White civilisation and early missions to Indigenous Australians

If there was ever a time and place when white civilisation could be equated with Christianity, 1788-1888 in the Australian colonies was not it. From the first settlement in Sydney to the spread of European ‘civilisation’ across the country, Christianity was by no means the defining feature of this society – much less the guide by which Indigenous Australians were to be treated. Missionaries designated to work specifically with Aborigines were late arrivals in the colonies. Many missionaries held some of the same negative views about Aborigines as the wider society, and Aboriginal people were quick to point out their inconsistencies and reject the parts of ‘Christianity’ (often European culture) they did not like. Yet, missionaries were some of the most dogged supporters of indigenous rights, and despite the frequent stories of missionary failure, there are some that reveal missionaries as people who used their faith to move towards genuine understanding and justice.


Religion in the colonies


The early Australian settlements were, by and large, relatively indifferent to religion. That religion was not a priority, even by those at the helm of these new colonies, was made obvious by the fact that no missionary accompanied the First Fleet, to work specifically with the native population.[1] This represented a change in policy direction, for all English colonising ventures from Virginia in 1607 were accompanied by missionaries, who were charged with the task of preaching Christianity to the indigenous people of the colonised land.[2] Australia was colonised in the midst of great social change in Europe. The French Revolution, contact with new civilisations, science as the new frame for truth and the emergence of Enlightenment thinking all represented significant upheaval. Christianity, once centre stage in British society, now stepped back a few places. It became socially acceptable for people in high places to challenge the teaching of Christianity, or to profess atheism.[3] This was the climate in which Australia was settled.


For the convicts, marines, officers and their few wives, who comprised the initial colony, Christianity was not of central importance. This was a prison society and was marked by punishment, injustice, physical and sexual violence, and pervasive alcohol abuse.[4] There was a chaplain who accompanied the First Fleet – Rev Richard Johnson – who likely had the toughest job in the Church of England. He found little support for religion – neither from the men in charge, nor the convicts. He was forced to hold services in the open air for five years for want of a church building, and when he finally built one at his own expense it was burnt down by convicts.[5] Among Rev Johnson’s duties were that of civil magistrate – where he handed down orders to flog the very people he was supposed to be ministering to.[6] For the convicts, Christianity was just another part of the dreaded ‘system’.[7]


It was thirty years before the first missionary arrived on Australian shores to minister specifically to the Indigenous population. Missionaries were invited by the government not out of a sense of compassion or desire to save their immortal souls, but as a solution to the escalating difficulties between settlers and Aborigines.[8] Many argued that making Christians out of the Aborigines would civilise them, and thus stop them disrupting the advances of white society. Others felt guilty about the wrongs done to the Indigenous people, and saw missionary work as a means of atoning for theses crimes.[9]


Hostile views on Indigenous Australians


On the whole, however, settler Australians felt little guilt about what was happening to the Aboriginal people. Stories of cold-blooded massacres were common: if settlers were to steal the land, they would need to first dispose of its owners. George Augustus Robinson – Chief Protector of Aborigines – met a party of stockmen in 1839. He fell into conversation with them and they openly declared (not knowing Robinson’s identity) that they wished to ‘get rid’ of the ‘blacks’ by any means, provided they avoided detection. The overlanders wished them “to be burnt – hung – drowned – by any means they wished them got rid of”.[10]


In 1838, 28 Aboriginal men, women and children at Henry Myall Creek Station on the Liverpool Plains were massacred by seven European men. Said one of the jurors after the first of two trials: “I look on the blacks as a set of monkeys, and the earlier they are exterminated from the face of the earth the better. I would never consent to hang a white man for a black one.”[11] A squatter, who was trying to influence public opinion against convicting these men, wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 October 1838, “…these hordes of Aboriginal cannibals, to whom the veriest reptile that crawls the earth holds out matter for emulation, are far, very far, below the meanest brute in rationality and everything pertaining thereto.”[12]


Such was the dominant attitude toward Aboriginal people, deemed worthless and animal-like. These sentiments were backed up by the science of the time – which was, in some ways, the modern religion; a new paradigm for ‘truth’. The sciences of Darwinian evolution and phrenology lent credence to the belief of European superiority. Aborigines, and other non-European peoples, were ‘scientifically proven’ to have smaller skull capacities, longer arms, larger pelvises and so on – closer to the ape, in other words, than the human.[13] It is easy to under-appreciate the influence of these sciences, in a world that now dismisses phrenology as ‘pseudo-science’ and no longer ascribes to social Darwinism. Yet they served to justify the treatment of indigenous peoples across the world, as well as African slaves, by naming them as not-quite-human.[14]


These views were confirmed by philosophy, such as the Greek concept of the ‘Great Chain of Being’, popularised by the liberal philosopher John Locke in the 17th century, which envisioned all of creation on a chain, with each link inferior to the one above but superior to the one below. In the popular mind of 19th century Australia, Aborigines were right at the bottom.[15] Locke was influential on the Enlightenment thinkers – the ones who penned novel ideas about all men being equal, and notions of life, liberty and freedom. Yet these thinkers, including philosophers such as Hume, Voltaire and Kant, did not consider the African within the category of ‘human’. Race concerned them only to the extent that it proved their superiority as Europeans.[16] It was these ideas around race and blackness that dominated the intellectual debates about Aboriginal Australians. As Kenny puts is, “in the mid-nineteenth century a secular belief in a future for Aboriginal Australians, or a right to that future, was difficult to find”.[17] To find it, we must look to Christianity.


Christian attitudes to Indigenous Australians


It should be stated that Christians in the 19th century had a generally low view of Aborigines. Lutheran missionary William Schmidt thought that Australian natives were “the lowest in the scale of the human race”,[18] while Methodist missionary William Horton wrote to the Methodist Mission Society explaining that the native Australian in Tasmania was the most destitute and wretched portion of humanity, and that only the shape of their body showed they were human.[19] The first Presbyterian minister to NSW – Rev John Dunmore Lang – wrote that, “In short, [the Aborigines] have nothing whatever of the character of religion or of religious observance to distinguish them from the beasts that perish”.[20]


These men were clearly influenced by the common perceptions of their time. Yet crucially, Christians also generally believed that Aboriginal Australians shared a common humanity with Europeans. Despite earlier statements that seemed to contradict, in a sermon at Scots’ Church in ­­­­­1838 Rev Lang reminded his congregation that Aborigines were “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh”.[21] Although William Horton did not believe that Aborigines seemed human, he felt bound by his faith to find value in these people:

But as it is a revealed truth, that God has made of one blood all the nations of men that dwell upon the earth, however they may differ from each other in complexion, in features, in language and in manners, even the poor Aborigines of this Island are partakers of the same nature with ourselves, offspring of the same God and objects of his redeeming love.[22]


Missionaries of the 19th century were influenced by Acts 17:26: “God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”[23] The authority of scripture was as a weapon against the authority of contemporary science, which said that the blood of different people was not all the same.[24] Many Christians held to the theology that was the ‘curse of Ham’ – that black people were descendents of Ham, who had seen Noah naked and thus cursed with slavery (see Gen 9.18-25). But ultimately, if Aborigines were descended from Ham, then they were also descended from Adam and Eve.[25] Writing in Sydney Gazette  in 1824, ‘Philanthropus’ (almost certainly Church of England clergyman Robert Cartwright) wrote,

I think they have with myself, and all other men, one common ancestor. I am therefore willing to call them brethren, and to acknowledge them entitled to my compassion and fraternal respect.[26] 


Christianity or European civilisation?


Despite a theology that departed from mainstream European perceptions of Aborigines, in other ways European civilisation and Christianity seemed to merge for missionaries. Missionaries were quick to condemn Aboriginal customs as signs of wickedness or superstition.[27] Nineteenth century missionaries generally had the twin aims of converting the ‘heathen’ to Christianity, and introducing them to European ‘civilisation’.[28] In the minds of the missionaries, and the wider society, the two were inseparable.[29] George Hamilton told the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1796: “Men must be polished and refined in their manners before they can be properly enlightened in religious truths.”[30]


Some missionaries despaired because Aboriginal people did not seem to care for material possessions and private ownership. They saw the absence of ‘wants’ as an impediment to the Gospel, since Aboriginal people seemed so little interested in the ‘fruits’ of Christianity. In fact, the obsession with property was amongst the least ‘Christian’ traits of European society. But missionaries were dejected: how can the Aborigines ever own property, despaired William Watson at Wellington, if they persist in this ‘sharing’?[31]


For Aboriginal people, the contradictions between Christianity and white culture were perplexing. For example, when a missionary rebuked an Aboriginal man for having lent his wife to a white man in exchange for tobacco, he replied that the white man should have known it was wrong and not asked for her.[32] It seems that in some ways missionaries conflated Christianity and European culture, but in other ways saw the two as clearly distinct. For the Aboriginal people they were trying to convert, the distinction between the two was more than a little obscure.


In other ways, Aboriginal people separated out the aspects of Christianity that were helpful, and rejected parts of white culture that were not. In Central Australia, for example, missionaries discouraged Christian boys from undergoing initiation, which they saw as a heathen practice.[33] But the Indigenous people continued the practice regardless, because it had integral social significance. Likewise, missionaries advocated the giving up of tjurungas – the slabs of rock or wood that were representative of totemic beings. Yet these symbols were important for defining traditional land boundaries. The Aboriginal people were adept at discriminating between the central tenets of the Christian faith, and the Western application that did not always meet their cultural circumstances.[34]


Missionaries standing up for Aboriginal rights


Despite their failings, missionaries made up the bulk of the humanitarians of the day – a contrast to the secular position. Missionaries were keen to confirm, through practical experience, that Aborigines were intellectual equals.[35] As such, many had close personal contact with Aboriginal society, recording local languages and pioneering anthropological study amongst Indigenous Australians.[36] William Ridley, who arrived in Sydney in 1849, for example, did not confine his work to the mission station, but itinerated to meet Aboriginal people in their camps. He studied their languages (in Queensland and New South Wales), taught literacy in those languages, and collected population statistics. He dedicated much of his life to advocating on behalf of the Aboriginal people, drawing attention to many of the injustices and atrocities that were marking the social landscape of the Australian colonies.[37]


Francis Tuckfield was another itinerant missionary who came to understand something of the culture, language and great anguish of the dispossessed Indigenous people around the Geelong area in Victoria. He regularly reported the mistreatment of Aboriginal people, and criticised the government for inaction. In a passage that draws attention to his intimate knowledge of the people and their plight, he wrote:

The Government is fast disposing of the land occupied by the natives from time immemorial. … Their territory is not only invaded, but their game is driven back, their marnong and other valuable roots are eaten by the white man’s sheep and their deprivation, abuse and miseries are daily increasing. … The blood of the black man is pouring forth and reeking up to heaven…[38] 


Indeed, missionaries and other Christians were some of the first to draw attention to the impact of land theft on Indigenous Australians. They gained an understanding of the deep emotional and spiritual connection that bound people to the soil, and challenged the dominant view that the Aborigines had no recognisable system of land tenure.[39] In a celebrated sermon in Sydney in 1838, Baptist minister John Saunders condemned the colonists that came as invaders, stealing land without offering any compensation.[40] The theft of Aboriginal land was denounced by missionaries and humanitarians across the country – a cause whose controversy is difficult to overestimate, because for the colonists, land had its ‘sacred’ value as well.[41]


Believing them to have intellects equal to Europeans, Christians also invested in the education of Indigenous children. One example is the Baptist Merri Creek School, begun by Richmond Baptist Church in 1845. The school was relatively successful, with elders in the local Yarra tribe enrolling their children. Regular visitors, such as Collins St Baptist Church’s Rev John Ham, reported that the pupils displayed considerable academic aptitude. The school closed down when the tribe left their Merri Creek camp for the mountains, taking the children at the school with them.[42] The school received considerable attack from mainstream society, based on the usual claims of Aboriginal inferiority.[43] 


To these sentiments Andrew Ramsay, a Presbyterian clergyman, replied that although the Merri Creek school was not perfect, it confirmed that Indigenous Australians lacked nothing in terms of intelligence.[44] The pro-Aboriginal settlers were desperate to prove that Indigenous Australians were intellectual equals – and did so by trying to show they were capable of European civilisation. Nonetheless, the faith that many Christians placed in the Indigenous population distinguished them from the mainstream hostility, showing again that Christianity does not always go hand-in-hand with white culture.




The role that many Christians played amongst Indigenous Australians in the first century of European settlement shows that Christianity is not the same as white, European culture. Time and time again, it was people who professed a Christian faith who took a humanitarian stance against the hostility, theft and murder that was occasioned against Aborigines. Although many Christians took on dominant notions of Aboriginal inferiority, they believed nonetheless in the basic humanity of Aboriginal Australians. Amongst the stories of missionary ignorance and misunderstanding, are many that show that some Christians took the time to listen and understand the culture of Indigenous Australians and the grave injustices.





Edwards, Bill. 'Reflections on Presbyterian Aboriginal mission in Australia.' In The Gospel shall be preached: Essays on the Australian contribution to world mission, ed. M. Hutchinson and G. Treloar. Sydney: The Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, 1998.

Harris, John. One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope. Sutherland: Albatross Books, 1990.

Kenny, Robert. The lamb enters the dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the ruptured world. Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2007.

Kunoth-Monks, Rose. 'Church and culture: An Aboriginal perspective.' In The Gospel is not Western: Black theologies from the Southwest Pacific, ed. G. Trompf. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987.

Porter, Muriel. Land of the Spirit? The Australian religious experience. Geneva: WCC Publications, 1990.

Reynolds, Henry. This whispering in our hearts. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1998.

Woolmington, Jean. ''Writing on the sand': The first missions to Aborigines in Eastern Australia.' In Aboriginal Australians and Christian missions, ed. T. Swain and D. B. Rose. Adelaide: Australian Association for Study of Religions, 1988. 77-92.




[1] Jean Woolmington, ''Writing on the sand': The first missions to Aborigines in Eastern Australia', in Aboriginal Australians and Christian missions, ed. Swain and Rose (Adelaide: Australian Association for Study of Religions, 1988), p. 77.

[2] Ibid.in ed.

[3] Ibid.in ed.

[4] Muriel Porter, Land of the Spirit? The Australian religious experience (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1990), pp. 7-10.

[5] Ibid., pp 10-11.

[6] Ibid., p. 11.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Woolmington, ''Writing on the sand': The first missions to Aborigines in Eastern Australia', p. 78.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Henry Reynolds, This whispering in our hearts (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1998), pp. 34-5.

[11] John Harris, One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope (Sutherland: Albatross Books, 1990), p. 29.

[12] Ibid., p. 26.

[13] Ibid., p. 27; Robert Kenny, The lamb enters the dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the ruptured world (Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2007), p. 51.

[14] Kenny, The lamb enters the dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the ruptured world , p. 53.

[15] Harris, One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope , p. 25.

[16] Kenny, The lamb enters the dreaming: Nathanael Pepper & the ruptured world , p. 74.

[17] Ibid., p. 30, emphasis his.

[18] Harris, One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope , p. 30.

[19] Reynolds, This whispering in our hearts , p. 23.

[20] Bill Edwards, 'Reflections on Presbyterian Aboriginal mission in Australia', in The Gospel shall be preached: Essays on the Australian contribution to world mission, ed. Hutchinson and Treloar (Sydney: The Centre for the Study of Australian Christianity, 1998), p. 196.

[21]Ibid, p. 196.

[22] Reynolds, This whispering in our hearts , p. 23.

[23] Harris, One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope , p. 25.

[24] Reynolds, This whispering in our hearts , p. 24.

[25] Harris, One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope , p. 33.

[26] Ibid.

[27]Woolmington, ''Writing on the sand': The first missions to Aborigines in Eastern Australia', p. 89.

[28] Harris, One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope , pp. 77-8.

[29] Ibid., p. 24.

[30] Ibid., p. 79.

[31] Ibid., p. 80.

[32]Woolmington, ''Writing on the sand': The first missions to Aborigines in Eastern Australia', p. 87.

[33] Rose Kunoth-Monks, 'Church and culture: An Aboriginal perspective', in The Gospel is not Western: Black theologies from the Southwest Pacific, ed. Trompf (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987), p. 39.

[34] Ibid., p. 40.

[35] Reynolds, This whispering in our hearts , p. 28.

[36] Ibid., p. 26.

[37]Edwards, 'Reflections on Presbyterian Aboriginal mission in Australia', pp. 196-7.

[38] Harris, One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope , p. 126.

[39] Reynolds, This whispering in our hearts , p. 32.

[40] Ibid., p. 42.

[41] Ibid., p. 33.

[42] Harris, One blood: 200 years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity: A story of hope , pp. 129-30.

[43] Ibid., p. 129.

[44] Ibid., p. 130.