Film / Book Reviews

Spread of Methodism in Asia shows interesting trends

Jan 2005    

Sparks of Grace: The Story of Methodism in Asia
Author: Robbie B. H. Goh
The Methodist Church in Singapore, December 2003 

209 pages. Paperback, $13

SPARKS OF GRACE reveals interesting trends in the spread of Methodism in Asia with its “socio-historical emphases” being the paramount theme of the book. The first cross-cultural, cross-linguistic Methodist mission initiated beyond the English-speaking congregations of North America began in Sri Lanka in 1814. This initial contact by missionaries from socie-ties fundamentally different from their own in terms of cultures, customs and languages laid the foundation for “an expansionist vision” that was to have a profound effect beyond the boundaries of South Asia.

Translation work, together with the establishment of a Methodist press and edu-cation systems in South Asia were to serve the movement well as a “gateway” to Asia and the experience gained by Indian-trained missionaries James Thorburn, William Oldham and Authur Prautch while serving in the Sri Lanka and Indian Methodist missions were used to great effect when they branched out into Southeast Asia.

Though arriving significantly later than British missionaries in South Asia to make an indelible impact, American Methodist missionaries nevertheless were an emerging influence when Methodist missions were established in Korea three years after the signing of the Korean-American treaty (1882) and a year after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898 concluded Spanish colonial rule over the Philippine archipelago.

The missions in the Philippines and Korea were important not only in the train-ing of indigenous preachers but signifi-cantly in the case of Korea; Methodist missions had found “receptive social soil” allowing the establishment of quality educational institutions and hospitals spurring further modernising traits that manifested itself in Korean society through social reforms and services.

Correspondingly, the presence of deep-rooted religious traditions and the presence of religions hostile to Christianity present varying forms in countries like Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan or the nature of the communist ideology in China and North Korea which viewed Christianity as “imperialist poison” may have had the effect of unwittingly and in-directly stultifying educational and social progress in these countries.

Evidence of what might have been could be seen in the Malaysia, Singapore and South Korean cases. Despite Methodism’s relatively late start in Malay-sia and Singapore in 1885, the “Methodist educational project” supported by the Brit-ish colonial administration and embraced by the predominantly Chinese immigrant population resident in these countries, like the Korean experience, became a stepping stone for “socio-economic advancement”.

Another interesting dimension to Goh’s study is his contention of the existence par-ticularly at the local level of an “imagined” Methodist community exemplified through a network of Methodist schools, the role of Methodist press by bonding “believers across the country through … unifying discourse”, and the pioneering work of Methodist women and missionaries “in in-culcating an active social role for women” against the backdrop of “traditional Asian contexts”. In this context, the role of Meth-odist girls’ schools in socialising norms and values related to a “modern social defini-tion of women” was nothing short of revolutionary and paved the way for women to contribute not only to church work but to society as a whole.

Although, Goh had conservatively stepped back from asserting the existence of an Asian Methodist system or for that matter an “imagined” Asian Methodist community preferring to emphasise the fact that Methodist structures however inherited would be shaped by “local social, cultural and political conditions” creating a “Methodism unique to that country”, it would have been interesting to see whether the years of Methodist socialisation within Asia had indeed spawned identifiable macro-level mutualities.

Could such an Asian “imagined com-munity” be forged through intra-Method-ist channels, for example, through linkages built by the lending of aid, or through mis-sionaries working in cross-cultural settings; or through the existence of a multitude of Methodist institutions present in the region which act as social environments incremen-tally sowing the seeds for an emerging Asian Methodist identity?

If this lively and intelligent book has a significant shortcoming, it is the absence of a conclusion. In tandem with weaving together the significant thematic threads of the book coherently in a conclusion it would have been useful for the author to specu-late whether an Asian Methodist identity is really as elusive as he suggests when considering the multitude of linkages suggested in the text.

One hopes that this book will act as a spur to scholars to make a concerted effort to study trends in Asian Methodism. Significantly a few questions come to mind. Did Methodism’s egalitarian style and criticisms of the pretensions of wealth and power pose a challenge to conventional Asian conceptions of power or material-ism? After all, Wesley’s own priorities as a social and religious reformer not only shaped early Methodism, but were influen-tial in shaping the values of the 19th century.

Significantly, even as it is gaining in numbers, wealth and more conventional forms of influence in Asia, could Methodism decline in Asia be similar to the relative ease and rapidity of its decline in parts of the Western world particularly evident in Australia, a country close to the region? In this regard, a critical study that needs to be embarked upon is an assess-ment of the state of Methodism’s spiritual legacy to the Asian region and possible future trends.

Dr Leonard C. Sebastian is a member of Aldersgate Methodist Church.

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