METHODISM came to South-east Asia when the Rev Dr James Thoburn, leading the mission team, arrived at Keppel Harbour on the S. S. Khandalla on Feb 7, 1885. Although their arrival was unplanned and unheralded, they were met by Mr Charles Phillips, “a godly Wesleyan” and head of the Seamen’s Institute, who had had a dream the night before. He later believed it was a vision urging him to meet the missionaries for whom he had prayed Thoburn did not waste much time.
Preaching from the text “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord”, he held public meetings at the Town Hall (now Victoria Theatre) daily at 8 pm until Feb 22. On Monday Feb 23, he organised the first-ever Quarterly (Local) Conference held in Singapore, with three Wesleyan Methodists, John Polglase, F. J. Benjafield, Maurice Drummond, and Miss Salome Fox, and 22 probationers, with the Rev William Oldham as pastor. The “English Church” (later renamed Wesley Methodist Church) was born, and we thus celebrate its 120th anniversary.
To commemorate its anniversary, Wesley Methodist Church will be holding a number of events this year, including a Missions Conference (Feb 17-19), a Thanksgiving Service on Feb 20, and an evangelistic event called “The Contemporary Struggle” at ACS (Barker Road) on June 17 and 18, which will be repeated at Wesley Methodist Church on July 1 and 2. Its 120th Anniversary Dinner will be held on Aug 12.
We can better appreciate something of the dynamism of the first four years until the Mission was formed in 1889, and Oldham’s “mystique and magic”, if we recount some of the major projects that were started. The English Church met in the Town Hall on Sunday evenings for the best part of two years, and at Charles Phillips’ Christian Institute on Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings. It was Oldham who obtained from the Government a piece of land at Coleman Street on which to build the first Methodist Episcopal Church which he designed and dedicated on Dec 15, 1886.
By then, Tamil work had started with the Anglo-Tamil School as an outreach to the Tamils (to whom Oldham was ministering in the jail), and recruited the first foreign Tamil teacher, M. Gnanamuthoo, sent from Rangoon in September 1885 by their presiding elder.
Although the fortunes of the school were uncertain, Oldham secured the services of C. W. Underwood, who came from Ceylon in 1887 to form the Tamil Methodist Church that year. His early demise, and the early withdrawal of his replacement, the Rev H. L. Hoisington, checked the growth of Tamil work, until the pastor of the English Church, the Rev F. H. Morgan, took charge in 1896, assisted by a Tamil preacher, Simon Peter, who also taught at the Anglo-Tamil School.
Open-air evangelical preaching in Malay started with the recruitment of Alexander Fox as exhorter, joined by William Shellabear, a British army officer commanding a Malay platoon defending the harbour. Shellebear became a distinguished Malay scholar who translated both the Old and New Testaments until he left in 1919 to teach Missions in a theological seminary in America.
Oldham’s other achievement was the founding of Anglo-Chinese School on March 1, 1886 which grew rapidly, together with the beginnings of a Boarding department.
This was followed by the two schools founded by Sophia Blackmore, the woman missionary whom he met in India a few years back as prospective lady missionary to Singapore. She arrived in 1887, and almost immediately started a Tamil Girls’ School for the daughters of Tamil businessmen (renamed Methodist Girls’ School in 1892 when Chinese and other girls were accepted).
The energetic Miss Blackmore visited Baba Chinese families in Chinatown and managed to recruit enough girls to start the Telok Ayer Girls’ School in 1888 (renamed Fairfield Girls’ School in 1912).
In addition, Miss Blackmore quickly, though awkwardly at first, learnt the Malay language and while temporarily staying with the Oldhams in the parsonage at Coleman Street, accepted the first of the many girls who formed the nucleus of Nind Home. Situated along Sophia Road, it became a house church using the Baba Malay dialect – the girls meeting regularly for prayers, and worship on Sundays, when several workers with the Mission Press nearby joined in.
On Jan 23, 1894, assisted by Shellabear, they organised themselves as the Baba Church at the Christian Institute. This was the home church for the Rev Goh Hood Keng, the first Baba Chinese pastor.
Chinese work started when the Rev B. F. West, a trained physician, opened a dispensary in 1889 in his rented house in Chinatown, as well as being a teacher at ACS. Assisted in his work by Lim Hoai Toh and Sng Lim Chuan, they succeeded in bringing 10 Hokkien men and one woman for baptism that year at the Coleman Street Church. They formed the nucleus of Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church.
Elsewhere in Singapore, German Methodist missionary Rev Dr H. L. E. Luering conducted Chinese services in jail, and added a Cantonese service to the Chinese Church. Promoting Chinese dialects seemed to hasten the growth of Chinese work.
Yet another initiative was the launch of the printing press which Bishop Thoburn was convinced indispensable to the work. Oldham appointed Shellabear as mission printer and by December 1890, began operating at 31 Selegie Road, at the corner of Sophia Road. It was supported by work given by the British & Foreign Bible Society, printing scripture portions as well as the Malaysia Message (forerunner of Methodist Message) from October 1891 and the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals).
Something of the growth and success of the press can be seen in its transformation as Methodist Publishing House when it was renamed Malaya Publishing House (MPH) in 1928 and was, until the beginning of World War II, a major provider of school books all over Singapore and Malaya.
The pace of the early Mission, by any yardstick, was remarkable, setting the stage for brisk expansion not only in Singapore, but throughout the major towns of the Federated Malay States, Penang and Malacca – “not by power but my Spirit, saith the Lord”.