Bishop's Message

The story must live on

May 2011    

IN THE CITY OF PUNE in India stands the Oldham Memorial Methodist Church, which I visited recently.

You may ask how Bishop William Fitzjames Oldham (1854-1937), who played a leading role in the founding of Methodism in Singapore and in its early years, including the founding of Anglo-Chinese School, got to be remembered in this significant way in Pune. Some answers can be found in the memorial plaque that has prominent place in that church.

In ever-loving memory of Bishop William Fitzjames Oldham in whose honour this church has been named. Born at Bangalore in 1854, he was converted at Poona in 1872 and licensed to preach by the Poona Quarterly Conference in 1876. In 1885 he founded the Malaya Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church. From 1904 to 1912 he served as Missionary Bishop in India and Malaya, and from 1916 to 1928 was Bishop of South America. He was called to higher service in 1937, Los Angeles California. His life was inspiring and saintly, and his devoted labours everywhere glorified God – truly he was an apostle of the joys of unselfish living.

Some significant events in Oldham’s life happened in Pune (once called Poona). Oldham was born in Bangalore, India to James, a British officer, and Mary Elizabeth. He had largely Irish-English and (from his maternal side) some Indian parentage. As a young man, Oldham found employment as a government surveyor in India and was posted to Pune. Being from a Roman Catholic background, Oldham was curious about the American Methodists who had established church work in India. One of the illustrious American Methodist missionaries at that time was William Taylor (1821-1902), who is best known as a missionary bishop and evangelist who was used by God to plant Methodism in many parts of the world. He ministered in India too, and was responsible for evangelistic campaigns.

Taylor’s father was converted at a Methodist camp meeting in Virginia. Taylor, too, had a special spiritual experience at a camp meeting in Virginia. In his autobiography, Story of My Life (1896) he tells his story: “soon after, as I sat one night by the kitchen fire, the Spirit of the Lord came on me and I found myself suddenly weeping aloud and confessing my sins to God in detail, as I could recall them, and begged Him for Jesus’ sake to forgive them, with all I could not remember; and I found myself trusting in Jesus that it would all be so, and in a few minutes my heart was filled with peace and love, not the shadow of a doubt remaining.”

Taylor had an evangelistic campaign in 1873 in India and was assisted by the Rev Daniel O. Fox, a Methodist minister. Oldham was curious to hear the Americans preach and heard Fox preaching in one of the Methodist tent meetings in Pune. It resulted in his conversion and subsequent entry into the Methodist ministry (after Taylor prayed for him). Oldham prayed his childhood prayer, “O Lord, save. O Lord Christ, convert me” and found God’s answer with “gladness of heart”. Fox was subsequently appointed as the pastor of the church in Pune that eventually came to be named in memory of Oldham. At the gospel meetings, Oldham also met Marie Augusta Mulligan, an Anglo-Indian, whom he married at the church in Pune. It was also at that church that Oldham received his preacher’s licence.

Later, the Oldhams moved from Pune to Bangalore where they established a Methodist school. They subsequently met Bishop James oburn who persuaded them to come to Singapore as pioneer Methodist missionaries. Thus, on Feb 9, 1885, Oldham arrived in Singapore with Thoburn who preached for two weeks at the Town Hall, resulting in the establishing of the first Methodist church in Singapore. Oldham was appointed as its first pastor.

In the brief sketches above, we can see a sacred thread of divine work in the hearts of men and women – it is that Methodist story we must cherish and continue to live out. John Wesley, though an Anglican clergyman, was in search of a real conversion experience. He found that experience on May 24, 1738 when he attended a Christian meeting and heard the words of Scripture explained.

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

WESLEY’S ALDERSGATE EXPERIENCE was similar to that of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who met the risen Christ without at first realising it (Lk. 24:13-35). Later they testified how their hearts burned within them when the Lord explained the scriptures to them. Wesley himself explained that before Aldersgate he had the faith of a servant, but after Aldersgate it was the faith of a son. We read about this in Scripture, how God sends His Spirit into our hearts and transforms us from slaves to sons (Gal. 4:1-7). This experience is truly life-changing. It changed Wesley’s life and led him to true holiness of heart and habit. He went around widely to preach the Good News of Jesus.

Through Wesley’s preaching many came to a similar experience. One of them was Francis Asbury who spread Methodism throughout America. Revival broke out there and Methodism grew; camp meetings were part and parcel of that revival. It was in one such meeting that William Taylor had his heart-warming experience. Later, through his ministry, Oldham was converted. Then, through Oldham’s anointed preaching (though on some occasions he was pelted with rotten eggs by opponents during his outdoor preaching sessions), many others in Singapore were touched by God.

The story must live on. Preaching and the experience of the divinely warmed heart must continue. Conversions must take place. Lives must be transformed. Communities must be changed. Lasting legacies must be left behind. And we know that the sovereign God is behind this great story.


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