From 1779 to 1803, The Chiang Mai Chronicle describes the city of Chiang Saen being attacked six times by northern Thai armies in their attempt to usurp the Burmese invaders. Finally, in 1804 a joint northern Thai army consisting of men from Chiang Mai, Lampang, Nan, and Prae succeeded to induce the inhabitants of the city to turn on the Burman governor and soldiers stationed there. However, the inhabitants’ deal was short-lived as the invaders reneged on their promise, and the locals became war captives, shipped off to live as slaves in Chiang Mai, Lampang, Nan, and Prae. Years later, in Chiang Mai, a descendant of one of these war captives named Nan Suwan would come to play an essential role in the Thai church’s history.
Reportedly, Nan Suwan was “broad-minded, hospitable, kindly, and thoroughly upright.” In 1875, Nan Suwan left the Buddhist monkhood and joined his family in baptism through the suggestion and leadership of his elderly father. Nan Suwan quickly became an able and trusted leader within the northern Thai church. In 1877, during a catastrophic malaria outbreak, Nan Suwan and Nan Inta (the first baptized convert and elder of Chiang Mai First Church) worked with McGilvary for the physical relief of the people. Both men were recommended for their efforts.
By 1878, Nan Suwan led other members of his family to become Christian. There were other Christian influences in Nan Suwan’s family as his daughter, Kui Keo, had previously been a student of Sophia B. McGilvary at her girl’s school in Chiang Mai. During this same year, the Siam government initiated a plan to strengthen its claims to the northern regions. Immigrations from Burma were increasing into the northern Siam kingdoms. Political movements by the English in the Shan States and by the French in Indo-China were beginning to cause concerns. King Chulalongkorn of Siam initiated a plan to repopulate Chiang Saen and the region from descendants of the war slaves throughout the provinces of Chiang Mai, Lampang, Nan, and Phrae.
The response from the northern Thai Princes was less than enthusiastic. For these leaders, the war slaves were a large part of their free workforce. Therefore, a tremendous financial loss would be made by having them sent back to the north. Each Prince attempted to defend their claim on their war slaves or, at the least, to reduce their conscription quota significantly. After two years of deliberations, the Princes and the King of Siam agreed that Nan province would hold onto all their slaves, that Lampang Province would have their quota reduced and that Chiang Mai and Lamphun were to send into the north, the highest number of war slaves.
Nan Suwan was one of those called by the Chiang Mai leaders to return and repopulate Chiang Saen. At first, Nan Suwan planned to pay another family to take his family’s place. However, the APM missionaries persuaded Nan Suwan that this was an exceptional opportunity to spread the Gospel in the north. Despite the dangers of malaria known to ravage the region, Nan Suwan agreed to the move but requested for his family to be exempt from being forced to go immediately. Meanwhile, Nan Suwan headed north and spent a few years building up a new homestead for his family in Chiang Saen.
As Nan Suwan was away in Chiang Saen, his family’s home served as the birthplace of Mae Dawk Daeng Church. On Christmas Day in 1880, the first worship service of Mae Dawk Daeng Church was held in Nan Suwan’s home with his wife, daughter, and sister presenting their official letters of dismissal from Chiang Mai First Church to become part of the founding members of Mae Dawk Daeng church. In 1881, Nan Suwan returned to Chiang Mai and united with the Mae Dawk Daeng Church, officially receiving his certificate of dismissal from Chiang Mai First Church. Jonathan Wilson would remark on this meeting and worship with a somewhat moribund tone:
“We were happy in the present and thoughts of the future with courage and hope. It might be that Nan Suwan would never again meet with us around the communion table. His sister a member of this little church on the plain was absent having been called with her husband to go to Chieng Saan. So our thoughts were for these two disciples she already and he soon to be far separated from the people of God. We could only pray that the Good Shepherd would watch over them, wherever they were in life and in death. Last year Nan Suwan had a long spell of fever. He does not look as if he has recovered intensely from the effects of it. And Chieng Saan is more subject to malarial influences than even the plains of Chiang Mai.”
Wilson’s precognition was premature. The northern Thai Christian community at Chiang Saen would go onto play a unique and pivotal role in cross-cultural missions in north Siam and beyond.
In February 1884, an expedition led by British engineer Holt S. Hallet along with Dr. J.N. Cushing, an American Baptist (ABMU) missionary in Burma, was serving as Holt’s translator arrived in Chiang Mai. The goal of their expedition was to survey the possibility of a road or railway to link Moulmein – Chiang Mai – Chiang Saen and perhaps onward into Yunnan, China. The team enlisted Dr. McGilvary’s assistance with all expenses paid. Along with McGilvary came the very able evangelist Nan Ta who would later go onto be northern Thailand’s first indigenous ordained pastor. McGilvary and Nan Ta were allowed the opportunity to rest on the Sabbath. They also conduct evangelism events in the evenings during all their stops and be given opportunities to visit the northern Christian communities. Due to the Siam government’s efforts to repopulate the northern regions, these communities had begun to develop over the last four years. This trip would be McGilvary’s second trip to the area as he had not done so since his exploration trip to Luang Prabang in 1872. McGilvary and his team in tow visited Chiang Rai and met with the governor there, who was also a distant relative of Nan Ta. The governor enthusiastically requested for the missionaries to open a station in Chiang Rai city. They then headed onto Chiang Saen, where McGilvary met up with Nan Suwan. Nan Suwan had been of excellent service to the town by providing medical care and, in particular, quinine treatment, which had earned him the respect of the people and the governor. Hallet, in his book, A Thousand Miles On An Elephant, mentions a Christian elder who escorted him around Chiang Saen. Undoubtedly, this was Nan Suwan, who Hallett was referring to.
In 1886, three separate evangelistic trips were made in the first half of the year to the Chieng Saen area. During one of these trips, Chalmers Martin, an APM missionary, baptized two new believers at Chiang Saen, who had been discipled by Nan Suwan. A week or so after Martin’s return to Chiang Mai, Nan Ta (who would become the first ordained Lao pastor) escorted Daniel McGilvary to the north to see the promising work. McGilvary was pleased with the excellent results in the north. He baptized and received into the northern Thai church, nineteen adults, and twenty-three children from over ten villages and towns where Christians and others interested in the Gospel were located. Daniel McGilvary gives credit to the northern Thai Christians who were doing most of the evangelistic and discipleship work by writing in one letter:
“we were reaping the labor of Nan Ta and others before. We are more and more gratified at the work done by some of our native assistants even when in no way employed as assistants. The great problem is to increase this agency in our work.”
The draw of doing mission work to Chieng Saen and the north was clear. In years to follow, as stations to the north were contemplated, there tended to be push back with some members in the APM Board questioning why the Laos Mission did not move southward or northeast rather than to the north and crossing Siam’s borders. Truthfully, the APM missionaries in the Laos Mission had little choice as their flock was migrating to these areas. If the northern Thai church was to be built by the national leadership, which was to become a loud cry within the Laos Mission, then it had to move along the lines to where those Christian members were migrating to as well.
In 1891, Daniel McGilvary and Stanley K. Phraner did a tour of Chiang Rai province. Upon their arrival, they found one-thousand Tai Lü migrants driven out of Yunnan, who had flooded into the area. Almost certainly, Nan Suwan informed the two missionaries of this diaspora Tai Lü group, which McGilvary described as an intriguing opportunity for evangelistic work. This opportunity was not followed through most likely due to few APM missionaries and northern Thai Christian leaders being free to take on the task.
The group set across the Mekong River and arrived in the town of Muang Len (modern-day Shan State, Myanmar) in time for their five-day market. While at the market in Muang Len, McGilvary described interacting with the many hill tribes writing:
“From Chieng Sên I had brought along, Nan Suwan, the Lû elder, who had come into closer contact with these mountain tribes then had our elders from the south. He could make the man, and especially the headman, understand it fairly well.”
Nan Suwan, after he had moved to Chiang Saen, was involved in all levels of evangelism not only among Tai but also among other hill tribe groups. This is further confirmed on a subsequent visit by McGilvary the following year when a Musu (Lahu) told McGilvary that he had heard the good news from Nan Suwan before.
In 1892, Daniel McGilvary and Dr. James McKean returned to the northern Chiang Rai region to continue work among the Musu (Lahu). While in Mae Kawn village, McGilvary and McKean baptized thirteen adults into the church. Then proceeded to the east, taking with them the Musu (Lahu) Christians, Cha Pū Kaw, and Cha Waw to link up with the steadfast elder Nan Suwan in Chieng Saen. Unfortunately, McKean was called back to Chiang Mai on news of his wife’s sickness. This left McGilvary to work alongside his team of northern Thai and Musu (Lahu) evangelists visiting Kui and Musu (Lahu) villages along both sides of the Mekong River.
In 1893, Daniel McGilvary and Robert Irwin were called to tour the far northern region of the Sipsawngpanna (modern-day southern Yunnan, China, and north Laos). Again, the faithful Nan Suwan accompanied the team on this trip. James W. McKean reported on this trip writing:
“Very early in the year Dr. McGilvary accompanied by Mr. Irwin, began a five-month tour to the distant north, traversing hitherto new ground reaching a large number of mountain tribes, passing through broad and populous districts and everywhere being cordially received by the people. This tour revealed to us this hitherto untouched territory for the redemption of which our church is alone responsible. The welcome which was given the missionaries, the ability and willingness to read our Christian books and the interest shown in all ways leaves no doubt that the Gospel will find as ready acceptance there as it constantly finds in the old established stations. Surely, we must enter this open door. “
In its early years, Chiang Saen church was aptly led by Nan Suwan’s wise leadership and evangelistic spirit. It should be noted; Nan Suwan was not a pastor. Yet, he was focused on reaching out among Tai people, looking for opportunities to share the Gospel across cultures with other hill tribes around him, and had the vision and desire to reach out to other Tai peoples beyond the borders of northern Siam. Nan Suwan’s example is an inspiring one for the Thai church today.
Martin Chalmers to BFM, April 20, 1886, Vol. 5, BFM-PUA
Volker Grabowsky, “Introduction to the History of Müang Sing (Laos) prior to French Rule: The Fate of a Lu Principality,” Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient. Tome 86 (1999): 243-244.
Holt S. Hallett A Thousand Miles On An Elephant, (London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1890) 201-205.
Austin L. House. 2017. “An An Ethnohistorical Study of Thai Christians and Their Participation in Cross-Cultural Missions from 1870-1940.” Doctor of Intercultural Studies, Western Seminary.
_____. 2017. “Chiang Saen Church: The War Slave Church in Three Nations.” Paper presented at Yale-Edinburgh Group Conference for Migration, Exile, and Pilgrimage in the History of Missions and World Christianit .
Daniel McGilvary, A Half Century Among the Siamese and the Lao, An Autobiography. Bangkok: White Lotus Co, Ltd., 2004.
_____, “The First Laos Believer,” The Assembly Herald, May 1909, 218-219.
_____ to BFM, December 6, 1877, Vol. 4, BFM-PUA.
_____ to BFM, July 6, 1886, July 22, 1886, Vol. 5, BFM-PUA.
Evander B. McGilvary, Report of Chieng Mai Station Dec. 1 1891 to Dec. 1. 1892, Vol. 22, BFM-PUA.
James W. McKean, Report of Chieng Mai Station of the North Laos Mission for the Year Dec. 1 1890 to Dec. 1. 1891, Vol. 22, BFM-PUA.
_____ to Mitchell (BFM), March 10, 1892, Vol. 9, BFM-PUA.
Herbert Swanson. Khrischak Muang Nua. Bangkok: Chuan Press, 1984.
Jonathan Wilson, January 1, June 2, 1881, Vol. 4, BFM-PUA.
David K. Wyatt and Aroonrut Wichienjeeo The Chiang Mai Chronicle Second Edition (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1998)