By Elizabeth Rogers Kotlowski
The Reverend RichardJohnson, an Anglican clergyman, was appointed as first Chaplain to the colony. Governor Phillip saw his function as a "moral policeman" to the convicts, but the chaplain viewed his position as a God-given door of opportunity to preach the Gospel to the "dregs of humanity". Johnson was a product of the evangelical revival in England. Born in 1757 at Welton, near Hull, he was educated at Magdalen College, Cambridge. He graduated with a BA in 1783, and was ordained a deacon and priest by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1786. Five months before the First Fleet set sail, he was recommended to the post of Chaplain by William Wilberforce, the philanthropist, and Rev. John Newton. Pitt approved of the appointment. Johnson was the first of a group of pastors who ensured that evangelical Christianity dominated the Protestant church in Australia for the whole of the nineteenth century.
As a result of the evangelical revival of the mid-eighteenth century, a number of missionary societies were raised up. They included the Ellard Society, the Eclectic Society, the Clapham Sect, and the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. Many of the members were involved in public life and their impact on the Colonial Office was far reaching. They aided in the selection of governors and parish priests for overseas colonies. Members, imbued with missionary zeal, developed "the concept of making New South Wales a base for evangelism, not only in Australia, but throughout the South Pacific". This vision was to blossom in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was members of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, who, at Johnson's request, provided him with Bibles, Testaments, Prayer Books, Catechisms, Psalters, and religious booklets against common sins--4200 books in all, for the new colony.
Governor Phillip's official instructions regarding religious observances were comprehensive.
He was to enforce 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. . . . He was to grant full liberty of conscience, and the full 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. . . . [The governor] was to take care that the Book of Common Prayer as by law be read each Sunday and Holy Day, and that the Blessed Sacrament be administered according to the rites of the Church of England.
Naturally, it was Johnson who was expected to carry out these duties. His job as chaplain was not an easy one, as he was expected to be submissive to the authorities who were more concerned with "goodness and not salvation". Johnson's tasks included officiating at hangings and acting as magistrate when needed. In the first five years, he conducted 226 baptisms, 220 marriages and 851 funerals.
From the records of letters, journals and other documents he left, we know that Johnson was a man of strong Christian character and commitment. He exhibited great courage in the face of incredible hardships. Johnson and his new wife, Mary, sailed for Australia with the First Fleet on 13 May 1787. The trip was anything but glamorous. The seas were so tempestuous that they were "washed out of their cabin". Mary became so ill she almost died, and their first baby was stillborn.
Johnson was constantly frustrated by the lack of support he received from the authorities. He and his wife lived in a cabbage palm hut for the first three years while the Governor had two grand mansions. Many times his family was short of food. After waiting patiently for four years for a church to be built for him, he finally built one himself. In the face of great difficulties, he showed persistence and dedication. He finished the church in spite of Governor Grose's continued opposition. J. D. Walsh described Johnson as "humble and dogged". In performing his regular duties, Johnson often had to travel many kilometres on horseback, by boat or on foot, in all kinds of weather. He was no wimp, no armchair parson. In addition to his regular duties, he worked on his farm to provide for his family. Though he suffered from constant ill health, he carried on until he was forced to return to England after twelve years.
An interesting self-portrait of Johnson is given in his description of qualities he looked for in a prospective clergyman required for the penal colony. He suggested:
A man of plain habits, and who humbly yet zealously devotes his time and talents in the discharge of his clerical duties, than one of more refined taste or profound learning, and who for this very reason may not be so diligent in visiting them, which from experience I have found so important a part of a minister's duty, and as the most likely means of his being made useful.
Johnson was a clergyman and an evangelist with a deep sense of calling, a great lover of the Bible, a man of prayer, and a man of compassion. However, he was also a man of action and able to relate to the working class man. He often visited the convicts in their own huts and even took an Aboriginal girl, who had contracted smallpox, into his home for several months. In spite of the general lack of response he received from the convicts, he never gave up hope that they would one day respond to the Gospel. He continued faithfully to proclaim the Gospel until the day he left. He wrote:
I trust I have not laboured wholly in vain, and I trust in time, in spite of all opposition and obstacles, God will make bare his holy arm in the conversion and salvation of the souls of men. . . . Last Sunday I preached I suppose to not less than six or eight hundred, and I have since heard that one at least went away sorrowful and heavy-hearted, and some others rejoicing in the Son of God manifested towards them.
Johnson was a man with a vision for Australia and beyond; he was a man with the heart of God. In his Address (1792), he concluded by saying he was:
Longing, hoping and waiting for the dawn of that happy day when the heathen shall be given to the Lord Jesus for His inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession and when all the ends of the earth shall see, believe and rejoice in the salvation of God.
Richard Johnson's importance as a pioneer Church of England clergyman has been firmly established by historians Neil K. Macintosh, George Mackaness, Manning Clark and James Bonwick.
In 1794, Rev. Samuel Marsden was appointed to assist Johnson in his ministerial duties. Marsden was born in Bagley in western Yorkshire on 25 June 1765. Soon afterwards his parents moved to Farsley in the heart of the woollen trade cottage industry. Much of the wool came from the sheep grazing nearby. These early experiences helped formulate his lifelong interest in breeding sheep. What started as a means of support in New South Wales became, with his vision, the foundation for Australia's national wealth. Years later, on 26 November 1811, Marsden wrote:
By the Admiral Gambier I have sent to England 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of wool. This will be the beginning of the commerce of this new world. Many think nothing of these things now. They cannot see any advantage to be derived to them, their children, or this settlement by improving the fleeces of our sheep. But I anticipate immense national wealth to spring from this source of commerce in time. 
Marsden's early decision to become a clergyman rather than a sheep farmer was due to the influence of the Methodist revival that reached into western Yorkshire. In 1786, at the age of twenty-one, he accepted an invitation from the Ellard Clerical Society to train as a clergyman of the Church of England. While at Magdalen College, Cambridge, thanks to William Wilberforce's influence, Marsden obtained the appointment as Assistant Chaplain to the penal colony in New South Wales.
The Marsdens settled in Parramatta, which was their base for the rest of their lives. Parramatta was also a centre for agriculture. Marsden's first farm, a gift of 100 acres from Governor Grose, marked the beginning of his sheep-farming career. Later purchases brought to 29 the number of farms he owned. Important as his influence was as a pioneer grazier in getting the wool industry started, just as important was his establishment of the New South Wales Agricultural Society in 1822 as a means of publicising experience and scientific knowledge for the benefit of farmers.
Marsden's career as a sheep farmer shaped his pragmatic approach to missionary activities. In planning his approach to the man-eating Maoris of New Zealand , Marsden's missionary technique was "civilization before conversion". Before taking the Gospel to New Zealand, he took sheep, cattle and wheat to the natives there, praying that they would develop a taste for such delicacies, rather than human flesh. He even brought out a shoemaker, rope maker and a carpenter from England to teach the Maoris "industrious habits". It worked. After having convinced the Maoris of the benefits of civilisation, he was able to establish a base there for the "Gospel with all its attendant blessings". In 1825, under the auspices of Marsden as President of the Sydney branch of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) , a mission station and farm were established for the Aborigines. CMS missionaries were the first to preach the Gospel to the Australian Aborigines.
A controversial figure in his day, Marsden has left behind two controversial images. Australians remember him as the "flogging parson of Parramatta", while New Zealanders think of him as "Greathearted Marsden" or the "Apostle of the Maoris".
He was a valiant missionary in New Zealand and the Pacific, a leading farmer and wool grower in Australia, as well as an assiduous parson, stern magistrate and meddler in politics. A man of great weakness and great strength, he remains a towering figure of his time.
His missionary work in the Pacific and particularly New Zealand, is illustrative of one of God's purposes for Australia's founding--to be a base for missionary activity in the Pacific. Marsden used the wealth from the sale of his sheep and wool to purchase a ship, Active, used as a missionary vessel to bring reconciliation to the islanders who had been exploited by unscrupulous whites. Marsden has been censored for his "undue materialism", but without the income from his sheep farming, he would not have been able to carry out his missionary enterprises or to adequately support his large family. Besides, his teaching of the sheep breeding was intended to give the Maori cannibals an alternative diet! Marsden's enterprise and industry encouraged the spirit of private enterprise upon which the prosperity of a nation is built.
Much of the criticism Marsden has received was because of his decision to become a magistrate--placing him in a civil disciplinary role which did not fit with that of a compassionate pastor. His harsh judgements alienated him from his flock. However, the contemporary image of Marsden as "the flogging parson", portrayed by Allan M. Grocott in Convicts, Clergymen and Churches, is not a true picture of the man. Marsden's role as a magistrate, though incompatible with his calling as a chaplain and missionary, was a product of the expectations and the brutality of the times in which he lived. It had been a custom in England for a clergyman to act sometimes as a magistrate. Marsden, though reluctant to accept the office, finally gave in to the pleas of Governor Hunter, a fellow Christian. Marsden was a man of strong convictions, which stemmed from his early "Methodist" training. Since he had many interests, he often found himself embroiled in heated differences with "unreasonable and wicked men in power".
With characteristic high purpose and energy, Marsden continued his farming and missionary activities right up to his death in 1838. He was a man of vision with the practicality to implement that vision in the face of many toils and hardships. In 1796, he wrote prophetically about Australia:
It is my opinion that God will ere long visit New South Wales with His heavenly grace. Out of these stones He will raise up children unto Abraham. There has not been shaking yet among the dry bones, but the Son of Man is commanded to prophesy and I hope by and by, the Lord will command the wind to blow. Stir up Thy strength and come among us.
Marsden's vision for Australia included not only the evangelisation of the Aborigines and the colonists, but the nations of the south seas and beyond. He saw a divine plan in all human affairs. In 1814, in a sermon given after the first of seven voyages to New Zealand, Marsden reminded his listeners, that while the decision to found a penal settlement at Botany Bay was motivated by expediency, God, who governed the world, had another strategy in mind--the evangelisation of the heathen nations of the south seas. Marsden believed that God's plan was to equip Australians for the job of missionary evangelism of the surrounding nations. He showed the way.
When Marsden returned to England for a visit in 1807, Rowland Hassall took over his ministry. Hassall was born in Coventry, England, and married Elizabeth Hancox, a silk weaver like himself. They both felt called to missionary work so they applied to the London Missionary Society (LMS) . A Director of the LMS described Hassall as "a stout young man", with a "rather bold" disposition. Though he could read and write, he was "rather illiterate than otherwise". Hassall was accepted as a carpenter. He and his wife and two sons were part of a group of thirty missionaries sent out by the LMS in 1796 in the ship, the Duff. In 1798, the Hassalls, were forced by head hunters in Tahiti to flee to Sydney. They received a grant of 100 acres in the Dundas district and quickly won Marsden's favour with their missionary zeal and their astute acquisition of property. By 1808, Hassall had acquired 1300 acres of land, mostly in the Camden and Parramatta area. He lived in Parramatta for twenty years.
In 1800, Governor King put Hassall in charge of the granary at Parramatta, but two years later he was dismissed from the post on the grounds of being unsuitable because he had failed to detect forged signatures on grain orders. However, King did not question his integrity as later he put Hassall in charge of his own cattle herd when he left the colony. In addition, Hassall managed the properties of other sheep and cattle breeders, including Marsden's while he was in England. In 1814, Hassall was appointed superintendent of government stock, which grazed the extensive Cowpastures, the largest run in the colony. He also acted as a contractor for government works; he opened his own store in Parramatta and was a sergeant in the Loyal Parramatta Association of Volunteers.
In addition to his other responsibilities, Hassall maintained an active itinerary as a preacher over a widespread area from Parramatta to the Hawkesbury, Bathurst and Liverpool. Of the same Calvinistic Methodical persuasion as Marsden, Hassall cooperated fully with his predecessor to make New South Wales an evangelical reserve. He had a wide acceptance among the Dissenters, Presbyterians and Anglicans, and even the Methodists did not make an issue of their doctrinal differences until after Hassall's death. In 1807, while Marsden was in England, Hassall took over as acting chaplain for the colony. He remained loyal to the LMS and his home in Parramatta became the base for visiting missionaries. He also did much to support the Sunday School movement.
Hassall died at Parramatta on 28 August 1820, leaving his wife, Elizabeth, four sons, five daughters, and farms totalling 3000 acres. He also left a large correspondence which is an important source for the early social history of New South Wales. Hassall's life has been described as a "continued example of religion and piety, extensive benevolence, and hospitality". He "never lost sight of his original designation of a Missionary, and continued to the latest period of his life zealously to perform the duties of one, by preaching the Gospel in almost all parts of the colony". Hassall's ministry was important because it was the first time that the Gospel had been preached in every corner of the colony. His work prepared the way for his spiritual successor, John Watsford.
John Watsford III was born in Parramatta on 5 December 1820, the same year in which Rowland Hassall died. He was to become the first outstanding preacher to be born in Australia. After being educated at the Kings' School, he served on the teaching staff for two years before entering the Methodist ministry in 1841. After nine years of missionary work in Fiji, he returned to Australia and did circuit work until his appointment as home mission secretary for Victoria. In 1878, he became President of the General Conference of Australasia and continued to preach until his death in 1907. His ministry as an evangelist and revivalist had much success. Watsford's life, both private and public, was marked by "the unction of the Holy Ghost". This is illustrated in Iain H. Murray's account of the first revival in Parramatta, in his book, Australian Christian Life: from 1788. In an introductory sketch to Watsford's autobiography, Glorious Gospel Triumphs, As Seen In My Life and Work, published in 1900, Rev. W. H. Fitchett wrote:
He represents all the best and most characteristic qualities of Methodism: its pity for men; its passion for conversions; its faith in a Divine Saviour and a personal redemption; its proclamation of the sanctifying offices of the Holy Ghost; its conception of religion as a present spiritual victory over sin, a creation of a saintly character, here and now; its faith in the swift coming and assured triumph of the kingdom of God.
Another trailblazer was Congregational missionary Lancelot Threlkeld. A contemporary of Marsden and Hassall, Threlkeld was known for his work among the Aborigines. Born in London in 1788, Threlkeld was an actor until he was converted. Shortly afterwards, he offered himself to the LMS. After a short period of training, he was ordained and in 1816, he and his wife, Martha, sailed for the South Pacific. They served in the Society Islands with John Williams until 1824 when Martha died. He took the children to Sydney and after he remarried, the LMS asked Threlkeld to establish a mission to the Aborigines at Lake Macquarie. In 1828, following a misunderstanding about mission expenses, the LMS dismissed Threlkeld. However, with the financial support of friends he was able to continue his work. Governor Darling gave him a grant of land on the other side of the lake where the mission, Ebenezer was maintained until 1841, by which time there were few natives left.
Threlkeld's work may be divided into three categories: protector, interpreter and evangelist. In his role as protector, there was not much he could do to shield the Aborigines from the vices of the white man. Even Threlkeld's right-hand man, Biraban, was "addicted to rum". The whites abducted the Aboriginal women and the blacks stole from the whites. Reprisals on both sides were common. The whites started a systematic extermination of the blacks. To justify their actions, it was popular among the whites to view Aborigines as less than human. Writing in 1853, Threlkeld noted:
It was maintained by many of the colony that the blacks had no language at all but were only a race of the monkey tribe. This was a convenient assumption, for if it could be proved that the Aborigines . . . were only a species of wild beasts, there could be no guilt attributed to those who shot them off or poisoned them.
Threlkeld saw them in a different light. He wrote that the Aboriginal people represented the "comely (beautiful) but black exterior of the image of God". He "always and everywhere championed the cause of the blacks", seeking to arouse public opinion in an effort to better the lot of the Aborigines, especially by the use of his pen.
It was in his role as an interpreter that Threlkeld was able to assist the natives most because of his knowledge of the native dialect. Through his dealings with the Aborigines, he realised that although they had age-old laws of their own, they were judged by the laws of the white man. In the event of a misdemeanour, they were unable to defend themselves, so Threlkeld frequently acted as a sympathetic interpreter for them.
The missionary's interest in the Aboriginal language was the consuming passion of his life. With the aid of Biraban (also known by the English name McGill), Threlkeld made a study of the Awabakal language of the Aborigines at Lake Macquarie between 1824 and 1850. His chief book, published in 1834, was An Australian Grammar . . . of the Language as Spoken by the Aborigines . . . of the Hunter River. His main writings, rearranged and edited by J. Fraser, were published in 1892 as An Australian Language as Spoken by . . . the People of Awaba or Lake Macquarie. This included the Gospel of Luke--the first translation of a book of the Bible into an Aboriginal language. Threlkeld's diligence in mastering not only the words but the grammatical structure of the language, is still universally recognised. He was one of the first linguists to follow the natural rules of a language, without trying to fit them into a preconceived mould. Threlkeld's system was very progressive.
With respect to seeing my system, it can be seen and known in two minutes, namely first obtain the language, then preach the gospel, then urge them from gospel motives to be industrious at the same time being a servant to them to win them to that which is right.
The whole thrust of Threlkeld's task as an interpreter was to prepare him for his role as an evangelist to make "known the Gospel to the Aborigines in their own language". However, by the time Threlkeld had mastered the language, there were few blacks to preach to. They had all been killed or were living in nearby Newcastle because of the attractions of rum and prostitution. It was sad that there were no Christian converts of the two to three thousand natives that at one time lived on the shores of Lake Macquarie. However, a group of Quakers who visited the mission in 1838, wrote to the LMS noting Threlkeld's work and faithfulness, including the costly nature of the work. The Directors of the LMS wrote an apology to Threlkeld, regretting their lack of trust in him fourteen years earlier and commended his "vigilance, activity and devotedness to the welfare of the Aboriginal race".
The Mission was terminated in 1838 and Threlkeld accepted a position as pastor of the Congregational Church at Watson's Bay, Sydney, where he also conducted a day school until 1845, when he was appointed to the Mariners' Church, Sydney. He ministered there until his death on 9 October 1859.
Although Threlkeld had failed in his efforts to reach the Aboriginal people, his experience was not unique. The experience of failure among other missionaries has been chronicled by several writers. For example, John Harris wrote: "It is hard to sum up the early missions with any word other than failure". He also noted that Jean Woolmington titled her doctoral thesis on early missions, A Study in Failure. It is clear that the reasons for failure had much to do with the Aboriginal contact with the white man. The senseless slaughter, the sexual abuse of the native women, the introduction of alcohol, and the diseases of the white man, (especially venereal disease) all took their toll. There were other reasons too. The growth of a "hand-out economy" did not encourage settled farming life or discipleship. Some missionaries felt that the failure of mission work among the Aborigines had deeper spiritual roots--that their nomadic and hunting lifestyle was part of the curse of Ham. While the missionaries have been criticised for dominating the Aborigines, it is also true that they were their protectors and performed many acts of kindness towards the sick, the hurt, the young and the old. Many missionaries, with Threlkeld, also spoke up against the injustices and dispossession of the Aborigines by whites. It is hardly surprising that the Aborigines did not care for the white man's religion. On the other hand, it was common among missionaries to regard everything associated with Aboriginal religious beliefs as evil. It was not until the 1950s with the advent of serious Bible translators that there was a respect for the Aboriginal language and culture.
The Aborigines did not reject the Christian God as false; they rejected the relevance of Christianity as it was presented to them by the white missionary. In spite of the faults and failings of missionaries like Threlkeld, the survival of the Aborigines over the last two hundred years, according to John Harris, owes much to the early missions. Today, distinctive Aboriginal churches with Aboriginal leadership are emerging. The work of reconciliation between black and white has begun.
Others who pioneered works among the Aborigines included John Smithies, Wesleyan missionaries Joseph Orton, William Walker, Samuel Leigh, Francis Tuckfield, Benjamin Hurst, and others. Like the faithful men and women of Hebrews 11, they lived and died in faith, believing that the riches of this world were not to be compared with the joy of doing God's will.
The early missionaries knew that if their work was to continue they must pass the Gospel on to the next generation (Psalm 78). That is why Johnson, Marsden, Threlkeld, Rowland Hassall and others were educators as well as missionaries. Discipleship must follow evangelism.
REVEREND JOSEPH ORTON: THE WESLEYAN METHODIST MISSIONARY KNOWN AS "THE JOHN WESLEY OF AUSTRALIA" By Trish Orton, (great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Orton)
A sphere of benevolence : the life of Joseph Orton, Wesleyan Methodist missionary (1795-1842) / Alex Tyrrell. (slv.vic.gov.au)