Christianity in Vietnam in the 16th to 18th century

Christianity in Vietnam in the 16th to 18th century

Historically, China and Vietnam have some similarities concerning the issue of Christianity. In the case of China, it serves as the incentive foundation for Western missionaries who proselytized in the Malay Archipelago. Vietnam, on the other hand, was the foundation for missionaries proselytizing in Cambodia among other neighboring countries.  In mainland Southeast Asia, Christianity was perceived as foreign and both domestic for one reason. The reason is that Christianity came from two groups. The first group is the European colonizers and missionaries while the second is Vietnamese who spread Christianity further in the region. In Vietnam, Christianity was introduced by merchants from Dutch and others from Portugal. This period is reported to the period between the 16th and 17th centuries. In Vietnam, Christianity became the main issue in the period between 1859 and 1954 when France became the colonial power of Indochina. During this period, French missionaries came in large numbers in the bid to reinforce the Roman Catholic Church. Until now, the Roman Catholic Church is still prominently represented in major cities and towns in Vietnam. Christianity in Vietnam was to turn concerned on converting Buddhist among other traditional religions in the religion to Western. The aim was to let the ancient people from the region to turn away from their religious traditions, which the white regarded as backward.

As noted by @$$#_, the early missionaries in the region did not come with the sole aim of spreading Christianity. They aimed to explore and adventure the region. It has been noted that the early Christian missionaries are the reason why western government subjugated some  Vietnamese.  After setting feet in the region, explorers so the need for converting the Vietnamese to adopt not only the western religion but also the full package of the western culture. Initially, the Vietnamese were reluctant to embrace the western religion. They did not regard the idea of dropping their religion or their culture in favor of a “strange” religion. This resulted in conflict and rivalry between people who collaborated with the missionaries and those who were against the idea of proselytizing. Those who embraced the idea of converting in Christianity were enticed by the rewards that missionaries promised them. In essence, early missionaries in Vietnam built school, clinics and brought it medicine that was used to improve the quality of life and the mortality rate among infants.

The message spread by the early missionaries in Vietnam encouraged the Vietnamese to rebel against their traditions.  Missionaries were very cunning and very intelligent in how they did their preaching. They knew that many Vietnamese relied upon magic, an aspect that made them lazy. They, therefore, came with ways to make them work and earn pay. Some of them developed a friendship with the local authorities so that to gain protection from the ruthless Vietnamese who did not want to be converted. It is worth noting that Lords who were rulers in this society collaborated with the early missionaries for personal gains and to trade with them.

Entry of Christianity in Vietnam

Ramsay, Jacob (2004) gives a brief background of Christianity in Vietnam. The article first explains how Christianity entered mainland Southeast Asia. It is noted that in mainland Southeast Asia, and particularly, Vietnam Christianity competes with Buddhism. Christianity for the better part has been considered as the second religion in Vietnam after Buddhism. The origin of Christianity in Vietnam can be traced back in the 16th century. Vietnam has a rich history concerning the issue of Christianity. It has been noted by different scholars and historians that Christianity in mainland Southeast Asia came through the French in Vietnam. Although the real evangelism and proselytizing from the Roman Catholic missionaries is documented to have started in the 16th century, some historians have it that Christianity arrived in Vietnam in the 14th century. Historically, China and Vietnam have some similarities concerning the issue of Christianity.

Similar sentiments are found in Goh, Robbie (2005) observes that Christianity was gained entry in Vietnam in the 16th century.  It is noted that missionaries from Europe’s main Catholic evangelist countries we’re the one responsible for the introduction of Christianity in Vietnam. Notably, missionaries from France Spain and Portugal started the works of evangelism and establishing churches across the major cities in Vietnam. It is observed that the arrival and the immediate works of  Alexandre de Rhodes revolutionalized Christianity in Vietnam. Rhodes is considered as one of the early Roman Catholic missionaries who greatly impacted the spread of Christianity in Vietnam. He was a French Jesuit, and once he laid foot in the region, the Trinh Lord’s who were the rulers from the northern side were significantly inspired by his works. This aspect made it possible for Rhodes to start permanent missions in Hanoi, Danang and Hoi An.

The Works of Alexandre de Rhodes

Phan, Peter (2015), documents comprehensively the mission works of de Rhodes in Vietnam. Apart from being an Avignonese Jesuit missionary, de Rhodes was a lexicographer. During his stay in Vietnam, de Rhodes came up with the Vietnamese alphabet. This work by de Rhodes was based on works by earlier missionaries from Portugal. Other important works of de Rhodes that contributed greatly to the growth and spread of Christianity in Vietnam include the compilations of catechism, and Phép giảng tám ngày others include establishing a trilingual dictionary and grammar, as well as Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum. The publication of these works was in done in Rome in 1651. The works of de Rhodes towards making Christianity grow and spread all over the region forgo the traditional Vietnamese chữ Nôm script. His impact led to the replacement of the chữ Nôm as the Vietnamese language’s written form.  Other famous books by de Rhodes are The Travels and Missions of Father Alexandre de Rhodes in China and Other Kingdoms of the Orient (1966) and (The Glorious Death of Andrew, Catechist) (pub. 1653).

Both books account for the hardship he passed through while in Vietnam and the life and works of catechist Andrew. Through his works, de Rhodes among other missionaries is considered as the founding fathers of contemporary Vietnam. Nonetheless, when the Trinh Lords de Rhodes with his works was subverting the beliefs that maintained in power, he was expulsed. Most of his scripts did not find use until the 20th century. Although he was repulsed Trinh Lords, de Rhodes did not seize to proselytize. He was able to persuade the French King to establish Mission Etrangeres de Paris. This evangelical organization was officially established in 1664. It was commissioned the same year by Pope Alexander VII. The organization aimed to carry out missionary work with the support of the French government. De Rhodes used this organization as a platform for proselytizing through different regions including some parts of Vietnam, Dang Ngoai, and Dang Trong. The Portuguese missionaries we’re not comfortable with the establishment of the organization. In this regards, the tension between the Portuguese missionaries and the French with the organization was born. However, the conflict was resolved by Pope Alexander VII in 1688. At this time, de Rhodes and other missionaries were able to carry out their work of evangelism with the support from the French government.

Catholicism in Vietnam

As observed by McLeod, Mark (1992), in Vietnam and other Southeast Asia countries, Roman Catholic is the oldest form of Christianity. The first Catholic missionaries to set foot in Vietnam were from Portugal. This was at the beginning of the 16th century. However, they were not successful in their pursuit to spread Christianity. It was until in the wake of the 16 century the Catholic missionaries from French made a real impact. As mentioned earlier de Rhodes was among the first Jesuits together with Antoine Marquez of the French Province who made a real impact. The period between 1627 and 1630 is recorded as the year where Roman Catholic missionaries made a significant impact in growing and spreading Christianity in Vietnam. During this period, over 6,000 people in Vietnam were converted into Christianity.

Moffett, Samuel Hugh (2014) accounts for the relationship between the Trinh Lords and the Roman Catholic missionaries. It is noted that during the initial stages of the mission work in Vietnam, the String Lords like the idea that the Roman Catholic missionaries had gained entry in the region.  Their idea was to use them to develop trade ties with the outside world. Although the Trinh Lords had limited knowledge of Catholicism, they were willing to assist in preaching Christianity in their palaces.

First, the Roman Catholic missionaries learned the local language, an aspect that made them able to interact with the locals. This assisted them in attracting a huge number of followers. The spread of  Catholicism in the region was facilitated greatly by the establishment of Latin based Vietnamese texts. All this was made possible by the cooperation from the Trinh Lords. In 37 years, which the Roman Catholic missionary work was vibrant, a total of twenty-five priests and five preachers were in the region of Dang Ngoai. During this same period, more hundred thousand followers were converted to Catholicism. Among this number, 20% of the total converted Vietnamese came from Dang Ngoai region while 80% came from the Dang Tron. The article also documents that in the region of Nghe twelve Catholic villages were established.

Yieh, John YH (2004) account for the period after Catholicism gained a solid footing in Vietnam. It is noted that the Roman Catholic missionaries after realized that they had been able to command a huge following in Vietnam, they found it of great importance having bishops in Vietnam. The bishops we’re to help expand the missionary work to greater levels. The pope heard the pleas of the Roman Catholic missionaries and appointed two bishops with the responsibility of expanding mission work in most parts of mainland Southeast Asia and particular Vietnam. The two bishops who were given the mandate, of taking the expansion of Catholicism in Vietnam were Francois Pallu and Lambert de la Motte, both French.  The former was to be in charge of North Vietnam while the latter was given dominion over the region of Dang Trong. Twenty years after, more bishops were appointed in the region. The most notable ones are Jacques de Bourges who as in charge of the Western side of Dang Ngoai and Francois Deylier was put in charge of the Eastern side of Dang Ngoai.

Jesuit Mission in Cochinchina under Portuguese Padroado (1615–65)

In Vietnam, the 17th century is a century that is most regarded to have two rivalry groups fighting each other. North Vietnam which was under the control of the Trinh clans was with constant feuds with South Vietnam under the rule of the Nguyen. When the Jesuits mission was started in Vietnam, the Jesuits found themselves amid the rivalry.  Following the ban of Christianity in Japan, Portuguese and Spanish Jesuits led by Franciscan and Augustinian missionaries found their way in North Vietnam and South Vietnam to evangelize. Although these were so much determined to have Vietnamese converted into Christianity, only a few concerns were recorded. Common figures that were expelled from Japan and show acceptance in Vietnam include  Buzomi and Diogo Carvalho. From their mission work in North Vietnam, some Vietnamese were baptized. The few people who were converted during this time offered these Jesuits support in terms of raw materials which were used to build a chapel and a residence.  In about one decade, about twenty Jesuits had set their feet in South Vietnam, and some made the region their permanent place of residence.

Francisco da Pina is another key Jesuit who had a great impact on the region. Pina was a linguist, and through his influence, he was able to gather around a group of young Vietnamese catechists to help him spread Christianity. Although de Rhodes us recognized as the person who established the alphabetization if the Vietnamese language, Pina is recognized by this article as the person who laid the foundation for de Rhodes. It is also noted that during the period that Pina lived in Vietnam, he was able to compose a rough catechism in the local language. The first ten years of the Jesuit mission in Vietnam during the 17th century can be said to have been a success as compared to the one in Japan and China. In South Vietnam, the Jesuits were in a good relationship with the Nguyen Lords. The Nguyen Lords were fascinated with the Jesuits understanding of their local language. Besides, they were fascinated with the skill of the Jesuits in mathematics and astronomy. In the latter, years the Jesuits spread to other parts, but they received a mixed response in these areas.

It did not take time after the Nguyen Lords turned against Christianity and the Jesuits. The Jesuits were accused of trying to make the local Vietnamese abandon the traditions of their ancestors. In the year 1629, the Jesuits were expelled from South Vietnam. However, they were later allowed to return after a short period. This time they were given a condition on how to conduct their mission work. The Nguyen Lords wanted them to be taxed partners as opposed to practicing the new faith. These early Jesuits continued their mission work until de Rhodes joined the mission and gave into a direction.

Jesuit mission under French and Spanish Bishops

Francisco Pallu was a notable figure in Vietnam during the period between 1664 and 1773. Initially, when Pallu and Motte, a fellow Jesuit, tried to spread Christianity in Vietnam, they faced rejection not only from the local people but also from the Portuguese authority. This is reported as an ideal nationality clash. The Portuguese authority did not want Jesuits from France or Spain to Ecclesiastize authority in both the southern and the northern sides of Vietnam. Pallu faced a lot of challenges in the land due to the hostility of the Portuguese authority. Among the hardship recorded in this article include being denied the opportunity to travel by the Portuguese ship. All through he could only manage to walk by land, which he notes in an excerpt recorded in this article as “tiring.”

The article notes that when Lord Trinh Tac rose to power which coincided with the appointment of Francisco Deydier, French missionaries found it easy to preach Christianity in Vietnam and especially North Vietnam. By the time the Portuguese Jesuits returned in North Vietnam, they had found that the French missionaries had already gained roots and had found acceptance in the region. The Portuguese Jesuits did not the idea and had to fight hard to have the French missionaries ejected. However, they did not succeed. From this time onwards, the French Jesuits did not have the same degree of success they had in the region before the French missionaries came in the region. The Portuguese Jesuits who remained in the region had to report first to Dominican bishops in the region since they had lost their power. The Society of Jesus which was the umbrella organization of the Jesuits had no control in the region.


Important dates in Roman Catholicism in Vietnam

The key dates in the Roman Catholicism in Vietnam are well accounted for in the Do, Q. H (1988). The book begins by noting that the first priest who was from Europe entered Vietnam during the early decades of the 16th century. The year 1550 has been documented as the year through which the first Catholic priest set foot in Vietnam. Gaspar da Santa Cruz sailed from Malacca to Vietnam and settled in South Vietnam a province called Ha Tien. Eight years later, other Luis de Fonseca and Gregoire de la Motte followed suit. This time they settled in central Vietnam where they focused largely on proselytizing people around. The other notable people-Diego Doropesa and Pedro Ortiz arrived in 1583 and settled in the province of Quang Ninh.

In the wake of 17th-century Catholic priests came to Vietnam in increasing numbers. Particularly in the year 1615, the Society of Jesus established a mission center in central Vietnam. Jesuits from Japan were recruited to work in the mission center. Following this great achievement, Alexander de Rhodes arrived in central Vietnam in 1624 and facilitated many mission works in the region. A year later, an edict against missionaries and their works was issued by King Sai-Voung. This rendered de Rhodes move to North Vietnam in the region of Tonkin in 1627. After successful mission work in North Vietnam, King Trinh -Trang forbade proselytization, and in 1630 he expelled de Rhodes from the region. The period between 1631 and 1645, was a dark period for the Roman Catholic missionaries since some of them were martyred. However, with the support from a Catholic Viceroy of China, de Rhodes asks for bishops to be sent in Vietnam in the year 1650. The bishops were to help in the facilitation of establishing churches and training Vietnamese clergy.

The following year, in a bid to make help in the spread of Christianity in Vietnam, de Rhodes devices the first printing of a Vietnamese-Latin catechism. The printing was devised using the Vietnam alphabet. These actions revolutionized missionary works and 1659, marked the start of Apostolic Vicariates. Following this rapid improvements, seven years later the floating seminary for clergy was established. Two years later, four Vietnamese priests were ordained. This was followed by the opening of the organization of Synod in North Vietnam the following year.

In 1676, the Spanish Dominicans arrived in North Vietnam. Two years later, an oath of obedience to apostolic vicars was administered on all Roman Catholic missionaries.  This was followed by massive reorganization of the church in Vietnam. As part of the reorganization, Monsignor Lambert de la Motte was given Dominion over North Vietnam in 1680. In the wake of the 18th century, Christianity had gotten roots in Vietnam. The year 1712 saw the deportation of Apostolic Vicar. As much as the spread of Catholicism was rapid, more and more prosecution of the Roman Catholic missionaries was witnessed in the 18th century. From 1719 to 1798, over a thousand churches are destroyed with martyrdom escalating to high numbers.


The development of Christianity in Vietnam was efficient and more comfortable because of the Roman Empire. The documents clearly show that they had different views of the religion which brought about conflicting ideologies. Christianity spread in more extensive regions despite the changes and controversies attributed to it. Those who had faith worked hard to ensure that they spread the gospel to as many people as possible. Although they were persecuted, the force of the changes proved to be too strong that its growth was not affected. They recognized God as the superior being, and all the glory was attributed to him. He was the author of it all and existed before any other creation hence confirming that he was an eternal being who was to be acknowledged as the only God. The most exciting thing about the development of Christianity in Vietnam was that despite most people rejecting the Catholicism it grew wide and far. The Roman Catholic missionaries had faith and acknowledged one God, and therefore it was believed to be what they should have faith. Although they faced a myriad of challenges in spreading Christianity and trying to convert as many Vietnamese as possible into Christianity, they did not give up. The prosecution of and martyrdom of mission dealt them a huge blow. Nevertheless, they did not relent in conducting their business which many referred to as a calling by God. The works of the early Roman Catholic missionaries from the 16 century to 18th century laid the foundation for protestant entry in Vietnam and mainland Southeast Asia.