A fascinating look at Australia's origins by Dr . Barry Chant, House
of Tabor, Adelaide S.A.
What were we celebrating in 1988? The arrival of a bunch of convict
rejects from the overcrowded jails in England? The attempt by a thousand
ill-equipped Europeans to establish a small segment of civilisation on
the under-side of the earth?
Perhaps. But Christians have special reasons for celebration. It is
now over 200 years since the gospel of Jesus Christ first came to our shores.
On 6 January 1788, a 31-year old Anglican clergyman named Richard Johnson
sat with his wife of a few months in the cold and cramped cabin of the
Sirius , a small sailing vessel of just 600 tons somewhere
off the coast of Tasmania - or as it was known then, Van Diemen's Land.
It wasn't much of a ship. It had been burned out while still in the
shipyards, sold cheaply to the government and refitted even more cheaply!
The Sirius was the flag ship of a convoy of 11 ships _
* the Supply _ another convoy ship
* Six convict ships
* Three supply ships
On board were 729 convicts _ 565 males, 153 females, and eleven children.
Plus 253 officers, crewmen and their families. There were about 1000 in
all. (There is some uncertainty about the exact numbers.)
Johnson was almost boyish in looks, with full fleshy lips and soft hair.
He was obviously a man of delicate sensibilities who was in some ways unfitted
for the rigours and harshness of his role. He would not go down into the
convict holds, for instance, as their condition distressed him too much.
On one ship, convicts were tortured by the use of the thumbscrew, by
iron fetters and by shaving the heads of women prisoners - although flogging
them naked had been given up for 'reasons not of humanity but of decorum'
On occasions, food supplies were very low indeed - only three pints
of water being allowed for all purposes each day for each person, soldier
and convict alike.
For weeks, a cold wind had been blowing from the south - 'it being so
cold,' wrote another ship's officer, 'that I have been obliged to put on
a flannel waistcoat and... two pair (of stockings) and obliged to keep
my great coat on constantly all day' (Barnard, 48). The weather continued
very cold and bleak and the ships were often awash. On one ship, convict
women were literally swept out of their bunks by the water (Barnard,
On New Year's Day there was a severe gale which lasted 24 hours.
'Never did I see such an awfully grand night before in my whole life,'
Johnson wrote later (Letter to Henry Fricker, 10 Feb 1788). However, the
Johnsons still managed to enjoy a meal of roast pig (taken on board in
Captetown) and plum pudding to mark the occasion in spite of having difficulty
even in keeping their seats.
Each Sunday, Johnson conducted services on board, and in Rio and Capetown,
he moved to other ships to do so. He was gratified to note the decline
in the degree of swearing after he preached against it one Sunday.
On 7 January, they caught their first glimpse of Australia. It was the
coast of Van Diemen's Land.
Two weeks later they were anchored off Botany Bay in New South Wales.
1. The Sovereign Purpose of God
It is interesting to imagine what might have been going through Richard
Johnson's mind as he contemplated what he would do when he stepped on that
Eastern Australian shore. He had a great conviction of the sovereignty
of God - did he feel himself part of destiny? Or was hejust pleased to
Judging by his early letters, he doesn't seem to have had any great
pretensions! He was apparently more taken up with the unusual flora and
fauna than anything else!
In fact, he probably never saw any potential greatness in what he did
- he was not that kind of man.
If he was familiar with the writings of the scholarly Augustine, as
he probably was, he might have thought with some amusement about the fact
that he was now treading in a place that the great theologian had claimed
could not possibly exist! In the City of God Augustine wrote that
'as to the fable that there are antipodes, that is to say, men on the other
side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk
with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground believable'!
But he was there in the purposes of God. There is no question in my
mind that it was providential that Johnson was the first religious figure
to come to this land.
Professor Manning Clark's definitive A History of Australia begins
by describing the various nations and peoples who for centuries headed
in the direction of what was to them an unknown southern continent - but
who never found it! (Vol I, 1985, pp. 5ff).
The Hindus and Buddhists came only to the spice islands of the East
Indies; the Chinese also stopped short; the followers of Islam reached
Indonesia, but not Australia. The Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch and
the French all sailed around it, touched it at places but never settled
it. Quiros (1605), Torres (1607), Janz (1605), Hartog (1616), Pelsart (1629),
Tasman (1642) and La Perouse (1788) are names well-known today - but all
as navigators or explorers - not as pioneer settlers. They all sailed around
the continent, but none of them settled it!
Brief mention must be made of Pedro Ferdandez de Quiros, a Portuguese
navigator who actually did most of his sailing for Spain. "He was one of
the flowers of the Catholic Reformation, part of that movement of religious
idealism and of missionary fervour which strengthened the church after
the disasters of Luther and Calvin... He began to believe that he had been
singled out by God as the vessel through whom the inhabitants of 'terra
australia' would be received into the true church, and that 'terra australia'
would be Austrialia del Espiritu Santo - a land dedicated to the Holy Spirit.'
(Clark, I, 1985, 14f).
Nowadays, we like to talk about the 'great' South Land of the Holy Spirit.
Somehow, the word 'great' has been slipped in. It was never part of the
original title. It must also be remembered that Quiros saw this name as
an expression of his dream of bringing the south land under the sway of
Quiros made a pilgrimage to Rome, received from Pope Clement VIII 'a
genuine pice of the true cross' together with indulgences for those who
sailed with him. In 1605, he set out with a statue of Peter standing on
the world on the prow of each of his ships. He was particularly anxious
to win the race against the Protestants to confound the powers of false
doctrine. On the eve of his journey, he visited the shrine of the Virgin
He was a gentle man, however, and apparently lacked the will to follow
the enterprise through. He reached the New Hebrides, named one of the islands
Austrialia del Espiritu Santo and sailed for Mexico. (It has often been
claimed that Quiros actually reached Australia, but it is clear that he
didn't - and that he himself knew that he didn't - Clark, I, 1985, 16).
To look at the map of explorers prior to Cook, it is almost uncanny
to see how they all seemed to head straight for the great south land but
then sailed right round it! There are some natural explanations - prevailing
winds and currents and the like. But there seems to be more to it than
this. It almost looks as though an unseen hand redirected those little
vessels to other waters and other lands. It cannot be co-incidence.
I believe God had a sovereign purpose for Australia and that even through
a convict settlement it was simple evangelical gospel that He intended
to be proclaimed in this land!
I say this with no disrespect to any other nation or people. But the
truth is that the message young Richard Johnson brought to Port Jackson
was the nearest to the New Testament that anyone of his day is likely to
2. The Chaplain's role
Johnson was a chaplain and therefore subject to whatever the authorities
told him to do. Officially Governor Arthur Philip was to enforce an appropriate
observance of religion and good order among the inhabitants and to take
such steps for the due celebration of public worship as circumstances would
permit. He was to take care that the Book of Common Prayer was read every
Sunday and Holy Day. He was to execute laws against sabbath breaking, swearing,
stealing and profanity (Clark, I, 80).
Obviously, Johnson was expected to be the agent for all this. Philip
himself, while a good man, seemed much more interested in acceptable manners
than in salvation - a point which Johnson himself recorded - "Those in
authority want me to preach goodness and not salvation, obedience not submission."
As chaplain, Johnson had to officiate at hangings (Time, 91)
and was at times expected to act as magistrate - a task he loathed and
one which seemed to line him up with the authorities and hence with the
establishment. Clearly, this also put him off-side with the convicts.
He had other tasks as well. Within two weeks of the first settlement,
he had officiated at 14 weddings. In the first five years he conducted
226 baptisms, 220 marriages and, depressingly, 851 burials (Address, p.vi).
3. The first service
On 3 February 1788, Johnson conducted the first Christian service ever
to be held in this land. People gathered under a gum tree somewhere in
the centre of modern Sydney.
He took as his text Psalm 116:12: 'How can I repay the Lord for
all His goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on
the name of the Lord.'
At first glance this seems a rather inappropriate passage. Here were
a group of rejected and deprived men and women in a strange land where
'the biggest rats they had ever seen (were) bounding about on their hind
legs (and) giant birds with long scrawny necks and bald heads crashed through
the scrub and yet another bird.... looked down at them and seemed to kill
itself laughing at their predicament. It was as if they had landed on another
planet!' (Garvin, 1987, 20f).
Then there was the unaccustomed heat and the flies of which William
Dampier had said years earlier 'they being so troublesome here that no
fanning will keep them from coming to one's face; and without the assistance
of both hands to keep them off, they will creep into one's nostrils; and
mouth too, if the lips are not shut very close' (Clark, I, 39). To this
day, Aussies are noted for not opening their mouths very far when
Furthermore most of them were suffering from hunger and ill-health
from the journey; there was uncertainty about their survival; a deep sense
of homesickness and isolation weighed on them all; the imbalance of men
and women was obvious to everyone; and there was a gross sense of injustice
among the convicts.
But when we look at the Psalm, it is appropriate -
The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the
upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. Then
I called on the
name of the Lord: 'O Lord, save me!' (3,4)
When we read these words through convicts' eyes they are very relevant
indeed. They had suffered but the ships had not gone down. Now they were
out of the stuffy filth of the convict holds and at least on dry land and
breathing fresh air.
For you, O Lord, have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from
tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before
the Lord in
the land of the living (8,9).
At least those who gathered to hear Johnson's message were alive! They
had been delivered from death - which many who took to sea in those days
were not. Indeed, all the ships had arrived safely, which itself was something
to be grateful for in those uncertain times.
How can I repay the Lord for all His goodness to
me? I will lift up
the cup of salvation and call on the name of the
Lord I will fulfil
my vows to the Lord in the presence of His people
So there was something to give thanks for - and even here in this strange
land they could do it!
Many people during the Bicentenary were reading that Psalm again. And
for contemporary Australia, it is still relevant and pertinent - what can
we render to the Lord for all His benefits to us? We live in a 'lucky
country' - perhaps a blessed one?
I will sacrifice a thank offering to you and call
on the name of
the Lord. I will fulfil my vows to the Lord in the
presence of all his
people (17, 18).
So the Psalm concludes - with a vow of dedication to the Lord. Not many
of those who heard Richard Johnson made such a vow - but there were, no
doubt, some who did. And so the gospel was planted in the south land of
the Holy Spirit!
4. A man of courage in face of hardship
What kind of man was Richard Johnson? I believe that he showed many
qualities which provide a model for Australian Christianity. Of course,
he had his weaknesses. But he also displayed many strengths. For instance,
he showed dogged courage in the face of hardship.
He was consistently frustrated by the lack of support he received from
the authorities. They expected him to serve their interests, but did little
In 1798, he wrote a letter to the new Governor Hunter bitterly complaining
of Philip's failure to help him. On one occasion, he had been instructed
to hold services only at 6 am, but the soldiers all walked out at 6.45.
He had observed men gambling within sight of the meeting place; soldiers
actually prevented people from attending church; and so on.
Moreover, although he waited patiently for four years, no chapel was
built for him. Eventually, he built one with his own hands (with
convict help) at the cost of 67 pounds 12 shillings and 11 pence halfpenny.
Five years later, it was demolished by convicts. His first child was stillborn
(Letter to Fricker, 9/4/1790). There was regular shortage of food (which
affected all, of course). He had to supplement his family's diet with his
own garden (Fricker, 4/10/91). He was not treated with the respect his
position deserved. In his journal, he lamented, 'I am yet in the most miserable
hut, and at times find it difficult where to read, pray or write; cannot
but think of myself as exceedingly injured and slighted. While the governor
has one grand mansion in Sydney and another at Rose Hill, I am forced to
live in a miserable hut, and that built at my own cost; and as for any
place of worship, that is the last thing thought of. Oh for more Christian
patience and fortitude.' (2/10/1790).
He had to rise regularly at four and five in the morning to go to preach
at Rose Hill and Parramatta - and usually found it necessary to stay in
rough accommodation overnight.
His biggest sorrow was the failure of his ministry to touch many convicts.
In his letter to Hunter he wrote, 'Gross immoralities, depredations, drunkenness,
riots, and even murders, (are) daily committed;... becoming more open and
flagrant;...' (Hunter, 1798).
Of course, with such a disproportion between men and women, drunkenness
and fornication were rife. For example, on 7 February, 1788, Governor Philip
inaugurated the State of New South Wales with a special ceremony. The convicts
were all told to be washed and tidily dressed. But the night before, the
women now having been landed, there were 'scenes of debauchery and riot'
and most were dishevelled and degraded (Barnard, 58f).
Bigamy, too, was a problem, as convicts with spouses in England married
a second time, having given up hope of ever seeing their partners again.
Johnson preached against sexual immorality ('You may frame excuses and
plead necessity... but the word of God... admits of no plea or excuse'
- Address, 1792, p.57), but with little hope of success.
Finally, the chaplain was beset by ill-health. We would probably say
today that he was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Of his magistrate's
duty he wrote; 'It is almost too much for my health and spirits...' (Letter
And again, 'My health is not so good nor my constitution so strong as
formerly and therefore I feel it impracticable and impossible for me either
to preach or to converse with you so freely as my inclination and affection
would prompt me to do' (Address, 1792, p. iv).
On another occasion, he recorded, 'My feelings almost overwhelmed to
think of the hardships I meet with; at other times I rejoice in the reflection
that what I was doing, I was doing for the honour of God and for the good
of my fellow creatures. Hold out faith and patience!'
Johnson's persistence and dedication are a challenge to all contemporary
Australian Christians. There is still much to discourage us today, but,
Johnson's fortitude reminds us to be faithful to the Word of God and to
continue to proclaim it wherever and whenever we can.
5. He was an evangelist
Johnson was clearly an evangelical of strong biblical conviction. Most
secular histories seem to present him more as a religious moralist - as
a melancholy vendor of God's laws - than as a joyful purveyor of good news.
This is an unfortunate image.
Johnson was suggested for his task by the renowned social reformer William
Wilberforce and was numbered among the Anglican evangicals of his day.
This was the era of John Wesley (who died just four years after the First
Fleet reached our shores). As a result, Johnson was nicknamed, 'Methody
Dick' (Time, 108). He was not a Methodist, but he certainly was an evangelical.
In 1792, he wrote an Address to all the inhabitants and especially to
the unhappy prisoners and convicts in the colonies at Port Jackson and
The following extract from this small book, Johnson's only published
work, very clearly presents the gospel message:
'All these inestimable blessings are the fruits and effects of the death
and mediation of Jesus Christ. His great design in coming into the world
was to seek and to save those who are lost; he came from heaven, that he
might raise us to those holy and happy mansions; he endured the curse,
that we might inherit the blessing; he bore the cross, that we might
wear the crown; he died, that we might live; he died, the just for the
unjust, that he might bring us to God.
These blessings become ours, only by believing, or faith. Thus it is
said, God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son - For
what purpose? Why, That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but
have everlasting life; he that believeth in him who justifieth
the ungodly, his faith is counted to him for righteousness. My friends,
search the scriptures, and you will find that this is the tenor of the
whole Bible; I may add of our church also, in the Articles and Homilies.
This believing is sometimes called a coming to Christ, a looking unto Christ,
a trusting in him, a casting our burden upon him. And remember, that until
we do thus come to Christ, trust in him, cast our cares and
burdens upon him, we have no part or interest in what the gospel unfolds
and offers; however others, who have believed, and daily act faith upon
him, are rejoicing in the participation of those rich benefits and blessings
which the gospel freely offers to guilty and perishing sinners.
The faith whereby a sinner receives Christ, and becomes a partaker of
all the blessings of the gospel, is the sole gift of God, wrought
in the heart by his Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit produces an inward change
in the soul, called, in the scripture, the new birth, regeneration, or
conversion, and thus enables a sinner, convinced of his sin and misery,
to look to Jesus, and to believe on him.
But though repentance and faith are the gifts of God, which none can
obtain by any endeavours of their own, yet we are encouraged and commanded
to pray for them. All who have thus, through grace, believed, and are daily
living a life of faith in the Son of God, shall be saved; but such as carelessly
neglect, or wilfully reject this gospel, must be damned. Think, I beseech
you, of this! Remember, that it is the solemn declaration of the Lord Jesus
Now is the time to obtain the blessings revealed in the gospel, and
which are set before you when it is preached. Many have had these gracious
declarations made to them before we were born, and they will be repeated
to many after we are dead. But this is our day. Now is the
accepted time, now is the day of salvation. Today - for you and I
may not live to see tomorrow. Today, if you will hear his voice, harden
not your hearts. My brethren, it is your duty, your wisdom, and will finally
prove to be your greatest happiness, to seek an interest in this salvation
for yourselves. It is your personal, and must be your heart concern, to
make your calling and election sure.'
What a clear exposition of the gospel! There can be no doubt of Johnson's
commitment to the message of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ.
As I have noted earlier, it seems clear that his was the message that
God, in His sovereignty, wanted proclaimed in this landd from the very
beginning. In his unassuming way, Richard Johnson laid a solid foundation
for all who would follow him. The pity is that so often we have deviated
from the simplicity of that unaffected proclamation of the Word of God.
6. He was a lover of the Bible
The ship's manifesto for the First Fleet included the following - 700 spades,
700 gimlets, 8000 fish hooks, one Bible! (Dare, p.30). It is tempting to
draw a contrast between our first irreligious settlers and those Pilgrim
Fathers who settled the United States. But in fact, hundreds of copies
of Scripture were landed here in 1788 - thanks to Richard Johnson. Through
the good offices of the newly-formed Society for the Propagation of the
Gospel, he brought 100 Bibles, 400 Testaments and 500 Psalters! He also
had with him -
100 Osterwald's Necessity for Reading the Scriptures, 25 Plain Exhortations
to Prisoners, 200 Sermons on the Mount, 200 Exercises against Lying, 50
Woodward's Caution to Swearers, 200 Christian Soldiers, 100 Exhortations
to Chastity, 100 Dixon's Spelling Books, 1 Set of SPG tracts.
Furthermore in his Address, the first of his rules for Christian
living is - 'Read and Study the Scriptures' (p 36).
He tried to teach the illiterate to read and he organised classes to
Unfortunately, some people sold the Bibles and others used the paper
for kindling or smoking. But the Word did go out.
7. He was a man of prayer
Again, in his Address, he urges his hearers to pray. First of all,
they should pray alone, spending special time in solitude with God. Then
they should gather as families. And finally, they should worship together
with the congregation of believers. 'Be constant and diligent in prayer
to God,' he declares (p, 52).
Richard Johnson himself spent time in communion with the Lord. One of
his major difficulties was the inadequacy of his quarters and the lack
of a place where he could be alone for prayer.
On one of his letters he wrote, 'I have need of wisdom and I hope my
good friends will not cease daily to pray for me' (Fricker, 4 Oct 1791).
If any concept is fundamental to a healthy faith it is that of vital
and authentic prayer. Johnson understood that well.
8. He was a man of compassion
If the preface to his Address, he wrote 'This affectionate address
is dedicated and presented by their very sincere and sympathising friend
and faithful servant in the gospel of Christ.' These were not just words.
He really did try sincerely to be a friend to all the members of the new
He went on, in exhorting them to leave off stealing, swearing and the
like, to say, 'I do not mean, my friends, to reflect hardly upon you for
what is past and cannot be recalled. I pity your past misconduct; I sympathise
with you under your present sufferings.' (Address, p.61).
He loved to visit the convict labourers in their own huts, even more
than preaching. (Fricker, 4-10-91).
This compassion was nowhere better displayed than in his attitude to
those of different denominations or different nationalities.
9. He was an unprejudiced man
Johnson had friends in various denominations, including Henry Fricker,
a Baptist to whom he wrote regularly. In one of his letters to Fricker,
he makes a light-hearted reference to the fact that had his young wife
Mary stayed longer in England, she would have been converted to Fricker's
ideas. As it is, he went on, 'she is about half a Baptist and half
'Brethren,' he wrote in his Address, 'I do not ask you what religious
persuasion or denomination you have espoused... I do not address you as
Churchmen or Dissenters, Roman Catholic or Protestants, as Jews or Gentiles;
I suppose, yea, I know that there are persons of every denomination among
you. But I speak to you as men and women, as intelligent creatures, possessed
of understanding and reason... And my sole aim and desire is, to be instrumental
in turning you from darkness to light, from sin to holiness, from the power
of Satan to the service and favour of God.' (Address, 1792, p.24).
Clearly membership of the Kingdom was far more vital to him than religious
His attitude to the aborigines was beautifully expressed - not only
in words, but also in actions. He took into his own home a fifteen
year old aborigine girl named Abaroo who had been dreadfully afflicted
with smallpox. He taught her to read and was hopeful of her coming to faith
in Christ. She lived there for months.
One of his greatest frustrations was that the aborigines would never
be attracted to the gospel the way the Europeans were living -
'I would rather plead with you for the sake of the poor, unenlightened
savages who daily visit us or who reside among us... oh, beware of laying
stumbling-blocks in the way of these blind people... But consider what
may be the happy effects were the natives to see, hear and observe in you...
a conduct answerable to the doctrine and precepts of the gospel... This
might, by the blessing of God, be one of the most effectual means... to
engage them to seek an interest in the blessing of the gospel for themselves.'
(Address, 1792, p.69).
In this way Johnson showed a pattern which could have been emulated
by those who followed, rather than the cheating, cruelty and slaughter
which often occurred. Even other clergy later wrote off the aborigines
as being incapable of faith for salvation and even of being debarred from
Johnson, however, put his faith into action and tried to demonstrate
the love of Christ to those unhappy people. If only more white Australians
had acted similarly over the years, there would not be the anger and sense
of injustice that is so rife among aborigines today.
On the other hand, many Christians have, of course, acted as Johnson
did and as a result there is a vigorous, ongoing demonstration of vital
Christianity among thousands of aborigines today, especially in the remote
parts of the country. If no other benefit has touched them, they are recipients
of the greatest benefit of all - the blessing of inclusion in Christ.
10. He was a man of great hope
In spite of all the discouragements, Johnson never gave up hope.
Two years after his arrival here, he wrote to Henry Fricher, 'I wish
to see the poor heathen brought to knowledge of Christianity and hope in
time to see or hear of the dawnings of that time when these shall be given
for our Lord's heritage and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possession,
And two years later again, in spite of all the frustrations mentioned
above, he concluded his Address like this -
'Longing, hoping and waiting for the dawn of that happy day when the
heathen shall be given to the Lord Jesus for His inheritance and the uttermost
parts of the earth for His possession and when all the ends of the earth
shall see, believe and rejoice in the salvation of God - Psalm 2:9; 98:3.'
(Address, 1792, p.73).
In spite of all, Richard Johnson had a firm belief that the gospel would
triumph in the earth and that all the heathen would turn to the Lord!
We cannot but help draw a parallel with Australia now. At times, the
task of reaching the nation for Christ may seem hopeless. But like Johnson,
we can see beyond the disappointment and believe in the sovereign purpose
of God. Jesus shall reign! And He shall reign in Australia.
From the very beginning, God's sovereign purpose has been clear. There
is a destiny for this nation. We are still young.
Our history has hardly begun yet. The church in this land is still finding
its own identity.
What will the next century hold? There is great reason for hope. There
are many signs of revival stirring everywhere.
By the grace of God, the spirit of Richard Johnson will live on and
the people of this south land will in spirit and truth become the people