Tasmania celebrates 200 years of Bible influence

Convicts dump crime and “vice of idleness” for the word of God

In 1847, illiterate convicts sent to Tasmania from England learned to read on the voyage and their leg irons had not been needed.

On the high seas, prisoners became literate – reading Bibles.

The link between Van Diemen’s Land (as it was then named by European settlers) and the Bible extends back to the turn of the 19th Century. The Bible Society’s first presence in Australia began there in 1807 – just three years after the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) was formed in the UK.

But it wasn’t until May 8, 1819 – 200 years ago this week – that Lt. Governor William Sorell chaired a public meeting at which the Van Diemen’s Land Auxiliary of the BFBS was formed in Hobart Town.

It is likely that the formation of the Tasmanian Auxiliary Bible Society was strongly encouraged by the Governor-in-Chief, Lachlan Macquarie who, at the encouragement of his wife Elizabeth, had overseen the establishment of the NSW Auxiliary Bible Society two years earlier in 1817.

While Bible Society Australia’s 200th birthday was celebrated in 2017, the Tasmanian arm of BSA is commemorating its bicentenary this year.

When he advised Governor Macquarie of the steps taken to form the Tasmanian Auxiliary Bible Society, Lt. Governor Sorell seemed almost apologetic that it had taken so long and attributed the delay to the pressing problem of bushrangers.

The meeting that established Bible Society Tasmania was unique in several ways. It was only the second public meeting of its nature held in the colony, the other being a meeting two years earlier to address the bushranger problem. The new Bible venture was the first religious society to be formed in Tasmania; and it was also the first time that “Inhabitants and Settlers” were invited to join with “Magistrates and Officers” in forming a Society for the common good.

Being a penal colony, providing Scriptures for convicts was a significant part of Bible Society’s ministry in Tasmania in the early years, beginning with the first grant of Bibles to Tasmania by the BFBS in 1807.

Besides making regular grants to the prisoner population in jail, those on farms and in camps were not neglected. From the town of Longford, it was reported in 1840 that, “on many farms where the prisoner population were wont to spend their evenings in the vice of idleness or in active crime … they now meet after the duties of the day to hear the Word of God read to them by one of their own number – perhaps the only one among them who is able to do so.”

Chaplains on board the ships taking convicts to Tasmania were supplied with Bibles by the BFBS.

By the time the convict ship Theresa berthed in Hobart in 1847, every illiterate prisoner had learned to read during the voyage and many of them were reading the Bible for themselves. Leg irons had not once been needed. Each prisoner arrived with a copy of the Scriptures provided by BFBS.

In gratitude, the convicts raised a donation of £8 for the Bible Society.

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