Perhaps Johnson's most significant early contribution was in agriculture. He had spent his young life on a Yorkshire farm, and was reckoned the best farmer in the new colony. As early Sydney teetered on the brink of starvation, his efforts were invaluable.
One convict wrote home:
"I believe 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."
Johnson was also a pioneer in education, and the first generation of colonial children owed their schooling to his labours. He recruited teachers from amongst the convicts, raised funds for their employment, provided reading books, and taught lessons himself. When the first official Sydney school opened in 1798, it met in Johnson’s church, and he served as superintendent. He also spent countless hours visiting convicts, distributing spelling books and Bibles, and encouraging the literate to help the illiterate.
Johnson made valuable contributions in other areas too, such as the law, convict welfare and indigenous relations. These efforts, driven as they were by the convictions of his faith, embody a truly "public" Christianity.
The Richard Johnson Lecture, named in memory of the first chaplain, seeks to examine the place of Christianity in public life—its legacy and contribution to the common good.
Written by Craig Schwarze for the Centre of Public Christianity.