‘The History of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria’ by Rev. Robert Sutherland

1877, 516p.

“Why on earth is she reading this?” you may ask. It’s the first of a few books that I’ll be reading over the next month about the Presbyterian Church and Scots immigration to Victoria, in preparation for an exhibition that Heidelberg Historical Society will be putting on later in 2019.

This book was published in 1877. At the time, it would have been very current as it covers the time “from the foundation of the colony down to the abolition of State Aid in 1875”.  It is steeped in the Presbyterian attitudes of the time in relation to Sunday observance and temperance, and many of the ministers of whom Sutherland writes in a historical sense were still alive (and no doubt, readers of his book) when it was published.  He is careful to note the illustrious sons – always sons- of early ministers of the church who became wealthy contributors to the Presbyterian church and/or members of the Legislative Council of state Parliament. Being an MLC was obviously the ultimate form of success.

In Chapter 1, several women are named. The first is Mrs Turnbull, who was a friend of Rev James Forbes, the first Presbyterian minister appointed to Port Phillip. Mrs Turnbull was

a lady of vigorous understanding, of religious character, and thoroughly acquainted with business. She fully returned to the minister as much information as she received from him, and they were both mutually edified (p. 14)

Then there was Mrs Cumming, whose husband was a fellow-countryman of Rev Forbes:

After speaking a few words with Mr Cumming, the conversation was afterwards principally engrossed by Mrs Cumming, who was a lady fully equal in mental powers to Mrs Turnbull, and of as much firmness. (p. 14)

Miss Drysdale and Miss Newcombe of Geelong get a mention too. “That’s a good start!” I thought.  Unfortunately, after Chapter 1 there are no other women at all in this book, which seems quite amazing, given the emphasis on family in 19th century Christianity.

The attitudes towards aboriginal people are of their time. Given recent research on indigenous land practices described by Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth and Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu, this description of Rev. Clow’s journey to Port Phillip in 1837 is rather discordant:

Moving slowly along the windings of the Yarra Yarra, he saw its broad meadows covered with sterility under the gaze of savagedom, but soon to be clothed with fertility by the hand of civilization (p.10)

In speaking of missions to indigenous people, Sutherland subscribes to a view that Australian aborigines had descended (in both senses) from races with a highly developed civilization. Although now debased, it was felt that on the basis of their complexity of language and marriage practices, there must have been a more sophisticated earlier culture. He supposed that

It is most likely that the aboriginal settlers of Australia were of the poorer classes, who had drifted to the land, in consequence of having lost their way at sea. (p. 424)

Much of the book deals with the Australian replication of the Great Disruption that occurred within the Church of Scotland in 1843.  Just as in Scotland, the Victorian Presbyterian church split: one group adhering to the Established Church of Scotland, another to the Free Church of Scotland and a third distinguishing itself from the other two by eschewing any government financial aid. There are pages and pages of letters and resolutions going one way and then the other.  It seemed as if the schism was about to be resolved in 1855 but no – it all blew up again until 1867 when finally union was achieved (well, nearly completely).  In 1870 when State Aid to churches was discontinued, there was another gathering-in of Presbyterians.  I’ve heard talk of “stiff-necked Presbyterians” and it’s certainly an apt description of these disputes.

There’s much talk of church buildings, particularly in rural areas. In the late 1860s and early 1870s covered by the book, many suburban churches were rebuilt, replacing the earlier wooden buildings that had first been constructed. I was interested to read of St Enoch’s in Collins Street, directly across the road from the current Scots Church. During the schism St Enoch’s was part of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland bloc, whereas Scots’ Church was aligned the Established Church of Scotland group.

St. Enochs United Presbyterian Church 96 Collins Street East Melbourne

St Enoch’s 1864. State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/403500

St. Enoch’s was built in 1851 and renovated and enlarged in 1864. Once the different branches of the Presbyterian Church re-united in 1867 there was little need for two large Presbyterian Churches directly across the road from each other, so it was turned into an Assembly Hall instead. It was demolished in 1911 and replaced by The Auditorium, while a new Assembly Hall was built on the Scots Church side of Collins Street.

 

 

 

 

 

One response to “‘The History of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria’ by Rev. Robert Sutherland

  1. Pingback: ‘The Presbyterian Church of Victoria: Growth in Fifty Years 1859-1909’ by D. Macrae Stewart | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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