Samuel Wee, Singapore
ANG MO KIO, SINGAPORE
Note: The assembly presently meeting at Bethesda Hall (Ang Mo Kio) originally met at Bras Basah Road from 1866-1986
Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles, an official with the East India Company. The island remained under direct British colonial rule until 1959. In the decades after 1819, general Christian work was conducted by the denominations, especially the Anglicans and Presbyterians, as well as by various individuals associated with missionary societies such as the London Missionary Society. The beginning of assembly work in Singapore can be traced back to the arrival there of an English businessman, Philip Robinson.
Philip Robinson and the Bristol Connection
Robinson was born in 1831 in Bristol. At that time, there was a marked revival in the study and application of New Testament church principles throughout the British Isles. Greatly affected by this movement of God, George Muller and Henry Craik began their ministry at Bethesda Chapel, Bristol, in the 1830s. Saved at the age of fourteen, Robinson was soon baptized and became active in Christian service. In 1850, Robinson left for Australia and in 1857 arrived in Singapore.
Singapore in the mid-19th century
At the time of Robinson’s arrival, the colony was seething with racial unrest relating to the mutiny in India. Once this passed, her inhabitants returned to the routines of life. This included the aggressive rounds of business and trade, Singapore being a major port of call in the British Empire for ships plying the Europe-India-China route.
Robinson settled into employment with a local company before founding Robinson & Company in 1859, which soon became a prominent trading institution in the colony.
‘No other name than Christians’
By the early 1860s, the Robinson home, comprising Philip, his wife Eliza and their two children, was open to believers and many meetings for Bible study and fellowship took place there. The desire for a public testimony for the Lord Jesus Christ becoming ever-increasing among these like-minded saints, a room was hired at Bencoolen Street for use as a Mission Room in 1864.
On the Lord’s Day, 3rd July, seven believers met in the room to break bread and remember the Lord. In the assembly’s first annual report (1865), Robinson wrote: ‘Believing that the revealed and inspired word of God is a sufficient rule not only for faith but practice, they have framed no written creed, trusting by the Spirit of God to be led into all truth and desiring to be known among men by no other name than Christians so that while one is of Paul and another of Apollos, they would desire only to know the truth as it is in Jesus’.
The new gathering sought to obey, honour and glorify the Lord after the New Testament pattern in Christian living, worship and service.
The preaching of the gospel was another major concern. Thus far, evangelistic efforts had concentrated on the British colonial society. Robinson and the believers felt a real burden to be ambassadors for the Lord to all races:
‘May the gospel soon be preached as a witness to all nations, and a people prepared of the Lord gathered out of them for Himself’.
Beginning of assembly work at Bras Basah Road in 1866
In July 1866, the Christians at the Mission Room agreed to use their funds for the building of a permanent chapel at Bras Basah Road, in the heart of the city. The simple hall, completed in fifty days, stood in sharp contrast to the grand Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals in the vicinity. Truly the assembly of God’s people comprises not bricks but ‘living stones’.
The Bethesda Chapel, at 77 Bras Basah Road, was opened on 30th September after a short dawn service and thereafter stood at the same site until it was demolished in the 1990s. The famous plaque bearing the words ‘JESUS ONLY’ was soon added to the hall and a replacement is in use to this day in Bethesda Hall (Ang Mo Kio).
In 1867, the Lord sent John Chapman to assist in the work for a month. Chapman had known Robinson since their days together in Bristol and had been used of God to begin the assembly work in Malaya, commencing with the work at Farquhar Street, Penang, in 1860. The first permanent resident missionary associated with Bethesda was Alexander Grant, who spoke the Hokkien dialect fluently.
Also in 1867, the first Asian, Tan See Boo, was received into fellowship. Converted in China before arriving here, See Boo was much used of God in missionary work among the Chinese in the colony. That same year, the assembly rejoiced at the salvation and subsequent baptism of fifteen people – four Europeans, one Malay, nine Chinese and one Indian. The European believers at Bethesda carried on close contact with the Asian races at the expense of general acceptance and approval by the ruling colonial elite.
A strong missionary effort thus marked the early testimony at Bras Basah. Over the decades many opportunities were seized to bring the gospel to the local population, through open-air preaching, tract distribution, visits to houses, prisons, leper colonies and hospitals. Weekly gospel meetings were faithfully held at Bethesda and in addition, missionaries traversed the Malayan Peninsula and Siam unceasingly, often on bicycles, to preach the Lord Jesus Christ.
An 1886 missionary report in the Echoes of Service read:
‘Another day. The English in fellowship; the sick, the sorrowing, the backsliding, those who like to see you come in. Ah! I must go to them today . . . Another day. The Chinese Christians sorely need visiting; some of them are out in the country some miles off, and that will be a pleasant drive today. Then again, there are thousands of Chinese in the streets; I must gather a few tens of them in the side street . . . The hospital, with its sufferers, must be visited; that for another day’s work. We can all speak Malay, and there are thousands of Malays here; they gather at the mosque on Friday, and here is another day’s work’.
In the last years of the 19th century, George Muller and Hudson Taylor made stopovers in Singapore and fellowshipped with the saints at Bras Basah, sharing in the ministry of the word.
Labour among the soldiers
Because Singapore was a very important British naval base as well as a port of call along the Europe-India- China route, sailors and soldiers were constantly passing through, or posted here. Many made visits to Bethesda to either join in fellowship or hear the gospel. Sunday teas, followed by the Song Service at 8:00 pm, were often used as occasions to invite the sailors in for some refreshment and gospel preaching. Many of these who were saved at Bethesda were later posted elsewhere in the British Empire and by this means the gospel of Jesus Christ was spread effectively far and wide. In the 1930s, before World War II, the British General-Officer-Commanding Malaya, Major General William Dobbie, met with the saints weekly at the Breaking of Bread meeting.
Expansion in the Twentieth Century
Throughout the early 1900s, a strong testimony for the Lord was maintained at Bras Basah Road. In 1932 an extension of the work took place when a new Gospel Hall was erected at the eastern coastal district of Katong. By this time, ministry and gospel meetings were often held in English, Malay and Chinese. The Katong work was especially noted for its work among the Malay-speaking Straits Chinese who populated the area.
The Lord preserved the assembly during the turbulent war years and Japanese Occupation (1941-45) and from the first Bethesda at Bras Basah, several other assemblies were formed in the more peaceful years thereafter. Leadership in the assemblies slowly but surely passed from the Europeans to the local believers.
The assembly remained vibrant throughout the post-war period, and carried on a strong evangelistic effort especially among the many students in the immediate vicinity of Bethesda. By the 1980s, the hall, however, had become too small for the assembly. In 1986, a larger place of worship was built in the centrally located Ang Mo Kio district where the assembly continues to endeavour a witness for the Lord.
Today, some 500 believers meet weekly for the Lord’s Supper. Other meetings include the weekly ministry and prayer meetings. Regular activities are the Sunday School, Christian Education Programme, Basic Training Class, Young People’s and Children’s meetings. An evangelistic outreach is conducted through the Boys Brigade and Girls Brigade work, the Kindergarten work and also towards the Filipino and Indian communities.
Truly, the Lord has been faithful. Maranatha!