Saturday, April 09, 2016

Singapore Church History: Early growth of denominational indigenous churches

The various traditional church bodies took root in Singapore as the modern missionary movement surged throughout the world. Despite its general disorganization and lack of ecclesiology, God has been pleased to use it to grow his Church in the midst of pietistic chaos.

The Presbyterians

We have mentioned about the beginnings of Prinsep Street Presbyterian Church and Glory Presbyterian Church. Orchard Road Presbyterian was a church began by Scots who used to worship at St. Andrew's Church but who preferred a church ruled by Presbyterian Church Order. The Scots soon formed their own church which is now known as Orchard Road Presbyterian Church (pp. 69-70).

Other Presbyterian churches were founded later. Glory Presbyterian ran into problems due to moral failure within the leadership and among the members, and it took Rev. J.A.B. Cook from the English Presbyterian Mission who was sent in 1882 to discipline those who were sinning (pp. 100-101). As that church became healthier, a couple of members who lived in the Ponggol area (North-East) decided to branch off and they founded Bethel Presbyterian at Serangoon. Another group split off and eventually formed a church near Prinsep Street (Central) that became the Singapore Life Church. Lastly, a few Hokkien speakers split off to form a group that became Jubilee Presbyterian Church (Central West) (pp. 101-2).

As it can be seen, God is definitely working to advance His kingdom, yet we also note that the churches were functioning like Congregationalists in setting up missions and new church plants, thus showing us forth the weak ecclesiology that has plagued the Singapore Presbyterian churches.

The Anglicans

Official Anglican missions came out of St. Andrew's Church, as the Residency Chaplain Rev. William Humphrey in 1856 was burdened with the "spiritual needs of the Asian population" (p. 73). We have seen how Sophia Cooke was involved in schooling, and schooling became an important part of Anglican missions, alongside gospel meetings (p. 75). The St. Andrew's Mission was set up, with Rev. William Henry Gomes appointed as its superintendent in 1872 (p. 74). Out of that mission came the Church of St. John, and St. Andrew's school (p. 148).

While no one can accuse Anglicanism of a weak ecclesiology, Anglicanism has its own problems due to the latitudinarianism in the parent church in England. While the Singapore Anglican church remained evangelical, its tradition of tolerance works against its ability to stand as a strong witness for biblical Christianity.

The Brethren

The weak ecclesiology of the Presbyterian mission can be seen in the beginnings of the Brethren church, where a group of Presbyterians defected to the emerging Brethren church.

The Brethren movement began as a British phenomenon when a group of people broke away from the Anglican State-Church in England because of dead formalism within the latter. As a group that supposedly focuses only on the Gospel and "vital Christianity," the Brethren movement is anti-institutional at its very core and a logical conclusion of the Evangelical minimalism that disregards issues like ecclesiology. Philip Robinson, a Brethren, came to Singapore in 1857 as an assistant in a commercial film (p. 76). After some time, he decided to form a brethren gathering and the gathering first met with him and seven believers at Bencoolen Street in 1864 and it was named the Mission Room.

Around the same time, Tan See Boo, a Chinese convert who came from Amoy in China, arrived in Singapore in 1856 to aid the Presbyterian mission (p. 71). In 1866 however, See Boo and the congregation he was in charge with left the Presbyterian mission for the emerging Brethren mission (p. 72, 78), which invigorates the Brethren missions which had by then gotten their own church building at Bras Basah (Central) called Bethesda Chapel (later known as Bethesda Gospel Hall) (p. 77). See Boo brought along a lot of Chinese who formed the nucleus for the Chinese Gospel Hall (p. 78).

The growth of the Gospel everywhere is to be celebrated. Nevertheless, weak and unbiblical doctrines and practices have consequences. In this case, the weak ecclesiology of the Singapore Presbyterian Church was evident in the defection of See Boo and his congregation. The Brethren movement of course, while certainly proclaiming the Gospel, contributes to the problems of Singapore Christianity because of its weak to non-existent ecclesiology.

The Methodists

The founding of the Methodist Church in Singapore was due to Charles Phillips, who came to Singapore in 1864 upon joining the army (p. 84). In the beginning, he was involved in generic evangelical mission work through visiting the prison and hospitals and proclaiming the Gospel, partnering with other evangelicals like Sophia Cooke (p. 85). In 1883 however, he set up a chain reaction that led to the establishing of the Methodist Church in Singapore. Hearing of the Methodist work in India, he wrote to Bishop Thoburn, Methodist missionary in India, to send missionaries over to Singapore. Methodist missionaries soon arrived in 1885 (p. 85). They began their characteristic Gospel meeting and the converts from that meeting formed the nucleus of the first Methodist church (now Wesley Methodist Church), with Rev. William Oldham remaining as its first resident missionary (pp. 105-8) while the others returned to India.

The Singapore Methodists moved the most into education as outreach, beginning with Anglo-Chinese School, and then founding Methodist Girls School (MGS) and Farfield MGS (p. 111-5, 149).

Methodism suffer from the same problems as the Brethren but their ecclesiology was not as anti-institutional. The problems that Methodism brought were the problems inherent to the Evangelical movement as a whole, coupled with John Wesley's focus on the experiential and antipathy towards Calvinism.


Jenson Lim said...

Interesting points about the Brethren in Singapore. Just wondering, is it Sng's view that Brethrenism is "anti-institutional at its very core and a logical conclusion of the Evangelical minimalism that disregards issues like ecclesiology"? If so, what were his reasons?

Also regarding Philip Robinson, what were his sources? A few years ago, my brother wrote an updated biography of Philip Robinson, published in Brethren Archivists and Historians Network Review - so I wondered if Sng consulted that.

Good to read this.

PuritanReformed said...


no, those are my observations. Sng merely described it and he sees every formation of any denomination as a good thing. Which is interesting because I have no idea how he can be so cheerful about the loss of members in the Presbyterian Church when their Chinese missionary defected to the Brethren cause.

Sng does not list his sources directly, but placed everything in the bibliography at the end. According to the bibliography at the end, here are the likely sources he would have used:

Finley, M.H., 1864-1964 The Story of One Hundred Years of the Lord's Blessing: centennial brochure of Bethesda Gospel Hall (1964)
James, Mabel L., Philip Robinson and the Origins of the Bethesda Movement in Singapore (1864-1883), academic exercise for Dpt. of History, Univ. of Singapore (1973)

Jenson Lim said...

OK, thanks for the sources, a bit dated but that could be all that was available to Sng at the time of writing.

Regarding loss of members - whether it be Presbyterian or any denomination - can sometimes be a good thing, not necessarily always bad.

PuritanReformed said...


yes, I guess he doesn't know your brother.

True, loss of members might be good. I just feel disturbed that it was reported almost cheerfully, but that's my impression