The Santal Mission

The origin of the Santal Mission was somewhat different from that of most mission societies.

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Founders of the Santal Mission. (Skrefsrud left, Boerresen right). Litographer: Johan Nordhagen. Source: National Library of Norway

The Santal Mission was not founded in a Christian country for recruiting missionaries in order to send them to the mission field. Instead, two men established it, Hans Petter Boerresen from Denmark and Lars Olsen Skrefsrud from Norway, who had come to India to work for the German Gossner Mission, but who within a very short time broke with this organization and found themselves in India without firm organizational support. 

Neither of the two founders were typical ‘missionary material’. Lars Olsen Skrefsrud was born as the son of a tenant farmer in Faaberg (close to Lillehammer), Norway, in 1840. His father was a blacksmith and carpenter, but spent most of his earnings on liquor. As a result, the family lived in great poverty. Lars trained as a mechanic in a local factory in Lillehammer, but fell into bad company and ended up in jail convicted for theft. While in prison, he experienced a spiritual revelation that led him to embrace Christianity. Upon release, he applied to the Norwegian Missionary Society for admittance to missionary training, but they rejected him because of his criminal background. He then went to Germany, where the Gossner Mission accepted him as a missionary candidate. After a short training program, he left for India in 1863. Hans Peter Boerresen was born in Copenhagen in 1825. Shortly after his confirmation, he became an apprentice in a blacksmith shop. In 1852, he moved to Berlin, where he found work in a locomotive factory. After some time, he married the daughter of a supervisor at the factory. His wife Caroline came from a strict religious family and felt a strong missionary call. Even if Boerresen himself may not have felt the same urge, they both offered themselves as candidates to the Gossner Mission in 1863 and went to India at the end of 1864.  

After their break with the Gossner Mission, E.C Johnson from the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), a British former military officer, invited Boerresen and Skrefsrud to join him in his missionary work among the Santals. Although Boerresen and Skrefsrud were both Lutherans at the time, Johnson proposed that the Baptist Missionary Society should take the two into service, something that the society declined. Together with Johnson Skrefsrud and Boerresen then established ‘The Indian Home Mission to the Santals’, an independent indigenous Mission Society under the direction of a managing committee in India. On September 26th 1867 construction work for the first station of the Mission society, named Ebenezer, begun in Benagaria. The day is since celebrated as the birthday of the Santal Mission.

Although the Baptist Missionary Society did not formally employ neither Boerresen nor Skrefsrud, assistance from the Baptists was without doubt vital during their early days in India. Skrefsrud underwent adult baptism as required by the Baptist faith, and Baptist influence on the Santal Mission was strong during the first ten years. After that, Lutheran support groups in Scandinavia, England and USA, established by Boerresen and Skrefsrud during their visits to these countries, increasingly exerted influence and control over the Mission.

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The pioneers in Benagaria. From left to right: Paul Olaf Bodding, Lars Olsen Skrefsrud, Caroline Børresen, Oscar Berg, Hans Peter Børresen, Katharina Elisabeth Heuman,  Ernst Heuman, V. L. Ingeborg Bahr, Halfdan Bahr, circa 1890. Photo: Unknown. Source: Danmission

In the first few years, work progressed slowly; by January 1, 1873 the Christian community in and around Benagaria numbered 285 baptized adults organized into seven small congregations. The first Santal Christians met many difficulties among their own people. Skrefsrud tried to convince people that the Christian God was identical with Thakur, the Santal God, and that it was therefore no reason for non-Christian Santals to oppose conversion to Christianity. He had considerable success with this strategy, even obtaining accept from several Santal chiefs for Cristian and non-Christian Santals to marry. During the famine in Bengal in 1874, the Mission received many new recruits, partly because it took the opportunity of combining famine relief work with active preaching and conversion. Around 1600 new converts were baptized at the mission station during that one year. 

In 1910, after the death of Lars Skrefsrud, the Santal Mission changed its name to ‘The Santal Mission of the Northern Churches’, in conformity with the name normally used by the Mission in Scandinavia: ‘Den nordiske Santalmisjon’. The change of name signified that the Mission had now become a Scandinavian and American Lutheran Mission. Skrefsrud before his death signed legal documents appointing Paul Olaf Bodding his successor and sole manager of the Mission. In 1911 it was decided to move the headquarters of the Mission from Benagaria to Dumka.

Both Lars Olsen Skrefsrud and his successor Paul Olaf Bodding were exceptional linguistic talents with a broad interest in the life and culture of the Santal people. In 1873, already, Skrefsrud published a Santali grammar, which is still a standard work. By 1880, he had made a first translation of the New Testament, which for unknown reasons he never published.  He started a new translation ten years later, which his successor Paul Olaf Bodding helped to complete and which appeared in print in 1906. In 1887 Skrefsrud published in Santali the book Horkoren Mare Hapramko reak’ Katha – ‘The Traditions and Institutions of the Santals’, which over time became a guide for Santals in customary matters and was also referred to by Indian courts when customs were in dispute. Skrefsrud also started collecting material for a Santali dictionary, an undertaking that Reverend Bodding completed. After Bodding relinquished leadership of the organization in 1923, he dedicated himself completely to research and writing. Santal Folk Tales in three volumes appeared in 1924; A Santali Grammar for Beginners in 1929; Studies in Santal Medicine and Connected Folklore in two volumes in 1925 and 1927, the third volume coming out in 1940; and A Santal Dictionary in five volumes between 1929 and 1936, to mention a few of his major works. The dictionary is exceptional, it is an Encyclopaedia of practically everything related to Santal life and culture – beliefs, customs, and practices – an unmatched documentation based on discussions with Santal co-workers and assistants. The Norwegian National Library keeps the notes and manuscripts left by Reverend Bodding.

Main source

  • Olav Hodne: The Seed Bore Fruit. A Short History of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches 1867 – 1967. Published by the Santal Mission, Dumka, Santal Parganas, India 1967


Published Jan. 15, 2020 10:06 AM - Last modified May 31, 2022 7:30 PM