Rev. Charles A. Nichols, D. D., was born in Greenfield, Conn., 16 August 1853. He graduated from Madison University and Hamilton Theological Seminary. In 1879, he married Jennie Root, and soon after, they departed for Burma, arriving in Yangon on 3 December 1879. Upon their arrival, they were assigned to Bassein to do work among the Sgaw Karen, following in the footsteps of Elisha Abbott, John S. Beecher, and Chapin H. Carpenter. At the time, the Sgaw Karen Church in Burma had a total membership of 6,000 members.
Charles and Jennie proved to be faithful workers and excellent linguists by mastering the Sgaw Karen Language. They served their entire mission careers at Bassein [Charles (1879-1832); Jennie 1879-1921], allowing them to minister to multi-generations. Their work in Bassein heavily focused on building up a self-supporting Karen Church, and their efforts centered around four spheres.
Evangelist and Disciple Maker:
Nichols often traveled the rivers in the delta region (onboard a barge he helped build called the Aurora). Further inland, he trekked through the jungles to meet with and expand the churches. By the time of his retirement, he was overseeing over 120 churches in a 6,000 square mile radius alongside a contingent of faithful native coworkers. These workers would often be placed and live among the villagers serving as teachers to children and preachers to adults. In Nichols' reports, he often highlighted these native workers' efforts, sharing names, and describing their remarkable impact. He once wrote:
"Among all races converted priests, native Christian officials, filled with the Spirit and testifying mightily to the power of the gospel, unnamed and humble members of our churches, as well as the more formally appointed messengers from our churches, have been the great agency which has been, and must still be, depended upon to bring about the rule of Christ in Burma."
The work by these Sgaw Karen Christians did not remain among their people alone. Nichols encouraged and witnessed many believers from his field serve in other Burma (Myanmar) fields, including Kachin, Chin and Shan State, and abroad in Siam and Assam. In 1889, to further his belief in self-support, Nichols led an initiative to set apart the entire month of September for pastors, evangelists, and teachers to come to Bassein to study the bible and discuss issues faced. This initiative continued annually for the next 40+ years while Nichols served in Bassein.
Nichols helped to develop the Sgaw Karen High School in Bassein. Throughout his tenure, Nichols transformed many of the old wood buildings into a brick compound. This work included the rebuilding of Ko Tha Byu Memorial Hall (dedicated 4 February 1922), which stands to this day. In 1923, it was renamed the Nichols Sgaw Karen High School to honor his years of work. Upon Jennie R. Nichols's death, the girls' dormitory/hall became a memorial to her. Towards the end of Nichols' service, over 700 students per year at the school received their support from the Karen churches. Not an easy task, as most of these churches were impoverished and had to give sacrificially to meet all these students' needs. However, the school in Bassein was a valuable asset in bringing up leaders for the Karen churches and their communities. After finishing their studies in Bassein, Dr. Boganaw, Rev. Myat San Po Kwe, Mr. Yaba, Dr. San C Po, Dr. Po Ne U, and Maung Po (to name just a few) received further schooling in the US and returned to their homes and mission field for the advancement of the gospel.
The school was a funnel for providing future leaders in the church, but students also played an active role in evangelism. The school's bass brand and choir traveled with evangelism teams to proclaim the gospel message. Visitors to the school often came away so impressed by the campus that the gospel message and hope it brought became front and center.
Entrepreneur - Business as Mission:
Nichols (with some convincing) took on additional efforts to help the Karen church build a rice mill, sawmill, and barge building businesses. Income from these businesses supported the school and mission work. Nichols also trained these Karen workers, which Nichols described in 1889: "The mill is going on finely, managed and worked by Karen young men who have mostly been trained in our school here and have thus learned systematic application and accuracy. I know fully as well that with a little advice from the missionary, they are people of splendid capabilities as Christian men." In 1883, with the large Bassein field needing effective communication and encouragement, Rev. C.A. Nichols erected a printing press. This press published many works, including circular letters, to unite the Sgaw Karen Bassein field.
During the colonial period, many American Baptist missionaries found the need to work alongside the British government to advance their mission endeavors. Likewise, the British government found mission organizations to be helpful in their effort to develop Burma, albeit for their gain. Nichols was no different, and he often received high acclaim from British officials for his efforts in Bassein. The British government also found Nichols to be in a key position to recruit soldiers for their army. During World War I, Nichols assisted with recruiting five-hundred Karen men for the British Army.
In 1916, Nichols received from King George V the Kaisar-i-Hind gold medal. This distinction was the first gold medal to be received by any missionary of any society. Previously, other missionaries had received silver and bronze distinctions. While Charles A. Nichols received many accolades, the work of Jennie Nichols should not escape unnoticed. Jennie was the mother of six children during her missionary life and cared for their home and served mainly in the background to build God's Kingdom. On 17 November 1921, she received her great reward by passing into the presence of God.
In October 1923, Charles A. Nichols remarried Carrie Selleck (b. 4 January 1870, d. 24 September 1941). In 1928, both Charles and Carrie returned to work in Bassein, and he finished his final three-year term totaling his mission efforts in Burma to be over fifty-three years. In 1932, Charles Nichols retired from serving in the mission field. His retirement was a short one. On 18 December 1932, he died in Danbury, Connecticut, moving on and rejoining many of the saints he helped raise in the Sgaw Karen Bassein field.
American Baptist Missionary Union Reports [ABMU]/American Baptist Foreign Mission Society [ABFMS] Reports, 1879-1933,
Brockett, Linus Pierpont The Story of the Karen Mission in Bassein Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1891.
Maung Shwe Wa Burma Baptist Chronicle Rangoon: University Press, 1963.
Naw Say Say Pwer Christian Missionary Activities in Irrawaddy Delta During Colonial Period (c.1850-1947) Doctoral Dissertation, Okayama University, 2019.
Robbins, Joseph C. Following the Pioneers: A Story of American Baptist Mission Work in India and Burma. Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1922.