Methodist Church in Sri Lanka
The Story of Methodism in Sri Lanka
The Methodist Church in Sri Lanka was established 200 years ago on the 29th of June 1814. It is with great gratitude that we remember the indefatigable effort and the courageous stand of the missionaries who tread the soil of Sri Lanka on that day. We also remember their successors and thank God for their sacrificial service. Many lost their lives while in service in this country.
The story of Methodism in Sri Lanka is one of implicit faith, unshakable devotion and complete obedience to the Master’s Call. Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke, was the right hand man of Rev. John Wesley. He was chiefly responsible for the overseas mission and set sail with a group of young missionaries from Portsmouth harbor on 30 December 1813. On this voyage Dr. Coke was taken ill and entered into eternal rest and was buried at sea on the 3rd of May 1814, but the voyage continued. And so, Revds. James Lynch, Thomas Hall (minister at Leghorn), Squance, and Benjamin Clough arrived at Galle on 29 June 1814. While Thomas, Squance, and Benjamin Clough arrived at Weligama a day later.
They were assigned different parts of Ceylon to go and work and it was decided they should work in pairs, And so Squance and Lynch went to Jaffna, Erskine went to Matara, while Clough remained at Galle. By the middle of 1815 the missionaries who were assigned to Colombo purchased a portion of land at Dam Street and built there a Chapel which still stands today. It is the oldest Methodist Church in Asia. Subsequently, they started a Children's Sunday school and a printing press in Colombo. Rev. Harvard, a printer by profession, supervised the work and started printing books for children. Meanwhile, the Chapel called ‘The Wesleyan Mission House’ was completed and opened for worship in December 1816.
In spite of the prejudices prevalent then about educating women they pressed on and in 1834 established the Vembadi Girls' High School.
Dr Percival was a distinct Tamil Scholar. It is commonly believed that along with Pandit Arumuga Navalar he translated the scriptures into Tamil. Rev. Percival’s works include his Anglo-Tamil Dictionary, (1838), together with his A Collection of Proverbs in Tamil with their translation in English which was published by the Jaffna Book Society. This is a landmark in book publishing because it is one of the earliest Tamil books in print with other American Ceylon Mission Press Books. His ‘Land of the Veda: India briefly described in some of its aspects, Physical, Social, Intellectual & Moral’ was published in 1854. His Tamil Hymns and translation of the Catechisms are monumental proofs of his proficiency in Tamil.
Work among children started in all parts of the country and Homes were established for orphans and also to facilitate vocational training. Such Homes were started at Galle, Badulla, Diyatalawa, Thummodera. This work has continued and in the twentieth century too homes were established in Trincomalee, Chenkalady, Puthuyugam and Nilavely. Catering to the emerging need to accommodate children of working parents, Day Care Centers and Crèches were established by the Methodist Church in Welimada, Moratumulla, Angulana, Panadura, and Maradana.
Young girls coming into the city for higher education and employment, were seeking safe accommodation. To fill this need Women’s Hostels have been started in the following places which are supported by local churches – Colombo City Mission, Maradana, Moor Road, Badulla and Katunayake. In the past, the Church had cared for children and young people. However the care of elders had been overlooked. To remedy this, Elders Homes have been established in Badulla, Wellawatte, Moratumulla, and Putter. The Methodist Women’s Fellowship branches in the Districts are involved in the care of elders and the management of these Homes.
Among the Missionaries many were involved with Printing. Rev. Harvard was a Printer by profession and so were Revds. Squance, Callaway, Spence, Hardy and Gogerly. One of the greatest achievements of this period were the Dictionaries published by Clough. English – Sinhala in 1821 and Sinhala – English in 1830. Clough also published the first Pali Grammar and Vocabulary in English. He also translated and printed sermons in Sinhala. The Wesleyan Press continued to print and publish the scholarly editions of books produced by the missionaries like Rev D.J.Gorgerly and Rev.Percival. The press was also responsible for the printing of the Sinhalese Bibles for the Ceylon Bible Society Auxiliary for many years.
The Methodist Church was also known for its outstanding educationists who have over the past 200 years set up many of the finest schools in Sri Lanka. Among them are: Methodist Central College, Batticoloa founded in 1814, Kollupitiya Girls High School and registered as an English High School in 1882 the school won recognition as a fully equipped senior secondary school and was named Methodist College in 1915. Kandy High School was founded in 1879 Miss Lawrence assumed duties as Principal in 1890. Southlands Girls High School was started in 1885. Newstead Girls Boarding School was started to meet a long felt need in Negombo. The premier Boys school Wesley College was begun in 1874 and had a succession of six Missionary principals in the first 20 years. Since its opening in 1876, Richmond College Galle has earned a reputation as the leading educational institution in the South. Opening in 1891 Kingswood College Kandy had Mr L E Blaze as the Principal. It was the first school of its kind to have a Ceylonese Principal. In 1817, the Jaffna Wesleyan English School was founded with Rev. Lynch as its Principal. The school was renamed Jaffna Central School in 1834 and later designated a College. Point Pedro Wesleyan Mission Central school was started in 1818 by Rev. Squance. In 1896 the school was upgraded and named Hartley College. In 1897 Vembadi Girls High School, a separate English School was started for girls with 27 pupils. Miss Iris was the first Principal. Vincent’s Girl High School had been in existence since 1820 and was upgraded in 1895 as an English School with the incoming of Miss Amy Vincent. When the boy’s school had moved out Methodist Girl’s High School- Point Pedro, the first Girl’s Boarding School was started by Rev W R & Mrs. Winston in 1875. Other educational institutions of repute are Wesley High School, Kalmunai, Moratumulla High School, Katunayake High School, Methodist College Trincomalee and Highlands College, Hatton. However, according to the Education Policy of the incumbent government, the status of the schools changed from "Government Assisted" schools to "Government" schools in 1961 during the "take over" of all assisted schools. As many as 178 big and small schools managed by the Methodist Church were handed over to the government. Only two schools viz Wesley College and Methodist College remained under the management of the Church.
Medical work was started at Welimada in 1887.The work developed into a small hospital for women, Wisemans Hospital, in 1895. At Happy Valley in Uva a small children’s hospital was set up. A number of medical workers who were trained as nurses served in this hospital, at a vital time of need when there were no government facilities. Medical work was in progress at Batticaloa, Kalmunai and Trincomalee. Medical work in Puthur was started by a missionary named Gertrude Nettleship in 1898. Later it was renamed as St. Luke’s Methodist Hospital Puthur. This is the only institution still functioning as a hospital while all the other projects closed down. The Putur hospital was developed with additional facilities.
In the field of vocational training, important centers have been established. Some of these are the Jeevodhayam Farm, Polwatte Pottery Project, B.I.H.Electronics and the City Mission Community Projects.
Justice & Peace Desk – Was established in 2006. Due to the ongoing war and prolonged state of emergency, the Church felt the need to keep track of the human rights situation and promote peace. Social justice was the main concern. Children’s Desk – The Church has contributed in various ways towards welfare of children. By 2007 there were 24 Children’s Homes and 14 Day Care centers around the island.
In June 1963, the British Conference passed a Resolution granting autonomy to the Methodist Church in Ceylon. On the 18th of June 1964, the Inauguration Service was held in the Kollupitiya Methodist Church. The Governor General of Ceylon was present at the Service. A historic moment in the Service was when the President of the British Conference called forward those appointed as signatories of the Deed of Foundation of the Ceylon Conference to sign the document. He then said “I declare the Methodist Church of Ceylon to be now inaugurated for the purpose of witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ and spreading of Scriptural Holiness throughout the land and to the ends of the earth.” He then inducted Revd. Fred S.De Silva as the first President of the Methodist Church of Ceylon.
The Methodist Church Sri Lanka celebrated its bicentenary on 29 June 2014. The National Thanksgiving Service was held at the Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour on 29 June 2014 at 3.00 pm. Nearly 10,000 Methodist members from all over Sri Lanka attended the service. During 2014 the bicentenary committee, along with many of other subcommittees, worked hard to organise this very special bicentenary service in the history and life of the Methodist Church. The British missionaries, when they commenced on their journey, did not think that their lives were of any moment, but now they are of course, and celebrations and contributions are the history we will leave for future generations.
Focused moments in a shared life are always occasions to celebrate—who we are, how we came to be, what have been our best accomplishments—and they are occasions for giving thanks—to and for all those men and women who have supported the Church so generously throughout these two hundred years. But more importantly, moments such as these require us to think forward. Two hundred years ago, there was no blueprint for how to do this; there were no models upon which we might draw; there wasn't even a road! Over the two hundred years we have made a road by walking it, and we have been blessed to walk it with all of you.
Now, in our time, we are being confronted by new questions and new challenges: How, today, does intolerance and hatred manifest itself in our religious communities? Who, today, are the objects of our religious ignorance and intolerance? The road which we have so clearly trod over these past two hundred years is a road only in remembrance. Looking forward, there is still no blueprint, there are precious few models; looking forward, there is still no road.
- Small, Walter J. T., A History of the Methodist Church in Ceylon 1814-1964, Colombo: Wesley Press, 1971, pg5
- Harvard, William Martin, A Narrative of the Establishment and Progress of the Mission to Ceylon and India: Founded by the Late Rev. Thomas Coke, L.L.D., Under the Direction of the Wesleyan-Methodist Conference, Including Notices of Bombay and the Superstitions of Various Religious Sects at that Presidency, and on the Continent of India: with an Introductory Sketch of the Natural, Civil, and Religious History of the Island of Ceylon, London: 1823