On a warm Sunday morning in March, about a dozen Thai Christians sit quietly in Grace New Life Church in Chiang Mai and wait for the service to begin. As the worship leader warms up on his guitar and the pastor makes last-minute adjustments to his slides, a frail 91-year-old Caucasian man with bifocals shuffles to a chair and sits down.
The worship leader stands and asks maw (Thai for “doctor”) to lead a prayer. Retired missionary Henry Breidenthal slowly rises from his chair and walks to the front of the room. There, with his gray head bowed and sunken eyes closed, he addresses God softly, his Thai mumbled with age. His prayer complete, he returns to his seat as the music begins.
When the worship set is finished, Breidenthal and the other congregants listen to the day’s message on tithing from Pastor Patompon Kong. Kong was once Breidenthal’s student at the Bible college he founded. Now, in the twilight of the older man’s life, Kong is his pastor.
For the past 60 years, Breidenthal has called Thailand home. His longevity calls to mind an earlier era of overseas service. Today, many missionary recruits hope to see quick, tangible results before returning home just a few months or years later. Breidenthal’s ministry shows the potential for the compound growth of a missionary’s impact over the long term.
That type of ministry comes at a cost. Breidenthal had to forgo the doctor’s salary he could have earned back in the United States, perhaps the chance to marry and start a family (Breidenthal has remained single), and definitely a “normal” life of comfort and ease.
Yet as he spoke with me in his home about his life in Thailand—treating leprosy patients, ministering in the tribal areas, planting churches, and teaching generations of Thai pastors—he didn’t dwell on what he gave up.
Kong noted about his former teacher, “He’s really committed to what he desired from the beginning: to finish the race well.”
From Kansas City to Bangkok
As a young man growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, mission work was already on Breidenthal’s mind. His family members had varying degrees of religious commitment, but he was spiritually precocious and thought that becoming a missionary could help ensure that he made it to heaven.
In his teenage years, he started attending Youth for Christ’s packed meetings on Saturday nights. There, he heard that salvation was by grace, not attendance. The message stuck and changed his entire outlook on faith. It did not, however, change his plans to become a missionary. “Once I learned that salvation is by grace, what else could I do?” he asked.
But he took some detours along the way. At his parent’s suggestion, he followed in the footsteps of an older brother and attended medical school. After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Medicine, he did his residency in Dallas, where he was heavily involved in a local church. Still determined to become a missionary, he enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary where he earned a master’s degree in theology in 1962.
After a few years of practicing medicine, Breidenthal joined the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) and left by boat for Asia in 1964. He first trained in Singapore before heading to Thailand, where he spent a year learning the language and adjusting to the culture.
OMF then sent Breidenthal to work at its hospital for leprosy patients in central Thailand. He spent most of the next few years doing medical work, but his heart longed to evangelize to the unreached hill tribe people of northern Thailand. OMF’s leadership wanted him to concentrate on medicine for his first four-year term. After that, they said, he could shift his focus from meeting physical needs to spiritual ones.
Reaching the unreached Mien tribe
“In mission, everything is pictures,” Breidenthal says as he gets up slowly from the kitchen table where we’ve been talking and walks with a stiff gait toward another room. “You have to have pictures.”
He’s decided that I, like the churches he used to visit while on furlough back in the States, need to see the people and places he has encountered. We’re talking about his two-year ministry in the early 1970s along the border of Thailand and Laos, mostly among people of the Mien tribe. He lived in huts in the mountains, staying in each village for days or weeks or months, depending on the reception of his hosts. He tried to treat villagers’ health problems with limited equipment, but his primary objective was to introduce the gospel.
He returns with several large binders full of small slides, now a half-century old. They show small huts with dirt floors and colorfully dressed villagers. This chapter of Breidenthal’s life had its share of successes, such as when he helped save a Mien woman’s life by carrying her on his back from her village toward the nearest medical clinic. At the halfway point, he flagged down a pickup that carried her the rest of the journey. The woman reached the clinic in time. She had been in a coma for over a week, but the medical staff were able to revive her. Eventually, as Breidenthal learned later, she became a Christian.
There were plenty of disappointments as well. Some villages were unreceptive and forced him to move on. Others welcomed him as a physician but not as a preacher. Despite these setbacks, his two years living among the Mien led to friendships and connections in which he would continue to invest over the ensuing decades. Years later, he helped Mien believers start a church in Chiang Mai.
The creation of Bangkok’s first Bible college
In the mid-20th century, Thailand’s small Christian population faced a dilemma. Churches were suffering from a dearth of preachers, and many who did enter the ministry had few opportunities to pursue formal theological training. Some moved to other countries to study, but this solution had serious disadvantages: it was expensive, and many Thais who went abroad for school found work there after graduating.
Before the early 1970s, Bangkok did not have a degree-granting seminary or Bible college. Several missions agencies and denominations had started small theological schools, but local believers and missionaries felt the need for a flagship evangelical institution in the capital. In 1970, they turned the vision into a reality: Thai believers donated needed resources such as a building and funds. OMF and the Christian and Missionary Alliance decided to work together on the project, ensuring that the school would be interdenominational. Now the nascent school just needed a director.
The board of the newly founded Bangkok Bible College (BBC) asked Breidenthal to serve as its first leader—and its only full-time teacher. He accepted. After returning to Bangkok from his work with the Mien, he moved into the dilapidated two-story house that would be the school’s first dormitory, classroom, and office.
Training generations of Thai pastors
The next batch of photographs includes a shot of Breidenthal in his late 30s standing next to five young Thai men in white dress shirts and ties. This was BBC’s first cohort of students in 1971. Among them is Chumsaeng Reong, a Thai believer who had grown up in a nominally Christian home (his grandfather who immigrated from China was a Christian) and was interested in learning more about the Bible. An elder at his church suggested he study with an impressive American doctor who was starting a Bible college. The elder promised that the doctor was like a “Bible encyclopedia.”
When Reong arrived for the beginning of the semester, he was the second student to move in. He soon learned that only three other students would be joining them. “If [this doctor] is so great, why are there so few students?” he remembers thinking. “And why is the building so shabby?”
Despite that initial disillusionment, Reong, now 72, remembers his time at BBC as “a special formation.” Since Breidenthal lived with the students in the ramshackle house, spiritual discussions often extended well past the official end of class time. “[We discussed] questions after questions after questions at the dining table,” Reong recollects. After five years of study at BBC, he went on to become a pastor, seminary instructor, and founding director of the Wycliffe Thai Foundation.
Today, BBC is Bangkok Bible Seminary. The old house is gone, replaced by several buildings featuring well-equipped classrooms, an impressive library, and a large assembly hall. A robust faculty has replaced the single full-time position from the early years, and the current director, Manoch Chaengmook, is another of Breidenthal’s former students. The seminary offers in-person and online instruction and currently serves almost 1,000 Thais.
After retiring from BBC in 1995, Breidenthal moved from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, where he helped establish the Chiang Mai Bible Center. At first, students came to his house for classes. The center continued to develop and eventually became Chiang Mai Theological Seminary, where he continued to teach until 2018. Today the school has about 150 students.
Both in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Breidenthal made sure that his students put what they learned into action. They joined him in planting churches, including Makkasan New Life Church in Bangkok, which he started with another missionary. The church grew, and soon several other New Life churches sprung up around the city and beyond. Thai Christians, including some of Breidenthal’s students, took on leadership rolls, quickly developing the churches’ independence.
‘The best one piece of literature’
The good doctor is not holding photographs now. He’s picked up a small booklet that features Thai writing and a drawing of Jesus on the front. “I don’t want to preach to you,” he says, as he flips it open.
It’s a small, unintentional fib, meant to set me at ease. It’s clear he does want to preach to me, just like he’s preached to countless people over the decades, tract in hand. I assure him that I don’t mind, and he launches into a detailed exposition of God’s plan for salvation.
When Thai Christians think of Breidenthal, they often think of these tracts. From early on, he’s always had them, often stashed in his doctor’s bag along with a stethoscope and thermometer. During his tenure at BBC, he and a troupe of Thai seminarians would spend every Sunday afternoon in Bangkok’s Lumpini Park, handing out tracts, singing, and engaging anyone who would stop and talk. He would later distribute them in Chiang Mai as well as on trips to neighboring countries. One time, authorities in Vietnam detained him for three days for passing out tracts.
He points to several verses in the booklet from 1 John 5, focusing on verse 10: “Whoever believes in the Son of God accepts this testimony.”
“In Thailand, they’re slow to get the concept of ‘believe in,’” Breidenthal says. “Believe in means trust.” He explains that believing about Jesus comes more naturally to many Thais. Adding one more supernatural being to an already complex pantheon is usually not a challenge. Resting solely in Christ’s sacrifice often is.
Former students who accompanied Breidenthal to hand out tracts in downtown Bangkok remember feeling very uncomfortable at first. One recalls being so embarrassed that he tried to blend in with the joggers circling the park’s running path. But many also say that they gradually learned not to be ashamed of the gospel. And while positive responses were rare, a few people they talked to did eventually become Christians.
This method of evangelism has its critics, and Breidenthal himself admits that it has disadvantages. For example, he’s aware that the small text is sometimes difficult for older people to read, and he knows that some tracts explain the gospel using a Western framework that Thais will not easily understand. But he also believes that some tracts give a culturally appropriate witness, and that getting these into people’s hands can make a difference.
“This is the best one piece of literature you can give to anybody in the world,” he says, holding up the small booklet.
‘He doesn’t have any agenda except you’
When Thai clergy reflect on Breidenthal’s ministry, they marvel at his commitment. “He doesn’t long to go back to America,” Kong says. “He never counts the days, months, and years until a furlough.” He attributes this to a “deep, heartfelt love for the Thai people.”
When prompted, they admit that he has weaknesses. He was often so caught up in his many ministry responsibilities that he did not take sufficient care of himself. Friends tried to make sure that he was eating enough and setting time aside to rest. As a teacher and mentor, he could sometimes be overly strict, and he would occasionally communicate in a very direct manner that is off-putting to Thais.
But they also say he is humble enough to admit mistakes and has intentionally tried to adapt to Thai culture in a way that many missionaries do not. Perhaps even more important is his ability to focus on and invest in each individual student or companion.
“He’s [one of the few people] that I discuss my problems and have prayer with,” said one longtime Thai friend. “Because he doesn’t have any agenda except you.”
As our time together came to a close, I saw evidence of another of Breidenthal’s defining characteristics: spiritual discipline. He is famous in Thai churches for living by the motto “No Bible, No Breakfast,” making sure he’s spiritually fed each morning before being physically fed, and for almost always ending conversations with prayer. When our interview was over and I stood to go, he quickly called me back. “Let me pray,” he said, bowing his head and folding his hands as he has countless times before.