From Philadelphia to Little India

From Philadelphia to Little India

Posted on 31 May 2021

Who was Bishop Bickley? What was his link to Kampong Kapor Methodist Church? Why was the church ascribed as a memorial to him?

Amid the busy and colourful scenes of Little India stands a white building outlined in elegant Art Deco curves and lines. This building has stood at Kampong Kapor Road since 1930, acting as a beacon and drawing people to worship God in this location. Originally known as the Straits Chinese Methodist Church when the congregation moved from its smaller premises in Middle Road in 1930, it was renamed the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church in 1957 to better reflect its ministry to the Straits-born Chinese as well as other ethnic groups. A stained-glass cross occupies a prominent position on the frontage of the church. Beneath this, letters embedded into the building identify it as the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church (Bishop Bickley Memorial).

Who was Bishop Bickley? What was his link to Kampong Kapor Methodist Church? Why was the church ascribed as a memorial to him?

Bishop George H. Bickley

Bishop George H. Bickley was born in Philadelphia, USA, into a family of Methodist preachers. Educated at the University of Pennsylvania, he earned his theological degree from Drew Theological Seminary in 1890. He served for more than 20 years as District Superintendent of the Philadelphia Conference and as the President of the Philadelphia City Mission and Church Extension Society.

Singapore in the 1920s was considered a ‘hardship’ posting for missionaries. It was described as a “least desirable and most hazardous” mission field because of tropical diseases like malaria and dengue fever, which visitors from other climates, such as Bishop Bickley, were unlikely to have the necessary immunity against. And yet, against doctor’s orders, Bishop Bickley put himself up to serve, and was elected Bishop of the Malaysia Conference.

Based in Singapore, Bishop Bickley put himself through a grueling schedule to minister to the churches over a geographical area that included Singapore, Malaysia, and most of Java and Sumatra. Given that available modes of transport during that time would have been slow and relatively basic compared to what we have today, in addition to hot and humid weather very different from what he was accustomed to in Philadelphia, one can only imagine the immense discomfort Bishop Bickley endured. Yet, he continued to minister to God’s people despite all this.

In Bishop Bickley’s short stint as Bishop of the Malaysia Conference from 1920 to 1924, he was steadfast in his efforts to establish God’s work. He would have received updates on Sophia Blackmore’s work to raise funds for a new church building to replace the one at Middle Road, which was inadequate to accommodate the growing congregation. Supporting the construction of this fourth Methodist church in Singapore would have reflected Bishop Bickley’s recognition of the importance of this growth of this ministry among the Straits Chinese.

Bishop Bickley’s philosophy towards the use of one’s resources to do good work is reflected in this quote in which he sought donations for acquiring land for church and hospital buildings, through which the community could be served. “There are some men who cannot possibly spend all their money before they die. Why not invest some of it here where it will in perpetuity be carrying on a healing ministry among those needy and helpless wandering sheep of the kind Shepherd?”

The Malaysia Conference was a mission field which Bishop Bickley chose to enter at personal cost to his health and well-being. He was there for a short period, from 1920 to 1924, yet his vision and his heart to reach out to the community was strong.

Bishop Bickley gave sacrificially to serve God and to share God’s word with the people in Singapore, Malaysia, Java and Sumatra. He returned to the USA, ill with tropical disease which he finally succumbed to on Christmas Eve of 1924. Consistent with his heart to reach out to the community in Singapore, the late Bishop George H. Bickley’s estate and his home church in the USA, the Philadelphia Conference, donated $25,000 to the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church building fund, amounting to one quarter of the total building cost of $100,000.

This is the story of Bishop George H. Bickley of Philadelphia, USA, and his loving outreach to God’s people in this region, half a world away. The church, which was built in 1930 with a generous contribution from those who recognised Bishop Bickley’s heart for God’s people here, still stands tall today. As we worship God at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church (Bishop Bickley Memorial), may we reflect on the example of Bishop Bickley and may we, too, extend loving outreach to those around us, that they may experience God’s love.

This article was extracted and adapted from a research paper written by Mr Tan Kim Lam for Trinity Theological College, with his kind permission.