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

The Rev. Jesse Caswell, 1841

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.