English Teaching vs. Evangelism - A Lesson from 19th Century Bangkok

Written by Karl Dahlfred.

On August 4, 1851 a unique opportunity opened up for Mrs. Sarah Bradley and a couple of other missionary women in Bangkok. It was a chance that any missionary would have jumped at, but also one that needed to be managed well… which it wasn’t, as will be seen.

Despite the general neglect of women’s education in mid-nineteenth century Thailand, King Mongkut (Rama IV) invited Mrs. Mary Mattoon, Mrs. Sarah Bradley, and Mrs. Sarah Jones to teach English to his wives and other women in the royal palace. The king was a forward-looking and modern-minded monarch who was eager to gain Western knowledge from missionaries and other Westerners. Previously, missionary Jesse Caswell had been a private tutor to the king and as a result King Mongkut became quite adept in English and was eager for others in the royal household to learn English as well.

View of Bangkok during Mongkut's lifetime, Grand Palace shown in center
View of Bangkok during King Mongkut's lifetime (Grand Palace is shown in center)

Accepting the king’s invitation, for more than a year, the three missionary women visited the palace six days per week, each woman taking two days. Teaching temporarily stopped in December 1852 after the illness and death of one of the young queens. When it recommenced in 1853, the teaching became more evangelistic than previously, due in part to the interest shown by the palace women themselves. The Mattoons’ annual report, dated Sept 30, 1854, recorded that very little had been done in English during the previous year, and the majority of instruction had been Christian content in the Thai language.

Just two days previous to the writing of this report, on Sept 28, 1854, King Mongkut summoned all the missionaries and European residents of Bangkok to question them about a scathing article about himself that had appeared in The Straits Times a couple of weeks earlier. The king was very angry about the article and felt certain that one of the missionaries was the unnamed source for the Singaporean newspaper article. Servants and employees of missionaries were arrested and then released after a brief detention, and the king very nearly ejected all the missionaries from the country. At this time the three missionary women temporarily ceased teaching, though after a few days, Mrs. Mattoon and Mrs. Smith returned to their teaching in the palace. This was short-lived however, and not many days later, no one would open the gate of the palace to let the missionary women in.

The exact reason for the termination of their teaching sessions is unclear. However, King Mongkut’s subsequent employment of a private teacher, Mrs. Anna Leonowens, to teach the palace women and children indicates a strong possibility that the king was displeased with the missionary women’s prioritization of teaching Christianity over English. In a February 26, 1862 letter inviting Anna Leonowens to come to Bangkok, the king wrote:

We are in good pleasure, and satisfaction in heart, that you are in willingness to undertake the education of our beloved royal children. And we hope that in doing your education on us and our children (whom English call inhabitants of benighted land) you will do your best endeavor for knowledge of English language, science, and literature, and not for conversion to Christianity; as the followers of Buddha are mostly aware of the powerfulness of truth and virtue, as well as the followers of Christ, and are desirous to have facility of English language and literature, more than new religions.

It is evident from the experience of the three missionary women and the subsequent terms of employment for Anna Leonowens that King Mongkut, while valuing what missionaries could offer, was only content to accept the help of foreigners if they gave the type of assistance that he desired.

King Mongkut with one of his wives and several of his children
King Mongkut with one of his wives and several of his children

King Mongkut never forbade evangelism per se. He was fully aware of the religious goals of the missionaries in his kingdom and he was happy to tolerate their evangelism, but these missionaries needed to know the appropriate time and place to share the Gospel. Missionaries were welcome in Thailand as long as they contributed to national development and modernization in ways desired by the Thai elite, and knew how to eschew proselytization in certain contexts.

The lesson that the three missionary women forgot was that if you are invited to teach English, then you need to teach English. If students are interested in hearing about Christianity, that is fine, but the missionary must use discernment to know whether that can be done with integrity during class time, or if it is better to defer it to outside of class hours. While it is important for Christians to be faithful in sharing the Gospel, it is also important to be faithful to even the secular or secondary tasks that we have agreed to. A failure to do so can both bring gospel opportunities to an untimely end, but will also reflect poorly on the character of God and the Gospel that we are verbally proclaiming.