The Rev William Oldham arrived in Singapore in February 1885 and his name is properly remembered as the missionary who pioneered the beginnings of the Methodist Church in this part of the world. Less well known is his wife and her part in his ministry. Meet Marie Oldham …
SHE was a tiny lady, hardly reaching her husband’s shoulder, but full of energy and vivacity, practical yet sympathetic. Her character is revealed when Dr Thoburn met them when they arrived from America at the Bombay docks. He told them that they were being posted to Singapore rather than to a school in India, as they had been led to expect, and asked, “Will you go?”
Recounting the incident 45 years later, Oldham said, “I turned to Mrs Oldham. She drew herself up to her full stature and said, ‘Dr Thoburn, if we are appointed to Singapore, to Singapore we will go.’ “And we went”, said Oldham, adding in his characteristic way, “What this lady says, usually goes.”
Born in Bangalore, India, Marie Augusta Mulligan, who came from a fine Christian family, was converted at an evangelistic meeting convened by the great evangelist, William Taylor – who became Bishop Taylor of Africa – and her Christian life was nurtured by her pastor, the Rev D. O. Fox. It was at another special meeting that her testimony attracted young William Oldham that led to his conversion and the marriage of the young couple.
In 1876, Oldham was licensed to preach by Poona Quarterly Conference and Marie devotedly supported her husband in all his plans to extend God’s Kingdom. When Oldham decided to go to America for educational preparation as a missionary in India, she realised that she would have to suffer a long separation from her husband.
He recalled: “I remember plainly the quiet evening … when seated outside our tent I discussed the matter with my young wife. We had no idea that we could both go. What she faced, therefore, was a separation for years and a separation which involved her finding her own support. She faced it calmly. Only a girl, brought up in a sheltered life, I see more clearly then the fine self-abnegation which led her to insist quietly but firmly that I should go to America for the necessary preparation. She would find her own way, meanwhile, as best she could. As we waited on God together, the way grew more certain … finally, we announced our determination, hers no less than mine.” (Christian Advocate, Nov 8, 1917, pg 1167-1168).
With her husband away, Marie kept herself busy with teaching at a school in Cawnpore. In time, she followed Oldham to America and studied at Mt Holyoke College while waiting for her husband to graduate from Boston.
The Rev Oldham was appointed to Singapore and arrived in February1885. Husband and wife threw themselves resolutely into the work which we have Sophia Blackmore’s account of Mrs Oldham’s contributions:
“Two years later, when I arrived, how busy the Oldhams were! I found the Boys’ School [ACS] just re-opening after the mid-year holidays. Many new pupils were entering, especially in the little boys’ class that Mrs Oldham had charge of … forty undisciplined little fellows speaking many dialects, learning English through the medium of Malay that some of them did not know. School began at 10 am and continued until 3 pm.
“A small boarding school was in the same building and Mrs Oldham was the housekeeper. At meal-time Mr Oldham was seated at the head of the table and Mrs Oldham at the other end. Mr Webb, the teacher, sat beside the head and my place was at Mrs Oldham’s right, and the boys were arranged on either side. Curry and rice were served each meal for us all.
“Wesley Church was flourishing. After school hours, the Oldhams visited the homes of the people. I heard a clergyman urging his workers to emulate Mrs Oldham in reaching the people. The Sunday School began at 7 am where Mrs Oldham taught a class of girls … Then came the Church service at 8 am.
A service was held at Tanjong Pagar in the afternoon and again service in the Church at 5 pm. On Tuesday evening we had a preaching service … The Bible Class was on Friday evening. The various addresses by Mr Oldham were so uplifting though we did not realise the gifted preacher we had with us.
“After service, when several would come to the house to sit on the verandah, what a privilege it was to listen to the conversation. Then would come the cocoa and the biscuits which Mrs Oldham served. These days, so full without sufficient rest, brought a short term to an end with broken health … ” – MM, January 1939, page 23.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Oldham’s ministry was still in its infancy, and Mrs Oldham continued to support him in his long career as pastor in Pittsburg, Bishop in Singapore, Secretary of the Missions Board in New York and finally, Bishop of Methodist work in Argentina. She died on October 12, 1938 at the age of 81, a few months after Bishop Oldham.
Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.