An Unpredictable Gospel: American Evangelicals and World Christianity, 1812-1920

By Jay Riley Case | Go to book overview
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2
The Challenge of Karen Christianity

In his initial evaluations of the Karen, George Boardman had commented on what he perceived to be their “credulity,” declaring that “almost any religion, true or false, may be introduced among them.” His analysis reflected an Enlightenment conceit that uneducated masses could be easily swayed by those gifted with more highly developed rational and rhetorical capabilities. These “simplest children of nature,” Boardman declared, were “the most timid and irresolute” of any of the people of the world he had seen. But Karen Christians proved to be anything but “timid and irresolute.” Even Boardman came to recognize the determination of inquirers who repeatedly negotiated jungle hardships that he himself had hesitated to face.1

Karen Christianity had a way of compelling Baptist missionaries to readjust their thinking. In a relatively short period of time in the 1830s, the missionary conception of the Karen had shifted from potentially dangerous and wild aborigines to a poor, docile, and childlike people. Then, in the 1840s, circumstances beyond their control cut the Baptist missionaries off from direct contact and supervision of most of these Karen Christians, much to the frustration of the Yankee evangelicals. New conceptions of the Karen emerged. Some Baptist missionaries saw the Karen as a people who, if they adopted the Christian faith, were fully capable of effective leadership, unregulated initiative, and mature judgment.

Then the debates cropped up. Could an uncivilized people truly embody these qualities? Or would a seminomadic people living in the jungles of Burma still need extensive educational guidance from the missionaries? Just how much authority were missionaries supposed to exercise? Some Baptist missionaries suddenly found themselves considering a strange idea: perhaps the best way missionaries could help this new movement of Christianity would be to give up some of their power.

Ten years after Boardman’s death, Karen Christians deeply impressed another Baptist missionary, Elisha Abbott. Assigned to work among the Karen in 1835, Abbott witnessed Karen Christians doggedly promoting their faith under forms

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