Australia’s heritage was founded on the spiritual legacy brought on by The Great Awakening under John Wesley, who significantly influenced Britain and its colonies. This massive revival boosted church attendance, impacted British politics and significantly influenced Britain and its colonies.
The first fleet arrived in Australia on the 26th of January, 1788, led by British admiral Arthur Phillip, who, from 1788 to 1792, served as the first governor of New South Wales. Arthur Phillip was a servant of the Crown. He represented the state in formal arrangements and assumed the faith of the Church of England, which had a strong partnership with the Crown, as the basis for Australia’s national life.
Christopher Reynolds, historian and author of What a Capital Idea – Australia 1770-1901, joined Neil Johnson on 20Twenty to discuss Australian Christian history.
Arthur Phillip’s Christian Faith
Historians don’t often mention Arthur Phillip’s faith, often describing him as detached from the church he’d been baptised in as a child. While his Christian faith is not prominent, his actions recognised the important role of the church in promoting morality, public order and civil life.
‘I think Arthur Phillip goes unnoticed. You don’t see him coming out and preaching. Nobody mentions that he had a Christian faith. There’s no significant attending church or anything like that,’ said Christopher Reynolds. ‘But it was part of his culture, his position, his rank, and his responsibility to ensure that there was Christian faith expressed. People had to attend services. That’s also the way he got on with the Aborigines.’
The Toothless Smile
While earlier explorers talked of being either beaten or eaten by the natives, when Arthur Phillip arrived, his diary notes stated that within an hour of landing onshore, he engaged with the Aborigines. What endeared the Aboriginals to Arthur Phillip was that they noticed he was missing his front tooth when he smiled.
‘When he smiled, and he was missing his front tooth, a hundred Aborigines smiled back, and they were missing their front tooth as well because it was part of the rite of passage to becoming a man,’ said Christopher. ‘… That’s why, within an hour, they were all walking around together, and he didn’t have any trouble.’
Recognised as a Chief
Christopher reports that within two years, Arthur Phillip was recognised as a chief among the Aborigines. Bennelong, who became the first Aborigine to be civilised into the European way of life, gave Arthur Phillip the name Wolawaree, a name Bennelong also went by. Bennelong later just called him Uncle Wally.
The fact that Arthur Phillip was able to build trust and good relationships with the Aboriginal people and avoid any violent or hostile conflicts could only be attributed to his Christian faith, according to Christopher.
In recent Spanish naval archives, the journal of a Spanish captain who visited Sydney in the 1890s stated that he was amazed to see Aboriginal children playing in the street, alongside British settlers. He describes sitting down to dinner beside Aborigines and the British, sharing the food. He also wrote that the British were going off to corroboree just as often as the Aborigines sat down with the British. This was a respectful sharing of cultures that impressed the Spanish captain.
The Influence of Christianity
What secular historians miss is that Christianity was very influential in that era after the Great Awakening under John Wesley, and these examples of unity attest to that.
‘The John Wesley Methodist movement was massive in America but still great across England,’ said Christopher. ‘It wasn’t just more people were attending church or waving their hands in the air, or the energy in the singing, it was influencing the politicians.’
Due to their friendship, British politician William Wilberforce asked Britain’s Prime Minister, William Pitt, to appoint Reverend Richard Johnson as the first chaplain in New South Wales. There’s no doubt that the Christian faith was influencing politics.
While Arthur Phillip might not have been evangelical in nature, his Christian principles were a guiding force and a testament that sometimes faith is best expressed through actions rather than words. His influence definitely had an impact in shaping Australia’s early settlers.
There are many more colourful stories about Arthur Phillip that relate to his successes, challenges and sometimes tense relations between the church and state, where the Christian church grew in meaningful partnership with political and social institutions.
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