Nations, Tribes, and Tongues

Across mountains and plains, valleys and seas, God has ordained that His word will be preached. By His Spirit and grace, it will enter deep into the hearts of believers across the globe. He is gathering. He is defending. He is preserving a church chosen for eternal life. God is using means and only he determines the direction his Word takes. It is miraculous, mysterious, and amazing.  

“Preach the gospel”, Jesus commanded through Mark (Mark 16:15). Not just to one but to every creature. So our calling remains: pray, provide, preach. By grace, we obey, personally and denominationally. The harvest is great (Luke 10). May we not be ashamed of that Gospel that is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16).  

It is January, 1788.  Eighteen years after Captain Cook claims Australia as a British territory, a fleet of eleven ships arrives in the eastern part of Australia.  Christianity has come.  Found among the “First Fleet” are 850 convicts along with British troops, led by Governor Arthur Phillip, and several settlers 1 

Many of these people are loyal in their convictions and beliefs to the Church of England, whose roots are found in the 16th century under King Henry VIII. The Church begins its work immediately in the British penal colony under Chaplain and minister Richard Johnson. He holds the first worship service on February 3 and celebrates the first Holy Communion on the 17th of February2Governor Phillip directs Rev. Johnson to improve the “public morality” in the colony. He preaches to convicts, settlers, and natives alike but is also involved in their health and education3 

In 1829, another significant leader of the Church of England is sent to Australia to head the church there.  Arch-deacon William Grant Broughton is to lead the colonies in a way that matches the “spiritual institutions” of England and “sanctify and uphold the social structure.” The Church of England “would have a paternal concern for convicts, Aboriginals and settlers in the new areas, and a special responsibility for the organization and control of education with the financial and official backing of the state, for it was above all the national church, established in law, charged with the care of all subjects of the Crown, apostolic in its doctrine and government4.”  It holds a religious monopoly of sorts as it is the state church until 1836.  

Nineteenth century Australia saw a rise in its population with the colonization of free settlers from the British Isles across the whole country seeking land to raise sheep and waters to catch whales and seals. In addition, the discovery of gold leads to a ‘rush’ in migration. This population increase enhances the church’s period of expansion and church building5 

However dominant the Church of England may seem, it is not the largest Christian religion in the nation today. In 1788, the Roman Catholic church represented approximately ten percent of the convicts on the First Fleet.  Half of these convicts are of Irish descent. As no provisions are made for the Catholics, many of  them are compelled to attend the Anglican services.  This changes when some of the first priests arrive in 1800 to administer to the needs of the Catholic community and in 1820 when two government-appointed chaplains come to formally establish the Roman Catholic church in Australia6. By 1828, Catholics constituted almost a third of the population in New South Wales 7 

As the Roman Catholics gain support, many Catholic religious orders and dioceses are established in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  It grows and develops due to the large migration from Ireland seeking gold like many other settlers.  The Roman Catholic church sees even more growth in the 20th century after World War II.  Today, Roman Catholics are represented in nearly twenty three percent of the population and is the largest church in Australia while the Anglican Church is at only about thirteen percent 8. Though considered a Christian religion, the Roman Catholics are sadly lost in the truth. 

The truth of the Reformed principles, however, arrive in Australia with Scottish settlers who come with their Calvinist convictions and beliefs, making them, like us, heirs of the Great Reformation. By 1801, the Presbyterian Church of Australia is established. Reformers John Calvin and John Knox have a great impact on the doctrines and practices of the Presbyterian Church.  Though Reformed in theology, their church government structure is Presbyterian, which is “molded in Scottish political and cultural life9.”  

Presbyterianism grows and develops along with the colonies as more settlers come.  Rev. Dunmore Lang, a controversial Presbyterian minister, plays an important role in the establishment of the Church of Scotland in Australia. He promotes the importance of a Presybterian education and independence from state control10. 

With growth, however, comes growing pains. The Presbterian Church sees “massive change” in the twentieth century11. The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) of Australia, with whom the Protestant Reformed Churches have a “corresponding relationship,” sees a departure from fundamental Christian truths and much spiritual compromise. They establish their own denomination in 1961 and become a distinctive witness to the world.  Like us, they hold to the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice, they cherish God as sovereign over all things, and find comfort with the perfect, finished work of Christ with nothing of man12. Though they hold dear the Reformed creeds and confessions, they also hold to the truths of the Westminster Confession, the standard of the Church of Scotland. 

Change also comes in the Presbyterian Church as a whole. Two thirds of the Presbyterian church unite with the Methodist Church of Australasia and the Congregational Union of Australia to form the Uniting Church in 1977. The continuing Presbyterian church redevelops its institutions and life in a more “conservative character” than previously13. 

Rooted deep in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, Dutch immigrants come to Australia following World War II, bringing their beliefs with them. The Reformed Churches of Australia and the Free Reformed Churches, along with the Christian Reformed Church are established here in the mid twentieth century.  

Though only a small representation of the population of Australia are Presbyterian or Reformed (2.3%), it serves as a reminder that God will have his people everywhere as King of all the earth (Psalm 47). God will see to it that the truth of the gospel brings forth fruit (Colossians 1:5,6). We are members together with the saints in Australia, common partakers of Christ and his riches and gifts (Lord’s Day 21; Q and A 55); a “holy, catholic, church.” 


Archivist’s note:

This article was submitted to a Beacon Lights writing contest, with the prompt to “Describe the history of the spread of Christianity in another country than the United States. If applicable, include an explanation of Reformed church work in the region, and explore the Christian calling to witness to all nations, tribes, and tongues.” The article above was selected as one of the top 5 submissions in its category.