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WHY  CELEBRATE THOMAS  JONES  DAY?

By Rev. Lyndan Syiem

Who exactly is Thomas Jones? And why has the Government of Meghalaya declared the date of his arrival at Sohra a public holiday in the six districts of East Khasi, West Khasi, South-West Khasi, Ri Bhoi, West Jaiñtia and East Jaiñtia? More pertinently, why accord official recognition one hundred and seventy seven years after his arrival? These are three questions that the Presbyterian Church, as the direct inheritor of Thomas Jones’ legacy, must address.

1.The basic details of the life and times of the pioneer Welsh missionary to the Khasi-Jaintia Hills are clear and conventional. The details of his later, post-missionary days though are somewhat unconventional, which accounts for his belated recognition by church, society and the government.Thomas Jones was born in the village of Tanyffridd, North Wales, on 24 January, 1810. Like nearly everyone in Wales at that time, his family was poor; his father was a carpenter and young Thomas served as his apprentice. Like other poor Welsh lads, he did not have any formal education and was largely self-taught. He was very active in his local church and started preaching at the age of twenty five. In 1837,Thomas Jones enrolled in the Theological College at Bala, Wales, and also received basic health-care training at the Medical College at Glasgow, Scotland.

It was Bala, with its then revivalist atmosphere,that crystallized his desire to serve as a missionary in India. Rejected by the London Missionary Society on whimsical grounds, his aggrieved fellow Welshmen formed the Welsh Calvinistic-Methodists’ Foreign Missionary Society in 1840 to support him. While considering several options for a mission field, there came the offer of a free passage worth Rs 650 for the newly-ordained, newly-married Rev. Thomas and Anne Jones to the great port of Calcutta. This was what eventually decided the Khasi Hills as the mission field.

The British East India Company had defeated Burma in 1826 and opened up the Barak and Brahmaputra valley to trade. The “Khassias” who lived in the intervening Hills were highly recommended and so the Jones’ braved the summer heat of the Sylhet plains and the torrential monsoon rains to arrive at Sohra, the British headquarters, on 22 June, 1841.The Company officially discouraged missionaries in its domains, but officials like Captain Lewinin their individual capacity helped Jones establish his work among the Khasis.

It was from Sohra that the legend of Thomas Jones began and quickly spread throughout these hills. While contemporaneous 19thcentury missionaries stuck to preaching,planting churches and primary medical aid, Jones also ventured into teaching the Khasis basic carpentry, lime-mortar masonry, black-smithy, coal-fuelled lime kilns and agricultural innovations.

His most significant contribution though was the Khasi alphabet in the Roman script which, with few minor modifications, remains till today. He also greatly contributed to the establishment of the Sohra variety (dialect) as the common language throughout the Khasi-Jaiñtia Hills. Besides these, he was untiring in the traditional missionary activities of schools, writing catechisms (Rhodd MamYrHyfforddwr), opening new mission stations, and sending detailed reports back home. His greatest literary success was the Gospel of Matthew in Khasi, in the Roman script. This would become the template for the translation and writing style of all the sixty six books of Scripture.

  1. The above is of course just a summary of Thomas Jones’ momentous achievements, on which basis the State Government has declared 22 June as an annual holiday in six districts. Following this pioneer, the Welsh Calvinistic-Methodist (or Presbyterian) Church sent a steady flow of missionaries who established churches, schools, dispensaries and hospitals all over the Khasi-Jaiñtia Hills. Foremost among them was Rev. Dr. John Roberts, widely acknowledged as the ‘Father of Khasi Literature’ and founder of the Cherra Theological College at Sohra, and Dr. H. Gordon Roberts, founder of the hospital that bears his name.

These missionaries, together with others from various other denominations, brought about the social, literary and economic renaissance of the Khasi-Jaiñtia people. In a larger sense therefore, Thomas Jones Day is tribute not just to one man but to others who followed him, all of whom have sacrificially contributed to the overall development of the Khasis. One hopes therefore that this day will be spent in meaningful reflection; not just within the Presbyterian Church but by everyone who values our common history and recognizes those who have helped shape it.

  1. Finally, to the question of his belated recognition by church, society and government. The reason is that his later life took a diversion from the usual missionary career. By 1846, with the first batch of baptisms, Thomas Jones was outwardly a successful missionary;but inwardly, he was hurting. Anne Jones had lost her first child at Calcutta and the second at Sohra; she herself was sickly and unable to support her husband. Poor Anne Jones passed away on 22 August, 1845. The many problems, tropical illnesses and dangers exacted their toll on Thomas Jones’ body, mind and spirit.

The directors of the mission in faraway Liverpool failed to comprehend the trials their pioneer missionary was facing. The details are hazy but Jones apparently entered into an injudicious –albeit legal– second marriage. The directors demanded puritan conformity when their battered missionary needed understanding and support. There was no option for Thomas Jones but to leave the mission and support himself through trading. Hence the half-hearted, apologetic treatment his later life received in official church chronicles. Since the Sesquicentennial Jubilee in 1991 however, many scholars have worked hard to rehabilitate his name, which has finally resulted in official recognition by church, society and now, by the government.

Despite having left, Jones continued to help the Welsh Mission especially in translating and printing books at Calcutta.Unfortunately, in the course of his trading he came into conflict with the infamous Harry Inglis, who together with his father in law and Political Agent, Captain Lister, dominated the coal, limestone and orange trade along Sohra-Shella-Sylhet-Calcutta. I have not read the primary historical sources but Thomas Jones apparently also sided with some Khasi traders against the two monopolists. The result was that Inglis and Lister persecuted the Welsh upstart and he had to flee from place to place till he reached Calcutta in 1849, a broken, fever-stricken man.

Thomas Jones died on 16 September, 1849, at the young age of thirty nine; he was buried at the Scottish Church Cemetery at Calcutta. The grave remained forgottenfor a century and four decades until it was discovered by the eminent historian, Dr. David R. Syiemlieh and renovated by the KJP Synod in 1989. The earthly life of Thomas Jones was undoubtedly tragic but the legacy he left behind is also undoubtedly prodigious. In the eight years he spent among the Khasis, he packed a lifetime’s worth of service and may I add, an eternity of blessings. These are some of the reasons why we celebrate Thomas Jones Day.

 

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