The Bible mission in Singapore: A shared heritage

The Bible Society of Singapore (BSS) commemorated 190 years of local Bible mission work last year on November 16. BSS celebrated its rich Bible mission heritage that was founded by famous pioneers and built upon by faithful supporters and partners. The Society’s work is a shared legacy that continues today and will be passed on to the generations to come.

A movement inspired by 10-year-old Mary Jones
The entire Bible movement started back in the 1800s, when a 10-year-old Welsh girl named Mary Jones was so desperate to get her own Bible that she worked for six years, and then walked 25 miles to the nearest town in Bala to buy a copy. But when she arrived, she found out that the only Bible left had already been reserved. At that news, Mary broke down and cried. The Rev Charles Thomas was so moved by her tears that he decided to give her the Bible.

This incident inspired a movement, and opened doors for the formation of the Bible Society – to bring God’s Word to the world in a language they can understand and at a price they can afford.

Sir Stamford Raffles: Advocate of the Bible Mission

Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s founding father, was instrumental in starting the Bible mission in Southeast Asia (SEA).

In 1813, an appeal for Bibles by soldiers first drew the attention of the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) to Java. BFBS resolved to send Dutch and English Bibles and Testaments to the then Lieutenant Governor Raffles with a letter, requesting that “His Excellency will have the goodness to give directions that they be placed in the hands of proper persons to distribute the same…”

On March 10, 1814, the Rev William Milne from the London Missionary Society, who later assisted the Rev Dr Robert Morrison with the complete translation of the Chinese Bible, arrived in Java. The Rev Milne met Raffles and secured his help to “do all they consistently could to forward” the Bible cause – he was even granted use of the Government Press. Raffles was appointed President of the Java Auxiliary Bible Society on June 4, 1814.

Advancing the Society’s translation work
Raffles’ interest in supporting the Bible work increased when he returned to England in 1817. He had greater opportunity to correspond with the Society. Letters from our Society’s archive showed that Raffles strongly supported Malay translation work and personally leaned towards a preference for the translation to commonly-used Malay.

Today, BSS continues to raise funds to support the work of translation carried out by the fellowship of United Bible Societies (UBS). Did you know that UBS has the largest number of translation projects ongoing in the world; and out of approximately 7,105 languages worldwide, the fully-translated Bible is only available in 495 languages? There is still much to be done.

The Rev Dr Robert Morrison (right) was instrumental
in the translation and distribution of the Chinese Scriptures. Picture courtesy of United Bible Societies.

The Rev Dr Robert Morrison: Pioneer of Bible distribution work in Singapore
In 1823, it was reported to BFBS that “Dr Morrison has communicated… the cheering information that 1,000 Chinese New Testaments had just been applied for by the missionaries of a new settlement formed at Sincapore [sic] in the year 1819.”

This request started the Bible mission work in Singapore and the distribution of Chinese Scriptures here.

BFBS granted the Rev Dr Morrison and other missionaries in Malacca the 1,000 pounds needed to print the Chinese Scriptures.

Today, Singapore is advancing the Bible distribution work by providing Bibles to people in need. BSS supports the purchase and distribution of Bibles across SEA, China, the Indian sub-continent and even the Bible Lands (Israel, Turkey, and Egypt). During one such trip to Siau Island in July 2013, we distributed 3,280 Bibles in the Siau language, which was also crucial to the preservation of the language and culture there. The Siau leaders testified that God’s Word helped to bridge the intergenerational gap between the elderly who cannot speak in Bahasa and the young who cannot read or speak the Siau language.

Richard Woo (left), a staff member of The Bible Society of Singapore, presenting a copy of the translated Bible to a Siau Indonesian.

Methodists: Key supporters in publishing the Word
The work of BSS has expanded beyond just translation and distribution. We strive to bring God’s Word to all through publishing, engagement, literacy programmes and advocacy.

Prominent Methodist the Rev William Oldham encouraged William G. Shellabear in the publishing of local Scriptures. “On the advice of Mr Oldham, he (Shellabear) went to England, and studied the art of printing. Returning in 1890, he began the work of the Methodist Press, which has since grown to large proportions.”

Shellabear went on to be the founder of the largest publishing house in Malaysia – MPH. He also translated many books and tracts, and produced a dictionary as well as the standard edition of the Malay Annals. MPH was an important partner of the Bible Society, printing its Bibles, Scripture tracts and other materials.

Now, BSS works with partners to publish Scripture for marginalised groups like the Free on the Inside Bible for prisoners and the Overseas Filipino Workers Bible for Filipino workers in Singapore. We also customise Bibles and Testaments for churches, organisations and institutions like Anglo-Chinese School, and publish free evangelistic tracts and Bible portions to help the local Christian community share the Gospel.

Advancing the Word through engagement and advocacy
Bishop Dr Wee Boon Hup notes: “We are pleased to be always in partnership with BSS… The work of BSS is so important to the life of the Church and we will always be grateful that there are people who spend time to think of ways and means to get us to engage the Word

A domestic helper reading the Overseas Filipino Workers Bible.

BSS Engagement programmes help the Christian community to grow deeper in God’s Word and live it out. These programmes include our Sowers in Action Volunteer Programme, Bible Mission Trips and Bible Land Tours which bring the Word to life. Under the umbrella of Sower Institute for Biblical Discipleship, BSS runs the Biblical Studies Programme, Walk Thru the Bible and many others. A new think-tank is being set up together with key partners, to advocate Biblical values in society.

By God’s grace, 190 years on, the work of BSS continues to grow and develop in the region, not only to make the Word Available (through Translation and Publishing) and Accessible (through Distribution and Literacy Programmes), but also to reinforce that the Word is Credible (through Engagement and Advocacy).

“We are pleased to be always in partnership with BSS… The work of BSS is so important to the life of the Church and we will always be grateful that there are people who spend time to think of ways and means to get us to engage the Word.”

Pictures courtesy of The Bible Society of Singapore unless otherwise stated

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Gwen de Rozario is Senior Manager, Communications and IT, in The Bible Society of Singapore (BSS). She co-wrote this article with Elaine Quek, Communications Officer in BSS.