This article briefly looks at the entry of Protestant missions into Burma, reviews the growth of missions to the Shan, and shows how the gospel spread in a number of areas of Burma. It introduces some of the key workers who brought the gospel to the Shan, and looks at the long-term results of their labour. It concludes with lessons that can be learned from the early work and provides a brief summary of some recent work among the Shan.

Dr. Shona Goodman comes from the Orkney Islands, Scotland, and is married to Andrew, with whom she has worked with OMF amongst the Shan/Tai people for twenty-three years. The Shan/Tai mainly live in North Thailand, Southwest China, and Myanmar.


Mission to the Shan in Burma (Myanmar) – Lessons We can Learn from the Historical Work

Mission Round Table Vol. 15 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2020): 14-21


The Shan people are a Tai people group related to the Thai, Lao, Dai, and Zhuang people groups. Like the Burmese, Thai, and Dai, they are a Buddhist people, following Theravada Buddhism. When western missionaries began to enter Burma in the early nineteenth century, the Shan were under Burmese rule. The majority of Shan people lived in Shan principalities within the Shan States of Burma.[1]

This study will briefly look at the entry of Protestant missions into Burma, review the growth of missions to the Shan, and show how the gospel spread in a number of areas of Burma. It will introduce some of the key workers who brought the gospel to the Shan, and look at the long-term results of their labour. Finally, it will look at lessons to be learned from the early work, and provide a brief summary of some recent work among the Shan.

Early years

In the early nineteenth century, Burma was a land of despotic kings, tropical diseases, and few comforts. At that time, William Carey was sharing the gospel in India and William Wilberforce was campaigning to abolish slavery in the British Empire. George the Third was King of Great Britain and Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States. In Asia, King Bodawpaya was King of Burma and Rama I was King of Siam.

The gospel did not take root easily in the minds and hearts of the Buddhist Burmese. The first Protestant missionaries to set foot on Burmese soil arrived in 1807. These Baptist missionaries were sent by William Carey and included his son Felix. It wasn’t long, however, before some left and others died of tropical diseases. Felix Carey was the first to survive long enough to learn the language, but he didn’t see anyone come to faith or plant a church. He returned to India after a tragic accident on the Irrawaddy River caused his whole family to drown.[2]

Adoniram and Ann Judson of the American Baptist Mission were the first missionaries to plant a church—when a Burmese man believed in 1819. After the Judsons came many more missionaries and a small Burmese church slowly began to grow.[3] Shan traders listened to preaching in the market places, and asked questions, so the missionaries began to pray for the Shan. They wrote home to ask for missionaries to come and minister to them. We will now look at the key missionaries who responded to the call and pioneered work in various Shan locations.

Map of Shan States, 1912[4]


Rev. Moses Homan Bixby from New Hampshire, USA responded to the call for Shan workers when he returned to Burma with his second wife Laura.[5] The tropical climate had already cost him the life of his first wife Susan. When they arrived in Rangoon in 1861, the Shan were on their hearts, but King Mindon Min of Burma forbade mission in Upper Burma. They heard of 10,000 Shan people who had migrated to Toungoo, just inside British-ruled Lower Burma.

Toungoo became the first Shan outreach and for many years missionaries to the Shan learned language and culture there. Bixby travelled widely in the mountains around Toungoo sharing the gospel with the Karenni people and itinerant Shan traders every cold season, but never reached the Shan States. Karen evangelists worked with him to plant churches. The Shan were slower to respond than Karen-related tribes, and so the church in Toungoo was a mixture of races who worshipped in Burmese. This was a feature of early Shan outreach. As other peoples responded before the Shan, fewer resources were available to reach out to the Shan.

Rev. Josiah and Mrs. Ellen Cushing, from Massachusetts, USA, arrived in Toungoo in 1867 to minister to the Shan.[6] Cushing had a broad vision to reach the Shan in Upper Burma. He focused on learning the Shan language before Burmese and began to write a dictionary and translate Scripture.[7] After touring the Shan States, with permission from King Mindon Min, Cushing came to the understanding that it was important to reach the Shan using their own language, and that use of Burmese would slow the work, as many Shan spoke no Burmese. He was keen to establish mission stations within the Shan States, and could see opportunities to reach Palaung, Black Karen, and Kachin peoples through the Shan language.[8]

Moses Bixby[9]
Josiah Cushing
Josiah Cushing[10]

The Bixbys left after eight years due to Moses Bixby’s ill health. The Cushings both suffered from ill health at times and had to return to America to recuperate. In 1872, a new missionary couple, Rev. Edwin and Mrs. Jennie Kelley, from Vermont and Boston, brought hope of an outreach to Mongnai in the Shan States. He excelled at Shan language and was ready to move to Mongnai within a year. Edwin Kelley wrote home of the death of his newborn baby and the illness of Jennie, and Josiah Cushing and his son Herbert, all suffering from dengue fever.[11] Tragedy struck during a preaching journey to Mongnai with Cushing and some Shan disciples, when, on 1 January 1873, Kelley drowned while swimming in a lake to retrieve a water fowl he had shot.[12] Jennie Kelley’s second child died in June 1873 shortly after birth and her own health failed after a further two years in Toungoo. She returned to the States and, after some theological and medical training, returned to the Shan mission in Burma in 1880, where she worked until she died in 1889.[13]

Upon returning to Burma, Josiah Cushing began a Shan outreach in Bhamo in 1876 after meeting John Stevenson and Henry Soltau, CIM missionaries who were reaching out to the Chinese immigrants there. The Bhamo field began as a Shan and Kachin mission. Rev. J. A. Freiday took charge of the work at Bhamo after Josiah Cushing left.[14] Rev. Freiday and his wife reached the Shan with the help of a Shan evangelist from Toungoo. He made short trips into the Shan-speaking area of China from 1880 and planted a small church of ten believers through five years’ labour. Later, Dr. and Mrs. W. C. Griggs took over the Bhamo Shan work, and continued to visit the Chinese Shan. When Mrs. Griggs became sick in 1905, they returned to America and there were no Shan-speaking missionaries to replace them. This caused the Shan outreach to become a Burmese outreach from 1905. After that time, few Shan Christians remained in the church.

Mrs. Ellen Cushing continued the work in Toungoo while her husband began the new work in Bhamo. While they were away on furlough, the small church was scattered, so she began again. When Rev. and Mrs. B. J. Mix arrived in Toungoo in 1880, the Cushings moved to Rangoon to focus on translation. Within a year, however, Rev. Mix’s health failed and he died on the journey home. Miss Rockwood moved to Toungoo to run the girl’s school when Mrs. Mix left. She, too, died after contracting typhoid, spending less than a year in Toungoo.[15]

Shan Mission House, Toungoo[16]

The Shan work struggled for several reasons. The Burmese king’s dislike of Christians destroyed early hopes of mission in the Shan States. Dangers of travel in the mountains and the deaths of missionaries in Toungoo before they finished language study greatly slowed progress. Added to this, the low status of most of the early Shan believers and the restlessness of Shan refugees made starting churches difficult.


After the Third Anglo-Burmese war in 1885, the British deposed the Burmese king Thibaw and annexed Upper Burma. This opened opportunities for mission in Upper Burma, although for some years armed conflict prevented mission. The Southern Shan State Alliance fought against the British to place the exiled Limbin prince on the throne and oust the British from Upper Burma. A new law, the “Act for Disturbed Districts and the Shan State,” banned travel in the Shan States until the rebellions were overcome and peace restored.

As more missionaries arrived for the Shan work, Cushing began missions in Hsipaw, Mongnai, and Namkham. In 1890, Dr. and Mrs. M. B. Kirkpatrick opened the mission in Hsipaw with the help of Shan evangelists from Toungoo. Dr. and Mrs. Leeds joined them later the same year to open a hospital and a school. The Shan prince of Hsipaw supported their work, which helped to overcome the wariness of the local people. Kirkpatrick and Leeds made regular trips into the surrounding villages to share the gospel. While in Mandalay for supplies, Kirkpatrick befriended a young English missionary, Charles Lambert, who had been with the CIM in Bhamo. He was then an independent missionary working in Mandalay, but the Anglicans disapproved of his mission as he was not ordained. He applied to join the American Baptists, then went to teach in the school in Hsipaw in April 1895, while the Kirkpatricks returned to the USA for furlough.[17]

Seven weeks into his stay in Hsipaw, bandits attacked and killed Lambert while he was alone. Rev. William and Mrs. Lilla Young arrived five days later, but the local people stayed away from the church and the hospital for months because of fear. Lilla Young developed consumption, so they returned to America in 1898, where she died the following year.

Mrs. And Dr. Kirkpatrick[18]
Charles Lambert[19]

By that time, the Hsipaw Shan church had grown to forty-two members, and supported its own pastor. Dr. Leeds worked in the hospital and visited surrounding villages in a ten-mile radius around Hsipaw to share the gospel and hold small clinics. The medical work was instrumental in the growth of the church, as was the support of the Hsipaw Shan prince. When the Leeds family went on furlough, Rev. Wilbur W. and Mrs. Jennie M. Cochrane moved to Hsipaw in 1906. By that year, the church had grown to more than sixty members and had a Shan pastor. The local government ran the hospital and school from this time. The church continued to grow through local evangelists with some missionary help until 1915, when bandits attacked and killed Dr. M. B. Kirkpatrick, who had returned the previous year. For many years, the Shan church in Hsipaw continued without missionary help, as there was a shortage of Shan-speaking missionaries. In time, the church in Hsipaw changed to Burmese language worship, which it still uses, and the members now are mainly Burmese with two or three Shan families.[20]


Work in Mongnai began in 1892 when Cushing sent Dr. and Mrs. William. C. Griggs with Mrs. Huldah W. Mix to begin a mission to the Shan there. The Mongnai Shan prince was friendly and encouraged Cushing by giving him a plot of land to build on. They discovered that the land had been a Buddhist cemetery, and fear and superstition kept most of the local people away. It took four years for the missionaries to overcome this spiritual obstacle to the gospel. The Shan locals watched as the foreigners built their house and chapel on an evil-spirit-infested plot of land, waiting to see how the spirits would punish them. As the foreigners lived and thrived, a few intrepid local people started to listen to their message.

When they opened a clinic, those who were sick and had lost hope of a cure from their own spirit doctors ventured to try the foreign doctor. When he cured them against all hope, they took an interest in his message. The Shan prince began sending sick animals to Dr. Albert Henderson, who had arrived with his wife Cora in 1894. He sent a dog with a toothache, followed by a goat with a sore ear, then an elephant with a boil. After Dr. Henderson healed his animals, he and his princess visited the clinic with an entourage to show their appreciation. With the prince’s approval, people flocked to the clinic and began responding to the gospel.

A young Shan man, Po Pu, hired to teach at the mission school in 1897, came to faith. Dr. Henderson employed him to paint gospel posters and trained him as an evangelist. They travelled together to the villages around Mongnai, sharing the gospel and bringing medical care. Then, in 1898, a Karen missionary, Bla Paw, arrived to help Wilbur Cochrane. Bla Paw became the pastor of the church until 1937, when his son Aaron took over as pastor. A number of small churches grew in villages around Mongnai, with a group of evangelists looking after them.

By 1900, over one hundred believers worshipped in the Mongnai Shan church and there were congregations in Panglong and Mawkmai. After Cora Henderson almost died of blackwater fever, the family moved to Taunggyi where the climate was healthier. Albert Henderson travelled to Mongnai for a few days each month until 1907 when Dr. and Mrs. Howard C. Gibbens transferred there from Kengtung. Howard Gibbens preached in Mongnai and in the bazaar in Loilem each week. He and his wife remained in Mongnai until 1932, when they moved to Loilem. Dr. Lao Htin Ah Pon, a godly Christian doctor of Chinese and Burmese descent, worked in Mongnai and Loilem until the Second World War, when the Japanese imprisoned and executed him.[21]

After the war, the Christians rebuilt the church and by 1950, it was a part of the Southern Shan States Baptist Convention. After the missionaries left in 1965, the church in Mongnai became a Burmese-speaking church with an ethnically mixed congregation.[22]


Namkham is twenty-five miles south-east of Bhamo, close to the Burma-China border. Bhamo missionary, Rev. Freiday, travelled to Namkham in 1880 to share the gospel. He saw potential for Shan outreach, but the Hsenwi prince, who ruled the area, opposed the missionaries. There was no opportunity to open a mission in Namkham until 1893, when the prospect of opening a hospital and school helped the prince overcome his reservations. Rev. and Mrs. Cochrane began the work, but saw few results. After their furlough, Dr. and Mrs. M. B. Kirkpatrick moved to Namkham in 1896. They began a school and a clinic, and laid plans to build a hospital. Within two years, thirty-five believers were worshipping at the Namkham church.

Dr. Harper Memorial Hospital (permission from

Dr. Robert Harper joined them in 1902 with three Karen missionaries, but Dr. and Mrs. Kirkpatrick soon had to leave because of ill health. The spiritual health of the church fluctuated and a number of the Shan preachers suffered moral failures. Persecution of the Christians also caused the church to shrink. Through Robert Harper’s ministry, the church in Namkham grew to eighty-eight members, and reached out to plant a church in nearby Selan, the fruit of the witness of the school and evangelism in market places of Namkham.

In 1913, Dr. Kirkpatrick’s son Clarence joined the mission in Namkham with his wife Elizabeth. They opened another church at Muse with Shan evangelist Kham Muang as pastor. During the First World War, the economy of Burma slumped and many missionaries left. Only four American Baptist missionary families remained to work among the Shan. This dropped to three when Clarence Kirkpatrick died of typhoid in 1916 and his family returned to America. Robert Harper returned to Namkham in 1917 and remained there until he retired in 1923. He foiled a rebel plot by reporting it to the authorities and was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal in 1923. He was loved and respected by the local people so much that they resented the new missionaries who replaced him.[23]

In 1922, Dr. Gordon and Mrs. Marion “Tiny” Seagrave joined the Namkham mission and worked to expand the medical work. They began a training school for nurses and built a new hospital, named in honour of Dr. Robert Harper. Seagrave opened clinics in three towns around Namkham, which were run by Shan, Burmese, and Kachin nurses he trained. Evangelists worked in the hospital and clinics, and otherwise shared the gospel, and supported the church. The Seagraves remained in Namkham until the Second World War, returned after the war, and continued to work throughout the period of civil war after Burma’s independence from Britain. He even travelled into China to treat CIM missionaries who were sick in Longling town, 130 km away.[24]

The church in Namkham continued to grow with strong local leadership and began, in 1945, a local association of Namkham, Selan, and Muse churches called the Shweli Valley Shan Baptist Association. By 1958, the Association recorded 768 believers and soon baptized a further 142 Shan, Chinese, and Lisu. Over the following years, Baptist churches in Lashio, Mongkut, MongMyit, and Mong Pa joined the Association, which grew to a joint membership of 1,359 baptised believers in 1992. In this area, the medical work was a clear conduit for the gospel. Despite less support by the Shan prince, the church grew strong and the formation of the Association has held the churches together and encouraged growth.[25]


When Albert and Cora Henderson moved to Taunggyi in 1905 for health reasons, it was already a centre of British administration with a hospital and schools. Albert Henderson opened a clinic, which became popular with minority groups who spoke Shan rather than Burmese. He trained and supervised people in villages to run small dispensaries, while Cora trained nurses to work in them.

They began a house church, which met from house to house of the believers, until they outgrew the houses. They built a granite church, big enough to accommodate the growing congregation of Shan, Karen, Thaungtu (Pa-O), Burmese, Indian, and Western Christians. This church planted a Shan church in Kalaw in 1910, and by 1914, it was helping five small churches in the area. The Hendersons continued to support the medical work and the pastors of the churches until Albert died of typhoid in 1937.[26]

After the Second World War, the Shan Baptist Conventions worked together to establish a Shan State Bible School in Taunggyi, which opened in 1956. At the present time, the Baptist church in Taunggyi is mixed Burmese-Shan and uses the Burmese language. There are several other strong churches in Taunggyi and the Shan State Bible College continues to train local Christians for leadership.[27]


Kengtung is the capital of the Eastern Shan State, separated from the Western Shan states by mountainous terrain and deep valleys. The Shan people live in the valleys, while Lahu and Wa tribes live in the hills. In 1901, Rev. William Young arrived in Kengtung with his second wife Dell to begin a Shan mission there. They faced opposition from the local authorities until the British Resident helped them. They were burgled by Shan bandits, who would have killed them if they had moved. Later in 1903, they heard of a plot to kill all the foreigners in Kengtung, including the British Resident, army officials, and themselves. William Young reported the plot to the British army and it was foiled.

Traditional cow’s cart in the Shan State. Daniel Julie, Paris, France (Public domain, CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Shan work in Kengtung was slow, as the local dialect—Tai Khuen—and customs were different from those the Youngs had learned in the Western Shan State. In 1904, tribal Lahu folk heard of the white man with a holy book teaching in Kengtung. Their sages had passed down a tradition of a lost white book, which was their holy book, and that a white man would bring it back to them. This tradition led to a movement to Christ among the Lahu, and then the Wa, who had a similar tradition. Thousands of Lahu and Wa believed year by year, and the Youngs had difficulty discipling the growing number of believers. They asked for help from the CIM, whose missionaries were already working in the area of China north of Burma where many of the Lahu and Wa lived. CIMers J. O. Fraser and Allyn Cooke helped the Youngs and new missionaries, Rev. Ray and Mrs. Mary Buker, to disciple the Christian Lahu and Wa villages.[28]

During the Bukers’s second term, they moved to Kengtung in 1934 to work with the Tai Khuen—the “Eastern Shan”. They rented a house in each of six villages around Kengtung and spent a month in each, alternating with a month in Kengtung, living simply in Shan style. By 1939, they saw one hundred people turning to Christ each year. This complemented the work of Ray’s twin brother, Dr. Dick Buker, who worked in the hospital in Kengtung. He had begun a leprosy program which brought many to Christ in the area. During the war, the missionaries evacuated to India and Shan pastors took over the work in Kengtung.

The influx of thousands of Lahu and Wa into the church meant that the Youngs had no time to focus on the Tai Khuen, so that work was slow to start. When Ray and Mary Buker were able to live with the Tai Khuen and share the gospel with them, a church was formed which grew steadily. The descendants of those Khuen believers are active members of their local Baptist churches to this day, supporting each other through membership in a Baptist convention.[29]

We turn now to look at the Anglican missions to the Shan.

Anglican mission to the Shan: The SPG

The Anglicans entered Burma with the British after the Anglo-Burmese wars to serve as chaplains to the soldiers stationed there. They asked for missionaries and The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG)—a Church of England missionary organization active in the British Atlantic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—sent workers in 1854. The Anglican missionaries focused on founding schools, believing that training children was the way to bring Christianity to Burma. They reached out to the Burmese and Karen and planted churches all over Lower Burma, wherever the army had outposts. It wasn’t until after the Third Anglo-Burmese War, in 1885, that they made any move to reach out to the Shan. After 1885, they built schools and opened churches in areas with potential for Shan outreach, such as Myitta and Shwebo, outside Mandalay. Anglican missionary doctors opened a hospital in Mandalay with a church building attached. This hospital was still missionary-run in the 1960s, but had an increasing number of local doctors. After the missionaries had to leave in 1965, the local authority ran the hospital. It still has a number of Anglican Christian doctors and the church next door continues as an Anglican church.[30]

The strength of the Anglican Church was its Bible colleges, which trained the local people for ministry. By the time the missionaries left, the Anglican Church was run by Burmese and Karen pastors and bishops, so it has continued. Since the Second World War, Shan Anglican churches have opened in Mandalay, Lankher, and other areas of the Shan States.

Anglican mission to the Shan: BCMS

The Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society (BCMS) was formed in 1922 as the conservative evangelical missionary society of the Anglican Church. Rev. Alfred Thomas Houghton was sent by BCMS and arrived in Burma with a vision to plant churches amongst the Jinghpaw (Kachin) people of northern Burma.[31] BCMS worked east of the American Baptist mission stations—between the Irrawaddy River and the Indian border. The BCMS valued primary evangelism over education, so they settled in Mohnyin, and began to learn language and share the gospel. As their missionary force grew, outreach was extended to Jinghpaw, Burmese, and Shan people. They had several missionaries with medical training, so they opened dispensaries as a way to build relationships with the local people.

The missionaries’ method of itinerant ministry included regular tours of the areas they worked in. This was an effective way to reach the people and to get to know which new places needed missionaries. Providing medical care was especially helpful among the Burmese and Shan, who were quick to seek the help of missionaries once they saw that their medical treatment produced positive results. The Jinghpaw people most often only sought help from the missionaries after their spirit doctors’ methods failed, at which point they were often too sick to gain an effective cure. In time, the patients who were cured by the missionaries spread the news, so that trust grew between the people and missionaries.

The BCMS started Shan work in Mohnyin, Lonkin, Wuntho, and Bulimyo between 1928 and 1932. They opened a Bible school in Mohnyin in 1931, which became a theological college that trained local Christians to become Anglican deacons and then priests.[32]

Dr. Walter Barr Johnston opened a hospital in Panglong in the Shan State in 1938, which, along with Dr. Seagrave’s hospital in Namkham, helped the British army during the war by providing mobile army surgical hospitals to treat the wounded.

Political upheaval

After the Second World War, Britain offered Burma self-government as a part of the British Commonwealth, but the Nationalists, led by Major General Aung San, demanded full independence. Aung San met with Shan, Kachin, and Chin leaders at Panglong, then with Clement Atlee, Prime Minister of Britain, to discuss terms for independence. After a conference held at Panglong in 1947, the Shan, Kachin, and Chin leaders signed an agreement to be part of a Federated Burma, with an option to secede after ten years. The Karen, Karenni, Pa-O, and Wa peoples were not represented. Before independence, the Head of State (Shan prince of Mong Pawn, Sao Sam Htun), Major General Aung San, and his whole cabinet were assassinated on 19 July 1947. U Nu replaced Aung San as Prime Minister and Burma became an independent country on 4 January 1948.

Map of Arakan, Dense Jungle Green (permission from the family of Rev. A. T. Houghton)

The opposition by the king and his local representatives was a powerful disadvantage, which discouraged many people from turning to Christianity. The power of the king was absolute, and anyone who disobeyed could be flogged, imprisoned, or killed according to the whims of his representatives, the local governors. When the Burmese officials harassed the first converts to Christianity, Judson sought an audience with the king to gain freedom of religion. The king refused each time he appealed and freedom of religion only came through British law after the Anglo-Burmese Wars. Freedom of religion is official today, but family and community pressure continue to deter profession of faith among Shan people, or cause believers to recant if they are isolated from a Christian community. New believers in a village or community often relocate to live among other Shan Christians, close to a church. This makes it easier for the new Christian to grow in faith, but reduces the opportunity to reach out further in the original village or community.

As believers trickled into God’s kingdom in small numbers, they tended to be from the lower classes, the sick, or those on the edges of society. Few of them had influence to provide an opening for general acceptance by the majority of the Burmese community. When Karen people turned to the Lord in great numbers, they were persecuted by the Buddhist Burmese. It didn’t change the Burmese attitude to Christianity; rather, it turned the Burmese against the Karen. In Burma, the people known to be Christians are the Karen, Lisu, Kachin, and Chin. As ethnic minorities, these people often find themselves in conflict with the Burmese. The Christian Burmese and Shan tend to be third and fourth generation Christians, and do not have the same understanding of how to share the gospel with Buddhists as does a first-generation Christian who has come from a Buddhist background. Much of the church planting in the Shan context is being done by first-generation Christians who have responded to the gospel after moving to cities for work. After returning to their homes, they begin to share the gospel with family and friends.

As the missionaries lived among the Shan over many years, they gained the respect of local leaders, thus opening doors for the gospel. However, the Shan princes and local leaders could not change faith. As the Shan prince was the head of Buddhism in his area, there was no option for him to change faith. Local leaders would have lost their positions if they turned away from Buddhism. The Shan people have a saying, “To be Shan is to be Buddhist.” For this reason, Shan who become Christians face the unsettling problem that Buddhist Shan do not see them as quite Shan anymore. The Shan church has attempted to overcome this in recent years by encouraging Shan literacy in the church and continuing to be involved in the village community in all ways except those relating to Buddhism. Examples of this are helping to cook during funerals and cleaning the village instead of the temple area. Church leaders also meet to discuss culturally appropriate forms for Shan weddings and funerals, and the use of Shan music and dance in Christian worship. In earlier years, the Christians distanced themselves from Shan culture as they associated it with Buddhism, but now that there are mature second and third generation Christians, they are reclaiming aspects of Shan culture which can be separated from Buddhism, thus avoiding syncretism.

The lives and ministries of many missionaries to Burma were cut short by illness or death. Diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, cholera, typhoid fever, and consumption (tuberculosis) were endemic in nineteenth-century Burma. This is one of the reasons why medical missions had more success than primary evangelism without the support of medical missions or education. Medical work opened doors for the gospel in all the areas of Shan ministry and may have been the key to the acceptance of the missionaries. The areas where the main missionary was a doctor are the areas where the church has remained strongest over the years. However, medical work alone could not have built the church. It went hand in hand with evangelism and the use of Christian literature. Nowadays, with vaccines and treatments available for most of the diseases that were problematic in the past, missionaries rarely die of illness on the field. The improvement in health services throughout Asia means that medical missions are less necessary, although in remote areas, medical clinics have remained helpful for the propagation of the gospel and its reception.

In the past, partnership with Karen or Kachin evangelists and missionaries proved helpful for the growth of the church and it continues to be so even now. Near-culture Christians who can speak, or are willing to learn, Shan are a gospel resource that should not be ignored. Right from the first Shan mission in Toungoo, the missionary worked with local Christian evangelists from a near culture, then with Shan evangelists as the work progressed. At the start of the American Baptist mission to the Shan, Rev. Moses Bixby employed Karen evangelists from the area he had worked in during his first term (Moulmein). They were vital to the extension of the work, as the missionaries had few new workers over the years and several new workers died before they had finished language and culture study. Josiah and Ellen Cushing continued to use Karen evangelists as they opened new mission stations in Bhamo, Hsipaw, Mongnai, and Namkham. In each area, the local evangelists helped the missionaries spread the gospel and plant churches. Some of them became pastors of the new Shan churches. Although a number of the local evangelists fell into moral failure, it still meant that the “face” of Christianity was Shan or Karen. Shan people respond to the gospel more positively when it is shared by their own people, in culturally appropriate ways.

Present-day mission in the areas of historical Shan mission

According to Tertullian’s Apologeticus, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”[35] This is a saying which gives hope to the Shan church, as two missionaries in Hsipaw were killed for their faith—Charles Lambert in May 1895 and Dr. M. B. Kirkpatrick in February 1915. Many others died of illness while serving as missionaries to the Shan.

Evangelistic radio broadcasts aired by FEBC are a vital part of outreach to the Shan and have been instrumental to the growth of the Shan church in many areas. The programs are also a good resource for discipleship and growth of new Christians. Selections of the radio programs stored on micro-SD cards are shared between phones via Bluetooth with cell groups to help them to teach new believers.

Near Hsipaw, a Lisu outreach to the Shan began in the late 1990s when a Lisu village headman developed a vision to reach them. He worked together with a Lisu pastor who had oversight of several churches, and saw eighteen families come to Christ. They contacted missionaries involved in Shan ministry to work in partnership with them. This provided an opportunity for annual teaching seminars on evangelism, discipleship, and church planting, which has grown into a ministry among Shan in several locations in the Northern Shan State.

In Mongnai, a young man who heard the gospel in Thailand returned to his home to share the gospel, and has since planted a church. After initial problems with the local Baptist church, he now works in partnership with them.

The Shan Baptist Church in Lashio has not seen much fruit in recent years when compared to the Lisu and Lahu. There are, however, an increasing number of Christian workers from different groups reaching out to the Shan, Palaung, and other ethnic minorities in Lashio.

The Taunggyi Baptist Church continues to worship and serve the Lord. There are other Shan churches and outreach work to the Shan. Most of the churches worship in Burmese, which can be a challenge to Shan outreach, as Shan respond best to outreach in their own language.

In Kengtung, the Eastern Shan Baptist Convention includes eleven Shan churches and many Burmese-speaking mixed-ethnicity churches. They support each other and shine the light of the gospel in the area.


Mission to the Shan over the past century and a half has been a complex picture with mixed results. In some areas where the roots of the Shan Church were planted in nineteenth-century Burma, churches that worship the Lord can still be found. In recent years, mission to the Shan has come through radio programs and evangelism within Shan communities in Thailand. Several of today’s key Shan evangelists came to faith while in Thailand, returned to the Shan State with a vision to share the gospel, and are now planting churches. Some of the new work has been started by near-culture Christians in Myanmar. We can see that God is faithful and historical work has sown seeds that may take many years to germinate and grow. The present work is built on the foundations which were laid by the prayers and toil of many who have gone before. The work God is doing among the Shan people will similarly develop in years to come, as his people join him by planting, watering, and reaping among those he is calling to himself.

Judsons began preaching in a zayat, 1819[34]

In 1950, the Karen and Mon, followed by the Karenni and the Arakanese, rebelled against the Federation and demanded independence. General Ne Win led the armed forces fighting the rebels throughout Burma. The Communist uprising in China in 1953 caused twelve thousand KMT Chinese soldiers to flee into the Shan States, which brought further turmoil. U Nu declared a “State of Emergency” and gave General Ne Win political control. Then, in March 1962, after winning a general election, U Nu offered greater freedoms to minority peoples at a conference in Rangoon. The military, under General Ne Win, staged a coup to overthrow the government, and imprisoned all the delegates. He further revoked the 1947 Constitution, ending all hope of minority groups using political means to gain independence.[33]

In December 1965, all the foreign missionaries received notice to leave the country. After the removal of the missionaries, little news of how the churches were faring under the military regime reached the rest of the world for many years.

Lessons from the early mission to the Shan

What lessons can we learn from the lives and work of those who have gone before us?

In the early days, the missionaries lived relatively simple lives. No Western foods or amenities were available to them. They learned the local language of those they ministered to and sought to live godly lives amongst them. The main method of evangelism was in market places, preaching from a zayat—a locally-designed shelter without walls—to anyone who would listen. As westerners, they had the advantage of novelty, but the low literacy levels meant that most people needed to hear the gospel preached rather than through literature. So, regular contact with the missionaries or local Christians was vital. Among the Burmese and Shan, literacy levels were higher among men, who received education through the temple schools. Both then and now, building relationships has proven to be important in preparing the way for the gospel.

[1] Sai Aung Tun, History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962 (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2009); William Clifton Dodd, The Tai RaceElder Brother of the Chinese” (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1996), 1–48.

[2] Shally Hunt, “Prisoner of Hope,” Carey Family Newsletter 17 (2011), 3–4, (accessed 5 November 2020).

[3] Edmund F. Merriam, The American Baptist Missionary Union and Its Missions (Boston: American Baptist Missionary Union, 1897), 33–56, (accessed 24 November 2020).

[4] Charles Crosthwaite, The Pacification of Burma (London: Edward Arnold, 1912), 133, (accessed 25 November 2020).

[5] Jennie Bixby Johnson, The Life and Work of Moses Homan Bixby (New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1904), (accessed 19 November 2020).

[6] Wallace St. John, Josiah Nelson Cushing: Missionary and Scholar Burma (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission, 1912), (accessed 18 November 2012).

[7] Josiah Nelson Cushing, Shan and English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission, 1914), (accessed 18 November 2020); Grammar of the Shan Language (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission, 1887), (accessed 25 November 2020).

[8] Josiah Nelson Cushing, “The Shan Mission,” American Baptist Missionary Union Magazine (1893): 12–4.

[9] Johnson, The Life and Work of Moses Homan Bixby, 6

[10] St. John, Josiah Nelson Cushing.

[11] Jennie B. Kelley, A Consecrated Life: A Portraiture of Rev. Edwin Delmont Kelley, Missionary in Burmah (Boston: D. Lothrop, 1879), 171, 181, 184, (accessed 5 November 2020)

[12] Kelley, A Consecrated Life, 243–5.

[13] Kelley, A Consecrated Life, 277; “Editorial,” The Baptist Missionary Magazine 70 (February 1890): 32, (accessed 9 December 2020).

[14] “Mission to Burmah,” The Baptist Missionary Magazine 59, no. 7 (July 1879): 224, (accessed 25 November 2020).

[15] Cushing, “The Shan Mission,” 15–20.

[16] M. B. Kirkpatrick, “A Trip to Shanland,” The Baptist Missionary Magazine 75 (February 1895), 45, (accessed 25 November 2020).

[17] J. W. Jordan, The Missionary Martyr of Thibaw (London: S. W. Partridge, 1896), (accessed 5 November 2020).

[18] Jordan, The Missionary Martyr of Thibaw, 108.

[19] Jordan, The Missionary Martyr of Thibaw.

[20] Sai Htwe Maung, History of Shan Churches in Burma, 45–8, (accessed 18 November 2020).

[21] Cushing, The Shan Mission; Katherine L. Read, Bamboo Hospital (London: Peter Davies, 1961).

[22] Maung, History of Shan Churches in Burma, 48–54.

[23] Maung, History of Shan Churches in Burma, 55–63; American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, One-Hundred-Third Annual Report (Boston: Foreign Mission Rooms, 1917), 53–4, 65–7, (accessed 6 November 2020).

[24] Gordon S. Seagrave, Burma Surgeon (New York: W. W. Norton, 1943).

[25] Maung, History of Shan Churches in Burma, 83–6.

[26] Read, Bamboo Hospital.

[27] Maung, History of Shan Churches in Burma, 83.

[28] Deborah Susan Chase, comp. and ed., “Appendix B ‘My Grandfather, Harold Mason Young’,” in Harold Mason Young, To the Mountain Tops: A Sojourn Among the Lahu of Asia (Xlibris, 2013), (accessed 6 November 2020).

[29] Eric S. Fife, Against the Clock: The Story of Ray Buker, Olympic Runner and Missionary Statesman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981). Interestingly, Buker placed fifth in the 1500 meters in the same 1924 Paris Olympics, where the gold in the 400 and bronze in the 200 meters was won by Eric Liddell, who would serve as a missionary in China.

[30] Stephen Mint Oo Than, comp., “Time Line of The Anglican in Myanmar Church of the Province of Myanmar (Burma) 1825–2001” (December 2004), (accessed 6 November 2020).

[31] His brother was Frank Houghton, who served as the Bishop of East Sichuan and General Director of CIM.

[32] A. T. Houghton, Dense Jungle Green (London: Bible Churchmen’s Missionary Society, 1937), (accessed 6 November 2020).

[33] “Aung San-Atlee Agreement (27 Jan 1947),” (accessed 6 November 2020); Kay Latt, “Panglong Agreement, Federal Principles and the 2008 Myanmar Constitution,” Danya Wadi, The Voice of Arakani (26 October 2009),၃၁၆။-panglong-agreement-federal-principles-and-the-2008-myanmar-constitution/ (accessed 6 November 2020).

[34] Maung Shwe Wa, Burma Baptist Chronicle Book 1 (Rangoon: Burma Baptist Convention, 1963), 16, (accessed 30 November 2020).

[35] Turtullian, Apologeticum, (accessed 6 November 2020).

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