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Being Protestant Christians in Southeast Asian Worlds

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 August 2011

Charles F. Keyes
University of Washington


The five cases of Protestant Christian practice in Indonesia and Thailand presented in this symposium are used to develop a sociology of Protestantism in Southeast Asia. A review is first undertaken of the history of Protestant missionary activity in Southeast Asia. Protestantism, it is observed, insists on the ultimate authority of the Bible. This authority has not been accepted by Southeast Asians until they have access to the Christian message in their own languages and they are motivated to adopt Christian practices as a means to confront deep crises in their lives. The establishment of Protestant Christianity has entailed the interpreting of the Christian message with reference to the non-Christian contexts in which Protestants in Southeast Asia live.

Symposium: Protestants and Tradition in Southeast Asia
Copyright © The National University of Singapore 1996

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1 See Weber, Max, “The Social Psychology of the World Religions”, in From Max Weber, ed. and trans. Gerth, H.H. and Mills, C. Wright (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 267301Google Scholar; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Parsons, Talcott (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958)Google Scholar; The Sociology of Religion, trans. Fischoff, Ephraim, intr. Parsons, Talcott (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963)Google Scholar.

2 See Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Nice, Richard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Comaroff's, JeanBody of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985)Google Scholar is an excellent example of the sociology of Christianity that is informed by the theory of practice.

3 Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992. See, especially, Hefner's introductory essay, “World Building and the Rationality of Conversion”, pp. 3–44.

4 For some references see Anderson, Gerald H., Christianity in Southeast Asia: A Bibliographical Guide — An Annotated Bibliography of Selected References in Western Languages (New York: The Missionary Research Library and New Haven: Yale University, Southeast Asia Studies, 1966)Google Scholar.

5 See, for example, Smalley, William A., “The Gospel and Cultures of Laos”, Practical Anthropology 3,3 (1956): 4757Google Scholar, and Hovemyr, Anders P., In Search of the Karen King: A Study in Karen Identity with Special Reference to 19th Century Karen Evangelism in Northern Thailand (Uppsala: University of Uppsala, Studia Missionalia Upsaliensia XLIX, 1989)Google Scholar.

6 Guillot, Claude, L'Affaire Sadrach: Un Essai de christianisation à Java au XIXe siècle (Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, Etudes Insulindiennes/Archipel 4, 1981)Google Scholar.

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9 Rogers-Siregar, Susan, Adat, Islam and Christianity in a Batak Homeland (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Papers in International Studies No. 57, 1981)Google Scholar; Hoskins, Janet, “Entering the Bitter House: Spirit Worship and Conversion in West Sumba”, in Indonesian Religions in Transition, ed. Kipp, Rita Smith and Rogers, Susan (Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press, 1987), pp. 136–60Google Scholar.

10 Ackerman, Susan, “Experimentation and Renewal among Malaysian Christians: The Charismatic Movement in Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya”, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science 12,1 (1984): 3548CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ackerman, Susan E. and Lee, Raymond L. M., Heaven in Transition: Non-Muslim Religious Innovation and Ethnic Identity in Malaysia (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Clammer, John, Singapore: Ideology, Society, Culture (Singapore: Chopmen Publishers, 1985)Google Scholar.

11 Kammerer, Cornelia Ann, “Customs and Christian Conversion among Akha Highlanders of Burma and Thailand”, American Ethnologist 17, 2 (1990): 277–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tapp, Nicholas, “The Impact of Missionary Christianity upon Marginalized Ethnic Minorities: The Case of the Hmong”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 20,1 (Mar. 1989): 7095CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hayami, Yoko, “Ritual and Religious Transformation among Sgaw Karen of Northern Thailand; Implications on Gender and Ethnic Identity” (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1992)Google Scholar.

12 Hughes, Philip J., Proclamation and Response: A Study of the History of the Christian Faith in Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai: Payap College, Manuscript Division, 1982)Google Scholar, The Assimilation of Christianity in the Thai Culture”, Religion 14 (1984): 313–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Values of Thai Buddhists and Thai Christians”, Journal of the Siam Society 72,1–2 (1984): 212–27Google Scholar, Christianity and Buddhism in Thailand”, Journal of the Siam Society 73,1–2 (1985): 2341Google Scholar; Cohen, Erik, “Christianity and Buddhism in Thailand: The ‘Battle of the Axes’ and the ‘Contest of Power’”, Social Compass 38,2 (1991): 115–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fordham, Graham S., “Protestant Christianity and the Transformation of Northern Thai Culture: Ritual Practice, Belief and Kinship” (Ph.D. diss., University of Adelaide, 1991)Google Scholar; Zehner, Edwin, “Merit, Man and Ministry: Traditional Thai Hierarchies in a Contemporary Church”, Social Compass 38,2 (1991): 155–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Charles F. Keyes, “Why the Thai are Not Christians: Buddhist and Christian Conversion in Thailand”, in Conversion to Christianity, ed. Hefner, pp. 259–84.

14 In 1986 in collaboration with Jean-Paul Dumont I organized under the auspices of the Joint Social Science Research Council and American Council of Learned Societies Committee on Southeast Asia a conference on Christianity in Southeast Asia. While the conference was successful in bringing together for the first time researchers engaged in the study of Christianity in different parts of the region, it did not generate a coherent theoretical approach for a sociology of Christianity. Part of the difficulty derived from the significant differences between the sociology of Catholicism and the sociology of Protestantism. For a brief report on the conference, see my Christianity as an Indigenous Religion in Southeast Asia”, Social Compass 38,2 (1991): 177–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The sociology of Catholicism is best developed for the Philippines; see, especially, Ileto, Reynaldo Clemena, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, 1840–1910 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1979Google Scholar) and Rafael, Vicente L., Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

15 Hasselt, F.J.F. Van, in The Netherlands Indies by Joh. Rauws, H. Karemer, Hasselt, F.J.F. Van, and Bruine, N.A.C. Slotemaker de (London and New York: World Dominion Press, 1935)Google Scholar, dates the beginning of Protestant missionary work in the Indonesian archipelago to 1599 when the Dutch Reformed Church declared “that Christians coming and going to the Indies should not be left without instruction and ‘that it was hoped to get an opportunity to teach the people living there in darkness the true Christian religion’”. A small number of people, mainly living on islands in the Moluccas, were converted during the eighteenth century. A decline in the fortunes of the Dutch East India Company during the eighteenth century was associated with reduced support for missions and the few churches which had been begun lost members (ibid., p. 38). A new missionary movement in the Dutch East Indies began in the early nineteenth century, a consequence of the Dutch government's takeover of the colonial role played by the Dutch East India Company and of the establishment of missionary societies in both Holland and elsewhere in Europe (Joh. Rauws in Rauws, et al, The Netherlands Indies, ch. 3).

16 Brumberg, Joan Jacobs, in Mission for Life: The Story of the Family of Adoniram Judson, the Dramatic Events of the First American Foreign Mission, and the Course of Evangelical Religion in the Nineteenth Century (New York: The Free Press and London: Collier Macmillan, 1980)Google Scholar, traces the roots of the first American foreign missions to the “Second Awakening” of the early nineteenth century. This biography is excellent both for its study of the American social context which supported the foreign missions of the period and for its critique of missionary hagiography.

17 I use the name Burma in preference to Myanmar, the current official name of the country, because my references are to the country at a period when it was known by the former name.

18 One would like to see a study of translation by Protestants comparable to Rafael's Contracting Colonialism, which examines the consequences of translation (and mis-translation) of Catholic liturgies into Tagalog by Spanish friars.

19 See Keyes, “Why the Thai Are Not Christians”.

20 See Bentley, G. Carter, “Implicit Evangelism: American Education among the Muslim Maranao”, Filipinos 12 (1989): 7396Google Scholar.

21 See, in this regard, Watson, Keith, “The Contribution of Mission Schools to Educational Development in Southeast Asia”, in Education in the Third World, ed. Watson, Keith (London and Canberra: Croom Helm, 1982), pp. 7187Google Scholar, and Keyes, Charles F., “State Schools in Rural Communities: Reflections on Rural Education and Cultural Change in Southeast Asia”, in Reshaping Local Worlds: Formal Education and Cultural Change in Rural Southeast Asia, ed. Keyes, Charles F. (New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies Monograph 36, 1991), pp. 118Google Scholar.

22 Starling, Lucy, Dawn over Temple Roofs (New York: World Horizons, 1960), p. 179Google Scholar. A handbook on Thailand published in 1974, but drawing on data from the 1960s, estimated that the total Christian population of Thailand was 100,000. See Moore, Frank J., Thailand: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture (New Haven: HRAF Press, 1974), p. 216Google Scholar.

23 Kim, Samuel I., The Unfinished Mission in Thailand: The Uncertain Christian Impact on the Buddhist Heartland (Seoul, Korea: East-West Center for Missions Research and Development, 1980)Google Scholar.

24 These figures are calculated from statistical tables given in Rauws, et al., The Netherlands Indies.

25 Statistics again calculated from data in ibid.

26 Ricklefs, M.C., A History of Modern Indonesia (London: Macmillan, 1981), p. 23CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Ibid., p. 25.

28 Cooley, Frank L., “Allang: A Village on Ambon Island”, in Villages in Indonesia, ed. Koentjaraningrat, (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1967), p. 148Google Scholar.

29 See Bunker, Alonzo, Soo Thah: A Tale of the Making of the Karen Nation (New York: Fleming H. Re veil, 1902)Google Scholar and Marshall, H.I., “The Karen People of Burma”, The Ohio State University Bulletin 26,13 (1922)Google Scholar.

30 Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia, p. 230.

31 See Falla, Jonathan, True Love and Bartholomew: Rebels on the Burmese Border (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991CrossRefGoogle Scholar) and Smith, Martin, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (London: Zed Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

32 This and the following statistical data are taken from Barnett, David B. (ed.), World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, AD 1900–2000 (London: Oxford University Press, 1982)Google Scholar.

33 If Khmer who had been converted while living in refugee camps inside Thailand were taken into account, the percentage of Christians in the Cambodian population may be larger than that in Thailand. The percentage of Protestants in Laos in the mid-1980s appears to have been roughly equal to that of Thailand.

34 I have elaborated on the idea of “crisis of order” in other papers dealing with Buddhist movements in Thailand. See my Millennialism, Theravada Buddhism, and Thai Society”, Journal of Asian Studies 36,2 (1977): 283302Google Scholar; “Political Crisis and Militant Buddhism in Contemporary Thailand”, in Religion and Legitimation of Power in Thailand, Burma, and Laos, ed. Smith, Bardwell (Chambersburg, Pa.: Anima Books, 1978), pp. 147–64Google Scholar; and Buddhist Politics and Their Revolutionary Origins in Thailand”, in Eisenstadt, S.N. (ed.), “Structure and History”, International Political Science Review 10,2 (1989): 121–42Google Scholar.

35 See Aragon's paper in this issue of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies; cf. Tapp, Nicholas, Sovereignty and Rebellion: The White Hmong of Northern Thailand (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 85Google Scholar, and Tapp, “The Impact of Missionary Christianity upon Marginalized Ethnic Minorities”.

36 See Joseph A. Weinstock, “Kaharingan: Life and Death in Southern Borneo”, pp. 98–112, and Jane Monnig Atkinson, “Religions in Dialogue: The Construction of an Indonesian Minority Religion”, pp. 171–86, both in Indonesian Religions in Transition, ed. Kipp and Rogers.

37 See, in this regard, my “Millennialism, Theravāda Buddhism, and Thai Society” and my “Buddhist Politics and Their Revolutionary Origins in Thailand”.

38 Wolters, O.W., History, Culture and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1982), pp. 6ffGoogle Scholar; also see my “Christianity as an Indigenous Religion in Southeast Asia”, p. 179.

39 In 1988, Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister of Singapore, reported that since 1980 the percentage of Christians in the Singaporean population had grown from 10.3 per cent to 18.7 per cent (N. Balakrishnan, “The Gospel According to an Agnostic Lee”, Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 Dec. 1988). This remarkable growth was almost entirely accounted for by the success of evangelical Protestants. See Lincoln Kaye and V.G. Kulkarni, “A Queue of Christians”, Far Eastern Economic Review, 12 Jan. 1984, and Margaret Scott, “Halting the Crusade”, Far Eastern Economic Review, 2 Jul. 1987. This success stimulated protests by Malay Muslims and led to controls being placed on proselytization. Government efforts to control religion can, in some cases, enhance rather than detract from the charisma of evangelists. In Vietnam between 1974 and 1986, during a period when joining either Catholic or Protestant churches was viewed as an act hostile to national interests, evangelical Protestants more than doubled in number, from 140,000 in 1974 to around 300,000 in 1986. See Reimer, Reg, “Evangelicals in Vietnam”, Indochina Issues 74 (1987): 89Google Scholar.

40 Cf. Tapp, Sovereignty and Rebellion, ch. 6.

41 See Horton, Robin, “African Conversion”, Africa 41,2 (1971): 85108CrossRefGoogle Scholar; On the Rationality of Conversion”, Africa 45,3 (1975): 219–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar; On the Rationality of Conversion, Part II”, Africa 45,4 (1975): 7399Google Scholar. Also see Hefner's discussion of Horton in “World Building and the Rationality of Conversion”, pp. 200–222.

42 See Stern, Theodore, “Ariya and the Golden Book: A Millenarian Buddhist Sect among the Karen”, Journal of Asian Studies 27,2 (1968): 297328CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Tapp, Sovereignty and Rebellion, ch. 7.

43 The development of reformed Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia and the transformation of Theravada Buddhism in Burma and Thailand were, however, influenced to some extent by the rationalist approach of Christian missionaries. As noted above, missionary-established schools paved the way for modern state-sponsored secular education.

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