The Origin and History of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia (1)*

Dr. Torlach is a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia and a student in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. *Address at the RFPA annual meeting, held September 25, 2008.

First of all, I’d like to thank the RFPA for asking me to speak tonight. It is an honor and a privilege to do so. It is good to be able to give you a little more information about the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, or the EPC, as I’ll be referring to it tonight.

It seemed to me a little strange to be asked to speak about the EPC to a publishing association meeting. There does not seem to be much connection. But perhaps I can draw out something of a connection as I tell you about the EPC tonight.

I’d like to give a little bit of an introduction, not just to the EPC but also to Australia and to Christianity and Presbyterianism in Australia as well.

I’ll give you a little bit of a geography and history lesson tonight as well. Australia is a large island continent. It is, in fact, about the same size as the main part of the United States. If you exclude Alaska, it is almost exactly the same size. But, despite that, the population is much smaller. Australia has a population of only about 20,000,000 people compared to about 300,000,000 in the United States.

Australia is located across the Pacific Ocean—a very long way across the Pacific Ocean. And of course, it is in the southern hemisphere. It takes about thirteen hours to fly from the west coast of the United States to the east coast of Australia. Interestingly, the first person to fly across the Pacific Ocean from the west coast of the United States to Brisbane was an Australian, Charles Kingsford-Smith, who did it in 1928. And then it took 83 hours of flying time!

The name “Australia” derives from the Latin australis, which means southern, and hence the name. In fact, already in the literature of Roman times, Australia is mentioned as the “great unknown land of the south.” And if you read through medieval literature, you will find reference to this land as well. But not much more than that is documented. The first documented evidence of the discovery of Australia is that of a Dutch explorer in 1606. Subsequently, through the 1600s, the Dutch mapped out much of the western and northern coasts, calling the land “New Holland.” But it was pretty inhospitable in that area, and therefore there was no interest in settling it. It wasn’t until 1770 that the east coast of Australia was charted by Captain James Cook, who named it “New South Wales,” since he came from Great Britain. He claimed the land for Great Britain.

Right about that time England’s prisons were overflowing. The authorities had nowhere to put all of these people, so they came up with the brilliant idea of sending them to the other side of the world and dumping them in New South Wales. The first time that happened was on January 26, 1788, which was the first settlement of Australia. At that time there were over a thousand people who came to Australia. There was just one chaplain for all those people! He started services there but, particularly with opposition from the officials there, he had only from twenty to a hundred people attending his services on any particular Sabbath day.

This dumping ground for criminals was really the only use of Australia for quite some time, with purely free settlements not established in Australia until 1836. In 1848 those who were governing Australia finally managed to stop the transportation of convicts. But that was not until some 100,000 convicts had been brought to Australia. So you can imagine that the European population in Australia was, in fact, predominately criminals.

It is estimated that the Aboriginal population at the time of the first settlement was about 300,000. But with new diseases introduced and, at times, outright persecution of them, the population rapidly declined. The religion of the Aborigines was pagan. It was pantheistic, and it was a religion of constant fear. As far back as 1724, Jonathan Edwards remarked that this was an area where “the devil had reigned quietly from the beginning of the world.”

But there was political progress. Australia gained state governments in the late 1800s and became a federation in 1901. This doesn’t mean that it became totally independent of Great Britain. There has been a slow progression of independence from Great Britain, but Australia remains part of the Commonwealth (of which Canada, for example, is also a member).

So what about Christianity in Australia? Christianity came to Australia with the European settlement. Initially it was really just the nominal Catholicism and Anglicanism found amongst the Irish and English convicts. But with the start of free settlements, many Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregationalist, and Baptist faiths were also introduced. By the time of the federation of Australia in 1901, it was said that 40% of the population was Anglican, 23% Roman Catholic, 34% other Christian, and only about 1% non-Christian religion. In fact, at the first census in 1911, 96% of the population identified themselves as “Christian.” This would have included much nominal Christianity.

Most of the first churches were established simply when there was a sufficient number of like-minded free settlers to form a congregation. There was no large mission endeavor that occurred in Australia at any time, and indeed there was nothing akin to the Dutch settlement in America, where whole congregations and their ministers migrated together.

Australia opened up its immigration policies in the early to mid-1900s. As a result of this, there was a flood of many types of peoples from many parts of the world, including the Jews, the Eastern Orthodox religions, and, subsequently, the different Asian religions of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. So there was a very great mix.

And there still is a very great mix of all sorts of different religions in Australia. The constitution of Australia, written in 1901, states that “the Commonwealth of Australia shall not make any law establishing any religion or for imposing any religious observance or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office of public trust in the Commonwealth.” This completely rules out any kind of connection between church and state, but it also paves the way for the religion of humanism, which allows toleration for everything but, in the end, Christianity.

The first Presbyterian in Australia was the assistant surgeon on the very first fleet that arrived in 1788. The first Presbyterian services were held in the mid-1790s, and the first Presbyterian church building was erected in 1809. In 1823, a Presbyterian minister came to the then-called New South Wales and campaigned for the immigration of Protestant Christians. As he looked around on the population, established

he saw that the society as a whole was doomed, because of the large percentage of convicts (or those who were descending from them) that made up the population and had no interest in religion whatsoever. He therefore wrote to and visited England and Scotland and called for families to come to Australia to settle there and establish Christian communities.

The Scottish Presbyterians who answered that call were often those who had suffered great hardships at home, both economically and also with the church situation there. So quite a number of Scottish settlers shifted to Australia, and Scottish communities sprang up with a thriving Presbyterianism in some places in Australia. There are still remnants of some of those communities in northern New South Wales, in Sydney, and around the Canberra area even today.

The disruption in Scotland in 1843 had flow-over effects in Australia. There was in Scotland at that time just the one “state” church, the Church of Scotland. I call it a “state” church, but it was really independent, though with ties to the state. The reason I call it the “state” church is that the state was trying to put its influence more and more onto the church. The church resisted this for some time, but there were also ministers who went along with the ideas of the state. The crunch came when the state wanted to force ministers into certain congregations of the Scottish churches. At that point, many of the ministers took exception to this in the General Assembly, and 470 ministers left the main Presbyterian Church of Scotland and formed another Presbyterian denomination. Hence it is called the disruption.

The effects of this flowed over to Australia because of ties that go back to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. And as a result of that, there were a number of very small denominations that broke away from the main Presbyterian church in Australia. One of those churches was the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, or the PCEA. That has relevance to our own history.

The general Presbyterian Churches continued, and in 1901, when the Australian states came together in federation, the Presbyterian Churches came together as well. But there was a great disparity in their beliefs. Even though they held to the Westminster Standards as their subordinate standards, when they came together they instituted what they called the Declaratory Act. The Declaratory Act is a statement that those who wish to be ministers or officebearers can sign, expressing that they hold to the Westminster Standards, but that they “declare their conscience” with respect to certain portions of the Standards. As long as they do not go against the fundamental Christian doctrines, that is, the doctrines that are specifically defined in the creeds, then that would be quite OK and they would be able to be ministers and elders. This, of course, soon opened the door to gross apostasy and was the cause of the Presbyterian Church going downhill at a very rapid rate. Presbyterianism, true Presbyterianism, continued only in very small denominations, one of which was the EPCA.

The state of Christianity in the early to mid-1900s in Australia was that Christianity of any sort was in sad decline. Roman Catholicism was on the rise. It had been, as you remember, 21%. It was 25% by the mid-1900s. And today almost 30% of the population are Roman Catholic. Membership in the mainstream Protestant churches has dropped markedly. And the number of people who professed to have no religion whatsoever was increasing. A census revealed that about 10% of the population professed to be atheists.

In addition, the ravages of heresy were having a devastating effect on the doctrine of reputedly conservative churches. Higher criticism was leading to the preaching of doubt upon many passages of Scripture, particularly creation and miracles. Arminianism had taken hold in many of the Protestant churches, and there was little else to hear but the message of man’s free will and man’s own ability to make himself better. If there was any gospel preached at all, it was the gospel of “making a decision for Christ.” There were also those who saw the deadness of the churches, and they traveled around doing gospel crusades, with emotion-charged messages encouraging a moral life.

… to be continued.