Watkin R. Roberts was born on 21 September 1886 at Brydenly, Dinorwic Street, Caernarfon to a middle-class family. Brought up by his devout Christian parents he learnt to read at an early age, a sign of his ability and determination which were to serve him well in later life. He began his working life in the slate quarries of North Wales and quickly gained promotion until he became a partner in a slate mining business.
Of greater interest is Watkin Roberts’ spiritual development. His reading of the sermons of Reuben A. Torrey had a profound impact on his life. Although still engaged in slate mining, he became increasingly aware of a call to serve the Lord full time. He devoted his free time to reading the Scriptures and various theology books written by well known scholars of his time. The 1904-1905 Revival greatly affected him and further contributed to his transformation from a man concerned with material prosperity to one dominated by the desire to reach those who had never heard the name of Jesus Christ.
Called to India
Between 1906 and 1908 Roberts attended the Keswick Convention which proved to be a turning point in his life. He dedicated himself to God for missionary service at the 1906 Convention. He sold up his business interests and went to Liverpool for intensive training in pharmacy and dispensing. At the 1907 Convention one of the speakers reported on the needs in India by saying, ‘Hundreds of tribes in Assam and North India are in utter darkness. They need Jesus to save them from their heathen darkness’. Moved by God, Roberts was now clear in his missionary calling and was determined to spend his life proclaiming the good news of salvation to the tribesmen of Northeast India. The 1908 Convention finally opened the way for him to fulfill this calling when he was introduced to Dr and Mrs Peter Fraser.
The Frasers were newly appointed by the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists Foreign Mission Society to work at Aizawl in Mizoram as medical missionaries. They invited Watkin Roberts to help them establish a clinic at Aizawl. He accompanied the Frasers when they sailed for India on 14 October 1908, reaching Aizawl on 9 December. Roberts was still only twenty-two years old and having quickly gained the peoples esteem was given the nick-name, ‘Pu Tlangval’ (Mr Youngman).
In 1909 Roberts received five pounds as a gift from a Miss Emily Davies. He was deeply touched by this gift and used the money to purchase John’s gospel, translated by the pioneer missionaries J.H. Lorrains and F.W. Savidge into the Lushai language. He sent the copies as gifts to the village chiefs in the Lushai Hills and the adjoining areas. One of the booklets was sent to Chief Kamkhawlun of Senvawn village, the biggest Hmar village in the southern part of Manipur State. Roberts and a small number of new believers were praying that these gifts would yield results. Some months later, three men brought back a message from Chief Kamkhawlun written in broken Lushai saying, ‘Sir, come yourself and tell us about this book and your God’. He made up his mind to visit the Chief, accepting the invitation as a Macedonian call. Despite being warned by British officials at Aizawl that the tribes people of southern Manipur were fierce and likely to kill him, Roberts was determined to go. He sought the necessary travel permits asking Mr Cole, the superintendent of the Lushai Hills to inform Lt. Col. J. Shakespeare, the Political Agent of Manipur, of his plans. The permit for the visit was officially granted by the Maharaja of Manipur as the Hmar tribal area was under his administrative control.
Watkin Roberts and his party finally reached Senvawn on the afternoon of 5 February 1910, when Chief Kamkhawlun and the whole village gave them a warm welcome. Roberts preached from John 3:16 and concluded by saying, ‘Believe in the word of God now’. Thus, Watkin R. Roberts was the first torch bearer of the gospel to the entire southern region of Manipur. He went back to Aizawl and recruited native workers to continue the work of spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ in the areas around Senvawn and beyond. Roberts sent Mr Savawma, Mr Vanzika and Mr Thangchingpuia as evangelist teachers to set up a school at the village which they reached on 7 May 1910, becoming the first native evangelists in the area. Though setting up the new school was important, their main mission objective was to preach the gospel to the surrounding villages. God abundantly blessed their ministry and many new converts were brought to faith in the Lord.
In October 1912, Watkin Roberts and R. Dala (one of the early indigenous church leaders) were sent to escort Dr Fraser back to Wales, as he was suffering from a prolonged bout of enteric fever. This proved a good opportunity for Roberts to visit churches in the United Kingdom to raise funds for the mission in Manipur. Once again he attended the Keswick Convention in 1914. It was there that he met an English woman, Gladys Wescott Dobson, who also had a heart for overseas missions. After much prayer, Roberts and Gladys were married at Thoburn Methodist Episcopal Church on 8 March 1915 in Calcutta, India.
Growth in India
In 1913, Roberts had recruited a further thirteen native mission workers. Whilst Roberts was stationed at Calcutta the church continued to grow rapidly through the work of the native evangelists. Within five years numerous church buildings were constructed in many villages. The first ever Presbytery of the new mission was held at Senvawn on 26 December 1914. The mission was named the ‘Thado Kookie Pioneer Mission’. However, when Roberts went to the USA in 1924, on the advice of trusted friends in Philadelphia, the name of the mission was changed to ‘North East India General Mission’ to take account of the expanded area the mission now served. Headquarters were also established in Philadelphia in order to raise funds to support the native missionaries in Northeast India.
K.D. Garrison, a missionary stationed at Akola, Behar, with the Christian and Missionary Alliance who had accompanied H.B. Dinwiddie on his mission field visit to Northeast India in 1925, wrote a very encouraging letter to Roberts while he was in Philadelphia:
I wish to assure you of the definite conviction which I have received after having seen the works in the hills, that God is in it, and in many regards, I consider it a pattern for others in India to follow. I should say that considering the amount of money invested annually and the time which the Mission has been running, the North East India General Mission might be called one of the most fruitful missions in India.
The mission later spread to many areas in Assam, Tripura and Arunachal states in India, to various tribes in parts of the Sagaing Division and the Chin Hills in Upper Burma and also to many tribes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
Roberts finally settled in Toronto, Canada and this great man of God breathed his last on 20 April 1969. He was laid to rest at York Cemetery in Toronto. Thousands of churches amongst various ethnic tribes have come into being over the past 100 years because of the great work God began through Roberts. The Gospel Centenary Celebration of his arrival at Senvawn was arranged for 5-7 February at Sielmat, Manipur, to give thanks to God for raising up a Welshman to bring the gospel to our land. In Wales, Watkin R. Roberts may be a little known quarryman but in Northeast India and far beyond he is a well known servant of the Lord.
Joelouis L. Songate is the Executive Secretary of the Independent Church of India, which has a formal link with the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales.