ACR JournalChurch History

Richard Johnson

Chaplain under fire

One observation about the past is especially instructive for Christians of any age: faithful witness is often met with hostile opposition. It would be a mistake to conceive of some halcyon days in the past when the whole of society was motivated by the Christian faith and gospel proclamation went unopposed.

The Constantinian form of Christianity, which permeated the Western world over the past millennium, never truly embraced those who sought to be faithful witnesses. This is cer­tainly true of Australia’s first ordained minis­ter, Richard Johnson, who arrived in Sydney as chaplain to the colony of New South Wales with the First Fleet in 1788. Despite having the official support of the British government, Johnson’s ministry was characterised by hardship and persecution. And for a twelve-month period in the mid-1790s, Johnson’s greatest opposition came directly from the chief government official in the colony of New South Wales, Lieutenant Governor Francis Grose. This brief survey will highlight the impact of secular government policy on ministry at a time when the pervading culture was set against the gospel.

Until recently, the accepted view of chaplaincy within the fledging colony of New South Wales has been a negative one. Johnson’s tenure has traditionally been portrayed as a failure, while Samuel Marsden, the second chaplain, has been remembered as a harsh and retributive ‘flogging parson’.1 Yet, a recent effort to rehabilitate the earliest forms of ministry in this nation is providing a much-needed corrective to such interpretations.2 This is not the place to unpack the rel­evant historiographical debates. Rather, our present task is to set Johnson in the wider context of his time, and to understand something of how his faith bore him through a period of acute opposition.

Taken as a whole, Johnson’s time in Sydney was not filled with immediate joy – or huge success, judged by earthly standards. Although Governor Arthur Phillip was sympathetic to his task, Johnson never felt that his ministry was given the full support of the local government officials. Worried by the immorality he witnessed in those first years of settlement, Johnson wrote An Address to the Inhabitants of the Colonies, which was published in London in 1794.3 Yet the many exhortations to read and study the scriptures, and live holy lives fell on deaf ears. In a letter written in February 1792, Johnson lamented about ‘the thinness of the congrega­tion’ each Sunday.4 This was partly due to the fact that after four years, no church building had been erected.5 It was also partly due to the limitations of having only one chaplain serving the entire colony. Johnson’s time was certainly stretched. For example, by March 1788, one month into the new settlement, Johnson had pre­sided over thirty marriages.6 As the burgeoning population increased, and set­tlement spread west, Johnson found himself splitting his time between Sydney and Parramatta. Long before cars, buses, trains, and ferries of the modern world existed, the distance covered by Johnson was significant. He made fortnightly trips on Saturdays to Parramatta by boat, woke early on Sundays to ride by horse to preach in Toongabbie, returned to Parramatta to preach at 10am and 4pm, spent time with convicts in their huts throughout the day, and came back to Sydney on Mondays.7 Johnson’s dedication to his parish – understood in the widest possible sense – was evident through his industry. This was exhausting work, and Marsden did not arrive in Sydney until 1794.

Johnson also felt a personal responsibility for the convicts’ welfare. When the Second Fleet arrived in 1790, carrying 300 convicts, Johnson commented that ‘never did I see such a scene of misery in my days, in every sense truly wretched, naked, filthy, dirty, lousy, & many of them utterly unable to stand, to creep or even to stir hand or foot’. Yet despite the dreadful conditions that he faced, Johnson was determined to spend ‘a great deal [of time] amongst them, till I have come home quite ill’.8 He went on to bury more than 100 of these convicts within the first few months of their arrival. Thus, Johnson’s sensitivity to the earthly plight of his parishioners was matched by the spiritual care he sought to provide. Here was a model of ministry that cut across the social mores of the day. It was an effort to demonstrate God’s love for those who were thought of as the most unlovable.

The difficulties faced by Johnson were made worse when Governor Phillip returned to England and was replaced by Lieutenant Francis Grose in December 1792. A military man, Grose had been wounded during the American War of Independence a couple of decades earlier, and was now in command of the New South Wales Corps. The impact Grose had on the colony was immediate. ‘Civil government was virtually abolished and a quasi-military regime instituted in its place. The civil magistrates within two days of Phillip’s departure were replaced by officers of the NSW Corps.’9 This included Johnson, who was stood down from the Bench of Magistrates, a position he had held since arriving.10 Grose also favoured his military colleagues by granting each officer one hundred acres of land. But he also promoted economic prosperity by encouraging trade, and increased the production and sale of liquor. However, the balance of power was firmly in favour of the elites where the ‘concentration of wealth and power [was held securely] in the hands of the few’.11

One consequence of this new regime was that officers were now allowed to pay convicts in rum for their labour on private farms. This form of remuneration was certainly popular, but it also had a detrimental effect on the behaviour of its recipients since convict camps were flooded with alcohol each evening. As a result, Johnson’s house was vandalised and robbed on more than one occasion. But he received no response to the complaints and pleas for extra security that were made directly to Grose.12 When Marsden landed towards the end of Grose’s term, he similarly was shocked at the state of ‘riot and dissipation, and licentiousness and immorality, which pervaded every part of this settlement, amongst the lower ranks of its inhabitants … gaming and drunkenness, and robberies and murders, were common crimes’.13 Considering this state of affairs, it is not surprising that Marsden felt that ‘all attempts to instruct [these people] in the duties of religion would be ineffectual, unless the policy of the colony was totally changed’.14 In other words, the policies of civil government limited the capacity of clergy to minister publicly, and this simulta­neously discouraged layfolk from manifest­ing their faith openly. It was immediately clear to Marsden that Grose had used his power and privilege to actively stymie public ministry.

Johnson provided his own account of Grose’s bullying tactics to Governor Hunter in 1798. One particularly egregious act was to refuse Johnson access to convicts on the night before their execution.15 Despite mul­tiple attempts to see these men, Johnson and Marsden were barred from provid­ing spiritual comfort in their final hour. Grose also used his political authority to restrict Johnson’s ministry in Parramatta by stopping the provision of a govern­ment boat each fortnight.16 He continually obstructed plans to build a church by requisitioning raw materials such as wood and glass for government purposes and withheld funds. This forced Johnson to pay for the church out of his own pocket, and although the building was completed in August 1793, Johnson was only recom­pensated in 1797.17 More generally, public worship came under fire soon after Grose took control of the colony. Sunday services led by Johnson were to commence at six in the morning and could only last forty-five minutes. Still, these were routinely interrupted by regimental drummers who signalled the movement of soldiers out of the congregation mid-service, leaving Johnson with ‘about half a dozen convicts standing behind me’.18 The widely acknowledged animosity Grose had for Johnson was expressed in a subsequent order that forbade convicts from attending his ser­vices. Johnson knew of at least one convict couple who were officially warned by a constable of the NSW Corps for worshipping at his service.19 Others did not get off so lightly. Some convict women had their heads shaved and were told that future appearances at Johnson’s church services would result in iron collars and being sent to Toongabbie as punishment.20

It quickly became obvious to the inhabitants of Sydney that public support for Johnson’s ministry was neither politically nor socially acceptable. The situation was so dire that on Christmas Day 1793, only thirty to forty people attended even though the service was held in the newly opened church building that had room for five hundred.21 While not exhaustive, these examples provide some insight into the way public policy had a direct impact on gospel ministry. In the words of Johnson, the measures taken by Grose were ‘a most effectual step to throw aside all regard or reverence for the Sabbath Day, and to render all public solemn worship utterly contemptible’.22

Grose’s hostility to the gospel was concealed within the context of his time, in which society was glossed by a thin veneer of Christianity. On the one hand, the commander-in-chief, as he was colloquially known, supported the work of James Bain, the chaplain to the NSW Corps. Little is known about Bain outside his time as chaplain and magistrate on Norfolk Island from 1792.23 But he had also been commissioned by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to help provide education in the colony alongside Johnson.24 However, Grose recalled him to Sydney in February 1794, and Johnson interpreted this move as another calculated move by the Lieutenant Governor to further under­mine his ministry.25 For while convicts were barred from worshipping at Johnson’s church, they were now instructed to attend Bain’s services in the barracks. Given Bain’s status and purpose, Grose was able to maintain a patina of Christianity. None of the ways Grose operated threat­ened the accepted cultural pillars of society. Yet for those few who understood the times, gospel ministry was being undermined within the very structures that pur­ported to uphold it.

For Grose, raising the profile of Bain over and against Johnson was more than a redistribution of resources. It was motivated by a suspicion of and ‘prejudice against evangelical religion’.26

26 Indeed, one of the greatest insults Johnson received during his time in Sydney was to be called a ‘Methodist’. While Johnson was an Anglican thoroughbred who upheld the standards of public worship according to the Prayer Book, this was more than a denominational barb at the turn of the nine­teenth century. The popular response to John Wesley’s itinerant preaching was often conflated with the spirit of independence manifested in America, as well as the rebellious nature of the French Revolution. Thus, those who walked the corri­dors of power in late-eighteenth century Britain viewed non-conformists through the same lens as insurrectionists. To label someone a ‘Methodist’ was to question their fidelity to the Church of England as well as their loyalty to the British crown. This is exactly what Grose insinuated when he used the epithet to label Johnson.

In a letter to Colonial Under-sectary Dundas, Grose described Johnson as ‘one of the people called Methodists, [who] is a very troublesome, discontented charac­ter’.27 This criticism was the basis of the argument Grose used to dissuade Dundas from paying Johnson for building the church.28 It was a pointed attempt to humil­iate the chaplain by claiming that evangelical faith was synonymous with political and social insubordination. The implication was that the government should not offer public support for this kind of religion. Such personal attacks demonstrate how legitimate structures and public office were used to stifle gospel ministry from the earliest days of white settle­ment in Australia.

Ironically though, Grose’s insult was not that far off the mark. Johnson him­self had previously described himself in similar terms to his Baptist friend, Henry Fricker. Comparing himself to fellow Anglican clergy who ‘go aside … from the principles and fundamental doctrines held in our established Church, and so flatly contradict those very articles which they have subscribed to’, Johnson claimed to ‘see things in a different light, and however stigmatised by the name of Methodist, Enthusiast, etc., I am not ashamed of the precious gospel of Jesus’.29 For Johnson, evangelical faith trumped churchmanship and denominational labels. And it was this, more than any socio-political association attached to the term ‘Methodist’, that Grose found so repugnant and offensive.

What we have seen in this brief overview, then, is that Johnson operated at a time when the denigration of gospel ministry was being woven into the structural framework of politics and culture. There was open opposition and private vilifica­tion. The capacity for faithful witness in the public square was stymied by deliber­ate government policy and changing cultural norms. Johnson never compromised his evangelical faith, and he suffered for it.

Considering these circumstances, it is unsurprising to note how much self-doubt Johnson felt about his ministry. This was expressed at length in various letters to his mentor, John Newton. The great abolitionist sympathised with Johnson and did not ‘blame [him] for being greatly concerned for the sins and enormities which you are daily witness to, and especially for the gross profanation of the Sabbath’.30 But Newton had been offering fine words of encouragement from as early as 1791:

I have not been disheartened by your apparent want of success. I have been told that skilful gardeners will sow and raise a salad for dinner in the short time while the meat is roasting. But no gardener can raise oaks with such expedition. You are sent to New Holland not to sow salad seeds, but to plant acorns, and your labour will not be lost, though the first appearance may be very small and the progress very slow. You are, I trust, planting for the next century. I have good hope that your oaks will spring up and flourish and spread among the islands and nations of the southern seas.31

Two years later, Newton again encouraged the embattled pastor:

You are sent to lay the foundation upon which others will build; and it will be more clearly seen by posterity than at present that the lord directed you by His counsel, and upheld you by His arm of power – that He appointed you to the honour of opening a plan, which He, in His due time, will accomplish. This is a greater honour than if you had been made a Bishop, or Archbishop, or Cardinal, or Pope.

You have been slighted or despised by those who ought to have assisted and encouraged you. But you have not fainted; you have kept His word, have not denied His name, nor been ashamed of Him.32

Given the time delay of postage of that era, this letter might well have arrived on Johnson’s desk in the midst of his prolonged confrontation with Grose. We can only speculate the relief and comfort it would have brought to the beleaguered chaplain. Two hundred and thirty years after that letter was penned, we can argue that Newton’s words were prophetic.

Viewed through the lens of his earthly life, Johnson’s story is not an uplifting tale of triumph against the odds. But taking an eternal perspective on his foun­dational ministry places our own struggles into sharper relief. Recognising and acknowledging how previous saints have contented for the faith once delivered helps to broaden and deepen our appreciation of God’s blessing, even amidst the suffering of each generation. Johnson’s story reminds us that it has never been popular or in vogue to teach the goodness of God’s word, regardless of how nomi­nally Christian or otherwise the cultural norms are. Yet, like Newton, we can thank and praise God for our spiritual forebears such as Johnson, who continued to preach and proclaim the good news of salvation in Christ through faith, whilst straining under significant pressure.

1 On Johnson, see for example Manning Clark, A History of Australia: From the Earliest Times to the Age of Macquarie (Melbourne University Press: Melbourne, 1962); Alison O’Brien, ‘Religion’, in Alison Bashford & Stuart Macintyre (eds.); The Cambridge History of Australia (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013), 414-437. Marsden’s negative reputation was largely sealed by Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1987).

2 For example, see Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder, The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1740-1914 (Monash University Publishing, Melbourne, 2018). See also, Marcus L. Loane, Hewn From The Rock: Origins and Traditions of the Church in Sydney (Anglican Information Office, 1976); Neil K. Macintosh, Richard Johnson: Chaplain to the Colony of New South Wales, His Life and Times 1755-1827 (Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1978).

3 An Address to the Inhabitants of the Colonies Established in New South Wales and Norfolk Island, (London, 1794). This book was penned by Johnson in 1792.

4 Johnson to Phillip, 29 February 1792. Historical Records of NSW, 594.

5 Johnson to Phillip, 29 February 1792, HRNSW vol 1, 594.

6 Macintosh, Richard Johnson, 52.

7 Macintosh, Richard Johnson, 51.

8 Johnson to Fricker, 21 August 1790. Letters from the Rev. Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker, 30 May 1787-10 Aug. 1797, with associated items, ca. 1888, Mitchell Library.

9 Neil K. Macintosh, Richard Johnson: Chaplain of the Colony of New South Wales (Library of Australian History,1978), 63.

10 Ibid, 67.

11 Manning Clark, A History of Australia: I, From the Earliest Times to the Age of Macquarie (Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1962), 132-42, at 135.

12 Johnson to Hunter 5 July 1798, HRA, vol 1, 2, 180.

13 Marsden to Hunter 11 August 1798, HRA vol 1, 185.

14 Ibid.

15 Johnson to Hunter 5 July 1798, HRA, vol 1, 2, 180.

16 Macintosh, Richard Johnson, 73-4.

17 Richard Johnson, Memoirs of Richard Johnson (16 April 1794), in Papers of Archbishop John Moore (as filmed by the AJCP)/File 1/Memoirs of Rev. Richard Johnson (29 pp).

18 Johnson to Hunter 5 July 1798, HRA, vol 1, 2, 179.

19 Ibid, 181.

20 Richard Johnson Papers, Lambeth Palace Library, 127-8, as cited in Macintosh, Richard Johnson, 73.

21 D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol 1, (London, 1798), 327; Clark, A History of Australia, 138.

22 Johnson to Hunter 5 July 1798, HRA, vol 1, 2, 179.

23 See King to Grose, 19 March 1794, HRNSW vol 2, 184-6.

24 Extract from the Proceedings of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1794-95, HRNSW vol 2, 282.

25 Richard Johnson Papers, Lambeth Palace Library, 126, as cited in Macintosh, Richard Johnson, 73.

26 Piggin and Linder, The Fountain of Public Prosperity, 83.

27 Grose to Dundas, 4 September 1793. HRNSW vol 2, 64.

28 Ibid.

29 Johnson to Fricker, 4 October 1791, as quoted by Macintosh, Richard Johnson, 76.

30 Newton to Johnson, 29 March 1794, HRNSW vol 2, 196.

31 Newton to Johnson, 10 March 1791, as quoted in Piggin and Linder, The Fountain of Public Prosperity, 82.

32 Newton to Johnson, 24 May 1793, HRNSW vol 2, 27.