The historical development of Hòa Hảo Buddhism is the nexus around which this study is built. The history of Hòa Hảo Buddhism includes two distinct but closely interrelated stages, namely the age of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương and the era of Hòa Hảo Buddhism.
The Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement emerged in mid-19th century, just before the French colonial conquest of the South. Therefore this movement might be viewed as a product of the antecedent historical phenomena, notably the Southward Movement, or Nam Tiến. It should be pointed out that the rise of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương coincided with a process of subsequent colonization of the South by Vietnamese settlers.
In the wake of military conquest and colonization by Vietnamese settlers, the social institutions of the south soon began functioning in a way similar to other parts of Vietnam. It happened despite the continued presence of a considerable Khmer population with their distinct traditional way of life, religious and social customs and practices. However, in the course of its adaptation, the traditional Vietnamese culture was enriched by new characteristics of the Mekong Delta, eventually described as the local characteristics of southern Vietnam.
It might be argued that due to the differences mentioned above, popular and revolutionary organizations in the south typically emerged as religious movements and not in the guise of political parties, as it was the case in north and central Vietnam. Two reformist religions, Hòa Hảo Buddhism and Caodaism, later gained mass followers and were often cited.
Hòa Hảo Buddhism emerged in the mid-20th century as a direct continuation of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương tradition. However, the rise of Hòa Hảo Buddhism took place within the background of French colonial domination.
The Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement was initiated in 1849 by Đoàn Minh Huyên. Subsequently, he was venerated as Phật Thầy Tây An, or Buddha Preceptor of the Western Peace. From a socio-cultural point of view, the emergence of this religious movement might be viewed as the Vietnamese settlers’ cultural reaction to the new conditions of life. Pioneers, who were colonizing new areas, arguably needed a sort of ideological footing. This is why the founder of the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement opted to rely on two main principles, Faith and Patriotism. Therefore, the people who lived under unstable social circumstances were given positive social and religious ideas. Correspondingly, their way of life, which had previously lacked any concrete direction, could have been driven towards religious and national values. The emergence of Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương movement arguably indicated that the considerable potential of Vietnamese culture, though weakened by frontier conditions in the South, was nonetheless sustained and developed within the framework of the new faith.
In doctrinal terms, the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương was not a new religious teaching, as it was a largely a Buddhist movement. Moreover, since Phật Thầy Tây An relied upon the principles of Faith and Patriotism, the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương emerged as a Buddhist movement with strong patriotic overtones.