THE PARTICULAR BAPTISTS IN AUSTRALIA

Being established in the late 18th century, Australia received no puritans. Creeds and confessions were to hold a precarious position in Australian religious life. Originally contrived as a place of convict settlement with little attention initially paid to its development, the established church never really was to occupy a position in the colony akin to that which it had enjoyed in England. As the decades progressed, there was movement to transform the colony to a free settlement, which in turn allowed an influx of settlers into the colony. It is during this transition, in the 1830s, that Baptists started entering the Australian story.


Early Years – 1830 -1870

It is of interest to note that the Baptists in the colony were overwhelmingly those of the Particular profession. Yet, there was considerable difference in the degree to which it was held. Two of the first Baptist ministers, Henry Dowling (1780-1869) and John Saunders (1806-1859) best reflect such differences. Dowling had been a minister in Colchester, Britain, in a Baptist church which was Strict (so-called due to the belief of closed communion) and had ties to William Gadsby, prior to his emigration to the island colony of Tasmania in 1834. In 1835, Dowling was to help establish a Baptist church there, in Hobart, which would be Australia’s first. Saunders was a minister at Shacklewell, London. While he desired for the mission fields in India through the Baptist Missionary Society, for various reasons, he willingly was sent to minister to a group of Sydney Baptists which had requested help from the Society. Saunders was to help establish the Bathurst Street Baptist Church in 1836.[1] The church – the first Baptist church actually built in Australia and still continuing today, albeit in a different location and under a different name – would become a bedrock of the later Baptist Union of New South Wales.

Yet, while the church in Hobart was founded on a clear theological basis, such was not the case for Bathurst Street, which was to mark the different varying conditions of not only Sydney and Hobart but also of the individuals involved. Bathurst was founded as an open-communion, open-membership church which was Calvinist in nature, but only Baptist in name. While the Westminster Shorter Catechism was held ‘except … as respects Baptism’, believers’ baptism was not a constitutive principle, and strong expression of it was received negatively.[2] As more Christians were brought to the colonies, through the co-ordinated efforts of the eminent Presbyterian Minister, John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), so, too, did the number of Baptists increase.[3] Among them was William Hopkins Carey (c. 1830-1852), the namesake of his famous grandfather, and first minister to Parramatta Baptist Church.

However, as the population of Baptists increased, so, too, did the theological differences. By the 1860s, clear divisions were apparent. New churches were established along clear Particular Baptist lines against the perceived doctrinal laxity of the many of the original Baptist churches, which were seen as pervading key Calvinistic truths.[4] Varying strands of Particular Baptists also arose, with an increasing demarcation between those who identified as Strict and Particular Baptists, and those who identified only as Particular Baptists. Notwithstanding, the reference to the Second London Baptist Confession up to, and including, this period remained scarce. While it is true, as Dr. Michael Haykin notes, that “relatively few Particular Baptist authors or communities referred to it during the eighteenth century”[5], this was especially true in Australia during most of the nineteenth century.


The Influence of Spurgeon – 1870-1900

This changed for a brief period under the distant ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892). Despite never visiting the country, Spurgeon was a highly influential individual in the Australian colonies, as his son, Thomas Spurgeon (1856-1917) was to repeatedly observe when spending time with people that, he noted, “almost worship father.”[6] Spurgeon’s influence meant that many requests were sent to him for the supply of pastors, and many graduates from his college were subsequently sent. It is also likely that Spurgeon’s adoption and, later, republication of the Confession (in 1855) was influential on the adoption of the 1689 as a doctrinal basis by several churches, noticeably in Queensland, including Petrie Terrace, Windsor Road, and Jireh Baptist Churches, the first occurrences so far recorded.[7]

Sadly, Spurgeon’s doctrinal influence was limited. His popularity was seemingly attached to his preaching style and evangelistic approach. Paradoxically, while Spurgeon was generally supported in the Downgrade Controversy, John Clifford (1836-1923) was to receive almost unanimous acclaim when he visited in 1897. Despite the large presence of Spurgeon College graduates, it was evident that while many of them shared their principal’s zeal, they did not necessarily follow him as strongly on his theology. Dr. Ken Manley is on point when he remarks that “Spurgeon’s Calvinism … did not become part of the Australian Baptist ‘Spurgeon’ tradition.”[8]


The Twentieth Century – 1900 - 2000

While in 1873, Baptist Churches had still generally identified themselves within the Particular Baptist tradition, by 1900, the incipiency of theological atrophy had already become settled. This being observed through the establishment of the Baptist Union of Australia in 1926, which was formed on broader theological grounds that were not specifically Calvinist. Dispensational conservatism generally marked most Baptist Union churches of the period. The short sojourn of Arthur Walkington Pink (1886-1952) in Australia between 1925-1928 was also demonstrative of the situation. When Pink first landed, he had been attached to Union churches and had dedicated several sermons to the topic of God’s Sovereignty. However, his teaching stirred controversy amongst Baptist circles, and eventually it resulted in a withdrawal of Union support for Pink’s ministry.[9] Pink was then to minister at a Strict and Particular Baptist church where, two years later, he would leave over his advocacy of human responsibility and duty-faith. Despite their adherence to classical Particular Baptist positions on topics such as covenant theology and soteriology, these churches had become adherents to the same hyper-calvinism that was the hallmark of the Gospel Standard Strict Baptists in the United Kingdom.[10]

Theological ambivalence, if not antagonism, towards the doctrines of grace was to generally persist amidst Baptist circles until the early 1960s. Coinciding with a revival of interest in Reformed thought in both the United Kingdom and the United States, and fuelled by literature ministries such as Banner of Truth and Carey Publications, a small number of churches were formed throughout the 1960s and 1970s on a Particular Baptist basis, some with evident guidance from the Confession. This did not go unnoticed, with the Tasmanian Baptist Union noting the appearance of the Calvinist error.[11] A small, loose, association of Baptist Reformed churches, with links to Erroll Hulse (1931-2017), was eventually founded with representation found in New South Wales, Victoria, and possibly South Australia. Carey Publications’ modern English reprint of the Confession having an obvious bearing.[12] Koorong Books, Australia’s largest Christian stockist, was also established during this time by a Baptist Reformed Pastor. However, controversies, an insular focus, and disagreements caused a death knell to the association, which faded into irrelevancy by the mid-1990s.

Several other churches were also to imbibe the revival of Calvinism during this period. Newtown Baptist Church, likely founded in 1860 by Calvinist loyalists that had left Bathurst Street, and one of the few churches of its persuasion still attached to the Union, was led to appropriate the Confession and identify with it as their own. Whereas Smithfield Baptist Church, established in 1842, and once counted among the Strict and Particular Baptist churches that had pushed for the departure of Pink, gradually dis-attached itself from that fellowship, to become a Baptist church more aligned to classical Particular Baptist thought. It would later also come to embrace the Confession as its doctrinal premise.

Australian Particular Baptists Today – 2000 - Present

While churches that follow traditional Particular Baptist tradition are still in the minority of those that profess to hold to Baptist teachings, there is still a gradual, yet notable, increase of churches which are doing so. This is due to the influence of teachers, both new and old, bearing fruit as the doctrines of grace are applied to the heart by the Spirit. Likewise, with the number of those churches which, at any level, subscribe to the Second London Baptist Confession as their doctrinal basis only numbering several handfuls, it is becoming increasingly apparent that a renewed interest amongst Baptists in Australia is occurring, with several new churches clearly identifying with the Confession having been planted within the last decade.


Brett Lee-Price



[1] Technically, the first Baptist service was held by John McKaeg, on 24 April 1831, at the Rose and Crown Inn, Sydney. However, there is a paucity of surviving documents about this group, and it is uncertain as to how ‘Baptist’ the entire group was. The history of both New South Wales and Queensland testify to the reality that non-conformists gathered initially together for combined worship, before splitting and establishing their own churches when they had the substantial numbers to do so. However, it is known that some of McKaeg’s group were to later join the Bathurst Street Baptist Church under Saunders. McKaeg’s story is a sad one that ends with his death in 1851. See Roger J. Owen, “John McKaeg: The minister who sued his church members”, Baptist Quarterly, 45:3 (2013). [2] J. D. Bollen, Australian Baptists: A Religious Minority (The Baptist Historical Society, 1975), 9. [3] James Cameron, Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales (Angus and Robertson, 1905), 21-22, 415; Ken R. Manley and Michael Petras, The First Australian Baptists (Baptist Historical Society of NSW, 1981), 23; John E. White, A Fellowship of Service: A History of the Baptist Union of Queensland, 1877-1977 (Baptist Union of Queensland, 1977), 24-25. [4] Tensions were particularly apparent under the pastorates held by J.J. Voller, a successor to Saunders at Bathurst Street (NSW), and B.G. Wilson at Wharf Street (QLD). Voller was to bear significant influence on both the Baptist Unions of New South Wales and Queensland and their formations. However, Voller was a doctrinal minimalist and was unlikely to have been a Calvinist, despite dismissing the General Baptist label, which lead to troubles at Bathurst Street. He had also been accused of being an advocate of Campbellite teaching. Wilson had similar troubles. [5] Michael Haykin, ““The chief evil of human life”: Sin in the life and thought of the English Particular Baptists, 1680s–1830s” (unpublished manuscript, 2020). [6] The Sword and Trowel, May 1878, 257. [7] Ken R. Manley, “‘The Magic Name’: Charles Haddon Spurgeon and the evangelical ethos of Australian Baptists – Part 2”, Baptist Quarterly, 40:4 (2003), 216; White, A Fellowship of Service, 39. [8] Manley, “The Magic Name,” 216. [9] Pink was to remark “The need here is great. So far as we can discover there is not another preacher in all Sydney who is proclaiming the sovereignty of God, eternal election, particular and efficacious redemption, and unconditional salvation.” Studies in the Scriptures, May 1926, 118. [10] The Strict and Particular Baptist Churches, apart from Belvoir Street where Pink ministered, had adopted the Gospel Standard Articles of Faith around 1895. Articles 26 and 33 rejecting duty-faith, duty-repentance, and preaching to the unconverted. It was the push by Smithfield and Ryde Particular Baptists for Belvoir Street to also adopt the articles that was the catalyst for Pink eventually resigning. [11] Rowland S. Ward, The Bush Still Burns: The Presbyterian and Reformed Faith in Australia, 1788-1888 (Rowland S. Ward, 1989), 390. [12] See James C. Cox, Why a Confession of Faith? (Baptist Reformed Churches, 1980).

288 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

425 Govan Road

Glasgow

G51 2PW

© Parresia 2020. All Rights Reserved.