Listen: Dr Stuart Piggin in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty
It’s a missing link in Australia’s history – the story of how evangelical Christians were intimately involved in the British settlement of Australia.
Those evangelicals included William Wilberforce and others of the Clapham sect whose humanitarian and political achievements in the 18th century included the abolition of slavery.
Their story has now been told through the work of Associate Professor Stuart Piggin, Director of the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience at Macquarie University, and Robert Linder.
The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740-1914 is the first of a two-volume history that traces the influence of evangelical Christianity on Australian history, thought and culture.
Evangelical is a term that is often misunderstood. Dr Piggin, a noted scholar on the evangelical movement, traces its modern origins to the Revival among members of the Church of England through the mid-18th century.
“The evangelical revival was a revival in a vital personal faith in Jesus”, he told Open House. This was a departure from the more sacramental approach of the time with its heavy emphasis on liturgy.
“Jesus Christ was the great hero of the evangelical revival,” Dr Piggin said.
Motivated by this ‘vital’ faith Evangelicals became reformers, often working with the Government, Parliament and other institutions to achieve social goods.
Evangelicalism came with the First Fleet
The evangelicals saw that “transportation [to Australia] was better than hanging, which was the main alternative in the 18th century, so they were keen to support this particular venture”.
He said evangelical Christians ensured the First Fleet was well stocked, kept to schedule and treated the convicts humanely.
Their vision was to provide a fresh start for the It was less about punishment than about the chance for a fresh start for the convicts of the day, often given draconian sentences for what would seem more like petty theft today, often motivated by extreme poverty.
But Dr Piggin says their vision was even bigger. “They also saw that making a settlement on the other side of the world would be a base for missionary activity throughout the whole of the Pacific Region,” he told Open House.
“If you think about it, it made [Australia] a Christian nation surrounded by all the other major religions of the world. Here was this Christian presence reaching out to the islands, and all of the populations of the islands became Christianised.”
The Fountain of Public Prosperity points out that evangelical influence quickly spread through the developing nation, informing the culture and values that persist to this day.
“Jesus Christ has been the most important person in Australian history in terms of giving us the values that really matter to us. The church has been a far more widespread presence in Australian communities than government or parliaments or things like that.”
Unlike France or the US, whose values were more influenced by revolutionary movements, colonial Australia derived its values from the traditions for civil society brought by the evangelicals.
“What they chiefly brought to Australian was an understanding of civilisation which incorporated Biblical Christian values of faith, hope love and humility with classical virtues such as courage, justice, temperance and prudence.
“The classical virtues are all about the things that make me a better person; all about my character. But the Christian values are all about other people. They’re all about our concern for other people.
“They are not always easily reconciled. They are in some sort of conflict with each other.
“Settling the land became associated with the virtue of courage. However it is not necessarily a Christian value. The chief Christian value is humility. If we lose our Christian heritage the first thing that goes is humility.”
Aboriginal reconciliation needs the Christian voice
Piggin agrees with the characterisation of settlement as “invasion” and “incredible historical disaster” for Aboriginal people. “On the frontier, as whites progressed across Australia, there were chronic wars until the 1930s. It is a very sad story indeed.
One of the great dispossession events of all history
So what role did the evangelicals play?
“The evangelical presence was consistently in one direction: namely to ameliorate the problems where they could. But they were unequal to the task, there weren’t enough of them, and the economic advantages of taking aboriginal land and exploiting it were just overwhelming.
“The Christian message did keep alive in the consciences of a lot of Australians, including those who were despoiling the aboriginal people, the reality that they should do something better than this.
“If you look at what the Christians brought to this debate; they brought the view that an aboriginal person is a real human being. Not everybody believed that at the time but the evangelical Christians, using the same ideas as those who were abolishing the slave trade, believed that very strongly .
“These brothers and sisters we have are of a different colour but they are our brothers and sisters. Am I not a man and a brother was the question asked in the abolition of the slave trade,” he said.
In these blameworthy days, secularists too easily single out the church for Australia’s terrible record when it comes to the treatment of aboriginal people. But Stuart Piggin argues that the posture of the evangelicals was to stand between the governor and the governed.
“They tried to be a bridge; they tried to be a middle way. This is how they understood their role in society. This book is about the public manifestation of Christianity. They were trying to be a bridge to put together these forces that had come into conflict. “
The dispossession of aboriginal people from their land, Piggin argues, is “one of the great dispossession events of all history”. Stuart Piggin argues that the ideas and values of the early Christian settlers must be part of the present reconciliation debate, and references Ephesians Chapter 2.
“We’ve got to make it work,” he said.
The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740-1914 by Stuart Piggin and Robert Linder is published by Monash University Publishing. Available at Koorong
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