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

The Rev. Jesse Caswell, 1841

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Difficulties in Evangelism in Thailand—A Recent Take

Writing in the Huffington Post, Jim Stiller, a Global Ambassador for the World Evangelism Crusade, published an article that I have just come across entitled, "The Difficulty of Evangelizing in Thailand," which is not particularly insightful in one sense but does provide a general orientation to the reasons usually given for the lack of evangelistic numerical success in Thailand. It is particularly interesting to note the sense of optimism about future success conveyed to Stiller by some in Thailand. That, too, historically has a common theme in many commentaries on the evangelization of the Thai people.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Dr. Carle Clark Zimmerman

One way that I build on the entries in "An English-Language Bibliography of Materials Related to Christianity in Thailand," is by selecting authors of current entries and searching online for additional citations by that author.  Sometimes all I get is nothing, but sometimes the Web contains fascinating new sources.  Such is the case with Dr. Carle Clark Zimmerman (1897-1983), a Harvard sociologist who spent time in Siam back in the 1930s working with the American Presbyterian Mission.  He seems to have worked primarily with Bertha Blount McFarland, a former member of the mission who married George Bradley McFarland.  She remained very active in Christian work in Bangkok after her marriage.  Zimmerman conducted sociological studies for the mission, and the most important result of his work was the book, Siam: Rural Economic Survey, 1930-31.  That book does not appear in the bibliography because it is about Siam generally and not about Christianity in Siam at all.

Zimmerman, however, did produce some unpublished work relevant to Thai Christianity that he co-authored with Bertha McFarland.  It turns out that the University Archives & Special Collections division of the University of Saskatchewan Library contains a manuscript collection of Zimmerman materials (finding aid) that includes a couple of interesting items regarding his work in Siam: the first is a diary that Zimmerman kept of a trip to Chiang Mai in December 1930-January 1931; and the second is a 271 page unpublished manuscript entitled, "Christian Missions in Siam: A Study in Oriental Culture."  I haven't included the diary in the bibliography because I'm not sure of its contents, but the unpublished manuscript is obviously relevant and an unexpected find.

Knowing the quality of Zimmerman's work, it is very likely that his study of the missions in Siam is a very helpful document.  It could be valuable in a couple of ways.  First, the missionary sources and other English-language sources for the study of Thai church history are relatively meager for the 1930s; second, Zimmerman brought an academic expertise to his research, which is rare for that era.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Thoughts On Conversion, Ancient and Historical

It was just ten years ago that I did a small HeRB piece (here) on the insignificance of Thai church history in the larger scheme of things.  I also noted that, "What is endlessly fascinating to me, however, is that from the 'inside' the field seems huge. Even Protestant history in Thailand has more to it than any one or two scholars can possibly encompass; and, of course, the issues involved in the study of Thai church history are as broad in many ways as the global church itself."

Peter Brown's The Rise of Western Christendom (10th Anniversary Revised Edition, 2013) offers a number of fascinating cases making that last point concerning the breadth of the history of Christianities in Thailand.  According to Brown, one of the most fascinating and significant similarities is the question of the relationship of converts to their pre-Christian past and how that relationship is understood by those in positions of ecclesiastical power.  In his discussion of the 6th and 7th centuries, Brown observes that in the Eastern Roman Empire church leaders tended to dismiss "paganism" as something that had been defeated and thus was inconsequential.  They treated remaining traces of the pagan past with a degree of tolerance.

Such was not the case in the disintegrating Empire in the west.  There traditional religions remained more influential and ecclesiastical authorities tended to think that the pagan past was powerful and dangerous.  That is, "each believer had to continue, even after conversion and baptism, to battle with the tenacity of evil customs with himself or herself."  Thus, "paganism was now seen to lie close to the heart of all baptized Christians.  It was always ready to re-emerge in the form of 'pagan survivals.'" (p. 150)

In early Thai church history, the missionaries including esp. the Presbyterians clearly shared the western view rather than the eastern.  It would be fascinating, in fact, to see if a direct line could be traced through the centuries linking 6th century western European views on paganism to 19th and early 20th century American Presbyterian missionary views of Buddhism.  I suspect there is a link, but even if there is not a direct one the two eras shared a general concern over the influence of the past on converts.  Conversion was never complete.  For the Presbyterian missionaries, this was not so much a matter of moral behavior (although at times they did worry about convert morals as well) as it was a question of beliefs and religious practices.  Converts, for example, had a troubling habit of continuing to rely on traditional medical practices when missionary doctors weren't readily available—and sometimes even when they were.  If Brown is correct, the eastern churches would have tended to dismiss such a reliance as nothing more than an inconsequential leftover from the pagan past—or, in this case, the traditional religious past of the Thai convert.  The missionaries, however, saw convert reliance on traditional medicine as a clear indication that they had not fully converted to their new religion.  They were still in danger of slipping back into their "heathen" past.

In other words, the missionaries could not entirely trust converts because they showed clear evidence of not having made a full change from the past.  Traditional village Buddhism and animism remained potent in them.  My own study of Thai church history in northern Thailand early on led me to the conclusion that this lack of trust between the missionaries and converts had devastating consequences for the churches that emerged from missionary efforts.  At the close of, Khrischak Muang Nua (1984),  I wrote, "The summary of everything that I read [in Presbyterian missionary records] is this: the Laos Mission [in northern Siam] persisted in demeaning, decapitating, dismembering, and ignoring the church it was supposed to train up, to raise up."  A little harsh, perhaps, but that was 30 years ago!  The larger point that mistrust was a fundamental element in missionary-convert relations remains true.

What is fascinating is to find in Brown a couple of insights.  First, this kind of mistrust of conversion and converts goes back a long, long way in Christian history.  Second, "back then" not every corner of the larger church shared that lack of trust.  One point that is different is that in the 6th century those who were in positions of power shared the culture and ethnicity of those they mistrusted.  Ultimately, every body was in the same boat.  Such was not the case in earlier Thai church history.  In their own thinking, the missionaries did not share in the dangers of conversion because they weren't converts.  They came, in their own thinking, from a fully Christian culture and society.  That difference has injected a major complexity into Thai church life that continues to have an impact on it down to the present, esp. since most of the missions that entered Thailand after World War II exhibited much the same basic orientation to missionary-convert relations that marked earlier Presbyterian work.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


In the "Preface to the Tenth Anniversary Revised Edition" of his book, the Rise of Western Christendom (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), historian Peter Brown makes the point that the emergence of Western European Christendom out of the Roman Empire was marked as much by continuities as discontinuity.  He notes that traditionally it is the kings, warriors, bishops, and missionaries who have been the focus of historical interest.  They have dominated the story of the emergence of Medieval Europe.  Many historians have told the tale, furthermore, as if it was a steep decline into social and cultural darkness marked by catastrophe.  Brown makes it clear that it wasn't really like that.  The transformation of Europe in the centuries from AD 200 to 1000 was a slow long process.  Common people making uncountable numbers of small daily decisions played as important a part as did kings and bishops, warriors and missionaries.  Significant elements of the secular Roman past persisted quietly into an age that we usually considered to be entirely dominated by the church.  Brown doesn't put it this way, but it is as if there were layers of change, some obvious and on the surface, others more subterranean and unseen even by those living through the time.

Brown offers a potentially valuable way of re-imagining the history of the Christian faith in Thailand.  Given the fact that almost all of our source material for the study of Christianity in Thailand comes from missionaries until well into the twentieth century, it is only natural to focus on them as the core of the story.  Brown challenges historians of Christianity in Thailand, however, to find creative ways to refocus our attention on the people in the pews—to see, for example, how family culture and traditions influenced the reception and practice of the Christian faith by the early generations of converts.  In what ways, then, did the Christian faith that emerged in northern Thailand differ from that in Bangkok and how did southern Thai Christianity differ from them both?

Changing focus in this way is not easy when our records are in English and written by individuals who were mostly distant from the day to day practices esp. in the rural churches.  They, furthermore, intentionally sought to instill as western a form of the faith in the converts as possible.  Still, it is part of the historian's task to read between the lines, ferreting out hidden implications in the record that we have.  And, compared with the sources that historians of early Medieval Europe have to work with, we can hardly complain.  Our is by most any measure a resources-rich field of historical study.  The layers of change are there, if only we have the wit to see them and interpret them in a way faithful to the past that actually happened.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Dissertations & Theses - Two Lists

Since Paul Fuller, a Presbyterian missionary, wrote a B.Th. thesis on Christian approaches to Buddhism in 1929, there has been well over 150 dissertations and theses written on subjects related to Christianity in Thailand.  The next thesis after Fuller wasn't written until 13 years later, 1942—by Helen McClure, another Presbyterian missionary.  Hers was the first master's thesis.  In 1961, Ach. Pisnu Akkapin was the first Thai to write a thesis, and the first doctoral dissertation was completed just six years later by another Presbyterian missionary, Jay Johnson.  By the 1990s, this trickle of academic treatments of Christianity in Thailand became something of a flood, which has continued down to the near present.  All of this and more is revealed in two lists of dissertations and theses related to Christianity in Thailand, which I have recently uploaded as pdfs to herbswanson.com.  One (here) is an alphabetical listings, and the other (here) lists the dissertations and theses by year.  The source for both lists is, of course, my ongoing "An English-Language Bibliography of Materials Related to Christianity in Thailand."

While the alphabetical listing is probably the more useful on for researchers, the chronological list is the more interesting because it gives a sense of the ebb and flow of various subjects investigated by academic researchers.  The great majority of those researchers are missionaries and Thai Christians investigating a variety of subjects important to them and to the church in Thailand including numerous works on church growth and evangelism.  Far fewer are the work of secular scholars, the first being Donald Lord's very useful 1964 Ph.D. biography of Dan Beach Bradley, which Lord later published as  Mo Bradley and Thailand (1969).

The most recent items on the list were completed in 2011.  I can only guess that at least some dissertations and theses written in the last two-plus years haven't been cataloged into the online data bases, and I haven't yet come across any of those that have.  Recent rates of production suggest that there should have been about a half dozen or so new works since 2011.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Missionaries & Science: The Context

American missionaries played an important role in the introduction of modern western science into nineteenth-century Siam, especially during the first stages of that process.  It is a story that remains to be told in an organized, scholarly fashion, and when it is told the introductory chapter will necessarily deal with the relationship of science to religion in the United States in the nineteenth century.  The reason why the missionaries played the role they did was because they were committed to their religious faith.  Unlike today, science and the Bible were then widely understood as two books each revealing God in their own way.  These two revelations were believed to reinforce each other; they were not at odds.  The early generations of Protestant missionaries brought this understanding with them and sought to teach it to "the Thai," from such royal figures as King Mongkut right down to local people including their own converts.  Daniel McGilvary, one of the two towering figures of Protestant missions in Siam (along with Dr. Dan Beach Bradley, his father-in-law) repeatedly used scientific instruction as a weapon in his evangelistic arsenal.

Daniel Walker Howe provides an excellent overview of the American historical context in which the Protestant missionaries operated in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, What Hath God Wrought: the Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford, 2007).  Howe understands the importance of religion, particularly evangelical Protestantism, to the age that he writes about and devotes considerable attention to, among other things, revivalism and the relationship of science to religion.  For those who are interested in the historical context of the first generations of Protestant missionaries, this is an excellent introduction.  It is well-written and impressively researched.  If and when that book on the missionary role in the introduction of western science in Siam is told, What Hath God Wrought should certainly appear in its citations and bibliography.  And let the people say, "Amen."

Friday, May 16, 2014

Presbyterian Missionaries Biographical Data Online

One of the most useful resources available to me as a researcher into Thai church history remains a set of biographical data sheets of Presbyterian missionaries prepared in the early 1950s by the Rev. Paul Eakin and contained in his papers at the Payap University Archives in Chiang Mai.  If I remember correctly, Eakin was in the process of writing a history of Presbyterian missions in Thailand and compiled these data sheets partly to that end.  There is no evidence that he ever actually wrote that history, unfortunately.  In any event, the Payap University Archives has entered Eakin's data into a data base, which is available online (here).  Only selected portions of the data has been entered, and it appears that the archives is still "in process" as not all of the entries in Eakin's files appear (as yet) in the data base.  Still, it is good that this information is available more generally, and the archives is to be commended for making the effort to put it online.

Friday, May 2, 2014

WELS History in Thailand

One of the great challenges that will face the historian who tackles Thai Protestant history after World War II is the proliferation of foreign mission agencies working in Thailand.  They come from around the world and their personnel speak a diversity of languages, represent a variety of cultures, and run the gamut of theological persuasions, though they tend to be theologically conservative, although not exclusively so.  Recently, I came across information on the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) mission in Thailand, a mission that I personally have been only vaguely aware of.  There is little historical information on this mission widely available, and I have taken the liberty of turning two relevant pages into a four-page pdf, which is available (here) and cited in the bibliography of materials related to Christianity in Thailand.  If you are interested in the links to the information, they are cited at the end of the pdf.

This is the first time, as far as I can remember, that I have actually created a somewhat artificial document and placed it in the bibliography. I don't plan to make a habit of it.  However, the goal here is always to facilitate access to information about the church's past in Thailand, and this "artificial" document from the WELS mission does that.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Slow and not even Steady

Being a full-time pastor seems to fill most days with the variety of duties associated with the office, which has meant that I have little time or energy for Thai church historical work at this point.  And that, in turn, means that my translation of A History of Pastoral Care in the Church of Christ in Thailand is proceeding at an almost tortuously slow pace.  Yet, the pace does continue, and this morning I reached page 95 (out of 130 total pages).  As histories go, it is rather sparse, no citations, no bibliography, and the translation is not the best English I've ever written, but I am convinced that it is an important "contribution" to the historiographical literature on Thai church history.  First, its focus is the churches rather than the missionaries, although they obviously figure prominently in the story it tells.  Second, it explores territory that was new for me when it was written nearly 20 years ago, namely the history of the churches outside of the North and of other denominations.  It thus has the virtue of including, however briefly, something of the history of the Karen Baptist churches in northern Thailand.

I only mention this here to remind the extremely modest readership of this blog that the translation of the History of Pastoral Care is proceeding and, since it is nearly three-fourths complete does already include a goodly portion of the history of Protestant pastoral care up to the year 1960. [Update: as of June 18th, I have reached page 108 of the 130 pages - still slow, but a little steadier than previously!]

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

North Carolina Presbyterian online

The last posting on a 1904 article in the Boston Evening Transcript (here) concerning the state of Christianity in Siam noted the importance of the religious and secular press as a source for the study of the church in Siam up to the 1920s.  That thought inspired me to see if the North Carolina Presbyterian is available online, and it turns out that it is. The North Carolina Presbyterian was a nineteenth-century publication that is a key source for the study of the Laos Mission from it inception in 1867 into the 1890s.  The Rev. Dr. Daniel McGilvary was from North Carolina and sent numerous letters and quite a few articles back to the publication over the years, which thus contains data available nowhere else about the mission, its churches, and its personnel.  The paper is also an important source for the study of northern Thai history generally.

It turns out that almost all of the issues of the North Carolina Presbyterian are available online at the Internet Archive.  They are not listed there in order, however, and I have taken the liberty of listing them chronologically beginning with the first available year 1861 until the paper ceased publication in 1898.  Linked to An English-Language Bibliography of Materials Related to Christianity in Thailand, you can access the list (here).

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Boston Evening Transcript Article

In its Last Edition for Saturday, 21 May 1904, page 28, the Boston Evening Transcript published an article entitled, "Christianity in Siam," which provides commentary based on a "report to the American Bible Society from its agency in Siam."  In the summary sub-headings the contents of the article are described as including: "The Present King Favorable to Missionaries—Bible Circulation Helped by Railroad—New Protestant Church to Be Built at Bangkok."  This article appeared on the second page of a Google search, "siam protestant."

A few random thoughts:

  • For those trolling the Web for sources relevant to Christianity in Thailand, it is important to use as many different combinations of search terms as one can think of.  I've spent many hours in the last couple of years doing just that and continue to come up with new sources nearly every time.  Obviously, there is still a large amount of primary material unavailable online and most more recent publications are unavailable, but even so the Web is a rich source of data—if one can find it.
  • This article appeared in a "secular" newspaper,  Boston Evening Transcript, at the turn of the 20th century at a time when the press, secular and religious, was still an important source of missionary and foreign church news.  For the nineteenth century, that press provides an immense amount of crucial data for mission and church work in Siam.
  • Much of the focus of this particular article is on "the Laos people," meaning the people of Bangkok's northern dependencies, which in 1904 were being increasingly integrated into the Siamese state.  It documents on the ongoing need, as seen by the ABS, for translating the whole Bible in northern Thai, a task that in fact was never completed.
I should note, finally, that I won't include this source in this website's "English-Language Bibliography of Materials Related to Christianity in Thailand," because it is not significant enough for inclusion.  It is too brief, and it is a secondary source.  Including all of the article on Christianity in Siam is simply not an option for the bibliography, but I did want to mention it here as an example of what is "out there" on the Web.