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Why Denominations Can Climb Hills: RLDS Conversions in Highland Tribal India and Midwestern America, 1964–2000

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2021

David J. Howlett*
Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor in the Religion Department at Smith College
*Corresponding author. Email:


Based on oral history interviews and archival sources, this essay analyzes the religious affiliation between Sora villagers in the highlands of eastern India with Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) members in the American Midwest. The relationship between these distinct groups transposed a pattern of interactions between highlands and lowlands in upland Asia to a new globalized space in the late twentieth century. Conceiving of “conversion” as a broad analytic trope to discuss various individual, group, and organizational transformations, this essay argues that “converts” in the Sora highlands and American plains instrumentalized their relationships with the other for their own ends. In the Americans, the Sora found a new patron for long-standing client-patron relationships between highlands people and valley people. In the Sora, the Americans found an “indigenous other” who could be used to justify reforms within their local church body along more cosmopolitan lines. As an upshot of these interactions, Sora and Americans effectively reterritorialized older patterns of “hills” and “valleys” that had been deterritorialized by state-sponsored modernization. Thus, the hills and valleys of upland Asia found a surprising afterlife within the space of a global Christian denomination.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of American Society of Church History

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1 Baidi Mandal, interview with the author, Badakua, Odisha, 28 June 2014. For direct quotes, I have relied upon the English translation by a Sora pastor who accompanied me during my time in Odisha. His translations often preserve the “parallel doublets” in Sora sentence structure where a thought is said and then repeated a second time with a slight difference to emphasize the statement. See Vitebsky, Piers, Living without the Dead: Loss and Redemption in a Jungle Cosmos (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 34Google Scholar.

2 Throughout this essay, I use terms like “Scheduled Tribe,” “tribal,” “Scheduled Caste,” and “Dalit.” The term Scheduled Tribe is enshrined in the Indian Constitution and was later controversially defined by the Indian union government's Lokur Committee (1965) as a group that has “(a) indications of primitive traits; (b) distinctive culture; (c) shyness of contact with the community at large; (d) geographical isolation; and (e) backwardness.” The term “tribal” is both an emic term (one used by my interviewees for themselves) and an etic shorthand term used by many scholars for groups recognized by the Indian government as Scheduled Tribes. In recent decades, various rights groups in India have advocated for identifying Scheduled Tribes as adivāsis (“indigenous peoples”). However, this term was unfamiliar to all of my Scheduled Tribe interview partners. Scheduled Castes is the Indian government's term for groups deemed outside of the various varna (class) schemas of the colonial era. In particular, “Scheduled Castes” were the so-called “untouchables,” referred to by Gandhi as harijans (“children of god”). Today, many Scheduled Caste people identify with the term “Dalit,” a term coined by the Indian leader B. R. Ambedkar that means “the crushed” or “the oppressed.” My interview partners used both Scheduled Caste and Dalit to describe their nontribal, noncaste neighbors. For more information, see Sundar, Nandini, “Introduction: Of the Scheduled Tribes, States, and Sociology,” in The Scheduled Tribes and Their India: Politics, Identities, Policies, and Work, ed. Sundar, Nandini (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 17Google Scholar; and Frykenberg, Robert EricChristianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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8 Dennis Washburn and A. Kevin Reinhart, “Introduction” to Converting Cultures: Religion, Ideology, and Transformations of Modernity, ed. Dennis Washburn and A. Kevin Reinhart (Leiden: Brill, 2007), xiv.

9 Scott, Art of Not Being Governed, 325.

10 Michael R. Dove, “Escaping the State? Scott on Southeast Asia,” in “Debate,” book forum on The Art of Not Being Governed, 90.

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13 Piers Vitebsky, “Stones, Shamans, and Pastors: Pagan and Baptist Temporalities of Death in Tribal India,” in Taming Time, Timing Death: Social Technologies and Ritual, ed. Dorthe Reflund Christensen and Raine Willerslev (New York: Routledge, 2013), 120; and Vitebsky, Living without the Dead, 9.

14 Piers Vitebsky, Dialogues with the Dead: The Discussion of Mortality among the Sora of Eastern India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 5; Vitebsky, Living without the Dead, 8–9, 21–22, 29–31; and Jacob Gamanga, interview, Mutaguda, Odisha, 22 June 2014.

15 Birsuna Mandal, email to author, 2 July 2017; and Georg Pfeffer, “Times of Trouble for Christians in Muslim and Hindu Societies of South Asia,” in Constructing Indian Christianities: Culture, Conversion and Caste, ed. Chad M. Bauman and Richard Fox Young (New York: Routledge, 2014), 172.

16 Vitebsky, “Stones, Shamans, and Pastors,” 127–128; Vitebsky, Living without the Dead, 1, 64–65; and Birsuna Mandal, email to author.

17 Orville E. Daniel, Moving with the Times: The Story of Baptist Outreach from Canada into Asia, South America, and Africa, During One Hundred Years, 1874–1974 (Toronto: Canadian Baptist Overseas Mission Board, 1973), 159; and Birsuna Mandal, “A Brief History of Community of Christ East India Mission in East Odisha,” translated by Jyotshna Rai Gamanga (unpublished manuscript, 2014), 2.

18 Gurbaksh Singh (G. S.) Chawla to Donald O. Chesworth, Berhampur, Orissa, 23 October 1962, “Chawla, G. S. (India), 1961–1972,” First Presidency Papers, RG29-1, Community of Christ Archives, Independence, Mo. (hereafter cited as CCA); G. S. Chawla to the Saints in Central Council Bluffs Congregation, 1 March 1968, Roy A. Cheville Papers, f198, CCA; Birsuna Mandal, “Brief History,” 2–4; and Charles D. Neff to Presiding Bishopric, Independence, Mo., 29 July 1969, Presiding Bishopric Papers, RG 28, f53, CCA.

19 Brian Stanley, Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018), 194–196; Pralay Kanungo, “Hindutva's Entry into a ‘Hindu Province’: Early Years of RSS in Orissa,” Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 1 (2003): 3299–3300; Kenneth Knight and Shirley Knight, The Seed Holds the Tree: A Story of the Kingdom of God in India (n.p., 2009), 193–194.

20 “Neff and Cole Return from Orient,” Saints’ Herald 113, 1 February 1966, 75; and “Apostle Neff Returns from India,” Saints’ Herald 113, 15 November 1966, 786.

21 David J. Howlett (unpublished field notes), 7 July 2014, Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh; and Ananda Rao, interview with author, Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, 5 July 2014.

22 Kando Sabaro, interview with author, Dariamba, Odisha, 29 June 2014; B. G. Karlsson, Contested Belonging: An Indigenous People's Struggle for Forest and Identity in Sub-Himalayan Bengal (New York: Routledge, 2013), 182; and Barbara M. Boal, The Konds: Human Sacrifice and Religious Change (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1982), 194.

23 Maurice Draper, “School,”(unpublished field notes), Orissa, 23 September 1977, Maurice L. Draper Papers, P118, f277, CCA; Charles D. Neff, “An Oral History Memoir by Charles D. Neff,” interview by E. Keith Henry, transcript, 1980, Oral History Collection, CCA, 106, 109, 112; Naomi Russell, “Created for a Purpose,” Saints’ Herald 116, 1 January 1969, 15–16; Sadanga Gamanga, interview, Gumiguda, Odisha, 28 June 2014; T. Daniel Raju, interview, Bhimavarum, Andhra Pradesh, 16 June 2014; Nojun Gomongo, interview, Chadanpur, Odisha, 27 June 2014; and Peter Gomongo, interview, Tumangapadar, Odisha, 24 June 2014.

24 Sadanga Gamanga, interview; Dagu Gomongo, interview, Badakua, Odisha, 28 June 2014; and Jacob Gamanga, interview, Mutaguda, Odisha, 22 June 2014. Compare with Vitebsky, Living without the Dead, 14; and Vitebsky, “Stones, Shamans, and Pastors,” 119–120.

25 For a Mormon example, see Stephen C. Taysom, “A Uniform and Common Recollection: Joseph Smith's Legacy, Polygamy, and Public Memory, 1852–2002,” in Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader, ed. Stephen C. Taysom (Salt Lake City: Signature, 2011): 178.

26 Joel Robbins, “On the Paradoxes of Global Pentecostalism and the Perils of Continuity Thinking,” Religion 33, no. 3 (2003): 224.

27 Naomi Russell, “So Much from So Little: A Report on the Growth of the Church in India,” Saints Herald 114, 1 January 1967, 9.

28 Scott, Art of Not Being Governed, 21.

29 Sumbara Sobor, interview, Gumiguda, Odisha, 23 June 2014; Sadanga Gamanga, interview; and Rao, interview. American RLDS reformers wanted to be part of the ecumenical movement and saw the Book of Mormon as a parochial nineteenth-century American text that did not have the same universality as the Bible. By saying the Book of Mormon was not relevant to the Sora, these leaders also suggested that it was not relevant to the American church if it wanted to be a global church.

30 Vitebsky, “Stones, Shamans, and Pastors,” 133.

31 Chad M. Bauman and James Ponniah, “Christianity and Freedom in India: Colonialism, Communalism, Caste, and Violence,” in Christianity and Freedom, vol. 2, Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Allen D. Hertzke and Timothy Samuel Shah (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 228–230; and Laura Dudley Jenkins, Religious Freedom and Mass Conversion in India (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 136–151.

32 Vitebsky, “Stones, Shamans, and Pastors,” 129.

33 Limpan Raika, interview, Mutaguda, Odisha, 22 June 2014; and Jacob Gamanga, interview.

34 Sadanga Gamanga, interview.

35 Sadanga Gamanga, interview; Rao, interview; Raju, interview; Howard “Bud” Sheehy, interview, Independence, Mo., 8 January 2014; and RLDS Presiding Bishopric to B. K. Panigraphy, Independence, Mo., 28 July 1971, Presiding Bishopric Papers, RG28, f53, CCA.

36 Budo Gamanga was baptized by Junesh Raika two years before Junesh affiliated with the RLDS Church. Birsuna Mandal, “Brief History,” 3.

37 Sadanga Gamanga, interview.

38 Sadanga Gamanga, interview; and Sheehy, interview.

39 Birsuna Mandal to author; and Howard S. Sheehy, “India, A Decade of Mission: Part II—East India,” Saints Herald 122, 15 January 1975, 81–82.

40 Vitebsky, Living without the Dead, 177; and “Church Celebrates 25 years in India” Saints Herald 137, May 1990, 207.

41 “Church Celebrates 25 Years in India,” Saints Herald 137, May 1990, 207.

42 Matthew Bolton, Apostle of the Poor: The Life and Work of Missionary and Humanitarian Charles D. Neff (Independence, Mo.: John Whitmer, 2005), 111–114; Eduardo “Toto” Delfin, interview, Cabanatuan City, Philippines, 6 July 2015; Howlett (unpublished field notes), 29 June 2014, Gumiguda, India; Howlett (unpublished field notes), 5 July 2014, Rayagada, India; and Howlett (unpublished field notes), 22 July 2015, Roxas, Philippines.

43 “President McMurray Meets with Members in India, Witnesses Opening of Sri Lanka to Church,” Saints Herald 144, May 1997, 212; and Howlett (unpublished field notes), 29 June 2014.

44 Sadanga Gamanga, interview; and James Cable, interview, Independence, Mo., 6 January 2014.

45 This organization and structure mirrors such arrangements in the Sora Baptist Church. See Vitebsky, Living without the Dead, 174–175.

46 David J. Howlett and John-Charles Duffy, Mormonism: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2016), 156.

47 Sadanga Gamanga, interview; and Howlett (unpublished field notes), 7 July 2017.

48 Sadanga Gamanga, interview.

49 “Indian Youth to Attend International Youth Forum,” Saints Herald 140, May 1993, 201; Dale Luffman, interview, Independence, Mo., 10 January 2014; and Sheehy, interview.

50 Birsuna Mandal, Brief History, 6–7; and Amson Mallick to Apostle Andrew Bolton, “Community of Christ, Orissa, India: Mission Case Studies,” (report in possession of the author), 10 November 2008, 1.

51 Roger D. Launius, “Neither Mormon nor Protestant: The Reorganized Church and the Challenge of Identity,” in Mormon Identities in Transition, ed. Douglas J. Davies (New York: Cassell, 1996), 52–60; and Howlett and Duffy, Mormonism, 47–48, 132.

52 David J. Howlett, “The Death and Resurrection of the RLDS Zion: A Case Study in ‘Failed Prophecy,’ 1930–70,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 115–116.

53 “Membership Information,” Saints’ Herald 118 no. 4, April 1971, 8; and “World Conference,” General Conference Bulletin no. 8, April 1960, 95.

54 Neff, Oral History, 8–9, 62, 205–207.

55 Neff, Oral History, 186.

56 Kisuke Sekine, “Interpreting Our Message to the Japanese,” Saints’ Herald 104, 27 May 1957, 492.

57 Reed M. Holmes, “The Waters of Yamuna,” Saints’ Herald 105, 23 June 1958, 585.

58 Angela Tarango, Choosing the Jesus Way: American Indian Pentecostals and the Fight for the Indigenous Principle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 36–40.

59 William R. Hutchinson, Errand to the World: American Protestant Thought and Foreign Missions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 79–80.

60 Dana L. Robert, “The First Globalization: The Internationalization of the Protestant Missionary Movement Between the World Wars,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 26, no. 2 (April 2002): 54–58.

61 Neff, Oral History, 186–187, 203–206.

62 Neff, Oral History, 114–115.

63 Richard P. Howard, “The Mormon-RLDS Boundary, 1852–1991: Walls to Windows,” Journal of Mormon History 18, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 1–18.

64 W. B. “Pat” Spillman, “Taking the Road More Traveled,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 24 (2004): 135–148.

65 Washburn and Reinhart, Introduction to Converting Cultures, xx.

66 RLDS First Presidency, “A Statement on Marriage Relationships in Missions Abroad,” August 1967, Charles Neff Papers, P84, F25, CCA; and “Notes from Quorum of Twelve Minutes,” 24 March 24, 1967, Charles Neff Papers, P84, F30, CCA.

67 Duane Couey to Gordon Rydall, Independence, Mo., 7 August 1967, Charles Neff Papers, P84, F25, CCA.

68 Representative letters may be found in files “Polygamy—Present Day: Letters in Opposition,” P84, F26, CCA; “Polygamy—Present Day: Letters in Opposition,” P84, F27, CCA; and “Polygamy—Present Day: Verne Deskin Letter,” P84, F29, CCA.

69 Maurice Draper, speech notes for the address to the Liberty Street Congregation, Independence, Mo., 30 August 1970, Charles Neff Papers, P84, F28, CCA; and “Special Report of the Council of Twelve to the 1972 World Conference,” draft, Independence, MO., ca. early 1972, Charles Neff Papers, P84, F30, CCA.

70 World Conference Bulletin, 9 April 1972, 170.

71 World Conference Bulletin, 9 April 1972, 168.

72 Doctrine and Covenants (RLDS) 150:10a-b.

73 Maurice L. Draper, “An Oral History Memoir by Maurice L. Draper,” interview by L. D. Harsin, transcript, 24 September 1980, Oral History Collection, 360–362, CCA.

74 “Official Minutes of the Business Session, Friday, April 14, 1972,” World Conference Bulletin, 15 April 1972, 268.

75 “What could (or should) have been done among the Sora people in India,” (ca. April 1972), Charles Neff Papers, P84, F30, CCA.

76 Richard Price, The Saints at the Crossroads (Independence, Mo.: Price, 1974), 206–207. Price distributed more than 10,000 copies of the first edition of his book and ultimately printed two more editions.

77 Adam Brasich, “Saints at the Crossroads: Richard Price, Edgar Bundy, and Ecumenism in Cold War America,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 37, no. 2 (Fall/Winter 2017): 147–174.

78 Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith Since World War II (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), 133; and Mark Chaves, “The Symbolic Significance of Women's Ordination,” Journal of Religion 77, no. 1 (January 1997): 111–114.

79 Draper, “Oral History,” 568–569.

80 Paul A. Wellington, ed., Readings on the Concept of Zion (Independence, Mo.: Herald), 30–35, 114–123, 132.

81 Sheehy, “India, A Decade of Mission,” 83.

82 Frances Neff, “No Longer Strangers,” Saints Herald 122, February 1975, 100.

83 Doctrine and Covenants (RLDS) 156: 5a.

84 David J. Howlett, Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 97–98.

85 A Transcript of the Legislative Session of the 1982 World Conference (Independence, Mo.: The Office of the First Presidency, 1982), 211.

86 Bolton, Apostle of the Poor, 128–132.

87 “Apostle Cable Reports on Ministry in India,” Saints Herald 135, January 1988, 31.

88 Beyond the Restoration Branches movement, there were very small individual sects that were organized that did not affiliate with the Restoration Branches movement. However, they all were parts of a conservative RLDS “Restorationist” milieu, as I explain David J. Howlett, “The Restoration Branches Movement: Bodily Boundaries and Bodily Crossings,” in Scattering the Saints: Schism within Mormonism, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst and John C. Hamer (Independence, Mo.: John Whitmer, 2007), 315–330. See also George N. Walton, “Sect to Denomination: Counting the Progress of the RLDS Reformation,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 18 (1998): 50, 58.

89 Bolton, Apostle of the Poor, 47; and Conrad, Larry W. and Shupe, Paul, “An RLDS Reformation? Constructing the Task of RLDS Theology,” Dialogue 18, no. 2 (Summer 1985): 92Google Scholar.

90 “President McMurray Meets with Members in India,” 212.

91 Jim Cable, “Our International Evangelistic Calling: President McMurray Ponders Sri Lanka and India Journey,” Saints Herald 144, June 1997, 226.

92 Walton, “Sect to Denomination,” 40; and Mark A. Scherer, The Journey of a People: The Era of Worldwide Community, 1946 to 2015 (Independence, Mo.: Community of Christ Seminary Press, 2016), 513–517.

93 Garbin, David, “Regrounding the Sacred: Transnational Religion, Place Making and the Politics of Diaspora among the Congolese in London and Atlanta,” Global Networks 14, no. 3 (2014): 364365CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

94 Karlsson, Contested Belonging, 152–154.

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97 Karlsson, Contested Belonging, 174–176.

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100 Piers Vitebsky, “The Sora ‘Tribe’—Animist, Hindu, Christian,” online supplement to Living without the Dead, 36,