William F. Oldham was born in Bangalore, India on December 15, 1854 to an Irish couple, James and Mary Elizabeth Oldham. His father was a British military officer serving in India. His mother passed away when he was a baby and he was cared for by an ayah, an Indian nurse who would later become part of the family.
Baptised as a Roman Catholic, he was influenced by Protestant teachings in the Anglican schools he attended. His early interactions with the Protestant military chaplain and the headmaster of the Madras Christian College which he attended left an indelible mark on his spiritual life. Oldham honed his skills in apologetics through frequent debates with non-Christians at the Madras Christian College although he claimed he did not yet have a true Christian faith at that time.
Oldham started his career in the London Missionary Society as a headteacher in a small school in Madras. Later, he moved to Bangalore to serve as assistant master in Bishop Cotton’s grammar school. His next job was serving the British government in India as an engineer and surveyor.
In 1873, he attended the evangelistic preaching of the famed Californian evangelist, William Taylor, in Poona and was converted. Taylor had been invited to India by James M. Thoburn who was later to become missionary bishop for India and Malaya. Under the tutelage of these two Methodist missionaries, Oldham decided to give up his government job and become a missionary. By 1876, he had obtained his local preacher’s licence from the Poona Quarterly Conference.
Oldham had met an Anglo-Indian woman named Marie Augusta Mulligan (1857-1938) at Taylor’s evangelistic outreach in Poona. After their marriage in Poona, the couple moved to Bangalore to start a Methodist school for the European and Eurasian children of Methodists. Both of them then decided to become educational missionaries.
In 1879, Oldham decided to further his studies in the United States to better equip himself. He first attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania before transferring to Boston University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1883. Marie, who could only join him later due to financial constraints, was unable to complete her studies because of ill health. Upon graduation, Oldham entered into ministry in the U.S. by joining the Michigan Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Mission work in Singapore
In 1885, Oldham returned to India only to find that he had been appointed by James Thoburn to start work in Singapore on behalf of the Methodist Mission. The party which also included Mrs Thoburn and an organist named Miss Julia Battie set sail on the SS Khandalla, arriving in Singapore on February 7, 1885. Without wasting any time, they quickly held public evangelistic meetings in the town hall belonging to the municipal board of the city.
Ten days later, James Thoburn, his wife and Miss Battie returned to India, leaving behind Oldham to become the newly elected pastor of a small Methodist congregation. The group had only three members and 15 probationers. On February 22, 1885, Oldham established the first Methodist Church in Singapore, located temporarily at the town hall. He conducted the first English language service there six days later.
Subsequently, a new location at Coleman Street was secured for their own church building. Oldham took on the arduous task of designing it. When the building of the first Methodist Episcopal Church was ready, a dedication service was held on December 15, 1886. Over time, the Methodist Episcopal Church was renamed Wesley Methodist Church Singapore.
One day, while walking down the street, Oldham saw a sign which read “Celestial Reasoning Association”. On entering the premises, he was informed that it was a debating society formed by the Straits Chinese to improve their proficiency in the English language. Oldham’s offer to lecture there was readily accepted. The talk subsequently took place at the home of a wealthy merchant by the name of Tan Keong Siak, with an audience consisting mainly of the rich and famous Chinese in Singapore. Oldham’s talk on the subject of astronomy was reportedly a huge success.
The next morning, a messenger came with a letter from Tan Keong Siak asking Oldham if he would teach Tan English. Later, other Chinese merchants followed suit after hearing Tan give a public address in English. It was a good opportunity for Oldham to propose that the merchants should also be sending their sons for studies. Eventually, this led to the opening of the Anglo-Chinese School.
On March 1, 1886, Oldham founded the Anglo-Chinese School in a small shophouse at 70, Amoy Street with 13 pupils. This was the first of what would become a chain of Anglo-Chinese schools throughout Malaya, Sumatra and Sarawak.
The demand for an English education among the local community grew so rapidly that within a year, there were 104 students. The shophouse had become too small. Oldham decided to move the school to the more expansive grounds of the Methodist Chapel at Coleman Street. Half of the school’s building cost of $12,000 was met through donations from the affluent Chinese merchants whose sons were students at ACS. The school premises also served as a boarding school and as a residence for the missionaries. In 1888, the boarding school was moved to Bellevue, which had been purchased by the Mission, in Orchard Road. Bellevue would later be renamed Oldham Hall.
In September 1885, Oldham established the Anglo-Tamil School to educate Indians in Singapore. He was ably assisted by M. Gnanamuthoo, a Tamil evangelist and teacher who had come from Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar).
The Oldhams soon saw the need to also educate girls and women in Singapore. Oldham wrote an urgent letter to the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the U.S. requesting for a woman worker.
While attending a conference in Madras, India, Oldham met Sophia Blackmore, an Australian who was on her way to serve as a missionary in China. As a result of the meeting, Blackmore decided to go to Singapore instead, arriving there in July 1887. The Oldhams and Blackmore would jointly be responsible for starting the Methodist Girls’ School in 1887, followed by the Anglo-Chinese Girls’ School in 1888.
Unfortunately, continuous work without proper rest took a very heavy toll on Oldham’s health and in 1889, he was forced to return to the U.S. For the next 15 years in the U.S., Oldham served as a pastor, lecturer and secretary of the Methodist Board of Missions. He shared extensively about the opportunities for mission work in Malaya. In 1889, he was appointed pastor at the college town of Albion, Michigan. He then became pastor of Butler Street Church in Pittsburg, followed by Broad Street Church in Columbus, Ohio. In 1895, he became founding chair of missions and comparative religions at Ohio Wesleyan University.
In 1904, he was appointed as the missionary bishop for India and Southeast Asia. It was a very happy occasion for the Oldhams when they were officially welcomed back to Singapore in 1905. Using Singapore as his base, he travelled extensively to establish Methodist missions in Java and Sumatra. Mrs Oldham, described as a “fitting helpmeet”, would accompany the bishop on most of his travels.
Oldham’s zeal for educational mission continued unabated in his new position. He helped to raise funds for an Anglo-Chinese College which, unfortunately, did not materialise.
In 1909, Oldham faced a major challenge from the Philippines. Nicholas Zamora, the first Filipino to be ordained as a Protestant minister, led the Philippines Methodist Church in seceding from the Methodist Episcopal Church and founded the Iglesia Evangelica Metodista en las Islas Filipinas (Evangelical Methodist Church in the Philippines) as a self-governing and self-supporting evangelical church.
At the Edinburgh Missionary Conference the following year, Oldham shared his missionary experience and said that it was very important for foreign missionaries to understand the religious and cultural context of the people they served.
In 1912, the Methodist Board of Foreign Missions in New York faced serious financial troubles. This crisis forced Oldham to return to the U.S. as missionary secretary to rescue the organisation from imminent collapse. Over the next four years, he successfully turned around the organisation's finances. During this time, he emphasised the importance of developing locals to assume leadership positions in their own indigenous churches.
In 1916, Oldham was elected bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in charge of South America. From his base in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he continued to promote educational mission for the next 12 years. After his retirement in 1928, the Oldhams relocated to Columbus, Ohio, before returning to Bangalore, India, in 1933. They travelled to Singapore for the last time in January 1935 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Methodist Church in Singapore. In 1957, to commemorate the building’s 50th anniversary, the Wesley Methodist Church which he founded erected an apse in his memory with a stained-glass window showing scenes of his life as well as the church’s milestones.
William Oldham passed away on March 27, 1937 in Pasadena, California at the age of 83.
- ^ Ho Seng Ong, Methodist Schools In Malaysia, Their Record and History (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Board of Education of the Malaya Annual Conference, 1964), 53.
- ^ “Bishop W. F. Oldham D. D.: An appreciation”, The Straits Times, January 20, 1905, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19050120.2.52. Accessed May 2, 2021.
Doraisamy, T. R. Oldham — Called of God: Profile of a Pioneer: Bishop William Fitzjames Oldham. Singapore: Methodist Book Room, 1979.
Doraisamy, T. R. The March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 1885–1980. Singapore: Methodist Book Room, 1982.
Doraisamy, T. R. (Ed.). Forever Beginning: One Hundred Years of Methodism in Singapore. (Vol. 1). Singapore: The Methodist Church in Singapore, 1982.
Ho, Seng Ong. Methodist Schools In Malaysia, Their Record and History. Petaling Jaya,
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Oldham, W. F. Malaysia: Nature’s Wonderland. New York: Eaton and Mains, 1907.
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