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The missing link in the broad sweep of Australian history

New book outlines key role of evangelical Christianity

A new book outlining the key role of evangelical Christianity in the formation of Australian society is filling major gaps in history, according to the NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes.

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The book, The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740-1914, has been 30 years in the writing, from historians Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder.

“It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact that evangelicalism has had on the evolution of Australian culture and society,” said Stokes, who helped launch the book last month at an event in Sydney.

“There is an increased push – that I’m seeing in my role as Education Minister – to rewrite history, editing out the central role that Christianity, and Christians, have had in shaping [this country].”

“It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact that evangelicalism has had.” – Rob Stokes

Stokes told an audience gathered for the book launch that, despite the centrality of evangelical Christianity to our history as Australians, there was remarkably little literature documenting that influence.

He added: “Part of the reason for this paucity in the literature is that pedagogical institutions have an inherent hostility towards religion,” such that “an analysis of the evangelical impact in this country is often only acceptable when one frames it as an instrument of colonial oppression.”

The book examines evangelicalism’s contribution to culture, social welfare, education and national identity.

According to Piggin, evangelical Christianity was the official religion brought to Australia with the First Fleet.

“I didn’t know it was so connected with wider Australian history.” – Stuart Piggin

“Evangelical Christianity was the major expression of Christianity experienced by Australians in the 19th century: gospel focused, mission minded, social reformist, biblical experientialist,” said Piggin in an attempt to define evangelicalism.

Piggin, who is conjoint associate professor of history at Macquarie University, told Eternity that when he was asked to start this history project 30 years ago, he approached it as many other historians had.

“I thought I was writing about a minority movement – more like an internal history of the movement. I didn’t know it had an external history. I didn’t know it was so connected with wider Australian history,” he said.

“It’s hard to get historians to stop thinking in a default way towards a materialist interpretation of history, so we always think the spiritual is a minority movement somehow.

“I’ve noticed that every historian who studies religious history will comment on how the thing they are studying is exceptional [rather than the norm].”

Yet, Piggin says, “the capacity of Australians for spiritual vitality is much greater than we thought.”

“People bowed down before [the painting] and wept, and all sorts of incredible scenes.” – Stuart Piggin

Piggin points to the year 1906 in Australia’s history as an example. About a third of the population of Melbourne at the time attended evangelistic rallies. And about 300,000 people attended the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney (when the population in Sydney was only half a million) to see a painting by William Holman Hunt called The Light of the World, which depicted Jesus knocking on the door in an illustration of Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

“People bowed down before [the painting] and wept, and all sorts of incredible scenes. I mean, it’s so unlikely. And every historian who studies these things all think it’s so unlikely. But, if you look at it closely, you see that Christianity has a broader and much deeper influence that we’d imagined.”

“I believe it’s a more positive story than anyone expected.” – Stuart Piggin

Piggin argues that the very act of white settlement in Australia was a successful reform experiment that was “far more humane than received accounts”, being motivated by both evangelicalism and the Enlightenment.

“The depiction of the European settlement of Australia as the product of the Enlightenment and therefore anti-Christian is nonsense,” Piggin writes. “Evangelicals from Wesley on made constant use of ‘reason’ and ‘system’ in the solution to problems and the relief of want. Evangelicalism and the Enlightenment were co-creators of Australian culture, far more often in harmony than in conflict.”

And while Piggin acknowledges that from the very beginnings of Australian society, a price was paid for what he calls the “marriage between evangelical conviction and imperial ideology”, there were debates among evangelicals about the best courses of action, showing the major contribution of the movement to Australia’s history.

“I believe it’s a more positive story than anyone expected,” he said.

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