WHY BRITAIN?
Chapter 1
  Don Procton B.A., M.A.C.E.
 
 

The scene is graphically presented by an unknown artist. In the background in the green jungle. In full focus is a man in Elizabethan battle dress looking expectantly into the distance. Alongside him is a native Indian with his finger pointing. The man is Sir Francis Drake; the year is 1573. The other man is a loyal guide. The scene is set on the Isthmus of Panama and Drake is the first Englishman to gaze out upon the vastness of the Pacific.

Britain had business with Spain for some years in the North Atlantic but when it was over, Drake was able to satisfy his curiosity by sailing on that far flung ocean. His exploits excited his compatriots. In fact, it became a fascination which has endured.

From this beginning came the desire to take over from Spain and claim her riches; establish a British dominance, the work ethic and perhaps initially without real intent, the concept of British Protestantism as had happened in the American colonies.

In the meantime, much was happening with other nations who had maritime and imperial designs in the Southern Hemisphere.

The South Land was known to both the Malays and the Chinese, but trade was their only concern. Neither then nor later have either had imperialistic designs on far away places.

The Portuguese and the Spaniards had three aims, namely, trade,  colonial expansion and conversion of the heathen, and each was pursued with fervour. The wealth of the cargoes carried to Europe illustrated the success of the former. They believed that the return of the Lord was imminent and that  they bore the heavy responsibility of converts. Today we look on their efforts with incredulity, but their motives were crystal clear.

"Their religious expectations were to enlighten and convert to Christianity all infidels and to lead them as labourers into the vineyard of their Lord."1

Whilst their methods were suspect, they did begin a missionary movement which reached a fuller flowering two hundred years later.

These Iberian empires withered on the vine, to be replaced by other European powers. The first on the scene were the Dutch. They were pragmatists. Manning Clark defines their main aim as "uncommon profit". Their Calvinistic faith lacked that genuine concern for the souls of the lost which was evident in Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. After many generations, the impact of their religious beliefs was not prominent in either South Africa or the Indies.

Having explored in a cursory fashion the coastline of the island continent to the South, they lost interest. There was nothing to be gained. After some skirmishing with their successors, the British and the French, they retired to reap the profits of the island empire..

These two new powers for many years shared an uneasy peace as they pursued their activities in the South Pacific. The French concerned themselves mainly with scientific work. We are indebted to them for much of our knowledge of the indigenous inhabitants and for information on flora and fauna. The impact of Britain was to be of a more enduring kind.

What therefore, of Britain? With the advantage of hindsight, the hand of the Lord can be clearly seen. If the mandate, "Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel" held a particular relevance for many concerned and farsighted Christians, their petitions were to be answered. Evangelization in "darkest Africa", the mysterious East and the Pacific Islands held special appeal.

Tentative stirrings became evident. The Evangelical Revival in mid century had a deep and abiding impact on British society. Some of its ramifications were to last for a hundred years and affected the lives of men then living and in succeeding generations.
 

There was a strong influence on the Established Church, on the growing Independent Churches, which was to spearhead an impetus for a return to the powerful preaching of the Puritan era, to deepen an awareness of social and economic responsibility, and encourage renewed interest in educational theory and practice and a quickening of missionary interest.

Several mission societies were formed. Dedicated, devoted (sometimes misguided) representatives were sent to all the other continents. The movement blossomed and reach significant proportions during the 19th century.

An impetus was given to these developments by the formation of three separate groups. These became known as the Ellard Society (named after a village in northern England where the first formal meeting was held), the Eclectic Society and the third was the Clapham Sect.

The first consisted of a group of North Country clergy who were concerned about the lack of  curates in the growing number of country parishes. The Society attracted the interest of one man of substance. William Wilberforce had, in 1786 become a firm believer in the Lord. As a member of the House of Commons, he was a confidant of the Prime Minister, William Pitt.  Many young men were selected, given some preliminary training, sent to Cambridge and took up duties in the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. One of their brightest early pupils was Samuel  Marsden who was to become the second chaplain to New South Wales.

In 1783 the Eclectic Society was formed in London. They met to discuss matters of faith and practice. Many were involved in public life and their deliberations often covered matters of State. Soon after formation they became interested in the appointment of a chaplain to the proposed settlement at Botany Bay. The poet and hymn writer, William Cowper is believed to have suggested the name of Richard Johnson. Gaining popular approval, the matter was put to the Prime Minister by another prominent member, John Newton. The request was approved and Johnson joined the First Fleet.

The third significant group was the Clapham Sect. It began as a fellowship of believers from both Houses of Parliament. Its influence on imperial policy was incalculable. It was the springboard for many reforms, notably the abolition of slavery. The appointments of Johnson and Marsden were supported and assistance was given financially and arranging for a goodly supply of Christian literature from the Society for Propagating Christian 
Knowledge. The selection of personnel from governors to parish priests bears testimony to their continuing impact particularly in the Colonial Office whose task it was to staff overseas colonies.

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Members of all these groups were imbued with the divine injunction, "Go ye and make disciples". The concept grew of making New South Wales a base for evangelization, not only in Australia, but throughout the South Pacific.

Both Johnson and Marsden had a burning desire to win souls. The former had enough to do with domestic affairs in the new colony, but when Marsden arrived, the first faltering steps of outreach emerged when the new chaplain went to New Zealand.

A.T. Yarwood, in his sensitive biography of Marsden comments on the significance of his appointment, "As a principal chaplain, co-founder of the wool staple, agent of the London and Church Missionary Societies, the Tahitian missionaries owed much to his support, the New Zealand mission was his own creation and brought fame in his own life time and the continuing regard of generations of Maories and Pakehas who have been taught to regard him as the founder of a multi-racial nation."

In the minds therefore, of those far sighted churchmen in England, a pattern of local and overseas mission activity was emerging. This was to blossom in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Could not the question and its implied challenge be asked - do we have the vision of a Christian country continuing to spread the Gospel amongst our own people of all racial backgrounds and to the lands to the north and east? What a task we have!
 

* Don Proctor recently retired as Vice Principal of the Launceston
   Christian School. A history graduate of the University of Tasmania
   and a member of the Australian College of Education.
 
 
 
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l. Manning Clark - "A History of Australia" Vol. 1, page 13 Melbourne University Press (1963).