How Methodism set foot on Singapore

The Methodist Church in Singapore celebrates 125 years of God’s blessings


“God is therefore the very Source, Means and End of all our blessings … Let us declare this truth not only in our language but also in our lives.”

AN INTERESTING STORY is told of how Methodism first set foot on our island. A small party of Methodists landed here on the SS Khandalla on Feb 7, 1885 – Bishop James and Anne Thoburn, the Rev William Oldham and Julia Battie. Two years earlier Thoburn, in India, had received a Macedonian call from Charles Phillips, superintendent of a Sailors Home in Singapore. The question among Thoburn and his colleagues was “What can we do for Singapore?”

The Methodist group was interestingly met by Charles Phillips and was surprised to see him there. Oldham tells the story.

“On reaching Singapore this strange episode occurred: There had been no opportunity to notify Mr Phillips 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 Phillips 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 …’ ” The party of Methodists got to work immediately and conducted a series of evangelistic meetings in the Town Hall (present Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall) which led to the establishing of the first Methodist Church in Singapore on Feb 23, 1885, with 23 members and probationers – it was a multi-racial church. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today The Methodist Church in Singapore has one General Conference, three Annual Conferences, 44 Local Conferences (churches) with more than 37,000 members, 15 schools, 13 social service units (under the Methodist Welfare Services), and seven mission fields (under the Methodist Missions Society).

This year we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of Methodism in Singapore. The theme of our celebrations is “Together in God’s Mission”. The first and most important word in the theme is the word “God’s”. What does it mean as we celebrate 125 years of God’s faithfulness and goodness in the history and journey of the people called Methodists in Singapore?

The account of how Methodism began in Singapore reminds us that God is the Prime Mover in our story – He, the Alpha and Omega, stands at the beginning and the end, and at every stage of our history. Just as all of creation came into being when God the Creator spoke His creative word, so all our stories come into being when He speaks His word. It is He who initiates all our stories of redemption. We read in Scripture: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Eph. 1:4). He had chosen us before we could ever do anything. Before we can choose, He has chosen us. And that is why we read that “While were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8). God is the Initiator of all creative and re-creative acts.

He is the Source of all blessings for all good things come from His loving heart and hands. Not only is He the Source, but He is also the Means by which all His blessings come to us. The first Methodist sermon preached in our land (by Bishop Thoburn in February 1885) was based on Zech. 4:6 – “Not by might, nor by power but by My Spirit”. What a great sermon and what a great reminder that all the blessings we receive come to us through God Himself. Our own skills, knowledge, strategies and abilities pale in comparison to what God brings with Him.

One of the key emphases of Methodism is the diligent practice of the spiritual disciplines, or means of grace – such as Bible reading, prayer, fasting, conferencing, and the like. We do not practise these to manufacture holiness by ourselves. No, we keep the spiritual disciplines as a way of surrendering ourselves in total dependence to the grace and mercy of God. The spiritual disciplines should highlight not human ability but divine grace.

God is also the End or Goal of all that we do. As the Shorter Westminster Catechism states it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” In all that we do, we are challenged to turn our attention to the living God and to seek nothing as much as we seek Him. We must all echo the psalmist by saying “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” (Ps. 27:4).

God is therefore the very Source, Means and End of all our blessings. Paul established this truth when he writes: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever!”

(Rom. 11:36). Let us declare this truth not only in our language but also in our lives. We must declare God to be the Absolute Reality in our lives as we set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts and in our churches. (1 Pet. 3:15).

And as we do so, let us come together to celebrate God’s faithfulness – giving all glory and praise to Him. – The Episcopal Letter, No. 25, January-April 2010.

By Bishop Dr Robert Solomon