Alexander Mather: Rebel turned preacher
Alexander Mather was born in February 1733, in the town of Brechin, Scotland. He described his parents as reputable people who made it their business to bring him up “in the fear of God and to keep him from evil company”. Even so, he was caught up in the politics of the time, when an uprising took place in 1745 to retake the British throne for the Stuart dynasty. It was led by Charles Edward, known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, and it failed. The Prince fled back to France, and the remainder of his forces were ruthlessly defeated at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Mather escaped capture, though it meant estrangement from his family who were loyal to the Hanoverian King George II in London. In fact, his father was ready to turn him over to the authorities as a rebel, though he later relented and apprenticed him in his business as a baker.
In 1752, Mather moved to London, married the year after, and became apprenticed to Thomas Marriott, a baker who happened to be a member of the Foundery Society where John Wesley had his London headquarters. Mather and his wife became members and were deeply affected by a sermon preached there by John Nelson1. This led them to join one of the Classes at the Foundery, and it was not long before Mather began to sense a call to preach.
He shared this with John Wesley who, as with many of his preachers, took Mather at his word, but also watched him closely and appointed him a Class Leader. The call persisted, so Wesley cautioned him that being a Methodist preacher “was not the way to ease, honour, pleasure or profit, but a life of much labour and reproach. Consider this before you engage in so uncomfortable a way of life.”
Wesley then agreed to “make a trial” of Mather’s preaching, and became convinced that this was indeed a call. He appointed him to the Epworth Circuit in 1756, where Wesley himself had grown up, and Mather became one of his most trusted preachers for more than four decades.
He was elected President of the Methodist Conference in 1792, and died on 22 Aug 1800, after a lengthy and painful illness. Two days earlier, after a restless night, he had wakened and seemed surprised. “Why did you call me back? … As surely as I shall go there again, I have been in heaven this morning.”
The account of his ministry that Mather submitted for the Arminian Magazine in 1780 drew a response from Wesley: “I observed to Mr Mather that he had wholly omitted one considerable branch of his experience, touching what is properly termed ‘the great salvation.’ ” Wesley was referring to the doctrine of Christian Perfection, which caused him and his preachers to be falsely accused of Pelagianism, or salvation by works. What Wesley did preach and teach was that good works could not earn salvation, but were necessary to sustain a saving relationship with Christ.
Accordingly, Mather added a supplement to his testimony in which he stated: “We cannot rest on anything that has been done, or that may be done hereafter. This would keep us from living a life of faith … deriving virtue from Jesus by which we enjoy and live to God.”
Wesley readily endorsed the supplement: “I earnestly desire that all our preachers would seriously consider the preceding account. And let them … strongly and explicitly exhort all believers to ‘go on to perfection’; yea, to expect full salvation from sin every moment, by mere grace, through simple faith.”
1 See Methodist Message May 2016, P20
Stipple engraving of Alexander Mather by William Ridley, published 1796 © 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/mp62673/alexander-mather
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 the keynote speaker at the Aldersgate SG 2014 Convention.
The Rev James Supramaniam: Scholar, teacher and pastor
A double tragedy struck him early in life. By God’ s grace and mercy, he overcame it to become a scholar, teacher and pastor serving the Master.
James Arumugam Supramaniam was born in 1880 in Jaffna, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the only son of a noble Hindu family. He lost both his parents at the age of 10, and two years later, was sent to Singapore to be cared for by a maternal uncle. He studied at the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) and it was there that he heard the gospel.
When he was 16, he took a courageous leap of faith and accepted Christ as his Lord and Saviour. Incensed, his relatives drove him out of their home.
James was left to fend for himself and came to know God’ s grace. Despite having to study under street lamps, together with his good friend Goh Hood Keng, he excelled in his studies and was the first recipient of the ACS Diploma in 1902. He declined a scholarship to study medicine at the King Edward College of Medicine. Instead, he accepted a teaching position with his alma mater and graduated from a government teacher training course in 1910.
Not only a good teacher, he also served as the Principal’s office assistant and the religious editor of the ACS Magazine. He and Goh Hood Keng were the only two teachers selected to teach Standard 7, then the highest level offered by all schools. For him, teaching was a calling, not a stepping stone to a lucrative career.
At the same time, James served the Methodist Church as the Sunday School Superintendent and a local preacher of the Middle Road Baba Church (now Kampong Kapor Methodist Church). As his heart lay in Tamil work, he joined May B. Lilly to speak at Tamil gatherings in Telok Ayer and was active in the Tamil Epworth League, serving as its President in 1912.
In 1916, he joined the Methodist Annual Conference, the first person to have gone from a school into the church ministry. The Rev Supramaniam was admitted into full membership and transferred to Malaya that same year.
He first served as the headmaster and teacher of the Dato’ Kramat English School, a branch of ACS Penang, while pastoring the Tamil Church. He later became pastor of the Tamil Church in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and Seremban. Focusing on church growth and setting up outreach points, he established the Sentul Church in KL and planted churches in Seaport Estate, Serendah, Kuala Kubu, Rawang and Carey Island, assisted by the Rev S. M. Rajamoney.
Serving the Lord faithfully and with great passion, the Rev Supramaniam’s spiritual fountain was prayer and fasting. His local parish ministry was characterised by regular visitation, sometimes on bicycle or rickshaw. He and his wife Harriet always found time to visit the sick.
In January 1928, he was transferred back to the Singapore Tamil Church. He conducted regular meetings at the outreach centres he established at the Railway Porters’ lines, Kandang Kerbau Labour Lines and at Bukit Timah.
The Rev Supramaniam was a strong advocate for Asian leadership of the local church. From 1934 to 1937, he served as District Superintendent (one of the first four Asian Superintendents) of the Central Tamil District based in KL.
In 1937, he was called Home, leaving behind his wife and seven children. His connection with ACS spans more than 110 years and four generations, ranging from the Rev Supramaniam himself, his five sons, two grandsons and two great-grandsons.
- A Great Cloud of Witnesses (2011), Council of Churches of Malaysia, P33-39.
- Heralds of the Lord (1988), T. R. Doraisamy, The Methodist Book Room Pte Ltd, P40-41.
- Malaysia Message Aug 1938, C. B. Paul, P10.
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.
We continue 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 May 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.