The national conversation taking place about the Voice hinges on a view of Australia’s European roots that is entirely negative.
We are all aware of the unjust chapters of our history that deserve condemnation. However, Christians must be careful not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. So much of Australia’s early history was animated by godly men and women who believed the gospel and knew its power to transform society for the better.
Like Australia’s godly founders, we at Australian Christians believe that our faith calls us to be agents of change. We invite you to join us to be salt and light in the political process, and to continue the legacy of gospel-centred social reform that goes all the way back to our nation’s founding.
Let’s consider some of this inspiring history.
When Captain James Cook claimed Australia’s east coast for the British Crown, and returned to London with glowing accounts of the Sydney coastline, it fired the imagination of many in the evangelical world.
One those most inspired was William Wilberforce (1759–1833), who had just committed his life to Christ and entered Parliament. Along with his friends in the Clapham Sect, Wilberforce viewed the southern continent as a frontier for the gospel and social reforms, and a strategic outpost to evangelise the South Seas.
As his first significant public act, before he began his lifelong campaign against slavery, Wilberforce made sure that chaplains were sent to look after the spiritual welfare of the new colony in Australia.
By the hand of God, Wilberforce enjoyed a position of great influence in Britain, being the closest friend of William Pitt, the Prime Minister whose government commissioned the First Fleet.
The ex-slaver John Newton (1725–1807), famous for his hymn Amazing Grace, also longed for a godly influence in Australia’s founding. Together with his good friend Wilberforce, Newton put forward the name of a young man from Yorkshire to be the First Fleet’s chaplain — an evangelical minister called Richard Johnson (1756–1827). Their bid was successful.
Before the First Fleet departed, Newton wrote a poem and dedicated it to Johnson, who would soon be Australia’s first clergyman and an outstanding presence for the gospel on the far side of the world:
The Lord who sends thee hence, will be thine aid:
In vain at thee the lion, Danger, roars;
His arm and love shall keep thee undismayed
On tempest-tossed seas, and savage shores.
Go, bear the Saviour’s name to lands unknown,
Tell to the southern world his wondrous grace;
An energy Divine thy words shall own,
And draw their untaught hearts to seek His face.
Finding 11 ships for the First Fleet was a task that fell to Charles Middleton (1726–1813), Comptroller of the British Royal Navy. Middleton was an evangelical Christian and a staunch abolitionist. His wife Margaret had been converted under the preaching of the great revivalist George Whitefield and had sown her faith into Middleton.
Another significant spiritual guide in Middleton’s life was his minister, James Ramsay (1733–1789). Ramsay was a former ship’s surgeon but became better known as ‘the pioneer abolitionist’ for his activism against slavery.
With these influences, Charles Middleton was determined that the First Fleet look nothing like the slave trade. He secured ships that were seaworthy and safe: only one in the fleet was more than six years old. Middleton supervised their fit-out and ensured they were furnished with more than enough provisions. He asked Ramsay to find a team of surgeons who could tend to the passengers en route and then establish medical facilities in the new colony.
Middleton’s efforts were richly rewarded. It was the biggest single overseas migration the world had ever seen — a journey of over 24,000 kilometres, travelled at around walking speed, making two stops at Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town — yet all 11 ships made it safely to Botany Bay. On arrival, the convicts weighed in heavier than when they had departed. And of the more than 1,400 people who made the eight-month journey, only 48 died in transit — a maritime miracle for that era.
Another remarkable fact of history, too often overlooked, is that slavery was not known in Australia, even though it was colonised at the peak of the transatlantic slave trade. The Australian project afforded an opportunity for the British Empire to chart a new course in a new land, with new values it had imbibed from the Great Awakening.
The popular image of Australia’s beginnings as a godless, ragtag outpost of the British Empire is only partly true.
As an empire, Britain was looking to extend her dominion into the South Pacific, with little regard for the natives who would soon be displaced. But as a spiritual empire within that empire, Britain’s evangelical Christians viewed Australia as a mission base that would strive for the salvation of convicts, officers, the Indigenous population, and the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands.
Within a generation, what might have been a dreadful prison colony at the shadowy edges of the world was a blossoming society planted in the rich soil of the Great Awakening. In the words of eminent Australian historian Stuart Piggin, “Christianity is probably the most formative influence on Australian history.”
As a political party, Australian Christians are proud of our nation’s Christian heritage, but we must also learn from the injustices that were done, especially towards Indigenous Australians.
The gospel has just as much power to transform societies today as it has in the past. This is why we invite you to stand with us for truth and righteousness.