The man who rewrote Australia's history

Stuart Piggin’s quest to tell the untold stories of our nation

He may look like an ordinary academic but Stuart Piggin is, in fact, leading a revolution.

For the past 30 years, he has been rewriting our nation’s history. His aim: to put Christianity back into Australia’s past.

“It constantly astonishes me the way secular authorities leave out Christian things,” Piggin – a religious historian and winner of the 2019 Australian Christian Book of the Year award – tells Eternity.

While many historians believe the church did not play an important role in shaping the ‘Aussie spirit’, Piggin disagrees.

“Australia is one of the most Christianised nations on earth in terms of the presence of Christian ministry,” he says.

” … In the 19th century, the Australian population couldn’t get away from the Christian church. It was just everywhere. And why that’s important is it Christianised the Australia population far more than people realised, in terms of values.”

“I began to see the stereotypes that secularists had put out about Australians and their antipathy to religion – and there are a heck of a lot of them.” – Stuart Piggin

Piggin notes that Billy Graham himself said “he’d never come across spiritual hunger like he found in Australia”.

“I wasn’t particularly surprised to discover that because, by that time, I began to see the stereotypes that secularists had put out about Australians and their antipathy to religion – and there are a heck of a lot of them,” says Piggin.

He gives an example: “When there’s a history written of the countryside in Australia, there’s no mention of the church or religion. And yet I would think in country towns, churches would be among the major institutions …”

“Even in small communities, you’ve got an Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian church until recently, and now they are Uniting churches and, in places, the Methodist church, and charismatic churches.”

The reason for this proliferation of churches, Piggin notes, is the churches acts in 1836, when NSW Governor Richard Burke funded the building of churches.

“It means that we’ve got far more churches in small communities in Australia than other countries,” he explains.

Over the decades, Piggin has authored many other books, and more than 100 academic articles. Notably, his research has been compiled into two hefty volumes on Australia’s history of evangelicalism, co-written with US historian Robert Linder).

The first tome – The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740–1914 – won the 2019 Australian Christian Book of the Year award.

The second volume – Attending to the National Soul: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1914-2014 – was shortlisted last year for the same award.

“As one of the roles of the historian is to be prophetic, you’ve got to try to understand how the future is being shaped.” – Stuart Piggin

Alongside his own writing and research, Piggin’s revolution involves raising up the next crop of Australia’s religious historians. So far he has supervised 28 PhD students, as the director of the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience at Macquarie University.

Piggin admits that Australians’ attitudes towards religion – and specifically Christianity – have changed in recent decades, so that “the default position is secularism and, even, to regard Christianity as positively dangerous and harmful.” But he says this doesn’t negate the need for religious historians.

In fact, he believes there is a greater need for them now than ever before. “History has a prophetic function,” he states.

“As one of the roles of the historian is to be prophetic, you’ve got to try to understand how the future is being shaped.

“The only way the future is being shaped is by the past. I think the more you understand the past, the more you’ve got a chance of shaping the future.”

Piggin adds: “Prophets are always a minority, they’re rare. I don’t know if I’m a prophet, but that’s what history should do at its best.”

Piggin’s willingness to challenge popular opinion applies not only to the largely-secular discipline of history, but also within his own denomination. This was demonstrated in the early 1990s when he joined the campaign to elect former Anglican archbishop of Sydney, Harry Goodhew – the subject of his most recent book, Harry Goodhew: Godly Radical, Dynamic Anglican, published last month.

Like the non-conformist evangelical Goodhew, Piggin himself has been dubbed “a radical”.

“I think I’m radical in the sense that I disagree with some of the more strongly expressed opinions of the [Anglican] diocese of Sydney, like female ordination, for example. But other than that, I don’t think I’m particularly radical,” he says.

Reflecting further on how others might describe him, Piggin says: “Edwin Judge [an esteemed Christian historian and Piggin’s mentor] dedicated a book to me and he called me ‘the historian of the Australian soul’, which was very flattering.”

“I think what he meant by that – because Edwin was shrewd – was ‘he’s not really the historian of the Australian soul but if I say that, it will make him work harder,'” Piggin laughs, as his wry humor momentarily escapes his serious exterior.

The history of the historian

Piggin’s love for history was embedded early in life.

“At high school I read Herbert Butterfield’s Christianity and History – a classic book, with it’s famous last line: ‘If you want a recipe or prescription for maximum flexibility in this life, plus commitment, then hold fast to Christ and for the rest remain totally uncommitted.’ That has been my guide throughout life,” he says.

“When I read it, at the time I remember thinking this is the most profound thing I’ve ever read … And so I got to love history.”

While he did study some history at uni, Piggin intended to go into ministry and so he also studied education, believing it would help in his “teaching ministry”.

After teaching for two years, “I offered myself to Moore College [in Sydney] as the finest ordination candidate …” he jests.

“But they rejected me,” Piggin continues, “because when I was a teenager, I was an epileptic. And in those days, it was considered that epilepsy was a sign of demonic possession. In Canon law, you weren’t allowed to be ordained if you were an epileptic, so I was rejected.

“It broke my heart. I wept for a year because I felt very called and couldn’t understand what was going on. I was very confused.

“And so I got sidetracked into academia really. I thought, well, I’ll serve the Lord through academia rather than through the church. But it means that I’ve focused on church stuff – ecclesial, religious subjects.”

“I didn’t believe revival happened in Australia. I’d never heard of it. I thought it was an American thing.” – Stuart Piggin

Piggin’s passion for the local church – and more specifically for revival in the church – was fuelled at Figtree Anglican Church, which he attended while working as a religious history lecturer at the University of Wollongong for 16 years. Not only did he personally experience a “mini-revival” at Figtree, but he was also researching the hidden history of revival in the nearby town of Mount Kembla.

“Mount Kembla was the scene of the largest disaster in Australia in peace time before the Victorian bushfires of 2000 and 2009.

“In 1902, 96 men and boys were killed in the Mount Kembla mine, and I wrote a study of the mine disaster,” Piggin explains.

“But the thing that astonished me when I looked at the local newspapers was that there had been this genuine religious revival in Mount Kembla just months before the disaster. I was stunned because, at that time  – I started to do that research in the late 1970s – I didn’t believe revival happened in Australia. I’d never heard of it. I thought it was an American thing.

“So I got interested in revival(s) then because I started to find them. In our History of Australian Evangelicalism Volume One, there are lists of revivals that I’ve come across.”

“We wanted to write about the religious history which was relevant to Australia, which meant writing about evangelicalism.” – Stuart Piggin

In 1987, Piggin helped to launch the Evangelical History Association, along with Linder. The association publishes the journal Lucas: An Evangelical History Review.

In 1990, Piggin was appointed as Master of Robert Menzies College at Macquarie University in Sydney. Two years later, he made a strategic decision to establish the Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity.

He explains its purpose: “If you wanted to study religious history in university in the ’70s and ’80s, normally the latest thing you would study would be the Reformation.”

“There was very little modern religious history …

“So we wanted to write about the religious history which was relevant to Australia, which meant writing about evangelicalism. So the Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity was mainly set up in order to faciltate that enterprise.

“It was fairly intentional in that we wanted to write about the history of evangelicalism in the way that other scholars have written about the Reformation.”

Piggin notes that at the time, scholars across the world – including David Bebbington in England – were capturing the history of evangelicalism in their countries.

“We wanted to do the same for Australian evangelicalism,” he says.

Raising a new crop of religious historians

In 2004, Piggin moved to Macquarie University itself, where the Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity was transferred to the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience.

While the original purpose for the centre – the publication of the two-volume history of Australian evangelicalism – is complete, Piggin notes that the centre has also produced “a lot of other things along the way, like the Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, edited by Brian Dickey, and then there’s Lucas [journal] and all its articles on Australian evangelicalism. So there’s a lot that’s been published.”

Piggin is also bouyed by the healthy output of books by Christian authors in recent years, including Meredith Lake’s The Bible in Australia and Bob Linder’s study of the First World War called The Long Tragedy.

While the history of Australian evangelicalism is being more robustly presented than it was 30 years ago, Piggin says there is still a lot of work to be done.

“I think we’re just beginning. Evangelical Christianity has been very strong in Australia. It is the major manifestation of Christianity in Australia. And Jesus has been everywhere in Australia, so every community in Australia would have a story to tell about what Jesus has done in their community.”

“I’m conscious of what is not in our two volumes – all the stories that aren’t there. All the prominent missionaries, ministers and lay people who’ve done great things, –some are quite extraordinary – are missing from the book, only because we didn’t have room or we didn’t know about them at the time.”

“There’s plenty more room for research.”