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Religion, church and missions in Australia


This story 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.

[Kuree Paltee] / William Anderson Cawthorne, ca. 1894-1895

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.

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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.

 

View of Sydney Cove / painted by Thomas Watling

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.

Reverend Richard Johnson

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.

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Australian Jewish community and culture

The Jewish community in Australia has made a significant contribution to the development of Australian society and culture since the establishment of the colony in 1788. 

Made possible through a partnership with Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation