St Luke’s Enmore, 8 July 2018
One Friday, almost exactly 200 years ago, young Mary Hassall sat in her Parramatta parlour. Listening with her family to a visiting Wesleyan preacher, she heard a word that caught her, and moved her to her bones.
‘And he blessed him there’. It’s a verse from the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. Jacob thinks the ‘he’ is an angel – but it turns out to be God himself. ‘I saw God face to face,’ Jacob goes on to exclaim, ‘and yet my life was spared.’
Listening to the story, Mary suddenly ‘felt the blessing of forgiveness from a compassionate Saviour flow into her [own] heart’ – and it almost overwhelmed her. Later that evening, on her own, she wept in the new conviction of sins forgiven. She too had met God — in the word — and found herself beloved, forgiven, spared.
I don’t know if some part of the Bible has ever moved you to tears, or what role it plays in your inner life, but since European colonists first brought the Bible to Australia in the late eighteenth century, the Bible has been a precious thing to some people here. There have been people in every generation who’ve treasured it like Mary Hassall, who have understood that line in Psalm 130: ‘I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.’
In itself such treasuring, such hoping, makes the Bible an important part of Australian life. In Mary Hassell’s time and ours, the Bible has been bound up with how people understand themselves, imagine eternity, how they relate to God. It’s anchored people’s inner life, nourished spirituality, stirred the deepest thoughts and feelings.
You see, there’s a myth about Australia that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: The myth that Australia, since the convicts, has been a doggedly secular society and culture. Religious belief, and especially religious seriousness, is inauthentically Australian from this point of view. It is at best a quaint hobby for a nostalgic or unimaginative few.
Like all good myths, the idea of ‘godless Australia’ has an element of truth. Regular church-goers have never made up an outright majority of the population. And it *was* a turn of the century Australian who coined the phrase ‘Bible-basher’ – one of our more colourful contributions to the riches of English.
But even now, in our secular age, there are more people in church on Sundays than in all of South Australia. When we look back into history, the inadequacy of the godless nation myth is all too clear. The history of the Bible – and what diverse Australians have thought about it – reveals a much more interesting story.
James Jefferis, a Congregationalist, was one of nineteenth century Australia’s star preachers. He held significant pastorates in Adelaide and Sydney, was a regular public speaker and contributor to the newspapers. He enjoyed the hurly burly of debate on the issues of the day, and, for an unrivalled period of forty years, advocated colonial Federation.
In 1882, Jefferis delivered a series of lectures on the Bible and contemporary belief. In it, he suggested the Bible’s potentially transformative role in the lives of its readers: There is a power in the Bible itself, in the spirit of its teaching, in the revelation it makes of God and His love, to answer to all the wants of our higher and spiritual life.’
‘The Bible, working out its Divine mission in a living Christianity, furnishes the one power to face danger and conquer difficulty, and by the might of self-sacrifice to regenerate the world.’
Jefferis was describing a posture or outlook that I think has been vastly important in Australian history — a kind of citizenship, a dynamic altruism, rooted in a devotional encounter with the Christian scriptures. ‘Divine mission’; ‘living Christianity’; ‘self-sacrifice to regenerate the world.’ They are revealing phrases, aren’t they.
Especially in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Christian altruism was important to the development of numerous institutions we still live with today. We see this the ways people grappled with the challenge of poverty, how they attempted to bring good news to the poor and needy.
One winter morning in 1801, Mary Hassall’s parents, Rowland and Elizabeth, travelled to Sydney — to attend a church service to mark the opening of the colony’s first public charity. It was ‘pretty well attended’, Rowland recollected. The chaplain, Samuel Marsden, preached a good sermon. The text, from Psalm 27, suited the opening of an orphanage: ‘When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up’.
In the years that followed, many colonial Christians brought their beliefs to bear on the issue of want and poverty. In 1813, a group of Sydney evangelicals founded the NSW Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Benevolence. Its purpose was to relieve material distress, as well as encourage religion and virtue. It was the forerunner of today’s Benevolent Society, the oldest continuing charity in the country.
[Banks and mutuals]
As some took the charitable approach, others tried to improve people’s financial security. In 1817, the very same people who founded the Bible Society established a bank to encourage the poor to save. That bank is now Westpac, the oldest bank in Australia!
A generation later, in the 1840s, Congregationalists John Fairfax and David Jones were involved in forming the Australian Mutual Provident Society, now AMP. The original idea was to enable working class people to provide themselves with life insurance. One the one hand, it reflected ‘that Protestant view that people must accept responsibility for their own well-being, as a form of godliness’. But as a mutual organisation, the self-reliance it envisaged involved ‘bearing one another burdens’, as the Apostle Paul urged the Galatians.
Another generation later again, some colonial Christians sought wage justice as the remedy for poverty.
Perhaps Australia’s greatest ever union organiser was William Guthrie Spence –a genial Scot who played a crucial role in the development of the Australian Workers Union. Spence had learned to read from his mother’s Bible. As an adult, he served as a Sunday school teacher, church secretary, and Methodist lay preacher.
Spence’s Christian citizenship ran in a different direction to the founders of Westpac and AMP. (He once declared that Jesus ‘did not say anything in favour of thrift’, and criticised the churches for failing to challenge the sins of their wealthy members!) .
He believed the right response to poverty was improved pay and conditions – a response defined by his understanding of Jesus’ teaching. As he explained to a meeting of socialists in 1892: ‘I should say [the new unionism] is an effort to give practical effect to the teachings of the founder of Christianity, by making it easy and natural, for men to act justly, truthfully and honestly…
If I understand anything of the teachings of the founder of Christianity, it is that he came to bring heaven upon earth – to set up the kingdom of heaven on earth… an ideal state where we can escape from all the ills and sorrows that we experience here…’
These kinds of ideas nourished early unionism in Australia. They remained important as the movement turned to parliamentary politics, with the formation of what is now the ALP. (Without going into the details, it’s worth noting that the Catholic Freeman’s Journal actually complained in the 1890s, that in NSW the Labour Party was ‘largely composed of pulpit-punchers and local preachers’!)
It would be possible to go on and trace the influence of Christian altruism on other parts of Australian life, e.g. on • schools, whether run by the churches or government; • the formation of lending libraries, scientific organisations, journals and newspapers.
For Jefferis and many others: • it was also the biblical tradition that gave moral shape and purpose to Australian federation, • and during world war one, to military service or indeed to pacifism. • Parts of the Bible also proved a wellspring of inspiration for women suffragists, many of whom, in Australia, came to political activism through their involvement with church and temperance.
There are so many stories to tell, as you can see from the size of my book!
The Bible has nourished and shaped the activism of generations of Australians. And even now, people of all faiths and none still live with the legacies. That’s a good reason to move on from the myth of ‘godless Australia’.
But what of the counter-myth, that Australia is or was a Christian nation?
Is this the view our history prompts us to embrace?
There is a great deal that could be said about this — but I’ll just make one more point to finish. In my view the answer is no: this doesn’t quite fit or sum up the Australian experience either. The influence of Christianity and its scriptures has been intricate and significant – but it has *not* been simple, or unmixed, or even always beneficial. In the most important sense of following and reflecting Christ Jesus, there is a great deal in Australian history that falls short of ‘Christian’.
One person who saw this clearly was William Cooper, the Yorta Yorta man who founded what’s now NAIDOC week, which begins today.
Having learned to read and write, and converted to Christianity, at Maloga mission in the 1880s, he spent much of his life challenging the discrimination and dispossession of his people.
As early as 1887, he appealed to his local MP with biblical arguments for land tenure: ‘secure [to us] this small portion of a vast territory which is ours by Divine Right’.
Later quoting Philippians 2, he rejected white paternalism and insisted that Indigenous people had the potential to achieve their own transformation. ‘The Aboriginal must be a partner in his own uplift … he must “work out his own salvation”’.
As an old man, he led the first Aboriginal Day of Mourning protests, on 26 January 1938. He also petitioned the Prime Minister ‘from the standpoint of an educated black who can read the Bible’. He wrote: White men … claimed they had ‘found’ a ‘new’ country – Australia. This country was not new, it was already in possession of and inhabited by millions of blacks, who … owned the country as their God given heritage.
I marvel at the fact that while the textbook of present civilisation, the Bible, states that God gave the earth to man, the ‘Christian’ interferes with God’s arrangement and stop not even at murder to take that which does not belong to them but belongs to others by right of prior possession and by right of gift from God.
Every shape and form of murder, yes, mass murder, was used against us and laws were passed and still exist, which no human creature can endure. Our food stuffs have been destroyed, poison and guns have done their work, and now white men’s homes have been built on our hunting and camping grounds. Our lives have been wrecked and our happiness ended. Oh! Ye whites!
How much compensation have we had? How much of our land has been paid for? Not one iota. Again we state that we are the original owners of the country. In spite of force, prestige, or anything else you like, morally the land is ours. We have been ejected and despoiled of our God-given right and our inheritance has been forcibly taken from us.
When we learn … the history of the manner in which we have been treated these last 150 years, our confidence in the professed Christian nation – standing for good government, justice and freedom – is sadly shaken.
Are you prepared to admit that, since the Creator said in his Word that all men are of ‘one blood’ we are humans with feelings like yourselves, in the eyes of Almighty God? … Will you … do your bit to see a great injustice at least mollified by agitating for us to get a fair deal before it is too late?
For Cooper, the Bible affirmed the inherent equality of Aboriginal people and their enduring right to country. It sharpened a critique of white injustice, and nourished a vision for a more truly Christian nation. His questions – his challenge – remain significant today. They go to the heart of what it might mean for the Bible to continue to shape the Australian nation.
If I can add one final reflection, as a non-Indigenous Christian Australian: there is little use in clinging to either the myth of a godless society, or the myth of a Christian nation.
There is better guidance, I think, in Psalm 130, which I mentioned. When the writer speaks of hope – patient hope in the word of the Lord – it’s not a hope for vindication, and still less for recognition in the eyes of secular society. It’s a hope for mercy and forgiveness, and for ongoing grace to serve: If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you… Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.
The Bible in Australia: a cultural history — https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/bible-australia/