American Baptists and the “Wild” Karen
People of Burma
A-Pyah Thee had a book, but he could not read. For a religious leader of a village with an oral tradition promising that one day the power of a book would be available to his people, this was a problem. In fact, very few of A-Pyah Thee’s people, the Karen, could read. A seminomadic minority in the early nineteenth century, they lived on the peripheries of Burmese society. Their oral tradition, which existed among many of the Karen villages, had several variations, but a common version held that the creator god, Y’wa, had given a book of life to an elder brother, the Karen. The elder brother had lost the book, causing him to lose favor with Y’wa, thereby plunging the brother into ignorance and misery. The oral tradition held out hope, however. A younger brother had departed with the book but would return someday to share the book with the elder brother, who would be restored to Y’wa if he obeyed the message of the book.1
Hope for the fulfillment of this prophecy had risen in A-Pyah Thee’s village when a man, most likely another Karen, had brought a book to his village in the remote hills of southern Burma. The visitor, who had arrived sometime around 1818, had given the villagers the book and instructed them in a number of religious practices. After the man left, the village had divided over the significance of these teachings. One faction embraced the new teachings and followed the lead of the elderly A-Pyah Thee, who probably already held the status of prophet or “medicine teacher,” a common religious position found among most traditional Karen villages. A-Pyah Thee and his followers took these new teachings quite seriously, holding on to the teachings and their book for more than a decade, even in the face of hostility and harassment by neighboring Burman people.2
When he got word that two foreign religious teachers had moved into the Burmese city of Tavoy in April 1828, A-Pyah Thee moved quickly. The British military had occupied Tavoy since 1825, after seizing a strip of southern Burma from the Burmese king. A-Pyah Thee apparently had not been interested in foreign soldiers, even though he knew their presence now allowed him to inquire about the books without harassment. Religious leaders, however, were a different matter.