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Attending to the National Soul

This volume continues the story begun with The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740–1914 in 2018. This two-volume blockbuster is the consummation of 35 years of research and writing by the authors as well as incorporating work by many other scholars who are acknowledged within. 

As Stuart Piggin quipped at the launch on 12 Dec 2019 at St Stephen’s Uniting Church Macquarie Street, this volume is vasta mole superbus (“proud in its prodigious bulk,” as Dr Johnson said of his Dictionary) at 656 pages. Again, thankfully, the footnotes are at the foot of the page, there is a bibliography of forty pages and a two-column index of 47 pages.  It is also a very attractive volume and a credit to authors and publisher.  The jacket illustration is even more evocative than the Parramatta Memorial Drinking Fountain on the volume 1 cover.  There are many arresting phrases (e.g., Anglican proponents of the ordination of women had something in common with Lindy Chamberlain, they were both “condemned hysterically, unreasonably and with allusion to witches”).  This reviewer said of volume 1 that this is “an epic achievement which deserves to reorient Australian history-writing in several important respects”.  Volume 2 confirms his opinion.

Volume 1 was set up by a stunning Prologue, a tour de force concerning first fleet naval officer and astronomer, William Dawes and his relations with the Aborigines.  The Prologue to this volume did not disappoint, featuring Mary Bennett (1881-1961), missionary and a determined advocate of Aboriginal rights.  Both prologues set the scene for a work which throughout takes seriously relations between Aborigines and later settlers and gives a continuing and balanced account of the importance of Christianity to the Indigenous peoples.

Volume 1 ends with evangelicals helping in “creating one of the most ‘Christianised’ nations on earth in terms of values” (p. 39).  The introduction to volume 2 reiterates this but goes further in asserting that Australia is “still one of the most ‘Christianised’ of nations”. (p. 15).  The themes of the book are, first, how evangelicals worked out how to be dual citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and of the Commonwealth of Australia, secondly, how evangelicals manifested their aptitude for desecularisation in a rapidly secularising world, and thirdly, how evangelicals have sensitised the Australian conscience and informed the Australian consciousness (i.e., “the National Soul” of the title).

The structure of the book works well.  Part A, “Faith under Fire” has two chapters on WW1, three on the 1920s and depression, and two on WW2.  Part A is underpinned by Bob Linder’s splendid research.  Part B, “Faith and the Secular Challenge” has three chapters on 1946-65 and two of each of 1965-79, the 1980s, the 1990s and the 21st century. This means that some chapters deal with issues internal to evangelicals and their denominations (such as theological and political conflict) and some with their attempts to influence the broader society (such evangelism, social work and political influence).

The authors obviously accept the truism that you can’t say everything, so generalise quite a lot but took Paul Hasluck’s advice and sank “shafts” to achieve depth.  Their two shafts were the evangelical experience of war (Linder’s métier) and Sydney evangelical Anglicans (for whom Piggin is something of a bête noir).  The account of the charismatic and Pentecostal movement within evangelicalism from the 1960s comes to form almost a third shaft. 

Other sorts of evangelicals are treated much more selectively and episodically, especially in Part B, where Sydney Anglicans shape the whole narrative, for good or ill.  With the Baptists, we get perspectives from WA, Victoria and NSW in different time periods, with little lateral connection.  Well, maybe it’s their polity that’s the problem.  The Congregationalists appear from time to time, but their swing from solidly evangelical to predominantly liberal from the 1880s to 1920s is left unexamined (despite a helpful article on the subject by Geoff Barnes in Church Heritage in March 1997).  The Methodists get better treatment, especially those in NSW and SA.  The Lutherans feature little at all. There is nothing on the Brethren in northern Tasmania. The Presbyterians also appear in a fragmented way, but feature strongly in sections about doctrinal dispute (e.g. Samuel Angus) and the ordination of women.  A personal beef is the continued ignoring of Scottish evangelical entrepreneur Andrew Stewart who recruited about 90 evangelical home missionaries and ministers for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland from 1900 to 1938. His recruit George Tulloch features, but not Hugh Paton.  Actually, Queensland is somewhat neglected in general.  (Even WA does better.) However, Stewart’s son-in-law Alfred Coombe is featured, but then he was active in Victoria.

A number of individuals come in for special treatment, or are used to illuminate the themes, not all of them evangelicals.  R.M. Williams is a surprise: he is used as a lens through which to observe the outback.  (Some might consider Bert Facey for a similar but urban purpose.) Robert Menzies, John Curtin and Joh Bjelke-Petersen are more understandable.  The main evangelical “stars” are Alan Walker, Billy Graham, Donald Mackay, the Chamberlains, General Eva Burrows, Tim and Peter Costello, Peter and Phillip  Jensen and Margaret Court.  Not to mention Arthur Stace, the “Eternity” man.

The authors explain what they call the trifurcation of Australian evangelicals (p. 503), gradually from the 1970s and clearly so from the 1990s.  The three branches are (1) exclusive conservatives (e.g., the Jensen brothers), (2) inclusive progressives (e.g., Tim Costello) and (3) charismatics/Pentecostals (e.g. Brian Houston).  They have unfortunately spent quite a bit of energy on fighting each other but the authors think they are learning to cooperate better.

The authors identify dangers of intolerance, defensiveness, narrowness and shallowness in contemporary evangelicalism, especially in “Fortress Sydney Anglican”.  Another point which hit home concerns the decline in theological literacy partly because hymns (previously often written by ministers and covering all aspects of belief and practice) have been replaced by short-lived, repetitive praise written by musicians. The new “generic evangelical church plan” (associated with both Pentecostalism and Phillip Jensen) is based on being Jesus-centred, Bible-based and imaginatively led.  In practice, they can turn out to be narrow in focus, shallow in worship and both congregationalist and authoritarian in polity.

There are about eight pages on the UCA, starting with the union as a response to secularisation, then dealing with the growth of “ethnic” congregations (predominantly evangelical) and featuring two sections on the homosexuality issue. The authors clearly recognise that very many, if not most of, the rank and file have been evangelical and argue that intolerant and politically-savvy liberals took political control and foisted their agenda on a reluctant laity.  They conclude that the UCA’s “liberal leaders … dumped the Bible in order to be relevant to the culture.” They were not rewarded by the culture but, instead, caused “cataclysmic losses”, as theirs was “not a gospel which could sustain a Christian denomination” (pp 553-4). There is much to cheer in volume 2 but not here, sadly.

Malcolm Prentis retired as Professor of History at ACU in 2014, edited the NSW & ACT Synod history journal Church Heritage for 26 years and maintains an active scholarly life along with a burgeoning grand-parenting role.