Singapore was founded in 1819 by the British and remained under colonial rule until 1959. In the decades after 1819, general Christian work was conducted by the denominations, especially the Anglicans and Presbyterians, as well as by various individuals associated with missionary societies such as the London Missionary Society.
The beginning of New Testament assembly work in Singapore can be traced back to the arrival of an English businessman Philip Robinson. In the early 1860s, several sincere Christians in the colony met in Robinson’s home for Bible study and fellowship. Soon, with the desire to have a public testimony for the Lord Jesus Christ, a room was hired at Bencoolen Street for use as a Mission Room in 1864.
On the Lord’s Day, the 3rd of July, seven believers met in the Room to take the Lord’s Supper and remember the Lord. The new gathering sought to obey, honour and glorify the Lord after the New Testament pattern in Christian living, worship and service. The preaching of the Gospel to both the British and the locals was also undertaken. In this way the “Great Commission” of the Lord Jesus Christ was carried out.
In July 1866, the Christians at the Mission Room agreed to use their funds for the building of a permanent chapel at Bras Basah Road, in the heart of the city. The Bethesda chapel, at 77 Bras Basah Road was opened on 30th September after a short dawn service and thereafter stood at the same site until it was demolished in the 1990s. The famous plaque bearing the words “JESUS ONLY” was soon added to the hall and a replacement is in use to this day in Bethesda Hall (Ang Mo Kio).
In 1867, the Lord sent John Chapman, to assist in the work for a month. Chapman had known Robinson since their days together in Bristol and had been used of God to begin the assembly work in Malaya, commencing with the work at Farquhar Street, Penang, in 1860. The first permanent resident missionary associated with Bethesda was Alexander Grant, who spoke the Hokkien dialect fluently.
Also in 1867 the first Asian, Tan See Boo, was received into fellowship. Converted in China before arriving here, See Boo was much used of God in missionary work among the Chinese in the colony. That same year, the assembly rejoiced at the salvation and subsequent baptism of fifteen people – four Europeans, one Malay, nine Chinese and one Indian.
A strong missionary effort thus marked the early testimony at Bras Basah. Over the decades many opportunities were seized to bring the Gospel to the local population, through open-air preaching, tract distribution, visits to houses, prisons, leper colonies and hospitals. Weekly Gospel meetings were faithfully held at Bethesda and in addition, missionaries traversed the Malayan Peninsula and Siam unceasingly , often on bicycles, to preach the Lord Jesus Christ.
Throughout the early 1900s, a strong testimony for the Lord was maintained at Bras Basah Road. In 1932 an extension of the work took place when a new Gospel Hall was erected at the eastern coastal district of Katong. By this time, ministry and Gospel meetings were often held in English, Malay and Chinese. The Katong work was especially noted for its work among the Malay-speaking Straits Chinese who populated the area.
The Lord preserved the assembly during the turbulent war years and Japanese Occupation (1941-45) and from the first Bethesda at Bras Basah, several other assemblies were formed in the more peaceful years thereafter. The assembly remained vibrant throughout the post-war period, and carried out a strong evangelistic effort especially among the many students in the immediate vicinity of Bethesda. By the 1980s, the hall, however, had become too small for the assembly. In 1986, a larger place of worship was built in the centrally located Ang Mo Kio district where the assembly continues to endeavour a witness for the Lord.
Today, some 500 believers meet weekly to take the Lord’s Supper. Other meetings include the weekly ministry and prayer meetings. Regular activities are the Sunday School, Christian Education Programme, Basic Training Class, Young Peoples’ and Childrens’ meetings. An evangelistic outreach is conducted through the Boys Brigade and Girls Brigade work, the Kindergarten work and also towards the Filipino and Indian communities.