New set of stories show deep Christian roots that grew our nation

Before recording his latest video series, Faith Runs Deep, Karl Faase had no idea that a pillar of our nation’s historical foundations had been laid in a famously remote town, or that many of the key people in our nation’s history were committed Presbyterians.

Researching the stories that reveal the Christian heart of our culture and how they have shaped this nation, Faase came across the incredible story of Bourke in NSW.

“I grew up in western NSW and with the whole ‘back of Bourke thing,’ you get the impression not much happens out there. Well, Bourke is remarkable and the history of Bourke is incredible,” he says.

For the new 12-part series, Faase and his producer wife Jane crisscrossed the country in a black Holden Ute, visiting regional NSW, Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania in search of the “stories that matter”, those that encapsulate Australia’s values. And in regional NSW, they discovered that a lot of the key history-makers were evangelical Presbyterians.

“So we get down to Bourke. We drive the ute out the end of Wanaaring Road, and there’s this place called Toorale station which is now a national park, and it’s preserving the homestead of Toorale station, which was owned in the late 19th century by Samuel McCaughey.

“He had three million hectares and it was probably the biggest sheep station, certainly in Australia, maybe even the world. One year they sheared 250,000 sheep. He was this remarkable guy that started irrigation systems and he actually introduced mechanical shears, electric shears, but both of those actually created a shearer strike.”

The amazing thing is that not only was McCaughey a committed Presbyterian but so also was WG Spence, the man who started the shearers union in one of Bourke’s many pubs.

“The union movement had very deep Christian Protestant evangelical roots. So did the ALP.”

In an interview with Paul Roe, who calls himself the Outback historian, Faase discovers that a confrontation between these two blocs was as close as Australia came to civil war.

“Across the river, there were 800 shearers who were out there protesting against the scab shearers coming in. On the other side you had Samuel McCaughey and the pastoralists trying to run businesses that made money,” he says.

“The interesting thing about WG Spence is he’s another Presbyterian. And WG Spence, who started the miners’ union, started the shearers union, started the AWU, was actually a Bible-believing, Sabbath-observing, teetotalling, lay preaching, Bible school superintendent Protestant Christian from Victoria.

“And what you suddenly realise as you unfold these stories is that not just McCaughey, but people like Thomas Holt who started AMP, and Fairfax, who started the newspaper family conglomerate, these people were Christian people … What I didn’t realise until travelling to places like Bourke was that the union movement had very deep Christian Protestant evangelical roots. So did the ALP. And in Bourke, those two things clashed.”

Karl and Jane Faase with historian Stuart Piggin, one of 46 people they interviewed for Faith Runs Deep.

Travelling across a huge geographical spread of Australia and discovering its rich history was the highlight for Faase in making this latest series, which he sees as an evangelical tool and a way of reshaping the public’s understanding of Australia’s history.

“A really key phrase for us is stories matter. When we get together as people, you don’t just philosophise about life, you actually tell stories, but stories are not just for entertaining people, stories actually encapsulate our values. And so we tell stories because the stories we tell define our history. They talk about what values we hold and what’s important now. And they give us a trajectory to the future.”

“These stories are actually really central to who we are as a nation.”

Unfortunately, the stories people are telling in the marketplace of ideas about the Christian Church right now are not good, he notes.

“I said recently at a talk we’ve failed the Indigenous in our generation. We’ve failed children as we saw in the Royal Commission into the Institutional Sexual Abuse of Children. We’re failing the vulnerable because of the whole same-sex marriage LGBTI community and we’re failing in the community,” he says.

“So essentially, we need to remind people of a new set of stories. And it’s not that we are making them up. It’s that we’re actually reminded of what has actually happened. These stories are actually really central to who we are as a nation.”

Faase says that one group of people who are overrepresented as guests in this series are Aboriginal people. And one episode is completely devoted to the Indigenous people of this nation.

“The Church is seen as complicit or active in the Stolen Generation. And that’s an awful story, but if you go back to the first 50 years of Australia’s history, you would have been very hard-pressed to find anybody who saw a future for or tried to build a future for the Indigenous people of this nation.

“Most people don’t know – again, I was completely unaware of this – but Robert Kenney, who’s written a book called The Lamb Enters the Dreaming, said the Enlightenment people didn’t, the secularists didn’t. He said the only people that cared were dogged Christian missionaries. They were the only people that cared. The great-great-grandson of Nathaniel Pepper, who was the first Christian to be baptised in the Anglican church in Victoria, is quoted as saying that without Christian missionaries in Victoria, Aboriginals would have been wiped out.

“Now that’s not to deny that people like Samuel Marsden had very poor attitudes and there’s a bit more of that story as well. And certainly during the Stolen Generation, we were complicit when we should have been actively supporting Indigenous people.

“But people like John Gribble at Warangesda down near Darlington Point on the Murrumbidgee or Lancelot Threlkeld up in Lake Macquarie and many others were Christian missionaries who gave their lives to give Indigenous people not just the gospel, but a future. And so those are the stories we really need to rediscover and tell. We’re not making them up and we’re not trying to wipe out the bad side. We’re trying to balance it up with a bigger picture.”

Other fascinating insights that show the deep and lasting impact of Christians on Australia include:

  • Unionist WG Spence, the first premier of NSW James McGowan, and Labor prime minister Andrew Fisher were all Sunday school superintendents before they went into politics and were all Labor Party people.
  • In the NSW elections in 1890, 21 of the 35 Labor Party representatives voted in were Protestant evangelical Christians.
  • In 1911, 96 per cent of people in the first census said they were Christian. That barely changed until 1970 when still only 5 per cent of people said they had No religion.
  • Governor Lachlan Macquarie emancipated 1500 convicts compared to his predecessor Bligh who emancipated just two. He did so because, as a Christian, he believed that if God gives us a second chance, we should do the same for convicts.
  • Richard Bourke started the 1836 Church Act which gave every community that had a gathered group of Christian people a thousand pounds to build a church. That’s why in many country towns, there are Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Wesleyan Methodist churches from the same era on opposite corners. Sadly, many of them are now being sold off.

As well as historical stories, each of the 26-minute episodes of Faith Runs Deep contains a significant story of someone who came to faith in a remarkable way.

“Whether it’s a Vietnamese drug dealer in Cabramatta, a bull rider in Kingaroy, an Indigenous footballer out of Dubbo, or an artist out of Melbourne who came to faith in a jail in London, all these remarkable stories are within the series. So every episode has somebody coming to faith and it’s about how Jesus changes lives.”

The new series will be available on the Australian Christian Channel later this year, but will mainly be used in churches and small groups around the country. Faase says a large church in Brisbane and one in South Australia will be using it across their church, from June-July.

Faase is also working with regional churches. He recently did an event in Mudgee with singer-songwriter Colin Buchanan, at which about half a dozen people responded to the gospel. That church will now run a six-week course where people watch Faith Runs Deep. There are events coming up with churches working together in Bendigo and Tamworth with more events scheduled for next year.

When I compliment him on the momentum that’s building he says: “We’ve got a long way to go – we’re just getting started!”.

Faith Runs Deep Series Trailer from Olive Tree Media on Vimeo.