Saturday, April 09, 2016

Singapore Church History: The beginning

Singapore is a small city-state that was founded as a modern city by Sir Standard Raffles of the British East India Company in the year 1819. It later became an official British crown colony when the company was dissolved following the events of the Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857. The indigenous population was a bunch of Malay fishermen. After its founding, migrant workers from places like South China and South India arrive at its shores, seeking to make a living.

The British East India Company was all about business and profits. While Britain was supposed to be a "Christian" country at that time, the early 19th century was a time of nominalism within the main established churches in Britain. The Evangelical movement officially began with the 18th century 1st Great Awakening, and it was Evangelicals who brought the Gospel over to Singapore's shores. At that time however, Singapore was treated as a stepping stone unto the big target of Western missionaries: China [Bobby Sng, In His Time: The Story of the Church in Singapore 1819-2002 (3rd Ed.; Singapore, Bible Society of Singapore & Singapore, Graduates' Christian Fellowship, 1980, 1993, 2003), 39]

The story of the churches in Singapore began, as most missions do, in Europe. The rise of the Evangelical movement which led to the modern missionary movement resulted in missionaries going across the globe to proclaim the Gospel. Sng however begins his introduction of the Evangelicals with a most inaccurate though widely held view of the background of the Evangelical movement. In his words, "beginning in Germany, Christians reacted against the deadwood of excessive religious formalism and intellectualism" (p. 26). That is typical pietist propaganda which is partially true, as it applies to the state of the German state church which has lost its way. The problem outside Germany however is that confessionalism was entering its last gasp, not because it failed, but because men grow tired of it in light of the supposed new knowledge coming in from the Enlightenment. Within churches that were historically committed to the Reformation, deconfessionalism in Europe eviscerated the Reformed church of its witness, in the name of being "relevant" to the new Enligtenment scene. In the non-confessional churches especially the partially Reformed English church, the via media idea of the Laudians resulted in the arid desert of the Anglican church of that era. In other words, the real problem that formed the background for the growth of the Evangelical movement was not "excessive religious formalism and intellectualism," but rather a lack of strong biblical confessional orthodoxy.

Evangelicalism, as a reaction against nominalism while misdiagnosing the problem, creates its own set of problems, and all of these will accompany the missionary enterprise as they move out in faith to share the Gospel. In the case of Singapore, Evangelicalism has resulted in the disorganized origins of the churches in Singapore at the very beginning, a sign of the general weak ecclesiology of the Singapore churches up to the present day.

As I have mentioned, the British East India Company came to make money not to make converts. They weren't too bothered with Evangelical missionaries, as long as they did not interfere with their profit-making [Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (The Pelican History of the Church volume 6; Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1964), 232]. That said, Raffles became sympathetic to the missionary cause, more because of humanitarian reasons at least at the beginning (Sng, 34-6). Evangelical missionaries began to come to Singapore on their way to China. In the aftermath of the First Opium War, the door to China was opened in 1842 to foreigners, and missionaries departed in droves for China (p. 50).

Not all missionaries left for China. One prominent missionary who stayed was Benjamin Keasberry and his wife Charlotte. Keasberry began the pioneer work of starting the Presbyterian Church, in the Malay work at the Malay Chapel in 1843 that is today Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church, Singapore's oldest Presbyterian Church (p. 52). His work was directed primarily to the Malays. The increased number of immigrant Chinese however resulted in him reaching out to Chinese through his preaching in a village in Wayang Satu. The emerging work resulted in a preaching station at Bukit Timah that became Glory Presbyterian Church, the oldest Chinese-speaking Presbyterian church that began in 1862. Those two churches would become Keasberry's legacy. His Malay work however was mostly a failure, partly because of his failure to recruit from the Malay converts for ministry to the Malays (p. 55). Straits-born Malay-speaking Chinese slowly replaced the Malay outreach over time.

On the Anglican side, perhaps the denomination with the greatest support from the State, St. Andrew's Church (now St. Andrew's Cathedral) was built in the 1830s mainly for Europeans (p. 69). One prominent platform for outreach towards Asians lie in schooling. Chinese Girls' School (as it was then called) was set up in 1842 by LMS (London Missionary Society) Mrs. Samuel Dyer and Ms. Sophia Cooke took over in 1853 (p. 62). The school became a depository for orphans and girls from troubled homes, and Cooke nurtured them into future wives for Chinese men especially pastors.

Cooke was not unconcerned over the plight of Chinese male immigrants either and set up ministries to reach them, as well as a ministry to adult women (pp. 67-8), which reached out to many. Dying in 1895, her legacy lived on in the school and it was renamed St. Margaret's School later (p. 69).

The examples of Benjamin Keasberry and Sophia Cooke show the devotion of Western missionaries to reach Asians for Christ. Certainly, we are thankful for God's working through them. As much as we ought to appreciate their devotion and labor however, we also ought to learn from their mistakes. We see Keasberry's failure to bring in workers from among the Malay converts, such that the Malay work died together with him. Cooke served whole-heartedly and blessed many and brought many to the Gospel, but at her death, no one was found to fill her shoes. Both of them were focused on saving souls, yet both of them did not do much to establish a proper church. It is obvious why Cooke as a woman could not have done so, but then she brought up her girls to serve as Bible women. In other words, from the beginning of the Chinese church, women were enrolled as workers too, which says a lot about the ecclesiology (or lack of one) that has been promoted in the Chinese churches by Western missionaries!

Keasberry was a Presbyterian, yet the two churches he set up had no real understanding of Reformed theology or Presbyterian polity (Keasberry functioned like a bishop overseeing the Malay work, with no Malay convert elders serving alongside him). The focus was on the Gospel and that only. Similarly, Cooke contributed to the unbiblical development of traditional Chinese Protestant ecclesiology (i.e. the "Evangelical" ecclesiology that arose in Chinese churches due to the modern missionary movement). Both of these developments show the weakness of the Evangelical missionary movement in Singapore, and in fact, all around the world. Under such a mixed blessing, the churches of Singapore developed and grew.

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