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The Coming of the Light to Australia

by | Tue, Jan 31 2023

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Author: Phil Edwards Phil Edwards on Thursday Island

It’s likely you may have heard of Rev. Richard Johnson – he was the first to preach the gospel on Australian soil in Sydney on 3 February 1788. The arrival of the Word of God on our shores was hugely influential in the shaping of modern Australia, resulting in many of the good things we enjoy today. When you consider its true significance, perhaps it should really be marked with a public holiday!

Well, on a recent trip to Thursday Island, I was surprised to learn that there is indeed a public holiday in Australia that celebrates the arrival of the gospel, backed by a story of incredible transformation that is sadly little known in our nation.

Thursday Island is right at the very tip-top of Australia, 30km from the tip of Cape York in Queensland on the Torres Strait. The islands were named after Luis Vaes De Torres, a Spanish explorer who, in 1606, sailed through the Torres Strait but never claimed the area for the Spanish.

From Retribution Killings to Peace

With hundreds of Islands surrounded by beautiful blue waters, the Torres Strait is a special place, but in the 1800’s it could also be a scary place to be. Horrific conflicts and retribution killings between different island groups were commonplace, and the area was being grossly exploited by outsiders. But half a world away, a group of missionaries felt called by God to put aside the comforts of home to travel to what must have seemed like the ends of the earth to bring light into the darkness.

So, on 1 July 1871, Reverend Samuel MacFarlane and South Sea Islander evangelists and teachers from The London Missionary Society arrived at Erub Island. They were met by a Warrior Clan elder who initially saw them as a threat and confronted them – no doubt he was willing to slay them to defend his people. However, as a sign of humility, McFarland dropped to his knees and presented a Bible as a gift. The warrior accepted the Bible, and with this act of kindness, Christianity was first introduced to the people of Torres Strait.

Christianity was quickly embraced by the people, and an amazing thing followed – the conflicts and killings previously commonplace stopped.

The Coming of the Light Festival

The significance of the Coming of The Light is remembered and celebrated each year with a Public Holiday on Thursday Island (which, by the way, is the administrative centre of the Torres Strait and home to 37 different State and Federal Government departments – all of which also observe the day!). The Coming of the Light Festival is a major event where memorial candles are lit, hymns are sung, and there is a re-enactment of the missionaries’ arrival, dancing and feasting. It represents coming out from darkness into light and symbolises an awakening after spiritual darkness.

This was my first trip to the Torres Strait, and I was so encouraged to learn about this part of our history. I was equally grateful for these missionaries who positioned themselves so willingly to be used by God in a place where the ministry I lead (Vision) is working alongside local believers to keep sharing this life-changing truth of the gospel using the opportunities we have today, just like these missionaries used the opportunities before them all those years ago. Our aim is the same – to help people look to God and walk the daily journey together, encouraging, affirming and challenging as we bring the light of Christ into today’s dark places. That’s very special!