[Assam] American Baptists in Assam

baruah at bard.edu baruah at bard.edu
Fri Aug 29 17:14:44 IST 2008

Dear Dilip-da,

Heremba Barpujari’s, The American Missionaries and North-East India is  
a good general overview. There are small histories of the Baptist  
Mission available at the Christian bookshop in Guwahati (between  
Panbazar and Fancybazar.)  A History of American Baptist Missions by  
Edmund Franklin Merriam (American Baptist Publication Society, 1900),  
has some discussion of the failure of the Assam mission.

I don’t know of PhD dissertations. At one time there was quite a bit  
of interest in Mission Histories; so I am sure there is some work like  
that especially in Theology-oriented institutions, both in India and  
the US.

But there is scope for new historical work on Assam of that period  
based on missionary records.  Missionaries kept excellent records, and  
wrote regular reports to the headquarters.  I have seen some great  
material at the Andover Newton Theological Seminary near Boston. A  
number of the missionaries who went to Assam studied there. Nathan  
Brown who wrote the Assamese-English Dictionary (1846) went to  
Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.  The college Archive has some  
of his papers includes some issues of Orunodoi.

Some of the material in US archives are in Assamese; and not fully catalogued.

Dilip-da (Dilip Dutta of Rhode Island) had quite a bit of interest. He  
would know more.

Good wishes,


Quoting Dilip and Dil Deka <dilipdeka at yahoo.com>:

> Sanjib,
> Thanks for your quick response. It gave me a lot of information I   
> didn't have.
> Have you run into any book of the kind I asked about? I am also   
> requesting other netters to enlighten me (us).
> I am sure someone has done research in this area to get a doctoral degree.
> Dilipda
> ----- Original Message ----
> From: "baruah at bard.edu" <baruah at bard.edu>
> To: A Mailing list for people interested in Assam from around the   
> world <assam at assamnet.org>; Dilip and Dil Deka <dilipdeka at yahoo.com>
> Cc: ASSAMNET <assam at assamnet.org>
> Sent: Thursday, August 28, 2008 8:27:28 AM
> Subject: Re: [Assam] American Baptists in Assam
> Here is my understanding for whatever it is worth:
> One of the factors in the choice of Assam (and Upper Assam in 
> particular) was the assumption that with headquarters there, they 
> would be able to spread all the way into China.  There was a 19th 
> century version of the Look East policy, if you wish.  The idea that 
> the region should be left underdeveloped, and roads through Burma 
> should not be built, came much later, and the reasons were geopolitical.
> The British at that time considered missionaries to be important for 
> the project of 'civilizing natives.'  So colonial policy facilitated 
> the presence of missionaries. Different denominations had different 
> turfs. Thus among Khasis, you find the Welsh Presbyterians, while the 
> American Baptists had Upper Assam.
> Missionaries considered learning the language of the natives essential 
> to spreading the gospel. With access to the printing press, in many 
> parts of the world they played a crucial role in the process of how a 
> particular spoken form got standardized. Assam was not an exception.
> The missionaries were always ahead of other Europeans in mastering the 
> local, because it was a priority for them.  Moreover the pioneering 
> missionaries were often academic types, and included people interested 
> in linguistics. Thus in many parts of the world, they wrote the first 
> grammar, printed the first dictionary etc.
> The American Baptist missionaries who learnt Assamese, understood more 
> than the other Europeans (that category meant all whites, including 
> American missionaries), that the language was not Bengali.
> Even though there are a few pioneer Assamese converts, the Baptists 
> did poorly among the Assamese.  But from the Jorhat base they did 
> fantastically well among the Nagas. The Assamese converts were 
> important in spreading to the Naga areas.
> Sanjib
> Quoting Dilip and Dil Deka <dilipdeka at yahoo.com>:
>> Does anyone know if there is a book on American Baptist Mission in 
>> India and its history in Assam?
>> I have been curious why ABM chose Assam as a base as early as 1850, 
>> right after the Yandaboo treaty and how it ended up being the savior 
>>   of Assamese language. Did their publications help in conversion of 
>> local people to Baptism, the main reason for their being there?
>> Dilip Deka
>> Frtom the Assam Tribune
>> ________________________________
>> Remembering William Ward
>> — Aziz-ul HaqueThe American Baptist Missionaries played a very 
>> significant role in the history of Assamese language and literature. 
>>   Nathan Brown and Miles Bronson are well known for their 
>> contributions made in this field. However, a less known is a junior 
>> missionary, the Reverend William Ward, who played no less an 
>> important role in Assam. It will be worthwhile to remember him on 
>> his 187th birth anniversary today. Ward was born on August 28, 1821 
>> at Sheffield in the state of Ohio, USA. He graduated from Madison 
>> University in 1848 holding the highest position in the class for his 
>>   scholarship and ability as a thinker and writer. The American 
>> Baptist Missionary Union appointed him as a missionary to Assam. He 
>> and his wife, Cordelia, reached Guwahati in April 1851 through 
>> waterways. He worked in Guwahati for the first six years and then 
>> another ten years in Sivasagar. War’s wife, Cordelia, died in 1859 
>> and he married Susan, a missionary’s widow in 1860.
>> The darkest period in the history of Assamese language was the 
>> imposition of Bengali as the court language as well as the medium of 
>>   education in Assam by the British rulers in 1836, after the State 
>> was occupied in 1826 as a result of the Treaty of Yandabo. The 
>> justification of this imposition was that Assamese was thought to be 
>>   a colloquial dialect and sub-language or Upabhasa of Bengali. 
>> Strangely, except for a very few, including Anandaram Dhekial 
>> Phukan, the Assamese people by and large did not protest this 
>> imposition. It seemed providential that at the same time the 
>> American Baptist Missionaries came to Assam to struggle for 
>> restoration of its language.
>> Ward was a linguist par excellence. Very soon he mastered Assamese 
>> and appreciated the beauty of this language. He along with his 
>> seniors, Brown and Bronson, established that Assamese was the most 
>> widely understood vernacular in Assam and that it was a language 
>> distinct from Bengali. Moreover, in contrast to the government, the 
>> schools founded by the missionaries used Assamese as the medium of 
>> instruction. His wife, Susan, was actively involved in teaching in 
>> schools at Sivasagar. Ward was deeply involved in translating the 
>> Bible and he considered Assamese peculiarly adapted to the 
>> expression of scriptural thought. He translated the books of 
>> Genesis, Exodus and Psalms of the Bible and published these from the 
>>   Mission Press at Sivasagar. Brown commented about his translation, 
>> “Ward characterizes his style as clear, terse, and Grecian”. Ward 
>> revised the Assamese hymn book called Khristio Dharmageet for a new 
>> edition to which he added scores of original
>>   and translated hymns. In the fourth edition of the book published 
>> in 1890, sixty three hymns were credited to the work of Ward. Some 
>> of his hymns are still sung in churches in Assam.
>> Ward was actively involved with Nathan Brown in Orunodoi, the first 
>> news magazine in Assamese published from the Mission Press at 
>> Sivasagar from January 1846. He contributed many articles for this 
>> magazine. He shouldered full responsibility for editing and 
>> publishing it from 1861 to 1873. The magazine brought news from all 
>> corners of the globe. With illustrative articles on science, 
>> geography, astronomy, history and many other topics it soon found an 
>>   encouraging readership among the Assamese intelligentsia and 
>> thereby  paved the way for Assamese journalism. Many Assamese 
>> scholars like  Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, Gunabhiram Baruah and 
>> Hemchandra Baruah  also contributed articles in this magazine that 
>> became a launching  pad in the struggle for restoration of Assamese 
>> language. As per  suggestion of Hem Chandra Baruah, Ward changed the 
>> system of  orthography of Orunodoi from previous and simplified one 
>> of Jaduram  Deka Baruah that was adopted by Brown, to the
>>   Sanskrit system as it is used today. Replacing the dental ‘n’ by 
>> cerebral ‘n’ of Assamese alphabets, Ward corrected the spelling of 
>> Orunudoi in January 1961. This laid a milestone in the development 
>> of Assamese language.
>> William Robinson, Inspector of Government schools, in his book 
>> Grammar of the Assamese Language published in 1839 stated that 
>> Assamese was identical with Bengali, Robinson asserted, “Assamese 
>> was essentially the same as Bengali”. Bronson realised that this 
>> book was the greatest obstacle in convincing the British 
>> administration to reinstate Assamese. On this issue, Ward was in 
>> constant touch with Bronson who spearheaded the struggle for the 
>> restoration of Assamese language. Ward was one of the missionaries 
>> who along with Bronson challenged Robinson in writing and forwarding 
>>   the same to James F Haliday, the Lt Governor, advocating the cause 
>> of Assamese language. Ward pointed out that, “all our books are in 
>> the strict language of Upper Assam– the language which Robinson 
>> calls vulgar, uncouth, etc. and the spelling of which he terms 
>> arbitrary. If it is so arbitrary as is represented, how is that the 
>> natives all read it with such ease and fluency,
>>   that it is to them like breathing their native air?”
>> Ward’s wife Susan’s contribution is also praiseworthy. She was 
>> deeply associated with the work of Orunodoi and edited a few issues 
>> of this magazine. She revised the missionary Oliver Cutter’s wife 
>> Harriet Cutter’s work Vocabulary and Phrases in English and Assamese 
>>   (1841) and added many new vocabularies making it about 4500 entries 
>>   published Brief Vocabulary in English and Assamese with Rudimentary 
>>   Exercises in 1864 from Mission Press, Sivasagar. This was the first 
>>   book of this kind till Bronson’s A Dictionary in Assamese and 
>> English was published in 1867. She also authored A Glimpse of Assam 
>> (1884).
>> Ward’s life was completely dedicated to the service for the people 
>> of Assam and it was his wish that he would be buried in Assam. At 
>> the age of 52 years, Ward died on August 1, 1873 in Sivasagar and he 
>>   was buried there. The first Baptist Church in NE founded on January 
>>   25, 1845 by Nathan Brown and his colleagues at Panbazar, Guwahati, 
>> has been named as ‘Ward Memorial Church’ in honour of him. Man’s 
>> life is not measured in terms of the span life but in terms of its 
>> quality and contributions made towards the society. Ward will be 
>> remembered by the people of Assam for his contributions towards 
>> Assamese language and literature within his short span of life.
>> (Published on the occasion of 187th birth anniversary of William Ward)
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