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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


Title of Thesis: This Heathen People: The Cognitive Sources of American Missionary Westernizing Activities in Northern Siam. 1867 - 1889.
Thesis directed by: Dr. Fred H. Ncklason, Assistant Professor, Department of History

The study of American Presbyterian missionary activities in northern Siam presents the historian with a puzzle. While the missionaries went to convert the northern Thai to Christianity, the westernizing activities in which they engaged hampered that goal. Social scientific theory and a survey of nineteenth-century American Protestant missionary activities in other areas indicates that the source of missionary activities lay in their evangelical world view.

Evangelicals divided the world into two incompatible spheres, one good and the other evil. American evangelicals, consequently, perceived non-evangelicals as a threat and dealt with them by trying to convert them. Evangelicals embodied their dualism in a variety of missionary and reform movements which evolved a set of activities directed at exerting social control over American society through "moral therapy." The missionaries in northern Siam, products of the conservative Old School Presbyterian branch of nineteenth-century American evangelical culture, carried out the same set of activities as did the missionary and reform movements in the United States.

The thesis concludes that the Presbyterian missionaries in northern Siam carried out westernizing activities, even to the detriment of their stated goal of converting the region to Christianity because of their dualistic heritage. They assumed that in order to convert the northern Thai to Christianity they must replace northern Thai culture with American culture. Hence, their educational, medical, and technological activities were directed at created a "proper" cultural environment for establishing Christianity in northern Siam."

2006 Introduction

At some point around 1980 or thereafter, the Payap College Manuscript Division (now Payap University Archives) received a set of microfilm records of the Presbyterian Church's Siam and Laos Missions donated by Dr. Maen Pongudom. Dr Maen had just completed his landmark dissertation on American Presbyterian missionary attitudes towards Buddhism in Thailand, and he was kind enough to deposit this very important set of microfilmed records with the Manuscript Division. As the Head of the Division (and the only native language speaker of English on the staff), I took it upon myself to prepare the "finding aid" for these records and to that end began to delve into the contents of the microfilms. They contain the field correspondence and reports of all of the Presbyterian missionaries who served in Siam and northern Siam between 1840 and 1910, and the more I read these records the more upset I became. Back in the 1980s most missionaries and many Thai church leaders in the Church of Christ in Thailand believed that the Thai church was weak and leaderless because of the nature of Thai culture and society. One heard, not infrequently, the statement, "That's just the way they are," referring to "the Thai." What I found in the records of the missions, however, told a very different story. They revealed a massive prejudice against Thai culture, society, and religion embodied in missionary attitudes, behavior, and mission policies. Swinging to the other extreme, I came to feel that the churches were "the way they were" because of the missionaries!

My first reaction was anger, and I vented that anger in my privately published book, Khrischak Muang Nua. My second reaction was a deeper puzzlement regarding American Presbyterian missionary strategy, especially in northern Thailand. The missionaries, so far as I could see, went about their evangelistic enterprise in a manner guaranteed to minimize the number of converts they would gain while creating a great deal of friction with northern Thai society. They, furthermore, emphasized modernization at the expense of work with their churches, which again seemed obviously counter-productive over the long run. Behind the vagaries of health and personality conflicts, there also lay an almost all-pervasive approach to missions that wittingly eschewed the contextualization or accommodation of the Christian message. Why?

It was clear from the records that the missionaries brought their attitudes and prejudices with them from the United States, and the answer to my question could best be answered by further study of the American sources of missionary ideology and behavior. In the Fall of 1984, my family and I moved to Laurel, Maryland, and I took up studies in history at the University of Maryland. From the beginning, I intended to find an answer to my question about the nature of Presbyterian missionary motivation. The result of my search is this thesis.

Although not without its challenges and problems, I enjoyed the research and writing process and came away from UMD with an M.A. in American social history. I returned to Chiang Mai in January 1988, however, feeling that I had not actually found a satisfying answer to my question. The immediate sources of Presbyterian missionary thought in nineteenth-century northern Siam were still not clear to me, although I did have a much better idea of the larger American cultural attitudes, values, and belief systems the missionaries drew on to shape their policies in the North. But, how did they acquire those attitudes, values, and belief systems? That question lay fallow for more than a decade, awaiting further research, which I was finally able to carry out in the research I did for my doctoral dissertation, "Prelude to Irony."

"This Heathen People," nonetheless, represents an important step forward in my own thinking about Presbyterian missionary attitudes and their practice of mission in northern Thailand. As much as I enjoy the study of the past, I was never particularly interested in American church history until I started to do the research for this thesis. What I found was that the study of American Christianity and the church in the United States encompasses a rich variety of subjects, fields, and exciting issues that touch directly on the life of the churches of Thailand. I also began to appreciate the complexities of the worldviews that Presbyterian missionaries inherited from their own culture and times. It became clear that they brought with them to Siam a conservative evangelical fund of "common wisdom" widely accepted in their own nation, a wisdom that only a very few of them ever questioned or tried to transcend. Another thing I discovered was the crucial relationship between Western philosophical traditions and church history in Thailand, a theme that only emerges with more clarity in my doctoral research.

This thesis also marked an important step in my understanding of how Western cultures, including my own, have dealt with other cultures around the world. While it is nothing new to many, for me the discovery of the Euro-centric concept of dualism, which European colonists imported into North America, has helped me to better understand missionary history and my own personal story. This is not to say that Asian cultures are without their own dualistic attitudes towards the world around them. Ethnic Thais, for example, have inherited a dualism that divides space into opposing spheres of civilized territory and wilderness. Anything having to do with the forest, thus, is considered dangerous and even evil, including the "forest people" (khon pa) who live there—hence the nasty prejudice many lowland Thais hold against hill tribal Thais (Karen, Lahu, etc.). Western dualism, however, has traditionally divided space on religious grounds into incompatible spheres of good and evil, God and Satan. In the United States, at least, this dualistic approach taints nearly all of American cultures. Ronald Regan's famous description of the former Soviet Union as an "evil empire" is a notable example of how Americans look at the world generally.

The years that I worked on "This Heathen People," 1984 through 1987, have many happy associations for me and for my family. We lived in Laurel, Maryland, and involved ourselves in the life of the Laurel Presbyterian Church. My history of that congregation is a by-product of the research I was already doing on Presbyterian missionary history. I did most of the research for this thesis at McKeldin Library in the days when the on line catalog was just coming into use. The endless hours at McKeldin were good hours. That was the "old" McKeldin with its dim & dingy old-fashioned stacks that snaked through the building here and there.
In the greater world of historical scholarship, "This Heathen People" is an exceedingly humble piece of journeyman's history. In the much smaller world of the study of Thai church history, it represents an important second step in the academic development of that field. I mentioned Dr. Maen's dissertation above. Dr. Maen first explored some of the themes that I later took up, and he was the one who initiated the critical historiographical study of the Western missionary movement in Thailand. Unfortunately, once Dr. Maen returned to Thailand his life took several turns all of them leading him away from further historical research and writing. For better and for worse, I took it upon myself to build on this work by pursuing further critical study of the Presbyterian missionaries (and, eventually, others).

"This Heathen People" is an important work in the study of Thai church and missions history, and I am glad to finally get it up and running on this website. I trust it will be of some use to visitors to herbswanson.com. Please do remember that the thesis is protected by copyright laws and that it is not to be downloaded or copied in full. Shorter quotations for academic purposes are, however, perfectly in order. Enjoy!

Herb Swanson

Ban Dok Daeng
July 2006

Edition Notes

This is the third version of "This Heathen People" and differs in important ways from either of the previous versions. The first version is, of course, the hardcopy original approved by the University of Maryland in 1987. The second version was the first electronic version of the thesis, which was uploaded onto herbswanson.com in 2006. At that time, I corrected a number of spelling mistakes, changed awkward wording in a couple of places, and made a few changes in style. The pagination was not that of the original, and unfortunately I had lost my computer files for the Introduction and Chapter Three. They had to be scanned, which introduced a raft of mistakes some of which survived into the electronic version. I was not able to capture the Thai script that I used for some citations in Chapter One, and I had to substitute a translated English title for the Thai title.

This current version (2012) of "This Heathen People" is the third version. As it turned out, some ten pages of Chapter Three did not "make it" into the first electronic version, and I wasn't in a position to correct the problem until now. For this version, those pages had to be scanned again, and more mistakes have crept into the text even as I have found and corrected others. Readers will note that there is no pagination indicated at all in this version. Those who need it for citations may rely on the PDF version for each chapter.

1987 Introduction

In early April 1867. the first western Protestant missionaries to work in northern Siam[1] arrived in Chiang Mai, Siam, the chief city of the region. The Rev. Daniel and Sophia McGilvary were American Presbyterians. Until that time no westerners had lived permanently in Chiang Mai, and, indeed, the western world knew very little about the northern Siam. The Siamese government itself claimed only nominal suzerainty over its northern territories, and the world events of the nineteenth century had left northern Siam largely untouched. The arrival of the McGilvarys, therefore, marked a significant event in the history of northern Siam. Profound political and social changes followed.

The McGilvarys and the Presbyterian missionaries who followed them contributed to that change. They introduced western medicine, education, ideas, and technologies into the region. They allied themselves with the growing political power of the Siamese government and helped to increase that power. Their preaching and promotion of an alien religion weakened traditional structures and values. In short, the American Presbyterian missionaries introduced the western world into northern Siam.[2]

Yet, the significance of the American Presbyterian missionaries as agents of social change has left historians with a puzzle. The missionaries went to northern Siam for the single purpose of propagating their Protestant Christian faith. Nothing else mattered to them nearly so much as the Christianization of northern Siam.[3] While they changed northern Thai society In many areas, however, a series of historical studies suggests that what these missionaries actually did contributed little to attaining their stated goal.

Maen Pongudom's study of the methods the Presbyterian missionaries used to spread their religious message in nineteenth-century Siam, for example, shows that their words, ideas, and methods failed to communicate meaningfully in Thai culture. Maen argues that communication strategies like those of the early Christian apologists could have succeeded in Siam. But the American Protestant missionaries failed to use such strategies.[4] Alex Smith's study of missionary evangelism argues that the missionaries failed to convert large numbers of Siamese to Christianity because their activities failed to promote the growth and strength of the churches they established. They did not, that is, establish a strong indigenous base for spreading their message.[5] My own research indicates that the Presbyterian mission In northern Siam devoted so much attention to medical and educational work it distracted Itself from its evangelistic mission. That mission expended most of Its energy and resources In activities that failed to promote the conversion of large numbers of northern Thai. [6]

The puzzle is this: why did the missionaries In northern Siam not do what they came to do, namely, convert the people to Christianity? Why did they, instead, go off on what appears in retrospect to have been an evangelistically unproductive tangent? Since that "tangent" Introduced significant social change Into northern Siam. The apparent contradiction between missionary goals and activities provides a key to understanding the form and content of nineteenth-century westernization In that region.

In a vague, general way, the records of the Presbyterian missionaries In northern Siam point to a solution to the puzzle missionary activity In northern Siam propounded. Those records show that the missionaries clothed themselves in a rigidly prejudicial attitude about northern Thai culture and religion that prevented northern Thai values from influencing the missionaries in return. External circumstances and events in northern Siam did not force the missionaries to act In certain ways. It would seem, then, quite possible that they brought the puzzle of their activities with them and that Its origins lay In the sociocultural heritage of the missionaries themselves.

It is the thesis of this study that the westernizing activities of the Presbyterian missionaries in northern Siam grew out of their nineteenth-century American sociocultural heritage. Ideas reveal the consciousness of people and play a significant part in shaping human events because of the powerful influence they have over people's beliefs and actions. In short, meaningful human activity grows out of Ideas. It follows that the riddles of missionary activity In northern Siam could have their sources and their solutions in the cognitive consciousness of nineteenth-century American evangelical[7] culture.

While this study is an exercise in "intellectual history." It focuses not ideas in and of themselves but, rather, on how those ideas influenced activities of the Presbyterian missionaries in northern Siam. It seeks to understand why the missionaries built schools and hospitals, opened a press, and utilized various technologies at the expense of their stated goal. The purpose here is to examine how the missionaries thought about themselves, their religion, and their work in order to understand why they acted as they did.

As the following chapters describe, missionary thought encompassed a number of interrelated concepts that formed a coherent, complex worldview. At the core of that world view rested the idea of dualism, a deceptively simple concept that taught that all of reality was divided Into two distinct, incompatible spheres. The missionaries believed that they represented the sphere of Truth while northern Thai culture and religion stood within the sphere of Evil. The dualism of the Laos Mission originated In its nineteenth-century conservative evangelical heritage. and the bulk of this thesis traces the lines of that heritage from the United States to northern Siam.

The evangelical ideas of conversion and revivalism gave substance to evangelical dualism by teaching evangelicals how to deal with anyone who did not think or act like they did. Conservative evangelicals interpreted their dualism to mean that they must convert non-evangelicals to their piety. Revivalism provided one means for achieving those conversions. The language and methods of Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and nineteenth-century American Presbyterian theology further refined the dualism of the Laos Mission so that it did, in fact, appear to them to be entirely sensible and logical.

The ideas of conversion and revivalism and the philosophical systems of Scottish philosophy and Presbyterian theology interacted with each other and with dualism through yet another set of ideas that included millennialism, progress, America as the Chosen Nation, and providence. These concepts encompassed all of time within the categories of dualism, provided conservative evangelicals with a philosophy of history. gave religious meaning to political structures, and equipped evangelical Americans with a supreme confidence in the tightness of their beliefs.

Each of these ideas presupposed and gave meaning to the rest. Millennialism. the expectation of the Second Coming of Christ, promoted a belief in progress. Evangelicals linked the idea of progress, in turn, to the working of providence in human affairs. They then. in another turn, equated providence and progress with the place of their nation In world affairs. They believed that through the leading of providence American would progressively usher in the Millennium of God's reign on earth.

And each of these Ideas propelled conservative American evangelicals to action. They believed that they must act to speed the coming of the Millennium. They could do so partly by converting infidels, savages, and heathens through revivalistic efforts and partly by engaging in moral and social reform movements that would allow them to exercise control over society for the good of society. Evangelical control of society, so conservative evangelicals reasoned, would protect the moral fiber of the nation, make it worthy of its status as the New Israel, and promote the perfection of society that must come to attain the Millennium.

Conservative evangelicals lived out this whole set of dualistic ideas In a complimentary set of activities that it evolved over decades of trying to convert the world to Protestant Christianity. It used education and a variety of technological changes to spread the Protestant message and plant it firmly in the minds of its own children and the many non-evangelical groups found in the United States and around the world. Conservative evangelicals expected that education would help reform the nation by teaching all Americans "the knowledge of the Lord" needed for America to achieve the Millennium. The advance of American technology reinforced nineteenth-century evangelical belief In the progressive perfection of American society provided, of course, that evangelical Protestantism remained the dominant creed of the nation.

Chapters One and Two set the stage for arguing the thesis of this study. Chapters Three through Seven then gather in the various strands of the evangelical worldview and show how each strand contributed to the world view and activities of the Laos Mission. The weight of these descriptions of the origins of missionary activity leads to the conclusion that the Laos Mission took its dualistic worldview to northern Siam, defined northern Thai culture and religion as heathen, and framed Its activities as the means to conquer that heathenism.

A number of individuals have contributed a great deal to the research and writing of this thesis. I would like to particularly thank Dr. Fred Nicklason for his helpful advice and for guiding me through the process of bringing everything together. The staff at the Presbyterian Historical Society provided Important and timely reference assistance. The people at St. John United Methodist-Presbyterian Church in Columbia, Maryland, where I served as Interim Pastor during the writing of the thesis, deserve rich thanks for their support and encouragement. Thanks, finally, goes to Nee. This would never have been written apart from her love.


[1] Thailand is referred to by its official nineteenth-century name "Siam."

[2] This thesis uses the term "westernization" rather than "modernization." Missionary social change involved the transfer of western ideas, Institutions, methods, or technologies. "Westernization" is a more precise and avoids the sometimes highly charged debate over the meaning of "modernization.’ See The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. "westernize." See also Peter N. Steams. "Modernization and Social History Some Suggestions, and a Muted Cheer." Journal of Social History 14 (Winter 1980): 189-210; Raymond Grew. "More on Modernization." Journal of Social History 14 (Winter I960): 179-88: and Joseph R. Gusfleld. "Tradition and Modernity: Misplaced Polarities in the Study of Social Change.” American Journal of Sociology 72 ( January 1967): 351-62

[3] Daniel McGilvary, A Half Century Among the Siamese and the Lao. (New York: Revolt 1912). 78-9: and Daniel McGilvary to Arthur Mltchell. August 23. 1884, vol. 4. Records of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.. Presbyterian Historical Society. Philadelphia.

[4] Maen Pongudom. "Apologetic and Missionary Proclamation: Exemplified by American Presbyterian Missionaries to Thailand (1828-1978). Early Church Apologists: Justin Martyr. Clement of Alexandria and Origen. and the Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikku. A Thai Buddhist Monk-Apologist" (Ph.D. diss.. University of Otago, 1979).

[5] Alex G. Smith. Siamese Gold: A History of Church Growth In Thailand (Bangkok: Kanok Bannasan. 1982).

[6] Herbert R. Swanson. Khrischak Muana Nua: A Study In Northern Thai Church History (Bangkok: Chuan Press. 1984).

[7] "Evangelicalism" refers to the American Protestant movement that arose out of revivalism and emphasized personal conversion experiences and the proselytlzation of the "unconverted." While It may be more precise to refer to the "evangelical sub-culture." committed evangelicals often experienced evangelicalism as a total culture. See Charles I. Foster, .An Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front 1790-1837 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1960). viii. cf. 39: and G. Gordon Brown, "Missions and Cultural Diffusion." American Journal of Sociology 5 (November 1944): 214-19.