March 1, 2018

Adventist Growth and Change In Asia

Locations change, but the mission remains the same.

Michael W. Campbell

The first Seventh-day Ad-ventist to visit Asia was the indefatigable Abram La Rue (1822-1903). He left as a self-supporting missionary from San Francisco, California, traveling through the Sandwich Islands (today the state of Hawaii), finally arriving on May 3, 1888, aboard the ship Velocity. He worked across various parts of Asia over the next 15 years, traveling to, among other places, Singapore.1

Adventism took deeper root thanks to the literature evangelistic ministry of H. B. Meyers, an early convert in India, who sold books throughout Malaysia around 1900. Such efforts were followed up in 1902 by Edward H. Gates (1855-1940), the intrepid missionary boat captain who baptized the first Adventist in Singapore, a British soldier, thanks to contact made by La Rue.

By 1904 Griffiths Francis Jones (1864-1940) and his family, along with Robert Caldwell (1879-1966), a colporteur, were instrumental in organizing the work of the church.2 After a series of six moves during their first 18 months, they eventually settled into a two-story home called Villa Hatsu. The mission was organized in 1906 into the Malaysian Mission.3

The fact that Singapore was a large port city and center of commerce made it a natural location as a center for Adventism across Asia. Church membership grew from 50 in 1909 to 332 by 1932. Part of this new growth involved a new school (begun in 1905), that matured by 1915 into the Singapore Training Institute.

In 1919 the Malaysian Publishing House was begun to help facilitate evangelistic literature. World War II closed the publishing house, and in large part curtailed the work of the denomination. But the publishing house reopened in 1950 with equipment from the Signs of the Times Publishing House in China (subsequently shut down because of the revolution in China). The training school expanded into Southeast Asia Union College.

Steady Growth

As growth continued, the church in Singapore became increasingly a center of the Seventh-day Adventist Church across Asia. In 1930 the work of the denomination was divided into the China Division and the Far Eastern Division, comprising Japan, Korea, Philippines, Malaysia, and Indochina. It was located in Baguio, Philippines, with the understanding that this was a temporary headquarters. “It was finally voted,” reported C. L. Torrey, “that the headquarters be located in the tropical but beautiful city of Singapore. It may be of general interest to mention here that Singapore is situated approximately 50 miles from the equator, but the daily 30-minute shower and the prevailing breezes make the city a lovely place in which to live.”4 In 1936 the Far Eastern Division moved to nine acres of property, located “in a very desirable location, at an attractive price, and at a substantial savings to the mission.”5

A significant aspect of the developing work concerned medical outreach. As early as May 1905 E. C. and M. Davey came from Australia to begin a medical clinic. A small treatment room was set up at the mission home. These early efforts ended in 1915, but were restarted in 1936. Workers were miraculously given permission to move into the closed campus of the Malayan Signs Press during World War II.

On May 15, 1948, the medical work was organized into the 48-bed Youngberg Adventist Hospital, located on a 1.8 acre (. 7 hectares) site just a block away from the church headquarters. Named after Gustavus B. Youngberg (1888-1944), a veteran missionary to Borneo who died in an internment camp during World War II, it was the premier medical facility in Singapore during the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1996, citing eminent domain, the government purchased and amply compensated the church for the property.6 Some facilities, such as the college, were forced to close; others relocated. The hospital transitioned into a wellness center.

Growing Still

In 1997 the Far Eastern Division was divided in two. The Northern Asia-Pacific Division was located in Korea; and the Southern Asia-Pacific Division was established in the Philippines.

Today the denomination continues to maintain a significant presence in Singapore, which continues to be the headquarters for the Southeast Asia Union Mission. The territory includes 356 churches and 94,771 members spread across the countries of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.7

  1. For a popular biographical overview of Abram LaRue’s life, see Eileen E. Lantry, Dark Night, Brilliant Star (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2012); May Carr Hanley and Ruth Wheeler, Pastor La Rue: The Pioneer (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1937).
  2. The Seventh-day Adventist Encyclopedia, rev. ed. (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1996), vol. 11, pp. 614, 615.
  3. Wu Chook Ying, “Singapore-Malaysia,” in Light Dawns Over Asia, ed. Gil G. Fernandez (Silang, Cavite, Philippines: Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies Publications, 1990), p. 199.
  4. C. L. Torrey, “Far Eastern Division Headquarters,” The China Division Reporter, November 1937, p. 3.
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Singapore Government to Acquire Adventist Properties,” Adventist Review, Mar. 28, 1996, p. 6.
  7., accessed Dec. 13, 2017.

Michael W. Campbell is an associate professor of church history at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies in Silang, Cavite, Philippines.