Protestantism in Burma

Protestantism in Burma

Protestants in Burma make up 3% of that nation's population, many of them Baptists.[1] The Protestant Churches of Burma were begun in the early 19th century by Adoniram Judson, an American Baptist missionary. Since the 19th century, Christianity has become deeply rooted and has grown stronger through many adversities.

In 1966 all missionaries were expelled by the Burmese government, but the Burmese Church has become a vibrant missionary-sending movement, despite financial limitations and geographic isolation. Baptists, Assemblies of God, Methodists and Anglicans form the strongest denominations in Burma. Many Christians are well-educated, but cannot rise to positions of responsibility.

Most Christians are from the minority ethnic groups such as Karen, Lisu, Kachin, Chin, and Lahu. An estimated 0.1 per cent of the Bamar population is Christian.



Adoniram Judson
Ann "Nancy" Judson

At the age of 25, Adoniram Judson[1] was the first Protestant missionary sent from North America[2] to preach in Burma. He graduated from Brown University in 1807 and from Andover Theological Seminary in 1810. Passionately eager to serve abroad, and convinced that "Asia with its idolatrous myriads, was the most important field in the world for missionary effort"[3] and appeared before the Congregational Church's General Association to appeal for support to their missionary intentions. Impressed by the polite behavior of the 4 men and their sincerity, the elders in 1810 voted to form the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.

The Judsons and the Newells sailed for Calcutta in early 1812, the first North American missionaries to Asia. They had been advised to try to locate their mission in Burma, but to inquire first in India how feasible such a mission might be. They were ordered out of India by the British East India Company, to whom American missionaries were even less welcome than British.

It was another difficult year before the Judsons finally reached their originally intended destination, Burma.[4] Buddhist Burma, Judson was told by the Serampore Baptists, was impermeable to Christian evangelism. Four years passed before Judson dared even to hold a semi-public service. At first he tried adapting to Burmese customs by wearing a yellow robe to mark himself as a teacher of religion, but soon changed to white to show he was not a Buddhist. Then he gave up the whole attempt as artificial and accepted the fact that no matter how much he changed his clothes, no Burmese would identify him as anything but a foreigner. But he was aware of some accommodations to Burmese customs and built a zayat, the customary bamboo and thatch reception shelter, on the street near his home as a reception room and meeting place for Burmese men. 15 men came to his first public meeting in April 1819. He was encouraged but observed that he suspected that they had probably come more out of curiosity than anything else. Their attention wandered and they soon seemed uninterested. 2 months later he baptized his first Burmese convert, Maung Naw, a 35 year old timber worker from the hill tribes.

A Burmese Zayat

By 1820, after 17 years of American Baptist missionary work, Judson reported only ten Burmese converts. Nevertheless there was much to encourage him. He had written a grammar of the language that is still in use today, and had begun to translate the Bible. His remarkable wife, Ann Hasseltine Judson, was even more fluent in the spoken, conversational language of the people than her more academically literate husband, and made friends everywhere, with the kind wife of the viceroy of Rangoon as quickly as with illiterate workers and women. Moreover a printing press which had been sent from Serampore, and a missionary printer George Gough, whose arrival from America with his wife in 1817, produced the first printed materials in Burmese ever printed in Burma, including 800 copies of Judson's translation of the Gospel of Matthew.[2] The chronicler of the church, Maung Shwe Wa, concludes this part of the story: "So was born the church in Rangoon – logger and fisherman, the poor and the rich, men and women. One travelled the whole path to Christ in three days; another took two years. But once they had decided for Christ they were his for all time."

Moung Shway Moung, an early convert to Christianity

One of the early disciples was a teacher, U Shwe Ngong, leader of a group of intellectuals, dissatisfied with Buddhism, who were attracted to the new faith. He was a Deist skeptic, to whose mind the preaching of Judson, once a college skeptic himself, was singularly challenging, but he assured Judson that after consideration he was ready to believe in God, and Jesus Christ and the atonement. Judson, instead of welcoming him to the faith, pressed him further, asking if he believed what he had read in the gospel of Matthew, that Jesus the son of God died on the cross. He shook his head, "Ah, you have caught me now. I believe that he suffered death, but I cannot believe he suffered the shameful death on the cross." Not long thereafter he came back to tell Judson, "I have been trusting in my own reason, not the word of God... I now believe the crucifixion of Christ because it is contained in scripture."[3]

The essence of Judson's preaching was a combination of conviction of the truth and rationality of the Christian faith, a firm belief in the authority of the Bible, and a determination to make Christianity relevant to the Burmese mind without violating the integrity of the Christian truth, or, as he put it, "to preach the gospel, not anti-Buddhism."[4] By 1823, ten years after his arrival, Judson could take pride that the membership of the little church had grown to eighteen, and that he had finally finished the first draft of his translation of the entire text of the New Testament in Burmese.[5]

Ko Thah A, an early convert

The First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826)

Two irreconcilable hungers triggered the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824: Burma's desire for more territory, and Britain's desire for more trade. Burma threatened Assam and Bengal; Britain responded by attacking and absorbing two Burmese provinces into her India holdings to broaden her trade routes to East Asia. The war was a rough interruption of the Baptists' missionary work. English-speaking Americans were too easily confused with the enemy and suspected of spying.

Judson and Price were arrested and dragged off to the infamous, vermin-ridden "death prison" of Ava. Twelve agonizing months later he and Price, along with a small group of surviving Western prisoners, were marched overland, barefoot and sick, for six more months of misery in a primitive village near Mandalay. Of the sepoy British prisoners-of-war imprisoned with them, all but one died. The sufferings and brutalities of those twenty long months and days in prison, half-starved, iron-fettered, and sometimes trussed and suspended by his mangle feet with only head and shoulders touching the ground, is described in unexaggerated detail by his wife, Ann, shortly after his release.[6]

The heroic Ann, however, was perhaps the greater model of supreme courage. Heedless of all threats against herself, left alone as the only Western woman in an absolute and anti-Christian monarchy at war with the West, beset with raging fevers and nursing a tiny baby her husband had not yet seen; she rushed from office to office in desperate attempts to keep her husband alive and win his freedom.[6]

Nancy visits Adoniram in prison

The collapse of Burma's armies brought Judson out of prison, but his release was not complete freedom. For several months in 1826 after the surrender, Burma pressed Judson into its service as a translator for the peace negotiations. Some have used Judson's acceptance of a role in the treaty negotiations as evidence of complicity in imperialism, but it should be noted that he first acted on behalf of the defeated Burmese as translator, not for the Western victors.

The rise of the Burma Baptist Church (1826-1850)

The end of the war should have been a time of rejoicing for the mission. As soon as Ann and her husband were released by the Burmese, Mrs Judson wrote that one good result of the war could be that terms of the treaty which ceded Burmese provinces to the British might provide opportunity to expand the witness of the mission into hitherto unreached parts of the country.[5] But a few months later, Ann was dead, a victim of the long, dreadful months of disease, death, stress and loneliness that had been hers for 21 months. She died alone. Her husband was already out exploring in one of the ceded provinces, Tenasserim. And it was in the wild hills of that newly British province of Tenasserim that the first signs of rapid growth in Protestant Christianity in Burma began. The statistics are startling. Within a few years of the end of the war, Baptist membership doubled on an average of every eight years for the thirty-two years between 1834 and 1866.[6]

Three significant factors had a part, though not the only part, in such growth. Most of the growth was in British-ruled territory, not in the Burmese-ruled kingdom. It may also be significant that after an Anglo-Burmese war, the missionaries were American, not British. But probably the most telling factor was religion. Most of the growth came from animist tribes, not from the major population group, the Buddhist Burmese.

The "Karen Apostle" and expanding church growth

Baptism of Karen people in the presence of the dying George Boardman

The nation was Burmese; its lost province was British; and the missionaries were American, but the "apostle" of that first numerically significant evangelistic breakthrough was neither British nor American nor Burman. He was a Karen, Ko Tha Byu,[7] though credit is rightly due also to the three missionary pioneers to the Karen, George Boardman and his wife, Sarah, and Adoniram Judson.

The Karen people were a hunted minority group of ancient Burmo-Tibetan ancestry scattered in the forests and jungles of the Salween River and in the hills along the southeast coast.[8] Judson was the first missionary to make contact with them about 1827 when he ransomed and freed a debt-slave from one of his early converts. The freed slave, Ko Tha Byu, was an illiterate, surly man who spoke almost no Burmese and was reputed to be not only a thief but also a murderer who admitted killing at least thirty men, but could not remember exactly how many more.[9]

In 1828 the former Karen bandit, "whose rough, undisciplined genius, energy and zeal for Christ" had caught the notice of the missionaries, was sent south with a new missionary couple, the Boardmans, into the territory of the strongly animistic, non-Buddhist Karen. There, he was no sooner baptized[10] than he set off into the jungle alone to preach to his fellow tribespeople. Astonishingly, he found them strangely prepared for his preaching. Their ancient oracle traditions, handed down for centuries, contained some startling echoes of the Old Testament that some scholars conjecture a linkage with Jewish communities (or possibly even Nestorians) before their migrations from western China into Burma perhaps as early as the 12th century.[11]

The core of what they called their "Tradition of the Elders" was a belief in an unchangeable, eternal, all-powerful God, creator of heaven and earth, of man, and of woman formed from a rib taken from the man. They believed in humanity's temptation by a devil, and its fall, and that some day a messiah would come to its rescue. They lived in expectation of a prophecy that white foreigners would bring them a sacred parchment roll.[12]

While the Boardmans and Ko Tha Byu were penetrating the jungles to the south, Adoniram Judson shook off a paralyzing year-long siege of depression that overcame him after the death of his wife, Ann, and set out alone on long canoe trips up the Salween River into the tiger-infested jungles to evangelize the northern Karen. Between trips he worked untiringly at his lifelong goal of translating the whole Bible into the Burmese language. When he finished it at last in 1834, he had been labouring on it for twenty-four years. It was printed and published in 1835.

Judson lived for fifteen more years of work in and for Burma. He lived to approve and welcome the first single women missionaries to Burma. A general rule of the mission had hitherto prevented such appointments. It was, said Judson, "probably a good" rule, "but our minds should not be closed" to making exceptions. The first two "exceptions" were extraordinarily exceptional. Miss Sarah Cummings arrived in 1832. Miss Cummings proved her mettle at once, choosing to work alone with Karen evangelists in the malaria-ridden Salween River valley north of Moulmein, but within two years she died of fever.[13] A second single woman, Eleanor Macomber, after five years of mission to the Ojibway Indians in Michigan, joined the mission in faraway Burma in 1835. Alone, with the help of Karen evangelistic assistants, she planted a church in a remote Karen village and nurtured it to the point where it could be placed under the care of an ordinary missionary. She lived five years and died of jungle fever.[14]

The Second Anglo-Burmese War and Burmese preacher-evangelists (1850-1880)

Judson died in 1850, just before the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852-1853 divided Burma into a British south and a Burmese north, a north ruled by one of the best of its monarchs, King Mindon (1853–1878). That put an end to fifteen years of persecution under Mindon's two predecessors, one of whom is described as "drunken and insane", and the other as "abandoned to pleasure." Mindon brought a measure of reform into a government that had degenerated under hopelessly corrupt governors and arrogant, irresponsible kings.[7] There followed for the Protestant missions a period of highly successful growth. In 1850 almost all of Burma's eight thousand Baptists were in British territory in the southeast (Arakan State) and the Karen southwest (Tenasserim State).[8] The war once again opened the southern center of Burma to the Baptist missionaries, who promptly moved back form their interim center across the bay in Tenasserim to which they had fled during the years of government repression. They moved to Rangoon, Judson's last home, and with them they brought the Baptist Press.

Among their first actions in Rangoon was to call a Missionary Convention in 1853 to discuss mission policy for the next half century. All were agreed that the first key, evangelism, would in the long run depend on the second: a determined effort to accelerate the training of a native Burmese clergy. The missionaries gratefully acknowledged their debt to the 11 Burmese pastors and 120 national preachers, then on the rolls, who, as they put it: "had made the jungles ring with hymns and the praises of God, so that the missionaries, following in their footsteps, had found Christian churches already established." A goal was set: a Burmese ordained pastor for every church and Burmese evangelists to reach out to non-Christians lest the mission be reduced to Christians preaching to Christians without ever touching "the thousands who had not yet decided for Christ."[9]

In this period in the middle of the century the name of Saw (or Thra) Quala stands out. A Karen, he was the Baptists' second convert after Ko Tha Byu, the "apostle to the Karens". When Francis Mason, linguist and pioneer to the "heartland" of the Karen tribes, was forced home by ill health in 1857, he decided to turn over the district to his ablest helper, Saw Quala, in whom he had developed the utmost confidence. In the Karen, Saw, he astutely discerned a leader for a second stage of Christian outreach in Burma. Within two years of the time that Mason turned the district over to him, Saw Quala had increased the number of assistants working with him from 3 to 11; they had established 27 new churches; and had baptized 1,880 adult converts.[10] Quala wrote:

I dare not rest, neither in the rains nor in the hot season. God has shown me my work and I stop not. I go hither and thither, up the mountains, down in the valley, one night or two nights in each place. Some come to me from a distance... saying, "Teacher, thou sayest thou comest to exhort men and thou has never been to our streams... Dost thou not love us?" Then I feel unable to open my mouth.[11]

And he added in his journal, later, "When I think of my inability to do the work, I weep."[12]

Dr. Mason also pioneered in answering the convention's second call – a request for a more usable translation of the Bible. Not only did Mason encourage the use of Karen evangelists, he, along with Jonathan Wade, made the significant decision to promote a version of the Bible in the Karen language to supplement what was already being done with the Bible in the national language, Burmese. The story is told that in 1831 on his first trip into Karen territory, an old man confronted him. "Where is our book?" he asked, referring to the Karen legend mentioned before. "If you bring us our lost book, we will welcome you." Wade was quick to respond. It is said that he reduced the Karen language to writing even before he could speak it, and Dr. Mason took Wade's adaptation of the Burmese alphabet to Karen sounds and threw himself into the arduous task of translating the Bible into Sgaw Karen. Thus did the Karens receive "their Book". The first printed portion was the Sermon on the Mount in 1837; the New Testament appeared in successive printing stages from 1843 to 1861, and the Old Testament in 1863.

Burma Baptist Convention

The Burma Baptist Convention is an association of Baptist churches in Burma.

The famous American Baptist missionaries, Adoniram and Ann Judson, moved to Yangon in 1813 when British authorities refused to allow them to stay in India. The Judsons were in Burma six years before their first convert was baptized. Adoniram Judson gathered a group of believers and labored under many trials, but his missionary tenure of almost 40 years helped firmly establish the Baptist work in Burma. His monumental work included translating the Bible into Burmese, which was completed in 1834. George Dana Boardman began a work among the Karen peoples in 1828. Today the Karen Baptist Convention is the largest member body of the Burma Baptist Convention, which was formed in 1865.

HIV/AIDS is a significant problem in Burma. In 1992, the Baptist Convention created a 32-member AIDS commission, because they see the problem as spiritual, as well as social and medical.

In Burma about 6% of the population is Christian, with two-thirds of them being considered Protestant/Non-Catholic. Almost half of these are Baptists. In 2003, the Convention had 629,146 members in 3513 churches. The Burma Baptist Convention has 17 affiliated conventions under its umbrella, and is a member of the World Council of Churches and the Baptist World Alliance.


Service and Sacrifice

Executive Secretaries

  1. Rev.Dr.Zaw Win
  2. Rev.Saw Samson (A)

The Convention operates the Myanmar Institute of Theology, the leading Christian seminary in Burma, founded in 1927 and located in Insein.


  • Treasury
  • Ministers Council
  • Evangelical & Mission Department
  • Theology Department
  • Christian Education Department
  • Men Department
  • Women Department
  • Press & Publication Department
  • Youth department
  • Leadership Development Department
  • Christian Communication Department
  • Christian Development Department
  • Facility Department

Address and Contact of MBC Myanmar Baptist Convention, 143, Minye Kyawswa Road, Lanmadaw, Yangon, Myanmar. Fax: 95-1-211530, 95-1-221465, General Secretary Ph: 221464 (Res), 9595018934 (HP), Office: 212859, 223096, Email: , website


The Anglican Communion is represented in Burma by the Church of the Province of Myanmar. As of 2006, it has about 62,000 members.[15]

Methodist Church

Methodist missionaries entered the country along with the British once Burma became a British colony in the late 19th century. Methodists established, similarly to the Anglicans, schools in the country, most notably the Methodist English High School in Yangon, mostly to educate the Anglo-Burmese and British. The Church has become the Headquarters of the Methodist Churches of Myanmar. The School has become a state school since nationalization in 1966, and has been independent of the church eversince.

Christian Reformed Church in Burma

The Christian Reformed Church in Burma is a reformed church of Burma. It was founded in 1985. It has 50 congregations. It belongs to the Reformed Ecumenical Council, the only Burmese denomination to do so.

Kachin Church

Kachin Church is a church centered in Kachin State of Burma. It is also present in China and India and is predominantly Baptist.

Karen Baptist Convention

Karen Baptist Convention Infor: General Secretary: Rev. Dr. Greeta Din (2010) There is a Karen Baptist Church in Singapore

Lisu Church

Lisu Church is a Christian church of an ethnic minority of southern China, Burma, Thailand and a part of India. Missionaries had been working in the Lisu area since the early 20th century. The first to work among the Lisu, in the Yunnan province in China, was James O. Fraser, who also developed the written Lisu language and the Fraser Alphabet, which today is officially adopted by the Chinese government. Writing and reading in Lisu has been mainly developed by the church. Today there are an estimated 300,000 Lisu believers. The Lisu Church has both the Bible and a hymn book in their own language.

True Jesus Church in Burma

The True Jesus Church is a nontrinitarian Christian denomination begun in China, growing out of the Pentecostal movement. Since its foundation it has spread to other countries including Burma.

As of 2000, there are two churches, one in Taungphila and Pyindaw Oo, and prayer houses in six different areas: Pyidawtha, Sakhamayi, Tedim, Falam, Nud Kyi Kone, and Yangon Shwebogan [13].

See also


  1. ^ "Burma". CIA World Factbook. November 8, 2008. Retrieved 2006-07-21. 
  2. ^ Maung Shwe Wa, Burma Baptist Chronicle, page 9-10
  3. ^ Maung Shwe Wa, Burma Baptist Chronicle, page 24-25
  4. ^ Wayland, A memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, 2:126
  5. ^ Wayland, A memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, 127-132
  6. ^ a b Knowles, Memoir of Mrs Ann H. Judson, 252-259
  7. ^ Francis Mason, The Karen Apostle, or, Memoir of Ko tha Byu, the First Karen convert.
  8. ^ H. P. Cochrane, Among the Burmans: A Record of Fifteen Years.
  9. ^ Mason, The Karen Apostle, 11-12
  10. ^ Memoir of Sarah Boardman Judson, Member of the American mission to Burma.
  11. ^ The authenticity of this ancient story as a tradition is confirmed by the fact that it has been found not only among the Karen, but also, with variations, among the Kachins, Was, Akhas, Lisus, and even the Mizo and Naga tribes of northeastern India. See Herman G. Tegenfeldt, A Century of Growth: The Kachin Baptist Church of Burma.
  12. ^ Excerpts from the "Traditions" are given in Mason, The Karen Apostle, 97-104.
  13. ^ J. Clement, Memoir of Adoniram Judson: His life and Missionary Labors.
  14. ^ Daniel C. Eddy, Christian Heroines, 133-162.
  15. ^ World Council of Churches, 2006-01-01, Church of the Province of Myanmar. Retrieved 2008-11-13.
  • Wardin, Jr., Albert W. Baptists Around the World
  • Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, Norman W. Cox, editor
  • Crossman, EileenMountain Rain, OMF 1982. A biography of Fraser with much details on the early mission among the Lisu in China
  • Pentecostalism in Burma
  • Methodist English High School
  • A Brief History of Christianity in Burma
  • ^ Wayland, A memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson.
  • ^ Robert Torbet, Venture of Faith: The Story of the American Baptist Missionary Society.
  • ^ Wayland, A memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson.
  • ^ Wayland, A memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, 1:95-110
  • ^ Maung Shwe Wa, Burma Baptist Chronicle
  • ^ Wayland, A memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, 1:120-121
  • ^ Wayland, A memoir of the Life and Labors of the Rev. Adoniram Judson, 1:358-366
  • ^ Knowles, Memoir of Mrs Judson, 226-227
  • ^ Maung Shwe Wa, Burma Baptist Chronicle, p. 266
  • ^ Stuart, Burma Through the Centuries.
  • ^ Maug Shwe Wa, Burma Baptist Chronicle, p. 135
  • ^ Maug Shwe Wa, Burma Baptist Chronicle, p. 144-149
  • ^ Maug Shwe Wa, Burma Baptist Chronicle, p. 186ff
  • ^ Quoted by Mason, "Saw Quala", 187
  • ^ Francis Mason, "Letter" November 1857, in Baptist Missionary Magazine, p. 133
  • ^ Edward Norman Harris, A Star in the East: An Account of American Baptist Missions to the Karens in Burma, p. 63-67
  • ^ The Call from Myanmar: A Brief History of the True Jesus Church in Myanmar.

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