Presbyterian Theological College Graduation and Commencement Address, Assembly Hall, 156 Collins St, Melbourne, 22 March 2019. First published in RTR 78, no. 3 (2019).

It is a great honour to be present on this venerable occasion in this venerable place, and therefore it seems appropriate to begin by referring to two venerable Presbyterian ministers, the idea being of course that you will leave this place fired with the godly ambition to be and do likewise.

Being superbly and accurately taught as you have been in the Presbyterian Theological College, you will all know that John Dunmore Lang was not the first Presbyterian minister to serve in Australia. That honour goes to Archibald Macarthur, who arrived in Hobart a few months before Lang arrived in Sydney. Lang was the first to serve in Sydney, before taking on the challenge of ministry in Melbourne, being elected in 1843 to the Legislative Council to represent Melbourne or more accurately, the Port Phillip district.

Shortly before that, Lang had visited America, and there he went on a pilgrimage to the burial ground of the Presbyterian Church at Princeton, New Jersey. He did this, he said ‘to muse for a moment over the grave of Jonathan Edwards…the great philosopher and divine’. He noted, ‘It is a peculiarly interesting spot, from the hallowed associations which it calls up.’1John Dunmore Lang, Religion and Education in America: With Notices of the State and Prospects of American Unitarianism, Popery, and African Colonization (London: T. Ward and co, 1840), 294f. He must have mused there for more than a moment, because he copied out the long, Latin inscription on Edwards’ grave.

He would have reflected on the question, ‘Qualis persona quaeris viator?’ ‘Traveller—passer-by, visitor—do you ask what kind of person he was?’ Well, says the inscription, his piety was splendid, his morals strict, he was intensely studious and industrious, conspicuously expert in the liberal arts and sciences, and an exceptional theologian, a serious and discriminating promotor of a strong and unconquerable Christian faith.

You might consider such sentiments tinged with excess, but praise for Edwards was to become far more extravagant than that. One poet, Timothy Dwight, Edwards’s grandson, wrote:

And in one little life, the gospel more         
Disclosed, than all earth’s myriads kenn’d before.2The Works of President Edwards in Eight Volumes (Leeds, 1806), vol 1, 90.

Of this statement, Edward Williams, the Congregational theologian of Moderate Calvinism and an editor of Edwards works, commented, ‘The reader will consider this proposition poetically strong, but not as literally accurate’.3The Works of President Edwards, vol 1, 90. Still, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that he compared ‘Luther and Calvin to the Himalayas, and Jonathan Edwards to Mount Everest’.4D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 355. The Latin inscription ended by exhorting John Dunmore Lang and all other passers-by to ‘Go, and follow faithfully in his footsteps’.5Abi, Viator, et pia sequere vestigia.

In 1724, Jonathan Edwards, then only 21 years old, had just finished his first pastorate in New York. There his custom had been to stroll along the banks of the Hudson River with his soul mate, John Smith, with whose mother he boarded. Missions and the millennium fascinated them:

our conversation used much to turn on the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the world, and the glorious things that God would accomplish for his church in the latter days.

These topics fuelled his interest in geography and contemporary history.

If I heard the least hint of anything that happened in any part of the world, that appeared to me, in some respect or other, to have a favourable aspect on the interest of Christ’s kingdom, my soul eagerly catched at it; and it would much animate and refresh me.6George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 48.

His eager soul reached as far as the most remote part of the world. Over 60 years before the first white settlement of Australia, he dreamed of the unique contribution which the Indigenous people of Terra Australis and Hollandia Nova would make to the future of the world, once they had received the Gospel. He believed that, out of their distinctive culture (he had no idea what it was, of course) and humour (he had never heard an Aboriginal joke), they would add invaluably to the worldwide understanding of the Christian revelation.

Well, you say, that prophecy has not come true yet, has it? No, that is a vision still greater than has yet been achieved in history, but it will be achieved, and it will be great when it is. That is one reason when there is talk of reconciliation with First Australians that the Christian message must be kept in the conversation.

Today, as you graduate from PTC, and some of you begin your life in ordained ministry, there are many who want to keep the Christian message out of the conversation. Their contention that Christianity, far from being good for Australia, has been harmful, is gaining momentum. They contend that Christianity has not been good, for example, for First Australians who lost their lands, their lives, and their culture in this so-called ‘Christian’ country; it has not been good for gays who feel they have been discriminated against by intolerant Christians; and it has been appalling for people abused in church institutions. The massive tsunami of negative reporting on such matters has led to the current secularist push to remove taxation exemptions on church institutions and charities, and the secularists back this up with the argument that, in any case, the separation of church and state should make all such exemptions and subsidies illegitimate.

You who are called into the sacred ministry must be fundamentally clear that your calling and anointing are from God, and your understanding of your identity and of reality derived solely from the Word of God, so that through both propitious times and droughts of the spirit, you will be faithful to your calling. As for the rest, you have a choice. Do accept the secularist insistence that you keep out of the public square?

Do you separate yourself from all the cares and concerns of this world? Do you ignore the context and times in which you live? In other words, do you ignore history which is the study of context and time, or do you remain engaged with your world, listen to the cares and needs of the world, and insist on your right to share in the conversation?

I pray you will go down the engagement road, and to encourage you in that resolve, let me speak to you of what that engagement has achieved. Our book, The Fountain of Public Prosperity,is a study of what engaged Christianity has achieved in Australia.7Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder, The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History, 1740–1914 (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2018). It is a story little known let alone understood, for we are not so much in danger of losing our Christian heritage, as we are of never finding it in the first place.

When it is found, it changes our understanding of our history, starting with the origins of European settlement in this land. It was just not true, as we were taught in school and had reinforced in such propaganda as Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, that the first fleet was an ill-planned, meanly-equipped escapade by a callous government eager to rid itself as cheaply and finally as possible of Britain’s social detritus from its overflowing, unreformed gaols. It was nothing of the sort.

It was a meticulously planned, very expensive operation, imaginatively designed to lay the foundation of an empire on the other side of the world. Evangelical Christians had their own grand design for the spreading of the gospel to the unknown and unreached parts of the world, so they not only got on board with the idea of the first fleet, but they, as much as anyone, were involved in its meticulous planning, and it was one of the greatest maritime achievements of the age.

Let me mention three of our discoveries in our research for the book, The Fountain of Public Prosperity, which you may not have thought a lot about, but which will encourage you in your calling to serve, grow and plant churches.

1.   Means of Grace

First, Australia has been exceptionally well supplied with the means of grace, with churches and ministers of the Gospel, making it a highly Christianised country in terms of values. As long ago as 1984, I made a discovery which is the backbone of our book The Fountain of Public Prosperity. I asked the members of a history class I was teaching at the University of Wollongong to write a history of a local church in the Illawarra. We made a list of all the churches we could and when they were built, and when we did that we made this surprising discovery, namely that in any local community in the Illawarra, even quite small ones, such as Jamberoo, as well as larger ones like Nowra or Kiama, four churches, all costing about the same, were all built about the same time, normally very close to the formation of those communities in the first place.

Australia has been exceptionally well supplied with the means of grace

The residents of those communities built an Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist church, often on opposite street corners, and all costing about the same amount of money. Then, after a generation or so, one of the four would decide that their humble timber place of worship was not up to scratch, so they pulled it down or left it for a hall and replaced it often with a gothic revival stone church, and the other three quickly followed, building a similar church, again costing about the same amount of money.

Now, this is completely different from Britain where in the nineteenth century, there was normally only one church in any community. The novelist, Anthony Trollope, was very struck by this when visiting Australia in 1871–1872: ‘wherever there is a community there arises a church, or more commonly churches…The people are fond of building churches.’8Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand (London: Chapman and Hall, 1873), 240.

Why did this happen? In England, there was one established church; in Australia, there was not disestablishment and the separation of church and state, but a plural establishment from 1836 when Governor Bourke passed the Church Act. It contributed to the cost of building churches and paying ministers in proportion to those who identified with these churches, and the Church of England, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and Methodists took the money, and built all those churches and paid for all those ministers.

Because this pattern was duplicated in all the colonies, what this meant was that nineteenth-century Australia had many churches and much Christian ministry. The commonest observation made by historians on this is that all these churches resulted in sectarian rivalry, and the Protestant-Catholic divide in particular is known to all who were born before the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. In our book, we put a different construction on this, namely that all these churches gave the advantages of competition to the Christian movement in Australia, and if you go looking for it, you will find more examples of ‘holy emulation’ rather than unholy rivalry. Through ‘sanctified competition’, the churches multiplied.

This is far more pregnant with implications for Australia’s social history than we realise. The Church Act plus the habit of holy emulation gave us all these churches and ministers, and it resulted, if not in Australia becoming a Christian country, then in becoming a highly Christianised country in terms of values—possibly one of the most Christianised on earth.

That might surprise some, including many Christians, who think of us as one of the most secularised nations on earth. However, what is the most distinctive of Christian values? The most distinctive Christian value, the value which Christianity has contributed to civilisation more than any other, is humility. The Greeks and Romans thought that was a terrible flaw in any one’s personality; they valued pride ahead of humility. A second distinctively Christian value is compassion. The Greeks and Romans thought it a weakness to show compassion and mercy. A third is optimism, made up of faith and hope in the future. The Greeks and Romans were pessimists because they believed that only the old ways were best and that the new is always bad.

Humility, compassion or charity, faith and hope—these are the values we have imbibed from the ministers who preached the gospel and the faithful who practised it. Professor Emeritus Edwin Judge, Ancient Historian at Macquarie University, has written, ‘People in the churches should not accept that our age is post-Christian. It is profoundly Christianised in its basic attitudes. The place of the churches is not to disabuse people of this, but to reintroduce them to the Master whom they ignorantly worship.’9Edwin Judge, Engaging Rome and Jerusalem (North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2014), 178, cf. xxviii. Christian values and attitudes are deeply ingrained now in the Australian psyche without most knowing where they have come from. They are the values which make us truly Australian. To depart from them feels unAustralian to me.

These values deepen our moral sensitivity. They make our society civil. To be liberated from a Christianity which inculcates those values is not liberation; it is the route to psychic depression and social degeneration. To bring Australian values into alignment with Kingdom values, then, will be one of the fruits of a lifetime given to preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible. That is part of the significant social capital which Christian churches generate for the wellbeing of our community.

2.   Social capital

That brings us to the second discovery from our book which I want to mention. If the first is that Australia has been exceptionally well supplied with the means of grace, with churches and ministers of the Gospel, making it a highly Christianised country in terms of values, then the second is this: Australian churches have been observably efficient in the production of social capital which has made a major contribution to the stability and prosperity of our nation.

Just how significant has been the social capital generated by churches? We argue in our book—and more explicitly in the forthcoming volume 210Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder, Attending to the Australian Soul: Evangelical Christians in Australian History, 1914–2014 (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2020). than in the already published volume 1—that Christian ministry has sensitised the national conscience and helped shape the national consciousness. The most obvious benefit of faith in Christ to the individual soul is eternal life, but what benefit does the nation receive from those who have that faith? It is a benefit too little acknowledged in history, considering how extensive it is. It includes public spirit, civic duty, an orientation to reform, altruism, moral energy, and to informing the national conscience with self-sacrificing compassion and a freedom which is functional rather than libertine. Christians have not had a monopoly on these national assets, but typically they contribute them to the community’s ‘social capital’. Together with a way of understanding the world and constructing national consciousness, they are the substance of what Christianity brings to the history of nations.

Are they sufficient qualitatively and quantitatively to justify rejecting the secularist push to remove taxation exemption from the churches? To my knowledge, the most concerted attempt to quantify and compare the respective contributions of Christians and others to social welfare and public engagement was in 1983. Then the attitudes of Australians on a wide range of subjects were canvassed in a research study known as the Australian Values Systems Study (AVSS). The religious dimension to this survey was then processed by two Melbourne sociologists, Gary Bouma and Beverly Dixon, and published in a book called The Religious Factor in Australian Life.11Gary D. Bouma and Beverly R. Dixon, The Religious Factor in Australian Life (Melbourne: MARC Australia, 1986), 34–37.

They compared the attitudes of people who go to church with people who do not go to church. I know that going to church does not make you a Christian, but by 1983 when few went to church just for appearance’s sake, churchgoing was as good an indicator of Christian conviction as any. Bouma and Dixon strengthened their case by also analysing the views of those who said that they had ‘no religion’. The results are very interesting.

  • It is true that we have a pluralistic society and that it requires tolerance to make it work. It would seem that people who go to church weekly are the most tolerant and least racist group in Australia. People who not only do not go to church but also say that they have no religion are the most racist.
  • People who say that they have no religion are also the least supportive of the family and are the least likely to object to divorce or abortion.
  • If you are a non-churchgoer, you are less likely to have children and more likely to shun commitment and insist on your own rights.
  • If you have no religion, you are less concerned about meeting people, you have less desire to be useful, you take less pride in your work, you want more holidays, and you feel more exploited.
  • If you are a churchgoer, you are more likely to take the opinions of other people seriously, you are more determined to make a contribution to society, and you are more inclined to think that life is meaningful and purposeful.
  • If you are a churchgoer, you are less likely to violate property rights, to harm other people, to cheat on your taxes, to avoid paying train fares, or to take sickies, and you were in 1983 15% less likely to want to assassinate the Prime Minister!12In 1983, our Prime Ministers were Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke.

Another similar study by Peter Kaldor demonstrates that churchgoers are far more likely to belong to welfare and community service organisations than non-churchgoers:

  • three times as likely to belong to welfare and youth organisations,
  • twice as likely to belong to community-service groups,
  • and three and a half times more likely to belong to human rights groups.13Peter Kaldor, Who Goes Where? Who Doesn’t Care? (Homebush West: Lancer, c. 1987), 36f.

That is a lot of social capital which the churches generate.

Well, you say, 1983 is a long time ago now. What is the situation today? The legacy of surprisingly profound Christianisation is to be found as strongly as ever in our welfare, charitable, and educational institutions. In the United States in 2006, only five of the top 25 non-profit charitable organisations by income were Christian. In Britain, only three of the top 25 were Christian. In Australia, 23 of the top 25 were Christian.14Stephen Judd and Anne Robinson, ‘Christianity and the Social Services in Australia: A Conversation’, Shaping the Good Society, ed. Stuart Piggin, 111–115. As for the Christian contribution to overseas aid, as of 2011, there were 43 accredited non-government organisations in Australia. Of these, 26 were Christian organisations, and of these, some of the largest were predominantly evangelical organisations: Baptist World Aid, CBM Australia, Opportunity International, Tear Australia, The Leprosy Mission, Archbishop of Sydney’s Overseas Relief and Aid Fund, Habitat for Humanity Australia, Salvation Army International Development, and World Vision, the largest of Australia’s overseas aid charities.

In the education sphere in 2011, 30% of all pupils in Australian schools were in private schools of which 94 per cent were religious foundations (the last figure is much higher than that for the USA). In NSW, 34% were in private schools, while in Sydney it was 44%. Again, these figures are far higher than for other English-speaking countries, USA, Canada, and New Zealand.

The exceptionally high involvement of churches today in matters preserved to governments in other nations suggests that the rigid separation of church and state is not the Australian experience. The Australian experience is rather the complementarity of church and state, whether that be in sending chaplains to penal colonies, subsidising the building of churches and ministries as was done in our early days, or in education, hospitals, and welfare today.

The rigid separation of church and state is not the Australian experience

With respect to the relations between church and state, the situation today in Australia has been characterised as ‘pragmatic pluralism’. The government is happy for the involvement of whatever group will implement their policy, religious or non-religious, Christian or non-Christian. It is just that the overwhelming majority of them are religious, and the majority of the religious ones are Christian.

Do churches contribute to public prosperity and national stability? We would be hugely disadvantaged without them. Faith in Christ is the way to make the best of both worlds: the Kingdom of Heaven and the Commonwealth of Australia. Preach the Kingdom faithfully, and you will strengthen the Commonwealth certainly.

3.   Christian families

The third discovery of our book which I want to mention is this: over the generations, dynasties of Christian families have been a major factor in the development of both church and nation, consistent with Ps 145:4 ‘One generation commends your works to another; they tell of your mighty acts.’

The formation of the Native Institution in Parramatta in 1814, for example, was the work of three missionary families, the Shelleys, the Hassells, and the Cartwrights, and all of them have descendants who are active in Christian service today. Among the first student intake was Maria Yarramundi, an Indigenous girl, who surpassed 100 white children in her exams. She was to have 10 children, and became, historian Grace Karskens tells us, ‘the matriarch of a vast family, and her descendants now number in their thousands’.15Grace Karskens, The Colony: A History of Early Sydney (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2010), 450. One of them always gives the welcome and recognition of country at every Macquarie University graduation. That is the story of four interlocking Christian dynasties who have been productive of vast quantities of social capital and spiritual fruit.

Perhaps the most outstanding Australian Christian of the second half of the 20th century, Sir Alan Walker, was part of a remarkable Christian dynasty. His great-great-grandparents were convicts. They produced three children out of wedlock before they married when their eldest son¸ John Joseph¸ was 20. With a reputation as anti-religious and a hard drinker, John Joseph on 3 February 1838 was brought to faith in Christ through the ministry of a Methodist circuit rider. Thus began a Christian dynasty that has produced to date sixteen ministers, of whom Alan was the 13th, his two sons, Bruce and Chris, are the 14th and 15th, and Chris’s son, Ben, is the 16th.

In 1844, ‘Pastor’ Thomas Playford (1795–1873) arrived in South Australia, thus inaugurating one of Australia’s most enduring evangelical dynasties: 6 generations of Baptist orchardists, pastors, and politicians. The Playfords have a lot in common over the generations—exceptional physical strength, honesty, independence of thought, aversion to honours or recognition, scrupulosity over the use of other people’s money, balanced budgets, no ostentation, capacity for hard work and concentration, geniality of temperament, public service as an ideal, a similar morality, including an aversion to gambling and drinking, accompanied by non-judgementalism of individuals who indulged in either—much social and cultural capital. Sir Thomas Playford, the famous premier, served in the South Australian parliament for 35 years and was Premier continuously for nearly twenty-seven years from 1938 to 1965, the longest-serving premier in the British Commonwealth. He was as incorruptible as any politician in Australian history and has withstood the closest scrutiny from historians who have not merely parroted the accusations of his political enemies.

I could go on. The book is full of stories of Christian dynasties. Read it for yourselves. One who did so was one Jenny Holmes, who wrote to me to comment on a Bible study I had mentioned on p. 524 of the book. It was held every Monday night in Bendigo at the end of the nineteenth century. It was taken by Herbert Smirnoff Begbie, founder of one of the most prominent Anglican dynasties, and present at this Bible Study was Sidney James Kirkby, who went on to found the Bush Church Aid Society. Jenny is Kirkby’s granddaughter and in her Bible Study at Lalor Park Anglican Church in Sydney is Katherine, Begbie’s grandaughter. The tenacity of these godly dynasties from one generation to the next is remarkable.

Raewyn Elsegood wrote to tell me her family history (7 March 2019). Michael, Elizabeth, Elinor, Mary, Daniel Collins are all buried at Richmond Presbyterian cemetery, she writes, and all had strong Christian histories. She added, ‘Both mum and I have been church planters, evangelists, pastoral carers, and now chaplains in the Hills district.’ Lots of spiritual capital there.

Godly Christian dynasties have done much to build the church and the nation over the generations. Tim Sims, venture capitalist extraordinaire, combined with the Australian Church Life Survey, to show that the mainstream denominations, of whom the Presbyterians are one, have for a long-time depended more than any other single factor for their growth and continuity on the children of Christian parents joining the church. This is a sobering as well as a challenging finding. It challenges us to pay attention to families if we are ministers, seeking to provide ministry programs to every generation. It challenges us if we are parents to attend to the spiritual nurture of our own children and grandchildren.

The more Christian dynasties we can sustain, the better it will be for the church as well as the nation.

The fact that the older denominations are most dependent on the children of Christian parents to replenish church membership is also sobering, for this fact, more than any other, explains the decline in numerical attendance in churches, which has gone into free fall. Just as the number of children born to Christian families has declined in recent decades, so too has the number of divorces within church families increased. This means that fewer children will be available to join the church, and they are less likely to attend church weekly because divorced parents find it more difficult to arrange for their children to attend weekly. It is certainly in the interests of the church to support and strengthen the nuclear family. The more Christian dynasties we can sustain, the better it will be for the church as well as the nation. Unless we have more children and stop getting divorced, we had better sharpen up other instruments for church growth. That will be one of your greatest challenges.

4.   Conclusion

Another of your greatest challenges will be to equip your laypeople for their work, their vocation in the world. My first sabbatical leave was in Aberdeen. I was at a low ebb spiritually when I arrived, and in a rebellious mood, I was determined to attend the church of a minister who had a reputation for extreme liberalism. ‘Just before you do that’, suggested a faithful Christian, ‘do go just once to hear the Rev William Still at Gilcomston South Church of Scotland.’ I walked in late. He had started that long prayer with which Presbyterians often begin their services. I was instantly transfixed. This man had hold of God, and God had hold of him. I never left. For eight months, I sat under his ministry, delighting in his 50-minute sermons on a few verses in 2 Chronicles, and I grew stronger, the spiritual tide turned, and the rebellion evaporated.

He had pronounced views on the importance of the role of the laity in the world, so he disallowed any activity in the church other than a Saturday prayer meeting and the two Sunday services. That was it. Apart from the organist, no other layperson did anything in the services. One theologian, who would have agreed with him, complained about Sydney Anglicanism, ‘Lay ministry has subjugated lay vocation…But lay vocation in society is a million times more important than lay ministry in the Church.’ Perhaps it is not quite ‘a million times’, but you get the point even if this proposition is to be understood as ‘poetically strong, but not as literally accurate’.

The love of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ has always been the most consistently compelling and only legitimate power in Christian ministry. Therefore, preach it and teach it, just like William Still, confident that by so doing, you are building the Commonwealth as well as the Kingdom. Knowledge and understanding of the Bible and of the national culture and of the relationship between them and matching both with the divine love has been the evangelical Christian prescription for the national health in Australian history. As you attend to the cure of souls through the gospel, you will also be attending to the Australian soul, strengthening its moral energy, sensitising its conscience, informing its consciousness, and firing its imagination with a vision for the future.