missionaries invariably stand between two sets of cultures,
the ones on the field and the ones at home. The truth of this
statement does not "go without saying," however commonplace
it may seem, as the very future of a Christian mission depends
on how it relates to its host cultures and utilizes its home
cultures. A mission's "system of doctrines and meanings"
is a cognitive mechanism, with a strong affective substratum,
that plays a crucial role in determining the way in which the
relationship between field and home cultures plays out. It strongly
influences what a missionary notices and fails to notice concerning
the host culture and provides an equally crucial interpretive
framework for understanding and making judgments about what
is noticed. That system also helps to determine how the missionaries
feel about what they notice. As the term "system of doctrines
and meanings" itself suggests, missionary thought contains
both conscious (theological) and semi-conscious or unconscious
(ideological) components that, when taken together, comprise
an ordered system of cognition. By their very nature, missionary
records tend to reveal that system in terms of events, policies,
decisions, and attitudes rather than in formal statements of
doctrines and principles. The student has to read through the
historical record to the system, in and of itself a difficult
task unless one has access to formal statements of the missionaries'
system of doctrines and meanings from other sources. The Laos
Mission and the Princeton Theology provide a fascinating case
field, the Laos Mission carried out its mission in the midst
of northern Thai culture, while it maintained a vital link with
the central Thai state culture and its power center in Bangkok.
Commentators have long noted that the mission took an essentially
negative attitude towards northern Thai culture, especially
towards its religion and its ceremonial practices. It consciously
attempted to preserve the Western character of the Christian
faith that it preached, and it required that its converts publicly
renounce their former religious allegiance and permanently sever
relationships and activities based on Buddhism and animism.
This stance, as we have seen, exerted an immense influence on
the history of the mission between 1867 and 1880. It precipitated
major crises in 1869 and 1878. In 1869, the mission defied the
Prince of Chiang Mai, Chao Kawilorot, by instructing its converts
to refuse to work on Sundays. In 1878, it disputed the manner
in which northern Thai society legalized marriages through the
payment of a "spirit fee." The mission called on its
system of doctrines and meanings in both instances to determine
crucial matters of policy. It also usually spurned the advice
of its own converts on how best to proceed with the evangelization
of the region, advice that reflected an indigenous perspective
and that, if taken, might have reduced tensions between the
mission and northern Thai society. The missionaries, again,
drew on their system of meanings and doctrines to dismiss the
"local wisdom," because that wisdom
seemingly violated what the missionaries took to be the fundamental
tenets of the Christian faith. More largely, the Laos Mission's
system of doctrines and meanings virtually programmed a "scholastic
approach" that characterized its evangelistic, medical,
and educational activities throughout the mission's pioneer
have argued, in light of the Laos Mission's denial of northern
Thai culture and religion, that the Laos Mission misunderstood
Buddhism and improperly communicated the Christian message.
In one sense, these arguments point to the important insight
that the mission viewed Buddhism and communicated with the people
of northern Siam from within a closed system of doctrines and
meanings that disparaged the self-understanding of northern
Thai Buddhists themselves. For those who do not share in a narrowly
constructed, Old School Presbyterian system of doctrines and
meanings, the Laos Mission certainly appears to have misunderstood
the religion of northern Siam and improperly communicated the
Christian message to the northern Thai people. From within the
mission's own doctrinal and ideological system of thought, however,
it did not misunderstand Buddhism. It delivered its message
to the people in an appropriate manner. It is at this point
that the Princeton Theology sheds important light on our understanding
of missionary behavior in northern Siam up to 1880. It brings
us face to face with the Old School Presbyterian missionaries'
own cultural and religious experience, an experience that wove
the strands of Reformed confessionalism, Common Sense Realism,
evangelical piety, and a touch of romanticism into a single,
if complex, system of thought. The historical record does not
reveal precisely and clearly the degree to which the Princeton
Theology directly influenced the thinking and work of the Laos
Mission. The biographical data presented in Chapter Two, however,
makes it likely that Princeton did exercise at least some influence
on Daniel McGilvary and Jonathan Wilson, the two key leaders
of the mission before 1880. That record also indicates that
the theological stance of other pioneer members on the mission,
as far as we can reconstruct it, did not differ markedly from
Princeton. It was like Princeton, if not Princetonian. Dr. Charles
Vrooman was the exception that proves the rule.
nineteenth-century, orthodox American evangelical perspective,
the pioneer members of the Laos Mission conducted themselves
in an exemplary manner—from, it must be repeated, that
perspective. It was the perspective articulated by the Old School
Presbyterian theologians at Princeton Seminary. The Princetonian
circle comprised a group of highly educated thinkers, men well
versed in the history of Western thought and widely respected
for their intellectual skills and breadth of learning. By the
standards of their day and nation, they were also moderates
who had a profound respect for scientific thought and resisted
the supposed excesses of popular American religious enthusiasm
just as much as they dismissed the supposed excesses of German
ticism. The Presbyterian practice of missions
in northern Siam and missionary theological expression conformed
closely to the doctrines of these moderate, articulate, and
influential theologians. If we could step back in time and if
we accepted as our own a theological system similar to Princeton's,
we would surely feel that McGilvary and his colleagues were
doing as well as could be expected under unusually trying circumstances.
Arthur J. Brown, one of the most highly respected figures in
the history of American Presbyterian missions, considered McGilvary
to be "one of the great missionaries of the Church Universal."
After summarizing McGilvary's leading role in the formation
and conduct of the Laos Mission, Brown writes, "He was
a Christian gentleman of the highest type, a man of cultivation
and refinement, of ability and scholarship, of broad vision
and constructive leadership."
This is the praise of a skilled mission administrator for one
of his most skillful colleagues working out in the field. One
might take the early members of the Laos Mission to task for
particular failures, but in terms of their own system of meanings
and doctrines, it is hard to find fault with the general direction
and policies of the mission in its pioneer era.
we step beyond the carefully circumscribed confines of the mission's
Princeton-like system of doctrines and meanings a different
picture quickly manifests itself. The critics described in the
Introduction have a strong case, one rooted in the fact that
down to this day northern Thai Protestants remain religious
strangers in their own villages and even extended families.
Protestant churches offer a message that only a tiny proportion
of northern Thais find interesting, let alone meaningful. Given
the manner by which the Laos Mission founded the northern Thai
church, one finds it hardly surprising that northern Thai Protestantism
has made only very modest headway since 1867, making its greatest
impact in terms of modernization rather than evangelization.
does not seem to have been with the Christian message as such.
For whatever reasons, the message concerning Jesus Christ struck
a responsive cord in many northern Thais—or so, as we
have seen, Daniel McGilvary firmly believed. The facts that
the Laos Mission gained its first converts fairly quickly, that
in 1869 it was preparing for a people's movement, and that Chao
Kawilorot felt constrained to use violence to snuff out the
new religion all support the impression that the people of Chiang
Mai did show a serious interest in Christianity. Under other
circumstances, many of them might (there is no way
of knowing with certainty, of course) have converted to the
new religion. The problem potential converts faced was that
as things stood they had to refuse much more of traditional
northern Thai religious and cultural life than the great, great
majority of them were willing to reject in order to convert.
If they wanted to become Christians, that is, they had to cross
a sharply delineated Western-style boundary, sometimes at no
little personal risk. Princeton and the Laos Mission both demanded
such a conversion, as we saw
Arthur J. Brown, "An Appreciation," in McGilvary, Half
Century, 1, 3.
and Swanson, "Religion and the Formation of Community in
in Chapter Five. Several early converts and
potential converts, as we also saw, desired a more Southeast
Asian conception of religious boundaries, by which conversion
might be seen—in a less confrontational way—as a
journey across loosely drawn spheres of power and influence.
missionary Christianity in northern Siam built itself, we can
only conclude, on rejection as much as it did on affirmation.
In a paper he sent to Davidson College, North Carolina, McGilvary
explained that those who were discouraged by the small statistical
results in new missions forgot that,
There is a double process to be carried
on, a double work to be accomplished—just as if
we were to be required to rear an edifice on the grounds
occupied by some ancient stronghold, some fortress or
palace, which must be rased to the very foundations before
the new superstructure can be reared. 'Hath a nation changed
its gods?' Yet, difficult as this is, it is the first
thing to be done; it is what we demand of the heathen
as an indispensable prerequisite towards embracing the
gospel. Many of them would love to combine the two—to
lift up the hand and offer a flower to the name of Jesus
and Buddha—as many in Christian lands would combine
the service of God and mammon.
With these words, McGilvary explicitly rebuffed a Southeast
Asian understanding of conversion. Converts had to change their
gods, which in the northern Thai context meant discarding vast
chunks of family, social, and cultural life. Chao Kawilorot
took the missionary understanding of conversion to mean nothing
less than rebellion against the authority of the state, which
authority rested in him personally. The Laos Mission never ceased
to expect its converts to divorce themselves from much of their
cultural and social heritage. Writing at the turn of the century,
Lillian Curtis, formerly of the Lampang Station, unfavorably
compared Buddhism's conquest of northern Siam many centuries
earlier with the arrival of Protestant missions on the scene
in the 1860s. She acknowledged Buddhism's success. It came,
however, at too high a price, because Buddhism had so adapted
itself to northern Thai "superstitions" that it had
lost its power to transform the people.
one's attention in the records of the Laos Mission, however,
is not the bare fact that it demanded that converts make a complete
break with northern Thai Buddhism and animism plus a partial
break with northern Thai culture. What stands out in those records
is the fact that the pioneer members of the mission never doubted
the necessity of making that break. They consistently rejected
the possibility of compromise in matters of religious faith.
They failed to listen to the views of the converts about the
way one should convert in Chiang Mai—or how one might
adapt traditional medical rites to Christian medical needs.
Their self-assurance in these matters is striking. There is
McGilvary, Extracts from a paper sent to the Society of Inquiry,
Davidson College, FM 28, 2 (July 1869): 31.
of North Siam, 224.
slightest trace of a doubt in their writings that they should
demand an absolute, abrupt conversion. They never questioned
the appropriateness of using Presbyterian ecclesiastical structures
and forms in the northern Thai context.
from the Princeton Theology, we might simply brand the missionaries
as "stubborn" or consider them to have been incredibly
"ignorant." In light of Princeton and in all fairness,
they were neither stubborn nor ignorant. Their approach and
attitudes were based on an Enlightenment epistemology integrated
with Reformed confessionalism. That epistemology affirmed the
essential unity of all of humanity. It gave the missionaries
a sense of assurance that they could know reality, divine as
well as natural, as it is. They could know God and God's will
for them. Enlightenment epistemology also assured them that
the great majority of humanity, on one level, and the vast majority
of orthodox Christians, on another level, agreed with their
views concerning God and the world. Presbyterian Princeton shared
all of this with the Presbyterian Laos Mission, and it is through
the lens of the Princeton Theology that we come to appreciate
how fully the missionaries accepted a commonsensical and confessional
epistemology. They took their own personal beliefs and views
to be nothing more or less than a matter of faith in God and
good common sense.
emphasize repeatedly that the Laos Mission's Enlightenment and
Reformed epistemology assured its pioneer members that the northern
Thai were essentially like Americans, having the same religious
needs and the same fundamental consciousness. It was neither
arrogant nor a mark of ignorance to use American methods and
apply Old School Presbyterian attitudes in Chiang Mai. It was
wise—and necessary. It was not, then, merely that the
missionaries did not listen to the views of their converts or
that they failed to adapt their message to the northern Thai
context. Within the constraints of their system of doctrines
and meanings and their Reformed-Common Sense epistemology, they
could not listen. They could not contextualize. Equally important,
they were entirely confident that they should not attempt to
adapt the Christian faith to a heathen context. The result could
only be, for them, the "heathenization" of the Christian
faith, a tragedy to be avoided at any cost.
outside of the Laos Mission's inherited system of doctrines
and meanings, we cannot help but sense the ideological and consequent
behavioral constraints that system placed on the early members
of the mission. It provided them, as we saw in Chapter Three,
with sets of absolute principles, again supposedly grounded
both in "the truth" of Christian doctrine, the Bible,
and human consciousness. It then assured them that they alone
knew the true truth and had true knowledge of God. They also
believed that the Holy Spirit confirmed the truth of the mission's
system of doctrines, as did the common beliefs and consciousness
of common people throughout history and across the boundaries
all cultures and nations. Most importantly,
the Laos Mission's system of doctrines and meanings assured
its members that they could truly know God's will for them and,
consequently, the proper way to carry out the evangelization
of northern Siam. This is the point at which their
theological beliefs became an ideology. The assumption that
they could unerringly know how to conduct themselves lay quietly
embedded in their whole system of thinking, always assuring
them of the ultimate correctness of their views and actions.
It lay beyond the possibility of critical analysis. Given their
dualistic views of heathenism and their confidence in the truth
of their own beliefs, it was simply impossible that the pioneer
members of the Laos Mission would consider adapting the Christian
faith to the northern Thai context. They could not contextualize.
As far as they could see, the Christian message represented
timeless truth that stood beyond culture and context.
the flat, unadorned assertion that the pioneer members of the
Laos Mission "could not contextualize," would appear
to be an overstatement of the case since we cannot know that
events might not have taken a different course than they did.
Still, the experience of another ideological movement in Thailand,
the Communist insurgency of the 1960s and 1970s, lends some
credence to that bold, bald assertion. Tom Marks' Making
Revolution seeks to understand, among other things, why
the Thai government in the 1960s and 1970s was able to "beat
the Communists," a feat not everyone at the time thought
was possible. The reason for the failure of the Communist revolution
in Thailand, according to Marks, is clear. Thai Communism wedded
its revolutionary aspirations to what he describes as a rigid,
ideologically driven form of Maoism, which the insurgents failed
to adapt to changing circumstances in Thailand. The Thai government,
although subject to its own internal dissensions, sufficiently
adjusted itself to the conditions it faced to defeat the insurgents.
The government took, that is, a pragmatic, contextual rather
than an ideological, anti-contextual approach to its conflict
with Communism and succeeded, while the insurgents acted ideologically,
rather than pragmatically, and failed.
facing the Laos Mission in the nineteenth century and that facing
Thai Communism in the twentieth were, obviously, quite different.
The two revolutionary movements were themselves also quite different,
the one comprising radical leftists dedicated to the violent
overthrow of the existing system and the other moderately conservative
pacifists who desired the overthrow of only parts of the existing
system. Still, they shared a dependence on ideology that constrained
them both tactically and strategically to the ultimate frustration
of their central goals. Given the anti-contextual approach of
each, their failures do seem inevitable—on hindsight.
Tom Marks, Making Revolution: The Insurgency of the Communist
Party of Thailand in Structural Perspective (Bangkok: White
Lotus, 1994), 211ff.
Tuhiwai Smith's Decolonizing Methodologies adds further
texture to the perception that the ideological nature of the
Laos Mission's system of doctrines and meanings ultimately frustrated
its drive to Christianize northern Siam. Smith claims that,
historically, much of Western knowledge about non-Western peoples
has amounted to "imperial knowledge," which is self-serving,
self-involved, and takes European realities as the bench marks
for defining the non-European world. Imperial knowledge, furthermore,
circumscribes indigenous peoples and their life ways with a
set of pre-fabricated categories that provides the knower with
an unwarranted confidence in what she or he "knows"
about those peoples.
Smith's concept of "imperial knowledge" may be commonplace
in the sense that most people most of the time tend to fit their
knowledge of others into a preconceived framework, but it still
reminds us that on the mission field the Laos Mission's nineteenth-century
system of meanings and doctrines functioned as imperial knowledge.
That system placed the northern Thai into a pre-assembled framework
of categories summarized by the concept of "heathenism".
Its Enlightenment epistemology, in combination with its Reformed
theology, then guaranteed the missionaries that their understanding
of the heathen was valid, universal, and timeless truth.
northern Thai context, then, the Laos Mission's system of doctrines
and meanings amounted to an alien ideology grounded in an imperial,
self-fulfilling epistemology. Reinhold Niebuhr's, The Nature
and Destiny of Man, summarizes the consequences
of this imperial ideology with a stark clarity. In the course
of his arguments, Niebuhr devotes considerable attention to
intellectual pride, writing, "All human knowledge is tainted
with an 'ideological' taint. It pretends to be truer than it
is. It is finite knowledge, gained from a particular perspective;
but it pretends to be final and ultimate knowledge." He
continues, "Intellectual pride is thus the pride of reason
which forgets that it is involved in a temporal process and
imagines itself in complete transcendence over history."
He claims that intellectual pride manifests itself as a desire
to dominate others, a will to power that reflects a sense of
fear or insecurity in the face of humanity's limited, conditioned
of meanings and doctrines that the Laos Mission shared with
Princeton Seminary betrays all of the epistemological marks
of Niebuhr's description of the sin of intellectual pride. It
was, to state the matter once more, a closed system hugely confident
in its ability to know reality, know the truth, and know God.
It led the missionaries to behave towards the people, religion,
and culture of northern Siam in a manner that can only be termed
arrogant, when viewed from outside of that system itself. They
Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research
and Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed Books, 1999). 80ff.
The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1, Human Nature
(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1941), 194, 195.
Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 1, 197-98.
shut their ears to any voice that did not speak with the peculiar
accents of Old School Presbyterianism, a Scottish-Genevan dialect
set to a New Jersey brogue. McGilvary praised Nan Inta when
he sounded like a Baconian (regarding the eclipse of 1869) and
ignored his advice and wishes when he sounded like a northern
Thai (concerning his desire to be an "unofficial"
convert). Niebuhr's analysis points to the conclusion that the
Laos Mission fell victim to its own system of meanings and doctrines,
placing in that system more trust than was warranted and allowing
it more authority than was wise. The pioneer members of the
Laos Mission, if Niebuhr is correct, fell victim to the reified
meanings of the terms they applied to the northern Thai such
as "heathen," "benighted," "godless,"
"devil worshippers," and "superstitious".
They fully believed, without question, that God concurred in
those judgments, a belief that froze their Reformed-Englighted-Evangelical
and thoroughly American Good News into forms and contents that
were not Good News to the vast majority of northern Thais.
then, that, first, the pioneer members of the Laos Mission conducted
themselves in light of a system of doctrines and meanings that
they brought with them from the United States. Second, that
system combined the marks of an overt, self-conscious theology
and a covert, semi-conscious ideology and demonstrates strong
affinities with the Princeton Theology. Third and finally, the
affinities and parallels between Chiang Mai and Princeton provide
us with a valuable tool for understanding why the first generation
of Presbyterian missionaries to northern Siam thought and behaved
as they did.
one of those ironic twists of history that the very theological
and epistemological traits that so aptly fitted the Princeton
combination of Reformed theological exclusivism and Enlightenment
epistemological self-assurance to the nineteenth-century American
context prevented the Laos Mission from similarly fitting its
message and means to the northern Thai context. The Laos Mission's
Princeton-like system of doctrines and meanings introduced a
central tension into the life of the northern Thai church, a
tension between its Christian identity and its northern Thai
cultural heritage. Where the mission's system of religious doctrines
and cultural meanings complimented each other, it is almost
as if the northern Thai church's religious meanings are at war
with its cultural meanings. Like water and oil, they seem unable
to form a single solution. The northern Thai church, subsequently,
has found it incredibly difficult to resolve the tension between
loving God, who commands exclusive allegiance, and loving its
neighbors, who demand a communal loyalty that seems to violate
that allegiance. That, however, is another story, the one that
comes after 1880. This study is about what came before the irony
and led to it—what one might call the "prelude to