This week marked the anniversary of the first Christian service on Australian soil (3 February 1788) and the launch, therefore, of a tradition that has inspired and sustained this sunburnt country through its 226 year European history. The popular naysayers of religion, who trade in clichés about the ‘poison’ of Christianity in the West, will find little support in Australia’s first God-botherer and little comfort in recent data showing that our nation’s ‘social capital’ is discernibly enhanced by religion.
The man who conducted the first Christian ceremony, an inglorious affair for 900 convicts, soldiers and settlers under a great tree by the shore of Sydney Cove, the Reverend Richard Johnson, a Cambridge trained Anglican priest of the Evangelical wing of the church. He was a friend of the former slave-trader and convert John Newton (of ‘Amazing Grace’ fame) and the great anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.
Johnson had none of the charisma or historical impact of these giants but, like them, believed there was no contradiction between preaching the Christian gospel and serving the public good. He engaged with convicts and officers alike. Refusing to play the role of moral policeman, as successive Governors had hoped, he sought to convey Christ’s grace even to the most irreligious and immoral.
Unsurprisingly, Johnson conducted the range of ceremonies of the church—Sunday worship, baptisms, marriages and funerals. But he was also well known as a skillful farmer of this strange land and as a friend of Aborigines. On one occasion he was human ‘collateral’, remaining hostage with a local tribe while the Aboriginal chief ‘Benelong’ met with Governor Philip. Johnson even adopted an indigenous child into his family and later gave his own daughter the Aboriginal name, Milbah.
Perhaps most impressive is Richard Johnson’s tireless efforts with the sick and dying. Against (good) advice, he visited the diseased and putrid holds of ships where convicts lay listless and abandoned. One convict wrote home that “few of the sick would recover if it was not for the kindness of the Rev. Mr Johnson, whose assistance out of his own stores makes him the physician both of soul and body.”
This is what Australian Christianity was known for at its origins, and recent research suggests the effects can still be measured. Social scientist Andrew Leigh, whose PhD from Harvard was supervised by the man described as America’s “most influential academic”, Professor Robert Putnam. Picking up Putnam’s study of social capital in the US, Leigh has turned his attention to his native Australia. In study after study, he says in Disconnected, evidence suggests churches are overall good for the nation. Those who are religiously active are more likely to volunteer, donate blood, give to a charity, assist people in crisis, and the list goes on. “Australia’s religious bodies have on the whole been a force for good,” he concludes, “strengthening social capital in both its ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’ forms.”
Dr. Leigh is self-described atheist and admirer of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Needless to say, he thinks they’re quite wrong in their sociological critique of Christianity. His research (like Putnam’s in the US) reveals a church, just like Richard Johnson all those years ago, serving society as “physician both of soul and body.”