The history of the Australian Church begins with Charles Strong, a clergyman, a liberal theological teacher, as well as a civic leader. In his tenure as a pastor, he later experienced opposition by the congregants who felt he was more of a social reformist than a pastor. The Australian Church was established in 1885 as a free religious fellowship, and Strong was invited to be the first minister (Bowman 40). In Strong’s leadership, he advocated for the uncommon economic and social views that contradicted some of the Australian Church’s ideals. The Australian church history was formed between the 19th and 20th centuries, with Charles Strong spearheading many events during its establishment and taking up a spiritual course that made the society a place of justice, generosity, and empathy for all.
Church in Australia at the Turn of the Century
In the late 19th century, all churches present in Australia were in dire need of new members, particularly male ones. Majorly, priests’ salaries often depended on their congregation’s generosity and men were the only earners in the family at that time (O’Brien 440). Significant cultural and social differences also existed between the clergy and their parish, which had their implications. In the Church of England, ministers were mostly English, and the Catholic Church’s ones were Irish (O’Brien, 1993). This inevitably created a barrier of the birthplace, which hindered their communication with the locals and affected the number of new members number. According to O’Brien (p. 442), this situation enabled priests to seek new believers among the bushmen, which required proving their “manliness.” Clergy that went to the outback had to be physically fit, endure harsh conditions, and tolerate the habits of their parish to earn their respect.
In large cities, such as Melbourne, the problems of decreasing church attendance and general religious disbelief were also present. The discussion between the clergy and the non-believers was maintained in different publications, including Melbourne Review and the Victorian Review, which provided a platform for exchanging opinions (Roe 149). For example, the Anglican minister of Williamstown wrote, “I have felt the reproach of having failed to comprehend and satisfy the requirements of the nineteenth-century men and women (Roe 150). Yet, despite the common idea for discarding the religion completely, many claimed that a new reform was needed while some advocated for a new religion that exemplified the life and teachings of Jesus (Roe 151).” Consequently, their idea also implied freeing Protestantism from Calvinist ideas.
The Australian Church- after 1900
The recession witnessed in the 1890s and some of the church’s affluent members leaving the church challenged the financial state of the church. Its attendance was still high, at approximately one thousand (O’Brien 440). The only challenge that the church leadership was then facing was the debate on the church structure. This was solved when a team of four men acquired a building and gave it back to the church with the terms of a lease. Still, the Australian Church was still struggling with its, finances and attendance during Sunday services progressively dropped. Several families also moved from the city, interrupting the church’s constant income flow. This, alongside many other factors, limited the performance of Strong so that he had to resign from his pastoral duties on October 6, 1913, and left the leadership and church members to decide on the future of the church (Bongiorno 99). In the midst of the imbalance, the church was gifted a large sum of money that helped them provide for the pastor’s needs and adjust to a smaller church structure that was manageable.
Strong’s passion for international peace and his perspectives on peaceful approaches to dealing with global problems won the support of many in his time. Many other church members resorted to leaving the congregation either joining other churches or losing their faith based on Strong’s views against wars. Strong proposed the to Australian Government in 1917 to enlist Australia to serve other nations outside their boundaries (O’Brien 442). Consequently, many of his friends and followers in the political arena did not agree with their proposals. Melbourne’s press was also dissatisfied with him for the first moment in his career.
The Australian church leaders decided on a renovated building and purchased it. Bongiorno reveals the church purchased the building in 1922 (104). Regrettably, the congregation suffered further partiality when the youths felt that the church was not concerned with contemporary matters but responsive to society’s needs. Wade determined that most of the church’s old members died, and Strong’s inclination to social responsibility was not received kindly by the young people (96). Strong called for peace and supported a crusade to help victims of the Spanish Civil War as well as help Jewish exiles. The church’s congregation was encouraged to recognize that Australian Native people were owed justice (Bowman 1972). Thus, they supported changes in prisons and laws that concerned eliminating capital sentences.
The recession of 1930-1933 presented a challenging time for the church as their numbers decreased and their financial state strained. Things in the church continued in the subsequent years, even without the involvement of Strong. Soon after Strong died, Rev. Mervyn Plumb took over as the church minister in January 1943 and served for about seven years. On July 10, 1955, the Australian church conducted its final service (Wade 105). Many decisions were made on the church, including establishing a trust as a memorial to Strong. The church sold its structure and the instruments after paying for their debts, with the rest of the money channeled to the Charles Strong (Australian Church) Memorial Trust. On February 3, 1957, the Australian Church was entirely dissolved, never to exist again.
Reverend Dr. Charles Strong (1844-1942) was one of the prominent Australian peace movement members and the founder of the Australian Church. He was born in Scotland and came to Australia in 1875 to become the pastor of the Scots’ Church (Bongiorno 101). Yet, soon he went on to become a notable liberal voice among the country’s clergymen (Saunders, “An Australian Pacifist” 241). He openly questioned the dogmas of the Church and believed that it had to react to the social phenomena that were taking place during that period, which eventually led to his resignation in 1883 (Damousi 5). According to Worsley and Strong, he decided to start his own church, which would be “in harmony with, and expressive of, the free, democratic and progressive spirit of Australia” (qt. Saunders, “An Australian Pacifist” 241). He had “socialist” views and was interested in improving the conditions of the poor, factory workers, women, and supported the reform of criminal law (Bowman 14). He performed pastoral and educational activities until his death and wrote extensively for the Australian Church. After his passing, it was transformed into the Charles Strong Memorial Trust in 1957.
Strong was also a leading activist of the pacifist movement during the Great War, which likely stemmed from his own experience seeing that wars harm the common workingmen the most. He strongly adhered to the notion that any war was incompatible with Christianity and its values, even though he agreed that the Bible did not prohibit it. There was no mention of him promoting the idea of peace among nations (Saunders, “The Pacifism” 10). Nevertheless, he also argued that if Christ were alive in the twentieth century, he would undoubtedly be a pacifist. The congregants he was leading would appreciate a flexible and inclusive church. It was one of the significant ideologies of the liberal religious crusade of 19th century Scotland and England.
Dr. Strong invested in the social welfare docket of the new church. Strong formed groups for the deliberation of literature and music, and the Religious Science Association, not discriminating against other religions. The Australian Church’s founding did not amount to a movement that opted to be separate from traditional churches (Bongiorno 111). The church was actively involved in the Australian Health Society and housing plans in impoverished regions and supporting single mothers. Strong shaped the church’s aim to be “a comprehensive church, whose bond of union is the spiritual and the practical rather than creeds or ecclesiastical forms (Bongiorno 112).” There were Australian Churches situated in Newcastle, Lucknow, and Sydney, even if they did not take long. By 1905, the only surviving Australian Church was the one set up in Melbourne.
Bernard O’Dowd was born in Beaufort in 1866, he was of Irish descent, and his parents were Catholics. After successfully finishing school, he received a scholarship and eventually earned degrees in Arts and Law from the University of Melbourne (Bongiorno 100). He was a socialist, but his ideas were often radically different from the mainstream liberal ideas of his day and age and earned him the title of a cultural nationalist (Bongiorno 107). For example, he indicated that material improvement would lead to the establishment of democracy. O’Dowd believed that it would not be enough since the key to democracy was achieving a significant morality level, arguing that without it, society will “dissolve into its original elements, disorder, passion, degradation, and violence” (Bongiorno 104). He also did not adhere to the idea of “White Australia” and strongly opposed racism (Bongiorno 109). To him, the idea of people of color being inferior to white people was a myth.
Despite his religious upbringing, he was an atheist, which did not stop him from becoming interested in spiritualism and Unitarianism. He became one of the first members of the Australian Church. He maintained religious skepticism, always defending the soul’s immortality (Bongiorno 101). O’Dowd claimed that the rights of freedom, religion, and conscience were considerably more vital than the pursuit of material needs. He considered the Marxist ideals alien to the Australian case (Bongiorno 107). Consequently, his socialism was not based on such Marxist ideals.
The Anti-Conscription Movement
The anti-conscription movement was primarily influenced by the Australian Church’s stance on the military draft, namely Charles Strong’s perspective. He was in complete opposition to the compulsory military training and conscription for overseas military service both before and during the First World War (Saunders, “An Australian Pacifist” 244). He believed that mandatory service in the army gradually becomes an instrument that helps the government control people’s lives. He said that it “inevitably destroys personality, and forces young men to be the mere tools of a government” (Saunders, “An Australian Pacifist” 250). As a man who adhered to the pacifist views, he stated that conscription was an infringement on Christianity and democracy, and individuals’ freedom and liberty of conscience (Saunders, “An Australian Pacifist” 253). Strong’s urging to vote “No,” accompanied by other eight Protestant ministers, before the 1917 referendum, is considered his most outstanding contribution to the anti-war cause (Saunders, “An Australian Pacifist” 248). Apart from the Australian Church, other organizations were devoted to repealing the conscription act, such as the Free Religious Fellowship (FRF) (Wade 95). It was established in 1911 by Reverend Frederick Sinclaire.
The FRF joined another prominent anti-conscription organization called the Australian Peace Alliance, established in 1914, which included different groups opposing the Great War (Wade 100). Wade further emphasized that the organization held two anti-conscription demonstrations in Melbourne, which were attended by thousands of people (102). Female socialist groups supported the anti-conscription cause, holding meetings, organizing rallies, establishing committees, and being active in Melbourne, the main battleground of the anti-war campaign, and smaller cities (Damousi 1). The anti-conscription movement proved successful after the government’s two failed attempts to pass the compulsory military draft through referenda.
To sum up, the Australian Church considered connecting the physical, spiritual, and ethical realms. The ideology of Strong was that unity and empathy are not some vague expressions but virtues that must be developed in everyone. O’Dowd, being among the first members of the Australian church, also contributed to the church’s history with his radically distinct ideas. The Australian Church’s position, as well as Strong’s, impacted the anti-conscription movement so that they resisted the Great War through demonstrations and committees.
Bongiorno, Frank. “Bernard O’Dowd’s Socialism.” Labour History, 1999, pp. 97-116.
Bowman, John. Comparative Religion the Charles Strong Trust Lectures 1961-1970. Brill Archive, 1972.
Damousi, Joy. “Socialist Women and Gendered Space: The Anti-Conscription and Anti-War Campaigns of 1914-1918.” Labour History, vol. 12, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1-15.
O’Brien, Anne. “‘A perspective, church full of men’: Masculinism and the church in Australian history.” Australian Historical Studies, vol. 25, no. 100, 1993, pp. 437-457.
Roe, Jill. “Challenge and Response: Religious Life in Melbourne, 1876–86.” Journal of Religious History, vol. 5, no. 2, 1968, pp. 149-166.
Saunders, Malcolm. “An Australian Pacifist: The Reverend Dr. Charles Strong, 1844—1942.” Biography, 1995, pp. 241-253.
Saunders, Malcolm. “The ‘Pacifism’ of the Reverend Dr. Charles Strong: 1844–1942.” Global Change, Peace & Security, 1993, pp. 3-32.
Wade, Chris. “Practical Idealists: The Free Religious Fellowship, the Great War and Conscription.” The La Trobe, vol. 99, 2017, pp. 95–107.