Christmas celebrations this week and the upcoming jubilee of the 500-year presence of the Catholic Church in Myanmar (1514-2014) are two worthwhile opportunities to review the tremendous history of Myanmar Christian missions, which have withstood decades of hardship and danger with praiseworthy self-denial and zeal.
The somewhat sharp competition between Catholic and Protestant missions, their ambivalent relationship with Buddhism and their close links with the British colonisation (1826-1948) make this history an amazing epic.
The colourful chronicles, correspondences and journals in which a generation of pioneer missionaries carefully consigned the results of their observations allow the reader to travel by the side of these “white men in Burma” and share their hopes and doubts, their trials and successes, and their fervour and fears.
These records are a first-rate introduction for anybody interested in this aspect of the fascinating but complex history of Myanmar.
Acute Anglo-Dutch and Anglo-French rivalries emerged as Europe gradually became aware of Myanmar. In this context, the first Westerners who appeared in the 16th century in Myanmar were merchants, chiefly Portuguese adventurers, who travelled through Western Asia, Persia and India.
Missionaries, often born into clerical families, were not long in following them, providing one more illustration of the classic established association between merchants, missionaries and colonisers.
Indeed, Christianity was often used to justify colonisation in the name of so-called civilisation. In this regard, education, the main vehicle to bring civilisation, quickly became the main activity of missionaries in Myanmar.
Moreover, as slavery was a widespread practice here, Christians proposed nothing else but the “redemption from slavery to education” – in other words, from darkness to light.
This is a well-known moral and humanitarian argument. The efforts of the Christian missionaries to transform a “pagan country” (according to them) into a proper Christian commonwealth were intense in Myanmar, immediately described as “a promising land”.
Indeed, the Myanmar population, gifted with “good dispositions”, was right away considered to be prone to look upon the Christian religion favourably and be ready for conversion by Christian fathers.
In a short time Christian missionaries were fully assimilated with the Myanmar people. But a huge waste of human life (mainly from dysentery and pulmonary trouble) gave Myanmar the reputation of being physically tough and so tended to deter men from coming here.
The insalubrious climate, the diet, the austere mode of life – all of these causes contributed to thinning the ranks of the devoted propagators of the Christian religion and to bringing an untimely end to a good number of them.
The Christian missions in rural Myanmar enjoyed greater freedom than those in the cities. But a troublesome matter was a tendency to concentrate missionary staff in large centres instead of dispersing them widely through the country. The newcomers were highly reluctant to go into remote places, especially Tanintharyi and Rakhine.
Their excuse was the need to first learn the language. The recruitment of missionaries who came for short periods with the intention of soon returning home was avoided: The work of a “true missionary” in Myanmar was envisaged as nothing less than a life’s task. His “sole object on earth” was declared to be the introduction of “the religion of Jesus Christ”.
In these conditions, the opportunities for “Christian Burmese service” revealed a constant and desperate need for new missionaries. But the requirements – spiritual, mental and physical – to be met by the candidates were very demanding.
Presenting the Gospels against the background of Buddhism was a real cultural challenge.
After overcoming many difficulties and privations, missionaries acquired a thorough knowledge of the Myanmar language, which allowed them to translate a considerable part of the New Testament, the product of many years of patient labour.
The translation into Myanmar of the scriptures, as well as the production of vernacular versions, followed by the first printing of the catechism in Myanmar in 1776, helped the missionaries and was much appreciated by Myanmar Christians.
At that same time, benefactors were approached to build churches (some of brick, some of timber) where the Gospels could be safely and decently preached.
Schools, hospitals, leper asylums, philanthropies, orphanages, convents and novitiates gradually appeared through the country. But the sustainability of the Christian faith in Myanmar was a constant concern:
Seminaries were also open for the training of local preachers – the missionaries’ own successors.
The first convert in Myanmar, U Naw, was baptised in 1819 with much pride and joy. But principles on which missionary activity ought to be conducted and methods of evangelism in Myanmar remained subjects for sharp discussions.
For instance, should medical practice and the establishment of dispensaries be included as a means of evangelism?
The arrival in 1821 of the first medical missionary to Myanmar was an attempt to answer this question. Combining the curing of the body with the enlightenment of the mind encouraged teamwork between doctors and preachers.
Another debate was the opening of Christian schools in a country where Buddhist monastic schools were dominant: Was it the best means of bringing Myanmar children into the Christian fold?
The attitude of pioneer Christian missionaries toward Buddhism wavered. One of them wrote, “Buddhism did not implement a spirit of intolerance in the soul of the Burmese.”
On the contrary, “The Burmese believe that every person has a right to follow – without hindrance, proselytism or opposition – the religion of his choice.”
But some of these missionaries also condemned all non-Christian beliefs instead of trying to understand them, unable, for example, to approve the Buddhist doctrine that “merit” is earned by good works. Yet they were all fully conscious of the need for a constructive attitude toward Buddhism.
The often erudite Christian priests wrote extensively on Myanmar. Their superb drawings of the insects, plants and reptiles of Myanmar are a precious testimony to their passion for the country as well.
But anthropological and ethnological works led by the missionary enterprise were often motivated by a contemptuous view of the Myanmar. Its ambition was to “lift the less fortunate peoples of the world” to a “higher level of life” and bring to them “the best of Christian civilisation”.
The Karen who were animists rather than Buddhists were especially said by Christian missionaries to have “the most primitive religious ideas and conceptions”.
Their supernatural and mythical beings, magical deeds, taboos related to domestic life, divinations and traditions were not something to be studied by Christian missionaries in a scientific manner but to be fought against.
The Christian missionaries especially disparaged the Karen traditions of assigning personal attributes to every mountain and river, conceiving of every unknown force (beneficent or malevolent) as a more or less distinct personality, appeasing celestial spirits by continual healing offerings, and holding ceremonial feasts and propitiatory sacrifices on sacred mountains.
Yet ethnic groups traditionally practicing animism – such as the Karen, the Kachin and the Chin – were considered by Christian missionaries to be more receptive to Christianity than Buddhists. Ironically, the introduction of Christianity was most successful in the distant margins of Myanmar where the Christian missionaries were initially the most reluctant to go.
Evangelising the Myanmar required perseverance and tireless work. The position of minority Christian missionaries on a majority Buddhist land, however, remained uncertain and fragile.
Amaury Lorin is a Yangon-based historian, journalist and consultant who recently published Nouvelle histoire des colonisations européennes XIXe-XXe siècles (2013). He is also founder of Myanmar Challenge.