“In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time; the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and the material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream. […] All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.”
Thomas Carlyle, The Hero as a Man of Letters
To those of us living with the technological advancements of the 21st century, Carlyle’s noble sentiments might seem rather archaic. But despite the medium in which history is preserved – whether in books, artefacts, or in the virtual space – one cannot deny that safeguarding our history is still imperative. The identity of humanity in the present is tied to its heritage, which is what the Archives seeks to safeguard.
Keeping an Archive is actually a requirement of church teaching dating back to Catholic Canon Law. Pope John Paul II described archives as places of memory of the Christian community as well as storehouses of culture for the new evangelisation. He emphasised the preservation of both ancient and current records. The Church has a duty to protect and grow these records, passing them on to generations to come. Paragraph 331 of our own Methodist Book of Discipline says that we are to maintain “an archive in which to preserve the historical records and materials of every kind related to The Methodist Church”.
There are also very practical reasons for maintaining an archive. Religious organisations are also administrative and corporate entities. They are employers, run schools, own property, oversee development projects, raise funds, and administer legal and financial affairs. Archives are integral to the proper functioning of these administrations. Without archival recall and proper records, it is possible to fall victim to conjecture or distortions, as human memory is often inaccurate. There would be no means of proving entitlements or ownership, or of defending oneself against allegations of improper actions.
The Archives are thus an integral part of our historical identity as a Church. It functions as a tool of understanding, providing evidence of our historical development, the evolution of our ministry, and our contribution to the wider community. Archives can capture lives, stories, and what people meant to others – and preserve them long after memory has faded.
A Brief History of The Methodist Archives
Although Methodism in Singapore started in February 1885, it was not until 1949 that the church passed a resolution to form a “Historical Society”, and appointed the late Rev Ho Seng Ong as Chairman.
In 1968, after the church became autonomous, it became known as the Singapore-Malaya Annual Conference’s Board of Archives and History,.
Following the separation of the two Methodist Churches in 1976, the Council on Archives and History was formed in accordance with paragraph ¶1125 of The 1976 Book of Discipline of The Methodist Church in Singapore. The late Rev Ong Chaik Ghee was appointed the first Chairman of the Council, while also serving as Chairman of the Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC) Board of Archives and History.
In the early years, the Archives started as a collection of documents, past copies of the Malaysia Message, and the Conference Journals of the pre-war Malaya Annual Conference. These were kept by the Mission Treasurer in his offices at the Fort Canning premises of Wesley Church.
Between 1949 and 1981, materials continued to be accumulated through the effort of the then bishops, missionaries and others, and also through donations from the families of some of the missionaries who had served in the past.
1983 saw a significant growth in the collection of materials by the late Bishop Emeritus Doraisamy, who became the Archivist in 1981. An extensive research for the preparation of a historical account of the centenary celebrations in 1985 by Bishop Doraisamy led to the opening of an Archives Resource Centre at the basement of the Methodist Centre on Mount Sophia, which was officially dedicated on 16 February 1984.
The late Mr Earnest Lau took over as Archivist in 1993. Bishop Doraisamy had told him that the pre-war materials housed at the Methodist Mission office at the Wesley Church premises were looted when the Japanese occupied Singapore. Another loss took place, this time with the post-war materials, when vast quantities of so-called “old and useless” files and records were consigned to the incinerator prior to the move of the Methodist HQ at Coleman Street to Mt Sophia.
For slightly over two years, from August 2000 to December 2002, the Archives was housed in a temporary location at the OMF Building at Cluny Road, along with the other Methodist HQ departments.
In January 2003, the Archives moved to its present location at the fourth level of the Methodist Centre. It was then renamed the Archives and History Library by Mr Lau, in tandem with the name of the Council, to better reflect its role and focus.
Today, the Archives, a valuable source of information about our past, houses over 10, 000 different materials, ranging from books to CDs to photographs and microfilms.
Serah Soon is the Archives Executive of the Methodist Archives and History Library.
Photos courtesy of The Archives and History Library