Click here for some recent government statistics. In the 2011 census, 61% of Australians identified themselves as being of the Christian faith. Of those aged 65 and older, the figure was much higher at 78%.
Back in 1788 Reverend Richard Johnson was appointed Church of England chaplain in the founding of this prison colony, due, in large part, to the influence of two notable men, John Newton and William Wilberforce, who were keen for a committed evangelical Christian to take the role. Johnson and his wife thus sailed with the First Fleet.
At the first open air Christian service held at Sydney Cove on Sunday, 3 February 1788, Johnson took as his text Psalm 116:12-13: What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me?
I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.
He also supervised the colony's schools, attended executions, worked among the convicts and organised and funded the building of the colony's first church, opened in 1793. He worked extensively with the Aboriginal population. A young Aboriginal girl, Abaroo, lived with his family and Johnson gave his daughter an aboriginal name, Milbah.
He remained in Australia as senior chaplain until 1800 before returning, apparently temporarily, to England though his "temporary" leave was a permanent one.
1794 Following William Wilberforce's recommendation, Samuel Marsden with his wife Elizabeth arrived as an assistant chaplain. Made senior chaplain in 1802, though on a partial stipend. Combined this work with being a sheep farmer, also a fairly severe magistracy. Other than a brief return to England (between 1807-1810), worked tirelessly in Sydney and Parramatta, also visiting New Zealand seven times, until his death in 1838. Closely associated with all the Governors, though not always on good terms.
1795 First Presbyterian church service. Conducted by Thomas Muir, who had received a 14 year transportation sentence with other Scottish rebels in 1794. However he was released on arrival by order of Governor Hunter (a fellow Scot), and received “a neat little house” with a farm two miles away on the Parramatta River. But his stay was brief. He escaped in February 1796 on a fur-trading American ship that had landed in Sydney for supplies. Wounded in a battle, he died in Paris in 1799.
1795-1798 Political uprising in Ireland resulted in deportation of further political prisoners to Australia including three Catholic priests, Fathers Harold, Dixon and O'Neil.
1798 English missionary, James Fleet Cover, a Congregationalist from the London Missionary Society arrived fleeing unrest in Tahiti.
1803 As a concession to the Irish Catholics, Father James Dixon authorised to say first mass for Catholics in the colony.
1804 Castle Hill rebellion. Subsequently, Dixon's permission to say mass was withdrawn as the government feared that the priests would use such an occasion to incite opposition against the British (the vast majority).
1815 English missionary, Samuel Leigh, first Methodist minister arrived. Hard working preacher, established the first Methodist circuit, with some fourteen preaching places. Became friends with Samuel Marsden, stayed until 1832 when he returned to England following the death of his wife in 1831.
1817 Arrival of Irish Trappist monk, Jeremiah O'Flynn. O'Flynn was a Catholic priest who claimed to have permission from British authorities to minister to the Catholics of the colony. However, due to his poor command of English (Trappists are renowned for spending much time in silence), such permission had actually been refused. O'Flynn continued his ministry for some months before being arrested and deported.
1820 Irishman, John Joseph Therry arrived. Therry came with an official mandate from London to minister to the Catholics of the colony.
1823 Scotsman, Rev. John Dunmore Lang (Presbyterian) arrived in the colony. Fervently evangelical. Other than brief trips back to England and the U.S. to recruit other similarly minded ministers, remained in Australia until his death in 1878.
1829 Englishman, Rev. William Grant Broughton arrived as Church of England Archdeacon.
1835 Englishman, though with Irish sympathies, Bishop Bede Bolding arrived as first Catholic Bishop of Australia (New Holland, Van Diemen's Land and the adjoining islands). Note, until the 1930s, virtually all Catholic priests in Australia traced their ancestry back to Ireland.
1836 Following a trip to England, William Grant Broughton became first Church of England Bishop of Australia.
1788 The first Jews arrive in Australia as convicts on the First Fleet. Referred to as Hebrews.
1817 Minyan (Prayer Service) formed and a Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) established.
1830s The first Hebrew synagogue takes place in the home of Phillip Joseph Cohen who is authorised to perform Jewish wedding ceremonies. Cohen's community were easily accepted into the Australian community, because unlike their European counterparts, they all spoke English.
1838 Bridge St Synagogue large enough to hold 100 males and 30 females.
1843 First Victorian community formed.
1844 Permanent synagogue consecrated in York St Sydney . This synagogue could hold 500 people and was to serve as the centre of Hebrew life in Sydney until the Great Synagogue.
1845 First synagogue consecrated in Tasmania.
1848 First synagogue opened in Victoria.
1850 First synagogue in South Australia consecrated.
1850s The number of Jews in Victoria grew from a few hundred to over 3000 during the gold rush period.
1876 Earliest consecration of a synagogue in Queensland.
1878 Great Synagogue built in Elizabeth St in Sydney with Alexander Davis as Chief Rabbi.
1900 Development of organised Hebrew community in Western Australia.
Prior to 1788, visits from Macassan fishermen are recorded, being Muslims from South East Asia.
1860s The camel transportation industry sees a significant increase in the number of Muslims arriving in Australia from mainly Pakistan and Afghanistan. By 1880 there were approximately 3000 Muslims who were working as camel drivers in Australia.
1882 First Islamic mosque built in Maree, South Australia.
1890 Islamic mosque built in Adelaide.
Small numbers of Muslims have now arrived in Australia from Lebanon and Turkey. Also, Muslims from Indonesia brought into Australia to work in the pearling industry and on sugar plantations.
1901 Introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act, commonly known today as the White Australia policy, significantly decreased the number of Muslims living in Australia. Many were forced to return to their homelands. In 1911, approximately 300 Turkish Muslims were counted in Australia, and those numbers decreased after World War 1 following the Australian war with Turkey.
The reason for the contribution of Christianity to social welfare was that assisting the needy and the disadvantaged formed a central part of the Christian ethos. Also in providing education for the needy.
One seventh (1/7) of all colonial land grants were to be reserved for schools and churches (i.e. Church of England), and hence helped to provide financial assistance for its ministry.
"Pound for pound" (i.e. dollar for dollar) subsidy - for every pound raised by the different denominations, government would contribute the same amount for its schools in return. Initially made available to just Church of England, Catholic, and Presbyterian denominations, it was later extended by Governor Bourke to the smaller denominations i.e. Methodists and Baptists, as well as to Jewish congregations. This act was opposed by many Presbyterians and others who believed that religion and government should be separated, and hence governments should not be providing any funding for religious schools. Furthermore, the financial advantage it provided "city folk" directly contributed to the rural versus urban class divide.
Formalising public education as being free, compulsory and secular, this act abolished funding to all denominational schools. Many schools had to close except for where the parents were able to meet the costs of education themselves. Funding for church and other independent primary schools was not looked at again until the late 1960s.
It encouraged Church attendance. Evangelical Protestants strongly supported this as it was thought to improve one's moral and spiritual character. Legislation was accordingly brought in that abolished recreational activities, as well as servile and commercial labour on Sundays. Church of England and Catholic Church were less stringent in their views as they saw no harm in recreational activities on the Sabbath, as long as it did not involve servile labour.
There was widespread opposition among all Christian denominations towards extramarital relationships, homosexuality, and divorce. Evangelical Protestants were particularly outspoken in their opposition to these matters.
To overcome problems related to the drinking of alcohol, thousands of abstinence pledges were made as the "temperance" movement gathered steam, via groups such as the Rechabites and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Partly in this attempt to improve public morality, partly also as a war austerity measure,
In the Vagrancy Act of 1835, prostitution was obviously illegal. Gambling was also banned because gains by means other than honest labour was seen as corrupt.
By 1900 these attempts at social control became known as wowserism, a word thought to be peculiar to Australia, though the word's background is unclear. In curtailing acts of enjoyment for many, it was viewed negatively by the broader community and sowed the seeds for a more secular society. These public morality debates also heightened the religious tensions which existed between the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the conservative elements within Protestant denominations.
Postscript. Interestingly in Queensland since 1992, in an endeavour to cut down alcohol abuse (especially amongst indigenous groups), legislation was introduced to ban its consumption anywhere outside of private homes and licensed premises. Thus it's been banned on footpaths, roads, parks, beaches, shopping centres, unlicensed restaurants and cafes, community centres, halls, churches, theatres, libraries, galleries, buses, trains, aeroplanes, taxis, ferries, gyms and hospitals.
Then since July 2016, licensed bars in Queensland may no longer sell hard liquor shots after midnight, and all drinks sold after 2AM must always be alcohol free.
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