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Methodism in Sri Lanka - 196 years

The Methodist Church in Sri Lanka was established 196 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.

John Wesley was the founder of Methodism. He was born in June 1703 in a small village called Epworth in England. He became a priest at the age of 23 and later qualified as a Master of Classics and Philosophy. This was the time that England underwent several changes. The Industrial revolution was beginning to transform the villages into towns.

London was crowded a city stricken with poverty, drunkenness, gambling and riots. Angry riot squads roamed the streets indulging in violence. The prisons overflowed with criminals and hospitals were crowded with patients of various diseases due to neglect and dire poverty. This was an era where moral principles lost its distinctiveness and paralyzing fears harrowed people.

The church which was called to be the moral guardian and the institution built to combat social evil remained silent behind stained glass windows.

Called to lead and teach the values of brotherhood and to summon all to rise above the narrow confines of race and class, the Church practised devastating selfishness and racial exclusiveness. It was to this depressed outclassed community torn with strife and disunity that john Wesley took the tidings to great salvation.

His mission was to reform the nation, more particularly the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land. Once when asked where was his Church, he replied “I look upon all the world as my parish.”

The great mission Wesley started was a “rising of the poor” - in the sense that it was an organization of the poor people, claiming for themselves a place within the religion of that time and the society. He became their friend. He was prepared to live with them, share a meal with them and to observe their world from his eyes.

A close relationship was developed and a gradual but steady uplift and awakening was noticed. The people were convinced that John Wesley had a great vision and that he was a true servant of God. He educated most of them and appointed a group of preachers to speak to the others.

The preachers were very ordinary people and consisted mainly weavers, carpenters, masons and bakers. Wesley “Sat at their feet” thought and encouraged them.

He gave them enormous freedom to function as they were called. A bit of advice he gave his fellow workers as recorded by one of them is as follows:- “Be diligent. Never be un-employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. Be punctual. Do not mend our roles but keep them, for warmth but for conscience sake.” It is worth mentioning the admirable quality of this great servant of God.

1. Five thousand miles a year for fifty years, this once sickly man rode horseback.

2. A prolific writer, a translator and an editor accounting for more than 400 books and pamphlets.

3. Lived on a 3 pounds month wage and gave away the rest to the poor. In the winter of 1785 at the age of 81 he went from door to door on behalf of the starving ones.

His effort and preaching has no equals in English religious history.

He was able to change the lives of many. Historians argued that Methodism not only saved England from a French Revolution but also diverted into religious channels energies that could have gone completely astray.

A journalist by the name of Bernard Semmel said Methodism was in fact the British form of a Democratic Revolution. The work of Wesley prompted Woodrow Wilson to remark. “The Church was dead of Wesley awakened it. The poor were neglected and Wesley sought them out; The gospel was shrunken to formulas and Wesley flung it fresh upon the air once more in the speech of common man.”

Methodism in England

As Methodism flourished in England there was much enthusiasm and interest to take this movement to other parts of the world.

However one great handicap was finding the necessary revenue to undertake foreign missions. Sir Alexander Johnstone, who was the Chief Justice of Ceylon in 1809 recommended Ceylon as an island ideally suited for the spreading of Christianity.

The Methodist authorities found it difficult to entertain the commitment involved. However Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke was highly pleased with the information given by Sir Alexander Johnstone.

Dr. Coke was from a little village called Brecon in Wales. He was born in 1747. In addition to being a priest he was a doctor of Civil Law. He had a fairly large private income and many influential friends.

Dr. Coke’s enthusiasm was very high and he began to plan his voyage almost immediately. Two other missionaries William Ault and Martin Harvard accepted his invitation to go to Ceylon. The Methodists of Ireland offered three volunteers in James Lynch, George Erskine and John Mckenny.

Dr. Coke was overjoyed and wrote to his friends “I am now dead to Europe and alive for Ceylon” God himself has said to me to take the living gospel to Ceylon. There was bitter opposition, from certain groups. The main questions being the raising of money and that Coke was 66 years old and whether his health would permit him to undertake such a strenuous tour. Thomas Coke was determined. He offered his personal wealth of 6000 pounds almost all the money he had to defray the expenses.

At last the British Methodist Church gave him the blessings to tour Sri Lanka with five other missionaries. The party set off on 31st January 1813 on two ships namely ‘Cabalva” and “Lady Melville”.

The group had to face fierce gales and many of them felt very ill. Dr. Coke was deeply involved in studying Portuguese, translating hymns and Bible quotations into that language because he thought most Sri Lankans were familiar with Portuguese. On 2nd May 1814 Dr. Coke appeared to be feeble and went to be dearly. The next morning the steward was shocked to see him dead on the floor of his cabin.

The group from the other ship also joined and they buried their revered leader at sea. Dr. Coke was an apostle who never set foot in the land that he dreamt of spreading Christianity. The sudden loss of the leader was a tremendous blow to the other somewhat inexperienced missionaries. The funds were in his name.

Yet the group was determined to continue. Trusting in the Lord and believing that God will give interior resources to face the storms that are to come they continued.

Sir Robert Brownrigg was the Governor of Ceylon and he was delighted to hear that the Methodist Missionaries were on the way to this beautiful island. He advised the Galle harbour to give them the best attention.

Two boats were sent to meet the missionaries coming on “Cabalva” and “Lady Melville”. The strong winds and tides carried the boats in which Ault Erskine and Clough travelled to Weligama Bay. A massive search was made and they were fetched around 3 a.m. in the morning of June 29, 1814 unhurt. Lynch and Squance stepped on the wharf in the evening of 29th June.

So this was the first step taken with regard to the establishment of the Methodist Mission in Sri Lanka. No sooner they reached the shores of Ceylon Rev. George Bisset a special messenger from Governor Brownrigg interviewed them.

He suggested that they should open schools to teach English, and that will give a chance of meeting the people directly. Colombo had enough English teachers and therefore suggested Jaffna, Mannar, Batticaloa, Galle and Matara.

This was only a suggestion and the Missionaries were given the liberty to accept or reject it. They pondered over this new suggestion and on Monday 11th July decided to take the gospel to several places in Ceylon. They appointed each Missionary to take over a certain area.

Jaffna - Rev. Jams Lynch.
Batticaloa - Rev. William Ault.
Galle - Rev. Benjamin Clough.
Matara - Rev. George Erskine.
Colombo - Rev. Martin Harvard.
So from the inception Methodism branched out to all parts of this country.

Colombo Headquarters

Colombo became the headquarters of the mission. By the middle of 1815 a block of land was purchased in Dam street (which was then known as Caymans Street) A chapel was built upon the plan of the Burnswick Weleyan Chapel, Liverpool.

This church which stands today is the oldest Methodist church in Asia. In the same month the first Sunday school was opened and on the first day 250 children were enroled. A three acre land extending from the seashore to the Galle Road was purchased in 1824. It costs 262 pounds and the church found it difficult to raise such a large amount and assistance was searched from England.

Today this site contain the Headquarters of the church, The residence of the president, Methodist College, Kollupitiya Methodist church and the New building by the Galle Road.

When Methodism spread to Colpetty (as it was then called) was just a village consisting of a bazaar, and a series of mansions and small houses, mingled together, without any regular order, in the midst of coconut tees. The present Kollupitiya church was opened for worship on Friday, 10th July 1896. A large congregation was present.

Methodism began in the south. The work was spearheaded with village evangelism and education. School and Mission stations were opened out in the villages. Rev Benjamin Clough opened the first Wesleyan school in Dickson Road Galle. This educational work later expanded at Richmond Hill. Many people from Kalahe, Metarambe, Ambalangoda and Batapola became Methodists. The advance of Methodism in the Western Province is an inspiring story.

Educational work began with the opening of two schools in the Pettah and for boys and girls, which later developed into Wesley and Methodist colleges. Daniel John Gogerly, one of the greatest men ever to come to this land arrived in 1818.

He came as a printer to take over the oldest printing institute known as Wesley Press. He came to Sri Lanka as a layman but became a Priest in 1823. He studied Buddhism in the Pali originals and wrote many articles on Buddhism which was later put into two volumes entitled “Ceylon Buddhism”. A great scholar who never to his mother land but served the church with great dedication for twenty four years.

The first missionary to be resident in Katunayake was Rev. Robert Newstead. A church was built in Negombo and dedicated in 1820. Rev. Don. Daniel Perera who was an understudy to Rev. Newstead was a very committed Sinhala priest who gathered a large amount of people at Katunayake. A large church was built in 1828 and the work of God at Katunayake flourished amazingly. Soon churches were built at Dalupota, Andiambalama and Pitipana. Seeduwa was the most flourishing of all during the first twenty five years. Newstead opened schools at Tampola in 1817, at Seeduwa in February 1818 and Ekela in August 1818.

When the first missionaries arrived, Moratuwa had a population of 17,000. From the very beginning of the British occupation in 1795 the Church of England was strongly established in Moratuwa.

The Methodist work began by building a mission school at Idama. The school hall was made a preaching place and within two years the attendance went up to 97. In the year 1832 a chapel was built at Egoda Uyana. This building is still in existence and is the oldest church in Moratuwa, belonging to any denomination. Rev. Peter Gerard De Zylva rightly named as the “Apostle of Moratuwa” was appointed to this circuit in 1840.

He advised a plan for systemic work and his work was a great success. Within twelve years he was able to build eight churches and Moratuwa which was considered to be the least hopeful became the most flourishing circuit in the country.

The work in Jaffna, Batticaloa and Trincomalee grew steadily in strength. Rev. Robert Carver started the mission work at Point Pedro.

At Jaffna Fort the Missionaries conducted Divine worship on Sundays in the Dutch church. They began to learn Tamil and became true good friends of the people of Jaffna. Rev. Peter Percival who served in Jaffna was an outstanding scholar. He wrote many books in Tamil, produced an English - Tamil dictionary and translated the English Bible into Tamil.

He was the missionary who started Jaffna Central College and Hartley College, Point Pedro. Rev. Peter Percival exerted a tremendous influence not only over the people of Jaffna but the entire North of Sri Lanka.

From the beginning of the Methodist church a great deal of money and effort was put into the running of the schools. In very many villages it was through the schools that the missionaries first established contact with the people.

The church challenged the British Government to establish State schools, when the British policy favoured English schools. The census report of 1900 showed that about 75,000 children of school-going age were not in School.

The church brought this to the notice of the people and interest was roused to provide every child with an elementary education.

In 1900 there were altogether 310 schools and 66500 pupils sponsored by the church. In addition to this there were 33 Estate schools with 2322 children.

School Commission

The Government appointed a commission known as “school commission” in 1834 with the Archdeacon of Colombo as President, members included the President of Methodist church clergy residing in Colombo Auditor General, Head of the Treasury and G.A. The teaching of Sinhala Language along with Mathematics was greatly emphasized. When the need arose for good mathematics teachers the church brought down mathematics wranglers in the form of Rev Darrel and Small. Even Rev Thomas Moscrop, W. T. Garrett, Wilkes were highly qualified mathematicians. A training college was opened in 1845 for training teachers in the Sinhala medium. Rev D. J. Gorgerly and Andrew Kessen were the two men initially in charge of this college. Similarly the Arasady Training College was started in Batticaloa to train Tamil teachers. The church had a target and that is to establish 100 schools every 5 years until every single child is provided with a good school with a fair amount of facilities.

This venture became a tremendous success. The country started producing National leaders, reformers, outstanding scholars and sportsmen. Foremost among them were Sir Baron Jayatilake, Oliver Goonathilake, T. B. Jayah, C. W. W. Kannangara, S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, W. Dahanayake, P. de S. Kularatne, E. F. C. Ludowyke, J. H. F. Jayasuriya, S. C. Paul, W. G. Rockwood, Nevis Selvadurai, A. C. Eliezar and N. Nadarasar.

The Methodist Church continuously had cordial relations with the Government even though it was quite evident that the State was partial towards a certain group. There was opposition to Christianity, yet most of the problems were solved with discussion and dialogue.

The climax of the differences of opinion is reflected in the famous Panadura debate which took place on the 25th and 28th August of 1873. There were smaller debates that took place at Baddegama (1864), Waragoda (1865, Udanvita (1866) and Gampola (1871), Bhikshu Migettuwatta Sri Gunananda Thera, a well-known Buddhist scholar and an orator was the chief spokesman while Rev David de Silva who was also a Sinhala and Pali Scholar serving in the Panadura area, was the Methodist protagonist. A crowd of over 4000 were present on the opening day and it increased to about 7000 on the second. Various doctrinal issues such as the existence of the Soul, working of Karma, concept of Sin and Punishment, Life after death morality of Jathaka Stories were discussed and debated. The net result was very small. Both parties realized that they have much to learn, to respect each other’s beliefs and aspirations.

Also that the key, to co-existence is patience, love and understanding as beautifully exemplified in the lives of the Buddha and Jesus Christ. The chief importance of the Panadura debate was that it prompted Colonel Olcott to establish the Buddhist Theosophical Society in 1880 chiefly for the purpose of setting up and managing Buddhist schools. The response of the Methodist Church to social transformation and problems facing the nation has to be admired. In 1848 rebellion flared up against the heavy taxes being imposed by the Government. The Governor at that time was Torrington and the manner in which he handled the situation was nothing short of barbaric. He executed a number of innocent civilians including Buddhist monks. The Methodist missionaries severely condemned his killings and destroying the house and properties with attacks of arson. They appealed to the Governor against this form of humiliating oppression. The ultimate result was that Torrington accused, condemned and removed. The year 1915 is also remembered because of the riots that occurred.

At the end of May there was an outbreak of violence. The trouble started in Badulla and soon spread to the Kandyan Province and elsewhere.

The disturbances were accompanied by rioting and looting and the lost of life was considerable. The British Government hired Punjabi troops to suppress the uprising. The riot Act was made use of and Martial Law was declared. The British Government made use of this unfortunate situation to arrest some distinguished Sinhalese leaders who were connected to the temperance movement. They were put behind bars on charges of treason and misleading the masses. Among those Buddhist leaders arrested and imprisoned was D.S. Senanayake. The Methodist church spearheaded the temperance movement and criticized the colonial Government at all forums. Dr. Solomon Fernando, a Methodist leader demanded a full investigation by a Royal commission into the administration of the country. It was Rev. Henry Highfield, the principal of Wesley College that demanded the release of D.S. Senanayake. In appreciation of the excellent work done by Rev. Highfield he extended a special invitation to be a guest when Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. Rev. Highfield was old and living in England was not able to attend. In keeping with the Methodist tradition, every Methodist priest took an active part in the drive against the drink evil. All Sri Lankans were grieved over the ethnic violence which erupted 25th July 1983. The Methodist church worked in various ways for the public welfare. Its buildings all over the country were places of refuge for all people.

Teams of priests and laymen visited the areas affected by disturbances on missions of relief, rehabilitation and reconciliation. The church appealed passionately to both parties to lay down arms and come to the table for a political solution.

Disaster in 2004

When the worst natural disaster struck the country on the 26th of December 2004 the Methodist Church immediately set up a special unit titled ‘Methodist Relief and Development Services’ headed by the Head of the Church in order to plan, co-ordinate, monitor and implement all relief and rehabilitation activities. Head of the Church, Rev. Noel Fernando with a group of others started visiting the effected areas the very next day itself. They had to face many difficulties as most of the roads on the coastal belt were impassable. Short, medium and long-term strategies were formulated and implemented to bring some solace through the church.

Lorry loads of food stuffs, water, medicines and other essentials were sent to all parts of the country as the first measure of relief. The church received aid and assistance in various forms from donors within and outside the country. Every cent was used to bring relief to the poor and suffering people of all races. The church built over 750 houses, provided livelihood for over 1,500, thereby bringing a ray of hope to a few families whose lives were filled with disappointment and despair.

The year 1931 was important because in accordance with the report of the Donoughmore Commission new power and responsibility were given to the Sri Lankans in the country. This encouraged the process of devolution in the church. Rev. G.A.F. Senarathne was made the first Sri Lankan Secretary of Synod. Rev. Senaratne later became the first Ceylonese Chairman. During the war days (1939-1945) steps had to be taken to transfer authority to Sri Lankans and to make the Methodist church increasingly self-supporting. In 1951 the church took a progressive step in building of a study centre in Wellawatte. Rev. Basil Jackson was the first Secretary of the study centre. He was replaced by Rev. Dr. Lynn de Silva, who made a significant contribution by publishing a number of books. A theological college was built in 1963 at Pilimathalaawa to train the priests. On the 18th of June 1964, the President of the British conference inaugurated the independent Methodist Church of Sri Lanka. The deed of foundation was signed in front of a large and a representative gathering. Thus the Methodist church was established for the purpose of witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ and spreading of the gospel throughout the land. Rev. Fredrick Stanley de Silva was the first President of the conference. Watson Pieris was inducted as the first Vice President. After Jesus accomplished his mission he told the disciples to teach all nations about the love of God and to hasten the call to repentance and the offer of forgiveness.

The church was not allowed to be static but to go out into the world. This command of Jesus was to put into practice by the church. It has grown like a tree spreading its shade and filling the land with resting places. Lord Jesus has been with the church leading from the front. So 196 years have passed since the seeds of Methodism were sown. The church had its successes and failures. The joy of the Lord is our strength. The hand that leads us will no doubt guide us in the future. Let us all unite and bring our mother Lanka to the bright mountain of hope.

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