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Alexandra Kaloyanides

August 14th, 2023

The ‘Burma Baptist Chronicle’ of 1963

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Alexandra Kaloyanides

August 14th, 2023

The ‘Burma Baptist Chronicle’ of 1963

0 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The Burma Baptist Chronicle is a unique text published in Rangoon in 1963 — just 3 years before Christian missionaries were asked to leave Burma — combining stylistic and symbolic elements of Burmese royalty and religion, whilst serving as a commemorative text of American Baptist Christianity in the country. Alexandra Kaloyanides takes a close look at it.  

 

When Burma (now Myanmar) gained independence in 1948, Baptist communities had been present in the country for over a century. American evangelists founded the country’s first Baptist mission in Rangoon (now Yangon) in 1813, and this form of Protestant Christianity began spreading quickly in minority communities even as Bamar Buddhists largely resisted evangelisation.

Christian communities in the newly independent nation employed familiar and new methods to express their identities in the largely Buddhist country. One particularly fascinating example was the publication of  the Burma Baptist Chronicle (1963), a 448-page volume illustrated with  line drawings, and comprising two ‘books’: the first written by Maung Shwe Wa, and the second edited by Genevieve and Erville Sowards. The Chronicle, published in Rangoon, is distinct for the way it took inspiration from both Burmese Buddhist and American Baptist traditions.

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As the title suggests, the Burma Baptist Chronicle was modeled on Burmese Buddhist ‘chronicles’ (vamsa),  written in the classical Buddhist language of Pali. The rulers of the last Burmese Buddhist kingdom, the Alaungpaya/Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885) followed traditional Theravada practices of commissioning Buddhist chronicles, but they innovated on this textual tradition by commissioning the first texts claiming to be histories of Buddhism for a Burmese realm depicted as a consolidated unit. The Konbuang court published four official Burmese Buddhist chronicles (called thathanawin in Burmese) between 1799 and 1861 which narrate a history of a righteously ruled, prosperous realm that promotes the pure teachings and institutions of the Buddha.

Burmese Buddhism also seems to have inspired the Burma Baptist Chronicle’s cover design. With a maroon cover nearly matching the monastic robes, gold lettering invoking the gold leaf on pagoda spires and Buddha statues throughout the country, and an auspicious hintha bird on its spine, the book is evocatively Burmese, even as the small cross at the bottom of the front cover marks it as distinctly Christian.

 

Photo 1: Front cover of Burma Baptist Chronicle (1963) © For copyright information, see below.

 

Like the Burmese Buddhist chronicles that inspired it, the Burma Baptist Chronicle was interested in a national religious history. It promoted Christianity as a valid Burmese religious tradition. Aware of concerns that Christianity was a foreign element that should be expelled, Baptist authors and supporters of the project promoted the fact that their church had been established over a decade before the start of the Anglo-Burmese wars in 1824, and, therefore, it (the church) had a history that was distinct from British colonisation. Of course, it was well known that the British Raj had made alliances with Christian people and institutions in their efforts to conquer the Burmese kingdom, but Baptist communities maintained that there was a righteous place for Christianity in a post-colonial Burma.

Even as the authors used traditional Burmese textual practices to protect space for Christians in the newly independent country, they also drew heavily on American religious traditions. The year of its publication, 1963,  also marked the 150th anniversary of the American establishment of the church in Burma. American Baptists had been marking anniversaries and writing histories of the Burma mission since the mid-nineteenth century. The American Baptist leader Howard Malcolm, for example, wrote about the history of the Burmese mission in his Travels in South-eastern Asia (1839). This was just a quarter century into the mission, and he and other Baptist authors were already establishing narratives about the founding American couple, Ann and Adoniram Judson.

These dramatic narratives told of the Americans’ long and difficult sea voyages to Rangoon, Adoniram’s imprisonment during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824), and the deaths of Ann and their two-year-old daughter Maria shortly thereafter. The Chronicle reinvested in this sensational narrative with illustrations of the Judsons by the Anglo-Burmese artist Eric Gordon MacColl (1896–1973). One depicts a neatly dressed Ann bringing a pillow to Adoniram under the guise of wanting to make her incarcerated husband more comfortable. As the story goes, Ann hid Adoniram’s translation of the New Testament inside the pillow so that he could continue working on it behind bars. When he was marched off to be executed (which was eventually stayed), the pillow was miraculously recovered from the prison yard with the Bible translation still intact. Today, a pillow — said to be that very same one — is held in the American Baptist Historical Society in Georgia, where it regularly receives visitors.

Another of MacColl’s illustrations in the Chronicle shows Ann on her deathbed with Adoniram finally arriving to grieve with friends and employees. Unlike earlier illustrations of Adoniram’s imprisonment and Ann’s death that I have written about elsewhere, these images present a more lived-in Burmese scene, with careful attention to the everyday furniture and the period- and ethnic-specific clothing the various figures might have worn. Indeed, this was MacColl’s specialty; he took great care to depict traditional costumes of ethnic groups like the ones who had significant numbers of Baptist converts (such as the Karen, the Chin, and the Kachin). As Darrel C. Karl notes in ‘On The Road To Mandalay: The Burmese Etchings of E.G. MacColl’, MacColl’s watercolours were popular among British servicemen who purchased them as souvenirs.

The concern in MacColl’s work with ethnic difference is part of a larger history of Western attempts to categorise and control new lands that drew on both explicitly political campaigns like the British census as well as adjacent projects like anthropological studies of human difference. In my book, Baptizing Burma: Religious Change in the Last Buddhist Kingdom (2023), I write about  the American Baptist mission to Burma and its complicated relationship with British colonialism, one that both enabled and challenged violent imperialism in this country.

The Burma Baptist Chronicle is clearly aware of two audiences. It is sensitive to the quickly changing Burmese political-religious landscape even as it considers the larger international Baptist community. It is an explicitly evangelical text, calling for more ‘development and growth of the Church of Christ in this land’ (Chronicle: 427). The urgency of its proselytising suggests an anticipation of dramatic changes to come.

Perhaps they anticipated (or expected) the expulsion of foreign missionaries three years later, in 1966. But even with the receding influence of American Baptists, Baptist communities throughout the country would continue to insist that Burma/Myanmar be a nation that people from multiple religious traditions could call home.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and not of the ‘South Asia at LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy. 

Photograph © Used by permission of the author under the Creative Commons License/Fair Use policy of LSE blogs. Photograph of cover taken by author; it may not be used/reproduced without written permission of the author.

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Justin Min, ‘Blue Vibes’, Yangon, 2020, Unsplash.

The ‘Myanmar @ 75’ logo is copyrighted by the LSE South Asia Centre, and may not be used by anyone for any purpose. It shows the national flower of Myanmar, Padauk (Pterocarpus macrocarpus), framed in a design adapted from Burmese ikat textile weaves. The logo has been designed by Oroon Das.

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About the author

Alexandra Kaloyanides

Dr Alexandra Kaloyanides is Associate Professor in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and author of 'Baptizing Burma: Religious Change in the Last Buddhist Kingdom' (2023).

Posted In: Myanmar at 75

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