Cook, John A. B.

1854 - 1926
Missionary
Founder, Holy Light Presbyterian Church, Johor Bahru
Malaya and Singapore

John Angus Bethune Cook was born in South Shields, Durham in England on October 28, 1854 to William Harwood Cook, a tailor, and Ellen Agnes Mountain. He was the sixth son and seventh of 10 children.

Cook dedicated more than four decades of his life to spearheading and establishing Presbyterian congregations in Singapore and Johor and by the time he retired, there were 16 churches.[1]

He was educated at the day school of Holy Trinity Church, South Shields and then at St Hilda’s. However, during the ministry of missionary Rev William Murray, Cook started going to Sunday school at Ogle Terrace and there became connected with St John’s Presbyterian Church in South Shields. He then attended the Union British School at Watervale. Cook regarded Rev James Mackenzie of South Shields as his spiritual benefactor and dedicated his book, Sunny Singapore: An Account of the Place and Its People, with a Sketch of the Results of Missionary Work published in 1906, to his friend.

While growing up, Cook worked in various jobs in hosiery, printing, books, and clothing. He also studied privately with his church minister, taught at Sunday school, and learned Greek and Hebrew, in preparation for ministry training.

In 1872, when he was about 18, he visited Italy. His records at Westminster College in Oxford indicated that he undertook a sea voyage to prevent a breakdown from overworking and worked his passage to the Mediterranean. However, he returned home in time to enter university.

Cook matriculated at the University of Glasgow for the academic year 1875-1876 at age 21 for an arts degree but did not graduate. He later completed his education at Edinburgh University and graduated in 1878. 

In October that same year, he attended the English Presbyterian College at Queen Square, London. He completed his exit exams and was licensed by the Presbytery of London on May 10, 1881. While at college, he and several fellow students founded the Students’ Missionary Association where he expressed the opinion (which guided his future action) that every man looking forward to the ministry should be prepared to go anywhere that God should indicate as his sphere of service.[2] 

Having made up his mind to be a missionary, he then studied Chinese at Oxford under Professor James Legge. It was his intention to go to China to work among the Chinese in their own land rather than among the Chinese abroad. He was approached to go as a minister to Rangoon (now Yangon) but his heart was in foreign mission work among those who had never heard the Gospel.

“With so many members of our Chinese Churches in the districts of Amoy and Swatow emigrating to Singapore and the Malay Peninsula it had become advisable to establish a branch of the Chinese Mission there; JABC was chosen for this pioneering work — he went to Singapore reluctantly but did God’s bidding”.[3]

He was ordained by the Presbytery of Newcastle at St John's, South Shields on September 13, 1881 and inducted for service in Singapore. He preached a farewell sermon on October 7 and sailed from Gravesend on October 12 for Hong Kong. On his arrival in Swatow on November 27, he undertook a year studying the Swatow and Amoy dialects. He finally arrived in Singapore in November 1882 and spent nearly 43 years as a missionary there and in Johor.

Cook’s arrival was chosen to mark the founding of the Presbyterian churches of Malaysia and Singapore.[4] He took over a small congregation of 39 members (which had previously been supporting a Chinese catechist) in Bukit Timah using a small attap building as a church. He received support and help from the Straits Chinese Church which was set up by Rev Benjamin P. Keasberry in 1843. When William Young, who took over the work from Keasberry, left Singapore in 1885, this congregation of Straits Chinese who spoke Malay and English came under Cook’s supervision.

On November 20, 1882, Cook married Jane Henry, eldest daughter of James Henry of Kilwinning, Ayrshire. They had three children born in Singapore: Henry Mackenzie, Arnold Meldrum and Lillias Barbour.

For 25 years, Cook was the main person who developed the Christian work in Singapore and Johor although he had occasional help from visiting missionaries. He expanded the work in these two areas which later became organised churches. In addition to working in the Swatow dialect, he also worked with the Amoy, Hakka and Hainanese-speaking Chinese communities.

In 1886, Cook founded The Holy Light Church in Johor Bahru. He was assisted there by a Scotsman, Dato’ James Meldrum, who was the son-in-law of Reverend Keasberry, a former tutor to Sultan Abu Bakar. With the help of Dato’ Meldrum, the Sultan granted three acres of the present land at Jalan Gertak Merah to the church. The original church building was constructed with timber supplied from the sawmill operated by the Meldrums. During this time, the church served as a base for outreach and the Sunday services included Chinese and English sessions.

Before the turn of the century, Cook’s work was bearing fruit with eight Chinese congregations in Singapore, including one in Johor Bahru: The Prinsep Street Church (1843); Orchard Road Presbyterian Church (1856); Bukit Timah (1857) which later became the Glory Presbyterian Church; Upper Serangoon Road Bethel Church (1883); Tekka Church (1883); Prinsep Street Life Church (1883); Hong Lim Market (Hokkien Church) (1883) which became Jubilee Church; and The Holy Light Church in Johor Bahru (1886).    

Cook sought to implement a policy of building a “Three-Self” church among the Chinese migrants: self-supporting, self-governing, and self-extending.[5] This was a common policy among many missionary groups, including the Presbyterian Church of England which sought to develop a local church capable of directing its own affairs, supporting itself and being responsible for its own evangelistic outreach. Cook wrote home in 1884 that he had formed a presbytery with three Chinese elders and himself as moderator and that it was his aim to build up a strong native church.[6] The formation of the presbytery was slightly premature but the vision was realised with the formation of the Singapore Presbyterian Synod in January 1901.

In 1902, Cook was joined by Rev William Murray who returned to Malaya from England to take responsibility for the Straits Chinese congregation in Prinsep Street Church.

In 1906, he published Sunny Singapore to give a context of missions in Malaya in their geographical, historical, and social setting.

Cook was supported in his work by his wife until she fell ill in 1922 and died in 1923, aged 73.

When he retired in 1925 after serving 43 years as a missionary in Singapore and Johor, the work had grown from a small beginning to 16 congregations linked together in a fully organised Chinese Presbytery — largely due to his devotion and ability. Just before he left Singapore, a new kindergarten and girls’ school, the cost of which was borne equally by the government and the church members, were erected in the Tanjong Pagar district. This would not have been possible without his skill and zeal. The work which Cook accomplished in Singapore required organisational ability, foresight, perseverance and resolution which few possessed. It was no easy task to secure sites, draw up plans, arrange building contracts and secure adequate funding, while at the same time carrying out regular evangelical and pastoral work over a scattered area.[7]

Cook’s methods to achieve his goals were not always readily accepted by others and his quick and impulsive temper and outspoken views would often create tension. However, these shortcomings were usually overlooked because of his many good qualities and the good work he accomplished for the Church.[8]

Cook returned to London in 1925 and about six months later, on October 13, 1925, he married a 64-year-old widow, Amy Jane Angus, at Park Church in Highbury, Islington. The daughter of Arthur Job Foley, she was born in Wiltshire in October 1860. Her first husband, furniture designer James Barr Angus with whom she had two children, had died in April 1894. Amy was the lady superintendent of the Foreign Missionary Club in Highbury, New Park, where Cook presumably met her.

Cook paid his fifth and last visit to Italy where he died in Malcesine on the eastern shore of Lake Garda on July 13, 1926 at the age of 72, and was buried there.

Notes

  1. ^ Rev William Murray in an article on Rev John Cook, in The Presbyterian Church in Singapore and Malaysia: 90th Anniversary of the Church and 70th Anniversary of the Synod ; Commemoration Volume, Presbyterian Church in Singapore and Malaysia, 1970. 
  2. ^ John Angus Bethune Cook, Sunny Singapore: An Account of the Place and Its People, with a Sketch of the Results of Missionary Work. London: Forgotten Books, 2015. 
  3. ^ Cook, Sunny Singapore, 56-57.  
  4. ^ Murray, “The Presbyterian Church in Singapore and Malaysia”. 
  5. ^ John Roxborogh, “The Presbyterian Church in Malaysia”, in Christianity in Malaysia. A Denominational History, eds. Robert Hunt, John Roxburgh, Lee Kam Hing. Roxborogh (1992). Petaling Jaya, Pelanduk, 1992, 75-106. 
  6. ^ Cook, Sunny Singapore, 56- 57. 
  7. ^ Roxborogh, “The Presbyterian Church in Malaysia”, 75-106.
  8. ^ William Murray, “In Memoriam Rev  J A B Cook” in Presbyterian Messenger, September 1926, 130. 

Nigel Fairley 

The writer is a retired army officer who attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and lived in Singapore and Malaya (Sungei Petani and Seremban) from 1952 to 1962.

 

Bibliography

Cook, J.A.B. Sunny Singapore: An Account of the Place and Its People, with a Sketch of the Results of Missionary Work. London: Forgotten Books, 2018.

Harcus, A.D. History of the Presbyterian Church in Malaya. Presbyterian Historical Society of England, 1955. 10, 14.

Murray, William. “In Memoriam Rev J A B Cook (Obituary)”. In Presbyterian Messenger’, September 1926. Provided by the Archivist, Westminster College, Cambridge.
 

Presbyterian Church of England Mission Ordinance (Chapter 373) - Original Enactment: Ordinance 7 of 1903 - An Ordinance to incorporate the Senior Missionary in Singapore of the Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church of England.

 

Roxborough, John. “Streams of Faith and Culture Flow Together:  Interpreting the Story of Gereja Presbyterian Malaysia”.  https://www.academia.edu/4482381/Streams_of_Faith_and_Culture_Flow_Toge….

 

Shaw, W.B. “Fasti File: Rev John Angus Bethune Cook – Biographical Summary”. (W.B. Shaw, Librarian and Curator of the Presbyterian Historical Society, created and maintained this series of files about ministers of the church). Researched by the Archivist, Westminster College Cambridge, email June 22, 2021.