Research and write a paper (6-7 pages) about the origins and growth of a particular Protestant Church in Malaysia.

Describe its history and denominational distinctives including an account of the mission work which helped it to begin. Talk about how well (or badly) it adapted to the local context and assess its strengths and weaknesses, past and present. (35%)

In 1641, Dutch naval forces wrested control of Malacca from the last bastion of Catholic Portugese forces with assistance from Achenese and Johorean allies. A few decades earlier, Albert Cornelius Ruyl arrived in Indonesia with the Dutch East India Company and translated the Gospel of Matthew into Malay language in 1612 (a year after the King James Version). Its publication marked the first translation of Scripture in a nonEuropean language. Thus began the earliest contact with Presbysterian Christianity. To commemorate the conquest of Malacca, construction of a new church with distinctive interior architecture was initiated in 1741. When the Dutch ceded control of the declining trade center to the British, it was reconsecrated as an Anglican church and renamed “Christ Church” in 1838. It stands as the oldest functioning Protestant church in Malaysia today. However, there is relatively little mission work that still endures from the Dutch Reformed era compared to its impact in Indonesia.

The roots of Gereja Presbyterian Malaysia (GPM) may be traced to 19th century missionaries from the London Missionary Society (now called Council for World Mission) , some of whom were Presbyterians in persuasion. When these missionaries departed for China in the 1840s, expatriate Scottish congregations called Charles Moir and


Thomas McKenzie Fraser to be ministers in Penang (1851) and Singapore (1856) respectively.1 William Keaseberry a former LMS missionary chose to remain in Singapore and worked fruitfully among the Malay-speaking Straits Chinese even though the outreach was intended for the Muslim Malays. In November 1881, Rev John A. B. Cook arrived to minister both to the overseas Chinese as well as the Straits Chinese churches in Singapore. This event was chosen to mark the founding of present-day Presbyterian churches of Malaysia and Singapore.

At this early stage, the English-speaking ministry mainly catered to the needs of expatriates who thrived while the tin and rubber markets were lucrative. The situation changed for the worse in 1921 when the decline in commodity prices brought a severe recession. The demography has largely changed today even though St Andrew’s Kuala Lumpur still retains a significant number of expatriates in their membership. Cook also planted Chinese-speaking churches in Malaya including Holy Light Church on a plot of land in Johor Bahru granted by the Sultan of Johore.2 His goal was to build up selfsupporting, self-governing and self-extending local churches. In a pattern that would be repeated in other parts of Malaysia, the Chinese-speaking congregation eventually started an English-speaking service which grew and in time developed into a ‘daughter’ church occupying the same premises.3 Ordained ministers from China were called to serve in Chinese-speaking congregations until after the Red Army took over the country.

The Presbyterian Church in Malaysia, John Roxborogh, in Christian in Malaysia: A Denominational History, edited by Robert Hunt, Lee Kam Hing and John Roxborogh, (Petaling Jaya, Pelanduk, 1992), pages 79 2 Established in 1886, it is the oldest Chinese speaking church in Malaysia. Holy Light Presbyterian Church website, last accessed on 24 January 2012, 3 Influencers on Spiritual Formation in Malaysia (1), Random Musings from a Doctor’s Chair, Dr Alex Tang, last accessed on 24 January 2012,


During the Japanese occupation of Malaya and Singapore, many Western missionaries were incarcerated in the Changi Prison including Rev. Robert Greer and Rev. T. C. Gibson of the Presbyterian Church. They had the opportunity to pray and commune together with other imprisoned leaders from the Methodist and Anglican churches. Out of that season of prayer, the idea of setting up an integrated theological college to nurture local talents and promote unity of the church was born. From that common vision, the Singapore Trinity Theological College was established on 4 October 1948.4 The local churches continued worship and outreach during these years of hardship with minimal support from foreign mission.

In 1949, the Communist party of China gained power and placed restrictions on the preaching of the gospel. Foreign missionaries were compelled to relocate in Malaya and Singapore including some workers with China Inland Mission (now Overseas Missionary Fellowship) founded by Hudson Taylor. Their contributions have strengthened local Presbyterian churches. Meanwhile, the British colonial government had to suppress Communist insurgence in Malaya so rural Chinese communities were relocated to ‘New Villages’ to gain control over supply lines. The Synod seized the opportunity to plant churches in these villages in the 1950s. Several urban churches were planted in Penang, Ipoh, Klang and Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s as part of the Synod 5-year membership multiplying movement. More effort was focused on church planting in Johor but it was


Gereja Presbyterian Malaysia (GPM) official website, last accessed on 24 January 2012,


unclear whether an “informal comity arrangement with the Methodists that they should concentrate on the North and Presbyterians on the South” existed.5 With the formation of Malaysia and separation of Singapore as an independent state, two Synods were formed due to political, geographical and administrative reasons. In 1966, the denomination also became a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). Involvement with the Malayan Council of Churches was more problematic as the influence of Carl MacIntyre led some leaders in the Chinese Synod to secede to the more separatist-fundamentalist Bible Presbyterian Church. The first constitution in Chinese was published in 1968 to provide the same platform for administration, organization and beliefs. In order to promote understanding and a sense of belonging to the Synod, the first Sunday of November was designated Presbyterian Church Sunday to promote understanding of denominational history, polity and beliefs since 1972.6 The English Speaking Presbytery (ESP) in Malaysia was formed in 1990. In summary, Malaysian Presbyterianism has been nurtured by believers from different streams of cultural and linguistic backgrounds in a pluralistic country with majority Muslim presence. There has been evidence of successful growth with strategic planning and selfless sacrifice of lay leaders/elders in the absence of ordained pastors. However, much work remains to be done if the success of mission work is measured by the planting of an indigenous Church rooted in and meeting the needs of the country. Several factors may contribute to the relatively small presence of Malaysian Presbyterianism compared to that of Taiwan and Korea.

Christian in Malaysia: A Denominational History, edited by Robert Hunt, Lee Kam Hing and John Roxborogh, pages 86 6 Gereja Presbyterian Malaysia (GPM) official website, last accessed on 24 January 2012,


To begin with, most church members may not be aware of the meaning and identity of being Presbyterian. In the early years, the Chinese churches tended to minimize denominational distinctives in favor of their own cultural norms. As a result, the Westminster Confession and some provisions for disciplinary procedures were omitted from their rule books.7 It is not uncommon to see the situation reversed today as the ministries of Stephen Tong (Gereja Reformed Injili Indonesia) and Samuel Ling (China Horizon US) have kept some of these churches closer to their Reformed roots than their English speaking brethren. Although the Synod is the main governing body, local churches have considerable autonomy contingent upon the emphasis of their ruling/teaching elders.8 Some pastors do not subscribe to Reformed theology. Most leaders are basically evangelical in their theology while a few English-speaking pastors are encouraging Pentecostal teachings and charismatic experiences. Only a few years ago, the Synod has decided to actively promote the Westminster Shorter Catechism for educational purposes. It remains to be seen if renewed emphasis on Reformed theology would produce a broader missional outlook similar to the Redeemer City-to-City church planting network or a more insular separatist posture that disengaged from the wider Christian community.

In 1971, involvement in the Council of Churches halted with the union of Chinese Synod and English Presbytery. It was the latter that seemed more open to ecumenical affairs. However, local congregations like City Discipleship Presbyterian Church became members of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF). In March 1988, the Synod voted to reactivate its membership in the Council of Churches and this new outlook
7 8

Ibid., page 82 Influencers on Spiritual Formation in Malaysia (1), Random Musings from a Doctor’s Chair, Dr Alex Tang, last accessed on 24 January 2012,


would needed time to reach the grassroots.9 Perhaps it would reflect a closer cooperation with other Christian communities for common causes of social concern, prayer and advocacy in the future. The Synod may be able to carry out programs at the national level if there is strong support from individual churches.

Not unlike other denominations, the mother-daughter relationships between the Chinese-speaking and English-speaking Presbyterian churches could spark tensions and contrasting cultural outlook. Generally, the former is more communal and hierarchical while the latter is more individualistic and egalitarian. A case in point is how constitutional changes were made in 1984 to require baptism by sprinkling and discourage speaking in tongues despite pleas made for a more pastoral approach. Historian John Roxborogh describes the situation thus: “The English speaking have already made a break from their home culture and at the same time are in contact with a wider range of Christian thought and activity. Chinese speaking congregations feel that there will be a place for them in the Malaysia of the future and believe that the English language will lose some of its importance.”10 But the present situation is more complex: Even though 90% of ethnic Chinese Malaysians would send their children to Chinese schools, the importance of English as commercial and technological medium of communication remains. It may be argued that a greater sense of belonging to the country is more appropriately inculcated through multiracial interactions found in national schools. In any case, joint effort for the gospel could leverage on the perspectives from both sides.


Christian in Malaysia: A Denominational History, edited by Robert Hunt, Lee Kam Hing and John Roxborogh, page 96 10 Ibid., page 76


John Calvin was known for his labor in providing integrated education through schools and the Academy in Geneva which sent out trained preachers throughout Europe. In the Malaysian context, there is an urgent need to recover a similar focus to recruit, train and develop leaders as the shortage of ordained pastors remains a long-standing issue. Through resource-sharing with global partners such as CWM, scholarships have been successfully granted to potential leaders for studies relating to ecclesiastical and marketplace ministry. Such collaboration in theological training in biblical studies and Christ-centered expository preaching may provide a niche for equipping the wider indigenous churches especially in East Malaysia.

Growing Islamisation in the public sphere coupled with recent controversies over the Lina Joy conversion case, usage of ‘sensitive’ Bahasa terms in the Alkitab, arson attacks on churches and raids by Muslim authorities for alleged evangelism to Muslims have posed urgent challenges to the faith and witness of the Malaysian church in general today. Malaysian Presbyterians could play a significant role together with other members of the wider Christian community in nation-building through word and deed. We can look back with gratitude for the faithfulness and providence of God in the past and look forward with faith and confidence for the new work that He is about to accomplish.



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