A letter written by the Rev William F. Oldham on Sept 9, 1889 to Dr Jonas Peck, Corresponding Secretary of the (Methodist) Missionary Society, is preserved on microfilm in the Archives. It helps us understand the background of the man and his fruitful ministry.
IT IS no exaggeration to say that the pioneer missionary to Singapore, the Rev William F. Oldham, worked himself to the point of exhaustion from the time he arrived in February 1885, until he and his wife, Marie, were repatriated in September 1889.
Besides being the only missionary for the first two years, running the Mission single-handedly, he taught a full day at Anglo-Chinese School and built up the English (later Wesley) Church through regular (and frequent) preaching, hospital visitations, fund-raising, and travelling to explore new mission possibilities .He was also Wesleyan Chaplain to the troops.
The letter which he wrote to Dr Jonas Peck, Corresponding Secretary of the (Methodist) Missionary Society, clearly shows that the decision to send him and his wife back to America was taken by Bishop Thoburn, initiated and urged
by Oldham’s fellow workers who had written to express their concern over his health. Perhaps Oldham’s self-sacrificing attitude can best be gauged from reading the letter itself:
“Dear Sir and Brother,
I write to say that by advice of the Doctors I have hurried away from Java whither I went to meet the Dutch Missionaries in their biennial Conference and am now on my way to a cold climate and skilled medical treatment.
I am suffering from my liver and from inflammation of the peritoneum but these I fancy are largely symptoms of an enfeebled constitution and this long sea voyage will I think largely recuperate my strength. I am certainly worn down a great deal. I left New York in 1884 weighing 147 lbs and this morning I weigh 114. For a man 5ft 10½ in. high you can imagine this is pretty light weight – and yet I am hoping my stay in the States will not be wholly taken up with getting well and strong. I am anxious to push the work of this mission as God shall give me opportunity. I hope to be at Kansas City and would thank you to write the pastors there to provide Mrs O. and myself with lodging (if possible). I shall be glad to be used at any of the meetings during the week as I hope to be much better by that time. Please send me a line to “Care of Rev. Dr. A.B. Hyde, Denver, Colorado.”
I have left Bro. R.W. Munson acting Superintendent in my place subject to Bishop Thoburn’s confirmation. I received a telegram from the Bishop saying “Go America” in answer to a letter written without my knowledge by my fellow missionaries to the Bishop. I did not wait for the cablegram from you because my fellow workers insisted that I must not delay a week more. I trust our expenses of which I am keeping an a/c and which will be less than $450 (gold) will be paid out of Transit Fund.
It is remarkable that even though the Rev Oldham was quite ill, he maintained an even tone, hoping that the time spent in America would not be wholly devoted to nursing him back to health, but expressing his desire to “push the work of this mission as God shall give me opportunity”.
As it turned out, he was to spend the next decade and a half as a missionary speaker, a highly esteemed preacher and pastor, professor of missions, and exerting an influence over many key Methodists who took over leadership positions in the next three decades.
In 1900, he came into the limelight of the Methodist Church in America when he was elected ministerial delegate to the General Conference at which he was elected one of the Secretaries of the Missionary Society, viewing his task to promote interest in missionary work in all countries and not of “Malaysia” only.
In 1904, his spiritual and organisational gifts were recognised by the Church, and at the General Conference in Los Angeles, Oldham was elected a missionary bishop on the first ballot. He was assigned to India and Malaysia, where he remained until 1912. It was a period that has been acknowledged to have enabled great progress to be made by the Methodist Mission in this part of the world.
Earnest Lau, the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore, is also the Associate Editor of Methodist Message.