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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From The Baptist Magazine, 1858
Chitoura is a heathen village, lying about twelve miles to the south of Agra [in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India]. It contains about a thousand inhabitants. It is divided into three or four sections, or thokes, each thoke being a separate enclosure, and occupied by individuals of one caste. The majority of the people are weavers. The village and its lands are the property of a zemindar [an Indian aristocrat] owning some three or four other villages. He is a gosain, or religious teacher, and of a sect which does not allow him to marry. The chief disciple succeeds to his possessions on his death. His religious duties consist of little more than the repeating in the ears of his followers of a mantra, while he receives almost divine honour at their hands.
It was in the year 1844 that some of the villagers gave a very friendly reception to Mr. Williams, then the missionary at Agra, and his native assistants. Before the close of the year, three had been baptized, and three others had expressed their desire to renounce their ancestral faith. In these labours Mr. Williams was assisted chiefly by Gunput, who subsequently became for a short time resident at the village. Nainsukh, of Moughyr, then on a visit to Agra for his health, also rendered valuable aid.
During the year 1845, a small chapel was opened, the number of converts was increased to sixteen, and the friends in Agra began to contemplate the necessity of founding a Christian village as a shelter and home for the converts, then much tried by the opposition and persecution of their countrymen.
In January, 1846, a church was formed, consisting of forty-two persons, and Gunput became their pastor. Fifteen others were baptized during the year, so that at the time of the settlement of Mr. Smith at the station as the missionary, in 1847, on the invitation of the Agra Auxiliary, the church numbered fifty-seven persons. The state of things appeared most hopeful. A very considerable interest in the gospel had been awakened in the numerous villages which lie so thickly spread among the cotton and cornfields of this locality. To Mr. Smith was committed the Christian culture of this promising region. In this arrangement there was no intention to interfere with the native church; Mr. Smith's time was to be devoted to evangelic labours in the surrounding hamlets.
Owing to some difference with the Auxiliary, Gunput, however, soon abandoned his post, and the duties of the pastorate then devolved upon Mr. Smith. He found great laxity of discipline existing, and that the members still retained many heathen practices among them, wearing their necklaces, intermarrying with the heathen, and even attending their pagan festivals. In a short time it was discovered that caste continued to be observed; that the Punchayat, or council of the caste, still exercised its power over the people, many not daring in opposition to its decisions even to attend the house of God.
The attempt to remedy this evil led to the breaking up of the church. Some bathed in the Jumna, others paid fines, and eventually nearly all were again settled in caste. And now the prospects of the spread of the gospel were very discouraging. The zemindara would not allow a Christian to remain in the village. The wells and shops were closed to Christians; they were driven from the markets. The threat of exclusion from caste, freely used by the Punchayats, seemed to shut the door to the entrance of the truth. It presented an apparently insurmountable barrier to the diffusion of divine truth.
The formation of a Christian village was resolved upon. Two hundred bigahs of somewhat sterile land were rented of the zemindar, within half a mile of the village of Chitoura, which were relet to the native Christians, and for some years at an annual loss. However, its value gradually increased, and before the mutiny, it had for some time been entirely in the hands of the native Christians, by whom the entire original rent was paid. Thus one difficulty was overcome, and a refuge found for the persecuted followers of Christ.
The church was reorganised on the 5th of June, 1847. The truth slowly spread: and every year witnessed additions to the little fleck. At the close of the year 1849, there were twenty-three members in the church, and the village contained ninety inhabitants, all of whom had separated themselves from the caste customs of their countrymen, and were daily receiving Christian instruction. "Three years ago," said the missionary, speaking of himself and Thakur Das, his native helper, and of the success which had already dawned upon their labours:
"Three years ago we sat in the old building, in the heathen village, nearly alone, almost despairing of success, the prospect appeared so dark and discouraging. The place where I now write was then a barren plain; now it contains two bungalows, a comfortable building used for a chapel and school, and three rows of Christian houses, containing altogether a population of ninety souls. Some have been, we hope, brought out of the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of Christ; others are inquiring the way to Zion. Schools have been commenced for boys and girls, and are well attended, and prospering; and the gospel leaven is at work through the whole district."
Some ninety villages were embraced within the circuit of the itinerant labours of the missionary.
The girls' school partly consisted of some orphans who were received at Claitount on the breaking up of the Orphan Refuge at Patna.
In the following year severe trials befell the station. First, Walayat Ali was arrested while preaching at Shumshabad, on an action commenced by his brother, a bigoted Mohammedan. The claim was for money and property, said to have been left by his father, who had been dead twenty-three years before. The Mohammedan judge, through religious hatred, decided against Walayat Ali, but the decision was reversed on appeal to the English judge.
Next, the son of Thakur Das was inhumanely murdered on his way to the Christian village. Seven of the native Christians were seized by the police, and two were at length charged with the crime. Witnesses were suborned, money and grain distributed, and promises of reward lavishly made, should their efforts be crowned with success. The adversaries threatened to dig out the Christians root and branch. The two prisoners suffered severely; they were handcuffed, and their feet made fast in the stocks. On one occasion they were beaten by the head of the police to force them to a confession of the crime. Bail was at length taken for their appearance at the trial when the magistrate at once dismissed the case. The evidence was so contradictory as to satisfy him of the innocence of the accused.
Yet the Word of God grew. Eight persons during this year of trial put on Christ by baptism. At the markets and the fairs the preaching of the cross was listened to by increasing numbers. The stormy clouds of tribulation passed away, and a period of peaceful and successful labour followed. The refuge afforded by the Christian village was resorted to by several converts; schools were established in other villages, and many were found to be halting between two opinions, doubting whether Krishna or Christ should have their obedience and love. The Shumahabad school had, however, to meet the opposition of the pundits of the neighbouring temple; twice they succeeded in nearly emptying the school, but it shortly recovered its numbers, and contained usually from forty to fifty boys under regular instruction.
At the commencement of the year 1856, Mr. Smith was constrained by failing health to return for a time to England. Immediately preceding his departure, John Bernard, a native catechist, and for some years a tried servant of Christ and preacher of the word in Muttra, was chosen as pastor by the people, and regularly set apart to the ministry of the Word among them. The church then contained fifty communicants, and the total number of residents in the Christian village was 104. From this time to the breaking out of the mutiny, missionary labour went on.
The neighbouring villages were visited by Bernard and Thakur Das, and several persons were added to the church by baptism. In some cases discipline had to be exercised, and generally the prospects of the native pastorate were good. Suddenly the storm of rebellion swept over the land. The Christians were scattered in every direction. Some found a refuge in the Fort of Agra, others in the villages among their friends. But their faith has stood the sharp test of persecution and suffering, and measures are now in progress to reorganise the church and station which the return of Mr. Smith will complete.
When the church was disorganised by the caste question there appeared no possibility of a Christian living independently in his own village. He was not permitted to buy or sell; every avenue of employment was closed against him. Hence arose the necessity for the formation of a Christian settlement. Some have advocated the establishment of native Christian villages, distinct from the heathen. Such separation it is supposed would lead to an earlier laying aside of heathen practices, and afford to the missionary frequent opportunities of instruction and oversight.
But in the North-West Provinces the real necessity lay in the nature of the tenure of the land, and the exclusion from all family connection by the loss of caste which followed the confession of Christ. As a general result the good effects of this isolation have been few. Probably it has hindered the diffusion of divine truth rather than fostered it, while some evils have arisen in the body of the Christian community which have neutralised the good that has been done. It was not possible to confine the inhabitants of the village entirely to true Christians. Hence the occasional presence of improper persons has thrown discredit on the profession of the rest; while the heathen have not seen much of that piety which adorned the daily walk of the great body of the converts.
Until, however, a better feeling prevailed in the surrounding villages no other course was practicable, and this small Christian settlement of Nistarpur, "the town of salvation," grew up by the side of the heathen village of Chitoura. The people were there protected from persecution, and from the grasp of the zemindar. But employment must be found for them.
Most of the converts were weavers, and weaving is but a poorly remunerated employment in India. Four shillings a month is the average of earnings with the native loom. This led in 1851 to the introduction into the village of two Scotch looms, kindly obtained by Mr. Urquhart, and Mr. Smith now busied himself in instructing the native Christians how to work them. By degrees improvements were introduced into the native loom, for it was found almost impossible to get the people to understand or fully use the English loom.
Still diligence and industry overcame all obstacles, and a large weaving shop or factory was built by local donations, assisted by the Lieutenant-Governor of the province. The success was on the whole very satisfactory. So much progress had been made, that just before the mutiny the people were able to work the looms on their own account, markets had been found for their manufactures, and there was the prospect of the missionaries being released from all further trouble with the secular interests of the people.
Many of the towns have been destroyed by the rebels, but the weaving shop remains nearly uninjured. On the reorganization of the station, it is doubtful whether many of the people will return to their former occupation or even to the village itself. For the most part they have found other employment in Agra under a government which before the mutiny generally ignored their existence. It is, therefore, probable that few will be found to return to their old employment. Should any do so, the experiment will not have been without beneficial results.
During the few years of its continuance, this station has enjoyed many tokens of the Divine favour, and missionary labour is being resumed under very favouring prospects. Already our native brother Thakur Du has revisited all the scenes of past exertion, and has met with a cordial welcome. The old opposition to Christianity has to a large extent disappeared. The houses and markets of the people are open to our native brethren. The leaven of the gospel has manifestly penetrated into many places, and hopefully may the servant of Christ resume his evangelic toil.