraphist from London, was James Herbert Lorrain. He arrived at Calcutta in West Bengal in 1890, to be followed the next year by his friend, Frederick William Savidge, a graduate schoolmaster. From Calcutta they tried first to enter Tripura, only to have permission refused by the Maharajah. Undaunted they accepted an invitation to visit Chittagong, further south on the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

There, for the first time, they met men from South Lushai and heard the language being spoken. With some difficulty, they persuaded the authorities to give them permission to stay at a government post some eighty miles up the river, just at the foot of the hills. The next months were a time of sickness, hunger and great difficulties, capped by the final disappointment of government officials insisting that, due to fresh troubles in the Lushai hills, the two missionaries should return to Chittagong. They were not men to give up easily and, being fuelled by the great desire to share the love of Christ with the Lushai people, they decided that, if they could not enter the country from the south, then they would try to enter from the north; so they made the long journey to Silchar in Assam. While waiting for permission to enter the hills, they did what language study they could.

At last the long awaited permit was granted with the understanding that they would not receive any official help for the journey or their work. This, however, did not dampen their joy as they set off on Boxing Day 1893. Having travelled for almost three weeks in canoes through forests, they finally made the 4,000 feet climb to Fort Aizawl, arriving there on 11th January 1894. It was with great joy and much thanksgiving to God that they pitched their tent near a Lushai village.

In January 1944, Rev David Kyles, a former missionary who served at the Baptist Mission Press in Kolkata, wrote a book titled “Lorrain of the Lushais” where he wrote in detail the account of the three week perilous river journey of the pioneer missionaries –

There are no railways in Lushai and few roads even now; fifty years ago there was none at all. Two rivers, coming down from the Lushai Hills and entering the plains nearly 200 miles apart, form the only routes into the country, and the young pioneers chose the northern route. For three weeks they travelled in canoes through uninhabited forests, for the most parts the boats having often to be dragged up innumerable rapids. They were often shut in by deep cliffs and by banks covered with wild, luxuriant vegetation and tall bamboos, having many hairbreadth escapes on the river, shallow and swift, deep and slow by turns. Troops of monkeys swung among the branches, or played on the sandbanks, and once a tiger crashed through the reeds. One evening while they were making fire on the bank with dried bamboos, snakes which had been hibernating in the snug cylinders, dropped out, and as the bamboos crackled and the red glare lit up the darkening gorge, a wild chase took place.

Carol also listed in her book very significant events that laid the foundation for the arrival of the gospel through the pioneer missionaries, not to mention the vision seen by a Mizo visionary from the South –

The military expedition to rescue Mary Winchester began to open up the Lushai hills to the outside world. With the eventual imposition of British rule in 1893, came the peaceful conditions which enabled Christian missionaries to work in the Lushai hills. Many years later in a letter to pastor Vanchhunga, the grandson of her “dear granny”, Mary wrote, “My father’s blood was the pricxe paid for you Lushai Christians.”

God, however, was already preparing the people of the south Lushai hills for the coming of the gospel. One is not long in Mizoram today before hearing the story of Darphawka, a man from a village in the south of the country who had a vision that a great light would come from the west and shine on the Lushais. “This light,” he said, “may not shine in my life-time, but when it comes, follow it.” When the first missionaries came bringing the good news of the light of God’s love, they found people whose minds were prepared for such a message, people who recognised in Christ the light for which they had been waiting.

The Mizo people’s hearts were prepared for the coming gospel through Darphawka’s vision. Mary Winchester’s capture was no accident as it led to the awakening of Christians in Britain and the penetration of the Lushai Hills by the British which paved way for the entry of missionary Rev William Williams and his three companions and later the entry of Rev FW Savidge and Rev JH Lorrain.

Savidge and Lorrain’s pioneer work in Mizoram, later followed up by the Welsh Presbyterians, is best described as incalculable even from a secular point of view. The two missionaries essentially laid the foundation that turned the whole Mizo society upside down and for the ongoing missionary work that saw a complete transformation of the Mizo society for the better. They truly deserve our gratitude and the day of their arrival deserves to live forever in the hearts of the people of Mizoram.

In the next article, we will look at how the Hmar tribes gladly received the gospel from Mizoram, a direct result of the missionary work of Lorrain and Savidge and also the connection between James Lorrain’s brother Reginald Lorrain and his wife’s pioneer mission to the Mara people. A good look at how the gospel arrived in the Chin Hills is a must especially for those who wish to understand the role the Christian faith plays among the Chin peoples in Myanmar. How the gospel spread to the Mizo people in the neighbouring Tripura state is also worth noting.

Today is truly the day to remember the arrival of the messengers of the “light” Darphawka saw in his vision. Thank God for the light of the good news of Jesus Christ and thank God for His messengers.

Thank God for His eternal purpose for it brought us from darkness to light through the message of His love for us in Christ Jesus.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Happy Missionary Day!

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Lalțanpuia Pachuau, also known as Mațana, is a keen observer of Zoram politics and society. The ex-Edmundian is not shy about presenting fresh and different perspectives on current events.

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