Rev. Higgs is a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia.
It has been four years now since we returned from your country to our own, and just over three years since I was ordained to the office of minister of the Word and sacraments. Life in the ministry is always busy, but never so busy that we forget you as churches, or the many friends that we made in your midst. Indeed, rare is the occasion when we do not pray publicly for you in our congregations — for you as denomination; for your ministers and other officebearers; for the seminary of which I was a part for three years; or for individuals whom we have heard are experiencing some trial from the hand of God.
It was a delight, therefore, to receive an invitation from the Editor of the SB to write some articles on the life of our churches in Australia. It is my desire that we are in your hearts as you are in ours. I am anxious to do anything that will foster mutual remembrance, knowledge, and love of each other as denominations. We have in common the central issues of our most holy faith, foremost of which is sovereign, particular grace. Not only do we hold these things in common, but we stand almost alone in the world today in sounding them forth. If these articles on the life of our churches will foster mutual respect for each other, then God’s name will be honored and Christ’s kingdom advanced. And there is nothing more important than that.
Let us begin, then, with some history.
In recent years there has been much controversy, and therefore some confusion, concerning who exactly discovered Australia. What we do know with some degree of certainty is that a Dutch navigator, Dirk Hartog, sighted the barren shores of Western Australia in 1616. Also we know that the Dutch sea explorer Abel Tasman discovered the island state of Tasmania in 1642.
It was not until over 100 years later, however, that any serious consideration was given to settling Australia. One of the reasons for this was that one third of Australia is desert, and another one third is semi-arid. Any seafarer who sighted or landed upon the shores of Australia, therefore, rarely saw anything that gave him cause for excitement.
It was in 1770 that the English captain James Cook sailed up the east coast of Australia. This is the fertile section of our country. (Today approximately 90 percent of our population lives along the eastern seaboard.) Accordingly, Cook took home a more favorable report of New Holland, as it was called in those days.
In 1783 Britain lost its American colonies. Now, that has affected you as a country greatly. But it also affected us as a country, and still does! One of the consequences of your independence from Britain was that no longer did the British have anywhere to send their convicts. It is true that the English did not send convicts to your country often. But they did do this. And they would have done it far more in the late 1780s-90s because the Hulks (old ships used as prisons on English rivers) were seriously overcrowded by then.
So it was, in 1787, that the First Fleet sailed from England to Australia, arriving on January 21, 1788, with about 750 convicts. The next year another fleet arrived with approximately 1,000 convicts. By 1810 there were some 12,000 people living in Australia, and about one third of them were convicts. Between 1820 and 1850 over 100,000 convicts were transported from Britain to eastern Australia.
Many of these convicts were sent to Australia for petty crimes. Often the crimes that were committed occurred because the people were starving. It is not uncommon to read accounts concerning convicts who were transported for stealing a loaf of bread, or some such thing. There were, however, also many hardened criminals who were transported to New Holland for their crimes.
All very interesting, you may say, but what has this got to do with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia? Nothing, directly. But it may give you a feel for our country, and a knowledge of some differences that it has with your own.
If my understanding of the history of your country is correct, the United States of America began, largely, due to colonization by refugees fleeing religious persecution in Europe. You have a religious heritage which, while it may be lost in large degree today, has influenced your culture. And by this I do not mean to suggest any form of common grace. My meaning, rather, is that your religious heritage, as a country, has been used of God to control and limit the progress of sin, to use Hoeksema’s terminology.1
On the other hand, our country began, largely, for the purpose of providing a penal colony for the criminals whom Britain did not want. Now, of course, there was more to it than this. However, one of the main purposes, if not the main purpose, for settling Australia was to provide a place for the excess of criminals whom Britain could not easily imprison in their own country. We, as a nation, have risen up out of the seedbed of masses of convicts.
Now, I do not mean by this that the church was not present in Australia, even from the earliest time of settlement. It was. The history of our country, however, reminds me of something that our confessional standards say concerning the catholic, visible aspect of the church: “This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure…” (WCF 25:4). In the history of Australia, in the early days, the church was so small that barely could she be seen. Not only that, she was less pure rather than more!
Let us examine this briefly.
Accompanying the first fleet was the Rev. Richard Johnson. He was an Anglican minister, and chaplain to the convicts. He saw himself as being the minister of all the men and women of the colony, however, and in this seems to have been a faithful man. He writes: “It is my duty to preach to all, to pray for all, and to admonish every one.”2 Other Anglican ministers were to follow Johnson.
It seems, though, that the strongest early influence on religious life in Australia sprang from the Wesleyan Methodists. By as early as 1831 “there was established in Australia, and in the islands of the South Pacific, nine circuits of the Wesleyan Methodists, fourteen missionaries, 736 communicants, and 1,000 children in schools.”3 It was not until the end of 1822 that the first Presbyterian minister arrived in Australia.4 And we had to wait until the 1840s before synods of Presbyterian churches with decidedly Reformed heritage were established.
This is the history of the land in which I live. It is a history of settlement for the prime purpose of creating a national jail for convicts. It is a history which, for the first fifty or sixty years, shows the true church to be hardly visible, and, when she is, to be much less pure than she ought to be.
It is this history which has shaped our nations. We are, I believe, more godless as a nation than the United States. Our culture is more radically humanistic, pagan, and devoted to sin. We Australians, as a generalization, hate authority, or seeing others succeed: but we love to shock, or to defy, or to “escape” through any means at our disposal — be that drunkenness, laziness, idolatry, or any other excesses of any type.
We must not get a distorted idea from this generalization, though. God has had His church in our land from the beginning. At times, even in the early days of settlement, there was evidence of remarkable workings of the Spirit of Christ within His church. But, due to our history, the national sins and characteristics of our people, as I have described them, are sadly predominant.
It is from within this general milieu formed by our history that God, in His grace, raised up the EPC as a denomination. It is within this general milieu formed by our history that we have to work as churches, today.
Next time, D.V., I will talk about history again. However, I will write then more directly on the history of our churches.
1 Cf. Hoeksema, Ready to Give an Answer: A Catechism of Reformed Distinctives, pp. 111-112. Cf., also, pp. 116-117.
2 Cited in Murray, I.H., Australian Christian Life from 1788: An Introduction and Anthology. The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1988; p. 3.
3 Murray, p. 49.
4 Murray, pp. 74, 75.