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The History of the Methodist Church in Malaysia

The history of the Methodist Church in Malaysia began 120 years ago following a decision taken at the South India Conference held in Hyderabad in 1884, when William Oldham was appointed as a missionary to Singapore in 1885.

The Tamil work started with the coming of a Ceylon Tamil, Mr Underwood. In 1894 the Tamil work was started in Penang by the Pyketts, and in Kuala Lumpur by the Kensetts and was continued by Rev. S Abraham from Ceylon in 1899.

Methodism came to Sarawak in the year 1901 when a group of immigrants came from Foochow in mainland China under the leadership of Wong Nai Siong. Missionaries came in 1903 in the persons of J.M Hoover and G.V Summers. Methodism grew rapidly in the town of Sibu and a solid foundation was laid.

The work amongst the indigenous Sengoi community in Pahang was started in 1930 with the help of missionaries from Sumatra, Indonesia. And work among the indigenous Ibans in Sarawak began in 1937 with pioneers like Lucius D. Mamora, a Batak missionary from Indonesia, and Paul H. Schmuker who took the Gospel to the longhouses.

The Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia became a self governing body in 1968 but remained affiliated to the United Methodist Church, USA. Arising from the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, the Methodist Church in Malaysia and the Methodist Church in Singapore became independent entities in 1976.

Dr. James Thoburn


In 1883 a letter had come to Dr. James Thoburn from Charles Phillips telling him of the unusual opportunities for missionary work in Singapore and the Malay Peninsular. But the missionaries of North India declined after careful consideration because there was no one to send and no funds for a new work. Even so, Dr. Thoburn sent a call to America through the Western Christian Advocate for volunteers to go without support. Twenty eager young men answered the call, but none was suitable and nothing was done for some time. Once again the great opportunities for missionary work surfaced at the Hyderabad Conference in November 1884. It was agreed that work should be established in Singapore. However, they could not decide whom to send. Dr. Thoburn would be splendid but he was the District Superintendent and also not so young.

William F. Oldham.


He himself suggested the young Englishman, William F Oldham. There followed a stormy discussion and the final decision was made and communicated to Oldham. He was designated to go to Singapore. If he felt any anxiety to open work in a land of unbounded opportunities and needs, he never showed it. He accepted the challenge. William F. Oldham, born in India, was a government surveyor when he became convinced that he ought to be a missionary to help India's millions. He forthwith resigned his post and sailed to America with his bride to educate himself for missionary work.

Just at the time when the conference in Hyderabad was trying so hard to find the right man to send to Singapore, Oldham, who had completed his studies at Alleghany College and Boston University, was on his way back to India. He was prepared to go any place in India that they might wish to send him, but, as he said afterwards he had no idea that they would shoot him right through and fifteen hundred miles beyond.


The trip to Singapore was tedious, the boat was small and the accommodation bad. They tried to make plans but found that it was impossible as they knew nothing about the place. Dr. Thoburn felt that he had none to give. It was like opening a surprise box when they reached Singapore. On Saturday 7 February 1885, Dr. Thoburn and Oldham finally sailed into Singapore. What a blessing that Charles Phillips, the head of the Seamen's Institute, was still there! By a strange coincidence he was at the pier when the boat came in and knew instinctively that the Europeans at the sail were Dr. Thoburn and his party. He declared he dreamt of their coming the very night before. When he met Dr. Thoburn and his party he had not the least doubt that it was because of him that the Methodist Missionaries were there, and he was joyful. He insisted that they make his home their headquarters and with his usual great energy proceeded to introduce his guests to Singapore. He gladly offered Dr. Thoburn the "Christian Institute" the independent chapel of which he was trustee, but Dr. Thoburn thought it too small for public meetings such as he had wished to hold. It was God's providence that the assistant Municipal Secretary, John Polglase, a Wesleyan offered to do all he could to obtain the Town Hall. When the matter came before the Municipal Council three votes were cast for and three votes against and the seventh vote which gave the hall was cast by a non-Christian Chinese.


On the evening of Sunday 8 February, Dr. Thoburn reached the Town Hall an hour early. With Miss Battie at the little organ and Mrs. Thoburn ready to lead the singing if anyone came, Oldham distributed hymnals and served in the humble capacity of usher -- if anyone came. Dr. Thoburn had distributed some two hundred handbills on the day before but felt some misgivings as to how many would attend the service. When the hour arrived, Dr. Thoburn stood before one hundred and fifty people. He announced his text: "`Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit' saith the Lord." During the following week a meeting was held each night. The first night the hall was well filled, the second, crowded and thereafter overflowing. There was only one important thing in town and that was to hear Dr. Thoburn of India. Then came the great night when Dr. Thoburn called for a confession of faith, urging those to come forward who loved the Lord and who wished to follow Christ. The silence in the audience was oppressive for a moment, but as a man rose and walked resolutely forward the hush changed to a stillness of reverence and joy. Unhurried, yet with a certain eagerness, several more rose to join those kneeling at the front of the hall. If no one noticed the tears in Dr. Thoburn's eyes it was because many were looking through their own tears. Out of that group a church, the first Methodist Church in Malaya was formed with three members and fifteen probationers.