Happenings, News

Growth of the early Methodist Church in Sarawak Christian colonisers

Provided early leadership to the
Sarawak Church. — Methodist Church Archives picture.

Not many in Singapore appreciate how the Methodist Church began in Sibu, Sarawak, in near-disastrous circumstances. It has grown to become the thriving centre of the Sarawak Chinese Annual Conference today, nearly 101 years later. The missionary couple “Tuan” Jim Hoover and his wife, Mrs Mary Hoover, who provided early leadership, have become legend. Here is an account of the growth of the Methodist Church in Sarawak by the Rev Hoover.

‘AFTER the Boxer rebellion in China in 1900, the conditions under which the Christians lived were very hard. A man, by name Uong (Wong) Nai Siong, a scholar and teacher of the missionaries who came to Foochow, was a reader of American history. It occurred to him that poor Christian Chinese might emigrate as poor Englishmen had done under the same conditions when the Mayflower sailed.

So he set out for the South Seas not knowing whither he went, just to have a look around. If you go south from China there is only one place to go, that is Singapore. There he heard of Rajah Brooke and his big fertile domain. So he went to see the Rajah. Now it happens that in Sarawak there is much land suitable for rice culture, and the Rajah had tried to get Chinese to come in to raise rice. Many did come, but soon moved up the river to dig gold.

So when Mr Uong appeared proposing to bring in settlers who were chiefly farmers and whose desire it was to raise rice and then more rice, an agreement was soon reached. The Rajah gave a grant of land on the Rejang River, and $20,000 to get the immigrants down. The proprietor, Mr Uong, was to bring down 1,000 farmers. He selected practically a solid bunch of Methodists.

They went by several boats from Foochow to Hongkong from which place their Mayflower was to sail direct to Borneo. Bishop Warne happened to be in Hongkong on his way to Manila and heard of this band of Pilgrim Fathers, so he joined them. On his way he held services, and the few who were not Christians threw the idols they had with them into the China Sea. After they landed the Bishop stayed with them a few days and saw them more or less settled in their new home. This was in 1901.
According to the plan the colony would be self-supporting after the first crop of rice – in about nine months – but the crop was eaten by rats and birds, not half was harvested. The next crop was entirely destroyed by floods. The third crop was also a failure principally on account of birds. At the end of three years less than five hundred were left. The Rajah gave another $20,000, the proprietor spent all he had or could borrow.

In the meantime, these people being Methodists and in the bounds of the Malaysia Conference, some care had to be given to them. Dr West, Superintendent of the Singapore District, visited them soon after they came down, organised a Quarterly Conference, put a preacher in charge and got things under way. The next year he returned with Dr Denyes who was a missionary in Singapore at that time. It was thought best to put a missionary in charge – John F. Wilson, then in Penang, and I volunteered for the job. Wilson took sick leave and had to go home before Conference, so I was sent in 1903. Dr West came with me.

Things were in a dreadful state. Everybody had to be fed by the proprietor, and he was fast reaching the end of his resources.
When Dr West returned the next year, things had reached a place where something had to be done. It happened that the Rajah came to Sibu on a visit while Dr West was with us. To try to save the situation the Rajah did the following. He sent the proprietor out, appointed me in charge, and told the remaining colonists they could expect no more help but would be given every opportunity to make good.

That was 23 years ago. It was a long hard pull, but today there are more than 10,000 people in the colony, about 30,000 acres are planted in rubber, we have 23 churches and over 1,000 children are in school. Churches and schools are self-supporting. We do not get a cent of missionary money for work except for the girls’ school. So many immigrants have been coming the last few years that the Government has stopped immigration till they can catch up with the land survey. When the gates are opened, watch us grow!’ — MM, August 1926, p.8-9.

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