Tributes paid to the last American Baptist missionary to Burma

Published 25 June 2009  |  
Thousands of Burma's ethnic minority Chin Christians around the world pay their last "respect and tribute" to the last American Baptist Missionary to Chin Hills in Burma, who died in California on 9 June.

"The Chin people across the world sent their deepest condolences and sympathies to family of Rev. Dr. Robert G. Johnson, 94," reported the Chinland Guardian online newspaper yesterday.

"When the tragic news broke out early this month, Chin email groups have been mushroomed with letters and messages of condolences till today, showing their inspirations, gratitude and recalling the works of missionaries in the Chin Hills."

"Chin churches and communities across the globe held memorial services in their residing places, paying their last respect and tribute to their missionary," who is better known as "Siangbawipa."

Sources said Siangbawipa died of complications from pneumonia at the Health Centre of Plymouth Village, Redlands, California on 9 June 2009 and subsequent memorial and funeral services were held on 14 and 15 June in Redlands, California.

Rev. Johnson, a former Chaplain in the US army during World War II is remembered as the "spiritual leader of Chin people, missionary, architect, Bible translator and author."

For 20 years, Johnson and his family served in Burma also known as Myanmar until Burma military government ordered them to leave the country in 1966.

Chin people are an ethnic group who are the main inhabitants of Chin Hills later named as Chin State, a Burmese state in western mountainous region of Burma bordering Mizoram state of India. They were animists before Christianity was first brought to them in March, 1899 by the Baptist American missionary couple, Rev. and Mrs. Arthur Carson, whose good work was later continued by Rev. & Mrs. Robert Johnson.

As many as 90 percent Chins are Christians today due to the missionary efforts of American Baptist Foreign Mission Society starting in 1899, of which Dr. Johnson played an important role in shaping up the ethnic Chin Christians.

Many ethnic Chins have fled Burma due to religious persecutions and violation of human rights under the military regime that has been in power since 1962.

And they remembered and paid tribute to the last missionary to their people from wherever they are.

Chin "refugees in Malaysia braved and had memorial services at houses and churches amid fears of being raided and arrested by Malaysian authority." Chindland Guardian stated.

Chin Christians in Japan, according to one Chin pastor said "we had, after the church service, a separate memorial service dedicated to Siangbawipa, where everyone shed tears and was silent in grief."

One of the many condolence letters ready by Rev. Dr. C. Duh Kam, Executive Minister of Chin Baptist Fellowship of America (CBFA), said Siangbawipa Johnson was described as the "spiritual leader of the Chin people."

"Rev. Johnson is a good servant of God. We greatly value his last words about help for Chin Christian College through Friends of Burma. We believe this college will become and stand as Chin Christian University in the future," said Rev. Dr. Chum Awi, Former Zomi Baptist Convention General Secretary and Principal of Zomi Theological College.

Quoting the Bible verse from Matthew 25:21: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant; ... enter thou into the joy of thy Lord," Dr. Chum Awi added.

Recalling Rev. Johnson's encounter with Burmese military officials; Rev. Dr. Stephen Hre Kio, Bible translator in Falam Chin dialect said: "In 1966, while Ne Win's government (military) was ordering the American Baptist Missionaries, the Johnsons, to leave Burma, an army colonel told Johnson to pack up and go. With no signs of fear and surprise, Rev. Johnson replied to the colonel who got red-faced over his words, 'Let be it if it is God's willing but what I would like to say, though, is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'"

Rev. Johnson, born 1915 in Chicago, Illinois, a graduated of Wheaton College and Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, was honoured with the Doctor of Divinity degree from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in recognition of his missionary work in Burma.

Though he was commissioned by American Baptist Foreign Mission Society to serve along with his former wife Elizabeth Luella Kortum of Decatur, Illinois in Burma, the intervention of war led him to serve as a Navy chaplain in the south Pacific during World War II.

Rev. and Mrs. Johnson began their missionary service in 1946, passing through Assam, India to enter war-torn Burma. The Johnsons served in the Chin Hills for twenty years, raising three children there while running Bible schools, touring remote areas accessible only on foot or by pony, running a dispensary, and doing translation of the Bible, Sunday School materials, and hymns. He built Bible school buildings in both Falam and Haka (now Hakha) in the Chin Hills.

After leaving Burma in 1966 on the order from Burmese socialist military government, Rev. Johnson served on the Board of International Missions, overseeing mission work in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Zaire from 1966 to 1980. He is credited with the translation of Bible into the Hakha Chin language.

He published a two-volume History of the American Baptist Chin Mission, a record of the introduction of Christianity into the Chin Hills of Burma by missionaries of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society between 1899 and 1966. He also published a book entitled On the Back Road to Mandalay, on his and Mrs. Johnson's twenty years of life and work in the mountains of western Burma.

Summing up the comments and condolence letters and reports, Van Biak Thang of Chinland Guardian said, "Rev. Robert G. Johnson has been and will be remembered as a spiritual leader, missionary, architect, Bible translator and author."

Rev. Johnson is survived by his wife of nearly 68 years, Elizabeth (Betty Lue), three children Richard Johnson, Kristin Knutson, and Martha Martens, seven grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.


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