In a nondescript corner of the Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville, St. Paul, lies the simple gravestone of Bengt Ivar Anderson. He was an American missionary whose influence and impact on Nagaland is profound and personal.
Shortly before our visit, the grass that grows over the gravestones was cleared. But it was September and the leaves continued to fall all over the gravestones. The fall and the coming winter would have little effect on the larger, majestic gravestones of wealthier families.
Bengt Anderson was eighteen when he boarded a ship from Sweden bound for America in 1915. His mother had died of tuberculosis when he was still a teenager and he never saw his father until much later in life.
After deciding to follow Christ, he finished his studies at Bethel Seminary in St.Paul in 1921. He married Edna Michaelson and boarded a ship to India from New York in 1926.
Bengt Anderson’s Journey to Nagaland
The journey took a few months, past Gibraltar, Port Said, Suez Canal, Karachi, to Calcutta (now Kolkata).
From Calcutta, they took a train via Siliguri into Assam, boarded a ferry from Amingaon (Guwahati) up the Brahmaputra, and then by road to Jorhat—the base of the American Baptist Mission.
Such missionary journeys were essentially a one-way ticket. There were very few in the field who knew the land, and even fewer who knew about the people native to the region.
The missionary work to the Nagas in North-east India was almost by accident. The focus of the American Baptist Mission, initially, was mostly on the Assam Valley.
In his journals, Bengt Anderson writes about how the British Administrators were wary about the “savage headhunters” from the Naga hills who were raiding the tea gardens in the Assam valley.
Not keen to send in boots into the jungles, they suggested bringing in the missionaries. They even sought advice from Adoniram Judson in Burma (now Myanmar).
Edward Winter Clark finally took the leap of faith in the dark. He was based in Sibsagar, Assam and entered the Ao Naga territory in 1872. Incidentally, the Ao tribe recently celebrated one hundred and fifty years of Christianity.
Bengt Anderson arrived in Kohima en route to Impur in Mokokchung, which was now the primary mission centre in Nagaland. By this time, considerable amount of work had been done among the Nagas.
Bengt Anderson’s Impact on Nagaland
Anderson writes about meeting Angami boys in Kohima who spoke in perfect English and well-educated Ao missionaries who were leading the field work in Mokokchung and beyond. But there was more work to do.
Outreach to the other tribes had generally started. But it was not until 1937 that Bengt Anderson established the first mission centre to the large Sumi tribe in Aizuto, Zunheboto.
In anguish, he writes in his journals that this mission centre came “twenty years too late.”
The youngest of the American Baptist Mission’s stations was in Aizuto. Anderson writes that the largest ever ingathering in the history of the Mission was recorded among the Sumis.
In 1937, the Lower Primary school opened in Aizuto. Four years later, in 1941, it became a Middle English School—the only one in Sumi territory at that time.
In those days, progress on education was slow and the Nagas who could afford higher education had to leave the hills.
My grandfather Lukhashe Chishi was studying in Kohima Mission School around this time. The Kohima Mission School and Impur Mission School were, by then, the most popular schools in Nagaland.
My grandfather worked hard. With the help of Bengt Anderson, he received the mission stipend of four rupees.
Later, in 1932, he earned the government stipend of five rupees, based on merit. This helped to ease my grandfather’s financial situation.
In 1936, Anderson sponsored my grandfather’s higher education and sent him for studies in Class VII in Jorhat Mission School in Assam.
Four years later, in 1940, my grandfather returned as Headmaster of the Aizuto Mission School. My grandfather matriculated in 1946, the year my father was born.
The Legacy of Bengt Anderson
Deep within the archives of Bethel University in St. Paul lie many pages of the original field reports of Bengt Ivar Anderson. They record stories from his life of almost thirty years in North-east India.
These priceless stories preserve a history of the lives of the headhunting Naga tribes and how the gospel was preached to them, one village, one soul at a time.
They also tell about the seemingly stubborn foolhardiness of Bengt Anderson, who not only risked his own life but the life of his wife and children, for the sake of the gospel.
The Bible was translated into many Naga tribal languages due to the work of such missionaries. The rest, as they say, is history.
Audrey Wheeler, Anderson’s daughter, is in her nineties, and full of energy when she talks about India. She has a slightly raspy tone in her voice that reveals her Indian origin, especially when she describes Nagas killing tigers or the time she rode on horseback from Aizuto to Kohima across the jungles of Nagaland. Her love for Nagas and the land is unmistakable.
The Motivation Behind Anderson’s Work
No words come to mind when I try and encapsulate all that Anderson and his family went through, spending three decades with the Nagas, especially with the Sumi tribe to which I belong.
In those times, there were dangerous headhunters and wildlife in the Naga jungles. If not for the painstaking work done by people like Anderson, I am certain that education would have come much later to our people.
What would make someone sold to such an unlikely mission and give them the confidence to buy a one-way ticket, embracing any and all the consequences? The gospel and the person of Jesus Christ is the only explanation that makes sense.
The gospel can so transform our hearts, worldview, and reason for being alive, that we will be willing to embrace any calling from God. He came to seek and serve us, so we are eager to go wherever he may send us.
It has been a few months since I accompanied my father to the twin cities. We rekindled these old connections and met some of his old friends.
As I recall the unassuming gravestones at Roselawn Cemetery, I am filled with joy at the assurance of the knowledge that these are the gravestones of royalty in heaven.