AUSTRALIAN HISTORY: by Charles Francis, AM, QC, RFDNews Weekly
Why Australia's Christian heritage matters
, March 1, 2008
Too many Australian academics and commentators tend to downplay or deride Christianity's vital contribution to our nation. Charles Francis QC, however, takes the opposite view and reminds us why we ought to remember our Christian heritage - today more than ever.I want to discuss a much-neglected area of Australian history - our Christian heritage. To me it is a matter of regret that, in 1988, when we celebrated our bi-centenary, very little reference at all was made to that heritage nor to its considerable contribution to our nationhood.
No doubt this was in part due to modern theories of the interpretation of history, theories which emerged in the second and third decades of the 20th century and which blossomed in the 1940s and '50s, when history came to be interpreted primarily in economic terms rather than in terms of the influence of particular men.
As early as 1913 the American historian Charles Beard wrote his Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,
whilst in 1928 in England Richard H. Tawney, who was both a Christian and a socialist, wrote his famous Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Manning Clark in the immediate post-war period became Australia's most prominent historian. Although Clark was the son of an Anglican clergyman and a descendant on his mother's side of Samuel Marsden (1765-1838), the famous chaplain and missionary to colonial New South Wales and New Zealand, he was nevertheless influenced by the Marxist interpretation of history.
In his History of Australia
Clark did chronicle some of the details of what was done by individual Christians in early Australia, but, to my mind, did not attach sufficient importance to the influence of their beliefs on the future development of our country.
In general, there has been a neglect in emphasising the importance of the totality of the religious beliefs of all denominations. Perhaps, most forgotten of all, is the strong influence of the Anglican tradition, to which I will refer further on.
I would like to begin with the Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernández de Quirós (1563-1615).
In the ninth century AD, the great Polynesian navigator Kupe had already charted most of the South Pacific. Kupe had reached New Zealand before finally settling in Raratonga, where he died.
When the Spaniards came to South America in the 16th-century, they learned of the firm Inca tradition that there were two great land masses in the South-West Pacific. If this was derived from Polynesian sources, it would seem likely therefore that the two land masses were, in fact, the two main islands of New Zealand.
Although he was a Portuguese, de Quirós was, for much of his life, in the service of Spain. De Quirós came to believe he had been chosen by God as the instrument whereby the people of Terra Australis would be converted to the Catholic faith. He also believed that Terra Australis should be dedicated to the Holy Spirit and would be known as Australia del Espiritu Santo
. To pray for his future voyages, de Quirós in 1600 made a pilgrimage to Rome, kneeling to pray on each step of Santa Scala.
Before finally sailing from the Peruvian port of Callao in 1605, the prows of all his ships were decorated with curved statues of St Peter, in which the saint's foot rested on a globe of the world, and de Quirós and his entire crew received the sacraments on departure.
Whether or not de Quirós reached Australia has long been a matter of debate. Certainly, he reached the New Hebrides, to which he gave the name Australia del Espiritu Santo
. In the 1980s the somewhat debunked theory that de Quirós may have reached Australia gained limited support from the discovery of a Spanish cannon on an island to the east of the Barrier Reef. The cannon was inscribed Santa Barbara
(the patron saint of those who fired cannons), and bore the date 1596.
In 1642 the Dutch seafarer and explorer Abel Tasman made his great voyage from Batavia. As he sailed he wrote in his journal, "May God Almighty vouchsafe His blessing on this work." Some 10 months later, when he returned to Batavia after navigating a considerable portion of Tasmania's southern coast, Tasman wrote in his diary, "God be praised and thanked for this happy voyage."
Although William Dampier, our first English visitor, is often spoken of as a rascal and a pirate, after his voyage to Western Australia in 1699 he wrote a preface to his famous work, A Voyage to New Holland
, using these words:
"But this satisfaction I am sure of having, that the things themselves in the discovery of which I have been employed, are most worthy of our diligentest search and inquiry; being the various and wonderful works of God in different parts of the world.
"And however unfit a person I may be in other respects to have undertaken this task, yet at least I have given a faithful account, and have found some things undiscovered by any before, and which may at least be some assistance and direction to better qualified persons who shall come after me.
"I returned to England in the Canterbury
East-India ship, for which wonderful deliverance from so many and great dangers I think myself bound to return continual thanks to Almighty God; whose divine providence if it shall please to bring me safe again to my native country from my present intended voyage."
The renowned English navigator and explorer Captain James Cook had been baptised in the Anglican parish church of Marton-in-Cleveland in north Yorkshire in 1728, but was a nominal Anglican only. Nevertheless, he was a moral man and never cursed or swore and would not permit profanity on board his ships.
Before he sailed, Cook's wife Elizabeth gave him an Anglican prayer-book from which source he named a number of places on Australia's coast after the days of the church year on which his ship reached them, such as the Whitsunday Passage and Islands, Trinity Bay and the Pentecost Islands.
Far more religious was Cook's immediate companion, Sir Joseph Banks. A naturalist with a deep love of the productions of nature, Banks believed that every consideration that a man made of the works of the Almighty increased a man's admiration of his Creator.Religion and good order
When, finally, the First Fleet sailed from England in 1787, it is interesting to note the instruction given to Captain Arthur Phillip. He was to enforce a due observance of religion and good order among the inhabitants, and take such steps for the due celebration of public worship as circumstances would permit.
In the first draft of these instructions he was to grant full liberty of conscience, and the free exercise of all modes of religious worship not prohibited by law, provided his charges were content with a quiet and peaceable enjoyment of the same, not giving offence or scandal to government; he was to cause the laws against blasphemy, profaneness, adultery, fornication, polygamy, incest, profanation of the Lord's Day, swearing and drunkenness to be rigorously executed.
He was not to admit to the office of justice of the peace any person whose ill-fame or conversation might occasion scandal; he was to take care that the Book of Common Prayer as by Law established be read each Sunday and holy day, and that the Blessed Sacrament be administered according to the rites of the Church of England.
Of the First Fleet approximately two-thirds classified themselves as Church of England and one-third as Roman Catholics. The Home Office appointed as chaplain the Revd Richard Johnson who had been recommended by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
Johnson was a worthy man, but he was unfortunately caught in the conflict between his own conception of religion and that of Governor Phillip. Johnson saw religion as the divine medium for eternal salvation, but the governor saw it rather as a medium of subordination, and gauged a chaplain by the efficiency of his work as a moral policeman.
On Sunday, February 3, 1788, under a huge tree, Johnson preached his first sermon to a congregation of troops and convicts. He chose as his text Psalm 116, verse 12: "What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?"
Unfortunately for Johnson, he made singularly little progress, and the depravity of the troops and convicts brought him at times to hopelessness and despair. After the departure of Phillip, even more disappointing for Johnson was the attitude of Phillip's successor, Francis Grose, who did not conceal his contempt for Johnson and all he sought to do. Grose ordered Johnson to conduct his services at 6 am and to cut the entire service, including the sermon, to three-quarters of an hour only.
After Revd Johnson returned to England, the colony of New South Wales was fortunate to receive as a chaplain the Revd Samuel Marsden. Marsden was a man of great faith with a strong desire to serve God. In his private diary Marsden wrote during the voyage to Australia that it was his fervent wish that the Lord would always help him to be faithful, so that at the least he might be able to say with St. Paul, "I am clear from the blood of all men."
Marsden had considerable Christian influence in Sydney and, unlike Johnson, he was fortunate to find in Governor John Hunter a moral man of great integrity, who wrote and spoke of Jesus Christ as his Saviour. Christian education of the young expanded, and schools modelled on English grammar schools gradually increased in numbers.
Under Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Christianity made considerable progress in New South Wales, and at this stage it might be said Australia had begun to be a Christian country.
Manning Clark says of Macquarie that "to instruct the rising generation in those principles which, he believed, could alone render them dutiful and obedient to their parents and superiors, honest, faithful and useful members of society, and good Christians, he established several schools in Sydney and the subordinate settlements".
Under Macquarie an order of May 19, 1810, required convicts of all religious persuasions to attend divine worship on Sundays. Macquarie himself was personally present at the first compulsory service and commended the convict body on their clean and neat appearance.
Not only did Macquarie build schools at Liverpool, Windsor, Richmond and Wilberforce, he also brought to Australia respectable clergymen and promoted the works of two English movements - the British and Foreign Bible Society, established in 1804 in London, and the Sunday school movement, begun by Robert Raikes in Gloucestershire in 1783.
In Cork, an Irish priest Father John Joseph Therry had been moved by the sight of handcuffed Irish convicts in a passing wagon, and learned they were bound for Australia. With Father Philip Connolly, Therry finally arrived in Sydney in May 1820, and for the first time the Catholic population of Sydney had priests and the Mass.
Among many of our early explorers too, Christianity was an enormous source of strength which helped them to accomplish their greatest feats.
When Matthew Flinders was questioned about sailing on a Sunday on his epic voyage along the eastern coast, he replied: "The stars still shine on the Sabbath. How could we keep it better than in telling the glory of Creation?" After his voyage was over, Flinders wrote: "Such was the plan I pursued and, with the blessing of God, nothing of importance should have been left for future discoverers."Scenes of danger
Even greater seems to have been the faith and devoutness of Captain Charles Sturt. He maintained that by one way only was peace to be found, and that was by prayer. In many scenes of danger Sturt was comforted and refreshed by prayer, and he asserted that "no treasure on earth" would ever persuade him to give up the inestimable comfort of pouring forth his feelings before God in the silence of his chamber.
On his long voyages down the Darling and Murrumbidgee, when looking at the beauty of the countryside, Sturt would in the words of the psalm "lift up his eyes unto the hills" and praise God for the wonderful things which He had done.
In the early 19th-century we can point to many famous Christian Australians, all of whom made notable contributions. Mrs Pryor who visited convict-woman ships, Rowland Hassall, Ellis Bent (the judge advocate), Therry and Connolly (the first Catholic priests), Governor Thomas Brisbane, Archdeacon William Broughton, Caroline Chisholm and Eliza, wife of Governor Darling.
From time to time, in early Australian history, the influence of even one Christian leader alone has often proved profound. When George Arthur was appointed lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen's Land in 1824, James Stephen of the Colonial Office told him that he had an opportunity to make the dependency of New South Wales one branch of a great and powerful nation, which must exercise a mighty influence for good or evil over a vast region of the earth. Stephen told him "of the importance of his mission to establish a Christian, virtuous and enlightened state in the centre of the eastern hemisphere". Governor Arthur seems to have done much to undertake just such a mission.
When a number of aborigines wandered into the small town of Hobart, Arthur set an example to its citizens by advancing to meet them giving them his hand in welcome. He had them provided with food and clothing and fires were lit to warm them. So that their sleep would not be disturbed by night, four constables were deputed to guard them.
This example was quickly followed in high places in Hobart, and by others in the lower echelons of government. In 1839, soon after the Colony of Port Phillip was established, an official protector of aborigines was appointed, and prominent barrister Redmond Barry provided his services free for all accused aboriginals in Supreme Court trials.
The influence of Sir William Stawell in Victoria was equally profound. When Stawell arrived in Melbourne in 1842 he was an agnostic; but in 1848 one sermon alone preached by that great Anglican Bishop Charles Perry changed the course of Stawell's life and he too became a devout Anglican.
From then on, Stawell's influence on Victoria was enormous. He was the colony's first attorney-general, played a major part in drafting the constitution of the colony, and, as its second chief justice, firmly established Victoria's Supreme Court as a great common law court.
Stawell assisted in the foundation of numerous charitable institutions and helped to form the constitution of the Anglican Church in Victoria. He favoured self-government of the church by a democratic assembly, and always took an active part in the deliberations of synod over which he exercised very considerable influence.
Even as chief justice, despite his many other civic duties, Stawell still found time each Sunday to teach at the Anglican children's Sunday School. More recently, in Sir Edmund Herring, who was appointed chief justice in 1944, Victoria had another great Anglican as the head of its judicial system.Great leaders
The people and events which I have mentioned form but a small part of the totality of our great Christian heritage. We have produced great leaders in the past, many of whom were also great Christians.
We often ask ourselves today why we have no great leaders. May I suggest the greatest leaders are not produced by political systems but rather by a deep and abiding Christian philosophy? We fail to honour - and risk forgetting - our Christian heritage at our peril.
We need to remember God and our Christian heritage with humility and gratitude. For a little more than 200 years we have, as compared with the rest of the world, indeed been "the lucky country"; but if we as a nation fail to serve God and obey his commandments, our civilisation must inevitably wither and fail.- Charles Francis, AM QC, is a barrister and former member of the Victorian state parliament. This article comes from a paper he originally delivered to the Christian Lawyers' Society, Melbourne, on August 17, 1995.REFERENCES:
1) C.M.H. Clark, A History of Australia
2) Ibid., pp. 29 and 34.
3) Dr Graham McLennan, Understanding Our Christian Heritage
4) Ibid., Notes 2.
5) C.M.H. Clark, A History of Australia
6) Ibid., p.139.
7) Ibid., pp.280-281.
8) Prof. Sir Ernest Scott, The Life of Matthew Flinders
9) C.M.H. Clark, A History of Australia
10) Ibid., pp.113-114.