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SIBLING SYNERGY: James and Isabella Thoburn

Isabella accepted James’ call to teach in India

IMAGINE being sent off by your mother to college at the age of 15 with $162.50, her blessing and the advice to “spend this carefully”.

This is the moving beginning of a story of a poor but bright young lad who was later to become a dynamic Methodist missionary and bishop, James Mills Thoburn, who led the team which opened Methodist work in Singapore, and provided episcopal supervision after 1888.

Born on March 7, 1836 in St Clairsville, Ohio, James was the son of Irish immigrants, the eldest of nine children. In 1850, a year after the death of his father, James enrolled in Allegheny College and graduated in 1857, after having to seek temporary employment as a teacher for a few years because he was short of funds.

He was converted at a church meeting, and although he continued in a “twilight of the soul”, his potential was noticed by his pastor who appointed him as a leader of their obligatory class meetings. Forcing himself to lead and pray publicly, his efforts were apparently effective, and resulted in the doubling of the class enrolment – leading to his being encouraged to enter the Christian ministry, even though he was only 19 at the time.

He resolved, however, to complete his college education, joined the Pittsburgh Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and was ordained in 1858.

On Jan 1, 1859, James answered the call to be a missionary to India and sailed in July. Coming close to the beginnings of the Methodist Mission in India, set up by William Butler in 1857, James’ career paralleled the remarkable growth of the work in India in the second half of the 19th century.

Two almost revolutionary developments were the direct result of his leadership. He was one of the first to start work among India’s women and work among the low-caste and untouchables.

It was he who first opened the possibility of his sister, Isabella, taking part in a promising future for India which included educating women and girls, but finances did not exist for a school in every village where there were Christians.

Without much thought, he penned a letter to Isabella, asking if she would like to teach in India. Drawn by the “law of service” which her mother inculcated in her from young, Isabella accepted without hesitation and when the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS) was formed in 1869, together with Dr Clara Swain, they became the first two Methodist women missionaries to be sponsored by the WFMS. Both were the forerunners of a small army of workers who served in India.

While Dr Swain pioneered medical work among women, Isabella was to provide an education for the women who were confined to the zenanas, starting in a one-room schoolhouse in 1870, and expanding to the stately and respected Isabella Thoburn College for Women in Lucknow in 1890 that carries on her work to this day.

One beneficiary was our Mrs Ellice Handy (née Zuberbuhler) who attended the college in 1917 after completing her Senior Cambridge at Methodist Girls’ School (MGS) at the tender age of 14. But she had to spend one year studying Latin before being allowed to start on her BA programme. She returned to Singapore to teach at MGS for the next 25 years, and became the first Asian Principal of the school.

Meanwhile, Isabella’s brother, the Rev James Thoburn’s remarkable missionary career in India, which started with preaching to both British soldiers and low-caste folk, included establishing the “Centennial School” in Lucknow, the Lucknow Christian College, Sunday Schools which grew strongly from 34 in 1870 (with 116 students) to 344 in 1881 (with 15,397 students) and editing the Lucknow Witness, a weekly Christian paper. In addition, he was involved in numerous building projects – church sanctuaries, college and school buildings.

As a dynamic speaker and a staunch believer in evangelistic work, he invited the American evangelist William Taylor, widely known as “California Taylor”, from his courageous and successful work among the saloons and gambling dens of San Francisco, to preach in India – one result being the conversion of a young man, William F. Oldham, who was to be a key player when the Singapore Mission was started in 1885.

Isabella Thoburn College for Women in Lucknow, India.

James Thoburn brought Methodism to South-east Asia

In 1876, James was appointed the Presiding Elder of the South India Conference, and his vision about projects away from India, independent of the “home” Conference in America began to take shape. When he was appointed to take charge of the English-speaking congregation in Calcutta, he accepted an invitation by one of them to open work in Rangoon, where the first Methodist Church was organised in 1882.

But James’ vision went beyond Rangoon. As perhaps the most well-known evangelist in India, his reputation had reached the attention of Charles Phillips who headed the Singapore Seamen’s Institute. James’ vision and Charles Phillips’ invitation resulted in the historic voyage to Singapore in 1885 and the establishing of the Methodist Mission in February. From Singapore, James looked east and, having been elected missionary Bishop of South India and Malaysia in 1888, personally visited Manila on March 6, 1900 to hold the first Methodist service shortly after the end of the Spanish colonial regime.

More than a visionary, Bishop James Thoburn was a gifted preacher, administrator and leader who initiated Methodist work in South-east Asia. He died in Meadville, Pennsylvania, on Nov 28, 1922.

James: A poor, bright young lad who
became a dynamic Methodist missionary.
Isabella: Provided education for women.

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