Chambers, Walter

1824 - 1893
Second Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak
Anglican
Malaysia

Walter Chambers was born in 1824 in England. In 1851, he arrived in Borneo under the auspices of the Borneo Church Mission and was posted to a town known as Sakarran (the present-day name of which is unknown), which had the reputation of being a haven for pirates and rebellious Dayaks against the newly established Brooke government. His best efforts at teaching the locals English and the gospel made little headway as the majority of the populace remained discontented with the encroachment of the British in the region.[1]

Events came to a head in 1853 when the Dayaks became increasingly frustrated with the authorities who branded them as pirates and were restricting their movements upriver. This severely affected the livelihoods of the Dayaks and prompted them to openly rebel against the government later that same year. Sensing the danger he was in, Rev Chambers and his companion, a certain Mr Brereton who had come to join him at Sakarran to minister to the Dayaks, fled to Lingga where the British Resident was holed up with a small British force.[2] An attack by the chieftain Rentap, who rallied the Dayaks to his cause, saw the death of the British Resident even though the attack was repelled. Not long after, Brereton succumbed to dysentery. 

In 1854, the uprising against the Sarawak government was suppressed with the aid of the Royal Navy. With the return of peace to the area, Rev Chambers began ministering in Lingga instead of returning to Sakarran. Through the combined efforts of Chambers and other missionaries, many Dayaks of Balow and Lundu converted to the faith.[3]

There arose at this time a controversy surrounding the proper translation for Jesus. In Malay, Jesus is known as Isa and that was the term the Dayaks were using. However, at that point, there was a convicted criminal in the area who also went by the name of Isa, which resulted in some confusion among the Dayaks. Rev Chambers decided that a meeting of the clergy should take place in the neighbouring village of Banting for the matter to be decided. The group that was gathered consisted of Bishop Francis McDougall and learned Dayak Christians. After a few days of consultation, an agreement was reached regarding the use of the word “Isa” for Jesus and other religious terminologies.[4]

At the same time, Rev Chambers also hosted a Trinity Sunday service at a large mission house in Banting, after which he spent some time in the village, writing hymns, and the Creed in verse, and teaching the locals the parables. 

Under Chambers’ guidance, Banting and Lingga continued to grow as mission stations that even saw several women getting baptised. In 1857, construction began on the church that would one day come to be known as St. Paul’s Anglican Church. It was eventually completed in 1859 and was consecrated by Bishop McDougall in 1864. The church was built entirely out of Belian wood, which made it invulnerable to attacks by termites. According to Harriette McDougall, who visited the church again in the 1860s, the “church is full of Dyak Christians every Sunday, and from this living Church many branches have been planted, so that the Banting Mission now includes seven stations, where there are school churches built by the natives themselves and many hundreds of Christian worshippers.”[5]

Towards the end of 1856, simmering grievances against the Brooke government led once more to revolt, this time by Chinese miners from the settlement of Bau. Rev Chambers’ work among the Dayaks bore fruit as they refused to rebel against the government, instead remaining at peace and even persuading neighbouring tribes to abandon the ritual of headhunting.[6]

In July 1857, Rev Chambers returned to Kuching, where he married Lizzie Wooley, the cousin of Harriette McDougall. Wooley was a devoted missionary for young girls and women, teaching them to sew and instructing them in the tenets of the faith. Some years later, Harriette McDougall recorded of the young girls of Banting:

When I went to Banting some years afterwards, I found a set of modest young women who were much pleased with gifts of needles, thread, and thimbles; they also enjoyed a game of croquet after the lessons were done, and it was wonderful to see what smart taps of the mallet were fearlessly given under their bare feet; for of course the Dyaks do not wear shoes.[7]

The following year, Rev Chambers oversaw the ordination of new members of the Sarawakian clergy, preaching a “most impressive sermon”, in the words of Harriette McDougall.[8] One of the newly ordained priests, a certain Mr Glover, was to join Rev Chambers at Banting, signifying the growth of that mission station. 

After a long posting to Banting and Lingga, the Chambers returned to England in December 1859. However, according to Harriette, the Reverend had a “sincere affection” for the Dayaks at Banting, and that “it would grieve him… to forsake it and let other men reap the fruit of his [Chambers’] five years' labour there.”[9] While the Chambers were on sabbatical in England, new mission ships continued to arrive in Sarawak with an increasing number of missionaries who went out to the various stations established by Bishop McDougall, Rev Chambers, and others. 

The Chambers returned to Sarawak in 1864 just in time for the consecration of St Paul’s Church in Banting, where they continued their work among the Dayaks. Such was the renewed vigour of Rev Chambers that when Rev C.J. Waterhouse, who was the colonial chaplain of Singapore, visited Banting, he commented:

I cannot but admire the patience with which Mr. Chambers talks all day, morning, noon, and night, to every party of Dyaks, who march into the house whenever they like, making it quite their home: it is what very few people could do day after day.[10]

Rev Chambers now focused his attention on teaching the Dayaks English, and when they were willing to listen, “a prayer, a hymn, a parable, or some Scripture lesson.”[11]At the beginning of 1868, Bishop McDougall had made known his intentions to resign as the Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak due to ill health. He proceeded to nominate Rev Chambers as his successor, which was approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury later that year. He was consecrated as the Second Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak at Westminster Abbey on June 29, 1868. In September that year, he was also consecrated as Bishop of Singapore after the ecclesiastical consolidation of the Straits Settlements’ diocese jurisdiction with that of Borneo. 

Under Bishop Chambers’ oversight, St Thomas’ School in Kuching was finally completed in 1870, thus finishing the work that Bishop McDougall started. That same year, he also elevated St. Andrew’s Church in Singapore to the status of a cathedral of the Diocese of Labuan and Sarawak.[12]

The appointment of Bishop Chambers to the episcopate meant that he could not exercise his ministerial duties as regularly as before. As such, he began training young locals to assume leadership roles in the different regions and towns around Sarawak. Learned indigenous peoples were ordained to become catechists, according to reports sent by Chambers to the Home Secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in London.[13]In his previous mission stations of Lingga and Banting, local Ibans were trained to spread and teach the Gospel to take over from European missionaries. In the town of Quop which was under Bishop Chambers’ jurisdiction for a time, a young Chinese man named Chung Ah Luk was assigned to look after the convent school there while ministering to the surrounding Bidayuh villages. Chung would one day become the first local Chinese deacon in 1874 and was ordained as a priest in 1904.[14]

Bishop Walter Chambers resigned his position as bishop in 1879 due to ill health. He had served in Borneo for 28 years. He passed away on December 21, 1893, aged 69, at his home in Kensington, London, and was buried in Aberystwyth, Wales. 

Notes

  1. ^ Charles John Bunyon, Memoirs of Francis Thomas McDougall ... Sometime Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak, and of Harriette, His Wife (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889).
  2. ^ Harriette McDougall, Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882).
  3. ^ McDougall, Sketches.
  4. ^ McDougall, Sketches.
  5. ^ Harriette McDougall, Letters from Sarawak: Addressed to a Child (London: Grant and Griffith, 1854).
  6. ^ Graham Saunders, Bishops and Brookes: The Anglican Mission and the Brooke Raj in Sarawak 1848-1941 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
  7. ^ McDougall, Letters from Sarawak.
  8. ^ McDougall, Letters from Sarawak.
  9. ^ McDougall, Letters from Sarawak.
  10. ^ McDougall, Letters from Sarawak.
  11. ^  D.A. Edwards, “The Legacy of Francis Thomas McDougall”, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31(4), 204-208. https://doi.org/10.1177/239693930703100410, 2007.
  12. ^ “Our Beginning”, St Andrew’s Cathedral, January 1, 1970. https://cathedral.org.sg/page/our-beginning. 
  13. ^ Peter Varney, “Iban Leaders in the Anglican Church in Sarawak,1848 to 2010”, Sarawak Museum Journal, Volume XVII, Nos. 34-35 (New Series), 1969. 
  14. ^ Faruqi Jeniri, “Amazing Sarawak – Part 8”, New Sarawak Tribune, April 26, 2017. https://www.newsarawaktribune.com.my/amazing-sarawak-part-8/. 

Brendan Yeo

The writer is a student of history and is currently pursuing his Masters in Southeast Asian History at the University of Malaya. 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Bunyon, Charles John. Memoirs of Francis Thomas McDougall ... Sometime Bishop of Labuan and Sarawak, and of Harriette, His Wife. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889. 

Edwards, D. A. ‘The Legacy of Francis Thomas McDougall’. International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31(4), 204-208. https://doi.org/10.1177/239693930703100410, 2007. 

Jingan, Aeries Sumping. “History of Diocese of Kuching.” Diocese of Kuching. Accessed February 20, 2024. https://dioceseofkuching.org/about-us-3/history-of-diocese-of-kuching/

Jeniri, Faruqi. “Amazing Sarawak - Part 8.” New Sarawak Tribune, April 26, 2017. https://www.newsarawaktribune.com.my/amazing-sarawak-part-8/

McDougall, Harriette. Letters from Sarawak: Addressed to a Child. London: Grant and Griffith, 1854. 

McDougall, Harriette. Sketches of Our Life at Sarawak. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1882. 

Saunders, Graham. Bishops and Brookes: The Anglican Mission and the Brooke Raj in Sarawak 1848-1941. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 

Varney, Peter. ‘Iban Leaders in the Anglican Church in Sarawak,1848 to 2010’ Sarawak Museum Journal, Volume XVII, Nos. 34-35 (New Series), 1969.