Friday, June 29, 2007

Influencers on Spiritual Formation in Malaysia (1)

Influencers of Christian spiritual formation in Malaysia (1)

Malaysian Presbyterian Influence on Spiritual Formation
Note: This is written from a Malaysian Presbyterian point of view and does not represent the official position of the Presbyterian churches of Malaysia.

Denominations is an important context in which to understand spiritual formation in Malaysia. Presbyterianism first came to Malaya when the Dutch captured the trading town of Malacca in 1641. The second wave came with the British colonisation of the Straits Settlement of Singapore, Malacca and Penang. These were Scottish and English Presbyterians who were traders, soldiers and missionaries from mission organisations. One such organisation was the London Missionary Society (Helms), now known as the Council for World Mission (CWM). The third wave came in 1950s, when China closed its door to foreign missionaries and they relocated to Malaya and Singapore. An English Speaking Presbytery (ESP) was formed in 1990. The first two waves are mainly English speaking while the third wave was mainly Chinese speaking. Together with this third wave came missionaries from the Inland China Mission, now called Overseas Chinese Mission (Bloomfield) which “served as the bridge between the two streams[1].”(Roxborogh 2001, 673). The New Zealand Presbyterians have worked closely with the China Inland Mission (Roxborogh 2001, 672). Therefore Presbyterianism in Malaysia was influenced by the Dutch, Scottish, English and New Zealanders but not the Americans Presbyterians.

The influence of Carl McIntyre and John Song caused a church split and the Bible Presbyterian Church was formed. (Roxborough 2001, 672). In Malaysia, Presbyterianism is divided into the Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church.

The Presbyterian mission was strongly involved in education, itinerant evangelism and medical care. (Roxborough 2001, 672). However, its involvement with education is not so extensive as compared to the Methodists, Anglicans, and the Roman Catholic Church. The significance of this Christian involvement in education by building Christian schools is that “in 1950, they educated nearly half the students in the English medium schools in West Malaysia and produced nearly two-thirds of all secondary education in any medium” (Sunquist 2001, 189). The influence of Christian schools decreased after Malaysia became independent in 1957 and the newly appointed government ‘nationalised’ all Christian schools. The Presbyterian Church is still involved in higher education, especially theological education, for example, in Trinity Theological College (TTC) in Singapore[2]. What this strategy produced are churches in Malaysia that values Western education and are English speaking.

Initially the English speaking congregations was to cater for the expatriates. Then as the number of English speaking converts increased, the church demography began to change. St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Kuala Lumpur still has a large expatriate membership. Holy Light Church (English) is the largest English speaking Presbyterian Church in Malaysia. Its history dates back 125 years to J.A.B. Cook. Cook was called by the Presbyterian Church of England in 1882 to Singapore to lead the Chinese Presbyterian Church after the death of its founder, Benjamin Keasberry (Sng 1993, 104-107). After reforming the church in Singapore, Cook planted a few Chinese speaking churches in Malaya. In Johor Bahru, he was able to get grants of land from the Sultan of Johore through Keasberry’s son-in-law, James Meldrum (Hunt 2001, 215). It is on one such plot of land that Cook started the Holy Light Church (Chinese). In a series of events which will be repeated all over the country, the Chinese speaking congregation started an English speaking service which grew and in time developed into an English speaking church. In this case, Holy Light Church (English) was started and today both the churches occupy the same premises[3].

The tensions between the English speaking and Chinese speaking Presbyterian churches are an influencer in the Malaysian Presbyterian ethos. This sibling rivalry disrupts the harmony in church relationships and provides a bad model of inter-community relationships. The more hierarchical Chinese speaking churches regard their younger English speaking brethrens as disrespectful. Basically it is a conflict of worldviews. Church historian John Roxborogh explains, “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 Malaysia of the future and believe that English will lose some of its importance.” (Hunt, Lee et al. 1992, 76). One effect of this is that the English speaking congregations are wider in their outlook and look towards the West for ideas, while the Chinese speaking congregations are more inclusive and looks toward Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

Though the Synod is the main governing body, Presbyterian churches are by its nature independent, led by ruling and teaching elders. A lot of responsibility was placed on the ruling elder to interpret the Presbyterian/ Reformed ethos. In recent years, many of the pastors do not subscribe fully to Calvinism. Some are also Arminian in their thinking. Most of them are evangelical in their thinking. There is also a charismatic influence in some churches. Obvious this will have some influence the spiritual development of its members.

Another inherited problem is the role of youth and women in church ministries. In some, but not all Malaysian Presbyterian churches, women are not allowed to preach from the pulpit. This problem with the role of women in ministry and leadership were not unique to Malaysian Presbyterians. The Presbyterian Church of the United States (PCUSA) first ordained women elders only in 1920 after years of debates. (Smylie 1996, 113). Four ladies were appointed to the Board of Managers of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in 1957 (Cummings, 1964). Since then there are some hopeful signs in some churches in Malaysia where some women are being appointed deaconess and elders. Youth are not appointed to be deacon or elder and are often not represented in the upper leadership echelons. In the Presbyterian ethos, youth is not a priority. Again, there are hopeful signs that a few new Presbyterian churches are formed for youths. Concerning the response to the Charismatic revival, Roxborogh comments, “The Charismatic movement influenced many English speaking congregations in the 1970s, but despite pleas for a more pastoral approach the Chinese speaking majority introduced constitutional changes in 1984 requiring that all baptisms be by sprinkling and discouraging speaking in tongues.” (Roxborogh 1992, 99). This reflects the conservatism of the Chinese speaking congregations and their relationship with the English speaking congregations.

Denominational distinctive, while not so important as it once was, is a major influencer in societal corporate spiritual formation. There is not much emphasis on Calvinism and one can be a member of a church for more than 10 years without knowing about Presbyterianism and the Reformed tradition[4]. There is a chapter on Presbyterianism in the baptism class and after that was never mentioned again[5]. The issues of the role of youth, women and of the Holy Spirit need to be addressed because these issues are important in corporate spiritual formation.


Bloomfield, F. (1983). The Book of Chinese Beliefs. London, Arrow Books.
College, T. T. (2006). At the Crossroads: The History of Trinity Theological College 1948-2005. Singapore, C.O.S. Printers Pte Ltd.
English-Work-Committee (1977). Christ Our Life: A Communicant's Manual. Kuala Lumpur, Geraja Presbyterian Malaysia and The Presbyterian Church of Singapore.
Helms, H. M., Ed. (1982). Fenelon: The Royal Way of the Cross. Brewster, MA, Paraclete Press.
Hunt, R. (2001). Cook, J.A.B. A Dictionary of Asia Christianity. S. W. Sunquist. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans publishing Company: 215.
Hunt, R., K. H. Lee, et al., Eds. (1992). Christianity in Malaysia: A Denominational History. Kuala Lumpur, Pelanduk Publishers (M) Sdn Bhd.
Roxborogh, J. (2001). Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. A Dictionary of Asian Christianity. S. W. Sunquist. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. EerdmansPublishing Company: 672-675.
Smylie, J. H. (1996). A Brief History of the Presbyterians. Louisville, KN, Geneva Press.
Sng, B. E. K. (1993). In His Good Time. Singapore, Graduates' Christian Fellowship.
Sunquist, S. W. (2001). Colleges and Universities. A Dictionary of Asian Christianity. S. W. Sunquist. Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: 185-191.
Tan, R., Ed. (2002). Holy Light Church (English): 50 Years of Grace (1952-2002). Johor Bahru, Holy Light Church (English).
Trinity-Theological-College (1999). Our Heritage Our Future. Singapore, Armour Publishing Pte Ltd.


[1] The two streams refer to the English speaking and the Chinese speaking Christians. These two streams still exist today. They exist in the same church or in separate churches.
[2] Trinity Theological College started on 4th October 1948 started as a joint venture between “The English Presbyterian, The Church of English and the Methodist Church.” Trinity-Theological-College (1999). Our Heritage Our Future. Singapore, Armour Publishing Pte Ltd. p.30. The idea for an ecumenical theological college were mooted during discussions among Rev. Hobart B. Amstutz (Methodist), Rev.Gidson (Presbyterian), and Canon Adams (Anglican) when the three were interned at Changi Camp during the Japanese Occupation. College, T. T. (2006). At the Crossroads: The History of Trinity Theological College 1948-2005. Singapore, C.O.S. Printers Pte Ltd.p.39
[3] It is argued that the initial English speaking service started in Holy Light Church (Chinese) was for the Meldrum family and not truly a church service. This English service was stopped after James Meldrum died. It was revived in 1952 by Rev. Hood and it was claimed that this was the real start of Holy Light Church (English). See Tan, R., Ed. (2002). Holy Light Church (English): 50 Years of Grace (1952-2002). Johor Bahru, Holy Light Church (English). p. 15
[4] Personal communications with members of a few English Speaking Presbyterian churches.
[5] The instruction manual for Baptism classes is English-Work-Committee (1977). Christ Our Life: A Communicant's Manual. Kuala Lumpur, Geraja Presbyterian Malaysia and The Presbyterian Church of Singapore. A personal survey with the pastors and elders of the English Speaking Presbytery revealed that most churches are not using this manual, and are not teaching about Calvinism and the Reformed tradition.

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Blogger Kar Yong said...

Thanks, Alex, for this. Looking forward to your future posts. It's nice to learn a bit of my own presbyterian background...!

12:30 PM  
Anonymous blogpastor said...

An interesting piece on Presbyterianism history in Malaysia and its bearing on corporate spiritual formation. With such conservatism and caution, will the Presbyterian movement be able to keep its young - not to speak of forming their lives in Christ? It seems to me, speaking as an outsider looking in, a very grave challenge.

9:17 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

hi kar yong,

your presbyterian roots may run deeper than you thinks...*smile*

hi blogpastor,

yes, this is a grave challenge of retaining our youth and young adults. However, I find this problems in all denominations, not only the Presbyterians. The leadership of all these churches must wake up to to the danger of losing the next two generations of Christians.

2:57 AM  
Blogger HS Wealth Management said...

As a member of the English-speaking Congregation of Klang Presbyterian Church, I can't help but concur with your both frank and incisive observations.

12:21 AM  

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