The focus of my research has been Vietnamese Catholics in South Vietnam and post-1975 America, but I have also thought the history of Vietnamese Protestants to be utterly interesting and even fascinating in at least several aspects.
Anecdotal evidence, for instance, suggests that their press produced an outsized amount of print, including many books that were published in South Vietnam and survived postwar governmental confiscation thanks to the black market. I remember, for example, seeing copies of Tình Thương Mạnh Hơn Bão Tuyết, a South Vietnamese translation of Treasure of the Snow, the popular novel first published in 1950 by the British Protestant evangelical writer Patricia St. John, among other Protestant books offered by a black-market vendor outside of a school in Biên Hòa during the late 1970s or early 1980s. (Ironically, the school was right across the street from a Catholic church.) Vietnamese Protestants, however, might have followed a somewhat different model of distribution and, as a result, there aren’t as many Protestant publications found at Cornell and other American libraries. I suspect the situation is similar among libraries in Vietnam, but I’d be more than happy to be wrong.
For another reason, the history of Vietnamese Protestantism followed a somewhat different historical trajectory than that of Vietnamese Catholicism. European Protestants were the first to evangelize in present-day Vietnam, and they included French-speaking members of the Anglican Church: hence the name Eglish Réformée de langue française. It was, however, American missionaries during the late colonial era that contributed to the first substantial expansion of converts and churches. The US-based Christian Missionary Alliance (CMA), which had a historically heavy presence in China, opened a mission in Indochina in 1911. The American presence was significant enough that one of the Vietnamese names for Protestantism at the time was the “U.S. religion” (đạo huê kỳ). The year 1922 saw Hoàng Trọng Thừa, who converted seven years earlier, become the first Vietnamese Protestant minister. This beginning led to the growth of the CMA-affiliated the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (Hội Thánh Tin Lành Việt Nam) as the largest Protestant denomination in South Vietnam during the early 1970s.
During the war, the CMA sent missionaries especially to the Ban Mê Thuột region and primarily for evangelization among the ethnic minorities. This region also saw several Mennonite missionaries, who later co-led (with Lutheran World Relief and Church World Service) a collective of social service providers in South Vietnam. The Adventists were known among South Vietnamese for running a hospital in Saigon. They also had an active press that produced books, pamphlets, and other materials. Though much smaller than the CMA, the Baptists appeared to grow steadily in Vietnamese membership since American missionaries began to evangelize in 1959. Among other missionaries were members of the Presbyterian Church and the Churches of Christ. Last year, an older colleague at Pepperdine told me that his wife used to work in South Vietnam as part of a delegation from the Churches of Christ from the U.S. By the early 1970s, there were some Pentecostals and even Jehovah’s Witnesses: the latter, of course, were not Protestants in the eyes of most Protestants at the time. Other Protestant organizations included World Vision, the YMCA, and the Bible Society.
Critics of imperialism will cry foul that the growth of Vietnamese Protestantism reflected European and American imperialism in colonial Indochina and South Vietnam. They may have a point. From the perspective of specialists on Vietnamese history, however, this development was more complex because it came partially out of Vietnamese receptivity to external currents. The millenarian messages and beliefs among some American Protestants, for example, might have played well to the long-standing native tradition of millenarianism.
Unfortunately, there is so much about this history that I–we–do not know. The primary reason is a basic lack of the historical scholarship. In 1972, the young minister Lê Hoàng Phu, who came from Đà Nẵng and later studied at Nyack College, Wheaton College, and NYU, wrote his dissertation on the history of evangelical Protestantism in Vietnam from the early 1910s to the mid-1960s. In 2012, Charles Keith published an article in French Colonial History about European and American Protestants who posed different types of challenge to colonial authorities on the one hand and, on the other hand, Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese Catholics. During the forty in between these works, however, there does not appear to be a lot of research on the subject. The best research probably has to do with American missionaries among the ethnic minorities in the central mountains. There is exceedingly little on the history of Vietnamese Protestants themselves.
Having looked over several Catholic periodicals from South Vietnam, I notice that Vietnamese Protestants were conspicuously absent on their pages for much of the 1960s. It is not to say that there was the same suspicion between Catholics and Protestants as it had been in an earlier era. Or it is to gainsay the possibility of cooperation among them during a period of brutal warfare and grave suffering. More research should shed light on these points. But doctrinal differences and historical antagonism appeared to plague their relations until the years following the Second Vatican Council, which called for better relations with Protestants. For this reason, there was more attention to Protestants on the pages of the same Catholic periodicals in the late 1960s and the early 1970s.
No one has yet studied the overlapping or intersection of the Vietnam War and Vatican II among Vietnamese Catholics, leave alone the interactions among Catholics and Protestants during that period. But this is merely one of many topics on Protestantism in South Vietnam that we know exceedingly little. Here’s hoping that a young scholar will look into this rich subject before long.
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