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Religious History of Thailand

Compiled from information from an earlier article by Marja Woensdregt and Chompuu Kanjanda

Thailand has always been a Buddhist country. Often described as more a way of life than religion, Buddhism pervades Thai life and influences their conduct in countless subtle ways. Over 95% of the Thai people are members of the Theravada Buddhist sect. Thailand has long been tolerant of other religions, but the numbers involved are quite small; one million Muslims predominate in 4 provinces bordering Malaysia; 250,000 Christians and small groups of Hindus, Sikhs and believers of Confucius Ethics. There is a complete freedom of worship, exemplified by the role of the King as protector of all religions.

History of Christianity in Thailand

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Thailand in 1518 and they were allowed to open a Christian mission. In fact the Thai king gave a large donation to build the first Christian (Roman Catholic) church in the country. English traders who arrived in 1612 were agents for the East India Company and were more interested in building a factory than a church. Under King Narai, who was interested in the West, European missionaries and adventurers exerted considerable influence at court. However, when King Narai died in 1688, members of the government, fearing the missionaries proselytizing efforts, killed or expelled all Westerners from Thailand. It remained a closed country to the Europeans for the next 100 years.

In 1780, King Taksin allowed French missionaries to enter Thailand, and like a previous Thai king, helped them build a church. In the early part of the 19th century it was estimated that there were 1,000 Thai Christians in Bangkok, descendants of the Portuguese who were widely intermarried with the Thais. Protestant missionaries arrived in 1828,and the continuous residence of American missionaries dates from 1833. After 18 years, 22 missionaries had failed to make one convert, but their non-religious impact was profound. They brought modern scientific knowledge and western medicine to the country. In 1835, American missionaries set up the first printing press using the Thai alphabet.

King Mongkut learned English from his American missionary friends who also introduced him to Christianity. However, he could not accept Divine Revelation or Redemption of Sin, only pure human reason. He is quoted as saying, "What you teach them to do is admirable, but what you teach them to believe is foolish." Still, he saw no harm in the Christian faith if it helped other people and both the Catholics and the Protestants benefited from his help in many ways.

Although in the early part of this century, the Presbyterian missionaries saw growth occur in the Thai church, this began to level off after a few years. Then, during the 2nd World War, numbers declined, but began to rise again after the war ended when there was an influx of missionaries and new missions, e.g. OMF, New Tribes, WEC. However, it was not until the 1970s that any significant trends began to be established in terms of church growth.

Even though to be born Thai means to be born Buddhist, the average Thai person is not much more a Buddhist than many people in the Western world consider themselves to be Christian. Some rituals are followed by most people, but only a few follow all the rules of Buddhism. It seems that Buddhism has lost a lot of its attraction to the Thai people. The economic turmoil of the recent years has caused a new openness in the Thai people as many are looking for meaning in life besides materialism.

"The power of God is moving in Thailand, the darkness is lifting over Thailand it has never been so easy to lead a Thai person to Christ!" (Peter C. Wagner at a 1996 conference of 7000 Thai believers in Bangkok.)

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