Monthly Archives: February 2014

THE PROPAGATION OF PROTESTANTISM TO THE CENTRAL HIGHLANDS VIETNAM 1925-1954: A PERSPECTIVE

Ho Thanh Tam

Faculty of History, College of Social Science and Humanities, VNUH

Protestantism[1] was born relatively late in comparison to other major religions of the world. It’s originated from Europe after campaigns to reform Christianity of Martin Luther and Jean Calvin in the 16th century[2]. Despite being born in Europe but because of intense pressures from Catholics, many Protestants were forced to immigrate to North America for refugees. With advocate of simplify rituals than Catholics, Protestants had quickly blossomed in hearts of immigrated-Europeans in North America and strong growth at the New World. From a foreign religion, Protestantism has become one of fundamental “identities” of American culture[3], which witnessed the explosive development of capitalism in the late 19th-early 20th century. From the U.S., Protestantism spread widely globally and to Vietnam in the first decades of the 20th century.

The Protestant missionary propagated Gospel to Vietnam was the C&MA (the Christian and Missionary Alliance), which founded by Pastor A. B. Simpson in 1887[4]. One year after its inception, a group of pastors were sent to Long Zhou (China) to set up a branch of the C&MA here and sought ways to Vietnam.

Simpson

Pastor A. B. Simpson, founder of the C&MA

At the end of the 19th century, Vietnam and Indochina were under the French colonialism. For reasons, the French authorities proved unwilling to accept the propagation of Protestantism into Indochina by Americans. This also affected the attitude of the Nguyen Dynasty. So, right from the early days, Pastor A. B. Simpson had been warned by a French friend, who worked in Indochina, about the difficulties to be faced[5]. Prevention from the French Indochina authorities and the powerful competition of Catholic, the activities to spread Protestantism into Vietnam until 1945 had to face many difficulties[6]. In this context, the achievement of a decision from the colonial government allowed the Protestant to open a base in Tourane in 1911[7] was successful and important milestone. This was considered as the beginning of Protestantism in Vietnam.

After establishment successfully the first base at Tourane, the C&MA continued to promote its doctrines and set up new bases. Facing precaution of the French government and complex context in Indochina by the World War I, pastors had to develop believers in remote regions, where the bureaucracy of French colonial relatively loose. 1924 was the first time that the C&MA mentioned its need to conduct religious activities for mountainous tribal such as the Tai tribe in Laos and the Mois in Annam. It was also highlighting the policy to strengthen training/use native pastors, reduce the participation of foreigners[8]. However, the promotion of Protestant missionaries to the Central Highlands was still very preliminary and pastors’ knowledge of the Highlands was still little[9].

The first effort of missionary to approach the Highlands started from Tourane, center of Protestantism at that time. At the end of February 1925, Pastor Hoàng Trọng Thừa explored successfully and converted religion for some minorities in the west of Tourane[10]. Early 1926, the second path was opened by Pastor Robinson from Saigon to Thu Dau Mot (now is Xuan Loc, Binh Duong) with about 40 converts[11]. As can be seen, at the end of the 1920s, gospel tasks for the Highlanders were still preliminary and only around the periphery of this area. Assessing evangelical situations of the Central Highlands, the 1926 annual meeting of the C&MA in Vietnam noted that missionary was slow and should not further delay. Missionary tasks for the Highlands were considered as “special work”[12].

With that determination and with the assistance from some local people, in 1928, Pastor Hazel A. Jackson rented a house at Dalat and in next year, he bought it entirely. This base became the school for pastor’s kids in Vietnam (The Children’s Bible School for Missionaries)[13]. The original purpose of the school was a center for receiving pastors’ children as well as a resort for pastors in Vietnam[14]. However, once built, this school became a perfect base to promote gospel to the Highlanders. Pastor Jackson has sought contact with the Coho tribe around the Dalat city. Work progressed slowly because of the language barrier and shy nature of the Coho. Along with the patience to learn local language, helping people, in 1933 there had 30 people of 5 ethnic followed the gospel[15].

In 1933, Pastor Gordon H. Smith moved from Cambodia to Buon Ma Thuot. In first three years, their primary job were stabilize their life and learning native language, the missionaries also obtained positive results under obstruction of the authority here[16]. In July 1937, the Protestant missionaries in Buon Ma Thuot was added two pastors Mr. and Mrs. Phạm Xuân Tín, who were sent from the Tourane Bible school to support Pastor G. Smith[17]. Phạm Xuân Tín is one of the most important Vietnamese pastors in spreading the gospel to the Highlands since the late 1930s. From Ede people’s area, he has gradually expanded missionaries to the Jorai’s area in Cheoreo and Pleiku from 1937 to 1945. In 1942 he finished the book Tơlơi ơi Adai (Words of God) in Jorai language to serve the missionaries[18].

The work of evangelization on the Central Highlands was progressing slowly due to pressures from the French government[19] an important event took place with the Japanese’s infiltration into Indochina in 1940. The situation had major disturbances when in April 1943, the Japanese ordered to imprison all Protestant pastors at My Tho province as presented above[20]. At the Highlands, Protestant evangelization also serious affected. However, because the Japanese only aimed to the Ally’s nationality pastors in Indochina, Vietnamese pastors could avoid that order. However, in the general context of the East-French Protestant Church, Protestant missionary activities in the Central Highlands during World War 2 were almost negligible[21]. One of the notable events of this period was in 1942, before the 19th General Assembly of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, some pastors in the Highlands, under the presidency of Pastor H. A. Jackson, went to the establishment of “Bào ngoại bố đạo đoàn”, a predecessor organization of the Vietnam Protestant missionary for the Tribes region in future (1949).

When the  World War II came to its end, in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh led Vietnamese to their national independence with the August 1945 Revolution. In September 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was born, not only marked a great change in the whole history of Vietnamese, but since it also raises the issue of political stance of the Vietnam Protestantism. Official stance of Vietnam Protestant at this time was still “standing outside politics”, as Pastor Lê Văn Thái, chairman of the Vietnam Protestant Church, answered President Ho Chi Minh in September 1945[22]. Possibly, choosing intermediate position of the Vietnam Protestant Church in the context of Vietnam War from 1946 to 1954 was partly explaining the predicament of the church in this period[23]. However, that did not preclude some Protestants still followed the call of the nation, expressed their determination to stand on the DRV’s side to defeat the French invasion[24].

The Highlands in the first Indochina War (1946-1954) although were not large operation battlefield, but because of difficulties that evangelical works progressed very slowly. From 1948 to 1951, Protestant dissemination activities mainly took place at the Jorai’s area (Pleiku and Cheoreo), from 1952 to 1954, it was enhanced at Đơn Dương, Blao, Túc Trưng, residences of the Cil, Ma ethnics[25]. In 1949, at the 2nd conference of the Bào ngoại bố đạo đoàn at Buon Ma Thuot, the Group had changed its name to the Vietnam Missionary, led by Pastor Phạm Xuân Tín[26]. Two years later, in 1951, the Tribe Region (địa hạt Thượng du or Thượng hạt) was established, under the C&MA’s rights. Up to this point, the Tribe Region was raised on a par with other 3 regions in the partition of Protestant missionaries in Vietnam (the other three regions were the North, the Central and the South region).

Because activities of the Church in this period encountered so many difficulties, official statistics of the C&MA and the Church were incomplete as before. However, according to some sources, in 1954, Vietnam has about 60,000 Protestants with nearly 100 pastors, 154 chapters. For the Central Highlands minority groups, there were 6,000 followers, accounting for 1/10 of the total adherent quantity in Vietnam at this time[27]. Pastors had gradually build religious bases and charities in the Central Highlands as: the Buon Ma Thuot Bible School (1947), the Dalat Bible School (1949), the Pleiku Bible School (1950), a leprosy camp at Buon Ma Thuot (1951)…[28]

Reviewing the spread of Protestantism in the Central Highlands through 3 decades (1925-1954), we have some comments:

1. Protestantism began to be propagated to the Highlands from the mid-1920s, or about half decades after it’s setting in Tourane (1911). Thus, Protestantism was introduced to the Highlands slower than other parts of Indochina at that time. We can see, the first time that a bulletin of the C&MA mentioned about the presence of the Northern tribes and the Mois on the Highlands[29] was in 1924, while C&MA had questioned spread the gospel at Indochina since 1888. The “Protestant flow” from China to Vietnam ignored the mountainous areas to run fast down the delta (Hanoi, Hai Phong, Thanh Hoa, Vinh, Da Nang, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, Saigon, Rach Gia, Can Tho…).

2. Despite the introduction was late, but once begun it, C&MA was quickly to see the gospel propagation to minority groups in the Central Highlands is an “important work”. It can be seen that, for various reasons, the growth of Protestantism in Vietnam before 1954 was very difficult. On the government side, the French in Indochina did not welcome this religion because they feared American’s influence maybe come to compete. This attitude of France also impacted the Nguyen dynasty, so many times the Court had banned the Protestant pastor’s activities, even required their expulsion from the country[30]. On the religion side, Protestantism was introduced into Vietnam rather late so it could not compete with the “giant” Catholicism which appeared in Vietnam nearly 4 centuries earlier. On the side of the people, Protestantism did not content with traditional beliefs, culture of Vietnamese, while Catholics had to reconcile with after expensive prices. Therefore, to develop follower, Protestantism had to think about the missionary expansion to areas where they had previously overlooked: mountainous areas, homeland of minority tribes. Here, for reasons, three obstacles above were somewhat reduced and Protestantism found its fertile ground to develop[31]. This maybe answer to the event: Protestant is an identity of high developed capitalist societies but it can infiltrate and adapt quickly to the low-level civilization of the Highlanders.

3. The trend of Protestantism’s propagation in the Central Highlands was from the south to the north. Starting from Tourane’s western mountain in 1925, but shortly afterwards, it moved down to the southern Highlands at Xuan Loc, Dar Lak, Lam Dong and Pleiku. Moreover, for reasons as above, after three decades of operation, the position and strength of gospel in the Central Highlands was still quite small: 6,000 followers/700,000 people. Protestant dots liked as small flowers among vast forests. Northern Highlands, the residence of the Bahnar and Sedang, still could not “occupy”[32] because it was “dominated” by Catholicism.


[1]  Later, when spreading gospel in Vietnam, Protestant pastors also used the word “Good News” to refer to Protestantism.

[3] An overview about American religion, see Barbara Cohen, Ton giao My the ky XX at http://nghiencuulichsu.com/2013/06/01/ton-giao-my-the-ki-xx/

[4] February 1887, in the magazine Word, Work and World, Pastor Simpson wrote: The southeastern peninsula of Asia has been much neglected. The great kingdom of Annam should be occupied for Christ. Why should it not, along with Tibet, be looked forward to as one of the earliest fields of new aggression by the new people of God?”. See E. F. Irwin (1937), With Christ in Indochina, the Story of Alliance Missions in French Indo-China and Siam Eastern, Harrisburg, Pa. Christian Publications, Inc., p.25.

[5] E. F. Irwin, Ibid, p.4.

[6] The French government was forced the Nguyen dynasty based on the 1874 and 1884 agreements to monopolize the religious market” for Catholic. Under struggles of Protestant for religious equality, in January 1939, the French colonial government in Indochina issued a decree to recognize the legal existence of missionaries in Indochina, including Protestantism missionary. But until 1942, the East-French Protestant Church (including Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) had recognized under this decree. When Japanese troops infiltrated into Indochina, in April 1943, they had arrested all Protestant pastors and sent them to My Tho province until 1945. Nguyen Xuan Hung (2013), Quá trình truyền giáo của đạo Tin Lành tại Việt Nam (1911-1975), pp.59-62.

[7] In 1911, Pastor R. A. Jaffray, along with two associates, Paul M. Hosler and G. L. Hughes, went to Tourane. With the help of a friend, Mr. Bonnet, they had got permission from the Governor General of Indochina A. Sarraut to open a missionary base here. See Nguyen Thanh Xuan (2002), Bước đầu tìm hiểu đạo Tin Lành trên thế giới và ở Việt Nam, Religion Publishers, Hanoi, p.372. Even so, pastors were permitted religious activities in certain cities. See The Call of French Indo-China, No.2, Jan-March 1923, p.12.

[8] The Call of French IndoChina, No.9, Oct-Dec 1924, pp.8-9. Foreign pastors were limited their gospel activities at some certain cities by the French colonial government in Indochina. To cope with this situation, pastors sought to train local people became evangelists. Therefore, the training program of the Tourane Bible School (founded in 1921), required students also went to vicinities as Hoi An, Tam Ky… to preach gospel.

[9] In 1925, pastors also used the word Darlac Plateau generally referred to the entire Highlands region, as well as their initial knowledge about the Highlanders. See The Call of French IndoChina, No.13, October-December 1925, pp.11-15.

[10] Pastor Hoàng Trọng Thừa has mentioned some places like Nam-O, Khe-So, Vuc-Nhieu which could not lookup now, but they could be in the western area of Da Nang today, residences of the Bru Van Kieu, Ta Oi ethnic… Here, he convinced and converted successfully for Chánh tổng Mọi Tuu also with 23 minorities and 5 Vietnamese. Chánh tổng Mọi was an administrative post which made by the Nguyen dynasty and belonged to a patriarch of minority village. See The Call of French Indo-China, No.11, April – June 1925, pp.8-11. Pastor Irwin noted that was the first contact between Protestant and the Mois in Annam (E. F. Irwin, Ibid, pp.145-147). Since then, minorities above still went to Tourane for church. (The Call of French Indo-China, No.12, July – September 1925, p.7).

[11] The Call of French IndoChina, No.14, January-March 1926, pp.10-11; E. F. Irwin, Ibld, pp.147-148. However, Pastor Irwin also talked about difficulties when conducting missionaries to the Highlands. The area which Pastor Robinson arrived in 1926 is a rubber plantation of a Frenchman. This guy did not agree for gospel activities on his land. Pastor Robinson had to ask for help from local authority and received answer that plantation is private property. If the owner does not allow, pastor cannot operate there.

[12] The Call of the East French IndoChina and Siam, No.29, April-June 1930, pp.51-53.

[13] A memoir of Pastor Phạm Xuân Tín tells us that Pastor H. A. Jackson had arrived Dalat in spring 1929 with Pastor Lê Văn Quế. Read Phạm Xuân Tín (2012), The Seed, Phương Đông Publishing House, Ho Chi Minh City, p.99, The Call of the East French IndoChina and Siam, No.29, April-June 1930, pp.54 -56; see also http://www.dalat.org/main/dalat/history/vietnam/ Also in 1930, Protestantism picked up the first Thổ ethnic believers in Lang Son.

[14] E. F. Irwin, Ibld, pp.152-153.

[15] The Call of the East French IndoChina and Siam, No.38 April-Sept 1933, p.20. Pastor Jackson narrated difficulties when trying to contact with the Coho. And to made friends, Pastor Jackson sometimes had to buy goods of local people, the items that he did not know what to use for. (The Call of the East French IndoChina and Siam, No.36 July-Sept 1932, pp.45-49). Colonial government also realized potential dangers from this school, so they banned pastors to go into villages, only allowed them to operate within the city of Dalat. But because Dalat is the economic center of the region, everyday many people still went there for buying and selling, pastors still had chances to meet and preach the Bible. C&MA Missionary Atlats 1936, p.43.

[16] E. F. Irwin, Ibld, pp.158-160.

[17] Phạm Xuân Tín, Ibld, pp.29-30.

[18] Phạm Xuân Tín, Ibld, p.45.

[19] It seems the Highlands were a “sensitive” region that the French in Indochina never wanted Protestantism’s appearance here. So, as soon as Pastor Phạm Xuân Tín had arrived Buon Ma Thuot to open a gospel class, inspector Sabattier also came for “administrative inspection” immediately and forced to disband this class. This class had to move to the Buôn Lê church (now is the Ea Drang town , Ea H’Leo district, Dak Lak province). Read Phạm Xuân Tín, Ibid, p.30.

[20] Afraid that war could make the Japanese army in Indochina made difficulties for pastors here, in August 1941, the Protestant Central Missionaries in New York had warned Indochina pastors should come back or escape to the Philippines. However, up to 68/74 pastor’s families in Indochina decided to stay and all of them were imprisoned. That left only one French pastor Jean Fúne was not under arrest. See http://www.tinlanhparis.com/DT/DT2011/DT104/dt104_b10.html

[21] In 1940, pastors began converting for the Bru ethnic at Khe Sanh. (Pastor Nguyễn Văn Bình says that was in 1935 with activities of Pastor Ngô Văn Lái. http://www.tinlanhparis.com/DT/DT2011/DT104/dt104_b10.html). However, during the 9-year war (1946-1954), this gospel post was destroyed. See Jungle Frontier, No.11, Summer 1960, p.6.

[22] On September 8th 1945, Pastor Lê Văn Thái, Pastor Trần Văn Đệ and Pastor Bùi Hoành Thử were invited to see President Ho Chi Minh at Tonkin Palace after the birth of the DRV. Pastor Thái has refused the proposal of Ho Chi Minh on setting of “the Protestant National Salvation Front”, a member of the Viet Minh and saw it as a political manifesto of the Church. See http://btgcp.gov.vn/Plus.aspx/vi/News/38/0/240/0/1395/Dao_Tin_lanh_o_Viet_Nam_mot_cai_nhin_tong_quat

[23] From 1945 to 1948, the Church met difficulties in operation. The Da Nang Bible School was forced to close because of the war, some pastor mistake activities made believers disappointed. Document of the Church says that, in 1953, only 61 churches still worked in the South, 12 of which could not self-sufficient and paid taxes to both sides (Viet Minh and French). The Church leaders called this were the period of “retreat and scatter”. View http://hoithanh.com/Home/100-nam-tin-lanh-vn/1528-100-nam-tin-lanh-usa.html

[24] We have published the letter of the Hội Tin lành kháng chiến Nam bộ, dated May 8th 1948 sent President Ho Chi Minh, expressed their attitude support the DRV’s side. View Đỗ Quang Hưng (2009), Nghiên cứu tôn giáo: Nhân vật và sự kiện, Regilion Publisher, HCMC, p.283. http://btgcp.gov.vn/Plus.aspx/vi/News/38/0/240/0/1395/Dao_Tin_lanh_o_Viet_Nam_mot_cai_nhin_tong_quat

[25] Phạm Xuân Tín, Ibid, pp.62-81.

[26] Nguyễn Thanh Xuân, Ibid, pp.421-424.

[29] The Call of French Indo-China, No.9, Oct-Dec 1924, pp.5-8.

[30] The only instance in 1928, 1929. Watch The Call of French Indo-China, No.21, January-March 1928, p.6; No.24 October-December 1928, p.10, No.25, January-March 1929, p.7.

[31] Nguyen Van Kiem (2001), Sự du nhập của Đạo Thiên Chúa giáo vào Việt Nam từ thế kỷ XVII đến thế kỷ XIX, the Association of Vietnam History and the UNESCO at Viet Nam published, Hanoi, pp.110-111.

[32] Protestants use the word “Occupy” to refer to an area already converted to Protestantism, “to God”.

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