Happenings

Only a five-footer, but he stood tall in missionary service

Jul 2007    


Retired missionary Dr Douglas Wingeier recalls his maternal grandfather, Charles S. Buchanan, who came to Singapore in 1896, taught at Anglo-Chinese School and became Principal from 1903 to 1905. His preparation and attitude made him and his wife devoted and effective missionaries when they went to Java in 1907 to serve until 1923.

Charles Summer

MY MATERNAL grandfather, Charles S. Buchanan, was a pioneer missionary on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies … in the early 20th century. He was a hunchback, standing less than five feet tall.

Whether his severe curvature of the spine was genetic or due to an injury or the heavy farm work he was forced to do as a child to support his orphaned siblings, I do not know. What I do know is that he had a transforming experience with Jesus Christ and a strong call to missionary service.

Charles was born in 1869, attended public schools in and around Delaware, Ohio, received a one-year teacher’s certificate to teach in the schools of Allen County, Ohio, in 1889, and graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1896. Because of his physical handicap, he was not accepted for missionary service by the Board of Missions, so soon after graduating from college, he paid his own passage to Singapore and there was hired to teach at Anglo-Chinese School, later becoming its principal.

A year later, in 1897, a young woman named Emily Early, with whom Charles had fallen in love back in Ohio, also arrived in Singapore. And on Oct 30, 1897, they were married in what is now Wesley Methodist Church, Singapore. Guests were invited by Sophia Blackmore to a reception at the Deaconess Home that day, and the young couple took up residence on Dec 1 at “Bellevue”…

My mother, Ellace Earlene Buchanan, was born in 1901 in a mission bungalow up the hill from Orchard Road … The family returned to the States on furlough in 1901-02, during which Charles and Emily were accepted as full-fledged missionaries by the Board of Missions …

Returning to Singapore to resume his teaching and Malay ministries, Charles was made ACS Principal, a post he held from1903 to 1905. He was also named “missionary-at-large” until reassigned elsewhere in the Mission to develop new work in Java.

During the 10 years as a teacher, he increasingly felt led to work among the poorer Malay people. So, with their three small daughters, the family moved into a Malay attap hut in Telok Blangah, a small kampong near the sea so as better to learn their language, adopt their lifestyle and earn their acceptance. Most of the villagers were employed as clerks in shops and stores in the city or were policemen or sailors, though some were fishermen, and one was a commission merchant on a small scale – his teacher, Inche Abu Hassan.

Charles continued to support his family and his ministry by teaching at ACS, travelling back and forth from Telok Blangah to ACS by trolley. .

All this time, husband and wife had come and gone among these people in their homes and they in theirs. They had gone on fishing excursions with them, been by invitation at their weddings, had taken pictures for them, conversed with them on almost every subject. Their purpose was to get acquainted with their customs, their habits of thought, their prejudices, their beliefs, the tenets of their religion as understood by themselves, and so forth.

They learned that openness and frankness were necessary to get on with them, dignified and independent people who were less likely to look askance at one who treated them as a friend and equal to oneself …

Once, his wife visited a sick woman living on a distant hill and persuaded the reluctant family to let her see a doctor.

Even the resistant mother-in-law asked the doctor to examine her eyes, while the two children were treated for malaria. Soon, the woman was on her feet caring for her family again.

Mrs Buchanan was able to talk to the women about their families, their ills, their troubles and sorrows in their homes, in her home, in the homes of their friends, and even in the little boat in which they had gone fishing, or bathing or for pleasure.’ – From notes on “Charles Sumner & Emily Early Buchanan”.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

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