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Borneo’s first Iban Methodist Church

Missionary Hobart B. Amstutz (later Bishop) recounts how the Ibans became Christians and formed the nucleus of the first Iban Methodist Church in Borneo in 1950

‘AT THE beginning of the (20th) century, the Methodist Church sent the Rev James M. Hoover to Sarawak Borneo to begin work among the Chinese Christians from Foochow, China who had begun to settle there in 1901.

Under his brilliant and practical leadership, the Methodist Church established churches and schools in every new settlement that was opened with the result that now, nearly 50 years later, our Church is firmly established with 6,000 members among the Chinese in the great Rejang River Valley area of that land.

My first visit to this land was in 1930, when I was invited by Mr Hoover to hold a Pastor’s School for its pastors. During that stay in Sibu, I had my first opportunity to visit the longhouse of an Iban (Dyak) village. An old Iban father presented his son to the writer and said, “You white men have brought the Christian church and schools to the Chinese people in this country; can’t you do the same for us?” Not until 1939 could that Macedonian Call be answered. In 1939, the Division of Foreign Missions allotted support for a missionary family, and we secured from the Sarawak Government land for a Mission Station to minister to the Iban people. We chose Kapit, a village far up the Rejang River from Sibu, a village which served the Iban people from down-river as well as much further up-river, and there we built a substantial residence, an assistant’s residence and a boys’ dormitory.

The Rev and Mrs P. H. Schumucker were sent to open the work and in late 1940, the residences being completed, they moved in, together with Mr and Mrs Lucius Mamoera (Batak Christians whose forefathers only two generations ago were cannibals). They opened a school for boys, having spent the previous year in making contacts with friendly Penghulus.

Fifteen boys came to the first school and all was going well when the Pacific War put an end to it. The Mamoeras remained at the station during the Japanese Occupation and maintained contact with the Iban people, and helped them to start a little shop of their own in the town where the Ibans might trade.

At the close of the Pacific War, Allied planes destroyed Kapit town and our buildings were almost burned down with incendiary bombs and riddled with machine gunning, and the furniture and school equipment looted. As the previous missionary family was unable to return to Kapit we had no one to send there at once, but in early 1948 another Batak couple was sent over from Sumatra to assist in the school that Mr Mamoera had re-opened.

Finally, late in 1948, the Rev and Mrs Burr Baughman (who had worked with the Sengois in Malaya) were free to go to Borneo. Their first task was to visit and gain the confidence and friendship of the Iban chiefs and the people of their longhouses, and to repair the Mission buildings and re-equip them. Crusade funds made the rehabilitation possible and in a few months the Mission programme again was being pushed forward.

The Baughmans resolved to make the school co-educational and by persuading some of the Penghulus to send their own daughters, effected this plan. In the amazingly short time of eight months, Mr Baughman was speaking easily in Iban, a language related to the Malay language in which he was already fluent, and with a portable projector set he was showing slides and film strips in the longhouses.

On two occasions I had invited some of the chiefs to visit me in Singapore and three of them had a memorable visit in my home in October 1949 when Mr Malcolm MacDonald, the Commissioner-General, also shared in their entertainment.

It seemed by this time that these men were ready to declare themselves Christians, and that we ought not to hold back any longer in inviting them to become baptised.

Thus on the day before Christmas, when four of the Penghulus, their families and others were at the Mission Station in Kapit to celebrate Christmas with the school children, Mr Baughman put the problem frankly before them. It was obvious that they had been thinking about it seriously for some time, realising that the new way of life offered by the missionary and his assistants was something they must either sooner or later accept or refuse.

Finally, after asking many questions about what becoming a Christian would mean to their mores, their manner of dress and their superstitions, these four Penghulus decided that they and their families would become Christians. Others followed their example, and on Christmas Day, in a solemn Act of Worship, 29 of these former headhunters were baptised, the first Ibans to become Methodist Christians in Borneo.’ – MM, October 1950, p.8 (slightly edited). Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.

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