PRELUDE TO IRONY
The Princeton Theology and the Practice of
American Presbyterian Missions in Northern Siam, 1867-1880
Herbert R. Swanson
A Dissertation submitted for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
The Melbourne College of Divinity, Melbourne University
Electronic Version 2012
|Table of Contents||Abstract||Illust. & Tables||Introduction||Chapter 1||Chapter 2||Chapter 3||Chapter 4||Chapter 5||Chapter 6||Conclusion||Appendices||Bibliography|
Protestant Christianity first arrived in northern Siam in 1867, when the Rev. Daniel and Sophia McGilvary, American Presbyterian missionaries, moved their family to Chiang Mai, the chief city of the region, and founded a new mission, known as the "Laos Mission. After a brief period of evangelistic success, the mission experienced a period of persecution and repression that severely limited its growth. It only slowly managed to establish itself on a permanent basis in a process that lasted until roughly 1880. In the course of its work, the mission failed to contextualize its message and methods, with the apparent result that only a relatively small number of northern Thais converted to Christianity. This study investigates the reasons behind the Laos Mission's rejection of contextualization. Its thesis is that the mission drew on a “system of meanings and doctrines” to shape its work, which system led it to shun contextualization, and that the writings of the Princeton circle of theologians help demonstrate the relationship of that system to missionary behavior and strategies. The Princeton Theology was related to the Laos Mission in two ways. First, the two leading members of the mission both graduated from Princeton Seminary, and their records reveal generally close parallels with their mentors at Princeton. Second, the other pioneer members of the mission did not show such direct parallels, but their work and writings indicate that they shared Princeton's orthodox evangelical theological and ideological orientation.
After discussing the historical background of the Laos Mission (Chapter I) and its relationship to the Princeton Theology (Chapter II), the dissertation outlines the system of doctrines and meanings shared by the missionaries and Princeton theologians (Chapter III). That system begins with a set of assumed theological principles drawn from Reformed confessionalism and Common Sense Philosophy, which principles informed their piety and led them to emphasize the apologetical defense of their faith. Their shared system of doctrines and meanings was a closed, dualistic system that drew clear boundaries between truth and falsehood, faith and impiety, and Christianity and heathenism. It was a "scholastic" system that utilized an epistemological approach to establish its own ability to know God and the truth. A survey of the history of the mission's evangelistic and medical work (Chapter IV), work with its converts (Chapter V), and educational activities (Chapter VI) confirms the thesis of the dissertation. The Laos Mission carried out its work on the basis of a closed system of doctrines and meanings that encouraged it to preserve the Western, alien form and content of the Christian faith it brought with it from the United States.
Figure 1Map of Modern Day Thailand and Its Northern Region
Table 2.1Years of Missionary Service in the Laos Missioan, 1867-1880
Table 2.2Relationship of the Princeton Theology to the Members of the Laos Mission
Table A.1Stations of the Laos Mission
Table A.2Membership Statistics the Laos Missions's Churches 1869-1880
In April 1867, the Rev. Daniel and Sophia McGilvary, American Presbyterian missionaries, arrived in the city of Chiang Mai, northern Siam, to establish the "Laos Mission" and thus initiate the Christian evangelization of the northern Thai people. Chiang Mai was the chief city of Siam's northern tributary states and heir to a long, honorable cultural tradition of its own, one stretching back several centuries to the days of the Lan Na Kingdom. The McGilvarys took with them a large assortment of bags, boxes, and cases containing nearly all of the goods and supplies that they would need for many months to come. They also carried along a good deal of "mental baggage" that included their American and Presbyterian worldview, values, beliefs, and attitudes; it is that mental baggage and that of their colleagues in the Laos Mission that concerns us here.
In amongst the mental baggage the McGilvarys and those who followed them took with them to Chiang Mai was a contradiction, a paradox that has puzzled at least some scholars and church dignitaries for nearly a century. The Presbyterians moved to Chiang Mai with the intention of converting the northern Thai to Christianity, but they carried out that task in a way that emphasized the differences and strangeness of their faith. They believed that the eternal fate of the northern Thai depended on converting them to the Protestant faith, and yet the missionaries preserved and even emphasized the alien nature of their message. Why? Maen Pongudom points out, moreover, that the attitudes and strategies used by the Laos Mission also stand in sharp contrast to those of the early church, which frequently embraced its cultural contexts rather than rejecting them. It seems so commonplace in our day of cross-cultural advertising, thus, that one shapes messages to fit contexts that we cannot but term a message that eschews and even defies its cultural context as paradoxical, contradictory, and enigmatic—whether by the standards of ancient ecclesiastical or modern commercial practices.
These questions concerning missionary policies and behavior in northern Siam call attention not only to the Presbyterian missionaries' mental baggage itself, but also and most especially the cognitive sources of that baggage. The missionaries evidently acted on the basis of certain ideas and attitudes that shaped their practice of missions. It is the purpose of this study to explore those cognitive sources of missionary behavior in northern Siam and discover the link between missionary thought and behavior that emerged from them, a link that has remained unclear in spite of the work of several scholars described below. It is not even clear what those sources might be. To anticipate our thesis, this study will argue that missionary praxis in northern Siam grew out of the missionaries' "system of doctrines and meanings," which system they brought with them from the United States.
The question before us in this study, then, is that of the Presbyterian missionary practice of missions in northern Siam. Kosuke Koyama's brief, winsome 1967 article entitled, "Aristotelian Pepper and Buddhist Salt," reflects on the anti-contextual enigma implied in the manner of the founding of the Laos Mission. Writing an "open letter" to the long-deceased Dr. McGilvary, Koyama explains to him that McGilvary's spiritual and intellectual influence still suffused the churches of the North, and he asks, "I have become, then, curious to know whether your audience understood your preaching or not, if you will pardon me for asking." Koyama, himself a missionary in Chiang Mai, asks because, "In my ministry here today I am forced to see how thoroughly strange and unrealistic—how 'western'—is the Christian vocabulary to the ears of my Thai neighbors!" In the face of the strangeness of the missionary message, he adds, northern Thai Christians had flavored missionary religion with heavy doses of their own local cultures, which fact only compounds his puzzlement concerning the way in which the missionaries originally presented their message. Why did the Presbyterians present Christianity in a strange, unrealistic way that had to be reinterpreted culturally? Why introduce the Christian message in forms and ways that were overtly alien to the northern Thai and made reception of that message extremely difficult even when reinterpreted?
Others have asked similar questions, well before Koyama. It was no secret that the people of Siam generally found in Protestantism a distinctly uninteresting and unpopular religious system. Few of them, relative to the size of the population, converted. The missionaries in the North frequently blamed the small number of converts on the character flaws of the northern Thai themselves and the supposedly negative influence of Buddhism on them. Secular scholars, when they consider the matter at all, point to a number of discrete historical factors. The majority of commentators have focused, however, on precisely the point raised by Koyama: missionary Christianity was "packaged" in a manner profoundly alien to the life and thought of the northern Thai people. Writing in 1928, Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, the Minister of the Interior and a leading voice in the Thai government, argued that it was the nineteenth-century missionaries' aggressive, negative attitudes towards Buddhism that led to their failure to interest the Thai people generally in Christianity. They found the missionary message too alien, too antagonizing. A 1931 report to the American Presbyterian Mission in Siam agreed. It stated bluntly that Presbyterians had introduced Christianity into Siam as a "Western cultural system" intent on "de-nationalizing" and "de-culturalizing" those who converted to Christianity. The report concluded, "The Siamese Church cannot grow either outwardly or inwardly until it begins upon a definite program of acculturalization." And, again, "The Church cannot grow until it becomes a part of the life of the people." A prominent leader of the Thai Church before World War II, the Rev. Pluang Sudikham, expressed similar sentiments. He criticized the predominantly Presbyterian foreign missionaries for the way they introduced Christianity into Siam, for their attacks on Buddhism, and for the difficult situation in which Thai Christians found themselves as a result. People generally considered it "un-Thai," he lamented, to convert to Christianity.
Maen Pongudom's groundbreaking dissertation on Presbyterian missionary apologetics in Thailand agrees with Pluang that negative missionary attitudes concerning Buddhism had a substantial negative impact on their introduction of the Christian faith into Siam. He attributes those attitudes to the missionaries' assumption that the Thai people, as "heathens," lived in darkness and despair and consequently showed almost no interest in actually studying Buddhism, let alone the religious condition of the Thai people. Maen concludes that the Presbyterians met with only very limited success in their evangelistic endeavors because they were ignorant of the religion and religious life of the nation. They were ignorant because they chose to be ignorant, believing that a vast gulf stands between Christianity and Buddhism; they intended only to destroy Buddhism, not understand it.
Philip Hughes argues along lines that complement and expand on Maen's thesis. Looking at Presbyterian missionary evangelism in northern Siam as a communication process, he argues that the missionaries' message of sin and forgiveness through Christ "…has not been heard as Good News by most northern Thai people. What they have heard has sounded to them like some strange, foreign ideas." The Presbyterian missionaries in northern Siam, Hughes observes, communicated the Christian message by portraying northern Thai society as evil, removing their converts from the larger society, and forbidding them from having anything to do with indigenous religious life. As a part of the total communication process, they attempted to introduce an entirely new religion based on the "forms and patterns they knew in their home churches in the West." The result was a church that appeared and sounded markedly Western and foreign, and, while some northern Thais accepted this new religion in spite of its foreign nature, most did not. The missionaries failed, Hughes concludes, to communicate their message in culturally appropriate ways that the northern Thai could understand and accept. They failed to persuade the northern Thai that Christianity is the answer to their problems. The people found the missionaries' analysis of their own life-situation unconvincing because the Christian message failed to start with their own worldview.
Maen and Hughes point to three important lessons for the study of early Presbyterian missionary work in northern Siam: First, the study of missionary apologetical proclamation has to start with the missionaries themselves. The answer to the question of why so few northern Thais converted to Christianity must focus on the Laos Mission's work rather than some supposed defect in the northern Thai people themselves, such as claimed by some missionaries (above). Second, the key to understanding missionary strategies and methods in northern Siam will not be found on the field; whatever it was that caused the missionaries to behave as they did was something they brought with them from the United States. Third, missionary thinking provides an important key to missionary behavior. Two more recent studies, one in Thai history and the other in northern Thai missionary history underscore this third point. Tongchai Winichakul's study of "mapping" in historical Siam demonstrates how Western conceptions of boundaries and space have influenced modern Thailand's understanding of Thai space. My own investigation into the influence of Western dualism on northern Thai missions suggests the power fundamental Western conceptions had on missionary thinking. If one wants to understand, in sum, why the Laos Mission conducted its evangelism in a way that seems to have been counter-productive, turning our attention to the American sources of missionary thinking offers a hopeful avenue for further study.
Investigating the sources of missionary thought, however, faces one serious obstacle; the records of the Laos Mission do not clearly reveal the nature of those sources. Mission records contain a great deal of religious language, most of it not particularly insightful and certainly not systematic, but they do not provide overt links to particular schools of theology or ways of thinking. Michael Coleman's study of nineteenth-century Presbyterian missionary attitudes towards Native Americans deals with records of the same type as those of the Laos Mission and wrestles with the same problem of how to establish links between missionary thought and behavior. Coleman attributes missionary attitudes to the "Princeton Theology," a highly influential, conservative nineteenth-century American Presbyterian theology most fully articulated by a series of theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary. He points out, however, that the theology he finds in Presbyterian missionary records is a "stripped-down" or a "simplified" version of the Princeton system, which the missionaries themselves alluded to only haphazardly and infrequently. Those records do not contain the full, carefully thought out dogmatic theology of the Princeton circle of theologians.
Given these limitations in the missionary record, one is left with the question of how to move from documents recording missionary behavior to the sources of their thinking and, finally, to that behavior itself. Historians in many fields of study in recent decades have shown more and more interest in the links between thought and action, seeing in those links an opportunity to gain a sharper understanding of the course of history itself. They have come to realize that words and concepts do not amount to simple, transparent expressions of reality; they are, rather, artifacts of culture that have a powerful influence on virtually every facet of human existence. Words and ideas frequently contain deeper levels of meaning that lie hidden beneath our overt use of language. At that deeper, semi-hidden level, they both interpret and shape experiences according to precepts that are generally little understood by the people who hold them. The widely used shorthand term for these systems of overt as well as covert meaning is "ideology." Having lost most of its Marxist connotations, "ideology" has become an organizing concept for studying the connection between belief and behavior, between rhetoric and reality. Ideologies, in contrast to formal thought systems, mobilize emotions, structure opinions, and play a key role in determining aversions, enthusiasms, commitments, and prejudices. They comprise "value orientations." The concept of ideology has allowed historians to see thinking as a social activity and to appropriate the view of Weber and Berger that meanings are socially constructed. Ideology, in sum, is a social phenomenon. It is the systems of meanings, the clusters of thought that groups of people share and express in many different ways, not the least important of which are patterns of behavior. The vast majority of people and their cultures, however, are not even aware of the fact that reality in its most meaningful part is socially constructed. They consider their own systems of beliefs and values to be a part of the very structure of reality itself and, frequently, to be divinely inspired. Sociologists call this process of transformation, "reification," the social process of converting socially constructed ideas into ideologies.
Ideologies tend to be both obscure and powerful, their power being a function of their obscurity. Coleman did not avail himself of the concept of ideology, but his sense that an obscure form of the Princeton Theology lies at the heart of missionary thinking hints at and assumes an ideological link between the Princeton Theology and Presbyterian missionary ideology. A similar hint appears in the records of the Laos Mission, which habitually use religious language and theological concepts to describe and analyze even the most mundane events in a form strikingly similar to what historians call ideology. If we are correct in linking Princeton to missionary ideology, insights gained from the Princeton Theology may well provide an important window on the sources of missionary behavior in northern Siam. Such insights will help us to clarify what is otherwise obscure.
One cannot argue, however, that the Princeton Theology caused the members of the Laos Mission to behave in certain ways. Such an argument would be extremely difficult to prove and entail endless difficulties in trying to tie specific doctrines to specific actions. The value of the Princeton Theology for understanding the work of the Laos Mission lies, rather, in the possibility that Princeton articulated in systematic fashion a line of theological reflection that parallels missionary behavior and thus helps us to understand the general nature of missionary thought, which was less articulate and systematic. The Princeton circle's voluminous writings, that is, potentially clarify and give order to what is unclear and lacking order in the Laos Mission's records so that one can use Princeton to "unpack" the otherwise obscure ideological sources of missionary behavior in northern Siam. To that end, this dissertation explores the links between the Princeton Theology and Presbyterian missionary behavior in several steps. Chapter One provides background information necessary to understanding the situation of the mission and its historical and theological contexts. Chapter Two demonstrates that clear parallels exist between Princeton's theology and missionary thinking. Chapter Three describes in some detail key theological concepts in the Princeton Theology that help us understand the mission's thought and subsequent behavior. Chapters Four through Six study a series of important events in the formation of the Laos Mission from the perspective of those concepts with an eye to demonstrating the relationship between missionary thought and their practice of missions.
The study of the Laos Mission's thought and behavior in light of the Princeton Theology requires one important conceptual adjustment. However ideological the mission's records may appear is some respects, they are at least as theological as they are ideological. With this observation in mind, we will generally use the phrase "system of doctrines and meanings" in place of the term ideology because it is impossible to separate the mission's (covert) ideological from its (overt) theological expression in any meaningful way. One might argue that, to a degree, the Laos Mission's system of doctrines and meanings was theological in content and ideological in form, but even this observation involves making difficult distinctions between what is "content" and what is "form" and how form influences content and vice versa. In practice, the mission expressed its theology ideologically and its ideology theologically to the extent that they formed one system of theological doctrines and ideological meanings. That is to say, the Laos Mission's behavior was not based entirely on a semi-covert, unconscious system of meanings; it was also informed quite consciously by the missionaries' theological system of doctrines, hence the phrase "system of doctrines and meanings," also frequently rendered as "system of meanings and doctrines."
The crucial period in Laos Mission history for the study of its system of doctrines and meanings is the mission's pioneer era, 1867-1880. There are several reasons for selecting this historical period. First, the evidential record for that era is itself rich in sources that are particularly reflective of missionary thought. Second, during those years the mission passed through a series of significant events that left an indelible mark on its later development, making the connection between the mission's system of meanings and doctrines and its behavior clearly discernible. Third, the mission's cognitive system was in and of itself notably resistant to change, which is to say that its initial structure remained influential throughout the history of the mission. Finally, the mission's weak, almost inconsequential administrative structures created a sense of inertia in the mission's later years that reinforced and highlighted the significance of its pioneer era.
This dissertation argues, then, that the Princeton Theology provides substantial insights into the system of doctrines and meanings of the Laos Mission, which system comprised a key source of missionary behavior in northern Siam during the years from 1867 to 1880. To make its case, the dissertation uses two sets of primary data. The first set is the records of the Laos Mission, primarily up to 1880. The second set is the theological writings of the Princeton circle of theologians, emphasizing the period before the American Civil War.
The motivation for this study was the perception that, if successful, it will contribute to a better understanding of the origins and development of the former Presbyterian churches of northern Thailand that today belong to the Church of Christ in Thailand. The goal is to carry the lines of academic investigation begun by Maen in the 1970s and Hughes and myself in the 1980s an important step further. It has become clear, furthermore, that this dissertation also offers insights into the ways in which Western missionaries introduced Western theology and ideology into an Asian church setting, background insights potentially useful to the development of Thai and Asian contextual theologies. It affords historians of Thailand, more generally, with an increased understanding of the ideologies that contributed to Presbyterian missionary modernization, an important secondary agent of nineteenth-century Thai social change. This study also provides insights for those studying the role of the Laos Mission in Bangkok's moves to integrate its northern dependencies into the Siamese state. From the view point of American Presbyterian Church history and the study of nineteenth-century American evangelicalism, furthermore, this dissertation sheds light on the ways in which American religious ideology and theology influenced the thinking and behavior of "typical" adherents. The central focus of our attention, however, will remain steadily on the role missionary systems of doctrines and meanings played in the formation of the church in northern Siam.
In light of this central focus, it should be noted, briefly, what this dissertation is not about as well as what it is about. It is not a comparative study relating Presbyterian work in other fields to that in northern Siam. The purpose of this dissertation, as stated before, is to investigate Presbyterian missionary behavior specifically in northern Siam, a subject sufficiently broad, complex, and important to deserve investigation in its own right. The lack of comparable investigations of other Asian Presbyterian fields, furthermore, renders the use of comparative data problematic and questionable. This study is also not an exercise in missionary biography. Biographical material, such as is available, has been utilized only as it contributes to the dissertation's main lines of argument. This dissertation, again, is not a narrative history of the Laos Mission and it is not an institutional history of the mission, which means that many "interesting" details of that mission's history and its institutional development are included here only as they are relevant to our thesis. This work is not about the northern Thai church; it is about the Laos Mission. It is not about what has happened since 1880, and later developments are mentioned only as they shed light on the mission's pioneer era.
I would like to express my deepest thanks to a number of people who have assisted me in the successful completion of this dissertation; all of them have been instrumental in improving the quality of my work. Dr. Philip J. Hughes, my advisor, has taken time from an extremely busy schedule to assist me in every phase of the research and writing process. His encouragement and advice have kept me on a straight course. Dr. Harold Pidwell, former Dean of the Melbourne College of Divinity, and the other members of the MCD staff have been most helpful and responsive. Dr. Don Swearer and Peter Wallace shared their comments on and advice regarding an earlier draft of this study. Ed Zehner provided important editorial comments and advice on the overall structure of the dissertation; John Olson, Marilyn Olson, Bryan Green, and Neela Swanson helped proofread the final draft.
I also owe a debt of thanks to the staffs at the Payap University Archives, Speer Library, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Hutchins Library, Berea College, for their timely assistance. My colleagues at the Office of History, Church of Christ in Thailand, deserve thanks as well for their patience with a "boss" who for many months seemed more concerned with his dissertation than his other duties.
My wife, Warunee, merits special thanks in all things for her love, patience, and wise counsel; she also helped proofread the final draft. I would like to dedicate this dissertation and all that has gone into it to Dad and Mom, Roland and Ruth Swanson. It is as much the fruit of their lives as of my own.
Finally, and as required by the Melbourne College of Divinity, I affirm that the form and contents of this dissertation represent the original thinking of the author unless otherwise specified in the text and/or footnotes.
Herbert R. Swanson
Ban Dok Daeng
 Historical Thailand is referred to by its previous official name of “Siam,” and the northern Thai region is, thus, termed “northern Siam.” The people of that region are here called “northern Thai.” See Chapter One for a brief history of the Lan Na Kingdom.
 “Apologetics 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), 398ff. Compare Ferguson's observation that Christianity proved itself more adept at adapting Greek philosophy to its needs than any of its “pagan rivals.” Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), 488-89. See also Bernhard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, rev. ed., trans. F. Ernest Stoeffler (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 41-2.
 See, for example, Graham S. Fordham, “Protestant Christianity and the Transformation of Northern Thai Culture: Ritual Practice, Belief and Kinship” (Ph.D. diss., University of Adelaide, 1991); Charles F. Keyes, “Being Protestant Christians in Southeast Asian Worlds,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27, 2 (September 1996): 287; and Charles F. Keyes, “Why the Thai Are Not Christians: Buddhist and Christian Conversion in Thailand,” in Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation, ed. Robert W. Hefner (Berkeley: University of California, 1993), 277.
 Prince Damrong, “Introduction,” in Historical Sketch of Protestant Missions in Siam 1828-1928, ed., George Bradley McFarland (Bangkok: Bangkok Times Press, 1928), 13. See also Kenneth Wells, History of Protestant Work in Thailand 1828-1958 (Bangkok: Church of Christ in Thailand, 1958), 3.
 For Princeton's influence, see, for example, Mark A. Noll, “The Princeton Review,” Westminster Journal of Theology (hereafter cited as WJT) 50, 2 (Fall 1988): 289; Ernest R. Sandeen, “The Princeton Theology: One Source of Biblical Literalism in American Protestantism” Church History (hereafter cited as CH) 31, 3 (September 1962): 308; and, Lefferts A. Loetscher, Facing the Enlightenment: Archibald Alexander and the Founding of Princeton Theological Seminary (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983), ix-x.
 Michael Coleman, Presbyterian Missionary Attitudes toward American Indians, 1837-1893 (Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press, 1985), 34-7, 45, 120. See also John Crosby Brown Webster, “The Christian Community and Change in North India: a History of the Punjab and North India Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. 1834-1914” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1971), esp. 46ff.
 William J. Bouwsma, “From History of Ideas to History of Meaning,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12, 2 (Autumn 1981): 279-91; John E. Toews, “Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience,” American Historical Review (hereafter cited as AHR) 92 (1987): 879-907; and Joyce Appleby, “The Power of History,” AHR 103, 1 (February 1998): 8-9; see also Dorothy Ross, “The New and Newer Histories: Social Theory and Historiography in an American Key,” in Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past, eds. Anthony Molho and Gordon S. Wood, 85-106 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
 Peter Berger and Stanley Pullberg, “Reification and the Sociological Critique of Consciousness,” History and Theory 4, 2 (1965): 196-211; and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1966), 106-08.
|Table of Contents||Abstract||Illust. & Tables||Introduction||Chapter 1||Chapter 2||Chapter 3||Chapter 4||Chapter 5||Chapter 6||Conclusion||Appendices||Bibliography|