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The Zealous Missionary

The Zealous Missionary

Story by Ron Emmons / CPA Media (24 October, 2022)

When the Reverend Daniel McGilvary first set foot in Chiang Mai, North Thailand, in April 1864, his appearance must have caused quite a stir. With his tall frame, gaunt features, chest-length beard, piercing stare and tight-fitting Victorian clothes, he looked like the bogeyman that mothers warn their children about. Yet the locals were in for a bigger shock when they asked him the purpose of his visit. By way of reply, he calmly informed them that he had come from lands afar to offer them the promise of eternal life and the forgiveness of all their sins, if they would simply baptize as Christians.

McGilvary's autobiography, entitled A Half Century Among the Siamese and the Lao, first published in 1912, paints a vivid picture of the cultural gulf between West and East at the time, and makes for fascinating reading, particularly since the author was “consciously engaged in an attempt to destroy the religious and traditional foundations of northern Thai society”, according to Herbert Swanson in the introduction to the book.

In the mid-19th century, few Westerners had visited this remote region of Southeast Asia, and none had arrived with the intention of spending the rest of his life there converting the people to Christianity. Yet this is exactly what McGilvary did – at least the first part. When his candle finally expired in 1911, he had lived in Chiang Mai for over 40 years. Despite his lack of success in converting the local Buddhists (he managed only 40 in the first 12 years), he is now fondly remembered as Chiang Mai's pre-eminent foreign resident, and his legacy can be seen in the form of churches, schools and hospitals around town that were established by his mission.

Born on 16 May 1828 in North Carolina in the USA of Scottish parents, McGilvary grew into a fervent Presbyterian evangelist who believed he had been chosen by God to spread Christianity to the ‘heathens' of Siam. This belief in divine providence permeated everything he did right up to the end of his life. By way of example, though he was frequently exhorted by colleagues to write his autobiography in his later years, he steadfastly refused until he was immobilized by a fall, which he instantly interpreted as a sign from God that he should undertake the project.

McGilvary arrived in Bangkok in 1858 and in 1860 married Sophia Bradley, daughter of the Reverend Daniel Beach Bradley, who worked for the American Missionary Association. He called his wife “a helpmeet of great executive ability, and admirably qualified for the diversified work before us”, while in his father-in-law he recognized “one of the grand missionaries of his age”.  After a decade working in Bangkok and Petchaburi, in 1867 McGilvary was granted permission by Lord Kawilorot of Chiang Mai to establish what became known as the Laos Presbyterian Mission (at this time, the northern region still remained independent of Siam and was referred to by foreigners as Laos).

On his arrival in Chiang Mai, McGilvary was assigned an open-sided shelter for his home, yet he was undismayed by the curious crowds that stood gawking at him and his wife as they sat at a table to eat with knives and forks, instead of sitting on the floor and eating with their fingers as was local custom. In fact he welcomed such interest, and seized on every opportunity to turn to his favourite topic: “The first and commonest question, who we were and what was our errand, brought us at once to the point. We were come with messages of mercy and with offer of eternal life from the Great God and Saviour.”

Lord Kawilorot's invitation to found a mission was probably encouraged by McGilvary's assertion that he would introduce modern, Western methods of health care and education to this distant, virtually unmapped domain. No doubt the missionary had expected to meet some opposition to his proselytizing, and felt that his best hope of success was to introduce Christianity as part of a package that also included modern medicines such as quinine to fight malaria and schools for the education of the young.

However, once McGilvary had set up the mission, it quickly became apparent that his main aim was to turn the locals against their traditional Buddhist and animist beliefs, and Kawilorot spent the remaining few years of his life trying to expel the missionary from his land, though to no avail. Two of the earliest converts were mysteriously murdered in 1869, and when McGilvary publicly charged Kawilorot with responsibility for their deaths, the supreme ruler flew into a rage, admitting that he had them killed and insisting he would do the same to any future converts. McGilvary was strongly advised to leave Chiang Mai, but he stayed at considerable risk to his own life. In a letter to his father-in-law, he wrote “If you never hear from us more, know that we are in heaven”.

These were dark days for the Laos Mission, as all their friends and servants deserted them, but McGilvary's resolve to continue his God-given task remained firm. After the death of Lord Kawilorot in 1870, things started improving for the missionaries under Lord Inthanon, a less tyrannical ruler than his predecessor. Another crisis occurred in 1878 when a Christian couple were refused permission to marry, after which King Chulalongkorn of Siam issued the Edict of Religious Toleration, allowing anyone to marry irrespective of religion. Though Lord Inthanon's domain remained independent, he could not afford to go against the wishes of Siam, and this edict is one of the earliest signs of Siam's growing sway over the northern kingdoms.

The ultimate aim of the Laos Mission, as with all evangelical missions, was expansion, and during his time in Chiang Mai, McGilvary made several tours of duty that took him not only all around what is now called North Thailand, but also deep into the Shan States in Burma, Yunnan Province in China and to Luang Prabang in Laos. Expeditions consisted of several people, including a retinue of servants, a small herd of elephants and heavy crates of supplies and gifts. Needless to say, progress was both slow and perilous in this lawless region, where bands of dacoits or robbers lurked waiting to pounce on unsuspecting travellers. Thus the reverend would be away from home for months at a time on these tours.

The indefatigable missionary relished these opportunities to introduce back-country folk to the word of God. First he would catch their interest by showing them the workings of a compass or magnifying glass, or by having one of his group play the violin, then he would launch into a fire-and-brimstone sermon, warning of the dire consequences for any listener who did not seek refuge in the Lord Almighty. No doubt he was content with his potential scope of operations, as there was no Christian outpost to the east, west or south for hundreds of miles, while to the north, there was probably none between him and the North Pole.

When McGilvary was finally given a patch of land on which to build a permanent residence, it was on the east bank of the River Ping, presumably to keep him at arm's length from the seat of power in the ancient, walled city on the west bank. Today this site, just north of Nawarat Bridge on Charoenrat Road, is occupied by Chiang Mai First Church, which makes an interesting first stop on an exploration of McGilvary's legacy in Chiang Mai. On nearby Kaew Nawarat Road, the McCormick Hospital, Prince Royal College (for boys) and Dara Academy (for girls) all owe their existence to McGilvary's mission, while the McGilvary College of Divinity, part of Payap University on Rattanakosin Road, is named after the city's foremost theologian.

Though cemeteries do not often feature on tour itineraries, a visit to Chiang Mai's Foreign Cemetery, about a kilometre south of Nawarat Bridge on the Lamphun Road, is of interest to see McGilvary's last resting place, a simple gravestone bearing the succinct epitaph ‘Founder of Christian missions in North Siam'. A good way to finish this brief tour of historic Chiang Mai is to pop round the corner to the Gymkhana Club on Rat Uthit Road, a classic colonial club which seems frozen in 1898 (the year of its foundation), and enjoy a drink on the terrace while gazing out over the golf course and cricket pitch from the shade of a sprawling rain tree.

Story by Ron Emmons / CPA Media