“For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” —Psalm 100:5 (ESV)
When the determined 15-year-old Mary Jones trekked 42km barefooted to buy a Bible, little did she realise that her love for the Word of God would inspire a movement which included William Wilberforce and Rev Thomas Charles to set up the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) in London on 7 March 1804 to encourage the wider circulation and use of the Scriptures. This movement would in due course open the doors for the formation of the Bible Society of Singapore several years down the road.
Cherishing the Past
The Bible Society’s history is intertwined with the early pioneering work in the region—most notably that of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, and Rev Dr Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China. They were among the first to realise Singapore’s potential to be a strategic location for missions work in Asia, and it is due to their heart for the Bible Mission, which in those days meant the translation, printing and distribution of Scripture, that The Bible Society of Singapore exists today.
Raffles came into contact with the work of the BFBS when they wrote to him on 22 November 1813 with reference to an appeal for Bibles by Dutch and English soldiers serving in the East:
“His Excellency will have the goodness to give directions that they be placed in the hands of proper persons to distribute the same…”
The BFBS sent 500 Dutch Bibles, 1,000 Dutch Testaments, 300 English Bibles and 500 English Testaments to Raffles, British Java’s then Lieutenant-Governor, with the above letter.
Raffles then eagerly carried out its instructions, moving also in the circles of those who started the Bible movement in 1804, as attested by Rev Peter Hsieh, the first Singaporean Secretary General of the Society (1965-1980).
Raffles’ support for the Bible Mission grew, leading him to become the President of the Java Auxiliary Bible Society in 1814, and the President of the Sumatra Auxiliary Bible Society in 1818. His interest in supporting the Bible work increased when he returned to England in 1817. Letters from our Society’s archive showed that Raffles strongly supported Malay translation work and personally leaned towards a preference for the translation to the commonly-used Malay language. Old BFBS reports mention 200 reams of paper being granted to Rev Benjamin Peach Keasberry in Singapore in 1848 to actualise the printing of a revised edition of the Malay New Testament.
When Raffles established Singapore in 1819, the Bible Society naturally rooted in the new island settlement. The Bible movement in Singapore truly began in 1823, when BFBS distributed 1,000 Chinese New Testaments to early settlers at the new Chinese settlement called “Sincapore” [sic] through Rev Dr Robert Morrison. On 4 July 1837, the Singapore Auciliary Bible Society was formally established with the aim of serving the needs of the region.
In its first year, the Singapore Auxiliary was able to raise funds and take possession of 2.852 Bibles in 23 different languages into its depository. It also issued 956 Bibles, Testaments, and Portions. As a strategic hub even in those days, Singapore also set up a Bible depository to store the Bibles and tracts. It was first held in the Singapore Institution (which later became Raffles Institution) located at today’s Raffles City. There were early attempts to distribute Bibles through colportage, but it met with strong opposition from the Chinese well into the 1880s. However, the persistent Sophia Cooke, who worked among Chinese girls, persevered in her outreach efforts. Chinese and Tamil colporteurs were eventually engaged to distribute the Bibles and tracts in 1883.
By 1884, Scriptures in 27 languages were circulated in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. After moving several times, the early Bible depot also found its permanent home in 1907 at Armenian Street. Today, the Bible cause has been extended from Singapore even farther afield through the printing of Bibles in China, to supporting India through the William Carey Centre and to other Bible Societies—serving to impact the lives of Singaporeans and all who receive and read God’s Word.
Celebrating the Present
Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson said: “Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” When God’s Word is sowed into the hearts of people who need its life-changing power, there is a great harvest. Every time a Bible is made available to a person, the potential for a renewed life is created (2 Cor 5:17).
The Bible Society has indeed also gone through several phases of transformation, not only in its physical location and structures, but also in its outreach. What has not changed is the emphasis on our mission of making God’s Word known to all nations (Mt 28:19).
The Bible Mission is now a global effort carried out in over 200 countries and territories, through 147 Bible Societies that come under the banner of United Bible Societies. The Bible Mission has grown from translation, publishing and distribution to include literacy, engagement and advocacy—putting the Bible in people’s hearts, gradually positioning ourselves as a mission agency for Southeast Asia and the wider world, and continuing to impact and transform lives with the Living Word.
Impacting the Nation through Engaging the Word
The Bible Society's Sower Institute for Biblical Discipleship (SIBD) provides biblical training for the Christian community in discipleship, leadership, and missions. This is done through a wide range of programmes that help people explore the Word of God deeply, as well as apply it into their lives. We also conduct literacy programmes in the region, teaching people to read and write so that they can read God's Word for themselves. Many of these programmes are collaborative efforts with established partners aimed at developing and providing holistic discipleship training to build up the Church.
SIBD also works with the Bible Society's Sower Publishing Centre (SPC) and Bible Resource Centre (BRC) to make resources and training materials available no just locally, but also outside Singapore. These materials are translated and adapted for overseas audiences, particularly countries in the United Bible Societies' Southeast Asia cluster of nations, hence furthering the Bible Mission in these places.
One such example is WISE (Word Intake for Spiritual Edification). This 40-day Scripture-based programme is made available in different languages and dialects, in various formates such as devotional booklets, study guides and audio formats via iSower—a solar-powered audio Bible This programme serves as a good complementary literacy curriculum.
Our discipleship and engagement efforts are not limited to only the present generation. Through our children, family and NextGen ministries such as the D6 Conference and FAM101, we aim to connect the Church with the home to accomplish God's design of generational discipleship.
Engagement through Holistic Mission
The Bible Society has, over the years, expanded its role to embrace a more holistic approach towards the Bible Mission. We help people engage with God's Word not only through learning and study, but also through real-life experience, living it out by providing God's Word as well as humanitarian aids for those in need. These include people in the region who are heavily affected by poverty, persecution and oppression, and natural disasters (Mt 5:1-12). The Bible Society's travel mission ministry, International Bible Experiences (IBEx), organises Bible Mission Trips to provide Scriptures and basic necessities to victims in developing countries, especially the disaster and poverty-stricken areas.
The Bible Society also raised funds to support victims affected by the floods in Myanmar, the earthquakes in Nepal, Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban, Philippines and the refugees in the Middle East. Through active contributions by generous donors, up to S$1,000,000, both in cash and kind, has been raised for the last three years.
IBEx also organises Bible Land Tours to help people experience and engage with the Word in the lands where Bible stories took place, meet the local missionaries, understand their struggles and needs, and catch God’s heart for missions.
Furthermore, Singapore has been designated as one of four Bible Mission Hubs of the UBS. Its strategic geographical location enables it to function as a centre for advancing the Bible Mission in the Asia Pacific and effectively addressing the needs of its countries.
Impacting the Nation through Advocacy
The Bible Society aims to make the Bible credible to individuals and communities in our ever-changing world through our advocacy work. Hence, we spearhead various initiatives to break down barries towards the Bible and to communicate the relevance of the Word in various sectors of society in fresh and approachable ways.
ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity, a public think tank, was established in 2014. It is a tripartite collaboration of the National Council of Churches of Singapore, Trinity Theological College and The Bible Society of Singapore. It conducts public lectures, seminars and conferences to engage the wider public in societal issues, informing and equipping Christians and non-Christians on addressing these issues from a biblical perspective.
In addition, we also plan events such as Colours of the Bible, which is organised in collaboration with the Embassy of Israel, to interact with the Word through art. Such events promote the use of creative mediums, such as art and culture, to invite people to engage with and experience the Word.
Charting the future
Foundations for the Bible Mission were laid by many faithful men and women who have gone before us. As we move into the next lap, the Bible Society strives to localise the global Bible Mission and internalise global best practices. Our efforts do not just further the Bible Mission just in Singapore but also work actively to increase our involvement overseas, bring God’s Word to places and people that need it most.
As the Bible Society celebrates 180 years of Bible Mission work of making God’s Word a living hope to all nations in 2017, let us be reminded of how God has graciously preserved the Society through various challenges, watching and guiding us through each charted course, carefully using the Society as a vessel to impact and transform lives. It is our sincere prayer that the Bible House and The Bible Society of Singapore will continue to be God’s instrument for generations to come (2 Tim 2:21) in making God’s Word available to all nations, inwardly centred on the Bible, and outwardly expressed in service to people. We invite you to partner with us in this meaningful mission.
Be part of the Bible Mission
Your support is crucial to the Bible Mission! There are many ways you can do your part: