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"Prelude to Irony: The Princeton Theology and the
Practice of Presbyterian Missions in Northern Siam, 1867-1880."

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Two good friends, at least, have encouraged me to publish my doctoral dissertation, "Prelude to Irony," and at one point I actually started to work on that project. Dissertations, however, are not meant to be published; it takes a great deal of work to turn one into a book; and I found that it was very difficult to go back over "old territory" with any enthusiasm when there is so much that is new to work on. In developing herbswanson.com, it occurred to me that this website offers a good alternative, one that is low-cost and is easily available to those who might want to use the dissertation. Thus, "Prelude to Irony" appears here in its entirety. Readers will remember, of course, that "Prelude to Irony" is protected by copyright laws and cannot be reproduced (other than downloaded for personal, one-copy use only) or quoted without my written consent except for brief quotations for scholarly purposes. For those readers who might be interested in my own retrospective thoughts on the dissertation, a brief "introductory postscript" is found immediately below.

Herb Swanson
Ban Dok Daeng
August 2003

"Prelude to Irony" An Introductory Postscript

Postmodern insights into the nature of "the text" have made us more keenly aware of the fact that every written work has its own history, which makes the text more fluid, less absolute than its final hardcopy form implies. "Prelude to Irony" is no exception. It actually encompasses three research "projects" that spanned more than a decade from the late 1980s to the first years of the new century. After I finished my M.A. thesis at the University of Maryland in 1987 and returned to Chiang Mai in January 1988, I began to work on an intellectual history of Presbyterian missions in Siam and made substantial progress in the requisite research. I don't remember how it was that I got sidetracked, but sidetracked I was, and all of that interesting and useable material has lain fallow in a series of computers for many years. Some time later, I began to do research intended to lead to a new history of Christianity in northern Siam, and again I was sidetracked—this time by an "emergency" research project that my employer, the Church of Christ in Thailand, asked me to carry out (in 1993, if memory serves). Somehow, I never got back to complete the northern Thai church history either, even though I'd finished about 60% or more of the research and written up a couple of draft chapters.

Then, early in 1999, came the opportunity to do a doctoral dissertation under the auspices of the Melbourne College of Divinity (MCD), Melbourne University. I wrote the dissertation proposal that I submitted to the MCD with all of the material I had collected over the years in mind, knowing that I had already completed half or more of the research that needed to be done to complete the dissertation. The stated goal of the dissertation was to follow-up on issues that my Master's thesis had left unresolved, particularly concerning the relationship of the Princeton Theology to the conduct of Presbyterian missions in northern Siam. The unstated goal was to make use finally of the research notes already in hand and thereby reduce significantly the time needed to complete the dissertation. Lingering over doctoral studies for five or six years when you're 28 or 32 is one thing, but when you're 52 time is of the essence. Paying, furthermore, even the MCD's reasonable tuition and fees with baht instead of dollars provided added motivation for getting on with it quickly.

This is not to say that I did not have to do any further research; I did. But I was able to focus that research on the Princeton Theology and its background rather than on the northern Siam materials. I made the conscious decision that I had done more than enough research on missionary history and its background and that while I could surely improve on that research it would have to do. The goal of a doctoral dissertation, or any other scholarly work for that matter, is not perfection. One has to do, rather, the best one can under the constraints of time, finances, access to resources, experience, and institutional expectations.

Thinking myself really rather clever for having stored away so much "done" research before beginning the dissertation, I did not anticipate the problems I would face in beating and punching that data into a unified dissertation. In some ways, it never did quite come together. I took Chapter Four, Chapter Five, and Chapter Six largely from my research into the history of the northern Thai church, some of which was already written up, and folded into it some of the research on the intellectual history of Presbyterian missions in Siam. One consequence of the beating and folding process is that those chapters contain more straightforward historical information than is necessary and that sometimes they do not tie back into the Princeton material particularly well. Chapter Three, meanwhile, is a distillation of the more immediate research that I did on the Princeton Theology and almost stands by itself apart from the rest of the dissertation. It is, indeed, the kernel of a book of its own, which I doubt will ever be written. Finally, Chapter One and Chapter Two are each something of a patchwork: the first section of each chapter comes largely from the older research, the second section from the newer research. The dissertation holds together well enough to get the doctorate, but I suspect it would have been a more seamless piece of work if I'd done all of the research together in one process.

In the end, "Prelude to Irony" does hang together rather well even if it was a headache to attain even the level of unity achieved. The more serious problem with the way I approached the dissertation is that I did not bring my previous research into the Laos Mission into "dialogue" with my later research on the Princeton Theology until well into the writing process. That is to say, I went blithely along with my original thesis— that the Princeton Theology directly influenced missionary thought and behavior in northern Siam—until I was ready to start writing up the last three chapters. When I did began to write those last chapters, I had finally to think seriously about Princeton in relation to Chiang Mai; and the deeper I went into things the more clear it became that I could not prove the thesis. Opps. It's not that the thesis is wrong absolutely; rather, two issues cropped up unexpectedly. First, it turns out that all five of the women related to the Laos Mission in its pioneer era came out of a theological background that was, if anything, more New School than Old School Presbyterian. The Princeton Theology was Old School through and through, although moderately so. How, I finally had to ask myself, can I square the supposed influence of the Princeton Theology with the fact that the majority of the Laos Mission's pioneer members seem to have grown into their Christian faith under the influence of New School Presbyterianism mixed in with New England Congregationalism? Second, the theological reflections contained in the missionary literature are scattered, brief, and imprecise. It is impossible to discern from them with any precision the influence of one or another theological schools or traditions. The contents of those records suggest that the Princeton Theology probably influenced to a degree the two leading members of the Laos Mission up to 1880, the Revs. Daniel McGilvary and Jonathan Wilson. There is no way, however, to prove that such was the case. I only came to the full realization of the significance of these problems as I approached the Conclusion. Opps, indeed.

In reviewing the earlier chapters of "Prelude to Irony," it became clear that my original assumption concerning the influence of the Princeton Theology suffused those chapters; cleansing them would require a major rewrite. In the end, I decided for a number of reasons (time, the press of other duties, that same disinclination to go over "old" territory, and the fact that the index would have to be redone virtually in its entirety) to take the "middle way" and do some re-wording of key points in early chapters and insert a clear statement of my revised thesis in the Introduction and make the case for it in the Conclusion. The careful reader, however, will realize that "Prelude to Irony" as it stands today talks out of both sides of its mouth concerning the influence of Princeton on the Laos Mission. Sometimes it still sounds as if there was considerable influence. At other points, it claims that we can't know if there was any influence, let alone the extent of it. I suspect that one reason, semi-subconsciously; I've decided not to try to turn the dissertation into a book is because I know it'll take considerable effort to attain a single voice on this issue of Princeton's influence.

While I am sure that Princeton did actually have some influence on the Laos Mission, there is no way to prove that it did. The central problem, to state the matter more fully, is that it is virtually impossible to say that the missionaries in northern Siam wrote any particular sentence or paragraph because the Princeton Theology influenced them. There is no smoking gun as it were. While that theology is distinct in some ways, it also shared many themes and ideas with other evangelical nineteenth-century American theologies. Who is to say where an individual missionary acquired a particular idea or doctrine, unless they themselves say where it came from? In the case of the Laos Mission, no missionary states unequivocally that she or he thought in a certain way because of Princeton. Moreover, since the theological statements contained in the missionary literature do tend to be general, intermittent, brief, and generic they again cannot be traced to or attributed to any particular school of thought. In order to finally resolve my own thinking on the matter of Princeton's influence, I sat down several months after the dissertation was done and wrote an article entitled "Princeton and the Laos Mission: A Case Study of Princeton Theological Seminary's Influence in the Nineteenth Century," which has been accepted by the Journal of Presbyterian History for publication in 2004. In that article, I argue that scholars who claim that Princeton Seminary had a wide theological influence on the Presbyterian Church have not made a clean case for that influence; and I use the example of the Laos Mission to make the point.

In the end, "Prelude to Irony" does make a substantial case, in my opinion, for its revised thesis that the Princeton Theology is a useful tool for helping us better understand why the missionaries thought and behaved as they did. The massive Princeton literature fleshes out many of the idea alluded to in a fragmentary way in the missionary literature. Presbyterian missionary thinking and behavior in historical northern Siam, clearly shared important affinities with Princeton irrespective of whether or not it directly influenced any particular members of the Laos Mission.

Dissertations are learning experiences. What did I learn? First and most obviously from what I've written above, I learned that it is virtually impossible to attribute American Presbyterian missionary thinking in northern Siam to any one identifiable school of thought. The records of missionary theology that have come down to us do not present precise, systematic descriptions of that theology, and what they do contain is a more general theological perspective that might be typified as conservative American evangelicalism for want of a better term. There is no question but that the broad currents of nineteenth-century American theological and ideological thinking had a determinative influence on the first generation of members of the Laos Mission. Given the historical record as it stands today, it is impossible to separate out Princeton or any other school of thought from that broad, general, and diffuse influence.

Second, I am not a church historian by training, and working on this dissertation provided me with an excellent opportunity to become more knowledgeable in American church history, especially Presbyterian intellectual history. In the process, one thing that struck me forcefully as I studied Princeton in its American context is how incredibly contextual the Princeton Theology was prior to 1860. It responded creatively to the main currents of nineteenth-century American thought up to the Civil War but then increasingly failed to engage those currents after that axial event. The particular lessons I learned are: one, the almost idolization of contextual theologies in many corners of the church in our day needs to be tempered with the realization that theologies can be contextual without being necessarily faithful to the Gospel; two, at the same time, theologies that fail to lodge themselves within the main currents of their time and place are doomed to a slow death. Living theologies have to be contextual, that is, but the mere fact of their contextuality does not insure their faithfulness to the biblical witness.

A third lesson I learned was greater respect for nineteenth-century conservative Presbyterian theology. I find a great deal in the Princeton Theology and other evangelical American theologies of that era objectionable, particularly their radical dualism; but one cannot immerse oneself in the writings of the Hodges and Alexanders without gaining a serious respect for their intellectual and theological skills. The Princeton Theology had an integrity of its own that must be respected. This increased respect for and appreciation of Princeton carries over, I think, to the old-time Presbyterian missionaries who served in northern Siam as well. I still think they "messed up" some things and messed them up rather badly, but one really cannot expect that they would think and act "outside the box" of their own day anymore than we do in ours—and God forgive us for the ways in which we are messing up our own times and futures!

A fourth lesson I learned has to do with intellectual history. Charles Hodge has been roundly and widely attacked by modern scholars for his supposed failure to integrate major intellectual elements of his times and his Reformed heritage into a consistent whole. These scholars attack him for being intellectually inconsistent, and they are correct, I suppose, in a formal sense in their criticism. Sometimes Hodge was inconsistent. The question I learned to ask through my dissertation research was, "So what?" Having made their case against Hodge, these self-same scholars invariably fail to exhibit how Hodge's inconsistencies actually weakened his theology in any way. They assert weaknesses without demonstrating them. To my way of thinking, the great failure of Hodge and his fellow Princetonians (no women belonged to the club!) was their failure to adapt themselves to the new intellectual climate that emerged in the United States after the Civil War. Recently, I've become enamored with the thought of Edward W. Said, particularly his treatment of Orientalism, and again there is a whole class of scholars who have made much of Said's admitted methodological inconsistencies. Yet, Said has been one of the most influential scholars of our times, and from my own reading it seems to me that his inconsistencies, such as they are, enliven his work rather than detract from it. They open doors to further reflection. Integrity and creativity are far more important in scholarship than consistency, and both Hodge and Said, each in their own very different way, demonstrate these more important scholarly values.

Finally and not surprisingly, the experience of working through "Prelude to Irony" helped me to settle on a concrete agenda for my own post-Prelude research. On the one hand, I discovered a heightened interest in both historical and contemporary currents in American and Western intellectual history. I hope to do some publishing in both nineteenth-century American Presbyterian history and in more contemporary Western intellectual history that has nothing to do per se with Thai church history. On the other hand, it is time for me to get back to serious investigation of the history of Protestantism in Thailand, an investigation that I hope will lead to one or more books in the not too distant future. In a sense, then, "Prelude to Irony" marks the culmination of my personal quest to better understand why the Presbyterian missionaries in northern Siam behaved as they did and, in particular, made the mistakes I think they made. Given the limitations we face in terms of the historical record and my own professional limitations, I feel that I do understand something of why they did what they did; and I am, I trust, less blatantly judgmental of them for the understanding.

Yet, as readers of "Prelude to Irony" will quickly realize, I do remain critical of the way in which the Laos Mission and its individual members communicated the Christian faith in northern Siam. I remain critical of Protestant and especially evangelical missionary behavior since World War II, of the frighteningly large and pervasive extent to which their attitudes and behavior ignorantly mimic the failed ways and means of the nineteenth-century. If "Prelude to Irony" is even slightly useful in exposing the continued dangers of foreign-incubated missionary ideologies to the churches of Thailand, I will count it a success.

I cannot close without once again expressing my deepest appreciation for the wise and helpful way in which Dr. Philip Hughes, my advisor, assisted me in the process of getting through to the doctorate. He was the one who introduced me to the Melbourne College of Divinity and facilitated the application process. He was an important go between and patient hand holder when things didn't go as quickly or smoothly as I wanted them to go. Philip well understood that at my somewhat advanced age and with my long experience with the material I was working on I did not need the advice and guidance young graduate student's need. He wisely and patiently did precisely and only those things that needed doing to facilitate the total process; without him I would not be "Dr. Swanson" today. It bears repeating one more time, "Thank you, Philip."

The good people of Ban Dok Daeng, church and community, deserve thanks in an entirely different way. Although not directly involved in the dissertation process they have profoundly informed and influenced my understanding of the northern Thai; and one of the most important experiences of my life has been the opportunity to share in the life of the church for over twenty years and to live in the community for more than ten years. Both have taught me to appreciate the pain and, at times, anger northern Thai Protestants and their Buddhist relatives and neighbors feel about the religious divide that lies between them. In times past, the two faiths of Ban Dok Daeng lived in a continual state of underlying tension that occasionally burst out in hurtful overt dissension. By the grace of God, we have learned that the divide and the pain are unnecessary, being the products of a pharisaical Western religious ideology. We have discovered, furthermore, that the antidote for that ideology is heavy, repeated doses of localized, Asianized readings of the New Testament and the practice of what Koyama in Waterbuffalo Theology so succinctly calls "neighborology." If I have confidence in the conclusions reached in the dissertation, it is because they reflect the actual heritage of Ban Dok Daeng, as well as the heritage of the many other northern Thai churches and communities it has been my privilege to study.

Finally, I want to take the opportunity of this brief "Introductory Postlude" to express again an even deeper level of profound thanks to Warunee. "Runee" has changed, deepened, and enlivened my life in ways that go beyond words to express. She is the mother of and model for Neela and Nahree, two fine women of whom we are incredibly proud. She remains my daily tutor in things Thai. Doctoral candidates, especially aging ones, have tantrums, trepidations, and waste much creative energy on anxious anxieties; it was Runee who quietly bore all that and spoke the healing words that helped to keep me on track—not just for the dissertation, but for the daily living of life. It bears repeating time and again, "Thank you, Nee."

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