First Church in Manipur Celebrates 123rd Foundation Day; a brief history of Phungyo Baptist Church in Ukhrul

Ukhrul: The first church in Manipur was born in Ukhrul in 1901. This new Christian village was given a name Phungyo (meaning Beautiful Hill) by the missionary Rev William Pettigrew and became the bedseed of Christianity in Manipur.

On Friday, the Phungyo Baptist Church celebrated the 123rd Foundation Day with prayers and thanksgiving. Leimah Hongray, senior deacon of Phungyo Baptist Church led the prayer at Ngayira where the first 12 Tangkhuls were baptised on September 29, 1901 by William Pettigrew. Tharawon Raleng, former Women Chairperson of Phungyo hoisted the flag at the premise of the church at Tangrei, Ukhrul. Tharawon Raleng gave her service for 38 years and she was the chairperson of Phungyo Baptist Church Women Society for 28 years. Rev Zaklei Kaping, pastor of Phungyo Baptist Church during the observation baptised 16 girls and 2 boys. Rev Dr Khalangpam Vashum, director, Trinity Missionary Training Centre, Imphal delivered the gospel message to the congregation. Church leaders from various churches and Tangkhul CSOs attended the celebration.

First Church In Manipur Celebrates 123rd Foundation Day A Brief History Of Phungyo Baptist Church In Ukhrul Ukhrul Times
Photo: Tharawon Raleng, former Women Chairperson of Phungyo hoisted the flag at the premise of the church at Tangrei, Ukhrul.

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Historical Background:

According to an extract from the article of YK Shimray, “Phungyo Baptist Church At Glance”, until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Tangkhul Naga community, like other cognate tribes, were being left much to their ignorant wills and ways. There was no written language, every village had its own dialect; and not a soul among the whole tribe knew anything about the rudiment of the alphabet. Although the villagers were independent and democratic, clannishness, the fear of evil spirit, a blind belief in the efficacy of monthly and annual feast, ignorance, superstition, sin, all these held the people in bondage.

At such a time, one ‘Mr Pettigrew’ came to Manipur. At the sight of a white man, the people of Ukhrul took him for a spy or an agent of government. They were ready to kill him. But it was God’s plan that there was a man who could talk to the Missionary in Manipuri. The man whom the missionary called “an influential man” saved him and his wife not less than three times in different occasions. This influential man was no other than Raihao, the chief of Ukhrul village itself.

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Pettigrew pitched his tent at Lungheng, about a quarter mile away from the residence of the chief. He also erected a temporary shed for running a school but he could not get a single boy admitted. The villagers were deadly against learning to read and write. After a lapse of one year, the villagers agreed to send 20 boys to school, provided the chief of Ukhrul would lead them. This was agreed; the school started functioning from February 19, 1896.

The 6 years that followed were years of toil and ceaseless plodding amidst isolation and indifference. It was not until 1901, that the first converts 12 boys from the mission school were baptized by Rev W Pettigrew at Ngayira. They were: R Hollei, K Sangmayang, S Ramkaiphang, S Leishisan, K Maninglum, L Sakhayang, C Kaphungkui, S Mangaleng (all from Ukhrul), M Haora, Mashokring and S Thisha from Hundung village. Thus, the first church in Manipur was bom in Ukhrul, 1901.

First Church In Manipur Celebrates 123rd Foundation Day A Brief History Of Phungyo Baptist Church In Ukhrul Ukhrul Times 1
Photo: Ngayira, where the first recorded baptism took place in Manipur.

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Although the villagers were deadly against mission work in Ukhrul, Raihao, the chief of Ukhrul village granted Rev W Pettigrew a piece of land, measuring about 30 acres on nominal payment of Rs. 50/-, This was a milestone of the mission work in Manipur. There the missionary built a bungalow and school of permanent structures.

The dreadful Christians who were ceaselessly tortured by the pagan parents also purchased a piece of land in the proximity of the mission bungalow and the school. There they settled down with R Hollei as the headman. This new Christian village was given a name Phungyo (Beautiful Hill) by the missionary.

In 1910, there were 15 baptisms of which 9 were girls from the mission school. These were the first women baptisms: R. Sanamla, R. Mahongai, R Lasengla, Lanotla (all from Ukhrul), AS Charoni, AS Ngalew and AS Kasuni (all from Chingjaroi), and Shunila of Paoyi (Peh) village. The Christians, who are now 39 members, built by themselves a meetinghouse, 1907. The members belonged to different groups, such as Tangkhul, Kuki, Anal, Ao, Meitei, etc.

In 1908, the church in Ukhrul passed a time of trial. A serious problem arose over some of the members having participated in the tribal feast, called Thisham (Souls departing feast). The missionaries fully realising the need of what some will be pleased to call radical measure, called the church together and advised them to decide once for all this question of participation in the feast which included the offering or sacrifice to evil spirit. The missionaries expected all of them to lapse back into heathenism owing to the powerful influence of tribal customs; but 7 of the members decided to withdraw and form a new church. They were R Hollei, T Luikham, MK Shimray, S Leishisan (all from Ukhrul), Kuishon and Machongthei of Kampha (now Sirarakhong) and A Porom Singh of Phaying, Imphal.

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Rev Fox came to Ukhrul in 1911 and administered baptism to Thonung and Mono of Anal tribe, Teba Karong, K Longkhobel and Tengkhup Kuki, in 1913. Maipak Kabui, Kachinda: Kutcha Naga, Bhagirath Gurkha, Thanga Mhar, Jaison Kom and Mangjaching Thadou In 1915.

In 1917, delegations of all churches gathered together and organised their first Manipur Baptist Christian Association at Ukhrul. And for the first time in Manipur Christian history, M.K. Shimray (Tangkhul) and Longkhobel (Kuki) were ordained by the missionary, 1916. In 1922, there was a new spiritual movement, which resulted in a large number of converts. There were 290 baptisms in 1922 and 1018 in 1923. The heathens tried their outmost to wipe off Christianity from the land. But the more they suppressed the more the number of believers increased. The Kingdom of God was firmly established in Manipur.

W Pettigrew Coming To Manipur:

Receiving permission from the officiating political agent Mr A Porteous (not direct from the govt.), he arrived in Imphal in January 1894. Upon his arrival at the capital, his knowledge of Bengali and Manipuri language enabled him to communicate with the local people and thereby he immediately commenced preaching the Gospel in the bazaars. Eventually through the help of a young Manipuri boy who was taken in as helper, Pettigrew procured at Chingamakha “two houses with ground attached, about 90°X 40° for a reasonable amount (and) one of the two houses 40°X12° was soon made into a decent school room.” On May 7, 1894 he had the joy of opening a new school there. Soon the school was overcrowded because of which he had to limit the number to 50.

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Everyday the students came together and recited the Disciples’ Prayer, and Sankey’s hymn Nos. 25 and 69 were heartily sung in Manipuri; on Sunday mornings they came together for prayer.

In the last week of the same year, when Major Maxwell, the political agent returned from furlough, Pettigrew was told that the “Officiating political agent’s permission was invalid, owing to his not arranging with the Indian government.” Therefore he was asked to abandon the work, the school was taken out of his hand to be managed by the state government, and propagation of Christianity was prohibited, Pettigrew however was allowed to remain in the state on the condition that the missionary enterprise was confined to the Tangkhul Nagas only at his own risk.

Opening Of The Tangkhul Naga Field:

The main intention of Pettigrew was to evangelise the Manipuri Hindus in the valley is not disputed. But as the Scripture says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” It was not the Lord’s will that Pettigrew should open his mission centre in the valley nor at any other in the state than Ukhrul. It was verified in more ways than one, because in November 1895, i.e. 10 months after his maiden visit to Ukhrul, an ultimatum was served to him by the government of India which he himself described thus: –
“To accept one of the conditions was the ultimatum sent to us from Shillong a year and a half later. Say “yes” to proposal of leaving the valley alone and establishing mission headquarters among the headhunting Naga tribe called the Tangkhul Naga … say “No” and leave the state for good”.

Perhaps this was a pressure from God revealed through state agency. Pettigrew chose the “Yes” and committed to working among the ‘very aboriginal tribe’ – the headhunting Tangkhul Nagas. He chose Ukhrul as his centre. He then negotiated with the American Baptist Missionary Union to take over the work and to appoint him an agent of the Society. Following his application he was invited to attend the Missionary Conference at Sibsagar, December 14-22, 1895.

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On December 16 1895, Pettigrew’s application was considered vis-a-vis letters from Secretaries Duncan and Mabie with various other documents. “Pettigrew then made 2 statements before the conference of his Christian experience, call to the ministry and views of his Christian doctrine and Revs HP Moore, CE Burdette and EP Haggard were appointed a Committee to present resolution in reference to Pettigrew’s case. On December 19, Rev H Moore presented a letter from Sibsagar Baptist Church! that Pettigrew was a member of Sibsagar Baptist Church and requested the Conference to sit in council with the church in regard to advisability of ordaining Mr Pettigrew. Thus after having Pettigrew examined and formalities having been completed, Pettigrew was ordained on December 22nd at Sibsagar Baptist Church and a hand written Ordination Certificate was issued thus: “This is to certify that in accordance with usages of the Baptist Churches of the United States of America & in answer to the call of The Baptist Church of Sibsagar, Assam, William Pettigrew after an examination as to his belief, call to the ministry and views of Christian doctrine, was solemnly set apart to the Gospel Ministry by a Council consisting of the Assam Mission of the American Baptist Missionary Union at Sibsagar, December 22nd, 1895”. It was signed by CD King, chairman and EG Phillips, clerk.

The Sibsagar Triennial Conference of 1895 and the Executive Committee at Boston in January 1896 decided to take over the work in Manipur and Pettigrew was officially appointed a missionary of the American Baptist Missionary Union for Ukhrul field on January 27, 1896 and the work was officially taken over by the Union on February 1. Since then this AB Mission worker (later with his wife) was confined to Ukhrul from 1896 to 1916 (twenty years) by the state government under pain of dismissal from the state.

Having chosen Ukhrul as his centre rather than Paoyi (present Peh village) as having had suggested by Porteous, he spent more of his time in building a temporary mission bungalow, outhouses and the school building with a few hours a day to study the language. October to December was given to going to Calcutta to finish off the printing of John’s gospel in Manipuri which was then going through the press and above all to marry Alice Goreham who was Ieft behind in London six years ago when he left for India in 1890. After their marriage on November 13, 1896, at Lower Circular Baptist Church, Calcutta, the couple returned to Ukhrul to resume their work.

The school building at Ukhrul had already been completed then, but the Missionary had to spend quite six weeks in persuading the villagers to send some of their boys to school. “So it was not until February 19 that the school was opened with 20 of the village boys including the most influential man of the village, chief Raihao. Another 11 boys from Hundung joined the school later. Unlike the school in the valley, no objection was made to Christian truth being taught. The school was opened daily with singing and prayer. On Sundays, they came together for singing and to listen to the Gospel stories. The work thus gradually grew and co-worker was asked for, but it was objected by the Chief Commissioner. In September 1901, 15 students confessed Christ but it was decided that only those who were willing to give up drinking of the village zam (a mild or strong locally brewed drinks), be baptised and so on September 29, 1901 only 12 of them got baptised and in 1902 a church was organised.

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Photo from Wren Raleng

Rev W Pettigrew gave forty-four years of his life to the work, which the Lord laid upon his heart. He endured hardships as a good captain of Christ Jesus and of the state as well.

In 1933, he was compelled to leave Manipur owing to sickness of his wife, which required a surgical operation. They reached USA in December and had Christmas with their children Jesse, Douglas, Will and Peggy (Margaret). Alice Goreham Pettigrew preceded her husband in death on January 10, 1934 following a serious operation. Her funeral services were held in Cornwell, Conn In the church where Peggy’s husband was the pastor. Alice’s husband Pettigrew remarked at her grave:

“It was like coming home, for the cemetery was on a hill at the foothills of the Lichfield hills, a hill like those in Ukhrul.”

Rev W Pettigrew died at Plymouth, England on April 10, 1944 and was buried in the Pinner Cemetery, London. The seed sown by the faithful missionaries multiplies and today Tangkhul tribe is 100% practicing Christianity.

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