Muthusami, Ernest Benjamin

1922 - 1999
First local Lutheran bishop

Bishop Ernest Benjamin (E.B.) Muthusami was born on October 6, 1922 to Rev Swamimuthu Muthusami and his wife, Jothiammal. He was destined by God to be the first indigenous Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malaysia and Singapore (ELCMS). 

Rev Swamimuthu, , a member of the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church (TELC) executive in South India, arrived in Malaya with his wife on November 11, 1921. He succeeded Rev Thiruchiluvai Joseph, the first pastor sent by the TELC in 1906 to minister among the Lutheran emigrants in Malaya. Prior to his work in Malaya, Rev Swamimuthu ministered to the Tamil Lutheran community in Burma (now Myanmar). 

On their arrival in Kuala Lumpur, he and his wife stayed in a rented shophouse at 4 Scott Road, Brickfields. It was here that the first Lutheran worship was held on January 30, 1907. As many as 70 Lutherans from various parts of Kuala Lumpur congregated regularly at this worship centre. Plans to build a church were already in motion before Rev Swamimuthu took charge of the congregation. His persistent efforts, coupled with the support of several lay leaders, led to the laying of the foundation stone of the first Tamil Lutheran church in Malaya, the Zion Cathedral, by the first Bishop of TELC, the Rt Rev Heuman, on November 11, 1922, a month after EB Muthusami’s birth.

After six years of service in Malaya, Rev Swamimuthu retired and returned to India in February 1926. E.B. Muthusami was about five years old when the family returned to India, where he was raised with five brothers and two sisters (his elder brother, Rev Rajendran Samuel Muthusami, also served the ELCMS as a pastor until his demise in May 1985). 

E.B. Muthusami spent his childhood in Puthur, a suburb of Tiruchirappalli, in South India and completed his education, including matriculation, in South India. He was nurtured in Lutheran orthodoxy and teachings; the church and its activities were the centre of his family life. He was fortunate to have received, from his mother church, good Christian teaching in Lutheran doctrine and liturgy even before he accepted the call to be a pastor in ELCMS.

In 1953, at the age of 32, he returned to Malaya. He served as a clerk at the Bukit Mertajam Police Station, and later continued his service at the Petani Road Police Station in Penang. During this period he stayed at 553 Dato Keramat Road, Penang, with his uncle, Rev M.D. Williams, who was the pastor in charge of the Northern Circle from 1949 to 1960.

In 1956, he returned to India and married his wife, Lily, on April 26. Mrs Lily Muthusami was born and bred in a traditional family in Mayavaram. Besides being an active and dedicated Sunday school teacher, she was enthusiastic in evangelising non-Christian children at Petani Road in Penang till early 1971. The couple had a daughter and four sons.

"Pastor EB", as he was later affectionately called by many of his members and colleagues, began his formal theological training in 1964 in the Northern Circle Local Pastors' Training under Rev Ebbe Wangsjo, a missionary of the Church of Sweden Mission (CSM). This training was initiated by Bishop Emeritus Bertil Envall, the first Bishop of the ELCMS. Pastor E.B. completed his theological training in 1967 and was commissioned as a candidate to the Holy Ministry on October 1, 1967. He was ordained in April 1969 by Bishop Envall.

Bishop Muthusami was an active and competent lay leader in the Northern Circle. He served as secretary to the Northern Circle for 10 years, and also acted as one of the recording secretaries at the first Diocesan Assembly, held on January 26, 1963. He was an organist and an able spokesman for the Penang congregation at Dato Keramat. 

He began his part-time pastoral ministry with the Penang congregation about a year and a half prior to his transfer to the Seremban Police Department, as a chief clerk, in January 1971. The family lived in government quarters at 3 Grove Road, Penang. Most of the ELCMS members regarded him as "humble and faithful, and an inspiration to many''. In Seremban he served as pastor of the Port Dickson congregation on a part-time basis. His ministry extended to members around Negeri Sembilan and Malacca. He also assisted in the Anglican Church's work among Tamils in Seremban. During this period he was awarded an AMN for his services to the government by the Yang di Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan. 

On October 31, 1976 he was consecrated and installed as the second Bishop of the ELCMS.

Bishop Muthusami considered the role of the Holy Spirit in a Christian's life as an ongoing daily affair and not a "once-for-all act" by God in a Christian's life. He also believed that it was better for the church to evangelise people in their own situation than to bring them to where the church is located. He believed that people should not be taken out of their social contexts but should be equipped with the Gospel to withstand in their situations, which at times could be a persecuting or an unsupporting community. He believed conversion must be encouraged without discarding the good values and morals of the believer in a particular context, and strongly advocated that converts to the Christian faith should be taught to apply their new-found faith within their own social settings while still maintaining their family obligations.

He also emphasised the necessity for an urgent renewal of Christian education among children and adults in the ELCMS, and envisioned that both Christian education and funding from within the local community would expand mission work, and support evangelism, in the ELCMS.

He emphasised self-reliance, in both ideas and projects, throughout his term as Bishop of the ELCMS. He believed that “We make a living by what we get; we make life by what we do. If a person has never learnt to give, then he has never learnt to live. Living is giving." He was a down-to-earth church leader who managed the affairs of the ELCMS in a practical manner rather than succumbing to flights of fancy.

Throughout his tenure, Bishop Muthusami was supportive of ecumenical issues and gatherings in Malaysia and Singapore. He made every effort to foster good relationships with leaders of other denominations, both at local and international levels. He travelled widely to attend conferences and meet with leaders of other churches, including churches in Africa, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, the Philippines and India.

Bishop Muthusami was a strong supporter of ELCMS membership in the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) and made his mark in ecumenical circles by being elected to a second term as CCM president. He was also one of the vice-presidents of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM).

He was a co-founder of the theological institution, Seminari Theoloji Malaysia (STM), and was president of the STM Council in 1984. He also served on the board of governors at the Trinity Theological College in Singapore. 

He retired on April 10, 1988, after consecrating the third Bishop of the ELCMS, the Rt Rev Julius D. Paul.

Bishop Muthusami passed away on December 23, 1999.


The Rt  Rev Dr Solomon Rajah (Bishop, ELCM)

© CCM-2011. This article from A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Historical Record of Key Pastors in the Indian Churches in Malaysia and Singapore is reproduced with permission of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, with editing for clarity and brevity.