The legacy of the First Fleet is one commonly of convicts and the denigration of the Indigenous population. But overlooked by many historians and our school curriculums is the arrival of Christianity, which is both distinct and in parallel to the colonisation of what would become Australia.
Evangelical Christian ideals of letting go of the old self and welcoming the new proved to be a key tenet in the founding of modern Australia. Through faith, courage, and belief in providence – free settlers and Christians pioneered across the vast colonial frontiers in what would become early steps to uplifting the nation.
Where commerce had offered an alternative to slavery in Africa, evangelical merchants sought the same in Australia. Such lobbying to the British government resulted in the abolition of the inhumane convict system but also enhanced colonial economies through new opportunities of commerce.
Standing with the Under Privileged
Evangelicals adapted their understanding of barbarism to be not based on racial lines but to include how the Indigenous population was treated. And in contrast to mainstream belief, the missions to Indigenous communities while admittedly naïve in its approach and lacking in understanding of its peoples contained efforts of an empowering nature. There was a recognition that Australia’s original inhabitants were made in the image of God thus bore the ability to be reached with the Christian message.
Much of the little goodness that Europeans inflicted upon the Indigenous population was carried out by Christians, and even though the missionaries acted in good faith while being ignorant to existing cultural connections to the land – Christianity was accepted and eventually spread widely not just by white missionaries but by Indigenous converts themselves.
Having felt the Greco-Roman influence of rising above barbarism, Christians saw the opportunity of the faith not only for the Indigenous populations but as an alternative to a low culture which was prevalent especially among convicts, the liquor industry and mining, prostitutes as well as among misogynist men.
Evangelical Christianity can also be credited with the raising the status of women through the promotion of the stable traditional family unit involving marriage and abstinence from alcohol while encouraging new opportunities outside of the home such as the fight for suffrage.
Government and Culture
The relationship between church and state was much more a joint venture than separation for much of Australia’s European history. The Church Acts provided Christian denominations with the assistance to set up congregations of faith and grace, leading to Australia being home to many Christian values at the time of Federation.
Another factor that influenced the growth of Christianity in Australia’s colonial era can also be attributed to the contest between Christian denominations. While probably acquiring too much of the energies of people of faith, it would appear that the sectarian divide motivated people of faith to strengthen their churches more than if there was just a single denomination.
Christianity was also not asynchronous with imperialistic conquests of the British Empire however much it did play a substantial role in establishing the faith in Australia. Believers were ultimately not satisfied with the current state of affairs and sought to improve their societies by offering new beginnings to all in the community.
A Godly Nation
Australia in its colonial-era was the melting pot of Christian culture and Classicalism. The Church led the way in reaching out to the less fortunate in society and it was, in fact, the secular governing authority that instilled Christian values into the Australian ethos.
At the start of the 20th century, Christianity was still on the rise in Australia with nearly all of the population identifying with the faith at least in name. Such resulted in the recognition of the treasured freedom values that endure to today as our society’s foundations.
Australia’s political landscape traces its roots to Christian principles of serving the underdog which effectuated the formation of the trade union movement. The role of Biblical language despite being increasing aspersed was a founding element for Australian parliaments that underscored the importance and role of God in providing prosperity to the nation.
Thank you God
The role of Christianity in Australia’s European history is not without missteps such as a questionable reflection of the governing culture in addition to tensions both among denominations and with the secular world. But it was a faith that found its place among Australian culture to the benefit of the majority of the population.
It is Christians that co-created colonial Australia that set the nation’s cultural course for the century to come. Australia would also soon become a launching base for Christian mission into the South Pacific defying challenge of the nearby Asian influences and alternative belief systems.
A new understanding of the role of Christianity in modern Australia’s founding is as radical as calls for the changing of Australia Day, but it is of paramount importance to the future direction of our Great South Land that such history is not forsaken. It is through Christianity in both the public and private sphere that our country can find true success.
This article was first published in Christian Today Australia on Wednesday 9 September 2020.