The beginnings of Singapore Methodism

Jun 2002    

ON FEB 7, 1885, a steamer sailed into the New Harbour (now known as Keppel Harbour) on the island of Singapore. The SS Khandalia brought James M. Thoburn, William Oldham, Mrs Anne Thoburn and Miss Julia Battie, an organist from the Calcutta church. Mrs Oldham would join this group in Singapore one month later as she wanted to spend more time with her mother in Poona before leaving for Singapore.

The party led by Thoburn had only sufficient funds to bring them to Rangoon. Thorburn believed in living by faith and so the group did not know when the Lord would provide them with sufficient funds to go to Singapore. When the funds finally came, it was too late for them to contact anyone in Singapore but yet they set sail. What happened next was only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit. Oldham recorded this supernatural happening:

“On reaching Singapore this strange episode occurred: there had been no opportunity to notify Mr Philips of the Bishop’s coming, nor did he know anything of the others of the party. But when the steamer reached the dock he was there.

Dr Thoburn was perplexed and said, ‘How did you happen to be here, and how did you know us?’

Mr Philips replied: ‘I saw you last night in my sleep. I saw this steamer coming into dock, and on it were you and your party, just these who are with you. I was therefore on the dock waiting to welcome you. Now come along: you are all four to stay with me …’ ”

Charles Philips, a member of the Presbyterian Church, had written to Thoburn two years earlier inviting him to preach in Singapore but it did not work out. With such short notice, they were still able to organise a series of successful evangelistic meetings. John Polglase, the Assistant Secretary of the Singapore Municipality, a British Wesleyan, secured the Town Hall for the first Methodist meetings. Because Thorburn was already famous as an evangelist, men and women were drawn to these meetings. One hundred and fifty people attended the first night. Oldham himself described the very first meeting thus:

“Singapore is the meeting place of the nations. Here representatives of practically all the various Asiatic peoples may be seen mingling with many of the races of Europe. The town hall gathering included many different kinds of white men and women with a sprinkling of Tamils from India and Ceylon, a few Chinese from the coast of China, and one inquisitive English-speaking Malay. Mrs Thoburn led the singing. Young Oldham distributed the singing books, and Dr Thorburn took charge of the service. The text was announced, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.” With simplicity and directness the speaker stated that the audience would reassemble from evening to evening, that their members would increase, that not by might of human eloquence, nor by power of human persuasion, but by the direct pressure of the divine upon their minds and hearts, many of these before him would be convinced of their sins and some of them would turn to God and find newness of life. The service was so exceedingly simple and the effect so profound that all the anticipations of the speaker were more than fulfilled on the nights that followed.”

In order to start a Methodist Church, there was a necessity to form a Local Conference and so Thoburn organised a Quarterly Conference and Oldham was appointed as pastor. The first Quarterly Conference was held on Feb 23, 1885. At this point, there were 26 potential members and probationers. The potential members were three British Wesleyans, John Polglase, F. J. Benjafield and Maurice Drummond, and Salome Fox. The rest of the 22 were probationers who responded to the Gospel message in Thoburn’s night meetings. Going through the list of these people, Thoburn and Oldham found that there were possibly two men and a lady who could hold offices in the local conference.

On that day, the lady was too scared to come, one man was ill and so only John Polglase was present. Thoburn was the presiding elder at the conference. During the Conference, Polglase was elected to all the offices that had to be filled by laymen! Polglase proposed a salary of $70 for Oldham and he also had to undertake the responsibility of raising the amount.

After organising this first Local Conference, Thoburn left Singapore for Calcutta on Feb 25, 1885. It has been said that Polglse thought that “he had never seen a more sorrowful man than Mr Oldham was when the Bishop went away”. Oldham must have been awed by his responsibilities and the loneliness of the task before him. Before Thoburn left, he commissioned Oldham as the first Methodist pastor in Singapore with this charge:

“Methodism appoints you a herald to a nation and there must be a continual overflow to your activities which will never end until you overtake all Malaysia.”

The English Work
Through the responses to the preaching of Thoburn at the Town Hall, Wesley Methodist Church was formed on Feb 23, 1885 with Oldham appointed as pastor. Two days later, Thoburn left Oldham and Polglase to spearhead the Methodist work in Singapore and he returned home to India. This English-speaking church continued to meet in Town Hall on Sunday evenings after Thoburn left until they had their own building in Coleman Street. They were also able to meet in the Christian Institute which was run by Charles Phillips.

That church today has a membership of more than 5,000 and is known as Wesley Methodist Church. As the Methodist work grew, more English churches were started in different parts of the island.

The Tamil Mission
Having grown up in India, the Oldhams knew Tamil. Oldham visited the jail to preach to Tamil prisoners and he also did ministry among the Tamil labourers in Singapore. In September 1885, he received the first Tamil teacher, Mr M. Gnanamuthoo, sent from Rangoon by the Rev J. E. Robinson. Gnanamuthoo worked as a missionary to the Tamils and he started a Tamil School for the children in the Serangoon area. The school is now defunct. There were 45 students registered in the school at the beginning. By the end of 1885, Sunday and weekday services in Tamil were held by the Methodists.

C. W. Underwood, a Tamil preacher, was sent by the Jaffna Mission to Singapore to work among the Tamil-speaking labourers in early 1887. He became pastor of the first Methodist Tamil Church shortly after his arrival. When he died in 1890, the Rev H. L. Hoisington came and continued his work in the Tamil church, school and prison ministry. The result of their work was the formation of the Short Street Tamil Methodist Church. Other Tamiil churches were soon organised all over the island as the Tamil work grew.

Tamil Methodist Church ... started in 1887

The Chinese Work
An American doctor, the Rev Benjamin F. West, and his wife arrived in late 1887. They wanted to give their lives to the thousands of Chinese who came to Singapore each year. For his first one-and-a-half years in Singapore, he did not practise medicine but taught at Anglo Chinese School (ACS) as there was such a great need for teachers. In 1889, he and his wife moved into the Telok Ayer district and opened a clinic in Nanking Street. In the morning, West taught at ACS and in the afternoons he saw patients in his home and dispensary. He studied Hokkien with a local tutor. Hokkien was the dialect used by the majority of the Chinese. In his church work, West had the help of two local preachers, Sng Lim Chiau and Lim Hoai Toh, who also helped him at his clinic.

Two services were held each Sunday with an average of 30 in a rented house in Upper Nanking Street. In August 1889, the Chinese Methodist Church was formed. West was successful in his Chinese work and he had placed himself right into the heart of the Chinese quarters. He also had an effective ministry to the opium addicts. Many of the converts and worshippers in the church were his patients.

Today, this church is known as Telok Ayer Methodist Church. The Methodist Church began work with people of the other Chinese dialects. In 1897, a church was started for the Foochows. In 1913, the churches for the Hinghwa and the Hakka people began and in 1918, a church was started for the Cantonese. Soon some of these Chinese churches started to have daughter congregations. As Mandarin grew in importance as an official language, the churches started Mandarin services and later also added English services in order to cater to the children of the members.

Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church was started in August 1889. Benjamin West was credited with its launch.

The Peranakan Work
In 1887, William Shellabear came from England as a military officer and he became fluent in the Malay language. He met Thoburn who was already a Bishop and was visiting the work in Singapore. Thoburn and Oldham challenged him into the ministry and he resigned from the army and returned to England to prepare himself to be a missionary. When Shellabear returned in 1890, Oldham had already left Singapore for health reasons.

Shellabear started the Methodist work in Malay. In 1892, he started Malay services in a rented shophouse in Arab Street. He did a lot of house-to-house visitation and this resulted in four Malay adults and three children coming regularly to the meeting. By 1895, all the Malay contacts he made had returned to the Muslim faith. Shellabear had not been successful with the work among the Malays.

On Jan 25, 1894, a small group from the boarding schools and the Mission Press started by Shellabear, formed a Malay-speaking congregation in the former Christian Institute in Middle Road. Shellabear was appointed to take charge. Although he failed in his work among the Malays, he managed to make inroads among the Straits Chinese who spoke Malay and Peranakan. That first Straits-Chinese Methodist Church is today known as Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.



The Rev Jonathan Seet is a Trinity Annual Conference (TRAC) pastor on study leave. He is currently at San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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