Transformed headhunters

Mark Boggess

Converge global worker

  • Missions

In 1890, William Pettigrew, a Scottish missionary, traveled to Asia with a burden of introducing the warring, tribal people in the remote regions of northeast India to Western education, modern medicine and Christianity. More than 130 years later, Converge global workers are carrying on his work.

Sharing God’s love with headhunting warriors

Pettigrew’s initial plan was stymied when tribal leaders refused to allow him to preach. So, he endeavored to make his mark through education.

Pettigrew was drawn to the headhunting warriors of the Tangkhul-Naga tribe that lived on the Indian frontier. He recognized something pliable in their nature that he believed could attract them to the gospel.

William P family photo  

Pettigrew quickly began to learn their language which, at that time, had no written form. He befriended a Tangkhul chief named Raihao, who allowed him to begin educating the Tangkhul people. In 1897, he started a rural school with 20 Tangkhul students (one of whom was Chief Raihao). He also began to write down the Tangkhul language that up to that point had been lost to time.

Pettigrew won the trust and admiration of the Tangkhul people. Eventually, he was given permission to share Christ with them.

Ripe for Christ to do a good work

The Tangkhul people of Manipur, India, lived scattered in small, independent villages among some of the most remote jungle mountains, valleys and plains in the tribal lands. They desired a peaceful existence, but often found themselves at war with other tribes.

The Tangkhuls were not wild savages or cannibals. They engaged in headhunting only to assert themselves against other warring tribes. The Tangkhul world was very small — with most people never venturing away from their tribal community or even visiting neighboring villages. They lived a simple, agricultural existence.

Then, as today, the Tangkhul people were content. They loved to recount their oral history and traditions in song. Their temperament and outlook on life made them ripe for Christ to do a good work in them.

Today, William Pettigrew is regarded as a pioneer among the Tangkhul Naga people. They give him credit for single-handedly introducing their tribe to the outside world — to Western education, to modern medicine and to Jesus Christ.

What started 100 years ago as a remote tribe of headhunters with their own tribal culture and religious beliefs is today considered 100% Christianized, thanks to the work of one missionary — William Pettigrew — and the work of the Holy Spirit through the transforming power of the gospel of Christ.

Reaching out to Converge for help 

After more than 100 years of living by faith in Jesus, the faith leaders of the Tangkul Naga tribe recently determined that they want to see an elevated level of training for their local pastors. They also are prioritizing energizing their churches to raise up missionaries to reach out to other unreached tribes and sub-tribes within their sphere of influence.

Needing assistance in this area, the leaders of the Tangkhul Naga Baptist Convention (TNBC) reached out to Converge for help.


This past April, a group from Converge’s Asia Impact Team met with Tangkhul leaders in India. In early May, four team members led a 3-day pastors conference focusing on ministry building in Manipur, India.  The conference trained and encouraged 140 pastors and church leaders, some of whom traveled several hours from remote villages in the tribal plains and highlands.

At the conference’s conclusion, one of the Tangkhul leaders publicly addressed the Asia Impact Team saying, “Thank you for helping carry on the work of William Pettigrew.” That was high praise from the leader of a tribe of former headhunters that had been transformed by the gospel of Christ.

Pastors studying 

Conference group 

The TNBC is currently planning its quadrennial conference, scheduled to be held next February. Thousands of Tangkhul Christians are expected to attend. TNBC leaders have formally invited the entire Asia Impact Team to attend this conference that will officially recognize our cooperative agreement and partnership in outreach to the unreached tribal peoples of that area.

The Baptist missionary, William Pettigrew, saw something beautiful in the primitive, warring headhunters of the Tangkhul Nagas. He brought them education for their minds, medicines for their bodies and the salvation through Jesus for their souls. The Tangkhuls fully embraced these gifts and were radically changed from the inside out, transformed by the gospel from headhunters into soul hunters.

Converge is asking God for a gospel movement among every least-reached people group – in our generation. Learn how we are playing a role in accomplishing the Great Commission, and how you can be involved.

Mark Boggess, Converge global worker

Mark Boggess is a Converge global worker serving a member of Converge International Ministries’ Asia Impact Team.

Additional articles by Mark Boggess