Scottish missions and missionaries in Australia

Evidence for Scottish Presbyterian missionaries and missions in the early decades of settlement in Australia is scarce; missionary activity at this time was itself a rarity for the Church of Scotland. The concept of converting the indigneous peoples of Britain’s territories to Christianity was for a long time at odds with the Church of Scotland’s core Calvinist teaching that some individuals were already predestined to salvation and others to damnation. In 1796, the General Assembly in Scotland declared that the preaching of Christianity “among barbarians and even natives to be highly preposterous in so far as it anticipates, nay even reverses, the order of Nature.” Enlightenment thinkers and Scottish Orientalists, too, advanced the view of tolerance and non-interference with traditional cultures throughout the Empire.

The decline of the idea of the Elect and of Predestination in the nineteenth century, however, enabled a flourishing of Scottish missionary activity at home and abroad. In 1824, an Act of the Church of Scotland recognised the doctrine of universal salvation, noting that Christ’s death “was also a relation to mankind sinners, being suitable to all.” The Disruption of the Established Church in 1843 was also a key event for the growth of Scottish missionary work, when newly invigorated evangelicals, who liberated themselves from moderates to form the Free Church, set immediately to extending Scotland’s missions abroad. Great energies were expended on missions and by missionaries. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Scottish evangelicals had spread widely through the Empire and particularly in India and South Africa, where their work was perhaps most concentrated. Their efforts to convert inhabitants of their adopted countries were, however, relatively unfruitful; very few indigenous people actually converted to Christianity.

In 1814, during the earliest years of Australian settlement, the Scottish governor Lachlan Macquarie ordered the establishment of one of the earliest Aboriginal missions in Australia. It failed and Macquarie had it discontinued within ten years. Presbyterian missions in Australia, established by the churches as a sanctuary to ‘protect’ Indigenous peoples from the mistreatment, are few and far between. Two Moravian/Presbyterian missions were established in Victoria; one at Lake Hindmarsh in 1853 (which operated until 1903) and another at Lake Wellington that existed between 1862 and 1908. In Queensland, a combined Presbyterian and Moravian mission was established at Mapoon in 1891 and existed until 1987, with a branch mission in Weipa (1898), and another at Aurukun existed from 1904 until 1978. In the far north-west South Australia, the Presbyterian Church opened a mission at Ernabella in 1937, which operates to this day under the auspices of the Uniting Church.

In 1896, the Presbyterian Federal Assembly of Australia, considering its Queensland missions in particular a success, suggested that “[i]t was necessary that something should be done for the aborigines in Western Australia.” It noted that “as soon as the way was open steps would be taken in that direction.” To this end, in the twentieth century the church established at least two Presbyterian missions in Kunmunyah (Kimberley, 1913-1953, and 1910-1913), one at Mowanjum (1956-81), another at Wotjalum (1953-1956), and also the Range View Students Home.

Overall, the Presbyterian Church ran just ten of the 211 Aboriginal missions and reserves that have records held in the archives of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Certainly, Scottish missionary involvement in Australia was less significant than efforts in other parts of the Empire. As John MacKenzie found, the impact of the Scottish church in South Africa was considerable:

In Kaffuaria there were thirteen missions and eighty-one Scots missionaries, twenty-eight native staff’ and seventy-three day schools with 4,000 pupils (a Christian community of 9,500). In the Transkei, fourteen missions, forty-five Scots missionaries, seventy-one African staff, 202 schools with 10,650 pupils (a community of 17,715). And in Natal, five missions, eighteen Scots missionaries, eighteen African staff, 202 schools and 1,845 pupils (and a community of 10,985).

It may have been that other Empire destinations were more attractive to missionaries, or that other occupations and pursuits were simply more appealing to Scottish Presbyterians in Australia. Indeed, Presbyterians provided the financial backing for foreign missions, but shifted the responsibility for operations to other denominational missionaries in numerous instances.

In addition to missions within Australia, the involvement of the Presbyterian Church in regional missions outside Australian borders probably equalled their operation of domestic Aboriginal settlements and missions. The United Presbyterian Church in Scotland sent missionaries to Australia, New Zealand, and the New Hebrides from 1847 onwards and, indeed, it seems much activity was focused on missionary work in the New Hebrides, where the Free Church of Scotland also sent missionaries. The Church of Scotland’s Foreign Mission Committee recruited Presbyterian missionaries in Australia to preach in the New Hebrides during the middle of the nineteenth century also, and recruited for the establishment and operations of missions in India. In 1896, the Presbyterian Federal Assembly in Australia noted that there were eighteen missionaries and 271 native teachers engaged in missionary work in the New Hebrides, with a total of 9587 pupils attending Presbyterian mission schools. Additionally, Presbyterians in Australia also sent missionaries to Korea between 1889 and 1941. As it was for the early traders and merchants, Australia provided a useful springboard for extending the Scottish influence further abroad into the frontiers of the Empire.

In metropolitan areas, the Presbyterian Church also undertook missionary work with the Chinese living in Australia. At the end of the nineteenth century the Federal Assembly observed that “[a]mong the Chinese steady efforts were being made, and experience showed that the most economical method of Christianising the Chinese in China was to Christianise the Chinese in Australia, for the converts would then return and spread the Gospel among their own people.” It noted, “the mission work among the Chinese in Sydney had been phenomenally successful, and the converts … worked with energy and fervour in the cause of Christ.”

Missionary work among migrants in Australia was thus another way of facilitating the spread of Christianity throughout, and beyond, the British Empire. While Scottish missions were few in the Australian colonies during the nineteenth century, Australia itself provided a useful recruiting ground and operations base for extending Presbyterian missionary work in the region. Australia was important for Scots and Presbyterians not only as a destination of missionaries and a site of Presbyterian missions, but also as a vital gateway to regional opportunities in the Indian sub-continent, the Pacific, and in East Asia. Presbyterian missionary work was also related to the spread of Scottish ‘Christianity, commerce, and civilisation’ throughout the British Empire, a topic I intend to explore in a future post.


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