James Thompson to Argentina

James Thomson was a Baptist pastor who went to Argentina in 1818 as a representative of the British and Foreign School Society. 

This Society founded schools on the Lancasterian system by which pupils who had learned to read were used to teach others. Thomson’s church in Edinburgh paid his fare out to Buenos Aires and supported him during his first year there , but after that Thomson became fully self-supporting. In addition to his school work Thomson was vitally interested in the work of the B.F.B.S.. He combined these two methods of approach by having the governments which sponsored his educational programme, print selected passages of Scripture in large type for use as reading materials in his schools. In addition wherever he went he engaged in the direct distribution of the Scriptures and in Peru arranged for the first translations of portions of Scripture into the Indian languages.

Thomson’s work in the Argentine attracted the attention of O’Higgins in Chile, who as supreme director invited him for one year at the expense of the expense of the Chilean government. Thomson sailed round Cape Horn and arrived in Santiago near the middle of 1821. Whereas the Roman Catholic clergy in the Argentine had been favourably disposed towards his work, in Chile most of the Catholic priests opposed him . Nevertheless within a year Thomson established three schools in Santiago, one of which was equipped to train teachers who could start new schools. He also founded schools in Valparaiso , and on May 31, 1822 President O’ Higgins honoured him by granting him Chilean citizenship. The Chilean government then engaged the services of Anthony Eaton to continue the work  and in response to a pressing invitation from San Martín in Lima, Thomson set sail from Valparaiso on June 18 . Within ten years, however, all traces of the promising work in Chile had disappeared .

The day after Thomson’s arrival in Lima he was visited by San Martín in person, who immediately had the Dominican monastery of St. Thomas vacated for a school. Conditions in Peru were considerably more difficult than in Chile; Lima was twice re-occupied by royalist forces; the treasury was empty; no reading materials could be printed, and finally not even Thomson’s salary could be paid. Navarrete, a Roman Catholic priest who became Thomson’s faithful helper, intervened and tried to arrange that the parents of the schoolchildren provide for Thomson’s support, but the war of liberation which was still raging had reduced everybody to dire poverty. Lima was besieged and on September 5, 1824 Thomson choosing a favourable moment, slipped out and went to Ecuador and Columbia . Thomson’s initial success in Peru had been smaller than in Chile. In two years and three months he established three schools; the central one in the monastery of St. Thomas with 200 pupils, a subsidiary one in another part of Lima with 80 pupils, and the third in Huánuco on the other side of the Andes.

Despite the unfavourable conditions, Thomson’s work in Peru proved to be more lasting than anywhere else. In 1847 Navarrete wrote Thomson that since his departure thirty more schools had been founded . This success was due in the first place to the devotion and perseverance of Navarrete himself whom Thomson described as “a very worthy priest, a lover of education and of the Bible”, but other priests also helped, especially in the distribution of the Scriptures . The schools ceased their separate existence when President Castilla reorganized the educational system in 1850 , but for nearly thirty years, at a time when education was the almost exclusive privilege of the rich, Thomson’s initiative had provided Peru with the first schools to offer a general education for all classes .

The willing reception afforded Thomson’s help was due not only to the need but alos to the way in which this help was offered. Thomson later commented on the cordiality shown him as a foreigner and a Protestant . His winsome character and ability for making friends undoubtedly played a large part in this, but also his policy of helping the South Americans to help themselves. Insead of making himself financially independent of the people he wanted to help by accepting support from outside, he put himself, financially speaking, entirely at their mercy, thus making it quite plain that they need have no fear that he was trying to impose something on them. All they had to do to dispose of his services, was to fail to find his support. Evangelical writers who blame the Protestant churches in Great Britain and North America for not having done more to help at this time, do not appreciate sufficciently that open Protestant support for Thomson’s efforts would have at once produced a reaction that would have ruined his further chances.

After his first year in the Argentine, as far as is known, Thomson neither asked for, nor received, support from Protestatnt sources. The Scriptures he distributed were sold at relatively realistic prices . They were identical to the Roman Catholic Scío de San Miguel version and included the Apocrypha with the Old Testament; the only difference apart from some printing errors was that the footnotes were omitted . Thomson collaborated closely with Roman Catholic priests and later maintained that “a fair proportion of the priests in those parts may be considered moral and devout men” . He made no attempt to form an Evangelical church nor to wean anybody away from Catholicism, and in spite of doctrinal difference, he felt himself one with those Catholics who truly believed in the Lord Jesus Christ . Although he used his educational work to introduce the Scriptures as it were by stealth , it is clear that he believed that the people in South America could accept the message of these Scriptures without ceasing to be Roman Catholics. Domingo Amunátegui’s opinion that Thomson was the first Protestant proselytizer in South America to hide his real aim under the pose of an educator is, therefore, quite mistaken , although this judgment does apply to some of the later Protestant emissaries.

Basic to Thomson’s work was his belief that the reading of the Scriptures, coupled with a programme of education to make such reading possible, would of itself stimulate an inner, spontaneous reformation_of the existing church. Only right at the end of his life, when it was clear that the desired result was not being achieved did he appeal to the Protestant church for help in setting up a missionary society for South America. This was done in 1852, but Thomson’s death two years later brought the plans to nought .. It is, therefore, not true to attribute Thomson’s failure in his primary purpose to the indifference of the Protestant churches. Nor can this failure be ascribed to the tumultuous state of these countries at the time. Otherwise how can it be explained that Scripture distribution prospered more in Peru than in cither Chile or the Argentine, in spite of the difficult war conditions in Peru? . Papal opposition was decisive in ending the Bible society Thomson established in Colombia, and clerical opposition in Chile probably played some part in ending the educational work there, but in Peru the measure of success was very largely due to the support some priests gave. Roman Catholic opposition is, therefore, not a sufficient explanation of the failure to achieve an inner reformation of the church. Besides, when conditions are propitious, opposition cannot stop such a movement, once it has started, as the history of the Reformation in northern Europe shows.

The decisive reason must lie in the fact that those who could read, with very few exceptions, belonged to an exclusive social group. However much the elite might express admiration for the Bible, and even use its noble sentiments in their struggle with what they considered to be the uncivilized ignorance and superstition of the masses, they dared not apply the teachings of Scripture to their own position, for fear of being excluded from the tightly knit group to which they belonged. In Chile this general tendency was reinforced by the fact that there was a reaction among the educated against O’ Higgins’ encouragement of foreign innovations, of which the Bible was but one. In Peru the primary reaction of the educated was against the superstition of the Indians, but it is interesting that, even there, the people who were really prepared to help Thomson in Bible distribution belonged to the priesthood or were of foreign extraction, such as Lynch in Lima and O’ Donovan in Trujillo. Of those who possessed enough education to read, such people were the least vulnerable as far as their social prestige was concerned.

The key to the situation lay, as Thomson rightly apprehended, in the promotion of education for the masses, so that those who had little to lose by acting on the message of the Scriptures might also be able to read them. In the conservative reaction which followed the emancipation from Spain, when landowners often saw in popular education a means of enabling the masses to rise up against them, such a programme became difficult enough to maintain in the best of circumstances. When such education was also coupled with an attempt an inner religious reformation, it was doomed, either to die out, as in Chile, or to lose its impulse for religious reform, as in Peru. The importance of Thomson lies in the fact that he pioneered policies, which ninety years later under more favourable circumstances, were to bear fruit in two directions. In Peru the Seventh Day Adventists around Lake Titicaca later developed an educational programme that bore strong resemblances to the Lancasterian system, and in Chile Hoover, as leader of the indigenous Pentecostal movement, made himself entirely dependent on national support as Thomson had done before him.

About the author

Austin Gardner is pastor of Vision Baptist Church in Alpharetta, GA. Previously he was church planting missionary in Peru for 20 years.

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