The history of Chrisitan and missionary work in every country has a beginning, and August 23, 1828 marks the beginning of Protestant work in Thailand (formerly Siam). On that day, German doctor Karl Gutzlaff and Jacob Tomlin of the London Missionary Society arrived in Bangkok. They are remembered as the first resident Protestant missionaries to work in the country, although small numbers of Roman Catholics had been in Thailand for many years.
Gutzlaff and Tomlin's ship arrived in Bangkok on a Saturday evening, and they went on shore the following day. I always find it fascinating to hear someone's first impressions of a place and have included below Jacob Tomlin's account of their first two days in Thailand, drawn from his personal journal, as found in Anthony Farrington, ed. Early Missionaries in Bangkok: The Journals of Tomlin, Gutzlaff, and Abeel, 1828-1832. Bangkok, Thailand: White Lotus Press, 2001, p.8-10.
Saturday August 23rd, 1828. In the afternoon run up to Bangkok before a fresh breeze. Opened the city suddenly at 2 or 3 miles distance. In approaching the capital the scenery and dwellings on each side become more varied and beautiful. A temple somewhat like a village church standing on the bank with a few light elegant houses, half shaded by the foliage of trees, has a very rural and lovely appearance. Canals or small rivers branch off from the river at intervals running into the country, each opening a beautiful vista with its grassy banks and bamboos waving over the stream. A lively busy scene appears now on the river — hundreds of boats of all sizes moving in every direction. A long line of junks on the left side just on entering the city, with a range of Chinese smiths' and carpenters' shops, behind a splendid pagoda literally blazing in gold, the Romish Episcopal Chapel standing close by in a rural sequestered situation. Our crew being now hailed by their friends on board another junk ringing a gong, one of our men mounted the poop and returned a merry salute, which was repeated several times, each responding to the other till we got well into the city.
The city gradually improves on advancing into it. The banks of the river are chiefly inhabited by Chinese, behind them some respectable tiled houses and 2 temples. Dropped anchor in the midst of the city about sunset. Soon after, a heavy dark squall hung over us — a fit emblem of the moral darkness which clouds this people.
Sabbath August 24th, 1828. Gutzlaff went early on shore and saw the owner of the junk, a respectable Chinaman, who kindly offers us two rooms in his house. I called on Mr Hunter and went with him to the Captain of the Port. He is head of the Christians residing in what is called the Christian Campong, a wretched filthy place! He speaks a sort of Portuguese English, seems of a mild, candid intelligent spirit. At first he was a little at a loss how to introduce me to the Phra Klang, but after some reflection thought "Mr H's Priest" would be the most suitable and intelligent appellation. We all went together to the Phra Klang's and found him sitting on a bamboo platform in the corner of a carpenter's shop contiguous to his house! Gutzlaff was already there. The Captain, who interprets, with several other Catholics, sat crouching behind us like dogs. The Phra Klang had merely a cloth round his waist, is corpulent and of a humorous turn, and was superintending a Dutch carpenter making some machine for him. During the whole of the conversation he held a common musket. Was a good deal puzzled about G's country having never heard the name Germany or Allemand and could not conceive where it lay; it even surpassed the Captain of the Port's geographical knowledge, who stands pre-eminent amongst the Christians of Bangkok for his learning. The Phra Klang was surprized at our knowledge of the Chinese language, and asked us if we could also read Chinese books, and which of us had best knowledge of them? Asked if we made Church?, and sermons? had Hunter heard us preach? — the Phra Klang would like to hear us himself. We requested him to wait till we had learnt the Siamese language. Could we pray? why not pray now? it was very proper for us to pray after our voyage. We said it was not our custom to pray in public, and we had already prayed and given thanks to the God of Heaven in private this morning. Were our priests allowed to marry? On replying in the affirmative, he thought that was very good but being restricted to one wife was rather hard.
Some of the Catholics whispered we were bad men, worse than heathen, believing neither in God, heaven or hell! A bitter spirit was evidently working against us in the breasts of these Christians and we heard they had been previously much troubled at our coming hither. The Phra Klang however seemed to pay little regard to them.
We stayed about half an hour and parted with him in a friendly manner, apparently quite satisfied with our character and intentions and willing for us to reside here.
Dined with Mr Hunter and returned to the junk in the evening The lady of the mandarin who has promised us rooms sent an elegant present of fruits and a message that the rooms were prepared, chairs and tables &c having been put into them. Feel already quite at home and rejoice in the Lord's goodness to us.
The priests seem here a numerous tribe; multitudes are every morning, soon after day break, moving about in their boats on the river from house to house begging rice.