Portuguese catholic missionaries first came to Siam in the 16th century. They were followed by a flood of French Jesuits and members of the Paris Foreign Missions Society who were welcomed by King Narai at the end of the 17th century. During the next hundred or so years they were harried and persecuted – none are known to have ventured to Chiang Mai. It was not until the time of King Mongut (1851 – 1868) that the missions began to revive under the learned guidance of Bishop Pallegoix, and work began at the end of the century in Chiang Mai.
American Baptists and Presbyterians, following in the footsteps of McGilvary, who founded the Lao Mission in 1868, spreading the word throughout the northern Lao kingdom as the ancient state of Lanna came to be called. Two of the first seven converts were executed on the orders of Jao Kawilarot. After the Jao’s death and the edict of religious toleration proclaimed in the name of King Chulalongkorn in 1878, the medical and educational work of missionaries such as Vrooman, Cary, Cort, McKean, the infamous Dr. Cheek, McDaniel and Harris accelerated, resulting in the founding of schools such as Prince Royal’s and Dara, clinics and hospitals such as McCormick and McKean and, later, the founding of Payap University.
Today Chiang Mai has become a true Christian religious hub. Missionaries, many of them specialising in conversion of the animist hilltribe people, come from the world over – from Finland, Korea, Switzerland, China, Australia. There are said to be 92 Protestant and 53 Catholic churches in the province. Are they all licensed? Do they all have work permits? Do they all pay tax?
Without doubt the missionaries have done an enormous amount of good in the fields of medicine – malaria control, smallpox inoculation, hygiene, dentistry, eye problems and leprosy. In the fields of education the first schools, for boys and girls, taught in kham muang, (they operated a press) but switched to central Thai when this became Bangkok policy. Many who passed through their hands became better Thai citizens. But the vast majority of Thais have remained stubbornly Buddhist.