Book review – William Shellabear: A Biography

Mission Round Table Vol. 14 No. 2 (May-Aug 2019): 9

Reviewed by Ka-Neng Au
Librarian at OMF International

William Shellabear: A Biography
By Robert A. Hunt
University of Malaya, 1996

Hunt’s biography brings to life a complex and brilliant Englishman who started his professional career in the military (posted by the Corps of Royal Engineers to Singapore to oversee the development of its harbor defences), then in ministry (missionary and mission leader in the Singapore District of the Methodist Church) and business (founder of the Methodist Publishing House in Singapore, and later an owner and manager of a rubber plantation in Malaya), and finally as a renowned scholar and teacher of the Malay and Arabic languages as well as Islam.

In Shellabear’s lifetime (1870 to 1947), Christian attitudes towards Muslims and Islam evolved from strident animosity to some measure of understanding. Shellabear was influenced by some of the leading scholars of the time, from Samuel Zwemer to Duncan Black MacDonald who taught Muslim Theology at the Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut. Shellabear established his own legacy in Christian-Muslim relations, beginning with his friendship and language studies with Malay religious teachers in Singapore and Malaya. He translated literary and classical works from Malay to English, as well as the entire Bible into Malay. He wrote commentaries on the Gospels and many evangelistic tracts for a Malay-speaking audience, and promoted (unsuccessfully) the recommendation that the Malay language be used as the medium of instruction in Methodist Church Mission-run primary schools in the region. Due to ill health, Shellabear eventually left his ministry in Southeast Asia to teach in the United States, first at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey, and later at the Kennedy School of Mission at Hartford Theological Seminary.

Hunt draws from many documents in the (British and Foreign) Bible Society’s archives at Cambridge University, the United Methodist Archives at Drew University, as well as the national archives of Singapore and Malaysia. This biography was originally written in partial fulfillment for a PhD at the University of Malaya and is thus quite an academic piece of writing. Even so, Hunt weaves in interesting anecdotes and other details of interactions with family and friends that have been captured in personal letters to and from Shellabear. The reader is left marveling at Shellabear’s energy and wide scholarly pursuits, and at his farsightedness in appreciating and valuing the use of the Malay language.

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