‘One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria’ by Aeneas Macdonald

1937,  179 p.

I warned you. Yet another commissioned history of the Presbyterian Church, this time to celebrate 100 years since the Rev. James Clow held the first Presbyterian service in Geelong in late 1837. He was in Melbourne to check out the opportunities to set himself up as a landowner: indeed, he bought up big during the November 1837 land sale, purchasing four half-acre blocks on the south-west corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets.  His wife and family arrived on Christmas Day 1837 from Hobart. He started his work as a Presbyterian minister informally, encouraging Presbyterians to set up congregations and preaching on Sunday afternoons.

This centenary history covers much the same material as the other histories of the Presbyterian Church in Victoria that I have read. Macdonald is a more lively writer, however, and more attuned to other social and economic events outside the Church.  As it was written post-WWI, he incorporates an assessment of the churches’ cheerleading role during the war, which he admits has changed in the twenty years since then.

He spends two chapters on the Charles Strong controversy in 1883, regretting that

It was the misfortune of Dr Strong and of our Victorian Church that they ever came together, and especially that they came together when they did…In a later generation the story might have told itself in different words and worked itself to a different conclusion (p. 135)

Even writing fifty years later about Charles Strong, Minister of one of the largest and most popular churches in Melbourne, who split from the Presbyterian Church and started his own Australian Church, Macdonald admits that the written record is not sufficient:

The relevant minutes and documents of church courts, the columns of contemporary newspapers and the reminiscences of the few survivors have given us the groundwork of our narrative. On these, too, have been founded such comments as have been made. But had we been able not only to evoke the sequence of events as each arrived, as we have tried to do, but also to show each against the full colour of the background, we might have felt constrained to tell our story differently. That background has now faded completely from the canvas, but then it played what was sometimes a major part in leading men on that side and on this to act as they did and to determine as they did. With it before us what perplexes us now might perplex us no longer; what seems to demand our sympathy might be seen to deserve it not at all. (p. 137)

Ah, welcome to the historian’s world, Rev Macdonald, instead of the world of the chronicler!

In talking about the Church’s shift to social, as distinct from purely theological activity, he talks about Selina Sutherland, the child welfare reformer, who fell out with the Presbyterian Church over its attempt to restrict its welfare to Presbyterian children only. The former Sutherland Childrens Home in Diamond Creek is quite close to where I live, and it had never occurred to me to wonder what it was named after.

He also tells about the Rev P. J. Murdoch, the clerk of the Presbytery of Melbourne South, who was jailed in 1909 for contempt of court  for refusing to hand over a document to Mr Justice Hodges in the Victorian courts. It evoked all the questions of State Vs. Presbyterian court rights which had prompted the Great Disruption in Scotland,  and flowed through Presbyterian churches all over the world. Obviously the question hadn’t been completely resolved in 1909, and indeed there are shades of it still in the churches’ responses to the  Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse this very year. In a rather chilling final sentence in this chapter that foreshadows the fight again Hitler, he writes from his 1937 perspective:

…the division between the things of Caesar and the things of God has not yet been clearly and finally made. It is conceivable that we might yet have to fight again along that frontier even as the Confessional Churches are having to do in Germany to-day. (p.169)

So- now I’ve read all the ‘official histories’ that I can find about the early Presbyterian Church in Melbourne. Next stop- Malcolm Wood’s history which the blurb tells me is written from a “secular, critical perspective”. I must say that I welcome that. I think I’ve had enough commemorative histories by true believers.

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