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The Spiritual Roots of Australia’s First Colony

by | Thu, Jan 25 2024

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The establishment of the first colony in New South Wales was shaped by the social and spiritual context in Britain at the time. The colony’s character was influenced by the values, principles, and practices of the late 18th century. This influence extended to the evangelical revival that had swept through Britain in the latter half of the century.

The key figures who played pivotal roles in shaping these values and principles were people touched directly or indirectly by faithful servants of God, including John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield, William Wilberforce, and John Newton.

Banning Slavery

One example of this is that slavery was banned as a potential labour force in the new colony. This was revolutionary at the time because slave labour was used in many parts of the world, especially in the founding of new colonies and frontiers, to help establish and develop these fledgling economies.

Author and international speaker Dr Christopher Reynolds recently joined us on 20Twenty to discuss his book, What A Capital Idea – 1770-1904, and his passion for telling the stories of Australian history. His desire is to inspire pride in the country, and share his optimism for Australia’s future.

‘Australia was the first place in the world to ban slavery,’ says Christopher. ‘It’s historic fact that they discussed the issue. Wilberforce and Wesley were against the concept that people could make money out of selling human flesh and life.’

Christopher believes slavery has always been a complicated issue, and even today places like China still supply cheap labour. It’s an idea that’s been around for thousands of years, so when the first settlers said no to slave labour, it was actually seen as quite radical.

Cooperating With God

‘At the same time as the decision was made to establish a settlement in New South Wales, evangelicals were developing a strategy to cooperate with God, to bring in the millennium, and extend the knowledge of the Gospel over all the earth. For the Christians of Britain, who were committed to many social and political reforms, banning slavery was an extension of their faith and their compassion for humanity, regardless of the people’s racial background.’

The story of John Wesley is inspirational, but what a lot of people don’t know is that he went and visited over 59 prisons in 90 days. The Newgate Prison in Bristol was one of the worst, and Wesley said it was shameful the way people were treated.

‘He started the movement to reform the prison system of England,’ says Christopher. ‘He wrote his first paper on slavery in 1754. That’s when he began his move against slavery.’

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