Davis, Charles E.

1879 - 1964
Pioneer missionary

Charles Elwood Davis (1879-1964) arrived in Sibu from the US and was appointed to oversee the agricultural school at Bukit Lan. The Bukit Lan farmland of 400 acres was given to the Methodist church by the Rajah of Sarawak to carry out experimental farming.

Davis, who was born in Indiana, grew up on a farm and was thus familiar with agricultural work. In 1908, he married Delle M. Holland, daughter of George and Anna Holland. Both of them were deeply burdened for overseas mission work. Together, they volunteered as pioneer missionaries to Borneo in 1911, to establish an industrial agricultural school for Chinese boys at Bukit Lan.

The couple left the US on October 2, 1911, arriving in Singapore on January 1, 1912 and reaching Sibu in April that year. Their first assignment out of Sibu, where they were living with Rev and Mrs James Hoover to study the Chinese and Malay languages, was at Hinghua Ba, to the new Hinghua colonists who had arrived on May 24, 1912. From there they went to Bukit Lan to work at the agricultural school.

In December 1912, Davis and James Hoover went to the Baram River area in the northern part of Sarawak on an exploratory trip at the request of Rajah Brooke who wanted to give this area to the Foochow immigrants to cultivate. Hoover was ill after the trip and had to return to the US to recuperate.

After Hoover left, the task of overseeing the Sibu Foochow settlement fell on the shoulders of Davis. Davis led several revival meetings. Documents show that he visited each church in the vicinity with Rev Ling Boh Jing to lead three to four days of revival meetings and held three services each day. These meetings continued for many weeks in August and September 1913. It ended with a week of worship at the boys' school in Sibu.

The superintendent from Singapore, Rev W.G. Shellabear, wrote in a report after his inspection tour of Sibu: "The movement brought a true spiritual awareness.”[1]

Davis' report said: "The Sibu Revival was really amazing, bringing a period of blessings to the people. Many said that they had never experienced such powerful meetings before. It was spirit-filled and people were in tears and prayers. They were prayers of repentance and asking God for forgiveness; others walked up to those they had sinned against to ask for forgiveness. Many also pledged abstaining from smoking, opium and strong drinks. As a result, these people got closer to God and lived a new life.”[2]

The agricultural school at Bukit Lan

The school was opened in May 1914 and named Elly Hall in honour of a Mr Elly from Kansas for his generous donation of $5,000. Aside from agricultural farming skills, English, Chinese and art were taught. The first batch consisted of 34 students and the following year, 50 students enrolled, including both Chinese and Ibans. Five Chinese and two missionaries were elected to form the educational board. 

The Sibu Foochow settlement had a boys’ school with 25 students and a girls’ school with 18 students. There were five other schools in other villages with a total student population of 125. The teachers were paid 50 US cents a month and the boarding students paid five cents a month for accommodation. The boarding fees were waived for poor students. 

In 1916, Davis fell sick and had to return to the US to recuperate, and the school came to a halt. W.T. Cherry, the superintendent, reported in 1917 that: “The initial plan at Bukit Lan was to build a school of higher learning in agriculture. The Chinese however were unhappy with this idea and set up a school of their own instead. So the agricultural school catered only to the needs of those interested, the Chinese and Dayaks and the six students sent by the Rajah. Many Dayaks were keen on this project and applied for the school.”

When the Davises left for the US in the middle of 1916, "all the work was forced to be put off. It was hoped that they would return soon to continue the work among the aborigines which was so promising. Though the work among the Dayaks was not easy, from what the Davises had done thus far, their work can be successful.”[3]

James Hoover, who was appointed the superintendent of Sarawak (which officially became a district) in 1920, in a report stated that: “The work at Bukit Lan was started by Charles in 1912. He worked diligently with us but then fell sick. He had to take leave back to the USA to recuperate in 1916. We wish for his return but it seems impossible now.”

“When he left, the boys were scattered to different settlements. By the time the rubber estates started to produce, the boys were needed at home to help out. Schools were thus built at locations where the boys were living for their convenience. As for the beautifully built school at Bukit Lan, only a few students living in the area were left,” added Hoover.[4]

First visit to Bawang Assan

While Davis was serving at Bukit Lan, he was invited by Hujan, an Iban chief, to his longhouse at Bawang Assan which was situated slightly down river. He was warmly welcomed. Davis prayed for them -- it could have been the first Iban Christian prayer meeting in the Rejang Basin.

On Christmas Eve 1915, Davis brought a few Iban boys and girls to study at Bukit Lan Agricultural School. They were smart and very keen in listening to stories about Jesus Christ. After studying and living with the Chinese students, they soon picked up the habit of saying grace before meals. Not long after, they requested to have Sunday worship in their language on Sunday afternoons, just like the Chinese.

Unfortunately, when Davis left, not just the school but the mission work among the Ibans also ended for the time being. Even so, there were still missionaries reporting on work among the Dayaks in the Malaysia Message. In 1926, Chief Hujan was even mentioned in an article entitled “No grinning skulls in his house”. This was 10 years after Davis' visit to his longhouse.[5]

The article stated: “Hujan is a progressive in Dyakland. He met a Methodist missionary several years ago who helped conquer the strangle-hold of evil spirits and he became an aggressive liberal. And since he is the chief of his tribe what he says counts… In Hujan's house there are no grinning skulls... Many other Dyak... lack the courage to discard them. Hujan is certain that education, of the sort Mr. Davis gave him, is the cure for the disgusting ceremonies in which his countrymen still persist.”

Davis had opened the pathway to evangelism at Bawang Asam longhouse in 1915 but it was not until 1939 that two Methodist missionaries (Rev Paul Harold Schmucker from USA and Rev Lucius D. Mamora from Indonesia) came to concentrate on the Iban ministry. They worked among the Ibans in the Kapit area. This was the real starting point of mission work to the Ibans. 



  1. ^ W.G. Shellabear, Malacca District, Minutes of the Twenty second Session of the Malaysia Conference, 10-16 January, 1914.
  2. ^ Mrs Davis, Sarawak Borneo, Minutes of the Women’s Conference of Malaysia Mission, 10-16 January, 1914.
  3. ^ W.T. Cherry, Sarawak, Minutes of Twenty-fifth Session of the Malaysia Conference, 1—7 February, 1917.
  4. ^ J.M. Hoover, Sarawak District, Minutes of the Twenty-eighth Session of the Malaysia Conference, 19-23 February, 1920.
  5. ^ Charles E. Davis, Pioneering in Sarawak, Methodist Message 1970. Pelita Methodist, Volume 39, No. 10 & 11 Oct/Nov 2013.

© SCAC. This article from Missionaries to Sarawak: Footprints in the Land of Hornbills is reproduced with permission of the Sarawak Chinese Annual Conference, The Methodist Church in Malaysia, with editing for clarity and brevity. 

[Missionaries to Sarawak: Footprints in the Land of Hornbills 1 and 2 are compiled by Wong Meng Lei (also chief editor), edited by Tumi Ngae, and translated by Christina Tiong, K.T. Chew, and Chang Yi. Book 2 translators are Christina Tiong, K.T. Chew, Chang Yi and Ting Kong Sing.]