Methodist missionaries in colonial and postcolonial Upper Burma, 1887–1966

The first British Methodist missionaries came to Upper Burma in 1887 and the last left in 1966. They were known as 'Wesleyans' before 1932 and afterwards as 'Methodists'. This book is a study of the ambitions, activities and achievements of Methodist missionaries in northern Burma from 1887-1966 and the expulsion of the last missionaries by Ne Win. Henry Venn, the impeccably evangelical Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), was the most distinguished and inspiring of nineteenth-century mission administrators. Wesleyan missionaries often found property development more congenial than saving souls. In Pakokku in December 1905, a 'weak' American missionary from Myingyan and a couple of Baptist Burman government officials began 'totally immersing' Wesleyans. Proselytism was officially frowned upon in the Indian Empire. The Wesley high schools were extraordinarily successful during the early years of the twentieth century. The Colonial Government was investing heavily in education. A bamboo curtain descended on Upper Burma in May 1942. Wesley Church Mandalay was gutted during the bombing raids of April 1942 and the Japanese requisitioned the Mission House and the Girls High School soon afterwards. General Ne Win was ruthlessly radical in 1962. By April 1964 Bishop was the last 'front-line' Methodist missionary in Upper Burma and the last European of any sort in Monywa. The book pulls together the themes of conflict, politics and proselytisation in to a fascinating study of great breadth.

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Michael D. Leigh

The first British Methodist missionaries came to Upper Burma in 1887 and the last left in 1966. They were known as 'Wesleyans' before 1932 and afterwards as 'Methodists'. Missionary societies built hospitals, clinics and schools as practical expressions of their Christian love, although critics dismissed them as instruments of cultural domination. Henry Venn, the impeccably evangelical Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), was the most distinguished and inspiring of nineteenth- century mission administrators. The early Wesleyan missionaries in Upper Burma were less racist than Southern Africa counterparts, but they were reluctant to criticise colonial authority and slow to embrace local church autonomy. Politics of proselytism rather than religious differences lay behind most battles with secular and Buddhist leaders in Upper Burma. The British public was fascinated by Burma, imagining it as an 'intangible' corner of a 'Boy's Own' empire.

in Conflict, politics and proselytism
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Michael D. Leigh

Rev. Ebenezer E. Jenkins was General Secretary of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society and a powerful gatekeeper. Wesleyan missionaries often found property development more congenial than saving souls. Winston tried to squeeze money out of the Missionary Committee to pay off his spectacular debts. In 1893 Thomas was sent to Monywa, a bustling, cosmopolitan town and headquarters of the colonial civil service for the Chindwin district. A pecking order for building projects began to emerge. Mission houses came first, and were most expensive. School buildings followed, and churches came last. Government grants were sometimes withdrawn without explanation leaving buildings half-finished. In Pakokku in December 1905, a 'weak' American missionary from Myingyan and a couple of Baptist Burman government officials began 'totally immersing' Wesleyans. The luxury of interdenominational squabbling merely underlined the impression that Burman resistance was crumbling.

in Conflict, politics and proselytism
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Michael D. Leigh

Proselytism was officially frowned upon in the Indian Empire. Conversion from one religion to another was highly political and potentially explosive. The Wesleyan missionaries' teetotalism and modest stipends separated them from colonial neighbours. World War I disturbed a period of relative calm in Upper Burma. The Wesleyan missionaries were relatively ignorant about rural politics and were generally less sympathetic. The Wesleyans were perplexed because pongyis were poisoning the minds of ordinary 'Burman Buddhists'. Even the American Baptists were shaken by Buddhist truculence in the towns. The Hsaya San rebellion broke out in Lower Burma at the end of December 1930. The Marxist-dominated All Burma Students' Union (ABSU) and Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans) expanded rapidly during the 1930s. Dobama had begun as a student political movement in 1933 but quickly embraced industrial workers and cultivators.

in Conflict, politics and proselytism
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Michael D. Leigh

The Roman Catholic Convent was the only school in Mandalay that catered specifically for Eurasian girls. A.W. Bestall launched a furious campaign to persuade the Missionary Committee to provide funds for a Wesleyan Eurasian girls' school in Mandalay. The missionaries were also very interested in certain aspects of public health, but their preoccupations were extremely selective. Leprosy melted hearts in Victorian England. One other social problem was entirely new. Wayward Burmese adolescents were addicted to films. They may have picked up the bad habit from the missionaries' magic-lantern shows, where mesmerised audiences gawped at cartoon Bible stories. Although leprosy brought the lives of individual sufferers crashing down, it was not the most important health problem in Burma. It was a political issue. In 1900 the missionaries asked the Missionary Society to send a missionary doctor. In 1911 Bradford described the hospital in Pakokku, a 'congested town, which is unsanitary'.

in Conflict, politics and proselytism
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Michael D. Leigh

Politics and religion were two sides of the same coin. Wesleyan missionaries went to Upper Burma for many and complex reasons but their main purpose was to convert Burmans to Christianity. Religious conversions caused bitter divisions within colonial communities. Wesleyans in Burma, for example, often suspected new converts of seeking social or political preferment. Wesleyans in Upper Burma discovered that Indian street sweepers and lepers were most easily proselytised. Winston described Buddhist Burmans as primitive, backward and crude. In 1904, despondent Wesleyan missionaries complained that the Burmese national character had been 'formed by generations of loose morality.' Wesleyan attitudes softened as the Burmans became more compliant. Many of the younger missionaries were captivated by their 'confiding, simple nature'. During the 1920s, the transformation was evident in the bazaars and backstreets of Upper Burmese towns. Spiritual confrontations between Christians and Buddhists became intensely political.

in Conflict, politics and proselytism
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Michael D. Leigh

The Wesley high schools were extraordinarily successful during the early years of the twentieth century. The Colonial Government was investing heavily in education. It encouraged mission schools generally and it was particularly impressed by the Wesley high schools. The Wesleyan schools quickly became academic powerhouses, renowned for progressive teaching, firm discipline and high moral values. In 1911 Buddhist elders requested Rev. Edgar Bradford to start a Wesleyan Anglo-Vernacular School in Salin, a prosperous town south of Pakokku. Bradford obliged and a school was opened in 1912. Wesleyan education in Upper Burma reached its zenith in 1917 when 2,216 pupils had registered in thirty schools. The student disturbances of 1938–39 damaged several successful mission schools in Upper Burma and separated them from their surrounding communities. In 1944, the exiled Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman Smith, promised that Methodist mission schools would be returned to their former glory after the war.

in Conflict, politics and proselytism
Michael D. Leigh

The mood in Mandalay changed abruptly in December 1941. The bricolage of fear, cynicism and nervous anticipation gave way to blind panic. Europeans were leaving Mandalay in droves, but Chapman insisted that the Methodist missionaries should stay and 'carry on as normal'. Meanwhile, Mandalay was heaving. 'Hundreds or thousands' of refugees had trekked in from Lower Burma. Chapman urged Burmese Christians to escape 'to distant villages' while they had the chance. Mandalay was bombed on 19 February 1942. Chapman tried to keep track of all the missionary families. Rangoon was already in the hands of the military authorities. Government offices, banks and commercial firms had been evacuated to Mandalay and Maymyo. Methodist missionaries played distinguished roles in the evacuation, although fact and fiction sometimes became confused in the chaos. The missionaries were demoralised and exhausted as they assembled in Calcutta between March and May 1942.

in Conflict, politics and proselytism
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Michael D. Leigh

A bamboo curtain descended on Upper Burma in May 1942. Little news filtered in or out. In some respects arbitrary Japanese rule merely replaced arbitrary British colonial rule, but there was another important factor too. Many Burmans hoped the Japanese would bring independence and most feared anarchy more than they feared Japanese rule. Burmese Methodists had particular reason to fear the Burma Independence Army (BIA) which openly defied orders from the Japanese military administration. Pongyis generally kept a low profile during the occupation, but ordinary Buddhist Burmans were unhelpful and sometimes hostile. Wesley Church Mandalay had been gutted during the bombing raids of April 1942 and the Japanese requisitioned the Mission House and the Girls High School soon afterwards. The regular Burmese congregation was augmented from time to time by an eclectic mixture of Buddhists, 'Burmese princes' and Japanese soldiers.

in Conflict, politics and proselytism
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Michael D. Leigh

The civil war had exploded myths of imperial invincibility. It triggered nationalist turmoil in India and exposed colonial vulnerability in Burma. When the war ended, coruscating events in Rangoon eclipsed the struggles of ordinary people. The Methodist Synod in Mandalay predicted a gloomy and uncertain future. The sheer scale of destruction gnawed away at post-war Burmese politics and undermined public morale. Upper Burma since the war, and in 1948 they began to infiltrate towns like Chauk and Yamethin. Gradually government forces managed to fight back, and in October 1953 Thakin U Nu felt strong enough to outlaw the Burma (White Flag) Communist Party (BCP) and the People's Volunteer Organisation (PVO). The tide began to turn as one by one towns south of Mandalay were retaken by government troops. In the 1960 election U Nu had promised to make Buddhism the state religion.

in Conflict, politics and proselytism