St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

The Bible in Australia

Fr Philip & Meredith Lake

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.

[Char­ity]
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.

[Trades uni­ons]
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.

Meredith Lake
The Bible in Aus­tralia: a cul­tur­al his­tory — https://www.newsouthbooks.com.au/books/bible-australia/