On February 16, 1909, C M Lee left Singapore for British North Borneo to sell Christ Our Saviour. Several people became interested in the truth as Brother Lee shared his faith. His parents-in-law, Chan Thiam Hee and his wife, sailed from Singapore to follow up on the interests. As a result, there were small groups of Sabbath keepers in Sandakan, the then capital of British North Borneo, and Jesselton (present Kota Kinabalu).
In December 1912, during the foreign workers’ meeting of the Malaysian Mission held at Sumber Wekas, a small hill station about 65 km south of Surabaya, Java, Roy P Montgomery, who had worked in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, was appointed the first Director of the British North Borneo Mission (BNBM). His wife, as it was not uncommon in those early years, served as secretary-treasurer of the Mission. The Montgomerys left Singapore for Sandakan in mid 1913 to set up the Mission office there. Assisted by Chan Thiam Hee, R P Montgomery went to work right away. In his first annual report, Montgomery told the story of the opening of the opening of BNBM: “We arrived in North Borneo in June 1913 and immediately began preaching the gospel, finding first openings among the Chinese. On January 1 (1914), we baptized seven of the nationality. One of these had formerly been a heathen fisherman, worshiping his ancestors and idols. Now he is telling the gospel to his fellow fishermen.”
On July 4, 1915, F A Detamore left Singapore for Sandakan. The eight days voyage was a tedious trip and the boat service was very poor. After this visit, he reported that there were 35 Adventist members scattered in Labuan, Jesselton and Sandakan. The greater part of the the Adventist work was in Sandakan. Here was a school with about 20 pupils and it was almost self-supporting.
R C Porter, president of the Asiatic Division Conference, also made a trip to BNBM at the same time with F A Detamore and R P Montgomery. The purpose was to look for a suitable property in Sandakan. Subsequently, in 1916, a six-acre land with a two-storeyed house was purchased at about $5,000.00 gold.
In August 1915, R P Montgomery held a series of meetings in Menggatal, a town to the north of Jesselton, and baptized 14 persons. About a month later, the government officials informed Kong Tsun Min of the BNBM that he should stop visiting this group on new believers and other people in their homes. He was also forbidden to sell or give away any Adventist literature.
In November the same year, Leroy B Mershon, the secretary of the Malayan Union Mission and Director of the Singapore Mission, and his wife went to BNBM to relieve the Montgomerys who were due for a furlough. Soon after their arrival, a letter arrived from the North Borneo Governor forbidding Seventh-day Adventist missionaries from going to Menggatal. Montgomery and Mershon went at once to talk to the Resident. He told them that the restriction was to keep the various missions (Christian churches) separate from one another as much as possible. The Adventist Mission was, however, granted a concession, permitting Kong Tsun Min to visit the people in their homes within a radius of two miles from Jesselton. A few months later, Leroy Mershon went back to see the Resident and received pemission, after some persuasion, to sell the give-away Adventist literature.
On July 1, 1917, Mrs Myrtle Mershon, who came with her husband to BNBM in 1914, passed away in Surabaya, Java, after a lingering illness of four months. She was only thirty-one.The shocking news reached Leroy Mershon while he was away from home visiting the field. He took the first boat to Singapore and arrived in Surabaya two weeks after death claimed hi wife. In the courageous spirit of a true missionary, he wrote: “This lonely grave over here in Java’s land is only a call to me to gird on the armor afresh against the hosts of evil until the Lord calls me to lay down the burdens. I have proved Him, and find that He never forsakes us in the hour of trial. There is only one thing I hope the committee will not do, and that is to think I ought to go home to America.” Leroy Mershon later remarried and, with his second wife, gave many more years of service to BNBM until he was called to serve the Malay States Mission in 1928.
When it was learned in June 1917 that the Montgomerys would not return to the field because of health problems, a call was placed for a second missionary family to work in BNBM. In 1918, while World War I still raged, the General Conference appointed Gustavus B Youngberg to fill the call. However, the Youngbergs had to wait for a year for their passports to be approved. They left San Francisco in October 1919 and arrived in Singapore in late November. At that time, Gus Youngberg was asked to work at the Singapore Training School. It was not until July 1920 that the Youngbergs were able to leave for North Borneo. They were in BNBM for about three years, only to leave again for Singapore when the Mershons returned.
Although the church owned a piece of land at Sandakan since 1916, neither a school nor a chapel was allowed to be added to the property. Seven years later, the British Government offered, on favourable terms, to purchase the property. Inasmuch as the Mission work was on the Jesselton side rather than in Sandakan, this providential offer was approved by both the Union and the Division committees. The proceed of the sale, which amounted to SD$25,000.00 were used to buy a more suitable property at Sandakan for residence, chapel and school purposes; to build a foreign home, and school at Kudat; and to finish paying for the property at Papar and Beaufort. The balance of about SD$5,000.00 was applied on the main building of the Malaysian Union Seminary.
Missionaries From Sumatra
Up until the early 1920s, the BNBM worked mainly among the Chinese. With the arrival of intradivision missionaries from Batakland, the work began among the Kadazans in 1923. As a result, out of the 40 persons baptized during 1925 and 1926, seven of them were Kadazans.
Meanwhile the Muruts in Tenom were contacted. This was the end of the railway line that ran up into the interior. Soon Manindangi Agian, a Batak worker, was sent to open work among the Muruts at Tenom. The tribe, about one third in mumber among the indigenus people was the last to yield to obedience to the government. In 1931, the first baptism was held among the Muruts.
In 1928, the first Kadazan Adventist church was organized at Kitabu, Inanam. This was the first Christian church to be organized by any denomination. On November 22, 1930, another Kadazan church was organized with a membership of 21 at Tenghilan. Because of the Alien Missionary Act, each Mission worker, both local and alien, had to have a permit from the Government Secretary to work among
the people. The worker was restricted to work only in a particular area. In 1932, the British Government passed a law abolishing this act. The BNBM was henceforth able to press on to the hitherto unentered interior and work among the people who have never heard the message.
The main nature of the Adventist work in BNBM during the early years was evangelism through education. Mission schools were a means of reaching the minds and hearts of the people. They broke down a great deal of prejudices. At the third Union Biennial session held in March 1933, J W Rowland made an appeal for the opening of a training school to train nationals to carry the message to their own people.
In late October 1935, G B Youngberg, who had gone back to his homeland in America in July 1934, returned to North Borneo to get the training school started. On February 1936, he was appointed as the Director of the BNBM and was able to foster especially the building up of the training school.
Establishment of Sabah Training School
After several years of searching, a 10-acre site at Tamparuli where the main road crossed the Tuaran river was purchased in late 1939 as the site for the British North Borneo Training School. When the Youngbergs went home on furlough in late 1940, the school buildings were almost completed.
Sacrifice of the Bowers and the Youngbergs
On May 17 1940, L I Bowers, manager of the Malayan Signs Press, was appointed director of the BNBM for a year during the furlough of the Youngbergs. In mid 1941, Mrs Ella M Bowers contracted malignant malaria and died within a
few hours. Bowers conducted the burial service himself. Because of the urgent situation, G B Youngberg left San Francisco in July 1941, without his family. He reached North Borneo sometime in September and was pleased with the activities of the training school. His service was cut short, however, because of the outbreak of the war in December 1941.
Sometime in early 1942, G B Youngberg made a trip to the Marudu Bay area to inform Lazarus S Sibarani that the BNBM has appointed him (Sibarani) as the BNBM Acting President . It took Youngberg another three days by foot to reach the Mission Office in Tamparuli. His family was unaware of the risks he was facing as they have gone back to the United States as soon as news of the impending arrival of the Japanese was heard.
When the Japanese arrived, together with other “white people”, Youngberg was shipped to an internment camp in Kuching where W R Lake, then Director of the Sarawak Mission, was also interned. On the morning of July 17, 1944, just three days after his 56th birthday, G B Youngberg passed away in a coolie hut of the General Hospital in Kuching. His fellow Seventh-day Adventist missionary and intern-mate, W R Lake, conducted the funeral service and laid him to rest in the Church of England cemetary in Kuching.
Establishment of Goshen Adventist Secondary School
One important development of the work in Sabah during the postwar period is the great progress made around the Marudu Bay area. In the early 1950s, several families settled in the area now known as Goshen. The group included patriach Salag Gaban, the father of Dr Charles S Gaban, Mandatang Gaban and Assan Gaban. In May 1952, Goshen Adventist Secondary School was applied under the name of Saminggau Lundoh. The first teacher was Mandatang Gaban.
He was ordained on April 14, 1956 and became the first Kadazan to be granted a ministerial credential. Today, Kota Marudu has the highest concentration of Seventh-day Adventist in Sabah.
Work Among the Rungus People in Kudat Area
Meanwhile in the northwestern part of North Borneo, around 1942, Khoo Hyuk Min, was silently witnessing to the Rungus people. A little group was established. They built a little attap chapel and faithfully worshipped there with only an occasional visit from passing workers. Sometime in 1950, R R Youngberg and J T Pohan visited one of the villages and held some meetings.
When Arthur Mountain and his wife visited Sikuati in June 1951, they found out that eight Rungus natives were attending the Chinese services and Brother Chong Kiu En, a faithful layman, was teaching them the Bible as best as he could. It was noted that on the Sabbath the Mountains were at Sikuati, the little church was crowded with at least 44 natives. The was no room for the Chinese and they had to hold services in a nearby home! This small beginning at Sikuati spread to other sorrounding villages—which include Tambuluran and Marabau.