31 May, 2020

The faltering beginnings of
Christianity in the colony of NSW 1788 - 1793

Memorial to the first Christian Service held in New South Wales
at the corner of Hunter and Bligh Streets, Sydney.

In a small reserve adjacent to the intersection of Hunter and Bligh Streets in central Sydney is a spired monument in the Gothic style which bears the following inscription :

To the glory of God 
and in commemoration of 
the first Christian Service held in Australia 
February 3rd 1788
Rev. Richard Johnson BA 
the Chaplain 
being the preacher.

The text of the sermon : 
What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me?
Psalm CXVI 12.

The Service - most probably what was known in The Book of Common Prayer as Mattins or Morning Prayer - took place a week after the landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove (1) and beneath the shade of a great tree.  The monument is located on the site of the first church (see below), but not marking the exact spot where the Chaplain conducted the first Divine Service in the new colony.  (2) The full text of Mr Johnson's sermon has not been preserved, but it is most fortunate that the scriptural text he chose as the basis for his sermon has.  It was Psalm 116.  It is most indicative of his own piety and sense of the occasion :
What shall I return unto the Lord for all his bounty unto me?  I will raise the cup of Salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord ... I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem.
It is perhaps noteworthy and even indicative that a whole week elapsed before the first Christian Service was celebrated in that area which Captain Arthur Philip had claimed for the British Crown. (3)

An artist's impression of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove, January 1788.

Image : First Fleet Fellowship of Victoria

Let us trace how Richard Johnson came to be appointed as Chaplain to the First Fleet and new Colony.  Most readers will be familiar with the protestant hymn Amazing Grace, written in 1772 by an English parson, the Reverend John Newton.  Mr Newton was a leading figure in the Evangelical revival within the Church of England in the eighteenth century.  His story is, in its own right, most interesting (but beyond our scope here).  In 1786, Newton wrote :
A minister who should go to Botany Bay without a call from the Lord and without receiving from Him an apostolical spirit, the spirit of a missionary, enabling him to forsake all, to give up all, to put himself into the Lord’s hands, to sink or swim, had better run his head against a stone wall.
Mr Newton persuaded the government of the day to send such a Chaplain with the First Fleet and recommended the Reverend Richard Johnson as that man.  At that time, Mr Johnson was in his early thirties and serving as a curate in a London Parish.  A native of Yorkshire, he had been educated at Cambridge.  In the same month that Captain Arthur Philip was appointed to the charge of the First Fleet (October 1786), Mr Johnson was appointed by the British Government to be its Chaplain. (4) He sought a wife to accompany him to New South Wales and they married quickly. 

The First Fleet of eleven ships and approximately 1400 persons - convicts, sailors, marines, officials with wives and servants - left Portsmouth Harbour under the command of Captain Philip in May 1787.  Mr and Mrs Johnson were on board the vessel The Golden Grove.  On The Golden Grove he was able to conduct a service each Sunday, and to read prayers every evening. When the Fleet reached Rio de Janeiro, he visited the other ships to minister to those on board, marines and convicts alike.  It seems obvious that Richard Johnson did not see himself as part of the Authority of the new Colony of NSW, but rather as a preacher of the Gospel, with a zeal for the salvation of souls. (5) A man who wished for comfort or prestige would never have accepted such an appointment.  But a man who fervently lived the Gospels might; and such a man was Richard Johnson.

A portrait of Captain Arthur Philip RN painted in 1786;
Commander of the First Fleet and First Governor of NSW.

The Collection of the State Library of NSW.

Captain Arthur Philip, however, possessed no such fervour, nor saw merit in such a ministry in the Colony of NSW.  He was a navy man and he had his Orders.  After Captain Philip was appointed to command the First Fleet and to establish the Settlement at Botany Bay as its Governor, he had the responsibility of assembling those whom he thought would benefit the establishment of the Colony.  He managed this most effectively.  Arthur Philip foresaw that what began as a settlement for the cast-offs of England would develop into place of great value to the British Crown.  He wrote : "Nor do I doubt but that this country will prove the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made."  Few in the British Government, however, shared this view. Arthur Philip wished to reform the convicts, not simply gaol and punish them.  He also wished to befriend Australia's Indigenous peoples. But Philip's was also a very pragmatic vision; he was no dreamer.

The mental picture formed by those statesmen and bureaucrats in England who planned the Penal Settlement, namely, that Botany Bay (6) was a fertile land where crops would readily grow to support the needs of the residents, were not realised in the land immediately surrounding the settlement at Sydney Cove.  We need only ponder the difficulty of establishing a self-sustaining settlement in an unknown land, completely unlike England, with a harsh climate and its own peoples who had lived on the continent for tens of thousands of years.  At various points in the first two years after settlement, the starvation of both convicts and the troops guarding them seemed a real possibility; there was insufficient to feed those who arrived in January 1788 and subsequently in 1789 and 1790. The planting of crops around Sydney Cove had failed and convicts, sailors, even Mr Johnson himself, went out into Port Jackson in boats to catch fish to feed the Settlement.

A map of the Settlement at Sydney Cove in July 1788 - just six months after the landing - shews clearly a tract of land in approximately the area bounded by the present Harrington, Essex, Grosvenor and George Streets which had been set aside for the building of a church.  From this, we can surmise that the construction of a church had been discussed between Governor Philip and Mr Johnson. (7)

An engraving of the Settlement at Sydney Cove based on a detailed map drawn up
in July 1788.  The ornament and the no. 7 indicate the spot which
had been selected for the construction of a church. 
It was eventually built elsewhere in 1793.

One of the telling aspects of the attitude of the Government of the new Colony, however, was that it took fully five years before a building specifically for the purpose of Divine Service came to be constructed.  And even then - 1793 - it was paid for out of the pocket of the Chaplain, Mr Johnson.  It was also not on the land indicated on the 1788 map.  By the time that church had been completed, Arthur Philip had relinquished government of the colony and returned to England.  A request from Mr Johnson of Philip in 1792 for convict labour and some financial support to build churches both in Sydney and Parramatta was declined by the Governor.

A sketch by the architect and historian Morton Herman of
the first Christian Church in Australia, erected in 1793 on the corner of Hunter
and Bligh Streets Sydney.
The T-shaped building was able to seat a few hundred souls
and was dedicated to Saint Philip.

In five years as the first Governor, Arthur Philip had accomplished much in establishing the settlements of New South Wales from their natural states to a self-supporting colony.  He was a fair man, persevering, determined, just and possessed of courage. He was not capricious, or cruel or readily prone to discouragement. In less steady hands, it is most likely that the Settlement in 1788 would have collapsed, leaving an awkward situation for all concerned.  For all his virtues, however, Arthur Philip seemed not to have been a man of any religious conviction.  He did not approve of the Chaplain's desire to evangelise the convicts of the new Colony, or those in charge of them.  He asked Mr Johnson to focus his attention on instilling a sound morality instead, which was of more obvious social benefit.

In other cultures, in other ages and even other contemporary nations (such as Spain and France), building a temple, a shrine or a House of God would seem a sensible way of seeking God's help for a struggling society.  Men of the Enlightenment, however, such as Governor Philip and his officers, lacked such a sensibility.  Mr Johnson conducted Divine Service initially in a tent and sometimes in rooms which were made available on a Sunday.  In those earliest days, no one was compelled to attend and evidence is lacking as to how many of the Settlement's inhabitants actually did.

In the next posts in this series, we shall further discuss the Christian ministry of the Reverend Richard Johnson in the infant Colony; the landing of Count La Perouse at Botany Bay, the Catholic convict James Ruse and the stirrings of Catholicism in those early years.



1. Sydney Cove includes the spot we now refer to as Circular Quay

2. It would seem doubtful that the site of the Memorial marks the spot of the first Christian Service, which was more likely closer to the Sydney Cove. A map of the Settlement made in March 1788, indicates that the corner of the present Hunter and Bligh Streets was an area outside the Settlement. There does not seem to be documentary evidence to be definite about this point. The Memorial, however, certainly indicates the place where Rev'd Mr Johnson built the first church in 1793.

3. The new colony of New South Wales initially comprised all of the Eastern half of the continent, as far as what is now South Australia.

4. Some early historians, repeated by others over the years, have asserted that the inclusion of a Chaplain to the First Fleet was an after-thought, decided upon not long before the Fleet sailed from England.  This is completely inaccurate, since both the Chaplain and the Commander of the First Fleet were both appointed in October 1786, when the matter was still in the planning stages.

5. In the language of the Church of England, Mr Johnson would be described as an Evangelical, but one of the Officers of the new Colony, Lieutenant Tench went so far as to describe him as a "Methodist".

6. In August 1788, Captain Philip wrote to the Authorities in England, describing in detail the map of July 1788.  All the buildings he planned and his intentions for the laying out of streets &c. are mentioned in this letter.  But there is no mention of the construction of a church in the letter.

7. Based upon Captain Cook's discovery in 1770, and the observations of the botanist on that voyage, Sir Joseph Banks, the British Government had settled upon Botany Bay as the place for the Penal Settlement.  Often New South Wales was referred to colloquially as Botany Bay.  But when the First Fleet reached New South Wales and Captain Philip assessed Botany Bay, he found it not in the least suited to the needs of a large new settlement.  A short expedition Northward in a long boat lead to the discovery of Port Jackson (which we now refer to as Sydney Harbour) and, in particular Sydney Cove.  Captain Philip sailed the Fleet into Port Jackson and landed at Sydney Cove, claiming it for the British Crown on 26th January 1788.


The following online articles give useful accounts of the lives of Arthur Philip and Richard Johnson.




The following monographs were used in preparing this article :

Cedric Flower The Illustrated History of NSW, Rigby Publishers Limited, Sydney, 1981.

GB Barton The History of New South Wales from the Records, volume 1 Governor Philip 1783-1789, by Authority, Sydney,  1889.

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