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Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder, The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740–1914

reviewed by Mark Harding, Acting Rector, St Anne's Strathfield

Stuart Piggin is an internationally renowned Australian church historian and the author of a number of books including Evangelical Christianity in Australia: Spirit, Word and World (Oxford University Press, 1996), Firestorm of the Lord: The History of and Prospects for Revival in the Church and the World (OpenBook, 2000) and Spirit of a Nation: Australia's Christian Heritage (Strand Publishing, 2004) as well as book chapters and refereed articles during a long and continuing academic career. Stuart is the energetic and productive Director of the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience at Macquarie University, a centre which has seen a disproportionately large number of men and women undertake and complete research projects for Macquarie degrees.

Robert Linder of the University of Kansas has been a frequent visitor to Australia over the last 30 years and a researcher of Australian history.

Together they have written this superb book of Australian history centring on the contribution of evangelicals in shaping Australian church and society from the Great Awakening of the 1740s, to the outbreak of the First World War. Key figures formed by the Awakening not only ensured that evangelical pastors were appointed to the colony of New South Wales from the 1780s but that the settlement was a social reform enterprise from its inception (p. 574).

book cover

published by Monash University Publishing, Melbourne, 2018

I well remember sitting in the library of the University of Tasmania in the early 1970s reading the first two volumes of Manning Clarke's History of Australia with its caricatures of Richard Johnson, Samuel Marsden, John Dunmore Lang and other early preachers, sensing that there was a story not being acknowledged in that seminal work and a church-building achievement and a heritage that was being traduced. Now, thanks to Piggin and Linder we can be confident that nineteenth-century evangelicals were responsible not just for planting and building churches but for much of the nation-building we have taken for granted.

The volume is thorough. In addition to its 583 pages of text, it contains a 40-page bibliography and a 47-page index. The book is dedicated to overturning the injustice perpetrated by several generations of historians who have overlooked, neglected, minimised, vilified and misrepresented the overwhelmingly positive contribution of evangelicals to the settlement of the colonies and to their economic and social flourishing such that by 1914 the nation is substantially the outcome of evangelical energy and assiduous devotion to responsibility. On pages 37–42, a five-page manifesto, the authors set out their ambitious intent in writing. In chapter after chapter Piggin and Linder accord the evangelical movement in Australia its due place with evidence and sustained argument that cannot be denied.

The Fountain of Public Prosperity begins with a 10-page Prologue which dwells on the experience of Lieutenant William Rufus Dawes, Governor Phillip's surveyor, cartographer, and engineer, and his encounters with the Eora, and his determination to understand their language and culture on the basis of mutual friendship and partnership. Throughout the book Piggin and Linder persistently call out the rapacity of settlers, especially pastoralists, in traumatising, dehumanising and demoralising the aboriginal inhabitants of the land, often murdering them in cold blood. The account of the work of evangelicals in seeking to protect and improve the condition of aborigines is deeply moving and confirms the research of modern historians John Harris and Henry Reynolds among others.

At the end of their last chapter Piggin and Linder return to Dawes, lamenting the fact that since his few years in the colony aboriginal Australia has been rarely understood to possess a culture that might be accorded 'validity' with European, and that for all their compassion and large-heartedness even evangelicals sought to 'replace aboriginal culture with British civilisation' (p. 573).

A feature of The Fountain of Public Prosperity is the inclusion throughout of biographical detail about key evangelicals. William Dawes is the first of these. Among those that stand out for me are Isabella Parry (145–9), the husband of Edward Parry, Commissioner for the Australian Agricultural Company at Tahlee, George Augustus Robinson (185–9), the protector of the Tasmanian aborigines, John Saunders (205–7), Baptist pastor who denounced the brutality and rapacity of white settlers towards the aborigines, Benjamin Short (302–4), seller of life insurance for AMP and founder of the Sydney City Mission, Nathaniel Pepper (346–8), the first convert in the Ebenezer Mission in Victoria, John Gribble (418–20), who began a mission to aborigines on the Murrumbidgee River and later worked in Carnarvon, Florence Young (421–3), missionary to the Kanakas in Queensland, W. G. Spence (461–5), a founder of the trade union movement, and Bertie Boyce (473–4), the social activist rector of St Paul's Redfern and campaigner for the aged pension, and John Young Wai (558–9), the first minister of Crown Street Chinese Presbyterian Church. In addition, early Australian feminism and the movement for female suffrage were all heavily influenced by evangelicals. Piggin and Linder demonstrate the boundless energy of evangelicals in all walks of life who preached and agitated for social reform.

An eagerly awaited second volume is being written, provisionally entitled Attending to the National Soul: Evangelical Christians in Australian History, 1914–2014.

The Conclusion of our volume anticipates some of the themes of the second volume, especially the effect on the churches of the effective end of the British empire in the 1960s. But one suspects too that the authors will also reflect on the continuing contribution of the mission and social welfare agencies that evangelicals began in the nineteenth century, not to mention the initiatives of the churches to human flourishing and prosperity in Australia since 1914 even if the churches have a lower profile in 2014 than they did in 1914. Other themes might also be expected, such as the tragedy of sexual abuse in the churches and the opportunity that disaster gives to reparation and the transformation of the churches and their cultures.

I heartily commend this book to the members of Anglicans Together.