“The Meeting which was announced for Friday last for the beneficent purpose of instituting an Auxiliary Bible Society to co-operate with the British and Foreign Bible Society in disseminating the truths of the Holy Scriptures, took place at the Court Room precisely at twelve o’clock; when His Excellency the GOVERNOR, highly to the gratification of a large assembly of Officers, Gentlemen and private Individuals, entered the Hall, and was pleased to accept the Chair by universal wish.”
This succulent introduction was the first sentence of the report in the Sydney Gazette on March 8, 1817, of the foundation of the Bible Society of NSW. That organisation, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this week, is thus the oldest continuous organisation in Australia and not, as is often claimed, the Bank of NSW (now Westpac).
The Bank of NSW opened for business a month later, on April 9, 1817, and its seven directors were drawn from the Bible Society committee. It would be wonderful if modern banks were as motivated by the common good of ordinary people as those Christians.
The meeting that founded the Bible Society also resolved to open public schools, so that children could enjoy “the festival of information” in the Bible.
The contribution of the Bible to Australia has been immense, and continues today, though it is often unrecognised because it is imbibed with the cultural air. First come language and culture, aided by the fact that the Bible is by far the biggest-selling book in history (some 2.5 billion copies in the past two centuries).
English Christian Arthur Pink wrote that the Bible’s “mighty power has affected every department of human activity. The contents of the Scriptures have supplied themes for the greatest poets, artists and musicians which the world has yet produced, and have been the mightiest factor of all in shaping the moral progress of the race.”
It was the civic and communal values of Christianity and the faith-motivated dedication of many individual Christians that helped build this nation, in politics (both sides), law, exploration, business, science, journalism, trade unionism, the arts, architecture, engineering and education.
Their legacy remains in schools, universities, hospitals, libraries, hostels, not to mention aged care, charities and other welfare providers.
It was Christians motivated by their faith who were the chief advocates for prisoners, the poor, the Indigenous, who had a vision of and worked for the common wealth.
It was explicitly Christian virtues – as opposed to Greco-Roman – such as humility and compassion that gave us our best impulses that today seem in shorter supply, be it rorting politicians, unscrupulous banks or bullying unions.
Today, the Bible still motivates Christians to public service and welfare.
If the Bible’s influence fades into mere memory, we will all be much worse off.
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.