Film / Book Reviews

This is a thumping good read!

Jul 2008    

And it fills the gaps

From Mission to Church: The Evolution of The Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia: 1885-1976
Author: Earnest Lau Publisher: Armour Publishing Pte Ltd 320 pages, $25

DO YOU know when the name “The Methodist Church” was adopted?

Have you heard of SMAC?

When a church archivist, church leader and experienced educator (former Principal of Anglo-Chinese School) writes a book on church history, you should expect a thumping good read! And From Mission to Church does not disappoint.

Earnest Lau has written the definitive account of how the Methodist Church started out as a tottering infant in Singapore and Malaya, and grew into an autonomous national church. But this is no dry, stuffy, somniferous chronicle of dates and places. It is a riveting story of sterling personalities, grounded on solid research and corroborated with facts and figures. When you see detailed voting results for Episcopal elections in the 1960s, you know the author has really done his homework.

And this book fills the gaps.

It fills the gaps in our knowledge of the people involved. No doubt most Methodists in Singapore would be familiar with the names Oldham, Blackmore and Thoburn. Some would have read Bishop Doraisamy’s Heralds of the Lord, and so would have heard of pioneers like the Tamil G.W. Underwood and Simon Peter.

To this honour roll, Lau adds names like Bah Prah, Kariman Sinurat, Komat Manurang and many others through the ages. The title of the work notwithstanding, what Lau does is to show how these pioneers not only expanded the work of the church all over Southeast Asia, but organised the work.

For the gaps in our knowledge of the places involved, we are taken on an exotic journey to the Netherlands East Indies, Medan, Palembang, Java, Kalimantan, Bangka and elsewhere.

Now of course everyone knows of Trinity Theological College. And for the gaps in our knowledge of training institutions, Lau tells us of the Jean Hamilton Training School, the Bible Woman’s Training School, the Eveland Training Seminary, the Malaya Methodist Theological College, and the training through Women’s Conferences.

On the subject of conferences, the prize contribution of this book is to explain clearly how we in Singapore ended up with three Annual Conferences divided along language lines.

The soul-searching, the arguments and reasoning, the hard work involved, these are all laid bare. Beginning with the work of COSMOS (The Commission on the Structure of Methodism Overseas), we are introduced to different patterns of church organisation. One can only wonder how things would have turned out if we took a different way.

I am sure that by seeing where we have come from, knowing the path we took, we can plot the way ahead.

The way for us ahead is continued expansion and therefore I am also happy that the book gives many laudable lessons in missiology.

What I particularly enjoyed learning was that Western missionaries made the conscious decision to remain in Singapore for the Occupation by the Japanese army. I had always thought they were simply caught up in the fighting and eventually interned. But Lau lists those who remained behind and gives this wonderful quote by Bishop Amstutz, that the missionaries had to stay “to share with [the local church] whatever might come … and thus prove beyond dispute the measure of our devotion as a mission … ”

It is the classic Biblical distinction between the shepherd and the hired help of John, chapter 10. Thank God we had good shepherds! May God continue to send us worthy shepherds.

Furthermore, in Rev S. M. Thevathasan, Lau has also identified what is surely the clearest statement for local leadership of churches:

“The sooner the missionary realises that his success is paradoxically to be gained by his failure to find an assured place in leadership the faster will the church grow … we must develop self-reliance and self-respect.” Although spoken 62 years ago, these timeless words should guide our own modern-day missionary efforts in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries.

The bottom line? Reading this book, one can only be amazed at what we managed to achieve through the grace of God. It was a systematic advance. Beyond mere intentions, there were stratagems, careful counting of costs, great exemplary faith and (of course) effective Methods.

This book should be recommended reading for all Methodists. Here are stories of schools, committees and war to educate and inspire. Here are photographs of godly people and copies of historical documents to titillate. At a time when our religious space is being encroached on, when other churches seek a foothold in Methodist schools, when some of us may look with envy at larger independent churches, perhaps Christians of all denominations in Singapore ought to have a look at this book, to see what God has wrought.

The Rev Chiang Ming Shun is the Pastor-in-Charge of Aldersgate Methodist Church and Secretary of the Council on Communications of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

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