The Presbyterian Church and its missionaries to Thailand are not particularly keen on saints. The only way they can be tolerated is by implying that Paul’s references to them includes all the church members of the community to whom Paul was writing, a very flawed group. Over the centuries many churches of Christianity have refined the word saints to mean those whom the church identified as exemplary and worthy of emulation because of their faith and accomplishments. Saints are those who are assuredly in heaven beholding the beatific glory of God first-hand. Large branches of the church concluded that these predecessors can also be called upon to carry our petitions to God, which is a very useful benefit. Presbyterians draw the line back somewhere about the time of St. Andrew.
When I arrived in Thailand in 1965, fresh out of seminary and zealous in the cause of ecumenical reunion which seemed to be swiftly underway, I believed that it was a good idea to renew positive regard for saints here in this land where ancestors are treated venerably. I also tried to incorporate connections to local Thai culture along with references to the world-wide church. One of the projects I undertook was to introduce a worship service on All Saints Day, which comes on November 1 in our branches of the church. That happens to fall on the day after Reformation Day, counted as the birthday of the Reformation begun by Martin Luther. All Saints Day also comes the day before All Souls Day, which includes everyone else who has contributed to the world as we have it but about whom we cannot be certain of their present heavenly residence.
The service we had first in the new chapel of the old seminary building on November 1, 1967 included lighting candles of various colors for Christ, the 12 apostles and 4 Gospel writers, Paul and some Old Testament greats, a couple of patriarchs and matriarchs, and then a line of reformers and missionaries that brought the faith to Chiang Mai. Students and teachers were also invited to light little candles in memory and gratitude for a particular person who was influential in their own journey to faith and into full-time Christian service. By the time this was done the dark chapel was quite well illuminated.
When I returned to Thailand in 1979 after a ten year absence I found that, although the movement toward ecumenical reunion of Protestants and Roman Catholics had hit speed bumps, some liturgical innovations had been preserved. That included the candle-lighting service on All Saints Day. (The black and white picture accompanying this reminiscence is from 1980.)
Later seminary generations were led in worship at the cemetery in Nong Hoi sub-district where many early Chiang Mai Presbyterian missionaries are buried, including Dr. and Mrs. Daniel McGilvary, considered the founder of the Protestant church in North Thailand as well as the founder of the seminary. (The Rev. William Yoder, Dean Emeritus of the McGilvary College of Divinity of Payap University, is pictured at the cemetery with seminary students at McGilvary’s grave in 2016 on All Saints Day).
At this time of year we give thanks “for all the saints who from their labors rest….”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.