History of The Brethren Movement in Singapore
– by Elder Ernest Chew, BFEC
The modern Christian Brethren movement began in Britain during the early 19th century, when individual Christians from various churches met in non-denominational groups for Bible study, prayer, worship and witness. The earliest Brethren groups were formed in the 1820s and 1830s, and concentrated in Dublin in Ireland, and Plymouth and Bristol in England As the Plymouth congregations became prominent, the Brethren came to be called indiscriminately the “Plymouth Brethren”. The Brethren movement was divided in the 1840s into the ‘Exclusives’ led by John Nelson Darby, and the “Open Brethren” led by George Muller and others.
The Brethren work in Singapore was begun by an English merchant Philip Robinson, who came from Australia in 1857. He founded the commercial firm (Robinsons) which still bears his name and also formed the first Brethren congregation in Singapore. Philip and Eliza Robinson first met privately with other Christians for worship, and then in July 1864 opened “Mission Rooms” in Bencoolen Street for a public witness. In September 1866 they built a meeting house in Bras Basah Road, which they named “Bethesda”. The following year, a Chinese-speaking congregation was formed. While these assemblies were consolidated with the help of British missionaries, local Brethren gradually shouldered leadership responsibilities.
From the congregations at Bethesda Bras Basah, the work spread to the New Bridge Road and Katong areas before the Second World War. The Bethesda (Katong) congregation in Pennefather Road was formed in 1936 and became autonomous, postwar, in 1948. There was also extension work in Yio Chu Kang, Geylang and Bukit Panjang. This set the pattern for the expansion of Brethren work — the commencement of Sunday Schools, Gospel meetings and “Breaking of Bread” services followed by the registration of autonomous churches (also called Gospel Halls or Chapels).
For example, Bethesda (Katong) started Kindergarten work in Frankel Estate in the early 1950s, followed by Sunday school classes, Gospel meetings and then Lord’s Supper services under a separate Committee in 1958. Bethesda (Frankel Estate) Church became autonomous in 1973 and established the Bethesda Bedok Mission Home in 1976, which in turn became autonomous and formed the Bethesda Pasir-Ris
Mission Church in 1996. Bethesda (Katong) also set up what became the Bethesda BedokTampines Church in 1984, with assistance from other assemblies.
Around that time Bethesda Bras Basah was re-located to Ang Mo Kio. Bethesda Hall (Ang Mo Kio) started an outreach work which has become Bethesda Hall (Depot Walk) in 2005.
With the establishment of autonomous local churches, each church came under the direction of its own council of elders and deacons. However, fellowship was maintained with other Brethren assemblies through the exchange of speakers, free-will contributions for extension work, and an informal combined elders meeting, which took on the form of a Brethren Networking Fellowship after 1993.
In that year the Singapore Brethren hosted an International Brethren Conference on Missions.
In keeping with their “Open Brethren” principles the Brethren in Singapore have been active in parachurch and missions work, alongside evangelical Christians from other churches. An early example was Mr Ernest Tipson of the Bible Society. He was followed by men like Mr Lauw Kim Guan (involved in Gospel radio ministry), Dr Benjamin Chew (Youth for Christ, IMPACT magazine, and the Overseas Missionary Fellowship), and Dr G D James (the founder of the Asia Evangelistic Fellowship). Dr Chew was the Chairman of the Singapore Billy Graham Crusade in December 1978, a para-church evangelistic outreach of more than 230 churches, and was the founding Chairman of the Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore, established in 1980.
Brethren leaders continue to be involved in a variety of para-church and inter-church ministries. For example, Bethesda (Katong) and Bethesda (Frankel Estate) Churches are foundation members of St Luke’s Hospital, partnering other Christian churches and organizations. The Singapore Brethren churches have also been sending and supporting missionaries overseas.
In July 2004, the Brethren Assemblies celebrated the 140th anniversary of the Brethren movement in Singapore with a thanksgiving service and a commemorative book on The Bethesda Legacy.
The year 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the commencement of Brethren ministry in Singapore, and 2016 will mark the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the first Brethren Assembly at Bras Basah Road.