Over the nearly 200 years of Protestant work in Thailand, there has been one unanswerable question that every missionary has asked: “After all these years, why aren’t there more Christians?”1
I was recently reading “Siam: Its Government, Manners, Customs, &c.” by Rev. N.A. McDonald, and was struck by the fact that he was asking the same question more than 140 years ago. McDonald was a member of the American Presbyterian Mission in Siam (now Thailand) from 1860-1870, after which time he returned to the United States. At the time of writing, Protestant missionaries had been working in Siam for a bit over 40 years.
I have included below the full text of McDonald’s brief answer to this question that appeared in his 1871 book (minus one phrase that might be objectionable in the current political climate in Thailand). I have left his spelling as-is, but have added headings for his various points to make for easier reading. Those who are familiar with Christianity in Thailand today will note that many of the points he raises are still applicable today (although the modern reader may not agree with, nor express, all of the points in the same way).
Also take note, that he ends his answer with a desire to see more missional business people in Siam. In this regard, he seems a bit ahead of his time.
McDonald writes: “It may be asked why Budhism, and especially the Budhism of Siam, yields so slowly to the power of the Gospel?”
1) The Natural Heart Loves Atheism
The cardinal doctrine of the system is, no God, no intelligent creator and proprietor of the universe. The unrenewed heart loves such a doctrine better than all religious creeds and dogmas, yea, better than the simple gospel of Jesus. As soon as sin entered the world, our first parents were afraid of God, and could they have done so, would have dispensed with him all their days. Thus it is that in Christian countries men batch up development theories, and every imaginable falsehood, to dispense with an intelligent first-cause. Men of natural good sense on other subjects, on account of this enmity against God, become fools upon the great subject, "The fool hath said in his heart no God." Alabaster, in his "Modern Budhist," closes up with the following remarkable flourish:—"The religion of Budha meddled not with the beginning, which it could not fathom; avoided the action of a deity it could not perceive; and left open to endless discussion that problem which it could not solve, the ultimate reward of the perfect. It dealt with life as it found it; it declared all good which led to its sole object, the diminution of the misery of sentient beings; it laid down rules of conduct which have never been surpassed; and held out reasonable hopes of a future of the most perfect happiness.
"Its proofs rest on the assumption that the reason of man is his surest guide, and that the law of nature is perfect justice. To the disproof of those assumptions we recommend the attention of those missionaries who would convert Budhists."
Mr. Alabaster must think missionaries very obtuse, not to be able in thirty years labor in Siam, to find out the strongholds of Budhism. Those "assumptions" have been "disproved" a thousand times, but as they harmonize with the natural heart of the Budhist, and indeed with that of very many who are nominal Christians, but who are in greater condemnation than the Budhist, all reasonable proof is rejected.
2) Union of Religion and Nation
Again, in all Budhist countries there is a mutual union of church and state, and the Budhist regards kings as the proper rulers of the land, and also the regulator of the religion. A man in Siam who embraces Christianity, expects to cut himself off from everything which has hitherto been near and dear to him. They have the most profound reverence for the King, and cannot understand how the United States can get along without one. A nobleman not long since asked a missionary in good faith, if the United States would not soon be far enough advanced to have a King, like England and France. The missionary replied, that from present indications England and France would soon [deleted] do without one.
3) Devotion to Thai Tradition
The Siamese are also wonderfully addicted to custom. Whatever their fathers have done they must do, how ridiculous soever that may be. "Pen tumneum thai,"—it is Siamese custom, is sufficient reason for doing anything. It is seldom that a Siamese can be drawn into an argument, even on religion. They will generally assent to everything the missionary says, and will reply, "Your religion is no doubt much better than ours, but it would be contrary to custom to abandon our religion in this life; in the next life we will embrace Christianity." Apostasy from Budhism too, is one of their unpardonable sins.
4) Immoral Foreigners
One of the greatest obstacles to the spread of the Gospel amongst the heathen is, the ungodly example of those who have been brought up in Christian countries, and who unfortunately bear the Christian name. Every port open to commerce is overrun with adventurers from western countries. So few of them have any religion at all, that the heathen are unable to make any distinction. Many too, who have professed religion, when they come to the East manifest no vital godliness, and soon abandon themselves to every imaginable vice. Most of the official representatives sent out by western governments are either avowed infidels, or men of no moral character. All these things are against us. The Siamese have frequently said to me, "Why do you offer us your religion, whilst those in our midst, who have been brought up in that religion, are no better than we, and are even more abandoned? True, you missionaries do not engage in those vices to which the others are addicted, but religion is your business. You are paid for it." It will also be found that all such characters are opposed to Christian missions, and missionaries in general, and are ever ready to bear testimony against them.
I have often thought that a few such business men as George H. Stuart, who carry religion into business and every-day life, would do more in the East in converting the heathen, than a host of missionaries. It is not however, "By might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord."
In view therefore, of all these obstacles and difficulties, we appeal to all true Christians for their sympathies and prayers for the success of this great work which God has committed to his Church.”
1 As of 2015, the Protestant population is approximately 0.6% or about 400,000 people, plus or minus. The number jumps to a bit over 1% if you include Roman Catholics. See here for more statistics on Christianity in Thailand.