God Prepared the Karen People for Evangelism
Adoniram Judson spent many years in Burma, learning the language, translating the Bible and winning converts to Christ. However the total number of converts for the years of labor was quite small. One of his converts had a slave that Judson freed. The following is the text of a fascinating story:
The nation was Burmese; its lost province was British; and the missionaries were American, but the “apostle” of that first numerically significant evangelistic breakthrough was neither British nor American nor Burman. He was a Karen, Ko Tha Byu, though credit is rightly due also to the three missionary pioneers to the Karen, George Boardman and his wife, Sarah, and Adoniram Judson.
The Karen people were a hunted minority group of ancient Burmo-Tibetan ancestry scattered in the forests and jungles of the Salween River and in the hills along the southeast coast. Judson was the first missionary to make contact with them about 1827 when he ransomed and freed a debt-slave from one of his early converts. The freed slave, Ko Tha Byu, was an illiterate, surly man who spoke almost no Burmese and was reputed to be not only a thief but also a murderer who admitted killing at least thirty men, but could not remember exactly how many more.
In 1828 the former Karen bandit, “whose rough, undisciplined genius, energy and zeal for Christ” had caught the notice of the missionaries, was sent south with a new missionary couple, the Boardmans, into the territory of the strongly animistic, non-Buddhist Karen. There, he was no sooner baptized then he set off into the jungle alone to preach to his fellow tribespeople. Astonishingly, he found them strangely prepared for his preaching. The Karens had a legend within their own culture, which claimed that they had once possessede a “Golden Book” which contained the truth about life. They had, the story went, lost this Golden book to a young white brother, who had travelled across the seas. One day the young white brother would bring their book back. Instead the redeemed criminal, Ko Tha Byu, became the “Karen Apostle”.
Their ancient oracle traditions, handed down for centuries, contained some startling echoes of the Old Testament that some scholars conjecture a linkage with Jewish communities (or possibly even Nestorians) before their migrations from western China into Burma perhaps as early as the twelfth century.
The core of what they called their “Tradition of the Elders” was a belief in an unchangeable, eternal, all-powerful God, creator of heaven and earth, of man, and of woman formed from a rib taken from the man.
“Y’wa formed the world originally.
He appointed food and drink.
He appointed the “fruit of trial”.
He gave detailed orders.
Mu-kaw-lee deceived tws persons.
He caused them to eat the fruit of the tree of trial.
They obeyed not; they believed not Y’wa…
When they ate the fruit of trial,
They became subject to sickness, aging and death. (taken from an ancient Karen poem).
They believed in humanity’s temptation by a devil, and its fall, and that some day a messiah would come to its rescue. They lived in expectation of a prophecy that white foreigners would bring them a sacred parchment roll.
And it was in the wild hills of that newly British province of Tenasserim (now called Karen) that the first signs of rapid growth in Protestant Christianity in Burma began. The statistics are startling. Within a few years church membership doubled on an average of every eight years for the thirty-two years between 1834 and 1866. Soon there were 11,878 baptised Karens. Most of the growth came from animist tribes, not from the major population group, the Buddhist Burmese.