At the time of Marco Polo's visit in 1292 the people were described as "wild idolaters" who had not been influenced by outside religions, however by Ibn Battuta's visit in 1345 Arab traders had established river-ports along the northern coasts of Sumatra and Sultan Al-Malik Al-Dhahir had recently converted to Islam.
Sir Stamford Raffles perceived the Batak lands as a buffer between the Islamic Aceh and Minang kingdoms, and encouraged Christian missionary work to preserve this. This policy was continued by the Dutch, who deemed the non-Muslim lands the 'Bataklanden'.
In 1824 two British Baptist missionaries, Richard Burton and Nathaniel Ward, set off on foot from Sibolga and traveled through the Batak lands. After three days' journey they reached the high valley of Silindung and spent about two weeks in the Batak region. Considering the shortness of their stay their account reveals very intensive first-hand observation.
This was followed in 1834 by Henry Lyman and Samuel Munson from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions who met with a more hostile reception. According to Ida Pfeiffer:
"Some time before the arrival of the missionaries some Mohammedan priests had made their appearance in the country, accompanied by a band of armed men, and had forced them by fire and sword to accept their religion...When, therefore, the unfortunate Americans presented themselves as religious teachers, the Battakers imagined they were going to have a repetition of the same scenes, and resolving to be beforehand with their tormentors, they killed them and ate them up."
Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk was employed by the Nederlands Bijbel Genootschap (Netherlands Bible Society) in the 1850s to produce a Batak-Dutch grammar-book and a dictionary, which enabled future Dutch and German missionaries to undertake the conversion of the Toba and Simalungan Batak.
The first German missionaries to the Lake Toba region arrived in 1861, and a mission was established in 1881 by Dr. Ludwig Ingwer Nommensen of the German Rhenish Missionary Society. The New Testament was first translated into Toba Batak by Dr. Nommensen in 1869 and a translation of the Old Testament was completed by P. H. Johannsen in 1891.
The complete text was printed in Latin script in Medan in 1893, although H. O. Voorma describes the translation as “not easy to read, it is rigid and not fluent, and sounds strange to the Batak…[with] a number of errors in the translation.”
The Toba and Karo Bataks accepted Christianity rapidly and by the early 20th century it had become part of their cultural identity.
This period was characterized by the arrival of Dutch colonists and while most Bataks did not oppose the Dutch, the Toba Batak fought a guerrilla war that lasted into the early 20th century and ended only with the death in 1907 of their charismatic priest-warrior-king Si Singamangaraja XII, who had battled the Dutch during the First Toba War with both magic and weaponry.
|HKBP Church in Balige, North Sumatra, built ca. 1917/WIKIPEDIA|
The Gereja Kristen Protestan Simalungun, originally part of the HKBP and preaching in Batak Toba language, eventually became a distinctively Simalungun church, adopting Simalungun customs and language, before finally incorporating as GKPS in 1963.