Alexandre de Rhodes, an influential missionary in Vietnam.
The first Catholic missionaries visited Vietnam from Portugal at the beginning of the 16th century. The earliest missions did not bring very impressive results. Only after the arrival of Jesuits in the first decades of the 17th century did Christianity begin to establish its positions within the local population. These earliest missionaries were Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese. Between 1627-30, Alexandre de Rhodes and Antoine Marquez, priests from the region of Provence in France, converted more than 6,000 people.
In the 17th century, Jesuit missionaries including Gaspar do Amaral, Antonio Barbosa,
Francisco de Pina, and de Rhodes developed an alphabet for the Vietnamese language, using the Latin script with added diacritic marks. This writing system continues to be used today, and is called chữ Quốc ngữ (literally "national language script").
Pigneau de Behaine and the Nguyễn
The French missionary priest and
Bishop of Adraa Pigneau de Behaine played a key role in Vietnamese history towards the end of the 18th century. He had come to southern Vietnam to evangelize. In 1777, the Tây Sơn brothers killed the ruling Nguyễn lords. Nguyễn Ánh was the most senior member of the family to have survived, and he fled into the Mekong Delta region in the far south, where he met Pigneau. Pigneau became Nguyễn Ánh's confidant. Pigneau reportedly hoped that by playing a substantial role in helping Ánh attain victory, he would be in position to gain important concessions for the Catholic Church in Vietnam and helping its expansion throughout Southeast Asia. From then on he became a politician and military strategist.
At one stage during the civil war, the Nguyễn were in trouble, so Pigneau was dispatched to seek French aid. He was able to recruit a band of French volunteers. Pigneau and other missionaries acted as business agents for Nguyễn Ánh, purchasing munitions and other military supplies. Pigneau also served as a military advisor and de facto foreign minister until his death in 1799. From 1794, Pigneau took part in all campaigns. He organized the defense of Diên Khánh when it was besieged by a numerically vastly superior Tây Sơn army in 1794. Upon Pigneau's death, Gia Long's funeral oration described the Frenchman as "the most illustrious foreigner ever to appear at the court of Cochinchina".
By 1802, when Nguyễn Ánh conquered all of Vietnam and declared himself Emperor Gia Long, the Catholic Church in Vietnam had 3 dioceses as follows:
- Diocese of Eastern Tonkin: 140,000 members, 41 Vietnamese priests, 4 missionary priests and 1 bishop.
- Diocese of Western Tonkin: 120,000 members, 65 Vietnamese priests, 46 missionary priests and 1 bishop.
- Diocese of Central and Southern Cochinchina: 60,000 members, 15 Vietnamese priests, 5 missionary priests and 1 bishop.
Gia Long tolerated the Catholic faith of his French allies and permitted unimpeded missionary activities out of respect to his benefactors. The missionary activities were dominated by the Spanish in Tonkin and the French in the central and southern regions. At the time of his death, there were six European bishops in Vietnam. The population of Christians was estimated at 300,000 in Tonkin and 60,000 in Cochinchina.
Later Nguyễn Dynasty
The peaceful coexistence of Catholicism alongside the classical Confucian system of Vietnam was not to last. Gia Long himself was Confucian in outlook. As Crown Prince Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh had already died, it was assumed that Cảnh's son would succeed Gia Long as emperor, but, in 1816, Nguyễn Phúc Đảm, the son of Gia Long's second wife, was appointed instead. Gia Long chose him for his strong character and his deeply conservative aversion to Westerners, whereas Cảnh's lineage had converted to Catholicism and were reluctant to maintain their Confucian traditions such as ancestor worship.
Lê Văn Duyệt, Vietnamese general who helped Nguyễn Ánh—the future Emperor Gia Long—put down the Tây Sơn rebellion, unify Vietnam and establish the Nguyễn Dynasty, and many of the high-ranking mandarins opposed Gia Long's succession plan. Duyệt and many of his southern associates tended to be favourable to Christianity, and supported the installation of Nguyễn Cảnh's descendants on the throne. As a result, Duyệt was held in high regard by the Catholic community. According to the historian Mark McLeod, Duyệt was more concerned with military rather than social needs, and was thus more interested in maintaining strong relations with Europeans so that he could acquire weapons from them, rather than worrying about the social implications of westernization. Gia Long was aware that Catholic clergy were opposed to the installation of Minh Mạng because they favored a Catholic monarch (Cảnh's son) who would grant them favors.
Minh Mạng began to place restrictions on Catholicism. He enacted "edicts of interdiction of the Catholic religion" and condemned Christianity as a "heterodox doctrine". He saw the Catholics as a possible source of division, especially as the missionaries were arriving in Vietnam in ever-increasing numbers. Duyệt protected Vietnamese Catholic converts and westerners from Minh Mạng's policies by disobeying the emperor's orders.
Minh Mạng issued an imperial edict, that ordered missionaries to leave their areas and move to the imperial city, ostensibly because the palace needed translators, but in order to stop the Catholics from evangelizing. Whereas the government officials in central and northern Vietnam complied, Duyệt disobeyed the order and Minh Mạng was forced to bide his time. The emperor began to slowly wind back the military powers of Duyệt, and increased this after his death. Minh Mạng ordered the posthumous humiliation of Duyệt, which resulted in the desecration of his tomb, the execution of sixteen relatives, and the arrests of his colleagues. Duyệt's son, Lê Văn Khôi, along with the southerners who had seen their and Duyệt's power curtailed, revolted against Minh Mạng.
Khôi declared himself in favour of the restoration of the line of Prince Cảnh. This choice was designed to obtain the support of Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese Catholics, who had been supporting the Catholic line of Prince Cảnh. Lê Văn Khôi further promised to protect Catholicism. In 1833, the rebels took over southern Vietnam, with Catholics playing a large role. 2,000 Vietnamese Catholic troops fought under the command of
Father Nguyễn Văn Tâm.
The rebellion was suppressed after three years of fighting. The French missionary Father Joseph Marchand, of the Paris Foreign Missions Society was captured in the siege, and had been supporting Khôi, and asked for the help of the Siamese army, through communications to his counterpart in Siam, Father Jean-Louis Taberd. This showed the strong Catholic involvement in the revolt and Father Marchand was executed.
The failure of the revolt had a disastrous effect on the Christians of Vietnam. New restrictions against Christians followed, and demands were made to find and execute remaining missionaries. Anti-Catholic edicts to this effect were issued by Minh Mạng in 1836 and 1838. In 1836-37 six missionaries were executed: Ignacio Delgado, Dominico Henares, José Fernández, François Jaccard, Jean-Charles Cornay, and Bishop Pierre Borie. The villages of Christians were destroyed and their possessions confiscated. Families were broken apart. Christians were branded on the forehead with ta dao, “false religion.” It is believed that between 130,000 and 300,000 Christians died in the various persecutions. The 117 proclaimed saints represent the many unknown martyrs.