HerbSwanson.com ...A Resource for the Study of the Thai Church

KMN Front Page & Intro


A Study in Northern Thai Church History

Herbert R. Swanson

Chiang Mai, Thailand


2004 Intro1984 IntroChapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9AppendicesBibliographyEnd Notes

Table of Contents

Introduction (2004)
Introduction (1984)
Titles, Terms, & Transliterations


Chapter 1: The Early Years (1867-1869)
Chapter 2: The Hard Years (1870-1889)
Chapter 3: Expansion (1890-1900)


Chapter 4: Models for Ministry
Chapter 5: Training for Ministry
Chapter 6: Church and Ministry


Chapter 7: The Retrenched Decade (1901-1910)
Chapter 8: The Stagnated Decade (1911-1920)
Chapter 9: In Retrospect

End Notes

2004 Introduction

Khrischak Muang Nua was written in 1984, and in the course of the past twenty years has sold some 900-plus copies out of the original 1000 printed. Effectively, it is out of print and stock. While these sales figures fall somewhat short of the Harry Potter series, the book itself remains important to the study of Thai church history generally and northern Thai church history in particular. In 1984, Thai church history barely existed as an academic field, and Khrischak Muang Nua is one of a handful of publications that helped to expand the study of that history into something more akin to a full-fledged, if still modest, field of scholarship. The book, furthermore, has had a role in discrediting the hagiographic approach to the Protestant missionary past, which dominated the historical consciousness of the Thai Protestant and Thailand missionary communities into the early 1980s. It also, finally, mirrors the times in which it was written, those same early 1980s, and while much of its advice and some of its perspective is irrelevant to the northern Thai churches today, Khrischak Muang Nua is an historical document in its own right and deserves preservation as such.

Reprinting Khrischak Muang Nua has never been, however, an option. For various reasons, it has a number of flaws that simply cannot be patched up. It virtually ignores the vastly complex political and diplomatic context of the Laos Mission, which context had major influence on the life of the mission and its churches. At points, it is a self-important work that is nearly as insensitive to a Thai perspective as its protagonists, the old-time missionaries. Some of its criticisms of the Presbyterian missionaries in northern Siam are overstated, and a few are just plain wrong. In the intervening years since 1984, moreover, a large number of new sources of material have been uncovered, which make this book truly dated.

Khrischak Muang Nua, in sum, is too important to toss on the rubbish heap and not well enough done to warrant reprinting without massive revisions that would amount to a new work. This website provides an excellent alternative, one that allows me to make the book available to interested readers without going through the trials and tribulations of a reprint. Although herbswanson.com is not yet a year old at this writing, I trust that it will provide a good home for Khrischak Muang Nua for many years to come.

In this online edition, I have not tampered with the text of the original other than to make a raft of needed corrections of typographical errors and a few errors in fact. I have tinkered with the prose somewhat, but not a lot; it is generally what I wrote in 1984-on a typewriter, if you can believe that. The process of scanning and editing has inevitably contributed a few new typographical errors not found in the original; and while I've done my best to catch all of the mistakes, old and new, I know that several of the sniggering little twerps are still lurking here and there in the text. I have not corrected what I now consider to be errors of interpretation, but there are a number of places where I have toned down my youthful rhetoric and dispensed with the "creative" theatrics.

Let me take this opportunity, finally, to renew the dedication of Khrischak Muang Nua, which was and is dedicated to my wife, Warunee. Twenty years later, we are still trekking along together. I cannot even conceive of life without her presence and love anymore, so constant have they both been over the years. Thank you, Nee, now more than ever. Peace.

Herb Swanson
Ban Dok Daeng
February 2004

Table of Contents

1984 Introduction

The substance of this study first took form in classroom lectures I presented during the second term of the 1983 - 1984 school year at the McGilvary Faculty of Theology, Payap College. It was an exciting experience for me to see the response of the dozen or so students in the course. Unlike any previous history course I taught, the students showed an involvement in the "meat" of the course. They learned something about themselves. They learned something about how their identity as Christians emerged. Time-and-again, they said to me, "That is just like my church!" One student said that the course was the first one he had ever taken that was about him.

And that, for me, is what makes the "study of northern Thai church history" so potentially important. I hope that it will say something meaningful and relevant to the struggling church in northern Thailand today about how it came to be and why it is what it is. As a field of study, northern Thai Protestant church history has been ignored since Daniel McGilvary published his autobiography in 1912. (1) Indeed, excepting only Philip Hughes' brief but useful study of the communication of the Gospel in the North and three articles by myself, even northern Thai missionary history has been ignored as a field of study in its own right. (2) The "'standard" books in the field treat northern Thai church history only in the context of and as a part of national church history and then only in the context of missionary history. (3)

Yet, the history of the Protestant churches in northern Thailand is something more than just an adjunct to the history of the church in the whole nation. For fifty years the churches in the North had no links with those to the south. The church grew out of a distinctive missionary, cultural, and political environment. At the same time, the history of the church in the North is not the same as that of the missionary movement in the North. Habitually, those who look into the history of the church in all of Thailand see it as simply one manifestation of the history of the missionary movement, a movement that also included the introduction of "modern" education, medicine, and technology into Thailand. In this study, I have shifted that focus by ninety degrees: here the missionary movement is deemed important only for its influence (very significant) on the church. You may find that change of perspective as startling as the students in my course found it.

The purpose, then, of this study is to provide an introduction to northern Thai church history. It is an introduction in two ways. First, the study covers the major events and changes in the history of the Protestant church in the North from 1867 to 1920. Each chapter here could be made into a major study of its own without any problem. Thus, in its brevity and inclusiveness the study introduces the reader to the field of northern Thai Protestant church history. Secondly, it is the first critical historical study of the church in the North, and as such it charts the major themes and patterns of that history for the first time. In hacking through the veritable tangle of historical data available, I found few guideposts, trail markers, or even abandoned campsites of previous researchers to assist me. I fully expect that later researchers will find this "chart" inaccurate at points, inconsequential at points, and misleading at points. Nevertheless, the "chart" does point out where the major ranges and rivers are found. It's a start�an introduction.

As I undertake this study, I am particularly conscious of how little in esteem many in the church and in professional historical circles hold church history. Personal experience tells me that it is useless to try to argue about the supposed relevance of church history to the life of the church and that the experience of the students in my course is not unusual: they could care less about church history as such, but in its concrete form as their own story church history excites and challenges them. Hans K�ng has written that, "The real Church is first and foremost a happening, a fact, an historical event. The real essence of the real Church is expressed in historical form." (4) Whatever the theoretical attitude, it is impossible, in fact, to understand the church apart from its past, its accumulation of experiences. Berger and Luckmann put it this way, "Institutions always have a history of which they are the products. It is impossible to understand an institution adequately without an understanding of the historical process in which it was produced." (5) The church has a history. That history expresses its essence.

There is no more difficult field of historical study than church history. Church history requires the historian to apply a rigorous historical method in the pursuit of essentially theological concerns. Paul Tillich wrote.

Writing church history...requires a double viewpoint in the description of every particular development. First, church history must show facts and their relations with the best methods of historical research and must do so without bringing in divine providence as a particular cause in the general chain of causes and effects. The church historian is not supposed to write a history of divine interferences in world history when he writes the history of the Christian churches. Secondly, the church historian, as a theologian, must remain aware of the fact that he speaks about a historical reality in which the Spiritual Community is effective and by which the Kingdom of God is represented. (6)

This dual task/role of historian and theologian described by Tillich puts the church historian on something of a hot seat. Historiography, after all, is a critical art based on the scientific method's attitude and requires a "neutral" attitude about the subject of study. The historian engages in evaluation and judgment of the sources and the events they describe in order to provide an adequate statement of what actually happened, why it happened, and the significance of what happened. The church historian, however, must also go beyond simply recounting past events. The church historian, as a theologian-historian, necessarily interprets past events in the light of the Gospel. Church history has to do finally, with the church's institutionalized struggle to comprehend the in-dwelling of the divine in the life-shattering servanthood of Jesus of Nazareth. That struggle is an historical struggle that, however, can only be understood theologically.

Therefore, church history, both as history and as theology, necessarily involves the researcher in making critical judgments about the past. We judge what happened. We judge which events of the past are significant. We judge those significant events in light of the Christ Event. It is naive to suggest, as many do, that we should not be critical of people in the past, that we should simply accept that they lived in a different time with different standards. In the first place, the past (whatever past we are speaking of) was not some manner of simplistic place where everyone thought the same way and had the same standards. In the case of the northern Thai church and the Laos Mission that created it, various individuals and groups differed with each other seriously about strategy and policy. Men such as Briggs, Crooks, Freeman, Irwin, and Taylor at various times voiced extremely critical judgments about the Laos Mission. One of the most cogent critiques of that mission was written in 1915 by Robert Speer. It is unlikely that the historian could excel these men in critically judging the missionary movement in northern Siam. Secondly, even if the modern historian treats the past "unfairly" by evaluating it critically (an idea I do not accept), it behooves us for the sake of our present and future to understand how the past has shaped us in the present. The past is a part of us�it belongs to us. If we do not understand it, it chains us to ways of thinking and behaving that are counter-productive. Or, for the church, the past chains us to patterns of faithlessness to the Gospel if we remain ignorant of it.

This, then, is a critical study. One thing needs to be made particularly clear from the beginning: my perspective is not essentially anti-missionary but, rather, it is pro-church in the sense that in spite of its many serious faults the church is still the vehicle for telling the Good News of Jesus Christ. That which weakens the church blocks the paths of grace between God and us. I will warn you now that this entire study is highly critical of the missionary movement in northern Siam in the period of this study. I trust that the reasons for my perspective will become apparent as I present my interpretation of the historical data. It is not that the missionaries were such bad people. In fact, it is clear that many of them were quite the opposite, essentially decent individuals with a deep sense of commitment, a willingness to sacrifice, and even courage. In my studies of the missionary role in modernization, I have discovered that men like Hugh Taylor in Nan and D.G. Collins at the Mission Press in Chiang Mai were very competent administrators and technologists. If one looks at the missionary role in modernization-in education, in medicine, in technology-the missionary record is little short of remarkable. They brought important forms of human liberation in their introduction of women's education, vaccines, educational techniques, hospitals, and new technologies. People accused of demon possession, people in poverty, and lepers all found a hope in missionary Christianity they could not find in their own society. However, this study is not about these things, it is a history of the church in northern Siam in the period 1867 - 1920.

This shift in perspective is extremely important because it treats both the churches and the missionaries in a way that they have not been treated before historically. It is likely that many of you who read this study are going to conclude that I have "overstated" the negative side of mission work with the churches. One is always at a loss when writing history to be 100% sure he has been totally fair, but I will say this; as I shifted my study of missionary records from modernization to the church I was absolutely astounded at the change in attitude I underwent about those records. I simply did not expect to find the things that I found there which, eventually, began to add up to a serious mismanagement and demeaning of the church by the Laos Mission. Systematic. Consistent. Persistent. My personal sense of the integrity of the church as the church of Jesus Christ was angered and saddened in ways that I did not expect, and I have not tried to hide nor downplay what I learned from my study. As I say, if you think this is negative, you should read some of the correspondence. Good, solid. conservative men like Crooks. Freeman, and Briggs clearly stated that the mission in the North was incompetent and a disgrace.

Yet, I might even be so bold as to argue that, in fact, what you are about to read is quite positive in the sense that it sees the northern Thai church in a new light, one that suggests the very real possibility that this church does have the resources and has always had the resources to witness to the Gospel in a faithful, liberating way. Thus, I would like to invite the reader who shares my concern for a faithful church to also share my perspective, a perspective that looks from the church outward and "past-ward" to discover the roots of the church's present faithlessness, the hope for her future faithfulness.

What is important is the manner in which we pass judgment on the past. Is our judgment fair to the events as they actually took place? Does it portray honestly the significance of those events? Does it tell us something important about them? In short, our interpretation of the past should help to open the past up to fuller understanding rather than shut off the possibility of knowing what actually happened.

It has become a truism among professional historians that there is no such thing as an unbiased history. Each historian has a perspective, which informs and determines the way in which that historian portrays the past. Since biases are unavoidable, the historian has a responsibility to clearly state her or his biases. In fact, historians have come to realize that a well-stated bias can be useful in seeing "old" events in a "new" light. Therefore, you, the reader, need to know the bias upon which I evaluate the history of the northern Thai church and its relations to Presbyterian missions in the North:

From my perspective:

- "salvation" is not dependent upon ascribing to a set of theological propositions (including the proposition that only Christians are saved) but, rather, has to do with reorienting one's life along an axis of servanthood and self-giving.

- the theological test of the historical faithfulness of the church is the depth of its servanthood and self-giving. The church, in order to be faithful, must fully share in the culture of its place and time, be rooted in its culture - even as God in Christ took the immeasurable risk of being born in one time and one place.

- at the same time. the church always questions and challenges the ways-of-power and the ways-of-belief of the culture in which it finds itself. It tells of a "new way" of relating to others. It sets a "new agenda" for living. Being fully a part of its culture, it strains to move itself and its culture toward the self-draining, self-giving, selfless life of the Servant. It is the representative of love and justice in an unlovely and unjust world.

- ultimately, the church in every culture lives in the freedom of God's grace, which allows it to agonize for others and strive for justice without succumbing to a crushing and anesthetizing burden of guilt because of its inevitable inability to be faithful. Where grace is not the keynote of the Christian message, the church has failed to see the direction and intent of the Old Testament and to hear the message of the New Testament.

As I write this study, I am very consciously asking myself, "To what extent was the church in northern Siam faithful to its Lord and Saviour ?" And where I find that it was not faithful, I must ask the further question, "Why not?" Yet, this essentially theological approach will be rendered absolutely useless if I have not credibly carried out the basic task common to every historian. One must be an historian first, then a church historian, and then (and only then) may one incorporate theological concerns into historical study.

No one writes in a vacuum. I would like to take this opportunity to express my deepest thanks to a number of individuals and groups who have helped to bring this study to completion. The staff of the Payap College Archives has invested time and concern both as colleagues and as friends in the work that led to this study. The Archives Committee of the Church of Christ in Thailand encouraged the study and assisted in its production. The Slatington Presbyterian Church, Slatington, Pennsylvania USA provided part of the funding needed to print the study. And the people of the Suwan Duangrit Church, Ban Dok Daeng kept my thinking about the northern Thai church's past rooted in the real world of the village church.

My special thanks goes to Josephene Maclean who gave of her time and talents to illustrate this volume and prepare the cover for it. She has provided an artistic relief for the reader's weary eyes!

Finally, dedicating a book to the one who has put up with me and made loneliness an impossibility for a decade seems like a miserly form of compensation, but her patience and her encouragement are responsible for the good things you might find here. Thank you, Nee.

Table of Contents

Titles, Terms, and Transliterations

This study follows the transliteration system introduced by the Royal Thai Institute in 1939 without using diacritical marks and with two exceptions: one, place names for which the original cannot be determined, and, two, personal names, for which I have followed the most common form in the historical records.

Regarding geographical terms, I have chosen to use "Siam" to refer to modern day Thailand in the period of study, 1867-1920, and "northern Thai" to refer to the people and language of contemporary northern Thailand -those who refer to themselves as khon muang - in that period. "Siamese" refers to the people and language of central Thailand. I have dropped the usage of the terms "Laos" and "Lan Na" to refer to northern Siam.

The reader should note that this study always uses the contemporary forms for Lampang (formerly called "Lakawn") and Tak (formerly called "Rahaeng").

Finally, common northern Thai titles and honorifics are capitalized and not italicized. The most common are:

Chao a member of the upper, ruling class.
Chao Muang the absolute ruler of a northern Thai state.
Kru "teacher". Used for clergymen and other educated individuals.
Nan honorific for a "retired" monk.
Noi honorific for a "retired" novice.