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This Heathen People: The Cognitive Sources of American Missionary

Westernizing Activities in Northern Siam, 1867-1889

Herbert R. Swanson

Thesis submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Maryland
in partial fulfillmentof the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts



Abstract 2006 Intro 1987 Intro Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Conclusion Bibliography

In the nineteenth-century, the Laos Mission engaged in westernizing activities at the expense of its evangelistic agenda because its dualistic, evangelical, Old School Presbyterian perspective set rigid cognitive parameters for the scope of its work. Over and over again, that perspective returned to one simple fact: the world and all of reality was sliced into two distinct, incompatible, mutually exclusive spheres. Around that simple fact, American nineteenth-century evangelical culture erected a richly textured system of thought that turned simple-minded dualism into a grand world view. From the heights of that world view, evangelicals surveyed a coherent universe built on "common sense."

It seemed only sensible, to believe that evangelicalism must resist all other world views, ideologies, and theologies. By definition anything that denied the truth of evangelical Protestantism denied God and the true nature of the universe. It seemed only sensible, moreover, to devise strategies to convert those who believed the "wrong" things into believers in the Protestant truth. And so it went: revivalism seemed sensible because it provided the means to convert the unconverted. Millennialism and a belief in progress proved that the Protestant truth would eventually conquer all doubters and sinners. The ideas of civilization and savagism described the boundaries of the opposing spheres of good and evil and placed nations and societies in a comforting sociocultural schema. The belief in the United States as the New Israel, God's Chosen Nation, enabled evangelicals to subsume their nation and its republican values within the web of dualism.

And since the world was so obviously divided into opposing camps, it made only sense for evangelicals to seek to exert control over American society. How else could they preserve the purity its God-given millennial mission required of it? How else could they assimilate dangerous competitors? Social control, "of course," meant isolating the impure from the rest of society and exposing them to moral therapy. Over the course of the decades, the evangelical movement reached out to reform the nation through a series of crusades, great and small. In each case, evangelicals identified a corrupt enemy who endangered society and conducted its crusade to convert that enemy. They evangelized the poor, prostitutes, consumers of alcohol, slave holders, or even meat eaters. They evangelized Catholics, immigrants, Jews, Chinese, Mexican Americans, urbanites, frontier dwellers, Mormons, Deists, and the American Indians.

Dualism stood as much more than a theory interesting only to intellectual historians. The whole course of white America's attitudes towards and actions against the American Indian makes no sense apart from dualism. The history of nineteenth-century mental institutions, education, art, political institutions, family and gender relationships, and even wars (especially wars) makes equally little sense apart from the key elements of evangelical dualism. The history of nineteenth-century evangelicalism itself cannot be understood apart from the supposedly "simple" fact of its dualistic worldview. Dualistic thinking revealed itself in every facet of the movement, institutions, and events of evangelicalism.

The power of evangelical dualism lay in the fact that it defined itself as based upon eternal, biblical truth, the only trustworthy window onto the nature of reality available to the human race. The popular common sense philosophy that turned dualism into a philosophical system purported to provide people with a realistic, trustworthy method for judging truth from falsehood and right and wrong. It did so through a circular reasoning that allowed what evangelical beliefs to be the measure of what should be believed. Among Presbyterians, the Princeton Theology linked common sense philosophy to orthodox Calvinism, conservative revivalism, and biblical literalism, making of this system of thought that same self-based standard of truth and moral behavior. By its own norms for truth, Presbyterian evangelicalism locked its worldview within itself so that its adherents must automatically reject contradictory belief systems out of hand.

It is fair to ask, how dualism could have such power over evangelicals as to determine not only how they thought but also how they acted. In his description of the dialectical process between society and the individual in the development of individual consciousness, Berger emphasizes that, as a rule, people are quite unaware that the process is even taking place. The social environment seems to them to be virtually identical with their natural environment.[1] Berger describes this process of "reification," as, "...the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in non-human or possibly supra-human terms." Reification creates a paradox in which humanity produces a social reality while denying all the while that it does such a thing.[2] Trained to believe in the truths of the beliefs they learned from childhood, and taught that the very act of questioning those beliefs denied truth, evangelicals normally acted without question upon what they "knew" to be true.[3]

Evangelicals remained caught in this cyclical, unconscious mind set because, particularly in the case of the Presbyterians, their religious beliefs and their philosophical framework clearly taught them that only that which they believed and cherished made "sense". Anything else, they assumed, did not make sense and must be discounted as not true and not of the realm of the light. Reification, therefore, hardened the evangelical understanding of the world into a world view that found in the alien what it taught should be found: dangerous infidelity to God and Truth. The process Berger so aptly describes was complete. Evangelicals internalized dualism. They experienced it as an objective reality. And they externalized what they learned in a way that confirmed that dualism.

Emotion reinforced the power of evangelical dualism. The elaborate vocabulary evangelicals employed in reference to those outside the sphere of salvation captured the disdain, fear, revulsion, and anger evangelicals felt towards them. The emotional content of categories such as heathen, savage, infidel, idolater, degenerate, and uncivilized made it difficult for evangelicals to treat threatening others as anything more than objects for pity and conversion. The abolitionist, the teetotaler, the reformer, and the missionary shouted always and again the battle cry of evangelicalism, "No Compromise!" Emotional revulsion against evil kept that commandment uppermost in evangelical minds.

Essentially a conservative movement, evangelicalism aimed at preserving orthodox theology, established morality, and traditional mores. In the nineteenth-century it stood for the rural past against urbanization, frontier barbarism, and Indian savagism. It stood, that is, for social order and morality against all of those forces that it perceived as threatening Protestant hegemony.

Evangelicalism's aggressive-defensive posture grew out of its dualistic conservatism. Believing in the superiority of the old ways, it displayed a siege mentality in its battle to conserve the old. It attempted to maintain the purity of its institutions and organizations while attacking the impure from its purified, protected core. Evangelicalism, at one and the same time, sealed itself off from the outside world while crusading to expand its boundaries and bring more "lost souls" into their safety. Through its reform campaigns, it forayed out into enemy territory to establish new bases of purity and morality.


Operating out of evangelicalism's dualistic frame of mind, the Laos Mission defined northern Thai religion and culture in what amounted to a self-fulfilling prophesy. Defining as heathen and uncivilized anything beyond the pale of their own religious and social heritage, Presbyterian missionaries found what they knew they would: uncivilized, degraded, immoral, superstitious, illogical, dead heathenism. Virtually every aspect of northern Thai society fell, in their eyes, within the domain of Satan. The members of the Laos Mission, in other words, entered northern Siam with an already internalized dualism that they experienced as objective reality. They then externalized that dualism in such a way as to confirm and cement its reality, for them, in northern Siam.

Here we must return to the "prime directive" of evangelical dualism: no compromise with the enemies of God. Nineteenth century evangelicalism, with its revivalistic, perfectionist heritage prevented the Laos Mission from attempting any adaptations of northern Thai mores to their purpose of Christianizing the region. It had to preserve the purity of its own beliefs and structures. It had to win a complete victory over heathenism. Emotionally, as well as ideologically, the missionaries could not allow themselves to be canny in adapting their religion to the culture of the region. Nor could they patiently accept "corruptions" in the short term. The ideology of dualism locked the missionaries away from northern Thai culture and society, and they had, then, no choice but to use American ideas, institutions, and technologies in their work.

Dualism created a dilemma the Laos Mission could neither escape nor solve. On its home ground in the United States, conservative evangelical dualism sought to protect orthodox religion and traditional society from the ravages of social change. But in northern Siam the Laos Mission tried to use this conservative dualism as an instrument of radical social revolution. The dynamics of their world view simply did not fit the missionaries' use of it: they were not revolutionaries with a vision of a great new society. They, rather, sought to recreate an alien way of life in northern Siam while hiding behind the walls of their evangelical fortresses, the compounds and institutions of the mission itself. While revolutionaries travel light, hide themselves among the people, and speak to the desires of people for change, the Laos Mission carried a heavy agenda that divorce it from the lives of the people.

The aggressive-defensive posture of evangelicalism trapped the Laos Mission into a mode of operation designed to frustrate its goal of Christianizing northern Siam. Evangelical defensiveness constantly erected barriers of strangeness between itself and the people. It demanded that those who accept Christianity go through a deculturalization process that radically altered their social situation. In overtly attacking the whole northern Thai social structure, Evangelical aggressiveness gave the missionaries the appearance of interlopers who had to be resisted. It was hardly the way to run a social revolution.

Another key to the problem of why the missionaries conducted themselves as they did lies in the dynamics of Christianization and westernization itself. After "deciding" that they could borrow nothing from northern Thai religion and society, the missionaries imported more and more of their own culture in ever expanding circles of activities that, in turn, thoroughly distracted them from evangelizing northern Siam. Education provided an outstanding example. The missionaries saw that in order to spread Christianity they had to teach "the knowledge of the Lord" in schools. But they could not use northern Thai schools, curricula, or methods of instruction because Buddhism dominated northern Thai education. They had to create an entirely new system of education. In order to do that, they had to build proper school buildings, procure proper teaching equipment, train teachers, devise suitable curricula, and produce textbooks.

Each of these activities drew the missionaries on by logical extensions to engage in still more activities. The construction of a school building took vast amounts of time as the missionaries had to find building supplies, supervise construction, train craftsmen in new techniques, and create an administrative structure to support all of these other activities. Equipment had to be imported which meant still more time in lobbying the Board of Foreign Missions for funds, then locating sources of supplies, ordering those supplies, and then getting them shipped upriver to Chiang Mai. The production of textbooks required a press, intensive linguistic study, and translating materials into northern Thai.

At every twist and turn, then, the mission had to go on to still other activities that led it down still other avenues that, in turn, led it further and further way from its stated goal of changing the people' religious beliefs, until the mission became primarily an agent of westernization rather than Christianization. The task of recreating American evangelical culture in northern Siam proved to be a gargantuan undertaking. But given the defensive attitudes of the mission that caused them to fear for the purity of their religion if they took anything at all from northern Thai society, the Laos Mission had no choice. It dare not compromise with heathenism. It could use only that which came from the sphere of the good. They could only do what American Protestant missionaries around the world did, namely, import as much of the West as possible into the cultural situations where they worked.


The members of the Laos Mission were conventional conservative Presbyterian evangelicals living out their conventional faith and piety in a most unconventional place. They made sense out of their situation through their dualism, a worldview that encompassed all of reality and truth to them. On the basis of that world view they believed that the only path to the conversion of the northern Thai to Christianity lay in reconstructing American evangelical values, mores, habits of mind, and religious institutions and practices in northern Siam. In the end, the overwhelming demands of westernization forced Christianization into the background so that the Laos Mission became a major source of westernization in northern Siam while that region remained firmly Buddhist and animist.

From within the logic of dualism, then, the Laos Mission did not act in a puzzling manner. The mission acted out the logical consequences of its dualistic world view believing, as it did, that it could convert the heathens only by removing them to a safe haven where the values, the moral behavior, the beliefs, and the institutions of missionary culture could sustain them in their acceptance of Christianity. How else, they would have asked, could one combat the evil terrors of heathenism? The magnificent edifice of evangelical dualism allowed no other strategy and no other set of activities to attain that strategy.

In the end, the members of the Laos Mission presented the spectacle of deeply committed, highly motivated people who wanted to change the world for the better and yet walled themselves off in a narrow system of prejudice that frustrated their commitment to assist others. Paradoxically, the very worldview that motivated them to go to northern Siam kept them from doing what they wanted to do once they arrive. Their experience reveals a pattern of paradox in which human fallibility twists, turns, fragments, and even frustrates human ideals in the strangest ways, especially for these missionaries who were doing what they thought was right in the only way they thought they could do it.


[1] Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, 106-08; Berger, Sacred Canopy, 89; and Berger, "Reification," 203-07.

[2] Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, 106; cf. Berger, "Reification," 200-01.

[3] See Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America (New York: Knopf, 1977), 109-24.