Evangelical Christians profoundly influenced Australia
-Stuart Piggin talks to Mark Powell-
Stuart Piggin was director of the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience at Macquarie University and head of the Department of Christian Thought of the Australian College of Theology. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Religious History Association of Australia.
His areas of research include the study of evangelical Christianity, missions, and revivals, and the human response to disasters. At Macquarie University, he supervised 28 doctoral candidates, working principally on areas of Australian religious history and on the application of Classical and Christian thought to the modern world.
He has written more than 100 articles for academic journals and eight books, including now The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History, 1740-1914 (Monash University Publishing, 2018).
You’ve said that your book has been 30 years in the making. What inspired you to write The Fountain of Public Prosperity?
I received a letter from Iain Murray, of Banner of Truth Trust, asking me to write a history of Australia for the bicentenary—this was in 1986, I think—but I was not an Australian historian. I had studied evangelicalism in Britain and North America, but I said that if I got a research grant in which I could employ a research assistant I would do that. So, I got a huge research grant! About $120,000 which, at the time, was just enormous. And so, then I had to make a start…
I was also making a study of the Mount Kembla mine disaster at the time, which happened in 1902. It was the biggest disaster in Australian history before the Victorian bushfires of a few years ago – 96 killed. And in the local press, I found that there had been a remarkable religious revival in that part of the world, at that time, just a few
months before. And I dared to suggest in The Fountain of Public Prosperity that there might be a case for making out that the Welsh Revival of 1904-5 was started in Australia.
But the thing that really changed my mind was a discovery made by my class of students at Wollongong University (I taught religious history there for 15 years). I said to the class one year, “Why don’t you all take a particular local church and write a history of that and we’ll put it together in one book.” And when we made a list of all of the churches and when they were founded, we discovered that in any one community they were all established at about the same time. Four main churches all about the same time. So, there’s an Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist, often on opposite street corners of the same town. And I thought, this is astonishing!
A colleague of yours at Macquarie University, Dr Stephen Chavura, makes the comment that ‘secularisation’ in Australia meant non-denominationalism, as opposed to the one established church. Do you agree?
Well, this emphasis by historians on the separation of church and state is, I don’t think, a historic reality. I think the reality is the interdependence of church and state. They were co-operating a lot to build the nation. And the plural establishment was a sign of that, I
think. So, those two things, revival and the fact that there were all these churches being built and all that meant for the propagation of Christian values in Australia, made me think that maybe secular historians had got other things wrong as well.
One of the most fascinating chapters in your book concerned the evangelicals who were in charge of the first fleet and especially the transportation of convicts. Most people would see that as absolutely negative, yet you argue that it’s actually the opposite.
History is a process and you’ve got to take into account where you start and where you end. And where you start is a society where people who were poor and who never had any access to education of any kind often ended up in trouble. And if they were in trouble then they were often hanged for it. Now the evangelicals believed that transportation was a more merciful way than hanging, so they supported that. And then when it was going they went about abolishing it. They first of all supported transportation. Then they improved it. Then they abolished it. Because they were conscious of the process in history. But in the phase when influential evangelicals supported transportation, they sought to humanise it – thus the remarkable steps to which they went to insure that the convicts were well fed and cared for on the First Fleet. That was a great maritime achievement, and its success owed much to the evangelicals who controlled the selection and provisioning of the ships of the First Fleet.
Another fascinating insight that you had was Jonathan Edwards’ post-millennialism view of the improvement of history. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Edwards changed the prevailing premillennialism into post-millennialism. He believed that the Holy Spirit would be poured out for a thousand years in a time of great prosperity for the church. That was in his book, The History of Redemption. the evangelical equivalent of Augustine’s The City of God. This is what God is doing in heaven, earth and hell. So this is the great theology of history that you get from Edwards.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, I think that Edwards was probably right. I think we are witnessing the beginning of the thousand years of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit because Christianity the world over has been making more rapid gains in the last two centuries then it ever has. It is incredibly dynamic. The 19th century was the great century of missions; the 20th century witnessed the explosive growth of Christianity especially in Africa, South America and parts of Asia, such as South Korea and China.
What other aspects of the progressive myth do you think are wrong in terms of the founding of Australia and its reason for development?
The view that colonialism was always a bad thing has been the prevailing view ever since I was a student. Generations of historians now dwell on the evils of empire and colonialism. The evils are easy enough to identify, but there were significant strengths. Those strengths were acknowledged by earlier generations of historians. For example, I do mention in the book —right at the very beginning with William Dawes— how G.A. Wood, the Professor of History at Sydney University from 1891, thought that Dawes was Australia’s “first conscientious objector”. Wood, unlike more recent historians, could understand Dawes’ religious motivation. But it’s the people since who haven’t been able to – they just can’t see it. It’s really quite extraordinary. I give the example of Ross Gibson, who wrote a wonderful book, 26 Views of the Starburst World. I think it’s a fantastic book. Twenty-six views of William Dawes, a devout evangelical, but not one of them Christian. It’s just amazing what is left out by modern secular historians who have lost all understanding of religious reality.
This has happened during your lifetime, has it not? What has given rise to it? Because it’s a huge omission when you think about the important social and political details that have been obscured.
My first history appointment was at the University of Wollongong, which had a stridently Left-wing history department. I’m not incredibly Rightwing myself, but my colleagues often seemed rather silly to me, because they really couldn’t begin to understand why any Australian would ever vote anything other than Labor. They were incredibly Left-wing. But it seems that once you get a critical mass, in academic leadership, professors and so on, who can appoint who they want, it just feeds on itself and it gets out of control, and they appoint only Leftwing secularists.
You mention evangelicalism has made some 18 positive contributions to shaping Australian society. What do you think are some of the most significant?
The list of significant influences of evangelical Christianity on Australian history is found in two parts of the book. It’s found in the beginning in the introduction, where I say that you really should know up front what the major findings of the book will be and see if you agree with it as you go through. And then it’s found again in the conclusion where I reiterate these things. I would have thought that the greatest achievement would have been the Christianisation of the Australian population, making it into a highly Christianised nation. I know Fred Nile would like me to call it a Christian nation—and I think that most people at the time thought that it was—but it’s probably more accurate to call it “Christianised” because a lot of things about it weren’t particularly Christian. But readers might consider other influences more significant, such as the rise of responsible government, ethical commerce, progress in the rights of women, the taming of “hard” male cultures, the civilising of capitalism, and the inculcation of humble reliance on Almighty God at federation.
One of the things that was enlightening for me was the history of the media, in particular, the newspapers. Why did evangelicals dominate in the public square?
Well, it’s said that in the 18th century it was the pulpit that formed opinion, and then it’s said that the newspaper replaced it in the 19th century as if this was the end for the church. But in actual fact, the media in the 19th century was incredibly Christianised, I think. Most of the really important newspapers were run or owned by Protestant Christians. So, in the 19th century a lot of the media was controlled by Christians. They loved this way of getting the message out because it enabled them to apply Christianity to the public square. It was engaging public policy and the media was a way of doing it.
You have a Volume 2 about the influence of evangelicalism in the 20th century, which it did not dominate as it did the 19th. Why is that? For instance, was it the impact of Higher Criticism?
Volume 2 is already written, it’s with the publisher. The publisher has to decide what he’s going to do with it and that depends on how well volume 1 is received, I guess. What we see in the second volume is that conservative, Protestant Christianity continued to be the major informative influence not only on the conscience of Australians but also on their consciousness. So, it was a cerebral thing as well as a heart thing. And that remained true, I think, until the 1960s.
I don’t think anything changed much in terms of religious commitment. You still had huge numbers of people in the Census not doubting for a moment whatever brand of Christianity they thought they were. It’s only since the ‘60s that things have started to go into reverse. Church-going actually peaked in the early ‘60s just after Billy Graham. It was higher then than at any time in our entire history, in 200 years. So, it is what happened since then that really needs to be explained. Maybe if you do want to give weight to the earlier period, it’s what the Christians failed to do in that period which might be important.
Can you unpack what you mean by that?
Well, of course the two world wars not only undermined more optimistic, liberal views of Christianity, but they also physically removed a lot of the people who would have become leaders of the church. They actually killed them. So, the church between the two world wars was impoverished of leadership. And I think the churches at the beginning of the First World War were very strong on sacrifice and the importance of glorifying sacrifice. But when this led to death on such an appalling scale – 60,000 dead – and every church had a huge honour roll of those who were killed, I think that was very dispiriting. People were not interested in hearing about the value of sacrifice between the wars, and their despondency was only augmented by the Great Depression.
Moore College’s Bill Lawton wrote a postgraduate Master’s thesis that saying there was a shift in eschatology during the 20th century from postmillennialism to premillennialism, especially among Sydney Anglicans. What do you think about that?
There was definitely a shift in people’s views about eschatology. People who used to preach a lot about eschatology in the early 20th century were premillennialists. But what Bill Lawton suggests is probably not wholly true. He says of Moore College principal Nathaniel Jones, who was famous for his premillennialism, that he was disengaged from this world. But Jones himself said that just because we’re looking forward to glory doesn’t excuse us from engagement in this world, looking after the poor and so on. And R.B.S. Hammond, one of the greatest evangelical Anglicans in terms of social welfare, was also a very conservative evangelical and yet he was engaged in welfare activity. So, you didn’t have to be a liberal to be engaged in welfare activities. God just gives all Christians compassion, I would have thought, and that’s why it generates so much social value in society. It’s really a divine thing. It’s the love that God puts in people’s hearts so that they cannot but help, whatever their theological position is.
But, to return to your question, after the Second World War, Sydney Anglicans turned to amillennialism. That is, they departed from both pre and post-millennialism. I argue in the book that this saved them from ridicule by secularists, but it had the disadvantage of depriving Christians of exciting speculation on what God was doing in the modern world and of an understanding of where they fitted in to God’s scheme of redemption.
You make the point in a video interview with John Anderson, the former deputy Prime Minister of Australia, that 80% of charities in Australia are Christian. Would the evangelicals of the 19th century recognise the evangelicals of the 21st century as belonging to the same movement?
I’m sure they would. But I do think the change is significant because people like to emphasise one thing or the other. And in theology emphasis is everything and emphasis changes over time. So, there’s a lot of people around nowadays, including John Woodhouse when he was principal of Moore College, who said that he didn’t know whether the word “evangelical” had much use anymore because there were so many different ways of interpreting the word.
Do you agree with him?
No. Evangelicalism is still a coherent movement. I think that when you put it all together, the best way of characterising evangelicalism is “Biblical Experientialism”. It takes the Bible not only seriously but it is the root to truth about life, and God. But it also emphasises the importance of a personal experience of Jesus. I was very interested that in these revivals which were so common in Australia in the 19th century the great hero of revivals was always Jesus. It’s not the Holy Spirit. They don’t talk about the Holy Spirit that much. They talk about Jesus all the time. So, in so far as evangelicalism does that today, emphasising the vital experience of Jesus and trust in his Word, I think evangelicals of those days would say “Hallelujah, keep going”.