Benjamin Franklin West

Singapore Infopedia


Benjamin Franklin West (b. 22 April 1858, Crawfordsville, Indiana, USA1–d. 2 July 1933, Seattle, Washington, USA)2 was an American medical practitioner and Methodist missionary to Penang and Singapore.3

Early life
Born in Indiana, United States, West was educated at Wabash College and thereafter at the Miami Medical College, Cincinnati, where he received his training in medicine. In 1881, he set up a medical practice in Indiana after graduating and married Mary Graham in September that same year. Mary died in 1885 leaving behind two sons – Wilson and Harold. Unfortunately, Wilson later passed away as a result of burns caused by a fire accident.4

On 15 May 1886, West married his late wife's sister, Letitia Graham.5 The following year, he joined the North-West Iowa Methodist Conference, and was ordained for missionary work.6 At a Methodist conference, West was convinced by and responded to the founder of the Methodist Mission in Malaya, Bishop J. M. Thoburn’s call for missionaries for Malaya.7 West and his wife, together with their children Harold and Ruth (born in 1887), arrived in Singapore in early 1888.8

Medical missions
West and his family came to Singapore during the early days of the Malaysia Mission.9 He began his mission in Singapore by teaching at the Anglo-Chinese School in 1888 during the mornings, and being a medical doctor, saw patients in his home and dispensary in Chinatown in the afternoons.10 On board the Orion, a British battleship passing through the region, a young British hospital assistant, William T. Kensett, took a keen interest in West’s medical work. Through West’s influence, the Methodist Mission paid for Kensett’s discharge from the navy, and Kensett soon joined West to help him in his medical work.11 Kensett covered West’s medical duties at his clinic, while the latter was in Amoy, China, in 1890 to increase his proficiency in Chinese.12

Chinese missions
To reach out to the Chinese community, the Malayan Mission appointed West to head the local Chinese mission in April 1889.13 He began his work at Upper Nankin Street, where he had set up a clinic at one of the shophouses. Using the missionary model applied in China, the secular outfit also served as an agency for religious and educational services.14 He started two Sunday services in August 1889 at the shophouse, preaching to a congregation of 30 in Malay, which was translated into Hokkien.15

It was these services conducted by West at his shophouse that marked the beginnings of the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, notably the first church to exclusively see to the spiritual needs of the Chinese Methodist community in Singapore.16 Fluent in various Chinese dialects, including HokkienHakka and Cantonese, West could reach out to the Chinese community. He recruited two Chinese catechists, a Presbyterian, Sng Lim Chiau, and an Anglican, Lim Hoai Toh (Oh Ai Toh), to assist him in his clinic in Chinatown.17 He also learned Malay and knew enough Tamil to read the rites and rituals for service.18

West went against current assumptions that the Chinese could not be understood, and advocated closer study of their culture and philosophy in order to break barriers and understand them better.19 In 1890, West moved to Amoy, where he refined his proficiency in the Chinese language.20 West returned to Singapore in 1891.21

Later appointments
In 1895, West was sent to Penang as Superintendent of the Penang District, especially to develop the ministry among the Chinese there.22 He had earlier helped to set up the Anglo-Chinese Girls School in Penang in 1892 (today known as the Methodist Girls’ School).23

By the turn of the 20th century, West had been elected Malayan Conference Historian owing to his vast knowledge of the ministries in Malaya.24 He took a year’s furlough in America in 1901, returning later that year to fulfill his appointment as Methodist Elder of the Singapore District.25 While his wife and children remained in America, he took along his younger brother, Herbert West, who served as a teacher at the Anglo-Chinese School in Penang.26

In 1898, West ran a small theological school in Penang and invited a few locals to study with him at his home. This marked the beginning of the Theological Training School. It was common in the early days of the Methodist Mission for trainees to follow the missionary-in-charge wherever he was transferred to and whomever succeeded him. In 1902, the school moved to Singapore with West, and then to Malacca in 1907 under another missionary, William G. Shellabear.27 In 1905, West and his wife established the Jean Hamilton Memorial Theological School at Mount Sophia in Singapore, which provided training to local church workers.28 This institution is known today as the Trinity Theological College.29

West was also involved with the Young Men’s Christian Association in Singapore.30 His duties were mostly on account of his appointment and work as Methodist Elder in Singapore.31

West worked as a missionary for 19 years.32 In 1906, West and his family returned to America because of his wife’s ill-health. After retiring from missionary work and settling in Seattle, West opened a drug store, which gave him income, as he had relinquished his rightful claims to annuities from the Methodist Church. He later set up a medical practice and volunteered at the Children’s Home Finding Society. He also continued his bible teaching and preaching.33

West died in Seattle, Washington, on 2 July 1933 at the age of 75.34

Father: Thomas J. West35
Mother: Mary Louise Lee36
Wife: First wife, Mary Graham (d. 1885) (m. 12 September 1881).37 Second wife, Letitia “Letty Lee” Lincoln Graham (b. 6 April 1865, Crawfordsville, Indiana, USA–d. 28 November 1948, Seattle, Washington, USA) (m. 15 May 1886).38
Children: Two sons, Wilson and Harold, were born to Mary Graham. Letitia was mother to seven children, six of whom were born in Asia; Ruth (b. 2 May 1887, Angus, Iowa, USA–d.1944, Seattle, Washington, USA); Thomas Nathan (b. July 1889, Singapore–d. October 1889, Singapore); Irene (b. 9 January 1891, Amoy, China–d. 1963, Seattle, Washington, USA); Mary (b. June 1892, Singapore–d. ?); Thomas Mark (b. 18 May 1894, Singapore–d. 1954, Seattle, Washington, USA); Mildred (b. 13 August 1898, Penang, Malaysia–d. 1968, Seattle, Washington, USA); Herbert (b. 12 August 1899, Seattle, Washington, USA– d. ?)39


Bonny Tan

1. Biographical and Historical Record of Greene and Carroll Counties, Iowa, Biographies Project (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1887), 306, accessed 19 December 2023,
2. Theodore R. Doraisamy, ed., Heralds of the Lord: Personalities in Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia (Singapore: The Methodist Book Room, 1988), 8. (Call no. RSING 287.0922 HER)
3. Theodore R. Doraisamy, The March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 1885– 1980 (Singapore: The Methodist Book Room, 1982), 4. (Call no. RSING 287.095957 DOR)
4. Iowa Biographies Project, “Biographical and Historical Record of Greene and Carroll Counties, Iowa.”
5. Linda Cox, “Graham family in Kentucky,”, 2 April 2012, accessed 19 December 2023,
6. “Benjamin Franklin West,” Washington Genealogy, accessed 11 February 2024,
7. “Death of Bishop Thorburn,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 9 December 1922, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Washington Genealogy, “Benjamin Franklin West.”
8. Doraisamy, March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 22.
9. Doraisamy, Heralds of the Lord, 8.
10. Theodore R. Doraisamy, ed., Forever Beginning: One Hundred Years of Methodism in Singapore (Singapore: The Methodist Church in Singapore, 1985), 175. (Call no. RSING 287.095957 FOR)
11. Doraisamy, March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 15.
12. Doraisamy, One Hundred Years of Methodism in Singapore, 13; Doraisamy, Heralds of the Lord, 9.
13. Doraisamy, One Hundred Years of Methodism in Singapore, 175.
14. Doraisamy, One Hundred Years of Methodism in Singapore, 13, 15.
15. Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, Qingzhu 130 zhounian: Xingqi faguang庆祝130周年 : 兴起发光 [A celebration of 130 years: Arise, shine] (Singapore : Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, 2019), 33. (From PublicationSG)
16. Doraisamy, March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 17; Robbie B. H. Goh, Sparks of Grace: The Story of Methodism in Asia (Singapore: Methodist Church in Singapore, 2003), 103 (Call no. RSING 287.095 GOH); “Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church,” National Heritage Board, accessed 19 December 2023,
17. Doraisamy, One Hundred Years of Methodism in Singapore, 13; Doraisamy, March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 14–15, 17, 22, 33, 73.
18. Doraisamy, Heralds of the Lord, 8.
19. “Methodist District Conference,” Straits Times, 13 October 1905, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Doraisamy, Heralds of the Lord, 9.
21. Earnest Lau, From Mission to Church: The Evolution of the Methodist Church in Singapore and Malaysia, 1885–1976 (Singapore: Genesis Books, 2008), 17. (Call no. RSING 287.095957 LAU)
22. Lau, From Mission to Church, 17.
23. Doraisamy, March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 14–15.
24. “Malaysia Mission Conference of the M. E. Church,”Straits Times, 28 February 1901, 3. (From NewspaperSG).
25. “The Methodist Conference,” Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 31 January 1906, 3. (From NewspaperSG).
26. “The Methodist Conference,” Straits Times, 25 February 1902, 5; “Methodist Church News,” Straits Times, 9 October 1901, 2. (From NewspaperSG).
27. Doraisamy, One Hundred Years of Methodism in Singapore, 37, 72.
28. “The ‘Jean Hamilton’ Memorial Training School,” Straits Times, 28 February 1905, 8. (From NewspaperSG).
29. Methodist Church in Singapore, The People Called Methodists: The Heritage, Life and Mission of the Methodist Church in Singapore, (Singapore: Methodist Church in Singapore, 2003), 85–87 (Call no. RSING 287.15957 MET-[SRN]); Doraisamy, March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 73.
30. Doraisamy, March of Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia, 33.
31. “The Methodist Conference.”
32. Washington Genealogy, “Benjamin Franklin West.”
33. Washington Genealogy, “Benjamin Franklin West.”
34. Doraisamy, Heralds of the Lord, 8; Washington Genealogy, “Benjamin Franklin West.”
35. Biographical and Historical Record of Greene and Carroll Counties, Iowa, 306.
36. Linda Cox, “Joseph & Rebecca West, PGCO, MD 1695,”, 18 March 2002, accessed 19 December 2023,
37. Biographical and Historical Record of Greene and Carroll Counties, Iowa, 306
38. Cox, “Graham family in Kentucky.”
39. Cox, “Graham family in Kentucky.”

The information in this article is valid as of December 2023 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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