by Rev Dr Malcolm T.H. Tan
Chairman, Council on Archives and History
The Methodist Church in Singapore

Rev Dr Malcolm TanMethodism came to Singapore from the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC)’s South India Annual Conference, February 1885. The earliest Missionaries were James Thoburn and William Oldham. Arriving at the Harbour they were unexpectedly met by Charles Phillips, a pious English Wesleyan living in Singapore, who somehow anticipated their coming that morning. Thoburn decided to conduct evangelistic gatherings immediately. The Singapore Conference Hall was secured for nightly meetings. Thoburn preached the first Methodist sermon in Singapore from Zechariah 4:6, ‘Not by Might, nor by Power but by My Spirit, says the LORD.’ He told the people that by the Power of the Holy Spirit, they would experience Jesus Christ, flee from sin and turn to God, finding new life. These meetings continued nightly for three weeks. Some who responded, became early members of the Methodist Church. Things happened fast. The Missionaries arrived, 7 February; the first night of the evangelistic meetings was 8 February; the first Methodist Quarterly Conference was organised on 23 February with Oldham as Pastor of 26 members and probationers; Dr Thoburn and his party left for India by 25 February 1885. Before leaving, Thoburn charged Oldham: ‘Methodism appoints you as herald to a nation and there must be a continual overflow to your activities, which will never end until you overtake all Malaysia.’ Thoburn imparted Vision to Oldham but he did not give a plan. Oldham was to learn to trust God. In fact, Thoburn confided with his wife as their ship left harbour: ‘God forgive me if I envy Oldham.’ Earlier, Thoburn said of Oldham in his Journal, 11 February 1885: ‘Dear brother Oldham will have a hard trial of his faith here, but……God will sustain him.’ At the harbour, Oldham turned and asked Charles Phillips as they watched Thoburn sail away: ‘What next?’ To which Charles Phillips replied: ‘As God wills.’

Bishop James M ThoburnOldham was faithful to the charge given. He held meetings at the Christian Institute building belonging to Charles Phillips at the corner of Middle Road and Waterloo Street. There, he built up his earliest congregation comprising of local enquirers from his frequent street preaching. He also brought in British soldiers as he was ‘Wesleyan Chaplain’ to the Barracks. The Methodists grew steadily and incrementally with whatever resources available. It wasn’t until 1894 that the Malaysia Mission, received regular financial support from the MEC Missionary Society in New York. This was after Thoburn became Missionary Bishop at the MEC General Conference (1888). Before that, fundraising was a regular practice, depending greatly on John Polglase, Assistant Secretary of the Singapore Municipality and a newly recruited church member. Polglase headed the first Official Board and later, became a licensed Local Preacher.

Not long after February 1885, Oldham was walking down the street with a recent Chinese convert. They came across a building with a sign: ‘The Celestial Reasoning Association’. (It was founded earlier in 1882). Oldham asked his young companion about it. He was told that it was a society seeking to master the English language for purposes of debate. Its members were Chinese merchants having to deal with the British colonial authorities in Singapore. Oldham asked if he could join. His offer was turned down. He was invited instead to come for a dinner and to give a lecture on a subject of his choice. Oldham gladly accepted the invitation and offered to lecture on ‘Astronomy’. Thirty Chinese merchants and the Chinese Consul General were present when Oldham was brought grandly for dinner by carriage and gave his William Fitzjames Oldhamlecture. The next morning, Oldham promptly received a letter asking if he could be a tutor in English to a member of the legislative council of Singapore (Tan Keong Saik) who was earlier present at dinner. Oldham agreed and eventually, many more generous offers were made to him by other wealthy merchants. The new opportunities suddenly available, made Oldham think about his purpose: He came to Singapore to be a Missionary and not an English tutor to wealthy merchants. Hence, his counter offer: That he would teach their sons instead, by opening a School for them. The earliest publicity handbill read thus:

The Anglo-Chinese School is to be opened in Amoy Street, No.70. on 1st March 1886. Chinese will be taught from 8am to 12pm and English from 1.30pm to 4pm. Apply to the superintendent, W.F Oldham, care of Lim Kong Wan and son, 21, Malacca Street.”

The School started with 13 boys on 1st March 1886 at Amoy Street. Within a week, 36 students were enrolled with many more coming. Later, the need came to purchase a $12,000.00 building for the boarding school of ACS, at nearby Orchard Road, which was occupied in 1891. Oldham approached his new local financial backer friends, who counter offered, that they would cover half the amount if he could find the other half. Oldham turned to the MEC Missionary Society in New York for help. The Secretary, Charles Cardwell McCabe known as a fundraiser and Missions promoter, responded to Oldham with a promise to ‘find the $6,000.00’. Within three weeks, a local merchant (Tan Jiak Kim) presented Oldham with a $6,300.00 cheque, asking about the other half. Oldham wrote to C.C. McCabe who promptly sent a $6,000.00 cheque with a message: ‘Tell your China men that they are too swift for us and we do not propose to take any more of their dares.’ This episode, however, strengthened Oldham’s relationship with the local community, gaining their trust. Clearly, the Mission School was the primary strategy for Methodism in Singapore and the Malay Peninsula. To quote Oldham:

“The school grew. Meanwhile we were preaching in English, in Tamil and in several dialects of Chinese and it seemed as though Thoburn’s instructions to become a herald to the nation was beginning to be fulfilled…… the story of Methodism in Malaysia begins to be a story of educational occupation accompanied as every true education must be with the effort to evangelise……”

Later, before his departure (June 1889) from Singapore, due to ill-health, Oldham had this to say about the first Mission School that he founded, i.e. The Anglo-Chinese School (ACS):

The influence of this School is very marked. Nothing like it has ever been seen here and we find that our school work opens our way in every other direction. Merchants and officials are astonished to see how influential we are in Chinese circles, the children of nearly all the leading China men of this port are in our school. Those lads are now receiving definite instructions. Several of them are deeply affected. Two have been definitely converted. I gain access to men I could never dream of reaching otherwise. I have no hesitation in saying this is a Divinely created agency of marked power.

Meanwhile, Oldham’s congregation had grown sufficiently to move from Middle Road, into a new and larger Sanctuary at Coleman Street, on December 1886, just ten months after the founding of the Anglo-Chinese School: it was the first Methodist Episcopal Church in Singapore. The school, soon, moved into a new building next to the Church. From the school, came converts and congregation members, as well as, local financial support for the early years, producing a new season of accelerated growth. ‘The school pays. Without this school we would have been without a Mission’, said R. W. Munson, in 1890. Munson was a Methodist Missionary in Singapore, working as a teacher in ACS and later, Principal. 2020 marks the 135th Anniversary of Methodism in Singapore. 1st March, 2021 will mark the 135th Anniversary of the ACS family of schools in Singapore. To God be the Glory! The Best is yet to Be!

Article originally written for the World Methodist Historical Society (WMHS) newsletter 2020


i. Ernest Lau, ‘From Mission to Church’, 2008, Genesis Books, Armour Publishing, Singapore.

ii. Theodore Doraisamy, ‘Oldham – Called of God’, 1979, Methodist Book Room, Singapore.

iii. Ernest Lau & Peter Teo, ‘The ACS Story’, 2007, ACS Board of Governors, Singapore.

iv. Song Ong Siang, ‘One Hundred Years History of the Chinese in Singapore’, 1923, John Murray, London; 2016, National Library Board, Singapore.

v. J. E. Scott, ‘History of Fifty Years’, 1906, Methodist Episcopal Press, Madras, India

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