Film and Book Reviews

Convincing defence of Evangelicals' role in our nation's history


By Alan Nichols

August 5 2019At first glance you might assume this is going to be a defence of the Diocese of Sydney. Wrong. It is a defence of all the churches in the early Australia colonial period. And, more significantly, it is a heavy attack on historians like Manning Clark who have seriously denigrated the public contribution which all the early Evangelicals made, including rescue of Aboriginal people and communities.

It became fashionable for professional and academic historians to write prodigiously and negatively about the role of all religious movements in the early life of Hobart, Sydney and Melbourne. So we all grew up apologising for the behaviour of Christian chaplains and governors. This book rewrites that history.

Who are the authors? Associate Professor Stuart Piggin was Director of the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience at Macquarie University from 2005 to 2016 and is well known in Sydney. Robert D. Linder is the Distinguished Professor of History at Kansas State University. Since arriving in Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1987, he has re-visited each year. They have a lot of experience to share, and with this volume of 674 pages they are determined to share it.

Reading this book slowly, decade by decade, denomination by denomination and colony by colony, it is a very convincing argument that we should be pleased about the behaviour of our forebears, and not ashamed. For the early Evangelicals had a clear view that the Gospel of Christ had implications for the public good, care of the disadvantaged and recognition of the original inhabitants of this island.

The volume is large because the authors have combed all existing published histories and archived correspondence of the entire range of Evangelicals both clergy and lay leaders. Many of the early Governors were Evangelicals too and believed in developing a culture for the common good. The footnotes are prodigious.

Now, instead of just reading Anglican histories, you can travel through the early days in Australian colonies, and through to Federation, of Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Anglicans and a few Evangelical breakaway independent sects.

So Richard Johnson, early chaplain, is defended for his commitment to social amelioration and education. Governor Arthur preferred Evangelicals because they sought to minister to the poor and convicts. Aboriginal people were “made in the image of God” and a Native Institution was built in Parramatta for them.

The Revd Dr Peter Adam of Carlton gets a good mention (p.207) for his work on the “history wars”. When you get to page 251 there is a solid summary of chronic misinterpretation by secular historians of what happened in all the colonies in the early decades of colonisation.

The early arguments between Bishops Broughton of Sydney and Charles Perry of Melbourne are intensively scrutinised. Perry comes out best, particularly because of his connection with the “Clapham sect” back home.

There are some delicious stories. At St James’, King Street, Sydney, Archdeacon Scott locked Edward Smith Hall, editor of the Monitor newspaper, out of his pew because he had criticised him, and the editor’s family had to sit on the floor in the chancel. This led to a defamation suit, and the editor won. Then the C. of E. chaplain to South Australia, Charles Howard, called his horse “Luther” after his European hero. Then there was Andrew Scott, lay reader at Bacchus Marsh, looking forward to ordination, who instead opted for bushranging, and as the romantic Captain Moonlite was hanged in Sydney on 20 January 1830.

The role of women is explored. As feminism developed from about 1871, Evangelical women started missions to seamen, a mission for railway construction workers and other charities. Women’s involvement began to shape Australian culture. Women initiated the South Sea Evangelical Mission to “kanakas” and to “Zenana” people in India.

There are whole chapters on social legislation, expansion in welfare ministry, churchmanship tensions, missions to Indigenous people, Chinese, South Sea islanders, and Baptist missionaries in India, the golden period of 1871 to 1899 of evangelistic revivals and missions to farm and mining communities, the start of the Keswick Movement in Australia.

From 1871 to 1889 Evan-gelicalism is defined by whom it perceived to be its enemies. Secularism is one enemy; resurgence of Catholicism is another; Darwinism and biblical criticism a third. In this period the Education Act of 1851-53 was a key change in society. In the same period the workers’ movement became the Australian Labor Party, with much help from lay Evangelicals in Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane. In 1901 Federation came about, with much debate about opening prayers and descriptions of the national state. Then liberal theology developed, and “increasingly Victorian Anglican evangelicals felt the need for a training college of their own” (p.519).

And you will recognise many of the historians quoted and footnoted: Brian Dickey, Janet Scarfe, Stephen Judd, Marcus L. Loane, Ken Cable, Renate Howe, Patricia Grimshaw, William Lawton, Janet West, Keith Cole, Edward Judge, Geoffrey Serle, John Harris, Bruce Kaye, Marcia Cameron, Robert Withycombe, Tom Frame, David Hilliard and Wei-Han Kuan.

The conclusion of this extraordinary study is that “the depiction of the European settlement of Australia as the product of the Enlightenment and ... anti-Christian is nonsense”. The Evangelicals were prominent among the merchants who built the new society. They were quick to identify as “barbaric” the inhumane treatment of Indigenous people. They made a decided contribution to the liberation and uplift of women.

Alan Nichols AM is Archdeacon Emeritus, Diocese of Melbourne.