India - North (NELC)

India - North (NELC)

Danish Santal Mission established work among the Santal tribe in Santal Parganas from September 1867. Today NELC has about 100,000 members (2000).

Danish Santal Mission in North India 1867 – 2000

The ‘official’ date of commencement of the work, later called Danish Santal Mission, is 26 September 1867. Prior to that date had passed many events not not be described here. Further information can be found in plenty of literary materials.

The name Santal Mission originated from the work that was directed to an ethnic group in the northeastern part of India, called The Santals. They belong to a tribe forming part of India’s original population before the Aryan immigration. The Santal people have been strongly suppressed for centuries as other tribes around India. The Santals exist today mainly in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Assam in northeastern India at the foot of the Himalayas, and in the by now independent Bangladesh – with the main number of Santals in Bihar.

Left to right: Paul Olaf Bodding (N), Lars Olsen Skrefsrud (N), Caroline Børresen (D), Oscar Berg (N), Hans Peter Børresen (D), Katharina Elisabeth Heuman (D), Ernst Heuman (S), V. L. Ingeborg Bahr (D), Halfdan Bahr (N), app. 1890. (D: Denmark – N: Norway – S: Sweden).

The pioneer era

In 1863 a Norwegian and in 1865 a Danish missionary arrived in this area. They had met in Berlin with a German family named Hempel. The Danish man was Hans Peter Børresen and the Norwegian Lars Olsen Skrefsrud. Børresen, born in Copenhagen, was trained as a blacksmith, but called himself an engineer. And Skrefsrud from Lillehammer in Norway had not received any education, but had come in bad company at an age of 16 and ended up in prison. Børresen travelled to Berlin for work where he met with the Hempel family and their daughter Caroline, whom he married. Lars Olsen Skrefsrud had converted in prison and wanted to be a missionary. In the prison he studied and was educated. After release he tried to be sent as a missionary but no one would accept him. He had been engaged to Anna Onsum from the area of Lillehammer in Norway. Skrefsrud also went to Berlin and here he met with Børresen and his fiancée Caroline. All of them would like to serve as missionaries and were accepted by a German mission organization, the Gossner Mission. In 1863 Skrefsrud traveled to India. And in 1865 the Børresen couple followed together with Skrefsrud’s fiancée Anna.

Cooperation with the Gossner Mission quickly ceased, but they had met with a Baptist missionary E.C. Johnson in a small town of West Bengal, named Suri. From here Børresen and Skrefsrud went on to a nearby place where they settled down, almost on the border of Bihar and West Bengal – among the Santal people. The place was Benagaria, and on 26 September 1867, they laid the foundation stone for the first building. This date is considered the beginning of The Santal Mission.

They named the mission ‘Indian Home Mission to the Santals. The name would imply that the mission had its base in India. And Børresen diligently tried to raise money for the work inside India. However, as this in the long run did not work out, Børresen had to make a trip to Denmark, Norway and other European countries to collect money. His journey in 1876-77 became the founding of a work in Denmark and in Norway – Danish and Nor-wegian Santal Mission, respectively. In Denmark the work of Børresen particularly paid attention in Grundtvig-related circles. In Norway it was more related to a pietistic evangelical environment. Circles were founded in Denmark and Norway, but in Denmark they had problems with the link to a Baptist mission in India. During his stay in Denmark, Børresen sought cooperation with The Danish Missionary Society (DMS) which was rejected. In 1877, The Danish Committee for the Santal Mission was founded in Odense.

Back in India the first three Santals were baptized in 1869. There was a break with the Baptists by 1877, and after this the mission was renamed Christian Santal Church. From now on the church grew with great speed also resulting in growth of the work in Denmark and Norway. New missionaries volunteered and the mission work spread.

The Santal Colony in Assam

In the 1870’s a war caused unrest and many Santals wanted to escape. Therefore, the possibility of moving the Santal people or some of them was discussed. They considered moving them up to Assam, further north in the foothills of the Himalayas. The missionaries traveled up there and bought a piece of land to which several thousands of the Santals were transferred. By then the mission work spread to this area and simultaneously continued to grow at the original site. New missionaries volunteered and in 1890 a tea garden in Assam, named Mornai, was acquired. This tea garden would prove to be a tremendous asset in the subsequent independence process.

A new generation of missionaries

A generational change in the mission approached, and it really started when the Norwegian Missionary P.O. Bodding came to India. Skrefsrud was a bit of a language genius, but Bodding surpassed them all in a large translation work of the Bible. H. P. Børresen died in 1901, L.O. Skrefsrud in 1910, and Caroline Børresen in 1914.

North India, Santal Parganas, Benagaria. From the NELC 50th Anniversary, November 2000. The Danmission delegation at the tomb of Hans Peter Børresen.

All three were buried at the cathedral in Benagaria which had been built. A new era in development of the mission was launched. Many missionaries from Denmark, Norway, America, and several European countries joined. And large institutions like schools and hospitals were built. In 1916 a theological seminary opened in Benagaria. After World War II, the seminary developed. And by help of the Theologians Magda and Johs. Thoft Krogh the seminary became affiliated to the old Danish university at Serampore in Calcutta (now Kolkota).

The period between the two World Wars were very fruitful with many new missionaries. Just to mention a few things. Early on there was built a clinic in Benagaria, but P.O. Bodding and his wife Dr Christine Larsen Bodding moved to a small town close by, called Mohulpahari. Here Mrs Bodding opened a clinic that later became a fully modern hospital which is still in function. In the mission medical work played a big part. Also in Benagaria they had a clinic for lepers. And in 1921 the Danish Engineer Eli Bøgh came to India and built an entire leprosy colony in Saldoha. In 1939 leprosy work also opened in Assam by the Norwegian Missionary Gunnar Fossland.

Over the years mission work had developed. In addition to work among the Santals in the so-called Santalistan (Santal Parganas) to include Santals in the Assam colony. A new work also started in the same area of ​​Assam among other original tribesmen the Boros. Skrefsrud had already in 1887 learned the local language Boroni. But now followed numerous missionaries mainly from Denmark to work among the Boro people. They built institutions at Grahampur in 1918 and at Gaorang in 1929. The already mentioned Mornai Tea Garden also became important for the work in Assam and for work generally. Many Danish missionaries had their service at Mornai.

A third area of work was among the majority population in Bengal. The Danish couple Signe and H.P.H. Kampp and the Bengali Pastor K. R. Ghosh had already in 1925 started mission work in the town of Suri. And they founded a station in the Narayanpur (Narainpur) village. The work also spread on to Nimasarai and Eklakhi in Malda District.

Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church – NELC

World War II resulted in a subsequently bigger substitution of missionaries who could not return to the home countries because of the war. This meant a very large contingent of around 70 new young missionaries – both for work among the Santals but also to the Boros and Bengalis. Among other projects, a large hospital was built at Rajadighi in Malda District with a Danish Chief Medical Officer.

All this led to the desire for greater independence of the church consisting of three people groups with three different languages. The church name changed to the Ebenezer Evangelical Lutheran Church. This occurred at a meeting on 9 – 12 March 1950. The management remained in the hands of missionaries. But in 1952 a young Santal pastor Munshi Tudu was sent to the United States for higher education. Munshi Tudu returned in 1956 and in 1958 he was appointed to the first Indian Superintendent (Bishop) of the church. And then the church name was changed to The Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church (NELC). A church consisting of three people groups with three languages ​​meant internal turmoil. Also the Santals felt, that because of the history, they had title to all the properties. As this was not accepted, almost 7,000 Santals resigned from NELC and formed their own church.

The structure of NELC was subsequently changed, with 5 dioceses and 5 bishops, (3 Santals, 1 Boro and 1 Bengal). In the early 1980’s the last missionary returned home and the church got full independence. This resulted in a very strong growth of NELC. And with the help of money from Mornay Tea Garden the church was able to fend for itself. From beginning of the work, a total of 237 Danish, Norwegian and American missionaries served in North India.

Conference for the Santal Mission Pastors and local Pastors in West Bengal, North India, probably appr. 1948. The Mission Pastors, left to right: Oluf Eie (D) – Aksel Kristiansen (D) – Secretary General Ernst Hallen (N) – Bernhard Helland (A) – (NN). (D: Denmark – A: USA – N: Norway).

Urban Mission in Calcutta – UELCI

NELC was an important player in the federation of Lutheran churches from all over India, United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India (UELCI). The church had also become a member of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). This meant that Danish Santal Mission in cooperation with UELCI and NELC could initiate urban mission work in Calcutta led by a Danish/Indian couple. This work became an extension of the urban mission, Cathe-dral Relief Service (CRS), started by a Danish and an English Santal missionary in collaboration with the Calcutta Cathedral. And which was derived from the many refugees after the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

In the last years of Danish Santal Mission, up to the merger with Danish Missionary Society to Danmission, a great expansion of the work took place. Northern Evangelical Lutheran Church (NELC), currently has about 100,000 members (year 2000). At the same time there was also an extension of mission work to countries outside India. In this way work was launched in Nepal, Cambodia and Mongolia. (More on this in other parts of the photo archive).

Pastor Thorkild Schousboe Laursen

View more photos from India North here


Thorkild Schousboe Laursen (1945). Master of Theology and ordained pastor. Chairperson in the Danish Santal Mission, 1988-2000, and the first chairperson of Danmission from 2000.

Rev. dato: 29. April 2018
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