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First Methodist missionaries in Sri Lanka

by Ransiri J. FERNANDO - Sunday Times July 20 2008

The Methodist Church in Sri Lanka was established 194 years ago on June 29, 1814. It is with gratitude that we remember the indefatigable effort, the deep commitment and the courageous stand of missionaries who tread the soil of Sri Lanka on that day. We also remember their successors and thank God for their sacrificial service.

Lifestory of the Founder

John Wesley was the founder of Methodism. He was born in June 1703 in a small village called Epworth England. He became a priest at the age of 23 and later qualified as a master of Classics and Philosophy. Only five feet four inches in height, never weighing more than 120 pounds, frail and weak in health he wasted no time in reforming the church.

This was the time that England underwent several changes. The industrial revolution was beginning to transform the villages into towns. London was a crowded city stricken with poverty, drunkenness and gambling. Misled angry youth in the form of riot squads roamed the streets indulging in violence.

John Wesley - The Founder of Methodism

This was an era where moral principles lost their distinctiveness and paralysing fears harrowed people. The prisons overflowed with criminals and the hospitals were crowded with patients, due to utter neglect and dire poverty. It was to this depressed outclassed community, with strife and disunity that John Wesley took the good tidings of salvation.

His message was that “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” No matter how soiled your past, no matter how uncertain your present there is a sure, safe everlasting way out. You can decide right now to wipe out your sinful past and make a fresh start.

In order to start a new or born again one should change or turn a way from sin and walk in the opposite direction. One should undergo a complete change which involves the intellect, the emotion and the will.

John Wesley was not a rebel, but a great reformer. He did not seek to overthrow established institutions, he sought to redeem them. He accepted the established Church of England, of which he was a priest. He accepted the monarchial and the economic system of England; in fact he opposed the American Revolution.

Thus at the inception, Methodism was a way of life within the established Church of England created by a band of dedicated young men convinced that life had purpose and meaning The Spiritual essence of which was to be achieved in both man’s relation to God and man’s relation to man.

Wesley rode on horseback throughout England,Scotland and Wales. Everywhere he went, he organised small societies preached to coal miners, factory workers, farmers and motley crowds. Wesley was truly a great man who travelled five thousand miles a year for 50 years.

Neither winter storms, nor summer’s heat and mobs could stop him. Wesley was a prolific writer, translator and a editor, accounting for more than 400 books.

He describes in his meticulously kept journal, sixty mobs he had to face as he carried the gospel throughout the land. He was struck down, dragged, cursed and hit, yet he always took a mob in the face.

John Wesley fought for the poor and the underprivileged and became their friend. He was prepared to live with them, share a meal with them, and to observe their world from their eyes. A close relationship was developed and gradual but steady uplift and awakening was noticed.

The people were convinced that Wesley had a great vision and he was a true servant of God. He educated most of them and appointed a group of preachers to speak to others. The preachers were very ordinary people.

Most of them were weavers, bakers, masons, miners and painters. Wesley “sat at their feet” and encouraged them. He completely believed in their works. The poor grew to love him more and he became incarnate among them.

He fitted into their world. His style of living reflected his real incarnate into the world of working people. So much was this true that he no longer felt at ease among the Oxford and London upper classes, where he began. His style of living reflected his real incarnation in to the world of working people.

He preached in churches, houses, streets, marketplaces, fields. Thousands flocked to hear him and his effort and preaching has no equals in English religious history. He was able to change the lives of many. They turned new pages in their lives and turned to Jesus as their master and saviour.

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

He was able to collect 200 pounds a day-all of which were used to feed and clothe that needed it most. (it was believed that a family needed 2 pounds a day). His preaching and effort has no equals in English religious history.

He was able to change the lives of many. Heads of States and 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. It was the great scholar and leader Woodrow Wilson who remarked;

“The church was dead and Wesley awakened it
The poor were neglected and Wesley sought them out
The gospel was shrunken into formulas and Wesley flung
It fresh upon the air once more in the speech of common man”

As Methodism flourished in England there was much enthusiasm and interest to take this movement to other parts of the world. Sir Alexander Johnston who was the chief justice of Ceylon in 1809 recommended Ceylon as an island ideally suited for the spreading of Christianity.

One person who took his suggestions very seriously was Dr. Thomas Coke. He was from a little village called Brecon in Wales; In addition of being a priest he was a doctor of civil Law.

He had a steady income and many influential friends. He gave most of his wealth to support mission taking Christianity to West Indies and West America. For thirty years he had been hoping for the opportunity to establish mission in the continent of Asia, but the opportunity did not arise until the British took over Ceylon from the Dutch.

The Methodist conference which met at Liverpool in July 1813 did not approve of Coke’s ambitious plans. He was now an old man of 66; it was not wise enough to undertake a strenuous tour. Coke was so disappointed that he wept in the street as he walked home.

He spent the whole night praying for Asia, and next day made an impassioned appeal which swayed the conference. From his own purse he offered 6,000 pounds towards the expenses of the mission. Finally the conference authorised him to go and take six missionaries with him.

The intensive preparation began. They could not find a teacher of Sinhalese or Tamil in London. They learnt Portuguese which was still spoken in the coastal areas of India and Ceylon. On the 31st of December in 1813 they set sail from Portsmouth in a convoy of ships bound for India.

Dr. Coke sailed in the “Cabalva” with Benjamin Clough, William Harvard and Mrs. Harvard, the other four missionaries James Lynch, Mr. and Mrs. William Ault, and George Erskine sailed in the “lady Melville”. The ships were of 1,200 tons and the Voyage to India via the Cape of Good Hope lasted nearly six months.

The voyage was accompanied by storms. Several sailers were lost overboard in the high seas. On the “lady Melville” the wife of William Ault died after a long illness. In April there were more tempests and Mrs. Harvard fell seriously ill.

The ship was now in the Indian Ocean, and it was hoped that in three weeks time they would arrive at Bombay. Clough began to notice that Dr. Coke’s strenuous studies in the hot climate were dangerously undermining his health; on May 2 he was suddenly very weak, but still cheerful. He took medicine that night and went to bed. Clough offered to sit up with him, but he did not accept the offer.

Next morning, May 3 Dr. Coke was found dead on the floor of his cabin, he appeared to have died peacefully before midnight. His body was discovered by the attendant who failed to receive a reply when he knocked at the cabin door as usual at five.

The sudden loss of their leader was a shattering blow to all the other young missionaries. They buried him that evening at five O’clock. The ship’s bell summoned the passengers and crew on desk. Dr. Coke never reached Ceylon. He was a very great Methodist and one of the finest of all Christian Missionaries.

With their leader gone, unexpectedly and with no money or letters of credit either, the six missionaries landed in Bombay on the 21st May 1814, Casting themselves entirely on God.

The doors were opened in entirely unexpected ways for them to proceed. Assistance came from The Chief Justice, Governor and a rich merchant of Bombay who supplied all their needs. They continued their Journey to Ceylon on the 20th June with the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Harvard, who were very ill.

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 boat in which Ault Erskine and Clough travelled to Weligama Bay.

Massive search was made and they were fetched around 3 a.m. in the morning of June 29, 1914 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 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 allowed the missionaries the use of the Governors House in the fort of Galle, and also held a reception in their honour. On Sunday the 3rd July, 1814 the missionaries held their first service in the Dutch church, Galle which became a memorable one. A young doctor, William Alexander Lalmoon, offered himself for the Methodist Ministry. He became the first recruit and served faithfully for forty eight years.

On Monday the 11th July they met in conference and planned their future work. They decided to take the gospel to many places in Ceylon. They appointed each missionary to take over a certain area.

Jaffna - Rev. James Lynch and Thomas Squance
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.

So 185 years have passed since the seeds of Methodism were sown. There is no doubt that the pioneers built well. We have had over successes and failures. Let us “Rise and Build”. The joy of the Lord is our strength. So let us -

1) Open ourselves to be moved by the realities of life today and become passionate servants of Christ to help heal them.

2) Find the people suffering from oppression and disadvantage and stand beside them as they rise up to fuller humanity.

3) Concentrate the attention on the small places at the bottom and find new ways in which such groups could be uplifted doing exactly as Wesley did in any place to create societies not necessarily in a building.

For what is now being accomplished we thank God, and for what will be achieved in the future we rely upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the hand that led us will no doubt guide us in the future. So Methodists should march forward with hope and vigour keeping the Lamp burning bright.