Happenings

How MPH came into being

Jan 2003    

The sale of the MPH Building is the end of an era which was begun by the Methodist Mission dating to the 1890s when W. G. Shellabear set up The (American) Mission Press. It was later renamed the Methodist Publishing House, to produce religious literature in the local vernacular. The Rev W. T. Cherry, who acted as Publishing Agent in the 1910s, recounted the story of how it all started.

‘… THE great publishing concerns of the homeland are of little practical utility to the missionary. He wants literature in the local vernacular, and it can be created not only more conveniently, but also more cheaply, in the country whose languages are being put into type; where the men live who can set the vernacular type, who understand the language, who write the books and who read the proof.

So where a new language or group of languages occurs, a mission press finds its sphere. The Methodist Church, for instance, has, in the East alone, a press at Bombay, Lucknow, Calcutta, Madras, Singapore, Manila, Foochow, Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul.

Early in the history of our Malaysia work the need of such an institution was felt …our present press was antedated by many years. Before the treaty ports were opened, Robert Morrison, burning with holy zeal for the salvation of China, but hindered by the antipathy of Eastern traders from even securing a passage to that country … at length accomplished his purpose by sailing first to New York, and thence to Canton. He soon had a sufficient knowledge of the language to commence the laborious task of translating the Bible into Chinese.

He established a base at Malacca, whence he might issue his message both to the Chinese in the Middle Kingdom and also the Celestials who then, as now, visited and inhabited these coasts in pursuit of trade. So Malacca had a mission press as early as 1815, and as late as 1843, and it was there that the first version of the complete Bible in Chinese was printed (1833).

At Singapore another mission press was established by the London Missionary Society in 1823, and was carried on by that Society until 1847, when this field was finally abandoned and their last missionaries removed to China. Mr E. P. Keasberry, however, elected to remain in Singapore as a self-supporting missionary, and the “Mission Press” was his principal means of support, until his death in 1875, when the printing office was sold as a going concern, and is still being carried on under the well-known name of Messrs Fraser & Neave.

The present institution in Singapore, whose name was recently changed from American Mission Press to Methodist Publishing House, has sixteen years of history to date. The Malaysia Methodist Mission was established in 1885, and within a short time the need was felt for facilities for printing tracts and like literature.

Among the handful of workers – for we had not until then gone beyond the bounds of Singapore – was the Rev W. G. Shellabear, who had entered the ranks of the missionaries with the mechanical capabilities of an officer in the Royal Engineers, and a good knowledge of the Malay language acquired whilst still in Her Majesty’s service.

A few months in a London printing office and a few hundred dollars American currency gave Mr Shellabear the needed resources to open a modest printing press, and in a dwelling house at the corner of Selegie and Sophia Roads, in December 1890, with one platen machine, a hand-power lithographing press, a roof press, some Malay-Arabic type purchased in Syria, and a staff of one compositor, one pressman, and two boys, the present establishment began its career … ‘ — MM, Oct 1906, pages 9-10.

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