William Thomas Cherry was born on November 17, 1872 in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. He moved to the United States in 1897 and was pastoring a small church in Pennsylvania when he answered an advertisement asking for an ordained minister who knew the printing business to manage a printing press venture in Singapore.
Some years earlier, in December 1890, the Methodist missionary and former British army officer Rev William G. Shellabear had started the Amelia Bishop Press, named after a donor. The press was intended for publishing Christian literature but it was a struggling concern and was on the verge of bankruptcy several times. It had to secure a loan from the Bible Society and take up secular printing jobs to sustain itself. In 1893, the name of the press was changed to American Mission Press when it moved to Raffles Place.
After 10 years of this unenviable task, Shellabear decided to get a new agent from the US to take over the press. As it turned out, the bishop responsible for choosing the right candidate lost all the applications except for that of Cherry. So it was that Rev Cherry and his wife, the former Miriam Jessie Thorpe, set sail from the U.S. for the Malayan mission field, arriving in Singapore in February 1900.
The Malaya Conference Minutes of 1900 recorded: “We rejoice in the increased prosperity of our Press and in the arrival of the new Agent, Brother W.T. Cherry, who will relieve Brother Shellabear of the strain upon him during the past two years. The proposition of the British and Foreign Bible Society, made last year, that W.G. Shellabear be released for the translation of the scriptures, was accepted, and a new Agent sent from America. The Press is rapidly gaining a reputation in the colony for good work and we hope the time of entire self-support is not far distant.”
Under the able stewardship of Cherry, the printing press quickly became involved not just in printing, publishing, book distribution and sales but also expanded to selling unfermented grape juice for Holy Communion, study lamps and a selection of publications in 10 Southeast Asian languages.
In 1906, the name of the press was again changed, this time to Methodist Publishing House (MPH). The venture had become an enormous success and a new building was constructed at the corner of Stamford Road and Armenian Street for its expansion. In April 1908, MPH moved into the new commodious building and the various departments were housed and centralised under one roof. New printing machinery and equipment were acquired and a steady supply of electricity, critical for the smooth running of the press, was secured.
With modern machinery and a spacious new home, the business continued to flourish. Cherry was undoubtedly a man of rare business acumen but his work was not without difficulties and discouragement. MPH quickly became profitable and well-known throughout Southeast Asia, churning out millions of pages of Christian literature which penetrated places where no missionary could go.
Over the years, MPH generated increasingly more profits for the Malaya Mission. The surplus funds were channelled to many other ministries of the Mission, including paying debts incurred by churches for land and buildings in Malacca, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, Penang, the Netherlands Indies and North Sumatra.
With growth and expansion, the work of MPH gradually evolved into a commercial enterprise, with only 10 per cent to do with religious publications. Hence, on December 31, 1927, the Mission decided to divest part of its interest through the incorporation of Malaya Publishing House Limited. From sole proprietor, the Mission became the major shareholder.
Outside his printing work, Rev Cherry was popular among the Asian pastors whom he frequently visited and generously assisted whenever needed. He realised he could become an important bridge between the local indigenous church and the foreign mission agencies which were then landing on Asian shores.
Meanwhile, Mrs Cherry was known for her hospitality in organising tea-and-cake sessions for God’s workers, especially Chinese preachers or Tamil families, in her home. Her generosity to the poor was legendary as she helped the sewing woman in need, found work for the leper woman, showed kindness to mothers of little children and cared for the sick.
Sophia Blackmore, a fellow Methodist missionary in Singapore, wrote of the Cherrys: “Through the twenty-three years we had been building up the work, Mr Cherry’s clear brain has taken of the interests of our properties, seeing that their titles are good, deeds properly cared for, and insurances met. Nothing was allowed to go at loose ends. Finances have been husbanded, and the budget system applied to all concerns under his control. The outstanding work of Mr Cherry’s career amongst us has been the building up of the Methodist Publishing House. He found it a struggling concern, in an upstairs room in an alley. He has left it with a good building in a prominent street, the machinery up-to-date, turning out first class work. None other first class could come from under the capable care of such a Manager, who notices and endeavours to perfect the most trifling detail.
Cherry was superintendent of the Singapore district for many years and took a personal interest in work among the Chinese and women. He also stood in as pastor of the Wesley Church in three instances when the pulpit was left vacant after the minister left for home due to poor health. From 1902-04, Rev Cherry was pastor of the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church.His sermons were spiritual and yet lively, and much enjoyed. For many years, he conducted the 7am Saturday prayer meeting at Nind Home, a girls’ boarding home established in 1890 by Blackmore who also founded the Tamil Girls’ School that later became the Methodist Girls’ School. The meetings were well attended and a source of great encouragement to all the missionaries.
In 1923, Rev Cherry retired early to return to the U.S. due to his wife’s failing health. The MPH management was passed to his son, William Cherry Jr., and Frank Cooper Sands who hailed from England.
In the May 1930 issue of Malaysia Message, Cherry wrote in his American page: “Missionaries and indeed all Christian workers need to guard against some mistakes: against that pessimism, on the other hand, which sees everything as going from bad to worse and is forever talking of quitting this or that promising activity; and against the passion, on the other hand, of scraping tried and fruitful methods for something whose only merit is that it is novel. It used to be the perennial topic for discussion at District Conference “What shall we do about our Schools? They absorb so much time and money, and yield such meagre results.” Alas for our prophetic vision, and our lack of patience! Problems, vexations, expense, depleted staffs, overwork, discouragements, breakdowns, there have been, and probably alway will be. But what are missionaries for? To pick out the soft berths?”
On his return to the US in 1923, he served as a pastor of churches at Langhorne and Ridley Park as well as the Eddystone United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania. He passed away on October 12, 1941 at the age of 69 and was survived by his wife Miriam and four sons – William T. Cherry Jr. (head of the Government Press Singapore); Rev Clinton Cherry and his wife, Sharon Hill; James and Robert Cherry as well as two daughters, Mrs Ralph Sharer and Miss Ruth Cherry.
- ^ Nathalie T. Means, Malaysia Mosaic: A Story of Fifty Years of Methodism (Singapore: The Methodist Book Room, 1935), 50.
- ^ T.R. Doraisamy, Heralds of the Lord: Personalities in Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia (Singapore: The Methodist Book Room. 1988), 23.
- ^ Doraisamy, Heralds of the Lord, 23.
- ^ Doraisamy, Heralds of the Lord, 24.
Doraisamy, T.R. Heralds of the Lord: Personalities in Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: The Methodist Book Room, 1988.
“Dr W.T. Cherry, Former Langhorne Pastor, Dies”, accessed February 18, 2021, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/192617117/william-thomas-cherry
Lau, Earnest. From Mission to Church: The Evolution of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia, 1885–1976. Singapore: Genesis Books, 2008.
Means, Nathalie T. Malaysia Mosaic: A Story of Fifty Years of Methodism. Singapore: The Methodist Book Room, 1935.
“Past Pastors of the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, 1889-1988”, accessed February 18, 2021, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/printheritage/image.aspx?id=38fa10a1-8d09…