Australian Christian Life Since 1788: An Introduction And Anthology. Iain Murray. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1988. 357 pages.
With this book, Iain Murray has provided a great resource for Australian churches and their leaders. Murray wanted to retell the stories of Australian Christians, as he believed that these stories have been “virtually erased” from the history of Australia presented by a modern secularism (334). He also wanted to demonstrate that in Australia, “Christianity became a living force by the quality of its life—often amidst great opposition…”, so that “the main reason why our witness today does not attain to equal influence lies within the church” and not because of the “indifferent spirit of our age.” (xiv)
Murray begins by describing the situation of the colony and its first chaplain, Richard Johnson. Johnson found little support from the governors and preached in the open air or whatever building was available. Johnsons’ writings reveal the struggle of the colony to survive and the often horrible living conditions. As the colony progressed, the next chaplain Samuel Marsden continued the gospel ministry and also established mission stations in New Zealand. Marsden has been criticized for his harsh judgments as a magistrate, but severe penalties were normal practice in those desperate times and he himself recognized that only the gospel could transform hardened hearts.
Methodist Samuel Leigh was another gospel preacher who arrived in 1816. He rode regularly to outposts in Parramatta, Windsor and Liverpool to preach, establishing a circuit-riding ministry which included 14 preaching stations over 150 miles on horseback. Leigh was highly esteemed by Christians and non-Christians alike, because of his intense and diligent work ethic.
Over several chapters, Murray documents various Christian viewpoints on the colonies’ spiritual condition. Christians often expressed their sense of isolation and the challenges of ministering in a frontier society. One article describes the need for reaching the Aborigines as fellow human beings with the gospel. There were also local revivals reported throughout the states, and gospel-transformed hearts resulted in transformed lives and improvements to society. Fervent, faithful prayers were closely associated with these revivals.
Some chapters describe life in Methodist and Presbyterian churches. Most churches had two services on Sunday. The Primitive Methodists prescribed the length of a morning service as an hour and fifteen minutes, and their ministers could be fined ten shillings for breaking this limit!
There is little mention of Christianity in contemporary Australia, except for references to the growing influence of liberal theology in the early 1900s. In “Some Lessons for Today,” Murray details several Christian influences in Australian history and includes strong quotes on the need for revival within the churches. From the late 1800s, Methodist John Watsford wrote:
“The desire to-day seems to be for less prayer and exposition of the word of God, and for more amusement, more entertainments in the church … Let it be announced that an entertainment will be given, and people will flock to it; but to the call to prayer there will be little or no response.”
And William George Taylor:
“…We may attract crowds by startling preaching and give them the very best of music; we may do all this, and more—and yet, if the Holy Spirit of God is not honoured, it will all amount to little more than ‘sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.'”
I was frequently stirred by the experiences of these Christians. Their dedication in difficult circumstances is both a rebuke and an inspiration for ministry today. Readers might not benefit from every section of this book, but I believe all believers here would benefit from learning these stories and testimonies of our Christian heritage.