to listen to an audio file of this interview (83 minutes).
This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of Mr. Howard Elsworth Thomas (CN 298, T1) in the Archives of the Billy Graham Center. No spoken words have been omitted, except for any non-English phrases which could not be understood by the transcribers. Foreign terms which are not commonly understood appear in italics. In very few cases words were too unclear to be distinguished. If the transcriber was not completely sure of having gotten what the speaker said, "[?]" was inserted after the word or phrase in question. If the speech was inaudible or indistinguishable, "[unclear]" was inserted. Grunts and verbal hesitations such as "ah" or "um" were usually omitted. The transcribers have not attempted to phonetically replicate English dialects but have instead entered the standard English word the speaker was expressing.
Chinese place names are spelled in the transcript in the old or new transliteration form according to how the speaker pronounced them. Thus, "Peking" is used instead of "Beijing," if that is how the interviewee pronounced it. Chinese terms and phrases which would be understood were spelled as they were pronounced with some attempt made to identify the accepted transliteration form to which it corresponds.
Readers should remember that this is a transcript of spoken English, which follows a different rhythm and rule than written English.
... Three dots indicate an interruption or break in the train of thought within the sentence on the part of the speaker.
.... Four dots indicate what the transcriber believes to be the end of an incomplete sentence.
( ) Words in parentheses are asides made by the speaker.
[ ] Words in brackets are comments by the transcriber.
This transcript was made by Wayne Weber and Jeremy Wells and was completed in September 2008.
Collection 289, T1. Interview with Howard Elsworth Thomas by Paul A. Ericksen, March 6, 1985.
ERICKSEN: [unclear] ...oral history interview with Howard Elsworth Thomas by Paul Ericksen for the missionary sources collection of Wheaton College at the Billy Graham Center Archives. This interview took place at the Thomas’ home in Swannanoa, North Carolina on March 6, 1985 at 1pm. Well, Dr. Thomas I would like to begin by asking you a few questions about your...your childhood. You...you grew up in, or were born in Ford City, Pennsylvania, is that right?
THOMAS: No, I was born Byrrndale, Elk County, Pennsylvania. My family later moved to the Ford City area.
ERICKSEN: What was it that...that was involved in your move? Why did you move to the...[unclear]?
THOMAS: Well, my father died when I was eight years old. And my mother, under the influence of her family, and the support that was derived there of...from, found it necessary to move to a place called Cadogan, which is just a couple of miles outside of Ford City area. Later, she remarried and moved to Ford City.
ERICKSEN: Okay. Can you tell me a little bit about your family?
THOMAS: Well, my family roots go back to Wales. My grandparents came over here. And...interested in farming and mining. And it was due to a mining accident that my father lost his life. And my mother was, I think you would call at that time, not a professional but a practical nurse and supported the family with gifts from her family and the real income was derived from practical nursing. I left school at the age of thirteen, went to work in the coal mines. And I became a Christian shortly after that and due to the influence of George...Reverend George Jones, who went to Nyack Biblical Institute. And later took a licensed pastorate at Hancock, New York, where I met Dr. Frank Gaebelein, who invited me to come to Stony Brook [School] and provided a scholarship for me. I was graduated from Stony Brook and went to Wheaton [College]. And was graduated from Wheaton and went to McCormick Theological Seminary and then went to the mission field.
ERICKSEN: I’d like to go back to the time when you left school. You said that shortly after you started working in the mines you became a Christian. Was there any connection between the two or....?
THOMAS: No, we had...we had a Welsh miner who became...was.... Well, let me back up a minute and tell you that the community in which I lived at the time had no pastor in its church. But it had a very active church which was supported and ministerial-wise provided for by the American Sunday School Union. And this man came, through the guidance of the Lord of course, but also under the leadership and support of the American Sunday School Union. He was a very active man, he had been a boxer. I was always...had always been interested in boxing. And he became a very favorite person among the young people of that community. And it was through his influence that I was led to accept the Lord. And his wife [?] still...he is dead now, but I still maintain very close relationships with his family who live in Florida.
ERICKSEN: How did it come about that you became a pastor in this small....?
THOMAS: Well, I was...I was at Nyack and it was between my second and third years at Nyack that I had to have some sort of support. And I left Nyack and got a job in...I had a background in house painting and...but I found that was not conducive to work in the winter time. And so I got a job in the bakery at Nyack. And then in order to implement my income and continue my education, I took this temporary job as a pastor in this small mission church, of the Christian Missionary Alliance, at Hancock.
ERICKSEN: What sort of things did you...were you responsible for?
THOMAS: Well, I had...I was a tent-making ministry. [someone who supports his/her Christian ministry by a full time job] You know that phrase I presume. And I did painting on the state highway as well, and did the pastorate work of that small group of people, about twenty people I guess, maximum, who were served by this mission church. So I...then during a visit to a Baptist church in Hancock the son of the man who was in charge of the road work, was a very devout Christian man, and had, in a sense, a large responsibility with bringing Dr. [Frank] Gaebelein up to Hancock. And he was interested in me and his wife was interested in me. People have been marvelously supportive of me all through my life, and it’s been such intervening friends as this man (Terry Hoffman was his name) that I have been able to continue my education, and other plans. And when two or three sessions during Dr. Gaebelien’s stay there the Lord led him to an interest in me. And he said, “How about coming to Stony Brook,” and of course I....that was...I had not finished the eighth grade...and.... So I told him he...and...with the experiences that I’d had at Nyack went to Stony Brook, finished in two years my high school work. And then....
ERICKSEN: Now how old were you at that time you went to Stony Brook?
THOMAS: Now you gotta get me time to figure back here. I was graduated from Stony Brook at 30...class of ‘30, that was June of ‘30. That meant I was about twenty four years old when I was graduated from Stony Brook. But I had a wonderful professor there. I was very much ashamed of my age and...and this man, Pierson Curtis was the senior master there, and he was God’s gift to uncertain, insecure people. And he lead me through a very successful activity and development period. And when I mourned his death greatly.... And his wife who is an MD, lives in Maine now...have always been great influences in my life. They...he...he took the place of a father during that period in my life.
ERICKSEN: Can you think of any particular instances that illustrate how he....?
THOMAS: Well, I will never forget the embarrassment of which I told him my age when I was registering. And two events occurred: He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Well, I was as old as you when I went to Princeton.” No it wouldn’t...“I was as old....” He didn’t go to Princeton first, he went to the Moody Bible Institute [Mount Hermon School] at Massachusetts, I forget the name of the prep school up there. And so he said, “I can appreciate your feelings. And I came from a missionary background.” His father and mother were from the A.P. Pierson family. And his father had been a missionary in Japan, and so he came over with that background. And he said, “I know what you feel, and how you feel.” And that put me at ease, I...from that time on. The other instance I want to relate was went I went to Cornell [University], and I was graduated from Cornell, he...a short while later I visited him. And again in a very fatherly way put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Now you’re ready to start working and I want to see results.” But with an affection and assurance that was iron binding. And when I had been at Cornell for five years, I went there as a associate professor, and I got...I was promoted to full professor. Well, of course, I was elated and the first person I wanted to tell was Dr...Mr. Pierson, Curtis. So when I told him (and this characterized his whole relationship with me) I went to him and...I was just bubbling over with enthusiasm and excitement, expecting some great comments from him. And I said, “I have been promoted to a full professor.” And he looked at with sort of amazement on his face, put his hand on my shoulder (this was three years) and said, “What took you so long?”
THOMAS: That...that is the kind of relationship that just has sustained me all through my life. And many, many times when we were...we’ve had some rather hair raising experiences, missionaries.... And when I was tempted many times to stop and give up, it was always the sense of obligation to the fidelity of that man, the relationship of that man, that the Lord gives to sort of bow my head and knuckle me down. And just....
ERICKSEN: During your time at Stony Brook, how did you find the studying there?
THOMAS: Well, Stony Brook is a...is a knuckle down, get to work place. And let me say with great honor, I was the first student who graduated there without any negative points. That means I got no penalties all the while I was there.
ERICKSEN: What would you get penalties for?
THOMAS: Oh, for raucous behavior in the dorm or disobeying masters or getting down in your studies and not doing what you should have done. Just not obeying the rules. So I considered myself [laughs] a little white angel, you know, with a halo and everything. But I was very proud of that. But I felt a sense of obligation to that school. And it...I will say this, I’ve never had better teachers than I had at Stony Brook. I mean, I’ve had...had some poor teachers there, I considered poor teachers, but I never had better teachers anywhere. In seminary...Wheaton, seminary or graduate school.
ERICKSEN: Who were the professors that were so [unclear, Thomas interrupt].
THOMAS: Frank Gaebelein and Pierson Curtis and a fellow by the name of Armitage, Dr. Frank Armitage and some others of course.
ERICKSEN: Can you tell me a little bit about Frank Gaebelein?
THOMAS: Well, now you gonna...you’re opening up whole category of memories and things. But he was a great man. As was...I am not going to compare him with Curtis, because the were two different types...
THOMAS: ...of personalities. But as far as the magnitude of greatness, they’re both peers, they will.... I don’t ever expect to even meet greater, or to be associated with greater men than...than those two. And I...if I had to choose one over the other, I think I would choose Mr. Curtis, because he was...he was a very unusual man in many ways. He was scholar...scholar of the first magnitude. He was a Phi Beta Capa and his wife didn’t know it until they’d been married about ten years. He was a star athlete at Princeton, and she didn’t know that until I was about leave school and he wanted to give me a medal that would keep our memory and our relationships together. And she said, “Where’d you get this?” And he told about the race in which he had won this medal. Just a wonderful man. And Gaebelein, an equally fine scholar, a gentle man, an understanding man and a very, very fine administrator. My relationships with Gaebeleins were not as close, although I was president of the student body and president of the Christian association and served on administrative councils there...all while I was there. But my contact with Curtis was in the personal. And I took care of his furnace when he would go on scouting trips with...or sort of forward bound trip with students, I saw that the family was taken care of and so forth. They were both great men. I was very fond of them.
ERICKSEN: Did you every have any contact with Frank Gaebelein’s father Arno?
THOMAS: Just as he came out to visit the school. And these were always intimate. Dr. Gaebelein used to have a prayer meeting every night...every Wednesday...Tuesday [pauses]...Tuesday night in his home with students. And when he came there...when Dr. Arno came there he always participated in those conferences, prayer meetings. And when he came out to the conference...the school for any kind of meeting we always had access to him. He was very approachable, very kindly, answered all sorts of questions. He loved to sit down and talk with you, and have you answer questions...have you ask questions. And...and he used to ask quite a few too, he....
ERICKSEN: Remember anything in particular?
THOMAS: No, I do not remember any specific questions. We used to get in some great debates in...I didn’t...because I had been to Nyack, I was excused from taking Bible at Stony Brook. And...but I had enough background in Bible from two...two years at Nyack, that I had some questions. And I used to ask the students questions, you know, they would be talking Bible and I would ask them some questions...things that...sort of nonsense questions. Where does it say in the Bible that five men slept in one bed? [laughs] Things of that sort and Gaebelein... Arno’s...Frank’s father, used to like to get those questions raised with him. And he used to prod and say, “Anybody got any good questions?” [laughs] So that sort of thing was the relationship there with men of Arno’s magnitude. It was easy, it was impressive, it was always gratifying so....
ERICKSEN: Was there...what sort of missions emphasis was there at the school, if any?
THOMAS: I don’t recall any. Dr. Pierson...or mister...he had master’s degree and he taught at Yale University on his sabbaticals.... Pierson Curtis used to tell us a lot of stories, and he used to....he had a great facility for writing in the vernacular, you know. He could, he could write a story in the Stony Brook Bulletin, putting his interpretation and his spelling of the Japanese way a boy would pronounce English words. And it was...it used to be riotous. I...during the summer conferences at Stony Brook.... And I...I stayed at Stony Brook and worked during the summers that I was there. Not...not at the school, although I did paint the water tower there one summer. But I worked a lot with a private painter there, a man who used to do the work for Tiffany in New York. An old Belgian that would not accept any coloring. He ground his own pigments and made his own colors. Oh boy, did I learn a lot about painting from that old chap. He was a wonderful fellow too. But I don’t...off hand I would not say with any confidence and recall that missions was emphasized in the student body itself, or in the life of the student body.
ERICKSEN: Another thing I was curious about. At the...during the time period you were at Stony Brook all the fundamentalist-modernist controversy was brewing, what...were did....
THOMAS: No, we didn’t get into that. That... Dr. Gaebelein, as you well know, if you know anything about Frank Gaebelein, and I presume you do.... Dr. Gaebelein was not given to controversy. That is, if you ask him a question he would answer it. But he would always answer it in terms of his beliefs, and he did not encourage arguments between the fundamentalist and the liberalist and any...the moderate or any of that. He would say, “This is my position and if you care to study the adverse of it, all fine but I am not going to waste my time or yours, debating something that you have an opinion on now and I am not going to change you mind and certainly, unless you can produce evidence, and I doubt it at this stage of you intellectual development you are able, that would make me change my mind.” So it was very kindly, it was never hostile. But I came away from Stony Brook with a very generous attitude toward people who have beliefs differing from mine. I.... No, I don’t think we...I know...I have a book mimeographed or autographed by J. Gresham Machen, that great Princeton scholar. And, of course, at a later period I got into that when I went to Wheaton, I.... But....
ERICKSON: What were the circumstances of your going to Wheaton?
THOMAS: We had a man at Stony Brook...I was...I was going to go to Bowden [College, Maine] and we had a...my doctor once, I keep calling him that, referring him to Dr. Curtis, he...simply because of my admiration for his intellect, and the achievements he’d accomplished. And by the late...well, , mister Curtis went to Yale to teach for a sabbatical. And in his place a Wheaton graduate was enlisted, J. Wesley Engels. And it was largely through Engels that I went to Stony Brook, that I went to Wheaton.
ERICKSON: Was there anything particular about Wheaton that attracted you?
THOMAS: No, Wheaton is not one of my favorite schools. And I want to say this with a lot of reservations. I went to Wheaton with an orientation established at Stony Brook. And I found things at Wheaton so different from Stony Brook that very early I developed a lot of negative attitudes about Wheaton. Now they weren’t...they were just, it’s not like Stony Brook. And I had some unpleasant experiences at Wheaton. And its no good to relate those because whatever you tell me, I still insist I was in the right and they were in the wrong, so lets get back. But then I...I wanted to be a medical missionary. Ruth was training for a nurse at that time. And I got very poor guidance, and when I finally woke up to what I’d have to have to get into medical school, I found out that I would have to do an extra year at Wheaton. And I...I worked the summer school, but that didn’t give me the science that I needed. So I...I blame Wheaton for that. I’m using blame in a very negative and unkind way, but that is the way I feel about it. And so then I...I can look back and see the hand of the Lord in all of this. And so my attitude has, with respect to Wheaton, has softened, but I still feel like I’d like to take a punch at them if I could. [laughs] And...speaking of Wheaton [unclear] I want...I want to make sure that you understand that this was a time when there was a great deal of controversy between the presbytery of Chicago and Dr. [J. Oliver] Buswell [president of Wheaton College]. My wife was working for Dr. Buswell, and when we began evaluating our plans and we discussed going...whether I should go to Princeton or whether I should go to McCormick or were I should go. Dr. Buswell said, “Well, I would say don’t go to McCormick but those are personal reasons, and I don’t want to influence you.” So I went to McCormick. Now, to show you the magna...the manner of this man, when Dr. Buswell, who was at that time on...he was being tried by the presbytery of Chicago, my wife was writing up his notes. And she had brought this to his attention that my husband is going to McCormick and I am writing up.... He said, “If I didn’t trust you, I would not have you do this, I would say that Miss. Burgeson [?] got somebody else to do it, or do it herself.” So that there was never a question about my wife’s integrity or my integrity, all the while he was being tried by the presbytery. And conversely, let me say that, although they knew I was at Wheaton, and had come there, Chicago people never put a bit a pressure and never asked me a direct question with respect to my relationship to Dr. Buswell. So, the manner of behavior in those two men to me was exemplary. I have a great, great deal of faith in Dr. Buswell. But I have equally a great amount of faith in the men that opposed him. Because I knew them, and I grew to love and respect them too, so.... But I never...I never got involved in that...I...I either have to fight all out or else not get involved. And that has been my fortune to escape that kind of controversy.
ERICKSEN: I am curious as to where the...the idea of becoming a medical missionary developed.
THOMAS: Oh, that...that...that was always my.... In fact, the one place I told the Lord I didn’t want to go was China, and that’s [laughs]...and that is where we wound up. But Ruth was training with the same idea in mind, she was doing nursing with that end in view. And, I think that I would have been...now as I look back on my life, I would not have been a good doctor. I am too impulsive, I think. I want to do things, and I want to do them in a hurry when I want to do them. Trouble is I never want to do them often enough. But that...that slip down...when I saw that this primary motive for medical work, slipped into secondary place then the alternative was medical...evangelistic missionary. And I didn’t want to go into translations because I don’t have the skills that language has...linguistic has to have in order to do that very minute work, though I studied six different languages, speak three of them, poorly. But.... So that we...I guess...I guess we just naturally moved into that. Ruth’s medical training was on track and kept. And was very, very beneficially used while we were on the field, and the things for which I felt I was, personality wise, oriented to do were the things that I was able to do. [pauses] And incidently, another...I guess another impetus to that would be when I was at Stony Brook Dr. Robert Glover, formerly Bob Glover, became my roommate. And of course his father [Robert H. Glover] was formally the head of the China Inland Mission [in the United States]. And I had a lot of conferences with him as he come out to visit Bob and he’d take the two of us off and sit us under a tree and talk to us. So I got, I think, a degree of inspiration for medical work there. I think maybe that is where I picked that up...high school.
ERICKSEN: Did he ever talk to you about working with CIM?
THOMAS: Yes. Was he head of China Inland Mission?
ERICKSEN: I can’t remember exactly who was....
RUTH THOMAS: Yes. [faintly]
THOMAS: Who.... Head of what mission was Dr. Glover, Bob’s father?
RUTH THOMAS: China Inland Missions [faintly]
THOMAS: China Inland...oh yes, that’s the one he talked about all the time. He told me some rare stories [laughs] about some of the work he did out there in tha....
ERICKSEN: Following your...following your graduation from Wheaton then you went to McCormick.
ERICKSEN: When did you [pauses] make application to the Board of Foreign Missions...
THOMAS: Oh, we...
ERICKSEN: ...of the Presbyterian Church.
THOMAS: ...we.... I was taken under care of presbytery, on the advise of a Presbyterian minister in Wheaton at that time. And they advised me to seek guidance with respect to the type of ministry, presbytery, from...from professors there. And I had...I was always been interested in anthropology and in terms of my interests, they advised that I consider certain fields. About the time...shortly after my graduation I was...I went to Aurora, Illinois, the first Presbyterian Church, as associate pastor there, and director of their camp up on Lake Geneva [Wisconsin]. Charlie Lebbor [?], who was secretary of the board, the foreign board, of foreign missions, came to me...came and.... How did we get a contact with Lebbor [?], Ruth?
RUTH THOMAS: [faintly] Well he was board secretary at that time and the...they had our application on file. And they wrote and said that we couldn’t go to Africa, there was no opening there. Would we consider another field?
THOMAS: Yeah, that is it.
RUTH THOMAS: [faintly] And we said no, we wanted to go to Africa. So they said they would put our name on the list and let us know if an opening occurred.
RUTH THOMAS: [faintly] And then....
THOMAS: Yeah I....
RUTH THOMAS: Incidently [unclear]....
ERICKSEN: Could you repeat that, I do not know if we picked all that up.
THOMAS: Well, I was....
ERICKSEN: Or maybe I should....
THOMAS: No, Ruth.... I...if...well, Ruth come in and tell this if you will please, because we’re not sure we picked it all up. And I...I would....
RUTH THOMAS: [faintly] I have to make [unclear, laughs].
THOMAS: They had our record on file, pick it up there.
RUTH THOMAS: To go to...to Africa. So, when there was no opening in Africa they wrote and asked if we consider another field. And we said we would prefer to stay with our original intent for Africa. So they said they would put our name on the list. And it was while you were at that camp they sent...
THOMAS: Lake Geneva.
RUTH THOMAS: ...word, and said there was an opening in China. One thing that made me very unhappy was that they had carried on some of this correspondence with a post card so anybody could have read that we turned down or we were reinstated which I did not thing was the nicest thing to do. [unclear]
THOMAS: No, go ahead.
RUTH THOMAS: Oh, I don’t know what else to say now. Oh....
RUTH THOMAS: And then....
THOMAS: ...about this time there was a conference in Chicago and Charlie Lebbor [?] came out to the conference. And he contacted us and asked if we would come in for an interview. And we went in for an interview. And then he told us what the situation was. It was a pioneer station, the furthest from the New York office and, oh boy, to get there is another story. And he said, “Are you interested?” And we still were not too sure. He said, “Now I’d like to have meet the... some people that were there.” So, we went to New York to visit these people. Just one of them. And they were an elderly couple who had worked in the establishing of this station, Cheng-holm [?], Cheng [?], Chen-Li [?] or [Chinese name]. And he...he painted a pretty dismal picture, he thought that we would never buy that. Well it was just the wrong thing to have said to us.
THOMAS: I mean, because all the while we were saying, you know, “This were the knights are needed. This is where we will mount our charges and tear off to.” But they couldn’t believe that we would...we were...really meant it. So they arranged to have us see some pictures that were taken out that space [sic]. And, of course, that did not bother us at all. So that’s how we got interested in that station out...that was.... [pauses] And we got to meet the missionaries who were there...had been there. They were all leaving, retiring. There was just one old warrior, a wife of a doctor who had been thrown from a mule and suffered a very severe brain damage and eventually died out there. She had gone back and carried on herself. And so we were under her tutelage, which was a very, very worthwhile experience.
ERICKSEN: What was her name?
THOMAS: Marie Park. She retired...was retired. And we visited her in Florida, before she died.
ERICKSEN: You mentioned this interview that you had with...
THOMAS: Lebbor [?]
ERICKSEN: ...Mr. Lebbor [?] . What was involved in the interview?
THOMAS: Well, he told us what the situation was. And described the travel, described the living conditions there. And asked us in way that made me feel, would you dare, you got enough guts to go out there and take this on. Which was a.... Ruth felt the same way about it. And we both felt if the Lord was with us, who can be against us? So we were...we were really.... I don’t know whether it was psychological technique he used to get...to stir us up or what. But it certainly stirred us up. We...we... but we didn’t...we gave a great deal of thought to what we were going to do. We didn’t make the decision without thoughtful preparation and prayer. And we felt the Lord wanted us there. And that’s...that’s where we went.
ERICKSEN: Did the board have any sort of orientation or preparation for you, before you left for China?
THOMAS: No. No, I think that if...if I were going to send missionaries out I’d do a lot different from what they did. But remember this was nearly fifty years ago. [unclear]
ERICKSEN: So you got to China in 193....
THOMAS: One. ‘31, was not it Ruth?
RUTH THOMAS: [faintly] ‘38, honey, we left here in ‘37...
THOMAS: Oh, yeah, I didn’t...
RUTH THOMAS: ...the end of your study.
THOMAS: ...I was not graduated from seminary until ‘37. Uh-huh.
ERICKSEN: How did you get to China?
THOMAS: We went by ship. We had a hilarious trip out there. Got into a rip snorting storm. We had to pick up the...the shipwrecked survivors from the USS.... I forget which one of the ships, Dollar Lines it was....
RUTH THOMAS: President Hoover.
THOMAS: President Hoover ran aground south of Taiwan. We went and picked up their passengers. And then went to...from there to...to Japan. And then Japan to.... Did we go to the Philippines on the way out? [question for Ruth] I do not remember. Eventually to Singapore and then took an inland (they call them inland ships) up to Bangkok.
ERICKSEN: So then...so you came in through the west end, the west side of China?
THOMAS: We came into Bangkok and then we...we traveled a night and a half day to Lon-Pon [?] by rail. And then we got off there and traveled a day to Ching-Li [?] and then we got off at Chin-Li and stopped over. And traveled to Canton, [?] the Baptist mission, and then we got off trucks, lorries there, and traveled ten to twelve days by pack, pack horse and pony.
ERICKSEN: To your station.
THOMAS: Yeah, to our station. Its about a hundred and fifty miles from Canton [?] up to our station.
ERICKSEN: Do you recall what your first impression were?
THOMAS: Well, I was excited, I...I mean I...I was I think a little disappointed that things were not differently from what I expected. But not a.... In retrospect we’ve been so many places in our lives working with the government traveling all over, that it...I am not sure that I can remember what my impressions were. Because I’ve got to the place now where I can’t see much difference in any, except the social conditions. That I can’t see much difference in any social situation...any geological situation, so I am not sure how.... And of course we...we were always within the sphere of the...of Americanism, we stayed with mission homes and so forth. And wherever we went...wherever we went to tour in Bangkok to see around the city, we went to Canton [?] we were with British people or American people. And so it wasn’t until we got out roughing it that...that we really began to take...notice the differences.
ERICKSEN: What were some of those differences that you began to notice?
THOMAS: Nobody speaks English [laughs]. But that’s a very frustrating experience to go to where that happens the first time. [clears throat] And, of course, we were...we landed in cultures that are extremely courteous, that’s one of the things that impressed me. And while we were going into an area where opium was the chief product you might say, and you should say. And bandits were rampant and oh I could tell you stories that...not that....[laughs]
ERICKSEN: Tell one.
THOMAS: Well, I will tell you one. We went out...we were in...in...we got a bunch of carriers in Canton [?] who were going to carry the babies that we had. What...we had only...only Eddie, didn’t we, when Chet [?] and....
RUTH THOMAS: [unclear]
THOMAS: He was the only baby, six months old, he belonged to a doctor and his wife. And...the two nurses and a doctor and me, and there was a lot of stuff carried but.... All the carriers that we had were...were given...got for us on the recommendation of the Buchers [?] who were very well established Baptist missionaries there. A doctor and an evangelist, twins. And this second night...well, let me start.... The first thing is, I had...I had ridden horses somewhat and we got to this little place where we were going to take. We where we were going to take off, a Buddhist temple. And out there, you were always welcome in a Buddhist temple to stay there or if you go into a village and there is no temple there the head man will entertain you, I mean, it’s generally a friendly culture. Well, the next day we were mounting up and these little Shan ponies they call them are about waist high, I guess about maybe even nine hands [about 3 feet], I would know that I would remember now. But anyway I, with a great deal of bravado, attempted to mount this horse, well, he had been mounted before. And instead of standing still he just...as soon as my wight got the stirrup, he just pushed in like that and I went right over on.... Well, another...on that night we....[pauses] Did we cross the river the first night? [question for Ruth] I do not know whether crossed this river the first night or not. But, there were a group of dark turbaned, darkly dressed individuals came up. And we knew the Wa (‘w’ ‘a’) the Wa people were head hunters. To prove you were a man, you had to get a head. And we found out that the first group of people that we ran into were head hunters. So we scared nearly out of our wits. We didn’t know what to do. I mean, not literally, but we...we had some apprehension. And...well, just about the time that the fires were out...all out, and we were going to retire for the night, here we hear this chorus, singing Christian hymns. And who was singing Christian hymns, these Wa head hunters [laugh]. And, well that is...that was one of the kinds of things we ran into. Another kind of thing that we ran into were people lining up by the, I guess that I can safely say, the dozens for vaccination and other medical care all the way up [microphone rubs on something]. So this got...this entre got to be more exciting and more interesting as we moved along.
ERICKSEN: Now, when you...when you got to your station, was...was there a particular group of people that you were working with. Was it a...
ERICKSEN: ...tribal group or...
ERICKSEN: ...was it Chinese?
THOMAS: No, that is...that is a long story. There were, I guess, eight or nine different.... There were three levels of culture were we worked. There were the mountain people, that were...were pre-literal, they were nomadic people. They didn’t have any staple crops or anything, they just moved around all the time, they were hunters and gatherers. And then there was the semi-nomadic group. These were what we call, Pudoi [?], mountain people, and I don’t know what their...their ethnic origin was. They...they had features that differed from the Thai and different from the Chinese. And since this area was one through which seven great migrations had come out of China into Thailand, there was prediction that they may have been original stock because each...as each one of these migrations moved down towards the south, they pushed the mount...the people that were there up into the mountains, because these people were different in...in apparel...culturally different, let me say that, which includes the whole spectrum of living. And...so then the next migration it would push up.... And they...these people left at the bottom of this, the remnants of the last seven migrations. So we had seven different ethnic groupings, nationality groupings is a better word, because they spoke the same language, relatively the same languag. Their customs were relatively the same. But there were...were basic differences, because they were different nationalities. The group that with which we worked predominantly were the Tai-Lu. They are the basic stock for Thai...the Thai people, the real Thai people, not the conglomerate personalities made up of Chinese and Indians and Malaysians and what have you and these people. These were the mother...the load stock sort of, of the present Thai race. They were the most numerous, and they were the ones with whom we concentrated our efforts as a mission. Because they had...we had people out there who, the Beebes [?] and the Gaults [?] and the Gutenburgers [?], who had established the language and had done some translation. And we had a number of things, the New Testament, and portions of the Old Testament and what we called [unclear Chinese phrase] five different arguments about religions, or religion five ways. And translated....and we could use that. And that was the basis of our educational and medical and our evangelistic work. So...and they were predominant. You see, this Thai race orginated... traces its...by linguistic and other cultural clues all the way the over to Hainan [?] and all the way up there. The, I just was checking this in getting ready for you, the Choi [?] [unclear] no the..the Chinese magistrate estimated (who spoke excellent English) estimated that there were three million Tai-Lu in this area, [Chinese word]. And the [Chinese word] who is the ruling head of the Tai-Lu race estimated there were five million. So...that’s why our emphasis was basically with the Tai-Lu people.
ERICKSEN: What were your chief responsibilities with them?
THOMAS: My chief responsibility was...can I digress for a minute?
THOMAS: You see, the Chalfa [?] was...the title means “lord of the heavens.” Nobody could own land in...or could have access to forest or stream without his permission. This meant that you had to be a Buddhist, because he was, figuratively speaking, the head of the Buddhist church. His brother was the...was the, the high priest of the Buddhists in that area. So the...the problem that we faced was one of getting land on which to locate people. Now if...Chalfa had absolute authority with respect to life and death, if you disbelieved in Chalfa you could loose your head. And the...the difficulty was if you weren’t a Buddhist you couldn’t hold land, because they wouldn’t give you land. Now, if you were a...a [unclear], a bad spirit, and someone in the village accused you of causing his sickness, or loss of crops, his animals dying, what have you. He could...he could bring you before the council, there was a village council, and if you were proved guilty of this maliciousness you were cast from the village. Now, if it was a serious illness or a death they could kill you. So once you were cast out of the village, you were absolutely person non-gratis, because you had to have credentials to get into this village. So this...these became the focus of out effort. These people who were without land, without status in the community. Well, we saw that was a long haul, and that what we needed to do was get an educational program going. But we had a very encouraging work started among the lepers there. And so it became my primary responsibility for going out and finding land, that nobody else wanted, on which we could establish a leper colony. And this meant working with the Lao officials or the Thai officials at different levels. And basically out there you had the [non-English phrase], which is twelve thousand rice fields. This was really the basis of the Thai nation, out there. And under this there were, what did we call the...I can’t remember now. But it was...it was the equivalent of a state in the [unclear non-English phrase]. Then in this organization there were [non-English phrase] who were the Choi [?] who was the head of thirty villages. And in this there were the [non-English name] who had...who was the head of a village. So, my responsibility came in working with...first with the Liban to make sure that we could sell idea to this people...these people that our entrance, program wise, was not threatening to them, was going to be beneficial to them. Then get this guy to, the Liban, to go along with me to visit the [non-English name], this is the guy who is in charge of thirty villages. And who could approve my working in...in the Mong. And then I had to get the [non-English name] to go with me to visit Choicunha [?] who was the sort of prime minister, under the Chalfa, to get me permission to develop our program wherever we was. And...and...so, very soon, my chief emphasis became finding land and developing programs for lepers, which was the basis for a lot of my work. And in order to do this I saw that we needed a program that we could extend our efforts in these three areas, because there is no use of going into a village and talking to people about something when he is hungry. So, that meant we had to help them improve their agriculture and their incomes. There is no use in talking to people when there are ill or so, that meant we had to make a medical approach. And in my rational, and this was approved by colleagues there, there is no use in talking to people about religion until we have met these basic human needs, they have no understanding. Then we ran into all sorts of difficulties. I mean, how are you going to talk to people about “the Lord is my shepherd” who never saw sheep, these kinds of things. And we were living in...in a mixed culture there. Here was the...here we were in China, but the immediate sovereign domain rested with the Chalfa [?] who was subject to the Chinese magistrate. And so if we going there, with that sort of situation, what did the villagers see when he...he faced another intrusion. So, we...and all that time we were learning a language too. We worked our way through...we had...I’ll tell you later what resources we had with which to work. But we had to...to see this situation with all of its uncommon variables in it, and develop a program, some sort of program, that wold meet these crucial issues. And that was my work. We...we did get successfully get land and we did successfully develop agriculture programs. We did successfully get interpretations on the part of the officials that enabled us to move without restraint and to introduce new ideas and new things. I thought, and I want...let me say right now in order to cap this we did thing. When we went to mission meeting in Bangkok just before the outbreak of the war we had every plan to come back to continue for at least another year. And when we got down there, we were caught by the Japanese and our plans terminated. When we went back after the war, the church had grown, our leper program had expanded and it was now potentially twice as large as it was when we left, numerically and geographically. The opportunities that we needed to get into villages, a Christian couldn’t live in another village you see. Due to a series of events that takes time to describe, namely fires and our response to fires in the village, medically and so forth. These people accepted by virtue of consent from the...of the [non-English phrase] to build a fence down the middle of the village and let the Christians live in their villages, and gave them fields to work. We had two leper colonies...three leper colonies established when we were there. One was established, we were able to develop two more. But when we went back there were openings for five. They said we got a group of people that are coming in here for treatment, we had no medicines to give them during this war period, but they were still coming into these centers for treatments that they had learned that these wounds have to be kept clean, and you can do this and that. And so they were ready to build these five new sub-stations, as you would. So we...and this was done largely through the development of indigenous labor, I mean labor, people that we.... Maybe now is a good time to tell you what we had. Dr. Gault [?] had trained three...three medical technicians. And we had two teachers that taught in the school. And we had brought in a Chinese boy, who was a brilliant young chap and his wife and both outstanding Christians. And we had two evangelists that had....three evangelist who had been sent to Chiang [?] and trained in the theological seminary there for very primitive work for two years each. And so we had a good...a good working staff and the organization that we developed was one which made maximum use of those. We...we gave the ultimate authority to these people who were in the Church and were, we felt, adequately trained to make sound decisions. And I say with no great shame or hesitation that the development of the work during our absence was a direct attribute of their devotion and skill and...and evidence of some...to some extant, the payoff of the training programs we had initiated and were carrying out.
ERICKSEN: How long did...did it take of establishing these programs to meet the needs that were most obvious before you were able to begin evangelistic work?
THOMAS: Well, let me back up a little bit and tell you. What we did...we had a rainy season and a dry season, period. And we couldn’t do anything during the rainy season. And it was also the season when all the rice planting and so forth was taken care of. So that touring was out of the question, you just could not go except to places where you could travel on the river or where you are not going to travel too far because of the mud and what have you. So what we decided, and when I say we I am talking about the nationals with whom I conferred constantly. Mrs. Park, who was the one person who stayed there and knew what was going on. In conference we would...we would have these boys in and we would bring in the promising people from the Christian churches that we had.... We had three Christian church...four Christian churches, one at the...one...two at the leper colonies and two at our stations. We would get these people to elect, select the men that they would want to be their teacher. And the requirements that we put before them were that he must be a man who when trained will be comparable in respect and honor and prestige to the Buddhist monk, the respected man in the community. And so they would elect these men and send them in and we would have a training period of a month. And in this training period we would have the whole bunch together all the medical people and all the education people and the evangelistic people for Bible training. And some of...several of these people, Timothy Ti [?], who is a Chinese, and a couple of our others, the Tai-Lu people, could speak enough English so that, and Marie Park of course could...was literate in Chinese and Lau [?]. We would give them what...on the basis of a discussion, find out what they perceive to be the crucial needs in their...in their villages. And that would be the thrust of the training. If it was vaccination, that was it, how are we going to vaccinate. We’d say alright this is a problem, how are we going to do it. If that is true, what do we have to do to change it, and what kind of changes do we want. And we would then set up a training program for them on that. This would be a....with respect to community problems. The we would take the evangelists aside and for two and half hours in the morning we would deal with this problem from the point of view of the church. The doctor, or some of his, he had two men that were exceptionally good, they would take this problem from the point of view of the community, medical problem. And the educational people would say now how are you going to train people or prepare people to handle this problem in this community. And then we’d, on Sunday, we would go out into a village, a non Christian village, and we would observe their training and their practices. And then we would come back after that and we would criticize them and have them criticize, but we did very little criticizing. We...we kept negative input to a minimum. We emphasized, we knew what we wanted to see done and that’s the praise would give, that’s the reinforcement we would give. And then at the end of the month, after...these fellows would have a pretty good grasp on.... And then the afternoons the doctor would take the medical people and work with them. The educational people would work with the educational people. And then the evangelists would...we would work with the development of sermons that could be taken back to the community and so forth. Emphasis were to be made on how to study the Bible and things that were of non-infringing nature on the Spirits ability to influence them without a missionary telling them what to do, and that sort of thing. Then, at the end of...when we could get out during the dry season, when the crops were growing and the only working is no real problem. We would go out into a village and we would take a...a medical man with us, an educational man with us and we would take an evangelist with us. And we would go into the village. Then, we would sit down with a man in a village, a pastor who’d been sent from that village, or not from that village basically because this was a Christian. We would take the Christian pastor in that area (and I’m using this term with every sense of meaning and all the respect that can be paid for that term) and we would, under his chairmanship, we would say now...we would say what’s the problem. And we would ask him to tell us what he wants us to do. And we made all kinds of development efforts to get the lead man in that village to tell us what the medical problems were and what.... And then we would, with somebody from that particular church group, would go out into a village and the medical team would work medically, the educational team would develop small drama of some sort, and the evangelist would work with evangelists. And then we would come back to the village and study that. This was the summer program which ran...ran for about three months, we would tour and do this. And all the time our medical, educational and evangelist people were training that particular man in that area. For let’s say two weeks or several weeks or greater the population density the longer we would stay there. And then at the end, next rainy season we’d call them in again and evaluated their work. Now, their analysis and...and prognoses and suggestions for improvement in the presence of all these other guys from other areas. And we...we used had some terrific times. And this would go on so that each year we were building up more and more people. And during the period of our absence this paid off in no...no uncertain terms.
ERICKSEN: Where did you...I am curious where you learned the language? Just in the course of your....
THOMAS: We...when we learned the language we didn’t have a book or a thing. We went out there and Mrs. Park, who was there, and I told you a bit about her, a real heroine if there ever was one. And there have been many. And she was one of them. She set up the language program for us and we got our teachers assigned to us and we worked. I...after awhile I got discouraged and so I got permission to move out into a village. I took a cook with me, who I...whom I later learned turned out to be a leper, he wasn’t at the time and.... But I built this house in a Thai...in a Christian village, and I was the only one who could speak English. I took my Bible and my dictionary and just went to work. When I came back my wife, and of course my wife.... Let me just inject again here, this is a very difficult language, there are nine tones in it. So, if you were going...going to say...talk about a dog, lets say, well you...if you didn’t use the right tone you could say, ‘dog - ma’ or you could say ‘come’ was ‘ma’, or you could say ‘prepare rice’ with was ‘ma’, or you could say ‘ma’ which was the word for horse. [changes inflection slightly with each pronunciation of ‘ma’] So there were any number of.... You had to very careful, and I...I’m not a musical genius. My wife could...she could read...she could read the script as soon as she learned what those tone marks and so forth were. But I couldn’t. And so...it was...
ERICKSEN: But in the course of moving to the village you did?
THOMAS: Yeah, I could...I could pick them up then. And, of course, I learned later that it isn’t so much the tone that matters, as I thought it was, it is the sequence that’s important. You got to say things in the right sequence, or else it does not make sense. And although having the tones in the wrong way could make.... I remember once I told my horse boy, who had a very, very welcome sense of humor, to bridle up a horse. Now, as I said so....I wanted to tell him to go get the horse, put on the bridle and bring it here, see. So he goes and pretty soon he comes back with a dog. And [laughs] I said, [non-English word] And he said, “Well, you told me to go and get the dog and bring it here.” And I said, “No, I told you the horse.” He said, “No you did not you told me the dog.” And what I had done was use the wrong tone, you see. There all sorts of situations of that nature.
ERICKSEN: When you began your...your educational work and your health work and setting up the leprosy clinic, how did...how did the non-Christian, the Buddhists tribes look on that?
THOMAS: Oh, they...you see, they...a leper was a person, non-person gratis. He had no standing, he had nothing. As soon as it was discovered that he had leprosy he was kicked out of the village. He could build his house on the periphery of the village, but he couldn’t live in the village. So that the...any attempt to help them was thought to be foolish. In fact, one of our basic problems, and my wife can tell you some stories about this. Why are you spending all that time and that money or that medicine on that person, he’s no good anyway? There’s that complete lack of appreciation for personality. They never hindered us.
THOMAS: “That...that is okay, if you are crazy enough to do that, go ahead I will not stop you.” So we didn’t.... Then when we...we made a point, on the recommendation of the Dr. Richard Bucher [?], who was in Canton [?]. In the place, one of the places where a great deal of experimental work was done to identify the nature and to find a cure for leprosy, was done down at his.... He said, “Don’t...don’t ever let these people come into a colony and refuse to work.” He said, “Work is the best thing in the world for them” And he said, “I don’t mean bone breaking labor, but give them something meaningful to do.” And this is for more than physical reasons, it gives them a sense of pride. In that nobody is supplementing or carrying them, they’re doing there share. So that everybody in these colonies had to do something. If it was no more than gather wood on her hands on knees and elbows to build a fire, and build a fire, she did it. And these...I have said this time and time again, I never saw a discouraged leper. I mean by that, I’m ready to die, I want to die, let me die. I never saw a leper who was not thankful, in spite of the biblical story of the ten lepers. And...they are, were just wonderful. And so we found that...that getting the program started and giving things for people to do, that they could do, did a great deal with a respect the establishing of moral in the community. It meant also an in group control, that you had to do your share or else pressures would be put on.... No suggestion from us that be done, that was indigenous characteristic. And so we found that meaningful little jobs that we.... The roofs out there were either made of tile or...or grass. There was...a little device was made where they could pat this tile into a mold and using a cutter could cut the tile out and this was one industry that was developed. And the people in the community saw that this was a source of...a resource, a need, that was relatively inexpensive. They could get it from the lepers cheaper than they could get it from anybody else. And so lepers began to be looked on with some degree of worth. And this, of course, encouraged us. Then we never...we never asked a person (and this I found some of my evangelical brothers disagreed with tremendously) we never asked a person if he was going to become a Christian, or if he would become a Christian if he came into the colony. We took every leper that would come there at face value, and did what we felt he should have done for him. And we had a pastor in the church in the community...in our leper colonies, and I’ll talk about one specifically [unclear] who had been a Buddhist monk. He was a [unclear] and he was a very, very wonderful, I...I almost weep when I think of him, because of the nature of his death and all that. But this man was...was really a saintly person, and I remember time and time again when a person would want to join the church, well let me give you an example. We had a man come in there who was himself a [unclear], a Buddhist monk, and very, very...he had crawled in there on his hands and knees and it was just a mess of sorts. These people in the colony picked him up and bathed him and gave him clean clothes and put him in a clean bed. And a short...oh, I used to go out there quite frequently, and I went out there one day and the [unclear], who was the pastor of the church said, “This man wants to be baptized.” And I said, ”Well, you know what the credentials for baptism are.” And I said, “You set them up,” meaning the...the equivalent of presbytery that we had out there. You...you agreed on these things. A man had to learn the names of at least the New Testament books, he had to know how many books there were in the New Testament, he had to have a general idea what the New Testament was. He had to learn the twenty-third Psalm and he to learn certain...the beatitudes, and certain other.... I had nothing to do with this, these people.... He...and he had to learn to read and write. Now, I batted my eyes on that for a while. But these...these people...these Christians agreed that that they had to do. And every provision was made to see that this was learned. And anybody who wanted to be a Christian had to...to learn these things. So, I said, “Well, does he learn...has he learned how to read and write?” “Oh, he is the [unclear] he knows how to read and write.” I said, “Does he know the books that...that you...the Bible the that you’ve requested the New Testament?” “Oh, sure he can do them.” I said, “He knows the twenty-third Psalm?” “Sure he knows the twenty-third Psalm.” And I said, “Well, I can...can hardly believe that.” And he said, “Well, hichan [?].” That is the word that they...the father/teacher. “Knows the twenty-third Psalm, sure he knows the twenty-third Psalm. He knows the third chapter of the Gospel of John and he knows (one other chapter) the fifteenth chapter of Acts.” I said, “You got to be kidding, this man has only been in here about, well how long has he been here?” He said, I recall now, “About six months maybe.” I said, “Well....” And one of the men, the head medic...national medic in the hospital there [non-English name] was a member of the...an elder at the Presbyterian at the church at Chali [?]. I looked at him and said to him in English, “[non-English name] do you believe this?” He said, “Lots of people can do things like that.” So I said, “Will it embarrass him if I ask him to...if I test them.” He said, “No, that’s you right,” he said, “You’re the moderator of the...of the session, you can ask him anything you want.” So I said, “Quote me a couple a verses of scripture.” And he just went like that, no problem at all. I couldn’t believe it. And I, you know, I still tell people things like this and they just laugh and say, “Sounds interesting,” you know. But that’s the way the things worked. And then we had the...all sorts of evidence of their willingness to work. People would...well, I know one story, a man who had no hands would have his friends tie an axe or a knife to his stump and he would go out and weed the gardens and chop wood with those stumps and it was that sort of thing. And that led to a pretty wide acceptance. We...we had the government, the Chinese government, assess each household for our funds to provide for the care of lepers, with minimum funds. But then we found out that those crooks were taking the money for their own use. And we had one example I remember...a Chinese official came to the hospital and when he left he asked the doctor to take the money from the leper fund to pay for his bill. This...this sort of thing. But we did get some recognition from the Chinese people on...on care, leper program. And then we...we made a point of.... For example we had some friends in the BAT, British American Tobacco Company, in Thailand, who would tell us when they were going to...to thin their seed beds and would save seedlings for us. And we would send down a carrier and have them brought up and give them to the lepers who would plant the tobacco seedlings and they would harvest a crop of tobacco. And that’s another source of income that we had. So we developed rice and.... Oh I’ll let me wife tell you about her...the way they used to get money. We’d give the...how we used to...how she developed some industry among the women there with cotton. And so....
ERICKSEN: One little thing that you mentioned a while back and I’d like to get you to talk briefly on it. You said, “How do you teach someone about “the Lord is my shepherd” [23rd Psalm] when they have....
THOMAS: No, that’s not a [unclear] question I can answer that...that still....
ERICKSEN: What did you do it?
THOMAS: Well, we merely told...we tried to tell them...that what the role of sheep was in the life of the Palestinians. And so we...we actually translated it water buffalo, which was common to them, as common as....And they...they took care of water buffalo like they took care of children. And so we would...we would use the word sheep, but we would also tell them this is what we meant when we talked about the water buffalo. These...this meant that this care that you.... And you’d see them stroking their...their water buffalo, taking care of them. They brought them in, housed them under their houses and so forth. And...but that was a real problem, that...that translation of such items in the life of one people to meaning in to the life of other people.
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