Down Under Presbyterianism

Maybe you are wondering what this is?  Yes, you knew there were a lot of different Presbyterian churches, but you have never heard of this one!  Well, in the light of this issue containing an article on the history of the Presbyterian/Scottish Reformation, I have been asked to write about the history of Presbyterianism in Australia, the land that many of you call “Down Under.”  I myself come from Australia, so I guess that is why I have been asked to write this article.

The Reformation in the 16th century caused many great changes in the lives of God’s people.  They were freed from the bondages of the Catholic religion, and the Christian Church made a stand for the Bible as the supreme and final authority.  Because everyone that claims the Christian name professes a belief in the Bible, it is right and necessary that creeds and confessions are written to set forth what the Bible is understood to teach.  It was because of this that in 1647 the Westminster Confession of Faith was formulated and written by delegates from England, Scotland and Ireland, and this confession has since then been the confession used by reformed Presbyterians.

At the time of the Reformation in the British Isles, Australia was still an unsettled country.  Presbyterianism was brought to Australia by settlers who came from Scotland.  Several Scottish families, who migrated to Australia in 1802 and in 1809, settled in the western parts of Sydney, on the East Coast of mainland Australia.  In this settlement they erected a stone structure for the purpose of a Presbyterian Church and school.  Shortly after this the first Presbyterian minister came to Australia in 1823, and he founded Scots Presbyterian Church in Sydney.  Other ministers of the Established Church of Scotland followed, and in 1840, a Synod of the Presbyterian churches in Australia was formed.  This Synod of Australia in connection with the Established Church of Scotland was an independent church with the same standards, formularies and laws as the parent church in Scotland.

In 1843, the event in Scottish history known as the Disruption also caused division within the established Presbyterian Churches in Australia.  The issue in Scotland was over the intrusion of the civil authority into the spiritual government of the church.  This caused the formation in Scotland of the Free Church of Scotland, which was opposed to the civil authority having the power to become involved in the government of the church.  In Australia there was no interference of this kind from the government, but the Synod of  Australia was connected to the Established Church of Scotland, and so they therefore had to make a decision on this issue.  The Synod decided not to change their name and connection to the Church in Scotland.  As a result of this, two other churches were formed, the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia and the Free Presbyterian Church of Australia Felix.

By the late 1800’s Presbyterian churches were established throughout all the states of Australia.  Many of these were independent churches.  In 1901, however, the Presbyterian Church of Australia was constituted.  This union provided a basis on which the main churches in each state could federate and yet preserve their separate identities.  This body is by far the largest Presbyterian body in Australia, and it became very liberal in theology.  However, in 1977, many left this denomination to join with the Methodist churches and form the Uniting Church.  This somewhat cleared the church of the more liberal minded element, but there are very few congregations that are still Reformed.  What is especially true of many of the churches is that the congregations are conservative or liberal, depending on their minister, and in this sense they are quite independent of each other.  There does not exist among these churches a unity to uphold the Truth, as we have within the Protestant Reformed Churches here in America.

The conservative and Reformed Presbyterian churches are generally very small in size, and in quite a number of cases are just single congregations.  Many of these churches have broken away from the declining mainstream Presbyterian churches.  The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, among others, has come to the Reformed faith out of an Arminian background, and so they have battled with trying to grasp the precious truths of the gospel.  This has been difficult because of their Arminian upbringing, but yet God has blessed them and enabled them to grow in their knowledge of the Reformed faith.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, which would be the most Reformed Church in Australia, was established in July of 1961.  In the 10 or so years preceding this there were groups of people from different denominations, such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, who were concerned with the departure of these churches from the essential truths of the Reformed faith.  Within these churches the complete authority and infallibility of the Scriptures was being denied and the lives of the members was being more and more in conformance with the world.  Eventually these concerned Christians left or were forced out of the churches where they were members, and in the early 1950’s a loose fellowship of believers came together.

For a number of years these people struggled to get established and to find a direction.  They went to and held many evangelical meetings and many came and made decisions for Christ, but still they did not grasp the real understanding of the gospel.  In the late 1950’s they came across some Reformed writings, such as Charles Spurgeon, and through this there was a revival of the truth.  The preaching was no longer man-centered, but became God-centered, as they grasped the truth of man’s depravity and the sovereignty of God.  It was then that they were formally constituted in Tasmania, and ordained three pastors, and also elders, in each congregation.

Many other struggles still had to be overcome.  Problems arose in the John Knox College, where the students for the ministry were being trained.  This was over the important truth of how the gospel is to be proclaimed.  The professors were teaching Arminianism, saying that it was up to man to accept Christ.  Because of this the students left the college and were trained under the ministers within the E.P.C.  Since then the church has continued to grow in their knowledge of the Reformed faith, and have come to grasp the covenant and the other precious truths of the Scriptures.  Even recently they have had to stand up against the error of saying that Christ in His human nature loves all men.

As members of the P.R.C. we are in a church that has had a long history in the Reformed faith and so we have a great heritage to be thankful to God for.  Let us be aware of the struggles that other churches go through in order to grasp and uphold the truths of the Scriptures, and let this remind us of all that our forefathers have done in establishing us in the truth.  We also are in a continual battle to uphold the truth, so may God give us the strength to fight this spiritual battle.  Above all, may we give thanks and praise to our covenant God for all that we have received and still receive daily from His gracious hand.