How ‘Amazing Grace’ reached the shores of New South Wales

In the decades surrounding the departure of the First Fleet to the Colony of New South Wales in 1777 there were significant socio-economic tremors occurring in Britain. These tremors were contributed to by the Evangelical revival in Britain in the mid 18th century and continuing through to the 19th century. The Evangelicals were individuals fueled by a spiritual and religious fervour to rid Britain of its’ vices and create a reformed society. Areas of campaign and reform included slavery, mining and factory conditions, relief and education for the poor, public health, and prisons. It is somewhat of an injustice just to rattle these reform areas off without emphasising the significance of each issue and unprecedented nature of reform undertaken. For example, slavery was deeply embedded within the socio-economic framework of Britain. Statistics published by David Eltis reveal that approximately 2.6 million Africans were enslaved as a result of the British Slave Trade which fed a whopping £45, 000,000 into the British Economy. So did the shockwaves of the Evangelical movement reach the colony of New South Wales?

The shockwaves of the Evangelical movement certainly did reach the shores of Australia. Evangelical leaders in Britain were committed to seeing the establishment of a reformed society in the colony of New South Wales. These key leaders included John Newton (1725-1807), who was a pastor and preacher in London and also the writer of  hymns including Amazing Grace; William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who entered politics in his early twenties and became one of the most influential orators and campaigners of his generation; and Charles Simeon (1759-1836) who took the Evangelical movement out from Britain through the establishment of the Church Missionary Society in his hope to counter the vices of British capitalism.

Wilberforce, Newton and Simeon undertook their plan by planting an evangelical church in the colony. This occurred through the Evangelical leaders exerting their influence over the selection and appointment of chaplains to the colony. Scholars such as Associate Professor Stuart Piggin, from Macquarie University, have detailed how the appointment of ‘state’ chaplains to a convict settlement was previously unheard of. This sending of Evangelicals to the colony was not a one off gesture but was the start of an ongoing commitment to their Australian counterparts. The British Evangelicals showed steadfast pastoral and political support which is evidenced through the diaries and letters which have been dug up from storage and archives in the recent decades. The pastoral support and guidance offered to the Australian Evangelicals is powerfully seen through the letters of John Newton. On the other hand, the voluminous letters and correspondence of William Wilberforce detail the extent to which the Australian counterparts and their concerns were extensively represented in British Parliament. So, what was the result of this initial and ongoing support?

The result of the support from the British Evangelical leaders was the establishment of an Evangelical Church in New South Wales. Richard Johnson (1756-1827) was the first chaplain of the colony. Johnson was selected and appointed by the Evangelical leaders and received ongoing pastoral and political support. The significance of Johnson’s tenure is seen in that he set the standard for Evangelicalism in his personal piety and his preaching of ‘Christ and him crucified’. As well as this Johnson was also personally responsible for the building and financing of the first church building which allowed services to be conducted out of the harsh Australian elements. Samuel Marsden (1765-1838) was another chaplain sent by the Evangelicals and he also received ongoing pastoral and political support. Marsden built upon the foundations that Johnson had laid. Marsden did this by recruiting further chaplains to meet the needs of the burgeoning colony. Marsden also oversaw a significant transition from chaplains having to act as quasi-military officers to chaplains who were purely left to focus on there parish. The growing maturity of the evangelical church under Marsden can also be seen in the colonial church being responsible for the planting of Evangelical churches in New Zealand and in the Pacific Islands.  Thirdly and finally Frederic Barker (1808-1888) was sent out in 1854 as the bishop of Sydney and received ongoing pastoral and political support from the British Evangelicals. Barker oversaw the full establishment of the evangelical church in the colony. This full establishment of the evangelical church in the colony can be seen through the formation of an independent governance structure and the establishment of a theological college. By 1880 the college was an Evangelical hub as it began to send out significant numbers of Evangelicals to other colonies and other areas across the world.

Even though the First Fleet had sailed half around the world the colony of New South Wales still fell under the sphere of influence of Britain. From the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and into the 19th century Britain continued to exert significant influence over the colony of New South Wales. This is particularly seen in the case of the Evangelical movement in Britain and the influence key Evangelical leaders had in establishing an Evangelical church in the colony.  The example of the Evangelical movement’s influence over the colony of New South Wales thus stresses the importance of using a transnational framework in Australian colonial history. The lack of a transnational framework somewhat limits the richness and depth that Australian colonial history has to offer.

One comment on “How ‘Amazing Grace’ reached the shores of New South Wales

  1. Emma Cardwell says:

    Rich, this is a very eloquent post. It is well written and reads well for the uninformed reader. The article is interesting on two levels. The first is on a religious level and the second is on a historical level. This makes it appealing to different groups of people. I think you have also taken an interesting approach to Australia’s colonization that has not been dealt with in contemporary discourse. You article is appealing to the every reader thanks to it’s chronological format. Your incorporation of contextual information throughout the essay is also helpful as it helps the uninformed gauge the importance of these events.

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