Click here to listen to an audio file of this interview (25 minutes).
This is a complete and accurate transcript of the tape of the oral history interview of Mr. Howard Elsworth Thomas (CN 298, T2) 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, T2. Interview with Howard Elsworth Thomas by Paul A. Ericksen, March 6, 1985.
THOMAS: Another thing is how do you get people who are so abhorrent about...with respect to the use of blood or with respect to eating the flesh of certain animals. And they...these aboriginal people had certain, very rigid, dietary beliefs and practices. And how do you tell a person who is going to drink the blood of Christ and eat the body of Christ, boy that was, I am telling you, that...that used to turn my head grey every time I...I did that. But I had two men who were fairly ([Chinese name] who I was talking to you about) who were very sensitive to...to these innuendoes and these things like...who would help me alot. And when we would come to the meaning of communion we would translate the meaning of the blood and the body of Christ in such a way so as to help them, we thought, get the significance of these acts and...and what this meant. [pauses] I am not sure we succeeded. And I’m...I am going...when are you leaving?
ERICKSEN: After I [unclear]....
THOMAS: No, I mean where you going leave.... I have a paper here that...that would...I would...I’d like to have you read, but it will take you a while to read it. And I...it is the only one I have and I am fearful unto death that if it gets out of my hands I’ll never get it again. But it would be well worth your while, I think, if you could read it.
ERICKSEN: Were there any parts of the tribal culture that lended themselves well to...to teaching scripture or aspects of [unclear]....
THOMAS: Sharing was one of them. I think that...that they were a people who were very, very generous and who, for example, there’s...there’s a....at the end of the year out there, there’s what they called three rotten days, they were...literal translation of these days. They...and if you...and during that period at the end of the year, it was legitimate to do anything to settle debts so as not to go into the new year a debt...debtor [?]. And they would...if you were happened to be in a village at the beginning or if you happened to move into one by accident during these three rotten days, they wouldn’t let you out of the village. They wouldn’t let you out because they would be fearful...they were fearful that if you got out, you were caught on the road, it was perfectly legitimate to murder you, to anything, to take what you had to pay...help them pay their debts or anything. That aspect. Another thing is that there were among these different, the Tai-Lu and the Tai-Ya [?], were two different...they were the same people, but they were different.... I chose to use the word nationalities because they were Canadians and we are Americans, that sort of near identity. And yet they would...they were distinct and discreet and their differences were real, but if a Tai-Ya [?] got into a Tai-Lu village, in trouble, they would take care of them. If a Tai-Lu got into a Tai-Ya [?] village and he became destitute they would take care of them. And there were very strong ties of that nature. There was a Buddhist...a residual of Buddhism, these people were nominally Buddhist, but they were more animist than they were Buddhist. If...if there happened to be a.... Well, let me start over. You could make merit by allowing you to ask me for food. I could give you food. So, you...I would make merit by helping you and you would make merit by allowing me to help you, you see. And so there...there was this understanding among these people that led to a very strong kind of concern for other individuals. That made the gospel a very...they understood many, many things. I remember one time we were discussing a...the Trinity. And that...that...that is a difficult even for theologians to talk about. And we finally...the thing centered on how can Christ still be a man and still be God. And this Buddhist monk, and I’ll never forget this, sat there with a very calm look on his face. And finally he said, “Well, this is...(in substance) this is a interesting conversation, but it doesn’t make any difference to me what Christ said he was. If he said it, I believe it.” And I said, “Come on, just a minute, let me ask you something here. You...you telling me that you believe Jesus was really nailed on a cross and crucified and dead and put in a grave, that He rose from the dead again.” And he looked at me with...with a sort of a glow on his face. And he said, “Achan [?] if I did n’t believe that, I would not believe any...I couldn’t believe anything.” And he said, “I...I couldn’t understand why anyone would question that.” And I said, “Why...what’s the basis for that, why do you say I have to accept that because you don’t think anybody ought to question it.” And he said, “Look at His words, look at the things He did.” And this kind of simple, you know who would, I mean I...I can imagine sitting down with a bunch of theologians that’s the last thing I would...I imagine that’s about the last thing I would say, looks at his works, looks what he did, look at his life. Just the simplicity of...of that kind of faith. And I got a canon [?] I...pan [?] I have got to keep them here. When we went back.... [clears throat]
ERICKSEN: What year was that?
THOMAS: That was right after the war. And....
ERICKSEN: So, ‘46?
THOMAS: Yeah, we got up to the station about January ‘46. And I....first person I looked for was Canon [?]. And they said, “He is dead.” And I said, “No.” They said, “Yes, the soldiers came in and they wanted to...to go and get some of the women and rape them.” And Canon [?] stood [unclear]...at the door or at the gate of the women’s compound and he said he would not let them go in. And one of the soldiers said that, “If I do not go in...if you do not let me in I will shoot you.” And Canon [?] said, “I’m sorry, but you will have to shoot me if you...if you’re going to go in.” And so they shot him. And I’ll never get the picture of these women telling me this, tears streaming down their face, and the said, “Canon [?] the last thing Canon [?] said was, “Forgive them Father. They don’t know what they are doing’.” And he said...they said, “The soldiers turned and went away.” And I find it hard to keep back the tears when I think about that myself. Because he was such a dear man and such a wonderful person. But the insight that some of them had was just amazing to me.
ERICKSEN: So, then they shot him and left?
THOMAS: And they shot him and killed him.
ERICKSEN: Which soldiers were these?
THOMAS: These were Chinese soldiers. They came in there....
ERICKSEN: This is switching gears a little. Were there missionaries from other missions working in the same areas that you were?
THOMAS: No, no we were...we were all off in left field by ourselves.
ERICKSEN: You did not have much contact with....
THOMAS: We...we had to travel at least a hundred and fifty miles by horse and foot to get to the nearest missionaries. And those were down in Burma, Baptist missionaries.
ERICKSEN: Can you tell me about your imprisonment, by the Japanese.
THOMAS: Well, we went down to Bangkok, to a mission meeting.
ERICKSEN: When was that?
THOMAS: That was a just at the out...when they declared war on the United States. And we were...we were visiting some friends of ours who were missionaries, and also was...was in seminary with me. Tim Boren [?] and his wife. And there was a man, Pat Barnhart, [?] who was a...had been YMCA secretary in Korea, and was now down at the YMCA in Bangkok. And Pat had finished his supper, or breakfast and gone upstairs to listen to the radio. And suddenly we heard a banging on the floor, and we couldn’t understand, and he kept on banging and finally, we thought maybe something had happened to him. And so we asked...we went up to investigate and he said, “Japan has bombed Pearl Harbor.” So, we immediately went to the embassy to find out what we should do, and the.... I had been the day before in the dentist office getting some dental work done, and he had not finished. And the magistrate, or not the magistrate, but the minister (we didn’t have an embassy in Bangkok then) the minister said...said, “Come into the embassy immediately.” So, Ruth and the other people around there went into the embassy. But the ambassador gave me a fistful of money and said, “Go out and buy everything you can buy in the way of food and powdered milk and what have you, and medicines, medicines especially.” So, I went out and they didn’t bother me for two days, they just let me go and back. They’d come up...then I came up this last day, was raining like mad, and I was in this samla [?] with a bunch of drugs and things, I don’t remember what all. And boy they came at me like there were going to...got me. And they...bayonets right up to my stomach, three of them. Marched me over to the main entrance. In the mean time the ambassador...the minister had come out, Mr. Puckett [?] come out and started to talk to them. They made me stand in the rain there for a half and hour answering fool questions, you know, how old was I, and what day was I born, and what year was that and all this sort thing. And then they threw me into the embassy then, they let me go in. And then we were transferred on the, the night before Christmas I think, yeah, the night before Christmas we were transferred from the embassy to an internment camp. And at Choolonhorn [?], no not at Choolonhorn, [?] at the Moreland and political sciences, the name skips me now. And we were interned there. And fortunately, the Thai government had been forced by the (I say this advisedly) had been forced by the Japanese to declare war on the United States. Now, the United States recognized the pressure under which the Thai government was and refused to...to recognize that declaration of war on our part, we said, “Its nonsense.” Well, the advantage to us, and why I say this was fortunate, at that time the Thai government said, “If we’re declaring war on the United States we’re going to take over American prisoners and what have you here.” Now, practically every person in...in a position of authority in Thailand had been educated in either British or an American school. And the Thai have a almost holy reverence for teachers and elderly people. And almost, I say this without hesitation because I knew most of them by the end of the war, time we were there, most of these people had been students of somebody who was in the internment camp. So our treatment in the internment camp was preferential. We were...I don’t know how many different subjects we had. We had all kinds of schools in there, I studied German and passed my German exam as a result of my internment there. And anything anybody wanted to study, there were enough people there and somebody could teach it, they taught it. And so our internment was, except for food, was not bad at all, except that we were confined and....
ERICKSEN: And how long did your internment last?
THOMAS: We got out...it was just short of... How long were we interned? [to Ruth]
RUTH THOMAS: [unclear] months
THOMAS: About seven and a half months.
RUTH THOMAS: [faintly] Then two months on the Gripsholm [repatriation vessel]
THOMAS: Then it took us two months to get home, on the Gripsholm.
ERICKSEN: What did you do during that interim period back in this country before returning to China?
THOMAS: Well, I got...I tried to join the Navy. And my physical condition was, I mean everyone was, I was down to skin and bones. And the..the Navy put me on 4-F [Selective Service classification - registrant not acceptable for military service] and took my application. And the board said...sent me to Cornell, because I...I wanted to get some information on how to handle some of our problems which I had pretty well identified by then. So they sent me to Cornell. And then when I got to Cornell, there was a lack of...of graduate students to do the kind of research that needed to be done. So, I got involved in a research program and the government said finish it. So, until I finished that research, and then I reapplied and they said well, “Finish your degree now,” because I was...I had everything but my dissertation finished. And so I finished my degree. And then...then I...they wanted Ruth and me both to stay there, but we promised that we would not stay unless we could leave at the end of the semester. And they wouldn’t take us on that basis, they said, “No, you have to stay at least through your trial period.” And that meant three years. And we decided we...we wouldn’t do that. So, a colleague of mine at Cornell was head of the social science department at Colorado State University. He was leaving there to go to Alabama...no, Arkansas. And he wanted to know if I would be willing to come out there, and I said, “Well, I’ll come out on these terms. That I can leave at the end of a quarter.” They were on the quarter system. So they agreed to that. And at the end of the first quarter we...we went back to China and then the Chinese kicked us out. Then the station...the board voted to close our station, it was wrecked and it was too dangerous, there was no doctor available, and my wife said oh, we...we were very upset about that. And they wanted me to go down to Thailand and work in a project there, which...which I couldn’t accept. I mean, the basic philosophy was so against what I felt I should be done in that kind of situation. So, the alternative was retire, and we...we left the mission and then we came home. But before ...just before I retired I got a cable from Colorado saying, “Come on back, you know, you....[?] So I went back to Colorado, and I was there about a semester when Cornell said, “Well, if you are home to stay and you’ll consider a job at Cornell, we will give you an associate professorship.” So I went to Cornell.
ERICKSEN: You mentioned earlier in the interview the conditions that you found at the station when you returned to China. What were the circumstances of your being thrown out of the country?
THOMAS: Well, that is...that’s in the..in the Golden Triangle, our work...one. Another one was the Chinese army had completely ruined our station. They threw....
ERICKSEN: The National army or the Communists?
THOMAS: Yes, yes. If you...if you give me your word of honor and a mortgage on your third term in purgatory, I’ll let...let you take this article with me...with you. And it will give you a general orientation on that. It was in the Triangle that...and so opium was a big deal there. And the Chinese army had no means of support....
ERICKSEN: National [Kuo min tang]....
THOMAS: This was the National one. The 93rd and 33rd, I think, its...I have it recorded there. Were in control in there and they got no support at all from the Nationalist Chinese government. So what they did was go into the opium business. And they...they just provided guards for the opium people. In the mean time they ruined our...they ruined our hospital they...and my house, that were we...were we had lived had...was a stone house, was built by a mission contractor who.... They had stabled their horses downstairs and they lived upstairs. It was a screened house and.... And everything like that, they dumped dead bodies in the wells, we had dug deep wells there. And every...that was the situation. And the board looked at the reports that I made on the condition of the station and decided to close it. Well, we went back with the...an understanding that they would do a...I raised the roof. I said, “That’s why you appointed me for, that’s where we signed up to go and if we don’t go there we don’t go.” And they, “Well, go back and evaluate.” And then I went back and I took another fellow with me and we evaluated the program, what we needed to do to put this thing in running order again. And they decided to close it. And that’s...during...that was after we came up. But when we were still there, we were visited by some very nice Chinese gentlemen, officers, medical men or supposed to be, and he advised us that it would not be safe for us to be there. It didn’t seem appropriate that the Chinese government could undertake our security, and the best thing to do was to get out. And since there were so many bad people on the road in and out of there, they’d find us just a guard to get out. Well, [laughs] what can you say. We said goodbye with gratitude and hoped to get back again, but we didn’t. We...we learned that one of our fine young medics had been, we think from the evidence that we were able to pick up and the nature of his death, knocked off by the Chinese because he was an influence. This [Chinese name] that I mentioned to you, we don’t know what happened to him, but we presumably he was....
ERICKSEN: Why did the Chinese guard...government or the Chinese soldiers throw you out, was it because you were...?
THOMAS: Well, I think...I think they just didn’t want anybody in there who was meddling around who could..... Certainly they didn’t...they were getting a lot of support from the United States government and...but that was going to echelons so far above them that they were not getting any of it. And really, when you look at the only means of support they had, were the incomes from this opium business. And they didn’t want anyone meddling around with that. Very courteous, very kindly, no...no rough stuff at all.
ERICKSEN: What impact did that have on the church in that area?
THOMAS: Well, we do not know. The only information we had on the church was what we were able to pick up on when we got back there. And the interest in the church was just phenomenal, I mean every place that we felt free to travel, because they new us, we spoke the language, we could go. And the women were very anxious to...to get some help for things that women could help them with. And my wife has...my wife was a very brilliant person, and a very, very capable person and she was able to...to establish rapport with those people in amazing ways. And they relied on her and came to her for consultation and help. We felt that we had the problem in hand, you know. But before we were out there you could not do anything, you see. Everything...we could not get people living in villages, there was no contact.... And when we went back it had all opened up it was...oh boy, our hearts were broken. I...I don’t doubt the Lord led us in the way we’ve gone but when I get to heaven I am going to ask Him why [laughs]. Cause...cause it looked like we were just ready to take off. And we would...we were certainly there to...to stay, we wouldn’t have...
ERICKSEN: Well, I think this is a good...good stopping point.
ERICKSEN: Than you very much for an insightful interview.
END OF TAPE