"Truth of any kind is food for the soul."

The Rev. Jesse Caswell, 1841

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Statistics of Church Growth in Thailand

Last month, June, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, release a report entitled, "Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020."  The report presents a statistical picture of the changing nature of global religiosity, which among other things finds atheism and agnosticism on the decline worldwide even as they grow in Europe and North America.  For our purposes here, the report presents a snapshot of the growth of the Christian religion in Southeast Asia generally and Thailand in particular, which puts Thai church growth in both historical and global context.

According to the report (p. 40), Christianity in Southeast Asia has grown from 50.4 million adherents in 1970 to an estimated 153.2 million by 2020, a three-fold increase in fifty years.  As a percentage of the total population of Southeast Asia, Christianity will have increased from 17.7% in 1970 to an estimated 23.4% in 2020.  The figures for Thailand show 240,000 Christians in 1970 and 946,000 estimated for 2020.  As a percentage of the total Thailand population, Christianity will have increased from 0.7% of the population in 1970 to an estimated 1.3% in 2020.  That is an average annual growth rate of 2.78%, which ranks 7th of the 11 nations of Southeast Asia.  Cambodia had the highest annual growth rate (5.87%) and Vietnam the lowest (2.03%).  It should be noted that Thailand has by far-and-away the smallest percentage of Christians (1.3%) of any nation in Southeast Asia.  Laos (3.3%) and Cambodia (3.6%) are the next lowest in total numbers of Christians as a percentage of the total population.

No one familiar with the church in Thailand will be surprised by these figures.  If they could be adjusted to include ethnic Thais alone, factoring out the tribal churches, the difference between Thailand and the other nations of its region would be even greater.  It remains true today as it has for centuries that Thai culture is quietly and impressively resistant to Christianity.  For as long as Christianity in Thailand remains essentially alien to Thai society (that is infected with Western dualist and exclusivist ideologies) there is not likely to be any change in the level or effectiveness of Thai resistance to it.

Monday, June 17, 2013

McGilvary in America and Siam

I am currently working through David Bebbington's, Victorian Religious Revivals: Culture and Piety in Local and Global Contexts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), and plan to eventually do a book review on it. It is an excellent study in revivalism, and anyone interested in the history of revivals in Europe, North America, and Australia would do well to get a copy. The book contains a series of case studies arranged chronologically beginning in Texas in 1841 and ending in Nova Scotia in 1880. The fourth study is of a revival led by Daniel McGilvary in the Union Church, Moore County, North Carolina, in 1857, not long before he sailed to Bangkok to take up his life's work in Siam and "Laos" (today's northern Siam). Bebbington's chapter on this revival is, thus, an important addition to the literature on the history of Presbyterian missions and Protestantism in Thailand.

As one example of that importance, Bebbington notes that one of the marks of the revival at Union Church as a distinctively Presbyterian revival was the dominant role of McGilvary as pastor.  Bebbington writes, "To a large extent McGilvary personally shaped the revival.  Despite often involving able elders, Presbyterian life was dominated by ministers."  Bebbington goes on to note that Presbyterian revivals thus depended upon the character of the clergy involved and the quality of their pastoral leadership (p. 156).

In the opening chapters of Protestant church history in Siam, one of the most noticeable and significant characteristics of Presbyterian missions was the way in which its missionary clergy dominated local congregations.  Whereas the first generation of Baptist missionaries took a more collegial approach to church life, Presbyterian mission churches were wholly dependent on their missionary pastors for the quality of their congregational life.  It is one of the key themes of my research into the 19th and early 20th century history of the Thai churches that the overwhelming dominance Presbyterian missionaries exercised over Thai and northern Thai church life hampered the emergence of a truly indigenous Protestant movement in Siam and its northern principalities.  Indigenization of the gospel took place but mostly in subterranean ways and in spite of church (missionary) leadership.

If Bebbington is correct, the dominance of Presbyterian missionary clergy over the Thai church said far more about the cultural practices of American Presbyterianism than it did about the people of Siam and the northern states.  In both North Carolina and in the North of Siam, in sum, the personality, beliefs, attitudes, and values of the Rev. Daniel McGilvary were an important factor in the events that transpired in both of those places.  Bebbington's chapter on the revival at Union Church provides us with important details on the origins of McGilvary's approach to ministry and the baggage he brought with him to Siam.

Friday, May 31, 2013

McFarland Dictionaries

Still another story waiting to be written in Protestant missionary history in Thailand is the impact the earlier generations of missionaries had on the modernization of the central Thai (Siamese) language.  They produced the first dictionaries and were among the first Westerners to study the language.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, two of the key figures in this story were the Rev. S. G. McFarland, a Presbyterian missionary, and his son, George B. McFarland.  Some of the work that they produced can be found online.  These include:
  • McFarland, George Bradley. English-Siamese Dictionary. Bangkok: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1903. Available online at the Internet Archive (here).
  • McFarland, George Bradley. English-Siamese Dictionary. Bangkok: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1916. Available online at the Internet Archive (here).
  • McFarland, George Bradley. English-Siamese Dictionary. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1944. Available online at the Google Books (here).
  • McFarland, George Bradley. An English-Siamese Pronouncing Hand. 2nd ed. Bangkok: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1900. Available online at the Internet Archive (here).

Friday, May 3, 2013

McGilvary & Presbyterian Revivalism

Often seen as a hero of the international missionary movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Daniel McGilvary has remained largely unknown in scholarly circles generally.  That is a loss for those engaged in the study of Thai church history and the study of the missionary role in Westernization in Siam.  It means we are left to our own devices to piece together his background and its relationship to his long missionary career in Siam.  Thus, David Bebbington, Victorian Religious Revivals: Culture and Piety in Local and Global Contexts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) comes as a very pleasant surprise. Bebbington devotes a whole chapter (Chapter Six, “Experience and Good Order: Presbyterian Revival in North Carolina”) to the 1857 revival that took place in Union Church, Moore County, North Carolina, which McGilvary was serving as pastor while waiting to be commissioned as a missionary to Siam.  He especially highlights the differences between Presbyterian revivalism and that of other more enthusiastic styles of frontier revivalism.  The Presbyterians were more restrained and put a strong emphasis on orderliness in their revivals.  The Union Church revival was certainly of that kind.

It is also good to see Bebbington making use of one of the key sources for 19th century Presbyterian missions in Siam's northern dependencies, The North Carolina Presbyterian.  McGilvary stayed in close touch with that publication even though it was published by the Southern Presbyterian Church, from which he had withdrawn at the beginning of the American Civil War.  As a result, it contains an invaluable record of northern Thai church history in the 19th century.

In sum, it is good to see the larger world of scholarship studying important figures in the history of the church in Thailand from other perspectives and in other contexts.  Their work can only enrich our understanding of the history of the church in Thailand.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Vinton Book

One source of brief biographies for the first generation of Protestant missionaries in Siam is found in the "Vinton Book," a description of which is copied from the introduction to the book, below.   The biographical sketches cover only missionaries connected with the Siam Mission of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and contain just dates and events.  These sketches, however, provide information for missionaries who served only briefly in Siam and for whom there is little biographical information.  I discovered this source by searching the Web for "congregational missionaries siam."

"Reverend John A. Vinton, then of South Boston, later of Winchester, Massachusetts, compiled in 1869 brief biographies of missionaries of the American Board from the beginning of the Board's history till 1869, writing them in longhand in a blank book.
"Mr. Vinton died November 13, 1877
The biographies were brought down to 1878 by Dr. Alfred 0. Treat.
From 1878 to 1886 the notices were prepared by Miss A.M.Chapin.
In copying the Vinton Book, we have divided it into [four] volumes.
Volume 1 covers the Missions in:-
ASIA: Eastern, China, Japan
ASIA: Southern, India and Ceylon

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Interconnected Baptist Missions: Siam, China, & Burma

In her 1913 book on Baptist missionary history entitled, Following the Sunrise: A Century of Baptist Missions, 1813-1913 (Philadelphia, 1913), Helen Barrett Montgomery observes in a brief introduction to early Baptist work in Siam that, "The story of American Baptist missionary work in China, strangely enough, does not begin in China, but in Siam, where it is interwoven with the story of missions in Burma." (p. 146)  Her observation highlights one of the most fascinating challenges facing those who "dabble" in the history of the Christian movement in Thailand, namely the way in which it connects to so much else in so many other places.  Leaving aside whether or not the history of Protestant missions in China actually begins in Bangkok or not, the history of 19th century Baptist missions in Siam is tied to the development of Baptist missions in Burma and profoundly influenced by the opening of China to Protestant missions.  In my own research on the Presbyterians, I have found myself repeatedly drawn into the orbit of other histories including even that of
British India, which bordered the northern Thai states in the era of the Presbyterian Laos Mission ("Laos" here referring to those northern states that were tributary to Siam, not modern-day Laos).  For me, one of the most fascinating "cognate" fields of study for the history of the church in Thailand is Protestant missions history among the American Indians.  Many of the themes are the same, the experiences are similar, and there was even at least one Presbyterian missionary, Jonathan Wilson, who first served out on the plains of the American West before he became a missionary in Siam and then in the North.

In an almost paradoxical way, then, the field of Thai Christian historical studies is an incredibly minor and modest field of immense, nearly global proportions.  What fun!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Siam Repository

The Siam Repository, published by the Baptist missionary Samuel J. Smith, is one of the key sources for earlier church history in Siam.  According to Patricia M. Herbert and Anthony Milner, South-East Asia: Languages and Literatures : a Select Guide (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989), page 30, it was published from 1869 to 1874.  Most of the volumes are available online on the Google Books, Internet Archives, or the Hathitrust websites.  It does, however,  take some patience to sort out the results of a Google search of "Siam Repository."  That is pretty much the story for searching any of the 19th century missionary serials.

It turns out that all five volumes of the Siam Repository are also available in hard copy and PDF formats through Rare Book Clubs (here) for a charge, of course.  Purchasers are warned, "Books marked 'PDF/scan' may have notations, faded type, yellowed paper, missing or skewed pages, etc. Paperbacks marked 'OCR' may have numerous typos, missing text, with no illustrations or indexes."  The PDFs can be downloaded from the book club website, but hard copies have to be purchased through other sellers.  They are available at Amazon (here).  The hard copies are not reprints.  The originals were scanned, and anyone who has used scanned material knows what a mess the results can be.  There are also two or more versions for some volumes, and it is not clear what the differences in the versions are.

In any event, chalk the availability of the Siam Repository in various forms and formats as one more example of how Internet has radically transformed the study of Thai church and missions history.  It has made a great variety of 19th and early 20th century sources available online.  While finding what is on the Web is a real hassle, the fact is that large amounts of published historical material are there waiting to be found—and when found then always immediately available thereafter.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Remembering Carl Blanford

The Rev. Carl Blanford (1922-2012) was a member of that special generation of Presbyterian missionaries who worked in Thailand after World War II.  They helped the church recover from the devastation of the war, which saw Thailand occupied by the Japanese and forced into an alliance with Japan.  They not only engaged in restoration but also created new institutions, programs, and sometimes even sought new directions for the church.  They deserve study in their own right, but they also pose serious obstacles for that study.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, missionary correspondence was valued, preserved, and frequently published.  That was much less the case for missionaries working in the last half of the 20th century.  They are, thus, less likely to show up in online searches than those earlier generations of missionaries whose works are to be found in the growing online archives of 19th century books and other publications.

Still, there are online sources for some of the "new time" missionaries as well.  In working on a Dictionary entry for Carl Blanford, I came across a Youtube video (here) prepared by the Sapanluang Church, Bangkok, where Blanford served for many years.  It is worth viewing here (for as long as it stays "up") and is another one of those cases of "you never know what you'll find" online.  Blanford, by the way,wrote one of the minor classics of Presbyterian missionary writings, Chinese Churches in Thailand.

งานรำลึกอาจารย์แบลนฟอร์ด ณ คริสตจักรสะพานเหลือง เมื่อวันอาทิตย์ที่ 3 มิถุนายน 2555
Memorial Program for Acharn Blanford, Sapanluang Church, 3 June 2555 (2012)