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    Early days of religion in Australia

    Address by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory, to the Freemasons’ Benevolent Institution of NSW, November 1981.

    Australia is a fortunate nation. Yet it is unusual in that religion has never been a major cultural force. This has never been a noticeably religious country. In our nearest neighbour, New Zealand, where churches are more active, attendance at worship is higher and spiritual attitudes to life more evident. Why is religion in Australia, as Hans Mol (author of “Religion in Australia”) has put it, “auxiliary and peripheral rather than undergirding and being central to the life of the nation”?

    Dr Gordon Dicker of the United Theological College traces the phenomenon to the inauspicious beginnings of religion on this continent. Religion was ignored at the arrival of the First Fleet. When the British flag was raised, there was merely a military ceremony, and the settlement, as historian James Bonwick has put it, was “baptized in libations of liquor”. Compare this with the coming of the Pilgrim Fathers to New Plymouth in 1620 when no flag was raised, but there was much praying and Bible reading.

    The difference is partly accounted for by the fact that it was pragmatism, not idealism, that motivated white settlement in Australia.

    It took years for a church to be built. No religious service took place until eight days after the First Fleet had landed. The chaplain, Rev Richard Johnson, had to build and personally pay for his own church in 1793. He was not reimbursed for his expenditure of £59/18/06 until 1797, and then the poor fellow had the experience the following year of seeing his church burn down. (The oldest church still standing in Australia is the Ebenezer Church near Windsor, NSW, built in 1809 by Scottish immigrants.) There were no prayers in the early Australian legislatures. Not until 1862 did NSW Parliament open its sessions with prayers, and even then there was such an outcry that the prayers had to be innocuous and neutral.

    Few of the convicts or early settlers were interested in religion or came from homes with a deep commitment to faith. They were far more concerned with physical survival than with saving their souls. Religion represented hated authority, and the officers of the early days used church attendance as a means of discipline. Some convicts made a sort of peace with this discipline for their own reasons; it was said that at Port Arthur, “the chief use of public worship was the enabling of the felonry to carry on surreptitious conversations under cover of the bawling of hymns” (J Alex Allan, “Men and Manners in Australia”).

    For those few who were interested in religion that were very few facilities. They were often out on road gangs or working in distant areas, far from church or clergy. No Bible or hymnal was to be found within hundreds of miles. It was worse for Catholics and Jews, no matter how lukewarm they were towards their own faiths. As an illustration, in the punishment registers the names of those recorded as having been repeatedly punished for failing to attend church parade were frequently Jewish; no Jewish services took place until 1817, when the prayer leader was Joseph Marcus, a German-born Jew transported for breaking and entering.

    The first Mass was in May, 1803. Held under strict government supervision, it was conducted by an Irish convict priest transported for alleged complicity in the Irish rebellion of 1798. Officialdom saw Catholicism as a threat to law and order; it was only in 1820 that two priests were officially approved, but primarily to keep the Catholics under control, so the salaries came from the Police Fund.

    Religion was not greatly esteemed for its spiritual and theological dimensions but as a mere instrument for teaching morality.

    Australia’s early clergy were often simply England’s second-quality leftovers. Richard Johnson was appointed chaplain to the First Fleet only because of the last-minute intervention of William Wilberforce. In planning the settlement, no one thought seriously that church or chaplain might be necessary.

    The best energies of the religious movements in the mother country were used in trying to convert the heathens in darkest Africa. To send clergy of any quality to far-off Australia was inconceivable. All Australian denominations subsisted for many years on imported clergy; it is amazing that, despite everything, some ministers were actually of high calibre. Many faiths had to struggle to Australianise themselves. Sir Marcus Loane was the first Australian-born archbishop of the Anglican Church, and his appointment in that capacity, in terms of the whole sweep of Australian history, was relatively very recent.

    No Australian religious movement arose out of local circumstances, with the possible exception of the Uniting Church. The religion you belong to tends to reflect where your family came from, not on the circumstances of the Australian way of life itself. Australian national characteristics are far more discernible in an RSL Club or a pub than in a church congregation, where distinctive ethnic characteristics persist, however subtly.

    Largely because of the variety of places from which the convicts and early settlers came, there never was an established church in Australia. Yet from time to time there was deep sectarian bitterness and rivalry that sometimes had long-lasting political consequences.

    A further reason why religion in Australia has always been “auxiliary and peripheral” is the generally low level of our intellectual activity and creativity. Australians are a pragmatic people. The clergy in Australia have generally had to compete not with ideas but with the pleasure industries. There has been no great motivation to elevate congregations with spirituality or intellectualism. The clergy, like Australians generally, have been doers rather than thinkers. Not that one should minimise the quality of some of the doers and their deeds: an example is Lifeline, an Australian contribution to humanitarian caring and concern.

    Granted that from early times religion was never a particularly significant activity on the Australian scene, what is the position today? The statistics show that, despite what individuals tend to think, religion in Australia has not noticeably weakened. Churchgoing is not noticeably less than a century ago even though the distribution between one religion and another is different. (Catholic attendance is somewhat greater. Protestant attendances are lower. Anglican attendance is much the same.) The census figures still indicate a Catholic growth rate, largely because of post-war immigration and greater fertility.

    Since 1933, the religious question in the census has been optional. Nowadays between 20 and 30% of Australians say they have no religion or do not answer the question. Among Jews the proportion is higher, so it is almost impossible to know the precise size of the Jewish community, and it may take a generation or two until there is an almost entirely Australian-born Jewish community to be able to assess Jewish numbers correctly.

    What is the overall picture today? I have quoted statistics; let me now speak of standards. Here too the situation has changed little. As always in Australia, people tend to derive their standards from non-religious sources. What is important to a person, whence do they derive their values, ideals, ideas and heroes? Hardly ever from a religious source, but in this country it was always thus. Nonetheless, there are some encouraging signs. There is intellectual activity on the religious front, which was never so vibrant previously. There is an Australian Association for the Study of Religions which bands together people working in tertiary institutions in the field of religious studies under that or another name, whereas until recently Australian universities did not consider this a respectable academic discipline. There is a new media interest. The media in Australia give far more attention to events on the religious scene that, for example, in Britain, despite its established church. There are new types of communication within and between religious groups. There is less hide-bound conventionalism, not simply in terms of clergy dressing exotically and looking bizarre. There is a more innovative approach to church programming, less inbred structured leadership, and more dialogue between religions and between religion and other philosophies.

    For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.

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