Oldham, William Fitzjames (1854-1937)
Methodist missionary and bishop in India, Southeast Asia, and South America
Oldham was born in Bangalore, India, where his father was an English officer in the Indian Regiment. Although he was baptized a Roman Catholic, his earliest religious contacts came from Protestant military chaplains and the headmaster of the Madras Christian College. He was converted and became a Methodist at Poona while attending evangelistic services held by William Taylor in 1873. In 1879, married and living in Bangalore, he committed himself to work as a Methodist missionary and traveled to Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, for training. In 1885 he was sent to Singapore to initiate a Methodist mission. There he found access to the Chinese merchant population through schools; he established what became the first of a large number of Methodist schools in what was then British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), as well as the first Methodist Church in Singapore.
Oldham left Singapore in 1889 because of his ill health. For the next 15 years he resided in the United States and served as a pastor, lecturer, and secretary for the Methodist Board of Missions. In 1904 he was elected a missionary bishop with responsibility for India and Southeast Asia. In that role he oversaw the rapid expansion of Methodism in the Malay peninsula, the Philippines, and Sumatra. In 1912 he left the missionary episcopacy to serve for four years as one of the three corresponding secretaries of the Methodist Board of Missions in New York. In 1916 he was elected a general superintendent (a Methodist bishop who could function throughout Methodism) and took over the supervision of South America until he retired in 1928. He died in Los Angeles.
Oldham participated in the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, and his ministry reflected some of the issues that were brought to the fore at Edinburgh. His upbringing in India convinced him of the need for missionaries to understand the religious and cultural context of their work. He was a strong supporter of early efforts at church union in the Philippines and supported the interdenominational Committee on Cooperation in Latin America. In India, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines, he encouraged the development of educational ministries and social ministries as a compliment to evangelistic work.
Robert A. Hunt, “Oldham, William F(itzjames),” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Gerald H. Anderson (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1998), 506.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright © 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of Macmillan Reference USA, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Semi-self-supporting missions, education, and native leadership: William F. Oldham’s missiological importance
William F. Oldham’s primary contribution to missiological thinking in the Methodist Episcopal Church was in three related areas: semi-self-supporting missions, education, and native leadership.
Oldham, who had been converted at a William Taylor rally, developed a hybrid style of semi-self-supporting missions. Oldham concluded that while it was possible to start missions on a self-supporting basis, especially where European Protestants were to be found, “if these beginnings are to be carried on to successful enlargement and to anything like a wide ministry to the needs of actual non-Christians, the Church at home must come generously to the relief of hard-working missionaries abroad.”(1) The Malaysia mission, of which he was the first missionary, started as a self-supporting mission extended from India. Soon, however, it began receiving support from the Board of Foreign Missions. Yet it did not entirely lose its self-supporting nature. While the Board supported the salaries of some missionaries, for others the Malaysia mission relied on the Board for passage to Malaysia but then placed them in educational positions where their salaries were covered through teaching.
In part because teaching salaries were a good way to provide for self-supporting missionaries, education was an important mission strategy for Oldham. Oldham also saw education as necessary for developing an educated, literate body of converts and for cultivating capable native leaders. Furthermore, education was a means to win respect for Christianity among non-Christians. Thus, Oldham promoted education in all of the missions in which he was involved, and education came to play a larger role in the Malaysia mission than in any other mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The cultivation of educated, effective native leaders was the third of Oldham’s particular emphases. Oldham saw native leadership as essential to missionary success and the promotion of such leadership as one of the outstanding features of the missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He declared, “For in the really serious undertaking of evangelizing any land it is not the foreign missionary, but those whom he trains … that really carry on the wider work.”(2) During Oldham’s ministry, native pastors began to assume majorities in several Asian conferences, and Oldham heartily approved of this development.
Several other notable features of Oldham’s missiological thinking stand out. He was a strong proponent for the significance of women missionaries, seeing their work as equal in importance to that of men. He defended the validity of missions against a variety of charges leveled against them.(3) Oldham had a relatively positive view of other cultures and religions and encouraged learning about and engaging with them. He called for an end to a sense of Western superiority among missionaries, proclaiming that “there is no such thing as an inferior people.”(4) Although Oldham believed in the importance of direct evangelism, his approach encompassed broader, kingdom-oriented activities as well, as seen in his promotion of education. Moreover, he praised Isabella Thoburn’s work in improving the lot of Indian women and served himself on an Opium Commission formed by the British government in Singapore.
By David W. Scott
(1) William F. Oldham, Malaysia: Nature’s Wonderland (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham; New York: Eaton and Mains, 1907), 39-40.
(2) William F. Oldham, India, Malaysia, and the Philippines: a Practical Study in Missions (New York: Eaton & Mains; Cincinnati: Jennings & Graham, 1914), 57.
(3) See Chapter 1 in India, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
(4) India, Malaysia, and the Philippines, 119.
Oldham, William F.. India, Malaysia, and the Philippines: a Practical Study in Missions. New York: Eaton & Mains; Cincinnati: Jennings & Graham, 1914.
_____. “Isabella Thoburn, 1840-1901.” In Effective Workers in Needy Fields. New York: Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, 1902.
_____. Isabella Thoburn. Chicago: Jennings & Pye, 1902.
_____. Malaysia: Nature’s Wonderland. Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham; New York: Eaton and Mains, 1907.
_____. Thoburn: Called of God. New York; Cincinnati: Methodist Book Concern, 1918.
Oldham, William F. “Difficulties in the Foreign Mission Field.” In The African, European and Latin American Fields: Addresses Delivered before the Eastern Missionary Convention of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pa., October 13-15, 1903. New York: Eaton & Main, 1904.
_____. Four Years in Southern Asia: the Quadrennial Report of the Missionary Bishops for Southern Asia to the General Conference of 1908. New York: Board of Foreign Missions, Methodist Episcopal Church, 1908.
_____. “Introduction.” In Bishop Frank W. Warne of India: His Conversion, Call to the Ministry, and Other Spiritual Experiences. New York: Board of Foreign Missions, Methodist Episcopal Church, 1915.
Badley, Brenton T. Oldham: Beloved of Three Continents. Lucknow: Lucknow Publishing House, 1937.
Doraisamy, Theodore R. Oldham, Called of God: Profile of a Pioneer. Singapore: Methodist Book Room, 1979.
Tan, Bonny. “William F. Oldham.” National Library Board of Singapore.