The Church in Nepal: Analysis of Its Gestation and Growth

Article excerpt

Until recently Nepal was the world's only Hindu kingdom. (1) e mighty Himalayas and the fact that Nepal was a closed land until the middle of the twentieth century enticed many, but from 1881 to 1925 only 153 Europeans are known to have visited Nepal and none became a resident. (2) This tiny mountainous country, sandwiched between India and Tibet, had resisted the might of the British Empire since King Prithvi Narayan Shah from Gorkha (hence "Gurkhas," the renowned soldiers) unified the country into one kingdom in 1769. From 1848 until the middle of the twentieth century, the country was controlled by the Rana prime ministers, who had usurped the monarchy and had vested interests in keeping the world out. Their century of control was ended by an Indian-facilitated coup on February 16, 1951, that placed King Tribhuvan Shah in power.

The earliest recorded entry of Christians into Nepal was the visit of a Father Cabral, a Jesuit priest, in 1628. Capuchin monks were given permission by the Malla rulers to reside in the Kathmandu valley in 1715, but they were forced to leave by Prithvi Narayan Shah in 1769. The few national Christians, expelled at the same time, migrated to Bihar, India. (3) For almost two centuries Nepal was totally closed to any Christian presence or influence.

The revolution in 1951 was a turning point in the country's development and in its openness to the outside world. Surprisingly, part of this story, the founding and growth of the church in Nepal, which is among the fastest growing anywhere in the modem world, has been recorded in only a handful of books. (4) From just a single secret Christian residing in Nepal in 1951, the number of Nepali Christians grew to about 40,000 baptized believers by 1990 and has increased more rapidly since then. (5) Estimates of the number of Nepali Christians vary widely, and government census figures have been unreliable. The most comprehensive survey of churches and Christians in Nepal was conducted by the Nepal Research and Resource Network. Begun in 2001 with the results published in 2007, the survey covered all seventy-five districts of the country. It showed a total of 2,799 churches and 274,462 baptised church members. The survey counted 379,042 persons attending churches and presumed to be Christian; this number equals about 1.5 percent of Nepal's population. Ten percent of the churches have sent out a missionary or evangelist, and one out of five churches has planted one or more daughter churches. Some, however, question the approach used in the survey, and several church leaders consider the figures obtained to be unduly low. (6) K. B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal, estimates that there are 800,000 Christians in Nepal. (7) Whichever figure is correct, this growth during the church's formative years is striking and merits examination.

Background Factors (1628-1950)

Following the visits by the Jesuit and Capuchin monks, other significant factors spanning more than a century helped to prepare for entry of the Christian Gospel into Nepal. For one thing, Protestant interest in Christian mission to Nepal has been present from the time of William Carey. The Serampore translation of the New Testament into Nepali, completed in 1821, was superseded only when the British and Foreign Bible Society's Nepali translations of the New Testament (1902) and the Old Testament (1914) were completed. (8) Although in 1950 only 2 percent of Nepalis were literate, Christian literature had been used sporadically during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to penetrate the border, despite laws that prohibited its sale, possession, or use within Nepal.

Second, as the map on page 190 illustrates, from the later nineteenth century numerous Protestant missions and missionaries in northern India were poised to enter Nepal when the opportunity came. (9) Prior to 1950 all the towns underlined (and more) had ongoing mission work among the itinerant Nepalis who crossed the Indo-Nepal border. …