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Religion, church & missions in Australia

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This section examines the fascinating history and impact of religious beliefs, practices and institutions on the development of Australian society.


The story of religion in the first hundred years is dominated by the activities of the traditional Christian churches and evangelical missionaries. Their activities are reflected through official government and church records and through the personal papers of significant churchmen, missionaries and religious activists held in the Library's collections. Post-war immigration has brought with it a diverse range of religious beliefs and practices. This emerging religious diversity is gradually being reflected in the Library's collection particularly through the images of documentary photographers.

Significant change has also come in our recognition of the complex spiritual traditions of the original inhabitants. The European settlers regarded with suspicion and hostility the concept of Aboriginal spirituality, their belief in spirits behind the forces of nature and the influence of ancestral spirit beings.

Item 06: Islamic funeral, Lakemba 1995 / [photographed by] Michael Amendolia
1995
Michael Amendolia
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Digital ID: 
a128761
Crowd of veiled women, Corpus Christi at Manly
3 June 1934
Hood, Ted, 1911-2000
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Digital ID: 
hood_00139
Collection 02: Suzon Fuks photographs of the Great Synagogue, people in their kitchens, salespeople in the home, and a Wik rally, 1997
1997
Fuks, Suzon, 1959-
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a1216001
Collection 05: Zoroastrian wedding, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, 1999 / photographed by Suzon Fuks
20 Mar 1999
Fuks, Suzon, 1959-
View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a1217001
Events, festivals and street life in Sydney, suburbs and country, 1979-2001 / photographed by Ben Apfelbaum
1979-2001
Apfelbaum, Ben
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Digital ID: 
a430025
Hood Collection part II : [Papuans, Torres Strait Islanders, Melanesians and Polynesians, including village and cultural life, missionaries, landcapes and sculpture]
ca.1910-ca.1950
Hood, Sam, 1872-1953
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Digital ID: 
a238034

The early years

The First Fleet anchored in Sydney Cove on January 28, 1788. On the following Sunday, February 3, the first church service was held for the officers, marines and convicts on Australian soil.

The service was led by the colony's Chaplain, the Reverend Richard Johnson, on a grassy hill under a tree. He chose for his text the twelfth verse of Psalm 116, "What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me?"

Two weeks later on February 17, Rev. Johnson celebrated the first Communion in the colony. The service was held in Lieutenant Ralph Clark's tent, borrowed for the occasion. The event was recorded by Clark in his journal: "I will keep this Table also as long as I live for it is the first Table that ever the Lords Supper was eat of in this country"
>Read Ralph Clark's diary

In the early years of the colony religion played a difficult and unpopular role. As an evangelical minister, Rev. Richard Johnson saw his role as an opportunity to convert the convict population and the native inhabitants to Christianity. As a military officer, Governor Phillip believed the Church provided a necessary code for social order and control. The commission received by Governor Phillip in 1787 requested only that "Due observance of religion and good order among the inhabitants of the new settlement, and that you do take such steps for the due celebration of publick worship as circumstances will permit".

 

In November 1788, Rev. Richard Johnson wrote to Henry Fricker of Portsmouth, England, a friend of the Johnson family. Amongst personal news Johnson describes the arrangements for religious observances at Rose Hill, the Governor's reluctance to build a church and the irreligious lives of the convicts.

For the first five years Johnson was solely responsible for performing services throughout the colony. He travelled up to Parramatta every second Saturday. It took around five or six hours to travel the fourteen miles up the river to the settlement. He would then give a sermon at Toongabbie around seven on Sunday morning and two services at Parramatta later in the day. Services at Sydney Cove and further west were held in the open air or in makeshift buildings In bad weather or if the Chaplain was ill the services were cancelled. Despite numerous requests from the chaplain for land, funds and labour, a proper church was not provided. Another of Johnson's concerns was the poor attendance at services.

In 1791 Governor Phillip issued an Order for attendance at divine service. Rations for non-attenders were to be reduced, to two pounds of meat for every overseer, and one and a half pounds for every convict, The Order was not enforced nor did any penalty apply to Officers or Marines.

In the circumstances, Governor Phillip's reluctance to support Johnson's requests was not surprising. The need to feed, house and control the activities of an increasingly dissatisfied and expanding population was a far greater priority.

In 1794 Reverend Samuel Marsden arrived in the colony to assist Rev. Johnson. His impression of the colony and the moral state of the inhabitants quickly agreed with that of Johnson. In October 1795 Rev. Marsden wrote to Mary Stokes in England about conditions in the Colony.

'The Enemy hath so completely possessed himself of the Minds of all Ranks and Orders here; that it is a Matter of Doubt with me, that his Power will be ever seen in this Place to fall like Lightning from Heaven'

 

Richard Johnson

The Reverend Richard Johnson was appointed as the first chaplain to the colony of New South Wales in 1787, a position he held until 1800 when he returned with his family to England. Johnson owed his appointment to friends within the London Eclectic Society, including Reverend John Newton and William Wilberforce. Johnson and his wife Mary left on the First Fleet convict transport Golden Grove in 1787. As the colony's official Chaplain Johnson performed the first church service on February 3, 1788.

For the first five years Johnson was solely responsible for performing services throughout the colony. Johnson performed baptisms, marriages and burials. He supervised the colony's schools, attended executions, worked among the convicts and organised and funded the building of the colony's first church, opened in 1793. Johnson also worked extensively with the Aboriginal population. A young Aboriginal girl, Abaroo, lived with his family and Johnson gave his daughter an aboriginal name, Milbah.

Before attending university Johnson was a farmer and teacher in Yorkshire. These farming skills were valuable to the new settlement. Johnson supplied grain, vegetables and meat to Sydney from the lands that he cultivated around Brickfield, Canterbury and Ryde. Johnson was an early pioneer of the citrus industry in Australia. On the voyage out with the First Fleet he collected orange seeds and successfully grew the fruit on his property at Kissing Point, near Parramatta.

In November 1788, Richard Johnson wrote to Henry Fricker of Portsmouth, England, a friend of the Johnson family. Amongst personal news Johnson describes the arrangements for religious observances at Rose Hill, the Governor's reluctance to build a church and the irreligious lives of the convicts. The letter is from a series of correspondence from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker between May 30, 1787 to August 10, 1797.

Transcript: 
Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, In the Country of Cumberland, New South Wales, Novr. 15th, 1788. My dear Friends, Am happy that another opportunity offers of writing to you to inform you of our health & welfare. Have already given you at least two Letters since our arrival at Port Jackson, & hope that before I write again, shall be favoured with a long letter from you among the rest of my der fds in England. I most sincerely & anxiously wish & desire to hear from you, to hear how you do, how you go on, how my fds Hausty & Miles do -what success in fishing [indecipherable] 'Tis now near Ten Months since we first arrived at this part of the world. I travel much about home; wish much Labour & no small cost we have got our little Cabbage tree Cottage -no small curiosity it is, I assure you, & cd it be placed on Bonfire Corner but one day, I dare say it wd have as many spectators & admirers as ever had Lunardy's Balloon. Am happy, however, that it in some measure answers our purpose, though now and then in excessive Rains, we are all in a swim within doors. —My little Garden also begins to flourish & supplies
Collection 18: Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797, with associated items, ca. 1888 - p1
1787-1797
Fricker, Henry
Digital ID: 
a1769001
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Transcript: 
us daily with either one kind of vegetable or other. As to the Country in general, I confess I have no very great opinion of nor expectation from it. The greatest part of it is poor & barren & rocky & requires a great deal of labour to clear it of trees, roots, &c, & to cultivate it, & after all, the corn that has been sown hitherto looks very poor & unpromising. I think I can say none have given it a fairer trial than myself. Have been at work in my little farm for a day together, burning wood, digging, sowing, &c, but do not expect to reap anything nearly adequate to my labour. Others seem to be in the same predicament & all almost, at least with but few exceptions, are heartily sick of the expedition, & wish themselves back safe in old England. I hope I have said enough to diswade you from ever emigrating to this part of the world. You will act more wisely to stay at Bonfire Corner & (one thing excepted) I shd be most heartily glad again to see you on that side of Southern & Atlantic Seas - and what without? Why the pity and concern I feel for these poor people with whom I am here connected. Happy would I be were I to live upon Bread & water and to suffer the most severe hardship, did I but see some of those poor souls begin to think about their latter end. Am sorry to see so little good yet done amongst them. They neither see nor will be persuaded to seek the Lord of Mercy and Compassion of God. They prefer their Lust before their Souls, yea, most of them will sell their souls for a Glass of Grogg, so blind, so foolish, so hardened are they. The Colony begins already to be a good deal dispersed. About seventy or eighty are gone to settle in New Norfolk. This took place soon after our arrival. Ships have been backward & forward, & the last particularly brings us a flattering promising account of that island as to wood, garden stuff, &c. Others have been lately sent
Collection 18: Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797, with associated items, ca. 1888 - p2
1787-1797
Fricker, Henry
Digital ID: 
a1769002
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Transcript: 
to the top of this harbour to cultivate the ground. Understand that I am sometimes to go thither to perform Divine Services. The distance is 12 or 14 miles by water, which will make it very inconvenient & unpleasant. Mrs. J. was delivered on the 10th [indecipherable] of a man child, but my Babe was still born & my dear Partner, for some time, was in the utmost danger. Through Mercy, however, she was at length safely delivered & continues to recover though but very slowly. I am yet obliged to be a field Preacher. No Church is yet begun of, & I am afraid scarcely thought of. Other things seem to be of greater Notice & Concern & most wd rather see a Tavern, a Play House, a Brothel -anything sooner than a place for publick worship. Please to present our most cordial respects to Mr. Hausey & family, & tell his little girl that Miss Puss has lately behaved so ill & made such bad work in my garden that I was obliged to have a Court Martial upon her; that after frequent threatenings I was at length resolved she shd be transported & accordingly have shipped her off to New Norfolk. Give our respects likewise to Miss Wickenden, and tell her that Mr. Tom Puss is come to high preferment -tired of such poor fare as I cd give him, he took himself off to the publick stores, where he feeds upon the richest dainties of the country. Our united love and [Chri]stian respects to all other inquiring fds. Accept the same Yourselves from Your sincere fds, &c., Rich'd & Mrs Johnson Our particular respects to Dr Milly and family.
Collection 18: Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797, with associated items, ca. 1888 - p3
1787-1797
Fricker, Henry
Digital ID: 
a1769003
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Transcript: 
Mr. Hen. Fricker, Bonfire Corner Portsmouth Common Hants.
Collection 18: Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797, with associated items, ca. 1888 - p4
1787-1797
Fricker, Henry
Digital ID: 
a1769004
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