Thomas Jones Day: No Dichotomy in Thomas Jones’ Mission

By Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh

For the benefit of non-presbyterian readers and others, Thomas Jones Day is to commemorate the work and contributions of the first missionary of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Foreign Missions who arrived in Saitsohpen, Sohra on June 22, 1841. The Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Presbyterian Church is a strand of protestant Christianity deeply rooted in the Methodist movement in England and Wales in the early part of the 18th century. It all began in the year 1729 at the Oxford University when Morgan, John Wesley and others decided to meet every evening to read the New Testament and also to visit prisoners in jail every weekend. In the same spirit the gathering was held in Wales under the leadership of Howell Harris from 1735.
Among the stalwarts of the Methodist movement was John Wesley who was known as the great preacher of the Gospel in Great Britain. However, he was also the champion of Justice (socio and economic) and who firmly stood against all forms of exploitations and injustices. In the book The Good News to the Poor, Theodore W. Jennings, Jr had quoted several texts from teachings of John Wesley and it can be reproduced here; “…But how many are there in this Christian country, that toil and labour, and sweat and have it not at last, but struggle with weariness and hunger together? Is it not worse for one, after a hard day’s labour, to come back to a poor, cold, dirty, uncomfortable lodging, and to find there not even the food which is needful to repair his wasted strength? You that live with ease in the earth, that want nothing but eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to understand how well God hath dealt with you- is it not worse to see bread day by day and find none? Perhaps to find comfort also of five or six children crying for what he has not to give! …O want of bread! O want of bread! Who can tell what this means, unless he hath felt it himself?”
In 1823 the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Presbyterian Assembly adopted the confession of faith and basic tenets which were to become the guiding social and spiritual principles of the adherents of Presbyterianism. Apart from the spiritual or rather doctrinal principles, the Welsh Presbyterian Assembly had also explicated socio-economic principles and incorporated them in its foundational document. To quote from paragraphs 14, 15, 17, 18 and 23 of the foundational text, members of the Church are taught- “not to take advantage of the ignorance of the consumers and overburden them with exorbitant prices in trade and business dealings. Not to cheat or sell stolen products and not to evade taxes which are duly charged for their trade. Not to be selfish, greedy and exploitative…however to be kind, empathic and compassionate. Not to be dishonest in executing justice etc. Those who live by the sea ought to show compassion to travellers by sea. In case of any mishap at sea they ought to extend help to victims and ensure that any loss during the shipwreck is compensated justly and fairly…”
To better understand the life and works of Thomas Jones in the land of u Hynniewtrep, one has to grasp the historical context of England and Wales during the emergence of the Industrial Revolution. The interplay of socio-economic-political power and theology, ethics and spirituality have certainly shaped and informed his mission in these Hills. There were epoch changes in Great Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. These changes came in two ways; viz, through Legislations in the form of Enclosures Act and the Industrial Revolution. These had adversely impacted the socio – economic lives of the people. The rich had become richer and the poor became poorer. During the Industrial Revolution there was enormous rural migration and this caused a change in the demography of urban and industrial centres. In towns and cities people lived in shanties and makeshift tents with no access to basic amenities like drinking water, food, housing, health and sanitation.
Before the Enclosures there were two types of land holdings in England which were termed as open fields or commons. There were commons whose ownership or land use were managed by commoners and the second type was managed by private individuals or families, called manorial system. Between 1760 and 1870, about 4000 Enclosures Acts were legislated through which 7 million acres of common lands were transferred to private ownership. Those who no longer have access to these open fields became landless and impoverished farmers, peasants etc., who migrated to towns and cities in herds. Until the 1760, commoners in rural England had access to land in the form of collective management of commons for agricultural and livestock purposes and this gave them decent means to livelihood. But with the introduction of Enclosures their lives turned upside down and many hopes were destroyed completely.
Thomas Jones arrived in Sohra in the monsoon of 1841 and his first act was to reduce the local Sohra dialect to writing so that the natives could understand and read the Bible. According to Maurice G. Lyngdoh, “The first task that Rev Jones had in mind was to explore all avenues to reduce to writing the language of the Khasis and replace the Bengali scripts adopted by Rev William Carey.” A year after his arrival he opened three lower primary schools, which in Khasi were popularly called as “Elpi skul”, in Mawmluh, Mawsmai and Sohra in 1842. Eventually Rev Jones began the translation works and translated the Rodham or Mother’s Gift and the Gospel of Matthew which were published in 1842 and 1846 respectively. Rev Jones also gave the Khasi community the first book to be read in school, the First Khasi Reader etc.
When Thomas Jones arrived, the officials, mostly Englishmen, of the British East India Company were found to be corrupt and utterly dishonest. The exploitation against the natives was rampant and poor tribals had no means to challenge and confront the powers that be, let alone the mighty British Empire. As quoted by Prof S.S Majaw in his book. U Thomas Jones bad Ka Pyrthei Saitsohpen, “To the Khasi and European traders alike …the regime in the Hills was rampantly corrupt and wildly out of control.” Further it was reported, “Allegations of venality, oppression and corruption on the part of the officials at Cherra Court to which these hillmen had to resort…The people used to say, we can do nothing, every case is lost unless we give bribes.”
The condition then was extremely pathetic and Thomas Jones found himself in the context which was similar to the country of his origin. Indeed, he was sent by his sponsors to primarily preach the Gospel and proselytise the so-called “heathens and ungodly people”. But to his astonishment he found that his own blood and people of his colour were exploitative and brutal in their dealings with the natives. Many orange orchards which belonged to the natives in Ri War or areas bordering Bangladesh were forcefully attached to the Inglis & Company at Chatak. Lieutenant Harry Inglis was known for his abuse of power and position, and during his tenure as Assistant Political Agent he allowed only oranges to be traded and thereby compelled the natives and orchard growers to sell their produce to his Company and obtained exclusive rights to trade and export oranges outside.
The fact is that Thomas Jones had a big fall-out with the Welsh Mission in Khasi Hills and the Mother Church in Wales and a long list of unfounded and baseless allegations were pressed against him. Perhaps, the Welsh Mission in the Khasi Hills or Mother Church in Wales was not happy with him because he spoke truth to power. He openly confronted and challenged the corrupt and the abuse of power by the officials of the British East India Company, especially Harry Inglis, who exploited the natives and common people. Without fear of reprisal, he wrote to the Board of Directors and stated that the Court at Cherra was dishonest and partial. Thomas Jones would never compromise with injustices and after witnessing the abuse of power and injustices committed by the British officials, who was of his own blood, he vowed to himself that he would never identify with them, rather stand up and call out the exploiters.
In the light of growing corruption and criminality in politics and governance in the State of Meghalaya, recently there was the debate and exchange of arguments as to the role of the Church in society. I can only say that there is no middle path and one cannot advocate with a dishonest and corrupt system. We need to confront corruption head on with clarity of thought and commitment. One hundred and eighty years ago the Reverend Thomas Jones had sowed the seeds of liberation and profoundly expounded the idea of Insaaf (Justice) in these Hills.
What are we doing today if not confronting the evils of corruption?

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