Christian Imperialism: The American Mission to Burma
Professor Heather Nolting
28 August 2018
Christian Imperialism: The American Mission to Burma
In the 19th century, at the height of colonialism, there was increased information and know-how on Asia and Africa. The American and European churches established that much of these regions were yet to be explored, and directed their attention to them. Missionary activities were a vital component of the social, political, economic, and educational fabric of many countries.
Some of their activities included the building of hospitals and missionary schools, the spread of medical knowledge, promotion of history and international law, and the dissemination of medical knowledge. The American mission to Burma had a considerable contribution to the growth of Christianity in the country despite the challenging environment.
The evangelistic impetus of the American church during the revival period guided circuit riders to the frontiers. The slave trade and China trade had familiarized the Americans with Africa and the Far East (“Baptist Missionaries in Burma”). The churches had sent some of their workers to preach to the audiences in these areas, as well as, set up hospitals, and schools. Some of the major organizations that had a huge presence in this area include the American Presbyterian, Methodist Episcopal Church Ministry Society, Baptist Burmese Mission, and the country’s Foreign Missions’ Board of Commissioners (“Baptist Missionaries in Burma”).
While some of the agencies involved in the early missionary work have ceased operations, there are those that still maintain an active presence in the country among them the Salvation Army, Denominational boards, agencies bearing a relation to the World Council of Churches, as well as, individuals to mission-oriented groups including the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
American missionaries among them Adoniram Judson set foot in Burma for the first time in the early 19th century (Kham 65). While their activities in the area had a huge contribution to the spread of Christianity in the country, they were not the first as the Portuguese and Italian missionaries had preceded them.
The Burmese Socialist Program government took away many of the mission hospitals and schools that the missionaries had developed under the nationalization label. Some examples include the Mary Chapman School for the Deaf and Dumb located in Rangoon, Moulmein’s Christian Leprosy Hospital, and Karen Baptist Church’s Christian Blind School (Kham 66). The American missionaries helped convert more Christians helping to cover up for the failures of the past European missionaries who had not managed to convert many of the Burmese into the Catholic Faith.
In the case of the Protestant faith, the American missionaries receive credit for much of the progress made in entrenching it in the country. While they were not the first in the country, circumstances worked in their favor. The British were the first but did not have much opportunity due to the turn of events when they (Richard Mardon and James Chater) first came into the country in 1887 (Kham 66).
For instance, Mardon left the station while Charter pulled out of the mission later on and moved to Ceylon. Several other people that the two had introduced into the mission did not carry on with it due to different reasons. It seems that God had reserved the setting up and sustaining of the Burman Mission to the American Baptist Churches.
America’s Baptist Mission was established in Burma by Adoniram Judson. He landed in the country on the 13th of July 1813 accompanied by his wife, Ann Judson (Kham 71). Maung Nau was the first convert of Mr. Judson, following six years of hard work. The baptism of Maung is touted as the beginning of Burma’s Protestant Church. Judson had considerable challenges in his attempts to convert people into the Christian faith since a vast majority of them were rooted in Buddhism and were unwilling to open up to other religions (Duesing 137). The Burmese viewed the missionaries as foreigners. They loathed foreigners. Judson put immense effort into identifying with the locals. He went to the extent of adorning the customary ware and building structures that resembled theirs to enhance his appeal to them. Despite the challenges, Burma’s Christian faith has grown over the years from a mere 1% of the population to about 5% of the country’s population of 52 million people today (Kham 72).
Evidently, the Burma experience for the American missionaries was significantly fruitful. The China trade served to open up Burma to the American missionaries who went out to spread the word of God, as well as build essential facilities such as schools and hospitals. The locals were hesitant in adopting new practices from foreigners which gave the missionaries a hard time trying to convert some of them. However, the growth of Christianity in Burma over the years is proof of the success of the work by the American Baptist mission to Burma.
“Baptist Missionaries in Burma.” Scholarly Resources from Concordia Seminary | Concordia Seminary – Saint Louis Research, scholar.csl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgiarticle=1021&context=ph. Accessed 28 Aug. 2018.
Duesing, Jason G. Adoniram Judson: A Bicentennial Appreciation of the Pioneer American Missionary (Studies in Baptist Life and Thought). Nashville, B & H Acacemic, 2012.
Kham, Zam Khat. Burmese Nationalism and Christianity in Myanmar: Christian Identity and Witness in Myanmar Today. Dissertation, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, 2016.