Happenings, News

The day a Batak chief, his wife and his mother were baptised in a village

Vera M. Edborg, a Methodist woman missionary, writes feelingly about the baptism of a Batak chief – a service conducted by the Rev Dr August Prussner, a German-born Methodist missionary who served in Sumatra, setting up and supervising churches and schools in the Batak villages of Simalungan District between 1927 and 1935.

Tuan Nagori and his wife all set for baptism in the village of Nagori. – Methodist Church Archives picture. Courtesy: Paul Means Collection.

THE room was crowded with Bataks – men, women and children. They had jammed the shaky insecure porch. They massed themselves outside the open windows which being without benefit of glass, offered to several enterprising youngsters not only a view of the room but a partial entrance into it as well.

Tuan Nagori, chieftain of Nagori, is the descendent of a long line of Simalungan rulers … his father, a great chieftain, who with his nine wives lived in a huge Batak house …

And on this day, Tuan Nagori, his only living son, was to become a Christian. The news had gone out through the land of the Simalungans, and all through the night the people had been gathering in the village of Nagori.

Tuan Nagori told us that he and his household had not slept at all, but had spent the night in feasting and receiving their guests. Not a few were men of rank who had come to show him respect on the great day of his life. Many were lesser men and women who had come out of the jungle forest, impelled by fearful curiosity, anxious to behold the process by which their chief was to become a Christian.

The tropical sun had reached the zenith. The perspiring people crushed together in the small room, endured the fierce heat with Oriental patience. The women’s lips were red betel nut and its stale sickly-sweet odour filled our nostrils. An aroma of spices and curry drifted in, for the service was to be followed by a feast to which all were invited, Tuan Nagori being the host

There were three chairs. These were given to Dr Prussner, Mrs Prussner and me. Dr Prussner’s was placed before the inner door and a small space was cleared in front of him in lieu of platform and pulpit. Mrs Prussner’s and mine were near a window. The women were seated on the floor, many of them with babies on their backs … Children pushed and thrust among the women or were lifted in their fathers’ arms that they might better see. The men stood, Indian-straight against the walls.

Dr Prussner arose, and Tuan Nagori came and stood before him. He seemed very changed to me. The age-old sadness of his face was gone. It had always been there before, a sadness inherited from his fathers who had lived in the jungle before him – frightened, longing men who never found the Light – but Tuan Nagori had found it – the Burning, Shining Light – and today his eyes were aglow with happiness. His wife and his mother stood beside him.

Another woman dropped her turban to the floor and stepped to the side of Tuan Nagori’s mother. She was Rainim, Listang’s wife. Rainim had been a siar-siaran, a medium between the spirit world and the jungle people. Very alone she seemed now for Listang was afraid to stand beside her. He feared even to come to the house where she was to be baptised, and waited alone in the little bamboo hut beside the path, for her return …

Dr Prussner began to read the baptismal service … and the four to be baptised knelt with bowed heads and hands reverently folded. The room was without sound, save that of the missionary’s voice: “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?” “And in Jesus Christ, our Lord?” “Will you walk in newness of life trusting?”
And always before Dr Prussner could read the answer which they were to repeat, Tuan Nagori had answered in a whispered voice, “Saya, Tuan! Saya, Tuan!” (I do, Sir! I Will, Sir!) forgetting to repeat the formal answer in the urgency of his heart to make his promise to Christ. The onlookers stood still as Dr Prussner laid his hands upon one head after another, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

My own eyes smarted with tears. Was it on account of the smoke twisting about me? Or was it the gladness and pain that constricted my heart, as I saw Rainim, kneeling alone, without husband or child by her side as she gave herself to Christ? I only knew that the stillness and holiness were more than I could bear. The Kingdom of Heaven had come into this poor room! Christ, all glorious, with infinite love and tenderness, had received this jungle chief and these tired women to himself …’ — MM Aug 1932, p. 13.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.