Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen was born on an island off the coast of Schleswig-Holstein, now Denmark but long disputed territory between Denmark and Germany, on February 6, 1834.
Bishop Stephen Neill, in his History of Christian Missions, describes Nommensen as “one of the most powerful missionaries of whom we have record anywhere” (page 348)! And another tells us, “Nommensen may have been one of the most successful missionaries ever to preach the gospel” (Ambassadors for Christ, ed by J. Woodbridge, page 146).
The boy grew up in a simple cottage in a Danish island community. At age 10 his shin bones were injured when he was run over by a wagon. Medication did not work and the injury worsened and he was confined to bed-rest for the following three years. Apart from his studies his time was spent watching out for his three younger sisters. He came to faith at age 12.
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Then, when 13, he came to the simple conclusion that Christ could heal his incurable leg ulcer. On Christmas Eve 1847 he read in John 16:23 that if he asked God for something, God would grant his request. He asked his mother if miracles still happened today. She did not believe they did, but did not wish to dissuade her son’s childlike faith.
With the testimony of Scripture and of his mother to support him, Ingwer began praying fervently, quoting God’s Word back to the Lord, and claiming his healing. He became fully persuaded of impending healing and was full of expectancy. He also promised to preach the gospel to the heathen if he was healed.
When the local doctor called again he realised Ingwer had been vaccinated with a poor batch of vaccine. He supplied new medication and prescribed a strict diet, which worked wonders. In six weeks the sores disappeared. Ingwer kept his heart fixed on his responsibility to take the gospel to the heathen, in fulfilment of his vow.
At first Nommensen planned to work on a ship going to heathen lands, and then get off and preach. But there were no ships needing extra crew. Thus he was led to apply for jobs as a tutor, which was much less arduous than the physical labour and farming jobs he had done up until then.
Finally he realised his need to train for missionary service and so, at age 23 he began training, with the Lutheran Church.
The Bible Society of the Netherlands was keen to provide scriptures for the various natives in Dutch colonies and sent Dr van der Tuuk to Sumatra to investigate. He created a grammar of the Batak language.
Nommensen met ven der Tuuk in Amsterdam and decided to learn the Batak grammar from him and then go to reach those people in Sumatra’s interior, away from the Catholic missionaries and the Islamic influence. On Christmas Eve, 1861, Nommensen sailed for Sumatra.
The Batak were involved in spirit worship and had not previously been touched by either Christianity or Islam – even though Islam had long been present in South East Asia. Nommensen’s preaching soon brought him into life-threatening situations. “We will cut your legs off and throw you into the river,” he was warned.
On another occasion he was to be ‘sacrificed to the ghosts’, but he walked through the midst of the furious mob in such a way that none dared lay a hand upon him (Woodbridge, page 148). He continued to gain their confidence, healing their sick, playing his violin and telling them Bible stories.
On 27 August, 1865, the first converts were baptised. These were some chiefs and their tribal members. By 1876 there were 2,000 Batak believers. And he had translated the New Testament into the Batak language by 1878.
Nommensen made it his practice to preach the Gospel without imposing European culture over the native culture. He also sought to develop native Church leaders and a native order of worship. This was revolutionary practice compared to the ambitions of many other missions and missionaries. Nommensen’s strategy proved very important by the time of World War 2, when foreigners were forced to leave the area. The strong indigenous leadership helped this Christian group to become the largest Christian Congregation in Indonesia.
The church continued to grow. By the time he died, 23 May, 1918, the church he had planted had grown to 180,000, with 34 ministers and 800 teacher-preachers. Ludwig Nommensen’s name may be forgotten upon Earth, but his name shines brightly in God’s Hall of Fame.
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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com