Dec 2016    

Thomas Olivers

From prodigal to preacher

after Unknown artist, line engraving, 1778

It has been a privilege to have these biographical sketches of early Methodist preachers published in Methodist Message alongside those contributed by Dr Tong Hoo Ing. They reveal the same contrasts and similarities in the history and tradition of Methodism in Southeast Asia and the UK, making clear that these preachers were truly missional, evoking the New Testament journeys of Paul and the sacrifices made by Christian missionaries across the centuries down to our own day and age.

They also make us aware of the contrast between their pioneer labours and those of our present congregational life and work, where the church faces the challenge of ecclesial management while still seeking to embody the missional priorities of our spiritual forebears.

The biography of Thomas Olivers is a good example of this challenge as it emerged in pristine Methodism. He was born in 1725 in a small town in Wales, and both his parents died when he was only four years old. His father’s uncle took care of him and left him an inheritance: the interest from which was to cover his education, and the principal to pass to him when he came of age.

He took advantage of this as a young man, living irresponsibly and moving from town to town, leaving debts behind him. But he kept encountering Methodists who urged him to change his ways, and in 1749 was brought to conviction and conversion under the preaching of George Whitefield. He began attending a Methodist society and reading the Scriptures, especially the letters of Paul. “Will God have all men to be saved?” he asked himself. “Then I am not excluded.”

This led to a call to preach which he at first resisted, feeling that he was running before he could walk in the faith. But one of his fellow Methodists urged him to answer the call and he became a local preacher, to be followed by a severe testing when he fell ill with smallpox. He was blind for five weeks, his body covered with scabs, but he finally recovered and came of age when he received his inheritance, which he then used to repay all the debts he had incurred during his earlier years.

His preaching brought him to the attention of John Wesley who appointed him to Cornwall in the West of England in October 1753, where he met with the opposition that typically confronted Methodist preachers. But he also encountered the exigencies of polity and practice in the growing Methodist movement. When he was stationed in Newcastle upon Tyne, Wesley insisted that he remove 35 members from the Methodist society for absence from meetings and failing to follow the General Rules. “I lost many of my dearest friends,” writes Olivers, “who from that time became my bitterest enemies.”

Olivers ended his itinerancy in London where he was responsible for preparing Methodist publications, again running into the growing pains of the movement. Wesley wrote in his journal for 8 Aug 1789 that he had been obliged to drop Olivers as editor of the Arminian Magazine. “The errata are insufferable. I have borne them for these twelve years, but can bear them no longer.”

Even so, Olivers retained a deep affection for Wesley, and on Wesley’s death in 1791 he wrote an elegy with 82 stanzas, including this tribute: “For this, let us, like him, the world disdain; For this, like him, rejoice in toil and pain; Like him, be bold for God, like him, our time redeem; And strive, and watch, and pray; and live and die like him.”

Olivers continued his ministry in London until his death in March 1799. Along with Wesley, he is buried behind the City Road Chapel in London.

The Rev Dr David Lowes Watson –

is an eminent Wesleyan scholar, author and Methodist minister of the Tennessee Conference, the United Methodist Church, USA. He was keynote speaker at the Aldersgate SG 2014 Convention.

Line engraving by unknown artist, published 1778 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) and accessed via http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp57333/thomas-olivers

The Rev Ling Ching Mi

Pioneer pastor of three churches

Rev Ling Ching Mi

Ling Ching Mi was born in Minhow, Fujian, China. He was the son of well-known parents in the Ching dynasty, according to Mr Diong Woong Ding of Foochow Methodist Church. He served as a pastor in the field of Christian Education in various parishes of Gutian province, was appointed District Superintendent, and gained the respect of all.

In November 1896, Dr H. L. E. Luering was directed by the Methodist Mission to go to Fujian to request a “Foochow-speaking” pastor for Singapore. Dr Luering recruited the Rev Ling, who arrived in Singapore in 1897. Foochow Methodist Church was founded in December that year by the Rev Ling and a group of Foochow immigrants from China who were mostly trishaw riders and labourers.

They first set up the chapel at the junction of Middle Road and Waterloo Street. When the chapel building was sold in 1924, services were held on the premises of Anglo-Chinese School Coleman Street and also Tamil Methodist Church in Short Street. In 1936, the church purchased its own building in Race Course Road; after rebuilding, a new building now serves about 1,200 members. (See P11 of this issue for the church’s latest updates.)

Bishop Warne, on returning from Sibu in 1901, dispatched the Rev Ling to Sibu (also known as New Foochow) in May 1901, to help the immigrant Christians in the new settlement. The Rev Ling left Singapore on 28 May and returned on 23 July 1901, after harrowing experiences along the way. He wrote an informative report in the September 1901 issue of The Malaysia Message.

In May 1903, the Rev Ling was directed by the Methodist Mission to join Dr Luering on a trip to Fujian, to recruit Foochow Chinese settlers to set up an agricultural colony in Sitiawan. He was the best man available, having worked in Singapore’s Foochow church for five years, having first-hand experience in the pioneering work in Sibu, and most importantly, being a Foochow himself.

He left his wife and children in Singapore, and set sail for Fujian with Dr Luering. For the next three months, they travelled through the towns and villages recruiting Foochow settlers who were of the Christian faith or pre-believers. They left with about 500 people, some of whom died from cholera while on board the SS Hong Bee from Mamoi, Fuzhou, to Singapore. The settlers were quarantined on St. John’s Island before proceeding to Sitiawan.

A Christian settlement was established and a church building was erected, although it was only a thatched-roof shed. The Rev Ling was the pastor – a third-time founding pastor. After pastoring five months in Sitiawan, the Rev Ling requested a transfer back to China in December 1903 because of the failing health of his wife, who had by then lived in the tropics for seven years.

On his return to Foochow, the Rev Ling was appointed pastor in Linsen and later taught at the Anglo-Chinese Theological College. He retired in 1913 and made his way back to Sitiawan. In a secluded corner some 30 metres from the roadside of Kampong China Road is the tomb of the Chinese pioneer who led the Foochow settlers in 1903. The name inscribed on the tombstone is Ling Lik Jen, another name for the Rev Ling, who died on 5 Jan 1915 at the age of 58, and was laid to rest in the Pioneer Church Cemetery, Kampong Koh. Most of his descendants are in Sitiawan, with a few in Singapore.

The Rev Ling Ching Mi will long be remembered for his pioneering work in Singapore, Sibu and Sitiawan, and for the three Methodist churches he planted there. Jesus said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24, ESV) The Rev Ling certainly exemplified being that fruitful grain of wheat.


1. The Foochows of Sitiawan: A Historical Perspective (2004), Shih Toong Siong, Persatuan Kutien Daerah Manjung.
2. Heralds of the Lord (1988), T. R. Doraisamy, The Methodist Book Room Pte Ltd.
3. The Malaysia Message, September 1901.
4. The Malaysia Message, February 1904.
5. Foochow Methodist Church page on Chinese Annual Conference website, www.cac-singapore.org.sg/foochow-mc/

Dr Tong Hoo Ing –

contributes to Methodist Message as a volunteer writer. A retired neurologist, he worships at Wesley Methodist Church, and volunteers with medical mission teams to Third World countries.

Photo from From Mission to Church (2008), Earnest Lau, ARMOUR Publishing Pte Ltd. Used with permission from the Archives and History Library, The Methodist Church in Singapore.

We come to the end of our series of paired articles on early Methodist preachers from the UK and Singapore, aiming to trace the movement of the Holy Spirit in grassroots evangelistic preaching, reminding us of the evangelistic fervour of Methodism worldwide, and demonstrating the fruitfulness of the Gospel when preached with spiritual power and integrity. The previous instalment was published in MM Aug 2016 (P20-21). As you read the biographies of our Methodist forebears, may you too be inspired to preach the Gospel – not only within the church, but going beyond to reach our community.


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