Text and Context in Dialogue

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Book Review

A Biographical History of the Church in Nepal, by Cindy Perry, Nepal Church History Project, Kathmandu, 1990, 150 pages.

Reviewed by Sue Allaby

Cindy Perry's A Biographical History of the Church in Nepal is a slim and very readable book. It caught my interest because it tells the history of the young church in Nepal 'from a biographical perspective, built around the life stories of some of the first Nepali Christians.' Till now I had only learnt about the Nepali church through reading histories of Western missions or autobiographies of Western missionaries. As the author points out, this has its limitations, especially in a country 'where the Christian church has been planted and has grown up largely through the tireless efforts of her own people, with only secondary mission influence.'

The book is clearly set out in 3 parts. The first part looks back to the 1600s and 1700s with Nepal as a closed land. The second section focuses on the century of preparation before the Revolution of the 1950-51 winter, after which the way opened up for Nepali Christians and Christian missions to live in Nepal. The last part covers the increased Protestant missionary activity directed at Nepalis in the decades leading up to 1950. Finally, it tells of the planting of the church within Nepal in the 1950s and 60s by the Nepali Christians, who had been faithfully praying, preaching and witnessing on the borders for years previously, always with an eye to returning to their home country. It is worth highlighting at this point that the book does not in any way cover the church's experiences beyond 1970.

It is interesting to discover in the first chapter that Nepal's first contact with Christians was with the Jesuit missions who used her as a routeway between Tibet and India. However, it was the Capuchin Fathers who had two significant periods of ministry under the Malla Dynasty, before 1769, when Prithvi Narayan Shah, having united the different kingdoms of the Valley and hills around into a modern state, started a policy of exclusion towards all foreigners and Christians. This was re-inforced by the Rana regime that forced its way into power in 1846. I appreciated the succinct summaries at the end of this section.

Part 2 focuses on the Darjeeling area where many Nepalis migrated to work in the British tea plantations in the 1800s. Here they could freely hear the gospel. Despite opposition after the first baptisms, the Nepali church took root under the Church of Scotland and grew to almost 14,000 by 1945. Many courageous efforts were made to reach Nepal from Darjeeling with the Gospel and the author tells the inspiring life stories of four pioneers of the Darjeeling Church. This part concludes with a look at Darjeeling as a centre for the translation of the bible into Nepali and the production of Nepali Christian literature, again capped by a succinct summary.

Part 3 is devoted to the pre-Revolution decades when missionaries, joined by faithful Nepali Christian colleagues, worked so hard to plant the seeds of the Gospel through literature, preaching and practical social ministry, e.g. mobile clinics, schools and hospitals along Nepal's borders. Cindy Perry is keen to emphasise that 'these Nepali men and women of God, rather than the missionaries, were the vanguard in the planting of the church within Nepal.' The most interesting section of the book for me is when the author introduces us to some Nepali Christians who pioneered the early growth of the Nepali Church. She chooses both men and women from diverse backgrounds who made very different but significant contributions, and gives us their potted life histories, ranging from the evangelist Barnabas Rai to David Mukhia, the pastor of the first Nepali church inside Nepal. Each life story has its own inspiring tale of suffering, boldness and commitment to establishing the early church. I like the way this part is rounded off with a summary of the early church growth in the 1950s with its relative freedom, and the dynamic expansion of the church in the 1960s, set against societal opposition and the 'one-party, one-religion state' instituted by King Mahendra in 1960.

Cindy Perry contributes a fresh and arresting perspective on Nepali church growth through her focus on Nepali believers. Nepal's political history is helpfully explained to throw light on the changing fortunes of Nepali Christians. Each section has a very detailed set of references and the author does not shy away from highlighting the discrepancies between some sources. The author has based the book on extensive primary sources, ranging from interviews, letters and cassettes to an equally impressive set of secondary sources. Two simple maps outline the location of pre- and post-1950s Nepali Churches respectively. At the end there is a great collection of old photos bringing to life many of the names mentioned in the book.

If there were frustrations with the book, then some were acknowledged by the author at the outset. Cindy Perry said it was a challenge to limit the number of persons included, and I know some felt it could have included more. By including some, you offend by excluding many others. Though the focus of the story was on church leaders, it was good to see it acknowledged that many of the true 'heroes' of the faith in Nepal are 'unknown, living in obscure parts of the country. Yet their quiet witness and simple, tenacious faith have radiated the Gospel far and wide.' Occasionally, issues were alluded to, e.g. tensions between mission and Nepali church relationships, or missiological issues, e.g. a sweeper being baptised in the early Bhaktapur Church, causing three Newari families to leave the church. It would have been interesting to give some more background and detail to such issues. Finally, because I am more accustomed to reading about the history of one mission or missionary's life, I found it a little hard to hop between different individuals and locations. However, that cannot be a fair criticism of a book which describes itself as A Biographical History of the Church in Nepal-Cindy Perry has presented this history in a lively and engaging way. I would also echo with the author that the 'next phase of the story cries out to be told'.

bhakti. bhakti, nom. devotion, love, loyalty