Once an obscure small hamlet, Hòa Hảo suddenly became the cradle of a new religion, which eventually became widely known as Hòa Hảo Buddhism. Moreover, once a fragile youth with little education, Huỳnh Phú Sổ suddenly turned out to be a master of religion. The advent of Huỳnh Phú Sổ and the sudden emergence of a religious organization with two million followers came as crucial events in the history of southern Vietnam. The emergence of Hòa Hảo Buddhism completely changed the way of life in the Hậu Giang area of the Mekong Delta and deeply affected historical developments in modern Vietnam.
Not surprisingly, responses to the preaching of Huỳnh Phú Sổ differed among various social groups. Generally speaking, peasant cultivators promptly responded in a positive way and started joining the new religion en masse. Landowners were hesitant about adhering to the new congregation. Traditional Confucian scholars as well as people with Western education tended to remain skeptical and declined to subscribe to the viewpoints of the Hòa Hảo Buddhist doctrines.
For instance, Nguyễn Chánh Đáng, who had adhered to the Hòa Hảo Buddhism since its inception when he was 23-year-old, recalled in an interview: “I heard about Master Tư who cured sick people and preached in Hòa Hảo village. Some of my fellow villagers adhered to his group and gave me some handwritten sermons. As I hesitated about joining the new religion, a number of Hòa Hảo adepts around me increased on daily basis and it surely influenced my personal attitude. Finally, I became fearful to lose an opportunity to join the new congregation and went straight to Hòa Hảo village, where I did adhere immediately. I learned that Master Huỳnh was Phật Thầy Tây Ans avatar. It was an important information for me because my father supported the Bửu Sơn Kỳ Hương tradition. Moreover, the sermons of Master Huỳnh sounded similar as compared to preaching of Tây An. Hence, I had a feeling that I was about joining the same religious congregation as of my father. This is why I adhered to Hòa Hảo Buddhism without any further hesitation.”
It should be pointed out that farmers did not join Hòa Hảo Buddhism thoughtlessly. They very much hesitated before making an informed decision about adhering to the new congregation. The behavior patterns of peasant cultivators tend to be conservative and cautious. When a decision is made, this decision is followed meticulously and without further hesitation. On the other hand, adherence to Hòa Hảo Buddhism by fellow villagers proved to be a factor of crucial importance with regard to further expansion of the new religion. In many cases, a mere fact that a few villagers adhered to Hòa Hảo Buddhism sufficed to ensure that the whole hamlet followed their fellow folks. In these situations, farmers decisions were made based on testimonies from their good neighbors, who spoke with the same tongue, in a familiar, simple language that they believed as the truth, unlike fancy but deceitful language that often used by communist propagandists. This is how Hòa Hảo Buddhism gained a mass following in Hậu Giang area, notably in Long Xuyên and Châu Đốc provinces. Hence, Huỳnh Phú Sổs accession to the position of undisputed prophet was accomplished almost overnight.
Facing the rapid expansion of Hòa Hảo Buddhism, absentee landlords and planters did not react in the same way as peasant cultivators did. These different responses might be attributed to the fact that peasants sustained traditional values of Vietnams predominantly agricultural society while absentee landlords obviously became detached from the traditional way of life. Apart from a handful of exceptions, most rich landowners, notably those fully integrated into the imported capitalist economic model and separated from traditional patterns of social behavior, usually did not support Hòa Hảo Buddhism. Presumably, they did not appreciate the egalitarian elements of the new teachings, which preached the ideals of social justice. Subsequently, landlords feared that their political and economic interests could be adversely affected by the rapid growth of the Hòa Hảo community.
However, some landowners still lived in rural areas and treated their tenants in a humane way. These landlords remained a part of communal life and just differed from peasant cultivators in terms of material possession. These landowners tended to support Huỳnh Phú Sổ and his teaching as most peasants did, as in the case of the Lâm clan from Mỹ Hội Đông village in Long Xuyên province. Virtually all members of Lâm clan adhered and became hardcore members of the Hòa Hảo Buddhist community.
On the other hand, intellectuals with Western education and Confucian scholars had their judgements with regard to the Hòa Hảo Buddhism seriously biased in line with their respective educational backgrounds. Therefore, very few of them supported or joined the Hòa Hảo Buddhist congregation. French-educated scholars remained skeptical because they were unable to apply any sort of scientific analysis to determine features of the obvious success of Huỳnh Phú Sổ. Confucian literati could not believe that a 20-year-old youngster was able to launch and propagate a new religion because in the traditional Vietnamese society, in general, an older man seldom treated a young man as his teacher.
Moreover, some Confucian scholars, notably Ba Thận from Tân Châu, Lương Văn Tốt, Huỳnh Hiệp Hòa and Nguyễn Kỳ Trân from Long Xuyên, all attempted to question the relevance of Huỳnh Phú Sổs erudition. They all tried to question the founder of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism from the point of view of Confucian scholarship. However, Huỳnh Phú Sổ reportedly succeeded in answering the cunning questions of the Confucian literati. Among the tests he passed was the composition of a response to poems handed down by Confucian scholars.
The founder of the Hòa Hảo Buddhism was said to be equally successful in disputes with French-educated skeptics, such as Dr. Trần Lũy and engineer Nguyễn Văn Thời from Rạch Giá.