Editor’s note: This is the fifth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA colleges and seminaries. From March to June […]
In the standard telling of the story, the history of the Mennonite mission movement nearly always begins with the story of the Dutch Mennonite Mission Board and the work of its first missionary, Pieter Jansz.
In 1847, Mennonites in the Netherlands, who had supported the British Missionary Society for many years, founded their own mission society. Four years later, they sent Pieter Jansz and his wife, Wilhelmina, to north central Java, where he began teaching in the small coastal town of Jepara.
On March 16, 1854, Jansz baptized a group of five Javanese believers, marking the foundations of what was to become the Muria Javanese Mennonite Church (GITJ)—the first Mennonite church whose members were not primarily of European background. By all accounts, Pieter and Wilhelmina were innovative and gifted missionaries. Pieter worked tirelessly as a preacher, teacher, administrator and scholar. In 1888, he completed the first translation of the New Testament into Javanese and was instrumental in creating a Javanese dictionary.
But the true beginnings of the GITJ were actually much more complicated. A fuller history must include a central role for the Javanese mystic and prophet Kyai Ibrahim Tunggul Wulung (ca. 1800-1885). The story of Tunggul Wulung raises important questions for contemporary Mennonites about how the gospel is embedded within the particularities of culture and how we will tell the stories of our increasingly global Mennonite church.
Following a failed uprising of the Javanese against the Dutch colonizers in the middle of the 19th century, a local hero of the struggle, Kyai Ngabhoolah, retreated to a hermitage on Mount Kelud for a period of meditation and prayer. There Kyai had a vision of a famous 12th-century Javanese general, Tunggul Wulung, who was closely associated with the “Just King”—a messianic figure the Javanese believed would restore justice and harmony to their land. At the same time, Kyai began to read the Bible and slowly became convinced that Jesus Christ was the long-awaited Just King.
At that point he changed his name to Tunggul Wulung (eventually adding “Ibrahim” as his Christian name) and began to teach the gospel in a distinctly Javanese idiom as a “guru ngelmu” (teacher of wisdom).
Almost immediately, Tunggul Wulung attracted numerous followers in the area around Mount Muria in central Java. At the heart of his message was a vision for creating independent Christian communities, clearly separated from the dominant Muslim culture, freed from the onerous labor obligations imposed by the Dutch government on Javanese peasants, and committed to preserving Javanese culture, language and folkways. In a jungle clearing in Bondo (Jepara), Tunggul Wulung helped establish the first of these Christian settlements, which he hoped would embody the virtues of the kingdom of the Just King.
When Jansz and Tunggul Wulung first met in 1854, the exchange did not go well. Jansz thought Tunggul Wulung’s beliefs were too syncretistic—an eclectic blend of Islam, Buddhism, Javanese mysticism and Christianity that lacked sufficient theological clarity. Tunggul Wulung, in turn, regarded Jansz as a proud Westerner who was too enmeshed in Dutch culture for the two to work together.
Yet both continued in their missionary efforts. Between 1853 and 1875, Tunggul Wulung traveled as an evangelist throughout all of Java. When he died in February 1885, he left behind at least four large congregations and more than 1,000 members. In the meantime, Jansz came to recognize the strength of the settlement model for church planting and spent the rest of his life trying to convince the Dutch mission board of the wisdom of the strategy.
The congregations founded by Tunggul Wulung and those established by Pieter Jansz were both important foundations for the Muria Javanese Mennonite Church, a staunchly indigenous church that today numbers some 40,000 baptized members. Soehadiweko Djojodihardjo, one of the most influential 20th-century leaders of the GITJ and an active participant in Mennonite World Conference, openly acknowledged his spiritual debts to Ibrahim Tunggul Wulung.
In May 2010, the GITJ marked the 70th anniversary of its formation as a synod with the publication of The Way of the Gospel in the World of Java, a history of the GITJ written by Sigit Heru Sukoco and Lawrence Yoder. By reframing the origins of the GITJ in a context larger than the arrival of Western missionaries the book—still awaiting publication in English—is a model for future historians. Before Pieter Jansz there was Tunggul Wulung.
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