In the few Thai church history books that exist, Jacob Tomlin and Karl Gutzlaff are credited with being the first resident Protestant missionaries in Thailand. Arriving on August 23, 1828, the two men only stayed for a few years before moving on to other parts of East Asia. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, they didn’t have a lot to show for their efforts in Thailand before leaving for good in 1831 (Gutzlaff) and 1832 (Tomlin).
When they arrived, they already spoke Chinese and set to work distributing Christian books in Chinese, which attracted considerable interest from locals, especially the many Chinese residents of Bangkok, as well as opposition from Catholic priests. But they were not only concerned to share the Gospel with Chinese speakers and they set to work learning Thai. With a massive amount of help from some unsung local assistants, Gützlaff and Tomlin produced a translation of the New Testament in Thai, though the quality of their work was of dubious value and the king of Thailand said he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. They also started work on an English-Thai dictionary, and got up to the letter R. Aside from these modest literary accomplishments, Gützlaff and Tomlin’s efforts resulted in several inquirers but only one baptized convert, a Chinese man named Boon Tee (Koë Bun Tai).
If they had stayed, they might have accomplished much more. And if we look at only what they accomplished during their short stint in-country, it is questionable whether they deserve the high praise they receive in the annals of Protestant history in Thailand. But what they did do was get the ball rolling for Protestant missions in Thailand. How did they do that?
They sent some letters.
If Gutzlaff and Tomlin had sailed for other shores with brighter promise, without telling others of their experience in Thailand and the opportunities it held, it might have been many more years before long-term Protestant missionaries again sailed up the Chao Phraya river into Bangkok. But on a short trip to Singapore during their two and half year residence in Bangkok, Gützlaff and Tomlin became mission mobilizers for Thailand.
In two letters which they sent out, Gutzlaff and Tomlin relayed the great need of Thailand for the Gospel and called for more workers to be sent. One letter went to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) and the other went to Adoniram Judson and the American Baptist mission in Burma. These letters bore fruit in the appointment of three missionaries to work in Thailand. The ABCFM sent David Abeel to Siam in 1831 and the American Baptist Mission in Burma designated John and Eliza Jones to work in Thailand, arriving in 1833.
David Abeel stayed in Thailand for only a year but a goodly number of ABCFM missionaries followed him, including the famous and influential Dr. Dan Beach Bradley. Eliza Jones of the American Baptists picked up Gutzlaff and Tomlin’s dictionary work, moving beyond the letter R and improving what they had already done. Her husband John took up the Bible translation work and his (greatly improved) translation of the New Testament (from Greek this time, not Chinese!) was published in 1843.
Whatever their other accomplishments, it is important to remember the crucial role that Gutzlaff and Tomlin played in putting Thailand on the map of other missions. They themselves may not have been very productive in terms of disciples made or churches planted, but in God’s providence, they were the pioneers who issued the call for more workers - and God used that call to bring His servants to Thailand. A letter in the hand of God may accomplish more for the cause of the Gospel than our own hands ever will.