Shellabear, William G.

1862 - 1947
Missionary to Malaya and Bible translator

William Girdlestone Shellabear (1862-1947), missionary to Malaya and Bible translator, was born in Norfolk, England.

Shellabear prepared for a career in the military and in 1885 experienced a conversion to evangelical Christianity before shipping out to Singapore in 1886. He became known as the "preaching captain" for his frequent sermons to soldiers and sailors, and began to translate Christian hymns into Malay for the Malay soldiers under his command.

In 1891, he married Fanny Kealy in Portsmouth, England. They returned to Singapore and joined the American Methodist Mission. Over 11 years, Shellabear built the Methodist Mission Press and began publishing hymnals, tracts, and booklets in Malay (most of which he composed or translated) for the Bible Society and the Tract Society.  

Shellabear’s studies of the Malay language also led to his publication of a new edition of the Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) followed by a series of published editions of Malay classical literature. Shellabear’s secular works cemented a long-standing relationship between the Methodist Mission Press and the growing system of Malay-medium schools.

In 1896, Shellabear was made Presiding Elder of the Methodist Mission. With other missionaries, Shellabear attacked licensed prostitution and the sale of opium, while answering attacks from Chinese nationalists who accused the Methodist Anglo-Chinese schools of forcing children to convert to Christianity.

After the death of Fanny Kealy, Shellabear married Emma Blasdell in 1897. In 1900, he left his various responsibilities with the Methodist Mission and began to revise the Malay Bible while living in Malacca. He also worked with Sulaiman bin Muhammed Nur, with whom he edited and published two books of Malay proverbs and poetry.

From 1900 to 1917, Bible translation was Shellabear's central concern. After completing his New Testament and Old Testament in Malay, he took up residence in Singapore and began a translation of the Bible into "Baba Malay", the Malay dialect of the Straits Chinese.

In 1918, after several bouts of malaria, he suffered a mental and physical breakdown. And in 1920, he had officially retired from the Mission.

In 1922, Shellabear joined the faculty at Hartford Seminary in the USA as a teacher of Malay language and culture. In 1924, he took a permanent position, briefly occupying the chair of Muhammedan Studies and serving as an editor of the Muslim World journal until his retirement in 1936.

In this final stage of Shellabear's career, he translated the story of the Bible and later, the gospels into classical Malay poetry or shair (syair). Following the shairs, Shellabear wrote commentaries on the gospels in Malay, concentrating on what he believed were key theological points of contact with Islamic teaching. He passed away in 1947 in Hartford while attempting to translate the Qur’an into Malay as a tool for Christian evangelism.


Robert A. Hunt

The writer is the Director of Global Theological Education and Director, Center for Evangelism in Southern Methodist University, USA.