Christianity In Cambodia III: 1900 To Year Zero

Note on sources used; most sources are from Christian Evangelical organizations, which have a tendency to use somewhat preachy language. Given the level of competition that also exists between some of the different groups, certain points may have been embellished by the original source, such as congregation numbers, but the important facts that are given in the article have been cross-referenced as much as possible.

However, included in the source list at the end of the article are some incredible personal tales of missionaries and converts and their accounts of the Japanese occupation and surviving the Khmer Rogue regime. The language may be more than a little ‘preachy’ for some, so have tried to keep a neutral tone in the following article:

PART ONE: Gold, Swords and The Cross

PART TWO: Colonials & Catholics

The Dawning of a New Era

By the turn of the 20th century, the Catholic Christian church was well settled in the French Protectorate of Cambodia (part of the Indochinese Union from 1887).

Unlike Cochinchina (modern day Southern Vietnam), converts were few and far between- numbering in the very low tens of thousands- and mostly consisting of Vietnamese and those close to the colonial administration. It was not until the second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the Khmer language was used in church services- and this itself caused problems, as most church goers had only rudimentary knowledge of the local language.

The first protestant churches to make an impact since the Dutch of the 17th century arrived in the 1890’s, when the British Bible Society sent a translator and a distributor to Phnom Penh to work on a translation (presumably of the King James version) of the Bible into Khmer.

According to the World Council of Churches (2012), the first translation was of the Book of Luke. This, was apparently a great success and sold well, even to Buddhist monks and read by King Norodom. The French were said to be quite displeased and the project was dropped.

Marlene Westergren wrote for C&MA: In 1897, the head of the British and Foreign Bible Society went to Cambodia and found no Bible in the Cambodian language. He returned to Bangkok, Thailand, and hired two Buddhist priests to translate the Gospel of Luke. It was handwritten and was sent to San Francisco, California, to be printed. Thai Sol, who lived in a Catholic village, brought it to Rev. David Ellison, a Christian & Missionary Alliance international worker in Cambodia. Of course, the version was too Buddhist. Later, a man from the French Embassy translated a small portion of the Bible into Cambodian.

Another source, Rev. Ho Jin Jun, Ph.D, disagrees with this account and writes: (as) early as 1897 the British Bible Society sent a Bible translator and a Bible distributor to Phnom Penh. In 1896 Wald James arrived in Saigon to translate the Gospel into the Cambodian language for the church in Cambodia. In 1899 The British Bible Society sent Alexander Lorence to Phnom Penh for distribution of the Gospel of Luke. However, the French colonial government declared a decree to forbid distributing the Bible in the Indo-China countries. So the Director of the British Bible Society in Singapore visited to persuade the French colonial government. 

The Gospel of Luke which is the first Cambodian Bible was printed in Britain. The Annals of the British Bible Society reported about the situation as the follows: People have had a growing concern on the printings of the Bible into native language. The cost of printing is I Pence 6 Shilling, but in the beginning we sold it in 4 Pence for 1 copy. However, many people wanted to purchase it, so we reduced the price in 2 Pence. Even many Buddhist monks bought it to read it

 The French colonial government again forbade distributing the Bible in Cambodia, so Lorence returned to British after only three years’ staying in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, the mission works of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Phnom Penh ended, because nobody took over the job from Wald James. 

However, both sources may well be correct, and that two different missionary groups both translated the same Gospel of Luke (a very common evangelical text at the time, and widely used in Africa, as it focuses on converting gentiles to the faith).

The office of the Bible Society in Cambodia still apparently retains one page of a Gospel of Luke, dated “in 1902.” Suggesting that copies would have existed a few years before this. The BSC also has a different story on the first translations:

The Bible Society started its ministry in Cambodia as early as 1892 when a British &  Foreign Bible Society’s missionary from Hong Kong visited the kingdom for the first time.

The ministry began with Bible translation. The first gospel of Luke was published for in Khmer in 1899.

What is clear is that Protestant and Evangelical groups were beginning to look at Indochina around the turn of the 20th century.

In the Beginning was the Wordand the Words Changed

The French ban on non-Catholic preaching was rescinded in the 1920’s, and in 1923 the first evangelical missionaries for C&MA entered Cambodia.  Rev. David Ellison- an English born American began a Bible school to train pastors and church leaders in Battambang province, and a Rev. Arthur Hammond was commissioned to translate the scriptures into the Khmer language. The first Bible in the local language- other 30 years in the making- was later known as the Hammond Version.

 “During the early years of missionary endeavor, there was no one but the informer and the missionary to get ideas across. Any other source of information was entirely hostile. No books were available for study, so we were forced to attempt ‘a sort of’ translation work.  We started to transcribe, as nearly as possible, the Gospel of John. Day by day the work grew, new words and new idioms were added to our knowledge, and we felt a definite thrill of pleasure as page after page, and chapter after chapter, were completed. Thus, the foundation was laid for more serious work later on. Other gospels followed and book after book was finished unit we had he joy of completing the entire New Testament and seeing in it through the press in 1934. The text was printed in Hanoi where the Alliance press had a printing shop.”

Rev. Arthur Hammond and family, 1936

The Old Testament was completed in 1940, but the publishing of the first Khmer dictionary by Venerable Chuon Nath in 1938 meant that the work would need to be completely rewritten in the ‘official’ language.

Venerable Chhoun Nath, who standardized the Khmer written language

Although conversion numbers were small, the missionaries attracted the ire of both the French Catholics and the Cambodian Buddhist elite. In 1932 King Sisowath Monivong issued an anti-proselytizing law. Whether this was in any way related to rising nationalism and anti-colonial sentiment building up in the country is debatable, but in the years after the law Nagaravatta a pro-independence publication founded by Son Ngoc Thanh and Pach Chhoeun became the first Khmer language newspaper. As well as the Chhuon Nath dictionary- the same Buddhist scholar also composed the current national anthem Nokor Reach in the late 1930’s.

After the end of World War II, when many non-French missionaries were interned in Thailand and the Philippines, the first Cambodia constitution was drafted and came into effect in 1947- guaranteeing freedom of worship for all religions.

A few years after, in 1951, construction of the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral began in Phnom Penh, financed predominantly by the French government. The cathedral, situated at the northern end of Monivong, could hold a congregation of up to 10,000 and was built on land belonging to the church, and very close to the sacred Cambodian monument of Wat Phnom. According Fr. François Ponchaud- a priest who arrived in Cambodia in 1965- the church was fearful of having its land appropriated during political instability around the time of independence.

Notre Dame Cathedral 1959

According to Fr. Ponchaud, in 1957, the first Khmer Catholic priest was ordained.

The Khmer language bible (Hammond Version) finally arrived via the USA and Britain in 1954. A gold-bound Bible was reportedly presented to Norodom Sihanouk as a gift.

Church & State

In 1965 relations between the government led by Sihanouk and the USA deteriorated.  American missionaries were ordered out of Cambodia. Two (possibly the missionary couple Jean and Myrtle Funé, who, in 1966 were permitted to leave Vietnam and worked for the C&MA in Cambodia until 1970) were allowed to remain, but soon four church leaders were arrested, and after 6 months the government demanded that every church should close. According to contemporary sources, about 700 protestant Christians, and 7 pastors remained, although other sources put the figure as perhaps 2,000. By 1970, this number had reduced to perhaps as low as 300. At the same time, it was estimated that there were 61,000 Catholics in Cambodia, comprising 56,500 Vietnamese (around 15% of the total population), 3,000 Khmers and 1,500 Chinese.

Following the ousting of Sihanouk and the installation of the Khmer Republic, the new government under Lon Nol allowed missionaries to return. While this was good news for protestant organizations, the regime ushered in an era of violence aimed at the Vietnamese community, with thousands murdered by mobs and as many as 200,000 expelled (including an estimated two-thirds of the Catholic community) and many others locked up.


As war intensified across the country Christian aid programmes began. One such organization was World Vision, with then time the society’s President Rev. W. Stanley Mooneyham leading a relief convoy of $100,000 worth of medicines and other supplies from Saigon. The group were permitted to hold the first public evangelistic campaign in Cambodia in April 1972.

World Vision also created ‘Lovelift’ in April 1975, bringing in food supplies by air to Phnom Penh from Los Angeles and Bangkok.

““Cambodian and expatriate staff continued to serve until the siege of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. Subsequently, all expatriates and several national staff members were evacuated. All WV programs ended. The Deputy Director of WV Cambodia, Minh Thien Voan, elected to stay and was later killed.” (WV source)

Alliance Witness- an evangelical publication reported “Just prior to the fall of the American-backed regime of Lon Nol in 1975, about 3,000 Cambodians, mostly new believers, were attending Alliance churches in Phnom Penh, and perhaps several thousand more were meeting in the provinces. Among them were top-ranking government officials, high-level business people and gifted lay leaders. Most, if not all, of them were purged in the systematic and prolonged campaign of the Pol Pot regime.

Year Zero

The Democratic Kampuchea regime led by Pol Pot showed little distinction in its hatred for all religions- Buddhist monks, Islamic preachers and Catholic nuns alike were killed, pagodas turned into detention and execution centers, or destroyed.

The Preah Meada in Russey Keo, one of the oldest churches built in the 1860’s was obliterated, and the mighty Notre Dame cathedral- not only a sign of religion, but also a foreign built insult in the eyes of the nationalist Khmer Rouge- was torn down in 1976.

The Khmer Evangelical Church in Battambang, along with the Catholic church were also destroyed and Paul Tep Im Sotha, who had been named the first Apostolic Prefect of Battambang in 1968, was killed, together with Dom Jean Badre, a French Benedictine monk, in May 1975 in Bat Trang. The first native Khmer bishop Joseph Chhmar Salas died of exhaustion in September 1977 in the Traing Kork Pagoda workcamp. The 34 members of the Catholic clergy who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s are listed here.

Some other sources (as previously mentioned, some may find them a bit ‘preachy’)- History Steve

Cry of the Gecko, by Brian Maher

Cambodian Christian

World Vision

Pyeonongtaek University

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