Paul Olaf Bodding

Updated: Mar 18, 2019

“The motto of every missionary, whether preacher, printer or school master, ought to be devoted for life”.

Adoniram Judson

Missionary to Burma

It is common for ardent Christian parents through the ages to dedicate at least one child (usually the first born) to serve God as a missionary. But as the child grows up, it is upto him/her to choose what they want to do with their life. Paul Olaf Bodding was one such missionary whose mother dedicated him to the missionary cause amongst the Santals when he was just eight years old!

It was the year 1855. The British colonial rule had spread across India. The Santals, an ethnic group originally from Nepal and spread across few Eastern Indian states, were protesting against the British revenue system and the Zamindars (land owners). An ensuing revolt ended in a gory massacre leaving the Santals threatened, vulnerable and displaced.

Meanwhile, a group of Scandinavian missionaries, who though shunned earlier, approached the Santals and offered them help. This time around, they were warmly received by the community who hoped that the missionaries would empower them and help them preserve their cultural legacy. Thus the Norwegian Santal Mission was formed by the Norwegian missionary Lars Olsen Skrefsrud and the Danish missionary Hans Peter Børresen.

Ten years later, in 1865, in the small town of Gjøvik in Norway, Paul Olaf Bodding was born to a bookstore and book bindery owner, Edvard Olsen Bodding and his wife, Betzy Emilie. Growing up, Bodding was greatly interested in reading and he grabbed every opportunity to study various languages and ethnography. When he was eight years old, Lars Skrefsrud, a friend of the Boddings, came to stay with the family during a furlough. Greatly influenced by Skrefsrud’s ministry among the Santals, Betzy dedicated her son Paul for the missionary cause. In a few years, a young Bodding began preparing himself towards his commission and enrolled for Theological studies at the University of Kristiania, Oslo. Bodding excelled in his studies and was active in the Students Mission Association at the University and was later ordained as a missionary Priest at Our Savior’s Church in Kristiania.

Driven by the passion to reach Santalistan, on November 6, 1889, Paul Bodding set sail to British India. He arrived on January 16, 1890 and joined the Santalist Mission. By the end of 1890, he married his fiancé, Clara Braathen in Benagaria, near Dumka and then moved to the Mohul Pahari mission station. Within less than 5 months of marriage, tragedy struck. Paul lost his wife to a fatal illness leaving him extremely devastated. To help him overcome the grief, Skrefsrud, already impressed by the young man’s linguistic and scholarly accomplishments, handed over some of the Santali literary translation work that needed completion. Bodding had learnt Santali in a short while though the language was quite sophisticated.

Adversity struck Paul again in the form of his short lived second marriage to Laurentine Ingeborg Bahr in 1897. Though a Danish missionary’s daughter herself, she left Paul and ran away with a local man. This incident shook Paul to the core and he struggled deeply in his personal life. But the grace of God sustained him and he took on massive assignments of literature and linguistics.

Translation of the Bible into Santali was one among the greatest contributions of Paul Bodding as a missionary. Though Skrefsrud pioneered the translation of New Testament (the four Gospels), Paul continued the mission and completed translating the whole New testament into Santali by 1906. In the following year, he was appointed as a member of The British and Foreign Bible Society, London. He was also honoured with King Oscar II’s gold medal in 1901, and nine years later, the Knights of 1st grade, St. Olav’s Order. In 1909, following Skrefsrud’s demise, Paul took over the Santal Mission work. Under his leadership, the mission was restructured and expanded as new missionaries were inducted and trained from various countries for the work in Santalistan.

Bodding’s passion in language research progressed along with his missionary work. By 1914, Paul had finished translating the Old Testament to Santali. He also translated selected bible passages for children called Kuk’li Puthi for children and wrote numerous hymns. He developed the first alphabet and set basis for the Santali grammar. From 1923-34, Bodding went on to assemble a comprehensive lexicon, the Santal Dictionary in five volumes. To this day, Bodding’s handwritten version of the Santal Bible is among the manuscript collections at the University Library in Oslo. He took great interest in elaborately documenting the folkloric cultural heritage of the Santals, some of which are preserved at the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo.

Bodding spend his final decade in India as a full time scientist in Mohul Pahari, after stepping down from his official roles in the Mission in 1923. After returning from India in 1934, Bodding settled with his Danish born wife Christine Larsen in Odense, Denmark where he died in 1938.

Apostle Paul’s words ring true, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ”. God honored the heartcry of a young mother who wanted her little boy to serve God in a remote unknown land. Today there are over 70 lakh Santals spread across India and abroad and all of them have an opportunity to know Christ in their heart language because of the sweat, blood and tears of a few good men like Paul Olaf Bodding.

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