William Murray was born on January 22, 1864 in Glasgow, Scotland, the third son of William Murray, a bookseller and stationer, and Helen Turner. The couple had 15 children, four of whom died at or shortly after birth. Some time between 1881 and the birth of the 12th child in October 1883, the Murray family left Scotland and settled in London.
After his sdudies at the Albany Academy, Murray entered the University of Glasgow and graduated in 1884. He obtained a Master of Arts (MA) in 1886 and a Bachelor of Medicine (MB) in 1889 which qualified him to practice as a doctor. He trained for the ministry at the English Presbyterian College in London (the college moved to Cambridge in 1899 where it became Westminster College) and was subsequently ordained and, as a probationer, was inducted into the Presbyterian Church in Crook, Darlington, County Durham, in early 1887.
When the Crook Church’s inspirational first minister left, the congregation took a year to appoint a new minister in the person of Murray, favouring him over other preachers who came and went. Murray conducted a vibrant ministry for six years and helped the church to substantially increase its membership and income.
In 1892, William Murray turned down the opportunity to move to Harrogate. He had a strong desire for missionary work in some foreign land and in February 1893, when a call came from Penang, he at once accepted it. When he left, the congregation presented him with £16-10s-6d (equivalent to about £2,200 in 2021), a generous gift from a small mining village. Murray had fond memories of Crook Presbyterian Church and would periodically visit and preach there while he was back from Malaya on furlough.
The Penang congregation had gone for long periods of time – one as long as 17 years – without a minister. Under Murray’s stewardship, the Penang congregation was established on a more solid footing. The pastoral responsibilities of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Penang extended to Province Wellesley, Kedah and Perak as well as to neighbouring Siam (now Thailand) and Sumatra. Murray stayed for five years in Penang before returning to England where he took two temporary charges in Leeds and Bournemouth.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were two Presbyterian churches in Malaya – one in Penang and the other in Singapore, some 500 miles apart. As the work grew and expanded, ministers and preachers travelled great distances to nurture those under their care. The country’s political developments had a significant effect on the work of the church. The formation of the Federated Malay States (FMS) consisting of Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan in 1896 caused the focus to shift from Penang and Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, which was made the administrative capital of the FMS.
Economic opportunities arising from the development of the railway and rubber industry, centred in Kuala Lumpur, caused an expatriate population boom and transformed the Malayan economy. At the beginning of the 20th century there were only about 150 Europeans among KL’s 20,000 population; by 1911 the expatriates numbered 1,396.
Murray was among the ministers from Penang and Singapore who travelled to the “outstation” Kuala Lumpur to conduct services. Between 1908 and 1912, quarterly services were conducted at the Masonic Hall at Damansara Road in Kuala Lumpur.
In 1902, Murray returned from furlough and joined Reverend John Angus Bethune Cook in Singapore where he was to be especially responsible for the Malay-speaking Straits Chinese workers centred on the Prinsep Street Church. Cook, who had arrived in Singapore in 1881, was a leading figure in the Christian community and a founding father of Presbyterianism in what is today Malaysia and Singapore. His energetic work bore fruit and by the turn of the century, there were eight Chinese congregations, including the Holy Light Presbyterian Church in Johor Bahru. The expansion led to the forming of the Presbytery in 1901 which Murray was to serve for 33 years.
In his book Sunny Singapore, Cook acknowledged Murray’s contributions: “My only colleague is the Reverend William Murray MA who joined the mission in 1902. For his support, again, our Church is indebted. Mr Murray is a student at my own college and has held charge at home and also in Penang. There he voluntarily learned Malay and engaged in mission work.” In fact, Murray looked after the Orchard Street congregation whenever Cook went on furlough, and for the five years after the latter retired in 1925.
In 1843, the Reverend Benjamin Keasberry had built the “Malay Mission Chapel” (which became known informally as “Gereja Keasberry” or Keasberry’s Church) in Kampong Bencoolen in Singapore with funds from local businessmen. In 1847, shortly after the inauguration of the church, the London Missionary Society (LMS) left Singapore for China. Funded by Singaporean merchants living in London, the Presbyterian community bought the building in 1885 from the LMS and renamed it Prinsep Street Church. It was later renamed the Straits Chinese Church.
Murray’s arrival in Singapore was timely as there was an aspiration to build a new church and this became a major project for him from 1902 to 1935. A two-storey building was added to the church grounds in 1904. The upper floor housed the Widows’ and Orphans’ Home and the lower floor was used by the Chinese Christian Association. The old chapel was eventually pulled down in 1930 to make way for the new church, the foundation stone of which was laid on March 5, 1930 by Song Ong Siang, a Straits Chinese lawyer who was the first Asian in Singapore to be knighted. The new church building which cost $55,000 (£7,000) was officially opened and dedicated on February 4, 1931. Nine months later, the church joined the synod of the English Presbytery and officially adopted the name of the Straits Chinese Presbyterian Church.
When William Murray finished his five-year contract in Singapore in 1907, he decided to devote his entire time to missionary work among the Straits Chinese. He continued his work as missionary to the Baba Mission in between furloughs in the UK in 1913, 1920, 1925 and 1932.
Murray’s return to Singapore after his furlough in 1932 was his last trip before his retirement in 1935. That year, in recognition of his 38 years of sacrificial service, he was awarded the OBE in the Colonial Office’s birthday honours list (Straits Settlements). He had dedicated the best years of his life serving in Penang (1893-1898) and Singapore (1902-1935). After his retirement, Murray returned to London where he lived with his four spinster sisters. Murray himself never married and with the possible exception of his younger brother Alexander, neither did any of his siblings.
Murray died on August 25, 1946. A eulogy during his funeral summarised his life’s work in Malaya: “He took charge of the Singapore congregation for a year during a minister's furlough; and after that his life’s work was among the Straits-born Chinese, who spoke Malay. The Malay-speaking church in Prinsep Street grew steadily under his care.”
Harcus, Rev. Dr. Drummond. History of the Presbyterian Church in Malaya (27th Annual Lecture of the Presbyterian Historical Society in England). London: The Presbyterian Historical Society in England, 1955.
Crook Presbyterian Church. After 70 Years – 70th Anniversary of Crook Presbyterian Church. WJ Best (printer), May 1931.
Cook, Rev. J. A. Bethune. Sunny Singapore: An Account of the Place and its People, with a Sketch of the Results of Missionary Work. 2nd ed. London: Elliott Stock, 1907.
Roxborogh, John. “The Presbyterian Church in Malaysia”. In Christianity in Malaysia. A Denominational History, edited by Robert Hunt, Lee Kam Hing and John Roxborogh. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk, 1992. 75-106.
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church – 100 Centenary 1917-2017
“St. Andrew’s and the turbulent 20th Century”. Kuala Lumpur: St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Undated pamphlet.
United Reformed Church History Society, Westminster College, Cambridge.