William Oldham: Architect of Methodism in Singapore

Malaysia Mission, circa 1889

“Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto Thy Name give glory!” (Ps 115:1 KJV)

Bishop Dr James Thoburn and the Rev William Oldham, the first Methodist missionaries to land in Singapore, arrived on 7 Feb 1885. After fervent evangelistic meetings at the Town Hall (now Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall) brought in the earliest converts, a congregation was quickly organised about two weeks later.

It was Bishop Dr Thoburn who initiated Methodist expansion from India to Burma (Myanmar) and then to Singapore. He hoped that Methodism would then spread north to Malaya, south to Java and Sumatra, and extend towards the Philippines. For Singapore to be the base for this great missionary push, Methodism had to succeed first on the island. In this, the first missionary-pastor, the Rev Oldham, was instrumental.

The earliest congregation met in the Christian Institute building at Middle Road. As its services were in English, it was called The English Church. The church was made up of British soldiers, civil servants, businessmen and English-speaking Eurasians. The church grew and moved in Dec 1886 to the first Methodist Sanctuary built at Coleman Street. In 1908, it shifted once more—to Fort Canning—and was renamed Wesley Church.

In March 1886, the Rev Oldham founded The Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) at Amoy Street with boys from the wealthy Chinese business community. The school quickly became very popular, expanding and moving to Coleman Street in 1887, next to the church building. The school’s success provided financial support and raised the profile of the mission. It also produced many converts for the church over the years.

The Rev Oldham was a Tamil speaker and engaged the Tamil community, which included businessmen and convicts. With the help of G. W. Underwood from Ceylon, a Tamil congregation was started in 1887 at Short Street.

Another congregation was started by Dr Benjamin West, a medical doctor, Methodist missionary and teacher at ACS, who arrived in 1888. He also opened a medical dispensary in his Chinatown home for the Chinese-speaking community. Soon, a Chinese ministry was started in 1889 with the help of two other Chinese preachers. This ministry became

Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church in 1891.

After the founding of ACS, the Rev Oldham envisioned a school for the sisters of ACS boys. Miss Sophia Blackmore answered the call and arrived in July 1887. She started the Tamil Girls’ School in August 1887 in a Short Street shophouse. In 1894, this school was renamed Methodist Girls’ School when it welcomed students of all races.

Blackmore also visited the homes of businessmen in Chinatown to persuade them to allow their daughters to go to school. Soon, the Chinese Girls’ School was founded at Telok Ayer. It was renamed Fairfield Girls’ School in 1912.

Methodism in Singapore had a strong social conscience. In the 1895 Report on Public Morals, the Methodist Conference, under the Rev Oldham’s leadership, identified alcoholism, opium, gambling and prostitution as great social evils of the day. Blackmore found herself involved with poor, underprivileged young girls, who were vulnerable to the flesh trade. She gave them safe refuge, housing them in the Deaconess Home at Sophia Road with lady missionaries of the Methodist Mission.

Besides the churches for English, Tamil and Chinese speakers, the Rev Oldham also organised street preaching to the Malays in 1888. A British army officer, William Shellabear, who knew Malay, participated and even left the Army to become a preacher and missionary printer. Shellabear later became a scholar of the Malay language and translated the Bible.

A Malay Church was established in 1894 at the Christian Institute Building in Middle Road with Shellabear as pastor.  However, as this church did not have many Malay converts, it eventually became a church for Malay-speaking Peranakan Chinese instead. In 1930, it shifted to the Kampong Kapor area where it was eventually renamed Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.

In 1889, the Rev Oldham was reassigned to America where he was later elected a Bishop. He then returned to Singapore to serve as Bishop from 1904 to 1912. Bishop William Oldham was therefore not only the founder of Methodism in Singapore. He was also its architect, shaping its development in the country’s formative years.

Today, The Methodist Church in Singapore is made up of three language-based Annual Conferences with a total of 46 Churches and over 44,000 members. The Gospel is faithfully proclaimed in Chinese dialects such as Hokkien, Foochow, Hakka, Hinghwa, Teochew and Cantonese, as well as English, Mandarin, Tamil, Peranakan Malay, Indonesian, Tagalog and Korean.

Our commitment to education continues through our 15 Methodist schools which have more than 21,000 students at any one time. Prevailing social concerns of the day are met through the work of the Methodist Welfare Services, which extends the love, grace and life-giving message of the Lord to the last, least and lost.

After 135 years, Methodism Singapore-style, still exhibits Oldham’s abiding influence: with a strong emphasis on evangelism, education and constantly working to uplift the poor and needy in the name of Christ.

“William Oldham was not only the founder of Methodism in Singapore. He was also its architect, shaping its development in the country’s formative years.”

Sophia Blackmore (1857-1945), an Australian missionary who founded the schools that are now MGS and the Fairfield Methodist Schools
Rev (and later Bishop) William Oldham (1854-1937)
ACS teachers and students at chapel (circa 1895)
Bishop Dr James Thoburn (1836-1922)
Interior of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Coleman Street (later ACS)

The Rev Malcolm Tan is a member of the Council on Archives and History.

Photos courtesy of the MCS Archives and History Library.