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David Dunton Thomas was born August 21, 1930 to Claude H. and Ruth Dunton Thomas in Taiyuan, Shansi, China. His parents were both missionaries with the China Inland Mission (CIM). In 1934 the Thomas family returned to the United States on furlough, during which time they lived in Wheaton, Illinois. The Thomases returned to the foreign field in 1935. In May of 1936, Thomas's father died, after which time Thomas, his mother, and his sister settled at the CIM school for missionary children, located in Chefoo, Shantung, where Mrs. Thomas taught during their stay.
After the United States' entry into war against Japan in December, 1941, the Thomas family, as American citizens, were among the enemy nationals imprisoned by the Japanese in the school compound in Chefoo. All three were repatriated in 1943 and returned again to Wheaton, where they settled near David's grandfather. Thomas attended Wheaton Community High School from February 1944 until his graduation in June of 1947. He was accepted to Wheaton College and spent four years there where he earned his B.A. in Greek in 1951.
Upon completion of his college career, Thomas sought a future in missionary service. He was convinced of his duty to God, and wanted only to be "where and what God would have me be." In pursuit of a missionary career, Thomas continued his education at Columbia Bible College, where he earned a B.D. and M.A. in missions.
In 1953, Thomas joined Wycliffe Bible Translators and began work as a linguist and Bible translator for tribal people. He spent the spring of 1953 at Wycliffe's Jungle Camp in Ixtapa, Chiapas, Mexico. While at camp, Thomas was taught how to "make the most of whatever sort of tribal situation" arose, which involved learning basic survival skills and first aid.
After completing Jungle Camp, Thomas was assigned to the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), in Manila, Philippines. While in the Philippines, he worked on Bible translation and the preparation of text materials, in tribal languages, to be used in the field. On May 28, 1956, while still in Manila, Thomas married Dorothy Fowler, a graduate of Penn State as well as of Columbia Bible College, where the couple had first met. His wife was also accepted by Wycliffe, and shared Thomas's interest in linguistics and Bible translation. The Thomases remained in the Philippines until their transfer to Vietnam in 1957.
Thomas's assignment in Vietnam involved doing linguistic analysis of the Chrau tribal language in preparation for Bible translation into that tongue, an assignment to which Thomas would devote over two decades. Since Chrau was an only an oral language, Thomas and his wife were responsible for (1) developing a written form for Chrau, (2) preparing literacy and educational materials, and (3) translating the New Testament.
While on furlough in 1960, the Thomases taught at the Wycliffe Language Course in Chigwell, Essex, England, where he was assigned to the grammar staff and she to the phonetics staff. They also went to Paris, France, where they visited linquists working with Vietnamese languages. Also during this furlough Thomas began work on his Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Thomases returned to Vietnam in December of 1961 and took up residence in Xuanloc, the provincial capital of Longhanh. With the assistance of a Chrau tribesman, they threw themselves back into their linguistics work, concentrating their efforts on producing a series of Chrau language primers.
In 1962, Thomas was assigned to serve as Acting Director of SIL Vietnam, while Director Dick Pittman went on furlough. The Thomases spent two years in Saigon where David taught at the University of Saigon as well as performing administrative duties. After they returned to Xuanloc for a short period in 1964, the Thomases went to Kontum where they took charge of linguistics workshop. The primary focus of the Kontum institution was the analysis of different aspects of Vietnamese languages. In 1964, Thomas attended a meeting of the Translators Institute in Bangkok, Thailand, sponsored by the American Bible Society, and held for translators working throughout Southeast Asia. In 1966, Thomas helped teach a short Chrau Bible School. The primers he and his wife developed were put to use in this school, as well as in the provincial school system.
The Thomases went on furlough during 1966/1967. During this time, David completed work on his Ph.D., as well as taught linguistics at SIL in Grand Forks, North Dakota (SILND). En route back to Vietnam the Thomases taught an SIL summer school course in linguistics in New Zealand. Upon their return to Saigon in 1968, the Thomases discovered that the Kontum workshop center had been demolished during the Tet celebration of 1968. They immediately rented a house in Nhatrang, where they re-established the workshop center. Back in Xuanloc they held a second Chrau school. During this time period, Viet Cong military activity began to become a noticeable feature of the Thomases' life in Vietnam.
In June of 1969 Thomas attended Wycliffe's administrative conference in Mexico, where he served as a delegate. After long delays, the scripture, hymns, and literacy books translated by David and Dorothy were printed and distributed to Chrau villagers in 1972. Some distribution problems arose due to increased Viet Cong presence in the area. During this same year, Wycliffe opened its new headquarters for Vietnam work in Saigon. Following furlough in 1973, Thomas was appointed Deputy Director for the Cambodian extension of the Vietnam branch. This assignment included administrative as well as teaching responsibilities. He left that country in 1975 because of the worsening political situation.
By 1978 the Thomases had moved to Thailand where David served as instructor of linguistics and Bible introduction at Mahidol University in Bangkok. During this year, although no longer working out of Vietnam, the Thomases completed their translation of the Chrau New Testament, which was to be published in 1979. They then started working on a Bible translation for Northern Khmer.
While on furlough during 1979, the Thomases spent time in Paris and London
where they met with refugee workers. Thomas also taught linguistics at SILND.
Upon their return to Thailand in 1980, Thomas continued work in administration
as well as teaching at Mahidol University in Bangkok. He also produced a grammar
text book. The Thomases continued their work in Bangkok until 1993, with David
teaching and both he and Dorothy working on Khmer translation. They then moved
to Waynesville, North Carolina, USA. He died April 14, 2006.
Scope and Content
The materials in this collection consist of the letters, newspaper clippings, photographs and negatives of the Thomases. The material deals with their work as missionary linguists for Wycliffe Bible Translators in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and to a lesser extent Thailand. The bulk of the content consists of David and Dorothy's letters to his mother, Ruth, living in Wheaton. The folder titles and the arrangement were supplied by the archivist.
The early part of Thomas's career as a linguist in the Philippines can be traced through his letters in folders 1-1 through 1-4. This correspondence describes his first years in the field in Nasuli and Manila, as well as a detailed account of his marriage to Dorothy Fowler (1-3). Folder 1-4 also traces the development of his assignment to Vietnam, including information on his first trip to Saigon with Dick Pittman. Folder 1-4 contains a brochure printed by the Philippine Branch of Wycliffe, which describes briefly the development of the Nasuli Base. This brochure includes a map of the base that shows the location of the Thomases' house.
The next period of the Thomases' careers, from 1957 through the early 1970's, was spent (unless on furlough) on assignment in Vietnam. Letters in folders 1-5 through 2-5 deal mainly with details about their life and work with the Chrau tribe. David's letters, written once a week on a consistent basis, are filled with reflections about his work preparing a written language dictionary, primers, and other literacy materials in Chrau, for use by the tribal people. He also supplies details about life in the field, and about Chrau culture. For example, folder 1-7 contains an account of a Chrau who burglarized the Thomas's house, and how the situation was dealt with by the Thomases and the tribe.
Folders 1-9 and 1-10 consist of letters written from Saigon while David was acting Director of the Vietnam branch in Dick Pittman's absence. Folder 1-10 also contains a memo and newspaper clipping regarding the murder of two Wycliffe translators, Elwood Jacobsen and Gaspar Mikil, by Viet Cong. Folders 1-11 and 1-13 contain letters full of information about the Kontum linguistics workshop, which the Thomases directed.
Folder 1-12 contains material regarding Thomas's participation in the Translators Institute meeting in Banglamung, Thailand. An important part of the Thomases' career was the holding of a Bible school for the Chrau. The initial school is documented in folder 1-13, with information on following sessions given in folders 2-2 through 2-4. Of particular interest is a letter in folder 2-3 which describes at length some of the problems associated with getting the Chrau primers printed, as well as with making arrangements with the Tribal Affairs Office for holding a Chrau school. Folder 2-7 and 2-8 contain letters David wrote from Phnom Penh in Cambodia, describing worship services among the Cambodian people and giving his impressions of the country. Folders 2-5 and 2-6 contain an interesting series of letters that Dave wrote to a non-Christian friend and that friend's replies. They present candid pro and con arguments about the validity of the Christian faith, using as a starting point the books of Francis Schaeffer.
Throughout the Thomases' letters from Vietnam, there are references to the political and military activities relating to the war in that country and the United States' involvement. Thomas often gives his analysis of the situation within Vietnam, as in folders 1-10, 1-12, and 2-1 through 2-6. Letters in folder 2-1 refer to the destruction of the Kontum workshop by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces during fighting between the two armies. Folders 2-6 and 2-7 contain several comments about the political and military situation in Vietnam after the ceasefire and United States withdrawal. Folder 2-8 contains letters written by Thomas after his departure from Vietnam, commenting on the cease fire.
The last period covered in this collection deals with Thomas's work in Thailand. Several letters in folder 2-8 refer to Thomas's visits to Bangkok, Thailand, where he and a fellow Wycliffe associate, Ken Smith, met with Thai government representatives in an effort to set up a linquistics research and Bible translation program in that country.
The many photographs accompanying the Thomases letters include images of Chrau tribal people, Vietnamese soldiers, families, farming, schoolrooms, church services, and many other aspects of their experiences in Vietnam. Also included are photographs of Dorothy's experience at Wycliffe Jungle Camp in Mexico. The collection is a good source for information on Vietnam missionary work and Vietnamese culture.
The material in this collection was received by the Center in November of 1985 from David Thomas. Some material was returned to the donor.
Accession 85-153April 10, 1989
BIBLE--TRANSLATING. Shots taken during the Thomases' literacy and translation work with the Chrau tribe in Vietnam; black and white. (68)
MISSIONS--VIETNAMA wide variety of shots taken during the Thomases' work in Vietnam. Scenes of church services, village life, families, farming, and many other aspects of Vietnamese life and culture; color (19), black and white (467).
THOMAS, DAVID DUNTON. David Thomas and his wife, Dorothy; black and white (10).
VIETNAMESE CONFLICT. Shots of Vietnamese soldiers in uniform and with their weapons; black and white (13).
BIBLE-TRANSLATING. Scenes taken of the Thomases' work as missionary linguists in Vietnam. Classroom scenes, Thomas working with members of the Chrau tribe, tribal people using flashcards and primers. Black and white. (39)
MISSIONS-VIETNAM. A variety of scenes depicting missionary life in Vietnam. Photos include family scenes of tribal people, church services, Chrau culture, landscape, and housing. Black and white. (111)
THOMAS, DAVID DUNTON. David Thomas, his wife Dorothy, and his mother Ruth; various photographs including wedding photos and a passport photo of David. Black and white. (21)
VIETNAMESE CONFLICT. Pictures of Vietnamese soldiers in uniform, weaponry, and military buildings in the area near Xuanloc. Black and white. (13)
WYCLIFFE BIBLE TRANSLATORS. Jungle Camp, Ixtapa, Mexico. Black and white. (21)