Conservative in Theology, Liberal in Spirit: Modernism and the American Presbyterian Mission in Thailand, 1891-1941 (PhD thesis – PDF free download)

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

As an outgrowth of teaching church history in Bangkok, in 2020 I completed a Ph.D. in World Christianity at Centre for the Study of World Christianity at The University of Edinburgh. 

The thesis title is "Conservative in Theology, Liberal in Spirit: Modernism and the American Presbyterian Mission in Thailand, 1891-1941" and a full-text PDF is now available for free download at

It is my hope that this piece of research will be both interesting and informative for both Thai Christians, missionaries to Thailand, and others who want to see the Gospel advance in Thailand and around the world.  Hopefully, this thesis will at some point appear (in modified form) as a published book.

 1935 Annual Meeting of the American Presbyterian Mission in Siam Mission (Margaret and Kenneth Landon Papers (SC-38), box 348, folder 1458, Wheaton College Special Collections, Wheaton, Illinois)1935 Annual Meeting of the American Presbyterian Mission in Siam (Margaret and Kenneth Landon Papers (SC-38), box 348, folder 1458, Wheaton College Special Collections, Wheaton, Illinois)

The abstract (introductory summary) of the thesis is as follows:

The thesis examines to what extent, and in what ways, modernism impacted the American Presbyterian Mission (APM) in Thailand between 1891 and 1941. At the end of the nineteenth century, an American Protestant missionary consensus assumed proselytization and social service as legitimate goals of mission but the spread of theological liberalism, later classed as modernism, eventually disturbed that consensus. The American Presbyterian mission, however, sought to preserve missionary consensus in Thailand even after it had broken down in China. The APM, which was virtually the only Protestant mission working in Thailand from the mid-nineteenth century until World War II, sought to project a broadly conservative image while engaging in evangelistic, educational, and medical work. The presence of modernism among the missionaries, however, impacted their relationships and work. There were four dimensions of modernist influence among the APM Thailand missionaries, 1) their responses to modern biblical criticism, 2) the influence of theological revisionism in the west, 3) the encounter with Thai Buddhism and its implications for Christian uniqueness, and 4) the desire to modernize Christianity to appeal to Thailand’s educated elite. Though the APM Thailand missionaries were not always aware of the theological convictions of their fellow missionaries due to geographical separation and a pragmatic prioritization on their own work, tensions developed among them. Starting in the late 1920s, the nature and extent of these tensions were brought into relief by foreign visitors who interpreted what they found in Thailand through the lens of their own experience of modernism and fundamentalism in the United States and China. Unitarian journalist Charles Selden, American fundamentalist Donald Grey Barnhouse, and Chinese evangelist John Sung each brought their own unique perspectives, interpreting and engaging with the theological diversity they found among APM missionaries in Thailand. The PCUSA Board of Foreign Missions and the leaders of the APM Thailand mission worked hard to hold together missionaries whose theological differences became more evident over time. However, in the years just prior to World War II, controversy related to divergent theological convictions ultimately proved impossible to avoid. Though modernist thinking was not absent from changing missionary motivations and perceptions of non-Christian religions and evangelism, there was ultimately little explicitly doctrinal controversy in Thailand when compared to the United States and China. This thesis concludes that modernism was present among American Presbyterian missionaries in Thailand and contributed to tensions among them yet did not lead to significant modernist-fundamentalist controversy due to factors related to the Thailand mission context. In the area of world Christianity, the primary contribution of this research is to show how modernism intersected with the development of Protestant mission strategy in Thailand during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
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