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KMN Section I

Khrischak Muang Nua


Chapters 1 - 3

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

The greatest accomplishment of America is the conquest of the continent, and the greatest achievement of the American churches has been the extension of their work westward across the vast stretches of the continent, keeping abreast with the restless and ever moving population... Throughout this whole period the churches were in continuous contact with frontier conditions and frontier needs, and no single fact is more significant in its influence upon American religion.

William Warren Sweet
The Story of Religion in America, 1950, p. 3

Chapter 1
The Early Years (1867-1869)

The course of events that led ultimately to the founding of the northern Thai church by the Laos Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in 1867 may be traced back to any number of starting points; the period of great revivals in early nineteenth century America: the beginnings of the missionary movement in England and the United States; or the events leading to the founding of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the 1830s. An enterprising historian might boldly plunge into the frigid waters of Scottish Presbyterianism, the baptismal font of Daniel McGilvary's own religious experience. (1) Or, one might rightly explore the implications of certain concepts coming out of American frontier and expansionist experience-such as the concepts of the "go-getter" and the "booster" as described by Daniel Boorstin among others. (2)

So, then, where to start? For my purposes it is enough to begin with Siam.

Missions to Siam (3)

Evidently, the first Christian tract printed in Siamese and the first Siamese convert resulted from Ann Judson's work in 1819 in Rangoon with Siamese captives carried off by the Burmese. The road to Chiang Mai began there and in Singapore, also in 1819, where Samuel Milton of the London Missionary Society based himself and laid plans for an L.M.S. mission to Bangkok. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to initiate a Bangkok mission, the first L.M.S. (and Protestant) missionaries finally reached Bangkok in August 1828. But they did not stay very long, and the L.M.S. failed to plant the first permanent mission in Siam.

In fact, one could get into quite a little discussion over which mission was first. That honor is usually given to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions since their first missionary couple arrived in Bangkok in July 1831. (4) But they also did not remain as illness drove them out of the country in January 1832. Thus, if "permanent presence" means continuous residence, the Baptist Mission begun in March 1833 established the first permanent mission in Siam. The A.B.C.F.M. did not return until July 1834. For the next fifteen years, then, these two missions, Baptist and A.B.C.F.M., carried on the difficult work of Protestant missions in Bangkok.

They were hard years. The political situation was dangerous since the King of Siam wanted as little to do with the West as necessary and feared Western designs on his nation. The people did not respond to preaching, and illness and death dogged every effort, every undertaking. The A.B.C.F.M. mission showed the strain within a decade, especially after China "opened up," and the A.B.C.F.M. began to reassign some of its Bangkok forces to China. The specter of theological controversy raised its head in the mission as well, causing the mission's two most capable members, Jesse Caswell and Dan Beach Bradley, to withdraw. The last A.B.C.F.M. missionary left Bangkok at the end of 1849. The Baptist mission was only slightly more successful but considerably more tenacious. Never a strong mission, it too suffered from the opening of China since personnel and resources were drawn off from Siam for China. The mission hung on until the last Baptist missionary finally left Siam in 1893.

While the Baptist mission struggled on, the breakaway Caswell-Bradley mission sought to establish itself. After they resigned from the A.B.C.F.M., Bradley returned to the United States in 1847 to see what he could get started. He contacted the American Missionary Association, a body primarily concerned with slaves in the American South, and the A.M.A. agreed lo accept Bradley and Caswells as their missionaries to Siam. Unfortunately. Caswell died in September 1848. Bradley and his second wife, Sarah Blachly Bradley, returned in 1850 with three others to begin the A.M.A. Bangkok mission, but within a short time feuding erupted in the mission, and by 1855 only the Bradleys remained on the field. The mission lingered on until Bradley died in 1873.

These three missions faced a formidable set of circumstances. Health was a serious limitation. Their political standing fluctuated but was never quite secure. They fought with each other and with other foreigners. (5) The people at home showed more interest in China than Siam. The Siamese themselves totally ignored the religious message of the missionaries. The available resources for the work were always inadequate, the personnel never enough. The missionaries themselves felt alienated from Siamese culture. They had to learn the language without benefit of any linguistic tools or methodologies. They came with cement-hard stereotypical ideas about Siamese culture that only slowly modified through contact with the more benign reality of that culture. Yet, without their efforts the church in northern Siam could not have come into existence.

The Presbyterians

The first permanently assigned Presbyterian couple, the Buells, arrived in Bangkok in August 1840, but "permanent" in Siam in those days was a relative term. They left in early 1844 both ill and disillusioned with the prospects in Siam. The mission was reestablished by the Board of Foreign Missions three years later with the appointment of the Mattoons and Dr. Samuel Reynolds House, all of whom arrived on the field in March 1847. The work developed only slowly and fitfully. More as an act of faith than a sign of evangelistic success, the mission established its first church on 3 September 1849. It took another decade before the first Siamese converted to the Christian faith.

The period around 1850 proved to be a difficult one for all three of the minions in Siam, Presbyterian, Baptist, and the A.M.A. The King increasingly distrusted the missionaries and applied more political pressure on them until the Presbyterians seriously considered withdrawing entirely. But, then, the King died in 1851, and Prince Mongkut, a man friendly with and tolerant of the missionaries, came to the throne. The period of trial by fire ended.

The Siam Mission remained small, its work limited, until the Rev. Jonathan Wilson Family and the Rev. Daniel McGilvary arrived in June 1858. Their arrival marked an important transition period not only for the Siam Mission but also for the possibility of a northern mission. In September, the mission founded the Siam Presbytery to govern its still unborn churches. The year 1861 marked another important turning point for the Siam Mission and all mission work in the country. In June, the mission sent the McGilvarys and the recently arrived McFarlands off to open the first station outside of Bangkok at Phet Buri.

Although the Siam Mission had few converts to show for its first twenty- five years, it accomplished a stability and growth of activities at a time when the only other Bangkok missions were already in decline. It laid the first foundations for the Siamese church and the base upon which the history of the Laos Mission and its churches was built.

Close Encounters

Although the Presbyterians founded missionary work in the North, the vision for that work began with Dr. Bradley, the premier first generation missionary in Siam. He came to know of the northern Thai through delegations that came down frequently and lodged at a temple near his compound. The northern Thai intrigued him, and he went out of his way to make their acquaintance. (6) Others in missionary circles were also aware of these strangers from the North. House expressed the first Presbyterian interest in them in 1854, and he recorded the first expression of a desire to fund a "Laos" Mission." (7) But it was Bradley who seems to have been most influential in setting the direction towards Chiang Mai.

There is little wonder that the northern Thai, a people the missionaries knew little about and even the extent to which escaped them, intrigued Bradley and others. The six northern principalities were only loosely related to Siam. Centuries earlier they composed a strong union, the Lan Na Kingdom, which was a center of Southeast Asian Buddhist culture and militarily strong enough to seriously threaten the Siamese kingdoms on its southern border. The power of the Lan Na Kingdom came to an end and its culture rapidly deteriorated when most of the region fell under the Burmese. Only in the early nineteenth century did the Lan Na states, now tributary to Bangkok, begin to emerge from the chaos of two hundred years of war and revolution. Chiang Mai led the emergence and remained the central and strongest of the states, something more than just the first among equals, but still a dependent of Siam. It was, however, a distant dependency. The power of the Siamese King in the region was limited, and the Chao Muang of states like Chiang Mai and Nan had considerable freedom, particularly in internal matters. Only a handful of Europeans had ever traveled to Chiang Mai.

Early missionary interest in the northern Thai focused on Phet Buri, south of Bangkok, where there resided people who were, apparently, ethnic northern Thai. In 1859, Bradley visited a number of those northern Thai villages, and the fact that they did not practice Buddhism and resembled the Karens particularly struck Bradley. His appetite for a northern Thai mission increased. He experimented with printing the distinctive northern Thai alphabet and in about 1860 produced the first known example of northern Thai printing, a brief tract. At some point, probably also in 1860, he formally requested funds for the establishment of a Laos Mission from his supporting board, but the Rev. George Whipple, of the American Missionary Association, replied with a regretful but firm. "No." There were no funds available. (8) Bradley did not give up, and it was he who interested the eventual founder of northern missions, McGilvary, in the northern Thai.

Daniel McGilvary, Bradley's son-in-law, was born into a rigid, devout Scottish Presbyterian family in Moore County, North Carolina on 16 May 1828. He grew up in strict surroundings in which religion always played a central part. After teaching for a period, McGilvary attended Princeton Theological Seminary where he came under the influence of Dr. Charles Hodge, a strong supporter of foreign missions. While there, he and another young seminarian, Jonathan Wilson, met and spoke with Dr. House who convinced them to consider joining the Siam Mission. After graduation, McGilvary went back to North Carolina and served as a pastor for one year, then applied for the Siam mission field, and along with the Wilson family arrived in Bangkok in 1858. (9)

Interest in the northern Thai turned into a family affair when McGilvary married Sophia Royce Bradley on 6 December 1860. The couple even used their wedding as an occasion for involvement with the northern Thai. Since the Chao Muang of Chiang Mai, Kawilorot, was in town, the newly weds sent over a piece of wedding cake to him, and the following day he repaid the compliment with a visit, it was the first meeting between two men who would come to know each other all too well. Meanwhile, the Siam Mission sought to take advantage of the invitation of local officials in Phet Buri to open that station. It fell to the McGilvarys and the McFarlands to open the station, and McGilvary reported that one reason far his keen interest in Phet Buri was the northern Thais there. (10)

By this time, it was clear that McGilvary's classmate from Princeton, Wilson, would also be involved in starting a "Laos Mission", if and when that day came. Thus, Wilson joined McGilvary on a survey trip to the northern cities of Lampang, Lamphun, and Chiang Mai. They left Bangkok on 20 November 1863 and reached Chiang Mai on 7 January 1864. The Chao Muang was on a trip to Bangkok (they had missed him on the river), but the two missionaries were very cordially welcomed by the high officials of Chiang Mai who assured them that they would be just as well received if they decided to live in Chiang Mai. McGilvary commented that Bradley's long-standing friendship with the Chao Muang helped them not a little. (11)

McGilvary and Wilson spent only ten days in Chiang Mai, returning to Bangkok on 6 February 1864. (12) McGilvary then wrote enthusiastic letters to the Board describing not only what he had seen but also the wonderful opportunity awaiting the Board in Chiang Mai. The ideas and the language of these letters find their place in the long tradition of correspondence from the field describing the great prospects of some new goal in the North replete with resounding calls to Move Forward! The door is open, McGilvary wrote, and it is God's time. We must depend upon the "divine agency" and trust in God. He urged that Chiang Mai was a distinctly Presbyterian responsibility. It was a special calling for the Presbyterians alone... It is a special opening! How can we let this opportunity pass? A nation, a race is waiting for us! How often northern missionaries in later years wrote in nearly this same way: Always the urgency, the pleas that this, this! is the time... God is calling.' Give us permission! Hurry! As in later cases so now, the ones calling for expansion acknowledged that limiting factors existed, considerations that might make the Board hesitate and then still issued a clarion call for Trust in God. In his request for the Board's sanction for Chiang Mai, McGilvary wrote in this same way. (13)

That sanction came in September 1864, but so did one problem after another. Sophia McGilvary was ill for a good part of the year. There were problems with lack of funding and of personnel. Wilson returned to the United States after both his wife and daughter died. Two years passed. (14)

Things finally came together in late August and early September of 1866. Wilson returned from his furlough; and he went to visit McGilvary in Phet Buri to consult on the proposed Laos Mission. He brought with him news that Kawilorot, again in Bangkok, had been suddenly called back to Chiang Mai and was about to leave. Since McGilvary knew that everything depended upon Kawilorot's permission, he flew off to Bangkok and spent a whirlwind, exciting week consulting with Kawilorot, Siamese officials, the U.S. Consul, and his mission colleagues. At the end of that week, he had permission from everyone concerned to go as soon as possible after the rains stopped to open the "Laos Mission". (15) Presbyterian work in Chiang Mai was about to begin.

Getting Started

Hot. Dusty. Chiang Mai in April: the heat clings to the land... no comfort.. at night or in the shade..no getting away from the heat anywhere. The two older McGilvarys and their two small children landed in Chiang Mai on the third of April to live in a crowded little guest sala (rest house) in the hottest month of the year. Chiang Mai in 1867 was weeks away from "civilization", an outpost of the old Asia. The McGilvarys became her first permanent Western residents, and heat was not their only problem. Milling crowds of silent, gawking visitors for months and months swarmed around the tiny open sala. People watched them eat; listened to them talk; watched them at prayer. They had precious little privacy even a year later.

Daniel McGilvary

Although the constant attention must have weighed upon them, the missionary couple also relished this attention because it gave them an opportunity to talk with the people, to engage them in conversations that often led around to the topic of religion. They spent hours and hours in conversations. McGilvary practiced what medicine he could. They also visited and received visits from the Chaos and even the Chao Muang himself. Everywhere they were well received, and what appeared to be a hopeful and auspicious beginning was made in those first months in Chiang Mai. (16)

The excitement of those early months was soon tainted by a growing uncertainty in the McGilvary's relationship with the Chao Muang. Kawilorot was widely respected and feared as a capable but sometimes unpredictable despot who ruled his land with a firm hand. Without his support, the new mission could not have been started, and without his support, it could not continue. By the end of the year, McGilvary reported to New York that Kawilorot appeared to be less supportive than at first. He had acquired an anti-missionary Portuguese advisor who went out of his way to influence his patron to hold the same attitude. McGilvary surmised that he lost some of the Chao Muang's support when one of his grandchildren died after having been inoculated by McGilvary. (17) In light of later events, we may also assume that the Chao Muang had not expected that his people would respond so favorably to the presence of these foreigners. He observed that in Bangkok people showed little interest in the foreign religion of the missionaries. The first Siamese convert being won only after some thirty years of effort. His own people responded very differently.

That difference became more-and-more clear throughout 1867 and into 1869. There would never again be such a hopeful, exciting time in the history of missionary work in northern Thailand. In February 1868, the Wilsons arrived, and in April, as a symbol of their hope, the missionaries established the first church in northern Thailand. Although no one had yet converted at the time, the prospects were bright. By September 1868, Kawilorot became friendlier again (at least outwardly) to the missionaries, and he even selected a site for the mission compound. Sophia McGilvary held a regular Sandy afternoon class of a group of women interested in the new faith, and McGilvary found an increasingly warm response to his medical skills. Most important of all, a "tall, comely, earnest" man with a "taste for scientific information" was close to converting. (18)

He did, in fact, convert. Nan Inta spent many hours in conversation with the McGilvarys about both religion and the wider world. The things he heard were attractive to him, but what most impressed him was when McGilvary correctly predicted an eclipse in August 1868. That prediction called into question all of his own beliefs about the world, and after much personal struggle and serious thought Nan Inta became a Christian. Since he was a well-known and widely respected man with a reputation for sincerity in searching for truth, popular interest in the new religion redoubled with his conversion, especially as he was also a relative of the royal family. (19)

Sophia McGilvary

The new year, 1869, opened with great hope for the mission. The history of the church in northern Siam began on the first Sunday of 1869, January third, when Nan Inta received baptism. At that time, at least two members of the royal family also showed serious interest in Christianity, and other converts were on the way. (20) In May, Noi Sunya [In recent years, Noi Sunya's name has been widely written as "Suriya," a central Thai form. In most of the records of the period, his name is written as "Sunya," and older Christians still pronounce his name in that way.] and Nai ("Mr.") Boon Ma were baptized. In June, Saen (an official rank) Ya Wichai was also baptized, and two months later, in August, another three converts-Nan Chai, Pu Sang, and Noi Kanta -all received baptism.

Along with Nan Inta, three of these last six converts came from what we might consider the "middle class" of Chiang Mai society. Noi Sunya was a well-known traditional doctor and the chief herdsman for the Chao Muang's cattle herds. Saen Ya Wichai served as a government officer, lived several days' travel north of Chiang Maim and was a client of the Chao Muang of Lamphun. Years later. McGilvary wrote that in point of time Saen Ya Wichai actually accepted the Gospel before even Nan Inta, and McGilvary honored him with the title, "the first Laos believer." Nan Chai was a widely respected Buddhist scholar and a former abbot of a temple who gave up his paid position as caretaker of a temple in order to join the church. (21) Thus, four of the first seven converts were men of position and influence. People knew them, and their conversions gained increased respect for the new religion.

McGilvary and Wilson began to make definite plans for the expansion of the church in northern Siam. Among other things, they asked the Siam Presbytery in Bangkok, nominally the supervising body for their Chiang Mai church, for permission to start churches without having to wait for prior permission from the presbytery, which met only yearly in distant Bangkok. (22) The mission in Chiang Mai expected a great influx into the new faith to take place shortly, and as a further step anticipating that growth, the mission prepared a course of study to train some of the converts for the ordained ministry. The course was to start in October 1869. At the same time, Noi Sunya planned to start a second church in his village a few miles outside of Chiang Mai. (23)

In just a little over two years, the Chiang Mai mission accomplished far more than the Siam Mission in Bangkok had achieved in twenty long years. The McGilvarys and Wilsons expected great things to happen. Thus, when they heard a rumor in September 1869 that the Chao Muang was laying plans to move against the tiny Christian community they discounted the talk as nothing more than "silly rumor." (24)


At least one other person agreed with the McGilvarys and Wilsons that Christianity was on the verge of making serious inroads into traditional religion in Chiang Mai. Kawilorot. We cannot be certain about his thoughts in the months prior to September 1869, but it is quite likely that McGilvary commented on the matter correctly: Kawilorot feared the loss of the old order and his own power. Christianity represented a new set of beliefs and allegiances, which questioned the supremacy of traditional beliefs and allegiances. Kawilorot must have followed with no little concern the problems Nan Inta's patron experienced after Nan Inta became a Christian/ In late January 1869, the patron called him for service, a traditional and mandatory obligation on the part of a client. On this occasion, Nan Inta politely refused to go because it was a Sunday. He could not work on the Sabbath and remain a Christian. The patron did not make an issue of the matter and allowed Nan Inta to makeup the work on another day. However, after this incident was repeated and the patron found that he could not call his client to work on a Sunday, the patron began to grumble. (26)

The right of the patron to call his client to serve him was fundamental to the social structure of Chiang Mai. The corv�e labor system replaced taxation as the means by which the authorities secured their power. Nan Inta demonstrated that his new allegiance and faith meant more to him than the traditional system to which he had previously adhered. This must have been an ominous development to Kawilorot, made even more dangerous because foreigners known to be friendly to Bangkok promoted the idea. As an astute ruler, Kawilorot could not have missed the ramifications and potential dangers inherent in the popularity of Christianity.

How clearly the missionaries understood the threat they posed to the ruling powers is hard to tell. The evidence suggests that they did not understand the seriousness of the situation they created nearly as fully as did one of the converts, namely Nan Chai. In fact, in the first ten days or so of September 1869 things seemed to be going very well. Early in the month, Nan Chai applied to the daughter of the Chao Muang to receive him as her client since he had left temple employment and needed a legal patron. McGilvary went with him when he made the application, and he was closely examined by the Chao regarding his beliefs. The missionaries remembered the communion shared on the following Sunday, 5 September 1869, as a particularly happy occasion; all of the converts were present and everything seemed bright and hopeful.

But the future was not really so bright after all. On that Sunday, the first hints of rumors reached the missionaries that the Chao Muang planned to take action against the converts. Still, they did not expect any violence, especially since the rumors indicated only that the converts would be forced into exile. Such an exile might even provide an opportunity to spread the Gospel to new places. Less optimistic than the missionaries, Nan Chai grew more-and-more depressed as the early days of September passed. Nothing that the missionaries said lifted him from his despondency. On Saturday, 11 September 1869, he came into Chiang Mai to receive the papers that made him legally a client of the daughter of Kawilorot, and he paid the traditional three rupees required. This should have pleased him since it meant that he was now under her protection, but he continued to feel depressed.

That very day, the 11th, Nan Chai received word from his wife that the head man (ka ban) to his village wanted to see him immediately about collecting a piece of timber for the city wall that was required of everyone in the village. Nan Chai received the message during the evening, and early the next morning, the 12th, he rushed off through flood-swollen streams and muddied paths to his village, Mae Pu Kha, without even waiting to attend worship. After he arrived home at about noontime, further word came that he should go see the district headman (nai kwan) and collect his friend Noi Sunya on the way. Noi Sunya refused to go. Although they lived within a mile of each other, they had different village headmen, and Noi Sunya's headman had not been the one to summon him. Thus, Nan Chai went on alone, and after meeting, the district headman returned home. It was already evening, and the district headman did not have time to call Noi Sunya through "proper channels."

The next morning, Monday, 13 September 1869, an armed party marched off to fetch the two Christians. Immediately after the party seized Nan Chai, his wife ran to report to the missionaries, but as she approached the mission compound an agent of her village headman stopped her and warned her that if she saw the missionaries she would be killed. She returned. Faced with an armed party, Noi Sunya and his large family immediately understood what would happen and shared in a tearful parting.

When the Christians arrived at the district headman's home, they immediately suffered an examination regarding their beliefs. They were both asked if they had entered the "foreigners' religion" to which both replied that they had. The authorities then bound them in a particularly painful way and examined them further. In the process, Nan Chai was kicked in the eye, causing it to swell up and bleed. They remained bound without relief through the rest of the day and all of that night. Nan Chai's wife appeared and spent time with him, but they could only converse in fits and snatches as the guards prevented anything more. Nan Chai told her that if the missionaries knew their situation the two converts would not be killed. At one point, he also begged the guards not to hurt the employees of the missionaries, as none of them were Christians.

The next morning, 14 September 1869, their captors took the two Christians into the jungle. Nan Chai died at the first blow of the executioner's club. Noi Sunya finally had to be stabbed with a spear thrust before he died.

The McGilvarys and Wilsons had no idea of what was going on. They had been lulled into a false sense of security by the Chao Muang when he left on a three-week "fishing trip." In fact, he went to Lamphun to convince the Chao Muang there to execute Saen Ya Wichai. He escaped that fate only at the behest of his immediate patron who passed him off as an ignoramus who did not understand what he was doing when he became a Christian. But the missionaries knew none of this. They did know something was wrong when the personal servants of both families deserted them on the night of 13 September (Monday). But, for two weeks afterwards they had only conjecture to go on as no one dared tell them anything.

The weeks after that were filled with fear and uncertainty for the two mission families. Rumors flew, one of them having it that a most trusted servant of the mission was executed along with his entire family while en route to Bangkok on mission business The missionaries feared for their own lives and identified their situation with that of the Jewish exiles of the Old Testament whose nation was destroyed and who were carried off into exile in Babylon. McGilvary wrote, "It has been a time of the hiding of God's face. We have had to hang out harps on the willows-to weep when we remember our former years." (27) The Christian community was scattered. The servants had fled. The highest authority in the land was moving against them in the security of his own near-absolute power. The whole future of the mission hung in the balance.

Round Two (28)

The mission families lived in a state of suspense and uncertainty for over two months. Outwardly, they carried on as if nothing had happened, and they did not discuss their fears even in front of their children. They felt the sympathetic support of a number of friends in Chiang Mai including the abbot of a temple and some members of royalty. But the uncertainty remained. In the meantime, they sent word of their situation to the mission community in Bangkok where Bradley and members of the Presbyterian mission immediately arranged a conference with the Regent. The Regent agreed to send a special delegation headed by a "Commissioner" (ka luang) to accompany any missionaries who might want to go to Chiang Mai. The Siam Mission selected The Revs. N.A. McDonald and S.C. George to go.

The Chiang Mai missionaries knew nothing about these arrangements until they had word in late November 1869 that a royal delegation and two foreigners had reached Lamphun and were on their way to Chiang Mai. They arrived in the late afternoon of the next day. The Siamese Commissioner carried with him a royal letter addressed to Kawilorot, and arrangements for an audience were quickly made.

28 November 1869. 9:00 AM. Prior to the appointed time for the audience, the Chiang Mai missionaries and their two Bangkok colleagues met for a strategy planning session at which they agreed that the entire matter of the executions had to be brought out into the open no matter what the consequences. With that resolve, they marched off with the procession led by the royal letter to meet with Kawilorot. The audience began quietly enough although McDonald, whom McGilvary called a "naturally timid man," felt that Kawilorot looked pale with suppressed rage. However, when he read the royal letter, there was little of consequence in it; it ordered him to allow the missionaries to stay in Chiang Mai or to leave as they saw fit, and to facilitate their staying or leaving. He was ordered to not harm them.

McDonald then spoke up saying that although the Chao Muang had originally given permission for the missionaries to come to Chiang Mai and had at first received them cordially; more lately there had been some "problems." He mentioned the fact that the servants had all run away and, again, that the missionaries had unsuccessfully sought workers for building their homes. Kawilorot retained his easy manner, replying that he had done nothing to cause these difficulties. He did mention that there had been a couple of recalcitrant slaves executed recently. They disobeyed orders to bring timber to help repair the city wall. With this, Kawilorot prepared to withdraw.

McGilvary could not allow that. He quickly spoke up, accusing the Chao Muang of not telling the truth and of having murdered the two Christians for no other reason than their religion. He charged the Chao Muang with knowing that very few others had brought in their timbers by the time the Christians were killed. In fact, many had not even yet brought in the required timbers.

Kawilorot exploded in rage. In his position of supreme power, few dared speak to him in this manner. Angrily, he declared that he had, indeed, ordered the two Christians executed because of their religion. If anyone dared become a Christian again, he would have him or her executed too. The new religion was treasonous. The missionaries could stay on in Chiang Mai only if they stopped teaching Christianity. It must have been a towering rage, because both McDonald and the Commissioner feared that Kawilorot would attack the missionaries physically. Kawilorot withdrew. The audience ended.

McDonald, George, and Wilson agreed (as did the Commissioner and all of the Chiang Mai friends of the missionaries) that the Chiang Mai mission could not continue, as the situation was much too insecure with Kawilorot so angry. McGilvary did not agree, but he allowed the others to send a message to Kawilorot that the two mission families would leave within a few months. They sent the same message down river to the Siam Mission in Bangkok. Wilson later went to McGilvary urging that they reestablish the Chiang Mai Station at Tak on the boundary between Siam proper and the northern States. McGilvary thought that was a very good idea-for the Wilsons. The McGilvarys were not yet ready to leave Chiang Mai.

Not long after this heated confrontation at the palace, Kawilorot began to prepare for one of his months' long trips to Bangkok. In a surprisingly cordial final audience, Kawilorot assured McGilvary he could remain in Chiang Mai at least until Kawilorot returned. McGilvary assumed that this cordial attitude had something to do with his own boldness at the first audience; and, in any event, he gained what he wanted most, namely time. McDonald and George, however, returned to Bangkok convinced that the Chiang Mai mission was ended.

Kawilorot followed them down to Bangkok. During his stay, the United States Consul did everything in his power to intervene with the Siamese government on behalf of the mission in Chiang Mai. He repeatedly asked the government to force Kawilorot to give assurances that he would not harm the missionaries. As it turned out, Kawilorot was quite ill. The Siamese government did not want to "bother" him and. instead, discussed the matter with the "Second King" (maha upharat) of Chiang Mai who was known to be friendly with the missionaries. At one point, the Bangkok government decided to call the missionaries back down to Bangkok to examine their case. However, the American Consul reminded the government that the missionaries were the victims not the perpetrators of the events in Chiang Mai. He also reminded the government that if it could not protect American citizens in Chiang Mai, it would have serious difficulties with the American government, No recall was ordered. (29)

Finally, still very ill, Kawilorot left for Chiang Mai. He never reached the city, dying virtually under its walls in late June 1870. The Chiang Mai mission was saved.

The Blood of the Martyrs

In the midst of all of these momentous events and even before his confrontation with Kawilorot, McGilvary wrote in early November 1869 of certain prospective converts and of his conviction that, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." (30) In more recent times, McGilvary's statement of faith in the midst of turmoil has become something of a semi-sacrosanct truism among Protestant Christians in Thailand. Such belief gives an aura of association with the persecution of the early church and a flavor of awe-inspiring sacredness to what was, in fact, a bloody and lawless but very effective suppression of the Christian religion in Chiang Mai. The events of the martyrdom of Nan Chai and Not Sunya and subsequent developments as they actually took place suggest that a serious re-evaluation of those events needs to be made.

First, the oppression of the Christians in 1869 and the political pressure put on them for years afterwards wrought a fundamental change in who was willing to become a Christian and measurably reduced the spiritual content of conversion. Four of the first seven converts to Christianity were men who already had a secure place in their society. Others of equal status showed serious interest. McGilvary and Wilson started preparations for much larger numbers of conversions because of relatively important members of Chiang Mai society having already joined the new faith.

Thus, we must observe that the murder of these two Christians had a strong effect on who became Christians. Whereas prior to September 1869, converts were being drawn from the "middle" and "middle high" as well as lower classes, after 1869 the vast majority of converts came from the distressed lower classes and converted more for social than spiritual reasons. The later converts were most often people accused of demon possession or seriously and chronically ill individuals healed by missionary medicine. They often showed little concern with spiritual growth after they had become Christians. (31)

Second, Kawilorot put an end to any possibility of a mass movement to Christianity taking place. By this one cruel act taken before the Christian movement had grown large enough to absorb the impact of persecution, Kawilorot shattered its gathering momentum. In this case, the "blood of the martyrs" did not lead to further conversions but rather to a scattering of the Christians and an end to any church growth for nearly a decade. From this time onward, Christianity was the religion of the foreigners and never attracted more than a tiny fraction of the total population. Considerable weight must be given to this second point in light of what appeared to have been happening before September 1869.

Third, these events led to a change in the relationship between the missionaries and the Christian community. Before 1869, the two mission families lived in relatively humble surroundings much like those of the people themselves and closer to the people than in later years. Living in the circumstances they did, they had not yet become the power figures that they soon would be. The mission had relatively little political pull and attracted people more often out of a genuine concern for religious beliefs than for more mundane reasons.

Here we must note the importance of the audience of November 1869 in changing the missionaries' status in society and their relationship with the church. When McGilvary called Kawilorot a liar, he challenged the most powerful figure of the old order, and did so successfully. At the same time, the Bangkok government demonstrated a certain degree of concern for and willingness to back these foreign missionaries. Thus, the McGilvarys and the Wilsons allied themselves to the growing power of Slam. As time passed, the missionaries enhanced their own status by acquiring large tracts of land, building impressive homes, and hiring considerable numbers of servants. While the Christian "movement" languished, the prestige and the status of the mission grew. As we will see, in later years the missionaries took their place in the highest levels of society and became, for all practical purposes, the real patrons of the converts. In a society sensitive to hierarchical relationships, the mission and the church could not be equal, not when most converts came from the margins of society and the missionaries stood in the top most rungs of that same social system.

Fourth, Kawilorot succeeded in delaying the development of a Christian community for a decade even as he succeeded in destroying the attractiveness of the new faith for those with a stake in society. This decade-long delay further changed the relationship between the mission and the church. The mission worked with churches that grew only slowly in a social situation that discouraged growth. Significant growth in numbers came only after the mission was well established.

An entirely different kind of church might have emerged in the North if Kawilorot had not moved against the church so quickly and decisively. Since the mission consisted of only two families and significant reinforcements were years away, the mission would have had to rely much more heavily on indigenous leadership. Indeed, it was preparing to do so. It could not have dominated the churches as it later did. Nor would there have been the time to create a system of church life and government so dependent on the mission itself. It is likely that instead of the mission-focused church that actually came into being the Christian movement might have became a church-focused one.

In conclusion, then, we are struck by a number of observations. Kawilorot in fact, took decisive and effective action to secure his power in the face of the threat of the new religion. He stopped the spread of Christianity, killed some of its best leaders, and destroyed the attractiveness of the alternative faith. He did all of this before the church grew large enough to embrace martyrdom as a means of strengthening the faith. The martyrs did not become the seed of the church.

On the other hand, Christianity before September 1869 had the potential to expand rapidly in northern Siam. It became a sufficiently potent threat to drive Kawilorot to quash it. Something in the unpretentious presentation of the new religion by the mission in its first years caused a growing number of people to withdraw from traditional religion and identify with the new faith.

Finally, then, we must observe that Kawilorot brought a serious change to the course of northern Thai church history. It was an unmitigated disaster for the church, which it has not recovered from to this day. The events of September and November 1869 have shaped the modern church in the North more than any other events because they literally changed the way the church began.

And one of the reasons that Kawilorot's action against the emerging church proved to be so effective was because the repression of the church in Chiang Mai and other parts of the North did not end with his death.

Table of Contents

Chapter 2
The Hard Years (1870-1889)

The two decades from 1870 to 1889 marked a new era for the Laos Mission in which the mission found itself facing an entirely changed situation. The mission did not just have to start over. It had to start over in a much more hostile environment. Whatever attraction Christianity had in-and-of-itself as an alternative faith was considerably muted not only by Kawilorot's decisive act of repression but also by the increasingly clear alliance between the missionaries and other forces for modernization and "centralization" (of Bangkok's power) in the North. The struggle of the church to find a place in the traditional northern society was linked to the larger processes of modernization and centralization. Traditional society resisted the church just as it tried to resist other agents of modernization since they meant an end to the fully integrated way of life of traditional society.

Indeed, the spread of a system of faith alternative to that of the traditional society threatened the very heart of a society in which all facets of life inseparably integrated themselves with the religious faith of society. Traditional society allowed for only one system of faith, one so intimately connected to the rest of life that it functioned as the unquestioned ground for society and culture. One could not participate in the society fully or meaningfully without being rooted in that ground. An alternative system of faith immediately threatened all facets of social and political life including the systems of allegiance and power. Kawilorot understood the nature of the threat Christianity posed, and in the years after 1869 political and religious leaders as well as the people in a number of localities continued to resist Christianity, often quite openly and on a few occasions violently. Their resistance formed part of the larger struggle to maintain traditional structures, habits, and patterns in the face of modernization and centralization. (1)

Aftermath 1870-1875

In one sense, very little actually happened in the years immediately after Kawilorot's persecution of the Christian community. The Laos Mission spent its time simply trying to regain its balance. However, on a deeper level these six years were important just because the mission did begin to regain its balance. Patterns of administration and activity emerged, developing quietly into quasi-traditions that greatly influenced the whole shape and direction of the Laos Mission and her churches.

The small congregation created before September 1869 ceased to exist in any meaningful way in this period. Of the five Christians still living, only Nan Inta and Saen Ya Wichai associated with the missionaries, but Saen Ya Wichai lived near Chiang Rai and seldom saw them. In April 1872, Nan Ta (not to be confused with the clergyman of a decade later) converted and was baptized. In December 1872, another three men received baptism even though they did not especially please Wilson with the level of their understanding of Christianity. (2) However, two soon died, and by the end of 1873 there were only four Christians, all male. This situation continued through the end of 1875. (3)

In the absence of a meaningful Christian community, the mission carried on with its work. There were seven aspects of that work that I will comment on briefly here in the context of this period. Each aspect is important because it marked the emergence of a formative pattern of attitude or activity in the life of the northern Thai church

First, the mission believed that the animist/Buddhist faith of traditional society was "idolatrous" and therefore an affront to the holiness and majesty of God. (4) Since traditional faith sat at the core of all social life, this attitude meant that the missionaries felt alienated from northern Thai society and sought to alienate their converts from that society as well.

Second, the handful of converts themselves experienced continuing difficulties in their social relationships, especially within their families, because they did become alienated from their society when they converted. Family tensions became particularly acute in times of crisis. In 1873 Nan Ta and Lung (Uncle) Doong, two of the six remaining converts, both fell ill. Their families put great pressure on each of them to renounce their religion and seek healing from the spirits. Nan Ta gave in while Lung Doong refused. Both died. The following year one of the four remaining Christians suffered suspension from worship because he too participated in spirit propitiation. (5) These first converts found themselves in a particularly difficult position because they had no larger Christian community to help them adjust to their social isolation.

Third, we know surprisingly little about the daily relationships between the converts and the missionaries in this period, but what little we do know reveals evidence of another pattern. Nan Inta, the leading member of the few remaining converts, effectively shifted his client status from a traditional patron to the missionaries by becoming employed by them and by being under their instruction. He worked for the mission as a language teacher and a translator, in 1874 he traveled to Bangkok where the Siam Presbytery took him "under care" in preparation for ordination into the ministry. He never attained that status, but on 10 April 1875 the Chiang Mai Church elected him as the first northern Thai elder. (6) The pattern of the mission employing the best leadership of the church as mission assistants was, thus, anticipated in the early 1870s.

Four, the Laos Mission began to create the northern Thai church in the image of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. with all of the organizational and theological implications that meant. The mission emphasized legal forms, procedures, and concerns by which the various governing bodies of the church functioned as "courts." This system of Presbyterian polity expected church members to adhere to certain standards of conduct. When they failed to do so, the ruling body of the local church, the Session, called them before it to present their case and be judged. (7)

Fifth, the Laos Mission perceived the church as an evangelistic agency for the conversion of northern Siam. (8) This untested assumption about what the church should be affected the structure of leadership and the focus of activity of the church in later years. At heart, the mission assumed that the northern Thai church should take as its model the mission itself.

Sixth, certain organizational weaknesses hampered the mission's ability to work effectively with the church. The first reinforcement for the tiny mission, Dr. Charles W. Vrooman, arrived in 1872, but he stayed only for a short time before resigning in discouragement. The McGilvarys left for their first furlough in early 1873 and did not return until February 1875. The Wilsons were both ill, and Wilson himself had to give much of his time to overseeing mission construction work. (9) Discouragement, furloughs, illness, and property and financial concerns limited the time the mission had for work with the churches. One of the most serious weaknesses of the mission was its lack of organizational continuity.

Finally, this period saw the first missionary tour of exploration. In April 1872, McGilvary and Vrooman toured Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang, Nan, and Phrae to survey the extent of their "Laos" field. (10) These trips established yet another pattern by which the expansionist ideology of the Laos Mission actually determined the geographical situation of the northern Thai churches, not only where they were placed but also how scattered they were.

In trying to understand the birth and development of the northern Thai church, the significance of the structures and activities of the Laos Mission itself cannot be overlooked. Nor can the fact that those patterns of structure and activity did not develop out of a stated plan be forgotten. The mission and, consequently, the churches did not emerge as a rational organization but rather came into being willy-nilly is a complex of ill-defined, contradictory attempt to deal haphazardly with problems as they arose.

Jonathan Wilson


Although the church in the North never actually recovered from the hammer blow dealt to it in 1869, it did begin to revive after 1875. Gradually, the nearly hopeless situation of the tiny group of Christians shifted as in ones, two, and threes new converts joined them. Thus, the five years from 1876 through 1880 marked the rebirth of an active Christian community.

A significant moment in this gradual rebirth came in January 1876 when Pa (Aunt) Kammol, wife of Noi Sunya, and Mae (Mother) Noo, a former mission employee, joined the church. (11) Until this time, all of the converts had been men. In September 1876, another three women including one girl of seventeen also joined, as did Nan Inta's daughter in November. At the end of the year, another four men received baptism, and the church then numbered fourteen members. Among the ten new members was Noi Aliya, the first convert living inside the city walls of Chiang Mai. Nearly all of these new converts had been patients in Dr. Marion Cheek's small, makeshift hospital, which he started after his arrival in 1875. Most of them, including the women, learned to read Siamese at the hospital in order to read the Siamese Christian literature there, since the mission had nothing prepared in northern Thai. Thus, by the end of 1876 a Christian community began to take form, one that included both sexes and families.

Yet, the gravitational pull of the vastly larger traditional society still weighed heavily on the community. The missionaries sitting with Nan Inta as the Session of the Chiang Mal Church finally reinstated Noi Chai, convicted of "complicity with spirit worship" to full membership after two years. In early December 1876, Ma Noo suffered suspension from communion for the same charge of "complicity with spirit worship". McGilvary felt that in spite of extenuating circumstances in her case he had to make an example of her for the sake of the other members of the church. (12)

None suffered for her conversion more than Pa Kammol. Her brother, head of her extended family, demanded that she make offerings to the family spirits. She refused. The brother then called a family conference and in a violent, forceful manner threatened to take Pa Kammol's "case" to the Chao Muang. She still refused to make an offering, but she did seek a compromise with the brother whereby she would pay the family one lump sum of money to free herself from any obligations to pay the spirit fees. (13) In effect, conversion to Christianity forced Pa Kammol into having to try to buy her way out of the traditional social system.

As the church grew, the Laos Mission had to begin creating a church program and a set of activities for its life. In the absence of a methodological approach to "church planting" in non-Western cultures, the mission tried to recreate a fundamentally American-style church in the North. That is, the mission simply tried to transplant to northern Siam the church institutions of the missionaries' own childhood and culture.

The first activity the mission engaged in after the beginning of the rebirth in early 1876 was the building of a small, temporary chapel on a corner of the mission compound. This chapel, however, did not satisfy McGilvary. He wrote the Board in New York that the mission needed a substantial brick building planned by an architect and seating 300-350 people. In later years, the mission used church buildings as a means of demonstrating that the church was "here to stay" and had a "substantial" presence, (see Chapter 7) Even at this time, McGilvary linked the need for a solid, permanent building to the fact that the church lacked stability. (14)

In November 1876, the mission started the first Sunday school for the church. It taught Siamese literacy and the Shorter Catechism, which is the traditional Presbyterian compendium of basic Christian doctrines. Literacy, particularly Siamese literacy, developed into an unofficial litmus test of the desirability of converts seeking admission into the church. Those who could already read northern Thai and/or showed a willingness to learn Siamese were deemed more acceptable as members. The missionaries assumed that these individuals had more intelligence and showed more initiative, traits valued for church membership by the mission. (15)

The emergence of Christian families led to the first infant baptisms on 7 January 1877 when Ootta. Kan Kao, and Kam Ai-children of Noi Wong and grandchildren of Nan Inta-received the sacrament. That same Sunday marked the beginning of the first "Week of Prayer' in the history of the northern Thai church. (16) Slowly, then, patterns of the future took shape in the development of church life in 1876-1877.

The situation of the church at this time was much like that of a small satellite launched at great expense from its parent body. The satellite orbited around the parent body in a precarious balance between its own inertia and the gravitational pull of the planet. Its tendency to fall back down into the gravitational well of the planet had to be resisted by counter-balancing force. Northern Thai society acted like a huge Jupiter-sized planet to the tiny Christian satellite, always the "problem" the church had to face, the point of reference for its life, and the gravitational well into which disinterested, disaffected, or disinclined members and potential members might fall.

Like other converts, Lung Tooi felt the gravitational pull of the larger society with particular force. In April 1877, a Chiang Mai chao ordered Lung Tooi to go into the fields and help build a small shanty on a Sunday. The chao warned him in advance that if he did not show up on that day he would go to jail. Lung Tool waited until Sunday afternoon and went at the last possible moment he could and still avoid jail. That way he had also been able to attend worship. Nevertheless, the Session of the church called him to task for having violated the Sabbath as well as on charges of having participated in spirit worship in his home. Lung Tool denied the latter charges, arguing that his family had held spirit services in his home, that he had tried unsuccessfully to prevent the services, and that he had left the house when they took place. The Session dismissed that charge.

However, on the previous charge of violating the Sabbath, Lung Tool admitted what he had done and explained his predicament. The Session pointed out to him that he had violated divine law by breaking the Sabbath and that he should fear breaking that law much more than breaking merely human civil laws. Visibly shaken at the prospect of being suspended from the church, Lung Tool seemed deeply repentant, and the Session decided to be lenient in his case. It took no action against him. (17) It required no small amount of skill for men like Lung Tool, an illiterate farmer, and Pa Kammol, a widow, to conform to the regulations and expectations of the new religion while avoiding tension with and persecution by the traditional structures of society.

Suspicion of the missionaries and their motives was so general in Chiang Mai that the mission did not even reveal to the converts that it kept minutes of the Session's meetings. Most people believed that the mission sent the names of its converts to Bangkok and the United States "to make servants and slaves of them." That impression would only be confirmed, the mission felt, if people knew they kept a record of Session meetings. (18) The populace associated the mission with alien powers and believed that it tried to create a new pattern of patron-client relationships in which it rather than the traditional rulers was lord. The northern Thai Christians were caught in the middle.

The "Edict of Toleration"

Looking back across some forty years of northern Thai church history, McGilvary pointed to the proclamation of the "Edict of Toleration" as an important turning point for the church. It opened up a new era in which the struggle for mere survival ended. (19) Within a few years of the Edict itself, a fundamental misapprehension, a "myth" if you will, grew up in which it was alleged that King Chulalongkorn himself issued the Edict and applied it to the entire nation. People believed it secured the fundamental rights of Christiana to freedom of religion. (20) An examination of events puts the matter into a more modest light.

Those events began when a Christian young couple decided to get married and hold the first Christian marriage in northern Siam They made their plans along with their parents and the missionaries, but when the day came and the wedding guests arrived a serious problem arose. The head of the bride's family refused to give permission for the marriage unless they paid a modest "spirit" fee, the traditional way to legalize a rearrange.

The missionaries appealed to the Siamese Commissioner, but he could only refer them to the Chao Uparat, the "second king" and real power in Chiang Mai. Strongly anti-Christian, he found the whole situation amusing as well as hopeful since Christianity could hardly survive if its young people could not marry. Finally. McGilvary appealed the entire matter to the King in Bangkok

King Chulalongkorn referred the matter back to the Commissioner in Chiang Mai and gave him the authority to issue an edict using whatever language he might choose. The Commissioner issued his edict on 8 October 1878, and the wording of the Edict was very strong. It addressed the leaders and people of the Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Lampang states saying that a person may choose any religion he or she desires. It specifically affirmed that individuals may become a Christian without hindrance and that Christians had the right to observe the Sabbath. Finally, the Edict stated that no one could prevent American citizens from employing whatever help they wanted to hire. (21)

Contrary to what is generally believed, the King did not issue this Edict but only gave his permission for it. He left the actual wording and its strength or weakness, up to the Commissioner. The Edict did not apply even to all of the North, and it is questionable that the Edict in-and-of-itself secured the actual freedom of religion of Christians in the North.

McGilvary argued that the Edict had two main benefits for the church: first of all, it marked the effective end of supreme authority for the Chao Muang of Chiang Mai and the transfer of effective authority to the Siamese officials in Chiang Mai. Secondly, it lifted the morale of the Christian community, which resulted in new growth, particularly in two villages where churches were to be founded in 1880. (22) As these two points suggest, the Edict affected the church more tangentially than directly. It may have helped create an atmosphere ultimately beneficial to the church and given the tiny church a temporary "shot in the arm" in 1876- 1879, but one must treat the idea that the Edict secured the basic rights of the Christians and ushered in a new era more critically.

Contemporary records present a different picture. In July 1880, Wilson commented on two cases of persecution, one in a village and one in which a Chiang Mai chao whipped a slave for attending Christian worship. He concluded that while the Edict was a great event it did not solve every problem. In that same year, another chao threatened a potential convert with a whipping if he converted. (23) In late 1882, only four years after the Edict, the Chao Uparat of Chiang Mai took overt steps towards isolating the missionaries and preventing further conversions. Wilson understood that Bangkok agreed to leave the cases of new converts (for their punishment) entirely in the hands of the Chao Uparat. (24)

The widespread social and political harassment of the Christian community continued for years after the Edict. As late as 1894, the chaos of Lamphun, to which the Edict had been addressed, refused to acknowledge that it bound them in any way. (25) Long before that, the small Christian community in Lampang underwent a period of repression. Indeed, mission records document many instances of repression well into the twentieth century, including a major case in 1889 when the source of the repression was the Siamese Commissioner in Chiang Mai. Although instances did occur in which the Edict effectively ended a persecution of Christians, (26) those instances are not significant in comparison to the widespread harassment that took place throughout the region. The Edict did not bring about a fundamental change in the relationship between the church and the local political structures and society. Indeed, so much attention has been focused on the Edict, a paperish event, that it has been forgotten that the death of the Chao Uparat, the last anti-Christian northern Thai figure of political consequence in Chiang Mal, was what actually brought relief to the Chiang Mai Christians. In and of itself, the Edict amounted to just one more event in the contest of wills between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and one more moment in the development of a larger and more stable Christian community.


Throughout 1877, 1878, and into 1879, the small church grew at a modest rate. In the year ending September l879, it baptized seventeen adults and eleven children. Among those who now joined the growing band of Christians, was a man who had decided in 1869 become a Christian but fled the persecution by Chao Kawilorot and wandered for a decade. Nan Ta was originally a monk in a royal monastery with close connections to Kawilorot when he became interested in Christianity. In January 1879, he returned to the city and came under instruction. (27) In the years to come, Nan Ta would become the first ordained northern Thai cleric and the most important northern Thai church leader, an inheritance from the golden days before September 1869.

At some point either in 1877 or 1878, Sophia McGilvary tried to start a small school for girls. In fact, this small band of "scholars" was more of a class than a school until April 1879 when Mary Campbell and Edna S. Cole arrived and took charge. By October 1879, the two young missionaries had 25 students including ten Christians, and by December they had thirty students and an additional eight or nine boys studying with them. (28) This small girls' school limped along and suffered from a number of changes in missionary administration.

The number of adult baptisms rose from seventeen in 1879 to 39 in 1880, and by the end of the mission year in September 1880 the Laos Mission counted 83 total members in its churches. (29) Before the end of the year, the mission established three congregations: Bethlehem Church (in July), Lampang Church (October), and Mae Dok Daeng Church (on 25 December).

Bethlehem Church

This congregation, named after Wilson's hometown in Pennsylvania, grew out of the work of Nan Inta in his own and surrounding villages. The congregation began with seventeen members drawn from two extended families, and it faced serious opposition in the community even prior to its founding.

Local political leaders, including one official in particular, and neighbors opposed the establishment of a church in their village. After a number of people in the village converted in May 1880, the local people reported their situation to the Chao Muang of Lamphun. He feared that these converts merely sought to escape having to render service to him, and so he ordered them into the jungle on a Sunday to clear land for planting rice. The Christians tried to satisfy both church and state by hiring replacements to report for work on the following Monday. Immediately thereafter, missionaries visited the Chao Muang. Either their presence helped defuse the situation, or it had not been as bad as the Christians thought in the first place. Still, the Christians felt they had been singled out for unusual work only because of their religion. (30)

The congregation elected Man Inta elder of the church, and he served as virtually the pastor of the congregation. The Bethlehem Church remained a weak, small congregation until after the turn of the century.

Lampang Church

The founding and first years of the Lampang Church were tied to the life of a high court official in Lampang, Chao Phya Sihanot. Some twenty years previously (about 1860), the Chao Phya visited Bangkok on official business and met Dr. Bradley. Bradley gave him some books, and he found that he largely accepted the contents of those books. After Chao Phya Sihanot became an important official, he became embroiled in serious legal and financial difficulties, which drove him to Chiang Mai to see the Chao Uparat for advice and assistance. Chao Phya Sihanot encountered McGilvary during this visit, and after about two months, he received baptism on 8 May 1878. In the meantime, the Chao Uparat refused to help Sihanot when he learned of his interest in Christianity. Sihanot was ordered to return to Lampang where he soon lost both his position and his wealth, but he gathered around him a small number of people who accepted the new religion.

In 1880, McGilvary spent about six months in Tak, and on his return trip, he visited Lampang in October, at which time he baptized five more converts and officially established a small congregation. Chao Phya Sihanot not surprisingly, was elected elder of the church. However, this small congregation soon suffered serious problems for in the following October the Chao Phya was jailed. Ostensibly, he still owed heavy debts, but the Christians believed that he was put in jail because of his religion. He was finally released in 1883, but by that time the small congregation had ceased to exist; and when the mission established its Lampang Station in 1885 the only Christians left were Chao Phya Sihanot, his wife, and one servant. (31)

To a degree, the Lampang Church's early experience proved to be quite similar to that of Chiang Mai. Initial interest in Christianity started with a person who already had a stake in society and whose contact with the missionaries pre-dated September 1869. When that person became a Christian, he had to try to establish a new relationship with a society that found his religion unacceptable. In the end, he suffered repression and the church disbanded.

Mae Dok Daeng Church

The roots of this church go back to Nan Pannya, who converted just before his death, and his son Nan Suwan who was baptized on 3 June 1877. Over the next year, Nan Suwan convinced members of his own family and a neighboring family to convert. Pa Ruen Kam, his wife and a daughter of the village headman, joined the church in January 1878. The community received further impetus from the interest and support of another important political figure in the area, Saen Kam, overseer of irrigation in the Doi Saket area. Like most converts of the time, Saen Kam received medical treatment from Dr. Cheek along with instruction in the Christian religion. Although he and his family did not immediately convert, they became most sympathetic to the Christian cause in Mae Dok Daeng. (32)

Nan Suwan

Nan Suwan gathered the community at Mae Dok Daeng, but he did not participate in its founding as a church because he was among those ordered by the government to resettle the long depopulated Chiang Saen region to the north The events leading to the founding of the church, then, began with another resident of the village who was accused of witchcraft. He fled to the missionaries, and they agreed to help him keep his house from being seized by the local authorities. At the same time, the man himself moved into a forest area, cleared some land, and eventually he and several members of his family received baptism in September 1880. The mission then founded a church on Christmas Day 1880 with six members; ten more joined the following day. The congregation established itself as the strongest of the new churches, and for many years it retained the title of being the "gem" of the northern churches. (33)

A striking fact about the increased rate of church growth in this period is that the Laos Mission itself played little role in the founding of the Christian communities that grew into churches. McGilvary noted that all of this growth resulted from northern Thai work rather than mission evangelism. (34) Furthermore, each of these three churches formed around the leadership of one strong, dedicated leader. The Rev. W. C. Dodd commented a decade later that precisely this pattern occurred in nearly every Christian community in northern Siam, that is they were founded through and sustained by the initiative of key individuals (35)

Yet another pattern in the life of the churches emerged from the founding of the Mae Dok Daeng Church, the pattern of gaining conversions by assisting those accused of witchcraft/demon possession (phi ka). McGilvary dates the beginning of the mission's involvement with people accused of witchcraft as August 1878, when a chao requested that McGilvary take in a family accused of being phi ka that the chao could not protect himself. In later years, numerous people fled to Christianity to escape the persecution suffered by those believed to be under the power of evil spirits. Popular opinion held that the Christians had power over these spirits and freedom from them. (36)

The first period of sustained growth in the history of the church (1876-1880) came to an end in 1881, and the two years 1881-1882 proved discouraging. In March 1881, McGilvary left for his second furlough, and shortly thereafter, the tragic and disheartening news arrived that Mary Campbell, the lively young missionary teacher who had gone down to Bangkok, had drowned. Wilson, the leader of the small group of remaining missionaries, was generally distracted from church work by the burden of supervising the construction of a number of mission buildings, which remained his chief work throughout these two years. (37)

The year 1882 proved to be even more difficult. Chao Phya Sihanot remained in chains in Lampang, and the tiny church there disbanded. Nan Inta, ill for some time, died on 27 August 1882. (38) The churches lost their most important leader. Wilson reached the depths of discouragement during this year, particularly because the churches seemed to be so weak, so ignorant, and so faithless. During the period of McGilvary's absence, a number of the Chiang Mai members quietly drifted away from the church. (39) Finally, there came a time oppression in the latter part of the year, when the Chao Upharat plotted against the Christians.

Thus, the mission and the churches still depended a great deal upon McGilvary as the leader of both. Even in his failures, he set the tone for the present end the future work of the Laos Mission.

Beyond Chiang Mai

When McGilvary returned from his furlough along with new recruits in early 1883, the Laos Mission entered a new phase in which it expanded geographically and institutionally. While on furlough, McGilvary had busily scouted out an impressive group of immediate and near-future reinforcements for the mission. The future of the mission looked bright once again.

However, nearly all of the reinforcements brought out by McGilvary became ill with three of the four withdrawing from the mission after only brief stays. (40) The Laos Mission remained very weak throughout the 1880s, although the situation did improve slightly in 1887 when another group of "second generation" missionaries arrived. Nevertheless, the situation in late 1885 was typical of the period: of the twelve missionaries on the field, two had withdrawn to engage in private business, two left the field because of illness, and two more were too ill to work. Of the remaining six, the four women engaged in educational or translation work. Only McGilvary and Dr. S.C. Peoples, newly arrived, were both healthy and able to work with the churches, but Peoples spent nearly all of his time supervising mission construction. That left McGilvary. (41)

In effect, the churches faced a permanent leadership crisis throughout the decade as the mission barely managed to hold itself together. While mission forces remained inadequate to provide leadership for the growing Christian community, the community itself lacked trained leadership since the mission failed to provide training. Throughout the years 1883-1889, members of the mission voiced deep concern about the pressing need for trained church leadership, but the only concrete step the mission took to correct the situation was to ordain Nan Ta in 1889. (42)

Even in this depleted state, the Laos Mission turned its attention to geographical expansion. As early as 1880, McGilvary seriously considered the possibility of establishing a new station at Tak, but the Board of Foreign Mission refused to sanction such a move. (43) Now, his thinking turned to Lampang, and in late 1883, he visited Lampang both to try to free Chao Phya Sihanot from jail and to acquire land for a station.

Although he failed to obtain land on that trip, a new and more favorable opportunity arose in the person of the brother of the King, Prince Phichit Prichakon. The Prince took up residence in Chiang Mai in May 1884, and he brought with him a letter from the King that ordered the Prince to help the Laos Mission acquire land in Lampang and also forbid persecution of Christians. (The fact that the King felt he had to write specifically forbidding persecution of Christians further indicates how little attention the "Edict of Toleration" received and how little weight it carried). The King had long urged the mission to open a station in Lampang as a "civilizing agency." The Prince soon acquired very good land for the mission and even provided elephants and other assistance when McGilvary and Dr. and Mrs. Peoples took a survey trip to Lampang in early 1885. The King also sent a large gift of money to assist the mission in starting its Lampang work, and as a result, the Laos Mission appointed the Peoples to open a station there. (44)

When the Peoples' arrived in Lampang in September 1885, they found only the three members of the church still there. Over the next several years, they made very little progress in Lampang even after relations with the local chaos improved. As was generally the case in opening a new station, they had to give much of their time to buildings and property leaving little time for work with the church; arid even when Wilson and Kate Fleeson were assigned to Lampang in 1888, the situation remained largely static. At the end of 1889, the tiny church there still met in Chao Phya Sihanot's house and had only nine members. (45)

Although the congregation in Lampang made little progress, closer to Chiang Mai the northern Thai church underwent in 1885 another period of rapid growth into new areas. A Karen living in Thung Phaeng, south of Chiang Mai, learned about Christianity while traveling in Burma, and when he returned to the North, he sought out the missionaries and was baptized. He interested some of his neighbors in the new religion, and soon large groups of men visited Chiang Mai to attend worship services. Eventually, a group of prospective converts built a simple chapel at Long Koom village, and Nan Ta spent two weeks with them teaching them Christianity.

Soon, another group of "inquirers" built a chapel at Chang Kam under the leadership of a local man, Nan Chai. Two other villages in the nearby region of Lamphun also began to show signs of interest in Christianity. (46) McGilvary had an unfortunate experience in one of the villages, Mae Khum Wan, where a group of inquirers built yet another little bamboo chapel. When McGilvary arrived to dedicate the chapel, he discovered that the man who organized its building did so because he thought the missionaries paid all who helped build chapels McGilvary firmly corrected this misunderstanding and left an elder with the people to teach them.

In this same year of 1885, a number of groups of individuals living east of Chiang Mai in the San Kamphaeng area also began to show interest in Christianity, particularly in the villages around Mae Pu Kha, the area the two Martyrs came from. The mission baptized a number of people and made plans to start a church in the district. (47)

Thus. 1885 proved to be an important year in the expansion of the northern Thai church. The geographical extent of the church more than doubled while church membership grew from 151 to 241 (nearly 60%). On the basis of this growth, the mission established on 17 June 1885 the "Presbytery of North Laos," organized by and under the authority of the Synod of New York of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. Theoretically, the northern Thai church now had its own structure for ordaining pastors, organizing churches, and developing its own identity. In the Presbyterian system of church government, the presbytery was the only body to have direct authority over the churches in its given geographical area. Yet, there seemed to be a nagging doubt about the spiritual strength of the churches. The 1885 annual report noted that "...many of our church members have not grown in grace as we would desire... " (48)

Ever since his first trip to the region in 1872, McGilvary showed particular interest in expanding mission work into Chiang Rai. The mission's first opportunity to do so came in 1880 when Nan Suwan of Mae Dok Daeng received orders from the government to immigrate to Chiang Saen. Although Nan Suwan considered paying someone to go in his place, McGilvary convinced him he should go in order to spread Christianity there. Eventually, he moved his family to Chiang Saen and began to quietly work among his neighbors spreading his faith. By 1884, he had gained some interest. (49)

In 1886, the Rev. Chalmers Martin made a trip northward to Chiang Rai early in the year. Soon thereafter, Nan Ta also went to the Chiang Rai area and brought back a very hopeful report of conditions there and of interest in Christianity. Finally, McGilvary himself traveled to the region and initiated sustained work there by the mission. The result of this tour was that a large number of Christians received baptism at Mae Kon, near Chiang Rai, and more were baptized at Chiang Saen where Nan Suwan's evangelistic efforts gained an increasing number of converts. (50)

The communities at Chiang Saen and Mae Kon grew rapidly enough during 1887 that presbytery "sent" missionaries in early 1888 to organize churches there. They founded a church at Chiang Saen with 23 members in about April 1886, but the leadership situation at Mac Kon proved too unstable to establish a church. Two years later on 13 April 1890 the "Chiang Rai Church" was organized at Mae Kon. (51) In future years, some of the most stable and independent-minded churches in the North developed in the Chiang Rai region. The Chiang Saen Church in particular established itself as one of the region's strongest, most active congregations, a church with capable lay leadership.

Meanwhile, sometime during 1888 a delegation arrived from Chiang Dao, also to the north of Chiang Mai, asking that someone be sent to them. Nan Ta made a short visit, and early in 1889, Noi Sali went up to spend a month with the Chiang Dao inquirers. When he returned to Chiang Mai in February, he was seized by the Siamese Commissioner and thrown into jail on the charge of treason. A local official in Chiang Dao reported that Noi Sali taught the people they did not have to perform corv�e labor once they converted. The mission produced a number of witnesses proving the charges were false, but the Commissioner held Noi Sali for another eight months, long after his innocence had been established. Mission attempts to intervene only made matters worse until it finally appealed through the U.S. Consul to the government for help. Momentarily, at least, this event reduced mission confidence in the Siamese government and caused some younger missionaries to become more pro-northern Siam. (52)

The Foundation of Mission Education

As early as 1870, McGilvary wanted to establish a mission school on the premise that a strong church required a strong school system. (53) Opened in 1879, the Girls' School suffered through a decade of frequent changes in teachers and numerous closures due of missionary illness. In August 1888, the Girls' School moved into its own building, and under direction of Ellza Westervalt it began to make rapid progress. All but twelve of its 61 students were boarders. (54) Meanwhile, the Rev. D.G. Collins, who arrived in 1887, started the Boys' School in March 1888 with sixty students of whom thirty were boarders. Nearly all of the students in both of the schools were Christians. (55)

The first mission school founded outside of Chiang Mai started in Lamphun where in 1888 Nan Siti, a former Buddhist abbot, took charge of a small school that used traditional instructional methods. (56) Two year later Kate Fleeson and Dora Belle Taylor opened the Boy's School in Lampang, and in 1891 Fleeson started the Girls' School in that same station. (57) With the founding of these new schools in Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Lampang, the mission established a new pattern for its work, one in which mission institutions began to compete with the churches for the attention and resources of the mission.


When the two decades beginning in 1870 opened, the Laos Mission was under attack with only two couples on the field and only two converts holding to the faith. Two decades later the mission counted sixteen missionaries, five congregations, and 722 members. It had three established schools, prospects for two more, and a training school for evangelists (see Chapter 5). It had also made impressive geographical gains. On the other hand, Christians still comprised only a minute part of the population. It would take the 1890s, the decade of expansion par excellence, to establish the church on a truly firm foundation.

Table of Contents

Chapter 3
Expansion (1890-1900)

From the time the McGilvarys arrived in Chiang Mai, the central dynamic of the Laos Mission's presence was geographical expansion. The ideology of expansion called the missionaries to the borders. The necessity of expansion worked on their consciences. They exhibited the traits of their cultural heritage as Americans with that nation's strong, consistent urge to move westward, to expand, and to bring the "benefits" of "civilization" to 'uncivilized" regions. The Laos Mission went through three phases of geographical expansion. Chapter 2 described the first phase, one that began in 1872 with McGilvary's first trip of exploration and ended in roughly 1890. The second phase opened a period when the mission's expansionist ideology became more articulate and aggressive but still concentrated on expansion within Siamese territory. In the final phase, the Laos Mission began to push expansion beyond Siamese boundaries into French Indochina, British Burma, and China. We will deal with the third phase In Chapter 7.

The purpose of this chapter is to examine Laos Mission territorial and institutional expansion in its second phase with special emphasis on territorial expansion.

The Ideology of Expansion

In 1854, more than a decade before the founding of the Laos Mission Dr. Samuel House of the Siam Mission expressed the rationale for missionary expansion into northern Siam. He urged that the accession of King Mongkut to the Siamese throne provided an excellent opportunity for the Presbyterian Church to expand into the North. He wrote that, "...it will be a reproach on the enterprise of the Christian Church if she leaves the moral darkness of the region ...much longer uncheered by a single taper of divine truth. "(1) This was only the first in a long line of trumpet calls to expand the frontiers of Presbyterian missions into and beyond the North.

According to the mission, the northern states were not only land of darkness but also a land ruled by Satan. The religion of the people was held to be a counterfeit religion, which could not save. Indeed, the missionaries saw traditional religion (Buddhist and animist) as part of the surreal gloom haunting the land. (2) Although this attitude made the missionaries most uncomfortable with traditional religion, their deepest concern was that the people of the region were "perishing" in their darkness. They believed that the northern Thai, then, stood in desperate need of the light. (3)

Since the missionaries believed that Satan ruled northern Siam, they felt that their Christian duty demanded they invade the land, occupy it, and defeat the forces of evil currently in control. Mission literature contains a wealth of military allusions and parallels: seize the land! conquer the land! take the land! In short, the Laos Mission believed that it was conducting a military-like campaign against the forces of the devil in his own territory. Thus...

  • the church was called God's militia or soldiers in the war with Satan...
  • the missionaries represented the generals leading the troops...
  • the missionaries and their assistants who went off to open a new station represented a small army going to war against darkness...
  • winning converts in a new village meant that the village had been invaded, the mission had gained a hold, but it also meant fighting for every inch of ground...
  • the training of converts won in a period of rapid growth paralleled consolidating the church's lines...
  • tours of exploration spied out the land...
  • those who reverted to Buddhism had been recaptured by Satan...
  • and Buddhist revivals meant that Satan was marshalling his forces while an anti-Christian monk stood as a rallying point for the forces of the Devil. (4)

The signs of darkness and the Devil in northern Thailand took physical shape. Missionaries saw these evil forces and signs in the temples, the priests, and in the festivals of traditional religion. More generally, the society itself manifested evil because it clung to an "idolatrous religion" and because it persecuted the church. When they went into a new village, missionaries could feel that the people displayed a cold hostility to them. From the beginning, the political structures of the region generally resisted them and made life difficult for the converts. Even geography and climate reminded the missionaries that northern Siam was a hostile land: heat, disease, and the distance from "civilization" were problems severe enough to even cause death in some cases. (5)

As House stated in 1854, the Laos Mission felt that it had a moral obligation to expand as rapidly as possible into all parts of the region and beyond. The missionaries believed that only Christ could save the northern Thai from eternal damnation, and that God called on the mission to "rescue" as many "sinners" as possible. A deep sense of duty lay at the heart of the expansionist ideology by which the mission believed itself called to bring light to the region. Stated another way, the missionaries sometimes thought of themselves as being like Paul hearing the call to come over, come over to Macedonia. Only "cowards" ignored such a call! This sense of duty bred the mission to a battlefield mentality in which it refused to compromise with any obstacles, physical, cultural, or bureaucratic. In the war with Satan, there could be no compromise. (6)

Enter the Rev. William Clifton Dodd. Dodd arrived in 1887 and established himself as the chief proponent and apologist for mission expansion. A letter he wrote to the Board in January 1891 stands at the gateway of the second phase of mission expansion and provides a ringing rationale for the events of the next decade. In that letter, he argued that the Presbyterian missions in Siam must expand and to do otherwise would be both sinful and cowardly. His watchword was trust in God, and he cited the example of McGilvary, "Our Missionary Father," as the model to follow. (7) Dodd himself pursued the dream of distant shores through some thirty years of mission work and participated in the opening of new stations at Lamphun, Chiang Rai, Kengtung, and Chiang Rung.

This expansionist ideology was not simply a cherished ideal. It had power... power to shape the activities of the Laos Mission in a radical way; and as the dominant theme of missionary activity in the 1890s, it also strongly influenced the northern Thai church. In the end, missionary expansionism became a problem for the church as it scattered Christian churches extensively throughout the North in little pockets and as it drew mission attention and resources away from the needs of the churches already created.

Even more fundamentally, the militant/militaristic perspective of mission expansion and its battlefield mentality placed a particular burden on the churches It threw down a rigid battle line across northern Thai culture and society demanding that each convert "cross over" into the culture of the "faithful" Effectively, the church could not witness in society or locate itself in the world. The mission demanded that it totally remove itself from the world.

William Clifton Dodd

This was a strangely monastic "tactic" considering the aggressive evangelistic emphasis of the mission. The expansionist-militarist ideology of the Laos Mission tried to cut off the church from its cultural and social roots.

New Stations � New Churches

Lamphun Station

Nowhere were the limitations of the expansionist ideology more clearly obvious than in the drive to open and maintain a mission station In Lamphun, just a few miles distance from Chiang Mai. In the days when Dodd and others pushed for its establishment, they billed the Lamphun Station as absolutely necessary to the growth of the church. But, within a few years most of the mission even doubted if it needed a sub-station at Lamphun.

Evidently, the first family baptized In the Lamphun region was that of Nan Chaiwan who lived at Ban Paen. The family had been accused of witchcraft and fled, but when some of the family converted in 1885 they were able to return to their home. From this beginning, a Christian community developed that eventually became the Bethel Church. Work in the city of Lamphun itself began in 1888 when the Laos Mission received land from the Chao Muang of Lamphun. As we have already seen, the mission opened a small school there in that year {see Chapter 2), and by 1890 the mission had a growing number of Christians in the area with an number of good local lay leaders among them. (8)

In the letter of January 1891 mentioned above, Dodd, now Interested in Lamphun, urged the opening of a mission station there. He claimed that the situation was just right and that the time had come. It was urgent to go into Lamphun immediately or the opportune moment would be lost. Within a few months the mission did, indeed, begin to make plans for a Lamphun Station, and the Lampang Station transferred $2,400 to help get things going. Naturally, the mission appointed the Dodds to the new station along with Elder Noi Lin as assistant. The station opened In September 1891. (9)

The Christian community In the Lamphun hinterland began to expand quite rapidly, and on 25 December 1891 the presbytery formally established its seventh congregation, the Lamphun Church, with 121 members living in eighteen villages. Although the work continued to prosper numerically during 1892, by 1893 the new station entered into a period of uncertainty. In that year, the Dodds left on furlough and the Rev. Robert lrwin, a relatively new missionary, took their place. At the same time, various members of the mission realized that Lamphun was too small and too close to Chiang Mai to warrant a full station. Some doubted that it even needed a missionary. Nevertheless, the Lamphun Church continued to grow rapidly enough that two daughter churches, the Bethel Church (106 members) and the Wang Mun Church (101 members) split from her in 1895. (10) The uncertainty of missionary leadership over the Lamphun churches continued. In 1895, the mission transferred lrwin to Nan and appointed the Briggs' to Lamphun. More than ever, some in the mission questioned the need for a family at Lamphun, and in 1897 the mission reached a compromise whereby Lamphun became a sub-station of Chiang Mai Station. (11)

Lamphun marked the beginning of the new phase of expansion of the Laos Mission. It was the first station opened on the basis of expansionist concerns entirely, making it quite different from the Lampang Station where the mission followed the lead of the King and his brother, Although the Lamphun Station proved a failure the rationale for later expansion into other areas did not change nor did the motif of great hopes wilting into drab realities change either. Yet, within just a few months of the opening of Lamphun Station, the mission started bombarding the Board in New York with requests for permission for even more rapid expansion. It wanted to open stations at Tak, Chiang Rai, and Phrae, with Tak being the priority. At its 1892 annual meeting, the question of expansion dominated the entire set of meetings; and as a consequence the mission again pressed the Board for permission to open the three new stations. (12)

It did not get permission for three stations, but it did for one...

Phrae Station

The first convert In the Phrae region was a blind man, Noi Wong, who visited the mission hospital at Lampang to see if the mission doctor could restore his sight. Even though his eyes were beyond treatment, he returned to Phrae a believer in the new faith, and on 16 February 1890 McGilvary baptized him in Phrae. (13)

In 1893, the entire region around both Lampang and Phrae suffered from a severe famine. Peoples from Lampang spent a month in Phrae during the earlier part of the year distributing food and carrying out relief work. He observed a new receptivity to Christianity there and took it upon himself to initiate plans for a station. Yet again, mission letters echo with the demanding, pleading requests to the Board for permission to open a new station: it is urgent! the time is now! the moment will be lost! (14)

Dr. William Briggs, a young missionary doctor, spent the months of May and June 1893 in Phrae making further preparations for a station even though permission had not yet come from the Board. Briggs found about twelve Christians around Phrae, all of whom had heard about Christianity in Lampang, and another two dozen or so inquirers. Permission for the new station finally came in July 1893, and the mission appointed Briggs to open the station. (15)

The Phrae Church was started with twelve members on 22 March 1894, and by August the new congregation numbered 27 members and had elected its first two elders, both employed by the station as full-time evangelists. Education work began in about July 1894 when Anabelle Briggs started a literacy class for women and girls. Soon thereafter Lillian Shields, another new missionary, started a class for small children.

The small Christian community in Phrae experienced repression from the beginning. Government officials in the city moved to prevent conversions and attempted to punish converts by unfairly calling them to do corvee labor. The Chao Muang tried to force two young Christian girls, both servants of the Briggs' into concubinage. In this case, Briggs, a Canadian, threatened to turn the matter into an international incident by asserting his treaty rights as a British subject. The situation quieted down. However, more generally repression continued into 1895, and Briggs gave so much time towards securing Christians' rights that Speer, Secretary of the Board, expressed his concern about the ''native Christians" getting too much political help from missionaries. (16)

Buildings and property proved to be another important distraction as the small two-family station sought to establish itself. As in the case of Lamphun, in the critical years of creating a new congregation the Phrae Station had trouble giving the church the leadership necessary for encouraging the new community. At the same time, it did not have time to prepare leaders for the church itself, nor did it encourage the emergence of lay leadership. The Phrae Church was further weakened by a number of discipline cases; by the transfer of the Briggs' to Lamphun in early l896; and by a severe reduction in the station's budget in 1897. (17) One bright spot at Phrae in this period was the work of Julia Hatch. She engaged in women's work in the villages and emphasized practical matters of hygiene and home economics. She promoted the economic growth of Christian families in order to encourage self-reliance among village women. She also seems to have been the first missionary to dress in northern Thai style In order to identify with and be close to the people. (18)

The Phrae Church was a poor congregation plagued with dissension and discipline problems. In spite of the hoopla raised to convince the Board to open this station, the people in the region showed very little interest in Christianity. Thus, the poverty of the Christian community coupled with its social isolation and unpopularity resulted in a congregation that by 1898 displayed increasing dependence on the station. In fact, Christians from outside of the city started, in some cases, to move into Phrae in order to be closer to the source of their economic livelihood. The missionaries in Phrae felt frustrated with the church because it showed almost no interest in regular study or in education for Christian children. (19)

Both the church and the station in Phrae remained small and their situation difficult. At various times, dissension between mission families further weakened the work. The church did grow slowly in numbers, but the station just barely held on so that by 1900 only one missionary still resided in Phrae. (20)

Nan Station

From his first visit to Nan in 1872, McGilvary showed a special fondness for Nan and long hoped to open a station there. However, the move to establish a mission station in Nan did not begin until 1893. In that period of international tension, the mission feared an imminent takeover of Nan by the French, which would close the area to the Presbyterians and pave the way for a Catholic "occupation" of Nan. The mission appointed Dr. Peoples to visit Nan, which he did in 1894. Unwilling to allow the Laos Mission to over extend itself, the Board refused permission for a permanent station in Nan. However, at its 1894 annual meeting the mission decided to risk Nan anyway, hoping for its eventual permission. Work began in Nan in I895 under the Peoples', and the station developed a reputation as the most distant, difficult, and unhealthy station of the Laos Mission, one in which disease and isolation sapped the strength of those assigned to it. (21)

The Nan Church was officially established in September 1896 with sixteen members. Again, we see the pattern in which frequent changes in personnel due to ill health, furloughs, and absences for meetings resulted in a situation of unstable station leadership. The development of the newly formed church received insufficient attention. (22) Yet, the style of leadership that the church received in its early years differed from that of the other station churches. As "moderator" of the Nan Church, Robert lrwin emphasized self- government and self-support, and he tried to gear all of the church's activities to those ends. He involved church members in decision-making and left it to the Session of the church to solve congregational problems. In one startling departure, he put the little Nan school entirely in the hands of the church and purposely left it small so that by running and funding the school the church might learn something about self-government and self-support. (23)

lrwin also attempted to introduce an evangelistic scheme that provided immediate leadership for newly emerging Christian communities and reduced the role of the missionary. He wanted to place Christian families in eleven sub-regional centers around Nan. These families would then be responsible for developing churches in each center; lrwin initiated the program by sending Kru Wong to Muang Thoeng and Nan Moon to Chiang Kham with one supported by the church and one by lrwin personally. They received money to buy homes and land, and the station expected that after the first year they would support themselves. Irwin's plan worked particularly well at Muang Thoeng until the mission unexpectedly transferred that community to the closer Chiang Rai Station in 1898. (24)

In 1899, the mission also transferred Chiang Kham to the Chiang Rai Station. Amid the shambles of his dream for evangelistic growth based in Nan, lrwin reported that the Nan Church felt angry and upset with the mission for transferring both places to Chiang Rat Two factions emerged in the small Christian community at M. Thoeng. Kru Wong, founder of the community, led the pro-Nan faction. Chiang Rai Station sent its own elders to M. Theong to settle matters, but the hostility between the two groups grew so intense that one member of the pro-Nan faction murdered another Christian. Briggs, now at Chiang Rai, said that Kru Wong had fallen in with a group of criminals. (25)

Nan Station repeated the pattern of Lamphun and Phrae: the mission started a small station with insufficient personnel to set up the station and concentrate on church work. The Nan Church may have been initially more active and self-reliant than other stations' churches, but in the long run it developed only slowly. It remained a conglomerate of separate Christian individuals, families, and groups scattered across Nan Province.

Chiang Rai Station

In one sense, the founding of Chiang Rai Station broke the pattern of the three previous stations. Whereas none of those stations had churches before the founding of the station and only Lamphun showed any serious potential for growth, the Chiang Rai Station opened well after the first churches securely based themselves in the region. Those three churches - Chiang Saen (1888), Chiang Rai (1890), and Wiang Pa Pao (1892) - were all in good condition in spite of persecution at Wiang Pa Pao and had 234 members, all gained entirely through the efforts of the churches themselves. (26)

The initial discussions regarding a Chiang Rai station started in 1892, but the Laos Mission literally ran out of people to open yet another station. The man eventually chosen to go, the Rev. Stanley K. Phraner, fell ill and died, and the mission could not make concrete plans for Chiang Rai until 1896. Finally, in early 1897, the Dodds and the Denmans arrived in Chiang Rai and began setting up the station. They spent much of their first months in building and property matters, but they did report that the churches seemed more active after they arrived. (27)

The Chiang Rai area churches had a more independent spirit than other Laos Mission congregations. The Chiang Saen Church was well known for its active program and competent leadership. The Chiang Rai Church, still centered on Mae Kon, demonstrated its independence by resisting Denman's attempts to "reorganize" its life and by holding an election in I899 for new church officers without obtaining the prior consent of the station. In a step without precedence, this church in that same year elected women to three of the four offices in the local Christian Endeavor Society. (28)

Although a small station, the Chiang Rai churches under it exhibited considerably more strength than those in Phrae or Nan, and they continued to expand more rapidly both In numbers and geographically. The opening of the Chiang Rat Station brought to a close the second phase of mission expansion; however, some expansion had also taken place in the older stations, and we need to scan that expansion as well.

The Older Stations

Chiang Mai Station, heart of the Laos Mission, fully shared in the expansionist dynamic that drove the mission into new regions and opened up her own new area in the Chiang Dao-Muang Phrao region. Interest in Christianity first emerged in Chiang Dao in 1888 and led to the persecution of Noi Sali in 1889 (see Chapter 2). The Rev. D.G. Collins made the first missionary visit to Chiang Dao in 1890, and Christianity spread quickly enough so that the North Laos Presbytery established a church there on 5 November 1893. Like many churches of the time, this congregation was scattered over a considerable area with some members living as far away as Muang Phrao.

After this initial success, problems arose in Chiang Dao, and the congregation lost a significant number of families who reverted to traditional religious practices. Missionaries seldom visited these Christians, and not until 1899 did the mission, in the person of McGilvary, make an effort to recover the situation. McGilvary visited the church and took action to reclaim some who had drifted away and clean the church rolls of the rest. At the same time, he made plans for a separate congregation at Muang Phrao where the Christian community had remained stable and grown quietly under the gentle leadership of Kru Chai Ma, a semi-retired clergyman. (29)

A year after the founding of the Chiang Dao Church in 1893, the Chiang Mai station organized two more congregations: the first at San Sai (21 March 1894) and the other at Mae Pu Kha (1 July 1894). (30) Throughout the period, the under-staffed Lampang Station showed relatively little growth, and the only significant community that developed there in the 1890s grew up at Chae Hom, where in 1891 a Christian girl with some training at the Chiang Mai Girls' School began teaching her neighbors about Christ. By 1894, over forty Christians lived in several villages scattered about the neighborhood. (31)

Ten years made a remarkable difference, at least statistically, when one looks back to 1889 from the perspective of 1899. At the end of 1899, the Laos Mission had fifteen churches (from Chiang Mai with 821 members to Wiang Pa Pao with 45 members) and 2,257 communicant members. In that year alone, it received 210 new members on confession. The churches had one hundred elected elders and nearly 1300 students in Sunday schools from all of the congregations. (32)

Tribal Expansion

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, the Laos Mission articulated a doctrine of expansion that theoretically focused upon ethnic rather than geographical concerns. As the mission became embroiled in attempts to expand its work beyond the borders of Siam, it asserted a claim over the "Tai" peoples wherever they might be found. (33) Nevertheless, within the boundaries of northern Siam the mission felt called to work with all peoples. Therefore, its concern to spread the Gospel into every corner of northern Thailand involved it with ethnic minorities as a matter of course.

The Lahu

As early as 1886, the mission had some contact with the Lahu peoples of the Chiang Rai region, and in 1891 McGilvary and Phraner met with Akha, another tribal group, and even took one boy along with them to teach him reading. (34) The following year, 1892, McGilvary returned to the area with Dr. James W. McKean, at which time the mission developed its first sustained contact with the Lahu A significant group of Lahu showed interest in Christianity, and by the end of their stay the two missionaries had baptized thirteen La h us. The following year two more families received baptism. At this time, the Christian Lahu groups lived only about four miles from Mae Kon, and they became members of the Chiang Rai Church and participated in some of its activities. By 1899, yet another four Lahu families became Christians, and the leader of the Lahu Christian community was reputed to be a man of some influence in Lahu circles. (35)

In 1904, the Laos Mission started to spread Christianity among the Lahu on the French side of the Mekong River. In 1905, missionaries spent three weeks each with groups on both sides of the river, and the work on the French side seemed to be especially promising. Lahu on the Siamese side suffered from opium addiction and showed much less interest in Christianity because of the mission's insistence that they give up the drug. (36) In 1910, Lahu church membership was transfered from the Chiang Rai Church to the Nang Lae Church. Contacts continued right up to 1920: in 1915, the mission started a school for the Lahu and had two Lahu boys studying in Chiang Rai. One reason for the school was to try to keep the Lahu young people from loosing interest in Christianity, a thing they were prone to do. In 1917, the mission included over fifty Lahu Christians. By that year, they had again transferred membership, this time to the Muang Phan Church. (37)

The Kamu

Kamu work did not begin until a few years after the Lahu, but at one time it looked as though it would become a major concern of the Laos Mission. As one might expect, McGilvary again made the first contact, this time in French territory in 1897. The prospects among the Kamu so excited him that he returned in 1898 to spend several months with the people, and things came to the point where McGilvary expected a mass movement to begin at any moment. Ten villages showed a serious interest In Christianity. In one of those, the headman converted while in the others headmen were near conversion. But, the Chao Muang of Luang Prabang, subject to the French, complained to the French authorities about American missionary work from across the border. He feared unrest among the Kamu, and the French immediately ordered McGilvary to cease his work with the Kamu. (38)

The mission refused to give up such promising work and decided to make the Kamu into a major mission project for the northern Thai churches. If missionaries could not go into French territory... then send "native" evangelists! The mission also sought to involve the churches in financial support of the Kamu work In 1899, elders went over to work with the Kamu, and things went so well that when they left 87 Kamu were ready to receive baptism. The Lampang Church became interested in the Kamu and proved to be a good source of funding for that work. (39)

The mission decided to send one of its clergymen, Kru Chai Ma (not the same person as the pastor at Muang Phrao) and two elders into French territory. These men left in early 1900 and soon baptized 41 more converts. Four more villages announced their intentions to join the new faith. But, just when things seemed to be going well again, the mission had to recall its three men in Kamu territory for (unspecified) serious errors. A mission investigation of the behavior of Kru Chai Ma and the elders revealed that they had been in the wrong and that the Kamu Christiana remained "faithful." (40)

The mission tried to maintain some contact with the nearly one hundred baptized Kamu, but when two American missionaries again crossed over into French territory in 1903 the French immediately ordered them out of the country. In later years, the mission did sustain brief contacts with the Kamu Christian community and also worked with Kamu groups near Nan (1908) and Lampang (1914). At one stage, the mission sent money (in 1904) to support a group of French Protestant missionaries who came out to work with the Kamu. In yet another attempt to reach the Kamu, the mission planned to train four Kamu Christians, who worked and studied with the Chiang Rai Station, as missionaries to their own people. The Kamu Christian community, in any event, sustained its life and even showed signs of growth even though it had almost no outside assistance. In 1916, Mrs. Crooks at Lampang translated the Epistles of Peter into Kamu using the northern Thai script as a further attempt to assist the Kamu Christian com m unity. (41)

The Laos Mission had brief contact with other tribal groups, such as the Yao in the Chiang Rai area, but virtually nothing came of these contacts. The mission faced a number of fundamental problems in its attempt to establish tribal missions: it lacked both the personnel and the funds to sustain any kind of continuous work. The missionaries involved in tribal outreach had other regularly assigned d duties that kept them from spending more than a very few weeks per year with tribal peoples. Furthermore, the tribal peoples lived in places difficult to get to and spoke languages very different from northern Thai. Thus, the Laos Mission had to "reach" across the gulf of administrative, geographical, and linguistic distance to tribal peoples when it did not even have resources to adequately cope with its primary responsibility, the lowland northern Thai.

Expansion of the Mission's Institutional Base

Mission work in northern Siam divided into two general categories: church-evangelistic work and institutional work. Theoretically, the institutions began and developed as mechanisms for supporting church and evangelistic work, but they actually developed quite apart from the church.

Schools and Hospitals.

In 1899, the sum total of mission institutions amounted to the two schools in Chiang Mai, one small school in Lamphun, and the only recently reorganized mission hospital in Chiang Mai. Over the next ten years, the situation changed dramatically, and institutional expansion became yet another expression of the Laos Mission's fundamental drive to expand.

By the end of the nineteenth century, both Chiang Mai and Lampang had the full set of mission institutions, that is, two schools, a hospital, and a medical dispensary. The Lampang set was established after 1890. Of the remaining three stations, Chiang Rai attained greater institutional growth than either Phrae or Nan. It had a day school, a small hospital, and a dispensary. Phrae had a small school and an equally small hospital. Finally, distant Nan ran a very small day school and carried out medical work although it seems not to have had a hospital or dispensary as such.

In short, during the decade of the 1890s the Laos Mission began to seriously establish its institutional base of schools and hospitals. In order to maintain this growing institutional establishment, the mission invested nine of its members in medical (4 individuals) and educational (5 individuals) work another four members took the mission press or translation and literary work as their primary activity. In comparison to these thirteen, nine members of the mission engaged primarily in evangelistic and church work. (42) Clearly, the Laos Mission began to make a major investment in its institutions during the 1890s.

The Mission Press.

The most important single departure in institutional development during the 1890s was the founding of the Chiang Mai Mission Press in 1892. Even before their arrival in the 1860s, McGilvary and Wilson wanted a press. However, their numerous attempts to obtain one were thwarted until Dr. Peoples finally secured a northern Thai font of type in 1890. The press opened in early 1892 under the capable direction of the Collins' with its primary purpose being to produce evangelistic literature in northern Thai. The press also made possible the publication of the Bible in northern Thai.

From the beginning, the Mission Press faced two serious problems that limited its effectiveness as a mission institution: first, only a very few missionaries could give time to writing and translation, which meant that it produced relatively little Christian literature for publication. Second, since the press had to support itself, it emphasized commercial printing. The bulk of its business came from the Siamese government. (43)

Nevertheless, the Mission Press did print material useful to the churches. Although the range of biblical materials translated in the 1890s was limited mostly to some books of the New Testament, the press produced large numbers of scripture portions as well as Wilson's northern Thai hymnal, first published in 1894. McGilvary claimed that Wilson's hymnals provided the best Christian education instruction that many converts would ever receive. (44) The Mission Press also printed Sunday School/Christian Endeavor lessons (beginning in 1898), which were widely used among the churches. These printed lessons eventually developed into a monthly newspaper, nangsu sirikitisap (literally, "The Good News Book"), which began publication in northern That In 1903 and long remained the only news publication in the North. It contained national, inter- national, and church new as well as Sunday school lessons. (45)

The Mission Press produced only a very modest body of Christian literature, and I have argued elsewhere (46) that the press had a much greater impact on the processes of change in northern Siam than in either evangelism or church work. From the perspective of modernization, the Mission Press played an impressive role in introducing new ideas throughout northern Siam. From the perspective of this study, the church, it played a much more modest role.

Christian Endeavor

The most important programmatic change during the 1890s as far as the church itself was concerned was the introduction of Christian Endeavor Societies into the local churches. The mission's experience with Christian Endeavor indicates the problems the mission and the churches faced in developing vital congregational life in the churches.

Young missionaries fresh from the United States, where the "C.E." movement was sweeping the nation, first introduced Christian Endeavor in 1894, and it eventually became an important part of the mission's total Christian education program. Robert lrwin organized the first local C. E. society in the Lamphun Church early the next year and also set up C.E. societies at Chiang Rai, Mae Kon, Nang Lae, and Chiang Saen In 1895. The mission then sponsored the first Christian Endeavor convention to be held in the North in December 1895. The next year the movement spread to the other stations, and eventually many churches and a number of local Christian communities had their own societies. (47)

The Christian Endeavor societies were established as part of the life of the local congregations and carried out quite varied activities including Bible study, prayer meetings, and evangelism. The missionaries generally tried to use C.E. as a training ground for developing leadership and congregational self-government. They also tried to have local church members take charge although missionaries often had effective responsibility for the local C.E. societies themselves. The Chiang Mai Church developed the strongest of the C.E. societies. (48)

After the Initial enthusiasm for Christian Endeavor subsided, the movement began to quietly disappear. The situation in Lampang in 1901 seems to have been typical: less interest, dwindling attendance. C.E. did linger on for a few years. Nan Church still had a prayer group in 1904 that had grown out of earlier C.E. work, and Chiang Mai had two C.E. societies as late as 1905. (49) We may assume that C.E. died away for at least two reasons: in the first place, there was no compelling need for these societies as their membership simply duplicated the active membership of a church. C.E. meetings and educational activities also duplicated the form of usual church activities. Second, local C.E. societies did not arise out of perceived local needs and depended largely on the mission for program ideas and even for leadership. Therefore. C.E. societies could be sustained only as long as the mission could promote them, and the decade after 1900 proved to be a particularly difficult period for the mission with considerable health and personnel problems.


From the perspective of mission history or from the perspective of the mission's involvement in modernization, the decade of the 1890s was nothing short of remarkable. This handful of men and women, foreigners facing grave climatic limitations in a land not noted for its transportation facilities, opened four new Stations and laid the foundations for numerous institutions. Never numbering more than fifty, they virtually initiated the movement towards "modern" education, medicine, and printing in northern Siam. As they opened each new station, they introduced new technologies into new areas and supported the modernizing efforts of the Siamese government in those regions. (50)

Yet, from the perspective of the churches, it is more difficult to be as enthusiastic about the results of mission expansionism. While that ideology of expansion drove the Laos Mission to extreme efforts in scattering the seeds of its religious faith and developing institutions that it believed would strengthen the Christian presence In the North, that same ideology left the church with a difficult historical and geographical heritage. For, the Laos Mission constantly reached beyond the churches to expand numbers, territory, and institutions. It did not give sufficient concern to the nurture of the churches that already existed because of its incessant need/urge to keep moving on into new territory and new activities. The situation might not have been so serious if the Laos Mission had cultivated or even allowed the emergence of strong local church leadership, but it did not cultivate that leadership. Thus, the churches already established languished for want of leadership and attention while the mission continued to chase the frontiers of its calling.

The geographical heritage of the northern Thai church is indicative of the historical issues at stake. By constantly emphasizing territorial expansion, the Laos Mission created a widely scattered set of small church groups only loosely attached to organized congregations. These groups were generally separated from each other by great distances and were left in social isolation. Thus, many Christians in the 1890s suffered a dual isolation: from other Christians and from the larger society around them.

In effect, the Christian church in northern Siam resembled a balloon, large territorially but without the solidity or substance that a less widespread, more integrated Christian community would have had. In the next three chapters, I will explore the weaknesses of the mission's relationship with its churches in more depth. The point I want to emphasize here as an introduction to those chapters is that the expansionist ideology of the Laos Mission lies at the heart of the communal weakness of the northern Thai church in the 1890s and beyond. It was that ideology, which distracted it from nurturing the churches that it established.

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