After my last post, I went back to the dissertation by the Protestant minister Lê Hoàng Phu (1926-2003) on the history of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (ECVN) up to 1965. Completed over four and a half decades ago, it is, at 560 pages, on the longer end of dissertations then and even now. Having browsed it before, I read it more slowly this time and found it an important work in several respects.
Indeed, among English-language dissertations on Vietnamese history that were never published in book form (and in English), I’d place it only second to Vu Ngu Chieu’s 1986 dissertation on the Empire of Vietnam in terms of information, argument, and sources. Phu’s dissertation did see the light of day in book form, albeit in a Vietnamese translation. It was published in Hanoi seven years after the author’s death and just ahead of the centenary of the foundation of the ECVN, which was 1911 when members of the US-based Christian Missionary Alliance established its first mission in Indochina.
The gist of Phu’s thesis is twofold. First is the historical context: he was writing against the background of nationalist suspicion among non-Christian Vietnamese towards Christianity, many of whom considered Catholicism and Protestantism not “indigenous” but more or less a product of foreign interference. Phu does not deny that the roots of the ECVN came from the US-based Christian Missionary Alliance during 1911-1927. He argues, however, that the ECVN, founded in 1927, very much developed as an indigenous movement. The missionaries did a lot of preaching and teaching at the Tourane Bible School and other sites. They considerably expanded Vietnamese membership from 183 in 1921 to 4236 in 1927. By then, there were 74 churches, mostly in Vietnam but also a few in Cambodia. This development led to the relatively rapid formation of the ECVN. American missionaries continued to play a role until the end of the Vietnam War. But it was primarily the Vietnamese that drove the engine of evangelization and organization. The title of Chapter 5 is unambiguous of Phu’s position: “The Indigenous Church Movement from 1927 to 1941.”
The second of Phu’s interpretative arch is that the ECVN followed as much as possible the threefold policy of self-support, self-government, and self-propagation. This policy was rooted in the preaching of the missionaries, who insisted on tithing and local self-sufficiency. Phu certainly acknowledges the roles played by Americans from the Christian Missionary Alliance and other groups. He also attributes the successes in evangelization among the ethnic minorities to Americans rather than Vietnamese. But he does not shy from criticism, writing, for instance, that “it is regrettable to note that some of them failed totally or partly in their ministry because of their lack of understanding of the culture in which they worked.” “A few,” he adds, “seemed to have not grasped the essence of Christianity; this made them believe that peripheral elements of their cultural and denominational background were more important than the new life in Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.” His criticism is one of sorrow rather than anger.
Phu is clear too that there were serious issues and problems among Vietnamese Protestants themselves. The problems ranged from financial shortage, to disagreements that led a local church leaving the ECVN for the Adventists, to accusations against two leaders to be “pro-Communist” that led to a “curious session” at one of the ECVN’s general assembly. The second half of the 1940s was especially tough for the ECVN. Nonetheless, Phu considers the organization to be “mature” in self-governance during the first decade of the Republic of Vietnam, or the last period in the dissertation. He also thinks self-propagation saw the greatest growth during the same period.
The dissertation is notable for the use of primary sources in three languages. When I first went to graduate school, the momentum, at least in diplomatic history which was my initial draw, was to do multi-archival and multi-lingual research. Graduate students were urged to learn a new language or two and get on it with. Well, this 1972 dissertation sure is multi-lingual because it employs sources in Vietnamese, English, and French. The sources are also varied: organizational documents, conference reports, periodicals, letters, unpublished memoirs, and interviews with both Vietnamese and Americans. Phu’s sources and references also confirm my suspicion that the Vietnamese Protestant press was vibrant. For the sake of history, I hope the Vietnamese publications cited or mentioned in this dissertation still exist in libraries and private collections.
As noted in my previous post, I think that we know little about the complexities of the experience and history of Vietnamese Protestants, especially during the period of national division. Phu appropriately calls his history “short,” and it provides a start for narrower and more detailed monographs on the history of Vietnamese Protestants in the twentieth century, especially in South Vietnam. For, again, the sake of history, let’s hope that we will see one or more such works in the next ten or fifteen years.
Turning for a moment to Vietnamese resettlement in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, I think that Phu’s interpretation of the Vietnamese Protestant tradition helps to explain the fact that the first Vietnamese church in the U.S. was not Catholic but Protestant. The Vietnamese Alliance Church in Lincoln, Nebraska (Hội Thánh Tin Lành Lincoln), which still exists to this day, was formed merely months after the fall of Saigon. Interestingly, Lincoln is also the site of the second Vietnamese Catholic parish in the U.S., which was a major hallmark partially because many Catholic bishops, if not most, were not inclined towards starting new ethnic parishes since the 1960s, maybe even the 1950s. Even there, it took four years before the bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln gave permission for the establishment of the Vietnamese parish Immaculate Heart of Mary. The difference in timeline is not a surprise as it illustrates the historical divergence between the evangelical tradition of self-support and self-governance on the one hand and the more top-down structure of the Catholic Church on the other hand. It also confirms the dissertation’s argument for Vietnamese agency.
Phu himself was a 1975 refugee. He lived in the U.S. for the most part but also traveled to Western and Australia in the 1980s, then Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, for preaching and other evangelical purposes. (Rare among Protestant ministers, he was never married.) Having taught and led Bible institutes in South Vietnam, he helped found the Union College of California in Orange County (California), a Bible college-type institution geared towards Vietnamese American Protestants, during the 1990s. He was quite active on new Vietnamese translations of the Bible. I’d guess that the translations had considerable impact among Vietnamese Protestants. For historians like myself, however,, this dissertation remains his most valuable work because it is informative of Vietnamese agency in the creation and development of the largest and Protestant denomination in Vietnamese history.