10 October, 2020

the rev'd richard johnson's pastoral address 1792 : 1

In a previous post, we met with the Chaplain appointed by the British Government to accompany the First Fleet to the new colony of New South Wales.  This was a Church of England parson, the Reverend Richard Johnson.  Our purpose in discussing Mr Johnson is to demonstrate that the challenges which faced the chaplains of the Church of England in the earliest years of the colony of New South Wales were, in many respects, the same as those which faced the Catholic pioneer priests only a few years later. 

The next three posts on  In diebus illis   will focus on the ministry of Mr Johnson in New South Wales. 

In this post we reproduce the first part of a remarkable document from 1792, slightly more than four years after the founding of the Colony in January 1788.  This document, written by the Reverend Richard Johnson, may be regarded as the first pastoral letter of a Christian minister in Australia.  It was published a small book, intended to be made available widely in the Colony.  Very few copies of Mr Johnson's book are known to survive.  

These are the plain words of a parson of the Evangelical discipline of Anglicanism.  Mr Johnson's book (printed in England for use in New South Wales) commences with a letter or a preface to his flock, explaining his reasons for writing, before he moves into what might be called a sermon or admonition.  The Address is of great interest not only because of what it says, but sometimes because of what it does not say.  It also makes clear reference to his ministry being for Christians of all denominations and to non-Christians.  We will discuss these things at the conclusion of this series of articles.

Because the address is so long, we cannot hope to reproduce every word of it here.  On the other hand, its importance as an historical document is such that we take the trouble to include the significant parts of it, for these are the observations of a minister of religion about the deplorable state of the Colony of NSW in 1792 and what he sees as necessary to reform it : namely, personal conversion to Christ.  Below is the first part of Mr Johnson's address, in which he describes the Christian Faith, the history of Salvation and his desire that all may be saved in Christ.   Much of what he writes is illustrated by references to verses from the Scripture, both Old and New Testaments.  

A likeness of the Rev'd Richard Johnson engraved in London 1787.
Digital art by the Saint Bede Studio.


My Beloved,

I do not think it necessary to make an apology for putting this Address into your hands; or to enter into a long detail of the reasons which induced me to write it. 

One reason may suffice. I find I cannot express my regard for you, so often, or so fully, as I wish, in any other way.

On our first arrival in this distant part of the world, and for some time afterwards, our numbers were comparatively small; and while they resided nearly upon one spot, I could not only preach to them on the Lord’s day, but also converse with them, and admonish them, more privately.

But since that period, we have gradually increased in number every year  (notwithstanding the great mortality we have sometimes known) by the multitudes that have been sent hither after us. The colony already begins to spread, and will probably spread more and more every year, both by new settlements formed in different places under the Crown, and by a number of individuals continually becoming settlers. Thus the extent of what I call my parish, and consequently of my parochial duty, is enlarging daily. On the other hand, my health is not so good, nor my constitution so strong, as formerly.  And therefore I feel it impracticable, and impossible for me, either to preach, or to converse with you so freely, as my inclination and affection would prompt me to do.

I have therefore thought it might be proper for me, and I hope it may prove useful to you, to write such an Address as I now present you with.  I transmitted a copy of it to my friends in England, with a request, that if they approved of it, a sufficient number might be printed, and sent to me. Thus I am now able to leave with you a testimony of my affection for you, and of my sincere and heartfelt concern, for your best, because your eternal, welfare. My times are in the hand of God. He, and He only, knows how long I may live, or how long my present connexion with you, may continue. I trust, however, that so long as the all-wise Disposer of all events shall be pleased to spare my life, and strength; and government shall deem my services in this remote land, necessary, it will be, as it has hitherto been, my most ardent desire, my uniform endeavour, and my greatest pleasure, to promote your happiness. And when recalled to my native country or removed by my God to my eternal home, to receive that crown of righteousness, which I humbly trust is laid up for me, by reading and carefully perusing the following pages, I hope you will be convinced, and reminded how sincerely you were pitied, and how dearly beloved by

Port Jackson,  30th October, 1792.

To this preface, Mr Johnson appended details of the rites he had solemnised since the beginning of the Colony :

At this date, exclusive of those who died or were born on the voyage from England :

Baptisms - - - 226
Marriages - - - 220
Burials - - - - 854



I BESEECH you, brethren, suffer this word of exhortation. Your souls are precious. They are precious in the sight of God. They are precious to the Lord Jesus Christ. They are precious in my esteem. Oh that you yourselves were equally sensible of their value.

We have now been here almost five years. During this time, I trust, I have been faithful in the discharge of my duty, faithful to my God, my country, my conscience, and to your immortal souls.

I would, nay I do, humbly hope that my labours have not been wholly in vain. Some of you, I trust, have been convinced of your folly, sin and danger; you have earnestly sought, and happily found mercy with God through a Mediator. You can now approach him as a God reconciled, a merciful Father and Friend, and are evidencing the reality of you conversion, by an upright life and conversation. 

But I must express my fear, that those of you, who are thus convinced of sin, and converted to God, and reformed from your evil courses, are comparatively very few. It is too evident, that the far greater part of you discover no concern for religion. The Great God, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, death, judgment, eternity, heaven and hell, these are subjects. which seldom, if at all, engage your attention; and therefore you spend days, weeks, months and years, in a profane and careless manner, though you are repeatedly informed and reminded in the most plain, faithful, and alarming language I can use, that the wages of sin, without repentance, is death ( Romans 6: 23  ) the curse of God, and the eternal ruin and damnation of your souls!

O, I entreat you, brethren, to consider what is contained in these two words, salvation and damnation.  The one implies everything that an immortal soul can want or desire to make it happy. The other includes an idea, the most gloomy and dreadful that can be conceived ... Our glass of life is running away apace. Our time is fast hastening to a period ...

On these accounts your souls are, as I have already observed, very precious, not only in the sight of God, but also to me. My brethren, God is my record ... next to the salvation of my own soul, nothing in this world lies so near my heart, as the conversion and salvation of my fellow creatures ; and especially of you, over whom I am appointed more immediately to watch, as one who must give an account.    ( Hebrews 13: 17 )

And O, my friends, if this affectionate, though plain address, should answer my ardent wishes and prayers, if it should prove the happy means of converting even one soul to God, I should indeed rejoice, as one that findeth great spoil.  ( Psalm 119: 162 )   For once, at least, endeavour to lift up your hearts with me in prayer to Almighty God, the bountiful giver of all grace. He only can make this or any other means effectual; and should it please Him of his abounding mercy to make a lasting impression upon your hearts, you will reap the happy fruits of it in life, at death, and to eternity. O, that the gracious Spirit of the Lord may open the eyes and the ears of all who may read or hear what I am writing.  May they who are asleep, awake! May they who are spiritually dead, be made alive!

My brethren, I trust I can say in truth, and with a sincere conscience, that I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.  ( Romans 1: 16 )  It is a knowledge, and I hope an inward experience of this precious gospel, that bears up my spirits when I am ready to sink as in deep waters, and when I am almost overwhelmed by the many heavy and daily trials, crosses, difficulties and disappointments, that I meet with in this, alas! most uncomfortable situation. An acquaintance with this gospel, an experience of its truth and power, sweetens every bitter, makes my crosses comforts, and my losses gains. It is by this knowledge that I am enabled to bear the cross of Christ, not only with some degree of patience and resignation, but at some seasons, with consolation and joy ; while I at one time reflect on what our dear Lord and Saviour endured for me, and at another anticipate the unspeakable honour and pleasure, which, through grace, I hope ‘ere long to enjoy at his right hand forevermore. And to endeavour to bring you, my dear friends, to a saving knowledge of what is contained in this gospel, is not only my duty and inclination as a minister, but also my earnest: desire and pleasure, and that which I long for more, than for any other thing that can be named.  ( Romans 10: 1 )

I have often explained to you, according to my sentiments, that is contained in the gospel. But as I fear, and am indeed well aware, that many of you, after all you heard, still remain ignorant, I will now tell you again briefly and plainly, what my views of the gospel are that by putting this book into your hands, you may, if you please, more carefully and attentively examine and search for yourselves, whether what I lay before you be agreeable to the holy scriptures, or otherwise and consequently, whether you ought to believe, or to reject it. 

The gospel, I conceive, in its most extensive sense, comprehends the whole revealed will of God, recorded in the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament.  ( 2 Timothy:  3: 16 )

This sacred book, which we call the Bible, describes the original state of man, as a state of perfect purity and innocence. He was made in the image of God. He was made upright . ( Genesis I: 26,27; Ecclesiastes 7:29 ). His understanding, will, his affections and conscience, his body and soul, were free from defilement, guilt, or guile. and while he continued so, he was not liable to pain, misery, or death.But man did not continue in this state. Our first parents disobeyed their Maker. By sinning against God they lost their original righteousness, and became earthly, sensual, devilish. Such are all his posterity: for who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean ?  Man is now the very reverse of what he was when first created.   His understanding is darkened ... his conscience is defiled, his affections, no longer fixed upon God his Creator and Benefactor;  by sin his body is become mortal, subject to pain, disease, and death.  (Romans 5: 12 )  ...

This 18th century drawing of the Rev'd John Wesley 
preaching in a town square in England
illustrates the style of Mr Johnson's ministry
in the earliest years of the Colony of NSW.

Whence is there so much ignorance and contempt of God?  Why do mankind so eagerly, so universally pursue the vain pleasures and follies of the world, while they seldom think of God their Maker ?  From whence proceed the infidelity, blasphemy, lying, theft, Sabbath-breaking, slandering, and the many horrid evils, which everywhere abound ? Whence is it that so many in this colony, labour under such sore and complicated disorders, pains, and miseries ? Why are so many, both young and old, taken away by death ? And why is it that others, who see all those things, do not take warning by them, to prepare for their own latter end ? Brethren, all these are so many undeniable proofs and evidences of what I have said, namely, that we are fallen and guilty creatures.  These are the effects of Adam's sin and disobedience. The certain consequences of which would have been unavoidable and endless misery, both of soul and body, to himself and all his posterity, had not some means been provided, some way laid open, for his and their recovery. 

But, blessed be God, a door of hope is opened by the gospel for miserable sinners! A gracious promise was given early, even to our first parents, immediately after their fall : "The seed of the woman shall break the serpent’s head." ( Genesis 3: 15 )  This promised seed is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, in due time, was to appear in the world, to be born of a woman, that by his life, suffering, and obedience unto death, he might recover fallen man from the misery and ruin in which he was involved. Brethren, this gospel which, as the ministers and ambassadors of God, we are commissioned and commanded to preach to sinners, proposes a free and gracious pardon to the guilty, cleansing to the polluted, healing to the sick, happiness to the miserable, light for those who sit in darkness, strength for the weak, food for the hungry, and even life for the dead. ( Galatians 4: 5;  Galatians 3:13;  1 John I: 7; Matthew 12: 28; Matthew 11:5 )

All these inestimable blessings are the fruits and effects of the death and mediation of Jesus Christ. His great design in coming into the world was to seek and to save those who are lost.   ( Luke 18:10; 1Timothy 1:15; I Peter: 3. 18 )  He came from heaven, that he might raise us to those holy and happy mansions; he endured the curse, that we might inherit the blessing; he bore the cross, that we might wear the crown; he died, that we might live; he died, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.  ( 1 Peter 3:18 ) ....

The faith whereby a sinner receives Christ, and becomes a partaker of all the blessings of the gospel, is the sole gift of God, wrought in the heart by his Holy Spirit. ( Ephesians 2: 8 )    This Holy Spirit produces an inward change in the soul, called, in the scripture, the new birth, regeneration ( John 13: 3-7 )  or conversion, and thus enables a sinner, convinced of his sin and misery, to look to Jesus, and to believe on him. 

But though repentance and faith are the gifts of God, which none can obtain by any endeavours of their own, yet we are encouraged and commanded to pray for them.  ( Luke 11:17 )

Now is the time to obtain the blessings revealed in the gospel, and which are set before you when it is preached.  Many have had these gracious declarations made to them, before we were born, and they will be repeated to many after we are dead.  But this is our day.  Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation. ( 1 Corinthians 6:2 )  Today ? For you and I may not live to see tomorrow.  Today, if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts. ( Hebrews 3 : 7, 8 ) ...
A day is likewise coming, when our mortal bodies, which must shortly moulder into dust, will be raised again from the dead.  Whether believers or unbelievers, whether saints or sinners, we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ.    ( 2 Corinthians 5:10 ; Daniel 12:2; Matthew 25:21 )   For the Lord Jesus will shortly appear in the clouds of heaven, the last trumpet shall sound, the graves shall open, the sea give up her dead, and all who have lived upon earth, from the creation to the final consummation of time, will, then be judged, and rewarded or punished according to their works. Mark well St. John’s representation of this solemn transaction, “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God, and the books were opened, and another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.” ( Revelation 20: 12, 13 )  ....

You must then give an account how you improved the advantages now afforded you, for attending to the things pertaining to your peace. 

Then all ungodly and impenitent sinners, being tried, cast, and condemned, must hear that final terrible sentence pronounced upon them : "Depart, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels!" ( Matthew 25:41 ).  And remember that those who have been your associates in wickedness here, will then be your companions in misery...O ! think of this and pray for grace to repent, before it is too late!

[But] the righteous - however obscured and reproached upon earth - shall then shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. ...  They will enjoy the unclouded presence of their Lord and Saviour, who once suffered pain, and shame, and death for them. They will see him seated upon a throne of glory, and unite with all the heavenly host, in ascribing salvation, glory, and honour, and praise to him who loved them, and washed them from their sins in his own blood; and has made them kings and priests to God, and to the Lamb, for ever and ever.  ( Revelations 5: 9 )

I have now given you a summary of the great truths, which, as a minister of the gospel, I am commissioned and commanded to preach.  ... I have told you again and again, that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, and that there is no coming to God with comfort, either in this world, or in that which is to come, but by him. He has told you so himself.   ( John 14: 6 ; Acts 4:12 )  ...

Artist's impression of the church which Mr Johnson caused
to be built near Church Hill, Sydney in 1793.

Permit me then, as your minister, your friend, and a well-wisher to your souls, to press these serious and weighty considerations home upon your consciences once more. I hope and believe that I have asserted nothing, but what can be proved by the highest authority, the word of the living God. They certainly deserve your closest and most careful attention, since it is plain beyond a doubt, that upon your knowledge or ignorance, your acceptance or rejection of this gospel, your everlasting happiness or misery must depend. Brethren, I do not ask you, what religious persuasion or denomination you have espoused. I fear, that, if I may judge of your hearts by your actions, too many are destitute of any sense of religion at all. But I do not address you as Churchmen or Dissenters, Roman Catholics or Protestants, as Jews or Gentiles; I suppose, yea, I know, that there are persons of every denomination amongst you.  But I speak to you as men and women, as intelligent creatures, possessed of understanding and reason. I speak to you as mortals, and yet immortals; as sinners, who have broken the laws of God, and are therefore obnoxious to his displeasure. And my sole aim and desire is, to be instrumental in turning you from darkness to light, from sin to holiness, from the power of Satan to the service and favour of God.  ( Acts 26:18 )

Seek then, I beseech you, above all things, an interest in the blessings of the gospel. Be assured it is a matter of much less moment, whether you are rich or poor, respected or despised in this world. The rich have their cares, fears, crosses, and vexations, no less than the poor; but admitting that they could pass through life with greater care than others, we all know that they cannot escape death. The great point is, how we shall die? Whether as believers or unbelievers, as saints or sinners. One soul, according to our Lord’s declaration, is of more value than the whole world.   ( Mark 8:36 )  If you lose your soul, you lose all at once. You lose heaven and happiness forever.  Whatever, therefore, you do, or leave undone, for God’s sake, and for your own sakes, neglect not for one day or hour longer, the vast concerns of another life. Delays are dangerous.   The more we have to risk or lose, the greater folly it would be accounted, to defer securing our property and goods, which we know to be in danger.  What folly, therefore, what madness must it be, to put off with careless indifference, the concernments of eternity; and to prefer the trifles of this transitory life to heaven, and the favour of God! 

If you consider what a valuable price was paid for our redemption, you must be convinced that the soul of man is very precious in the sight of God, and that sin is not so light and small an evil, as many of you have supposed. To disobey the commandments of the just and holy God, is, as far as in us lies, to renounce our allegiance to him, and our dependence upon him, and to set up for ourselves, and even to join with the devil in open rebellion against our Maker. It is, in plain terms, to fly in his face, and to bid defiance to his almighty arm. Sin is such a horrid evil, that unless it is forgiven, and blotted out, by the blood of Jesus, it will sink your souls lower than the centre of the earth, even into the very depths of hell, never, never, never more to rise.  ( Mark 9:44-48 )  So heinous was sin, in the sight of God, that rather than permit it to pass unpunished, he would punish it in the person of his own, his only, his well-beloved Son, who was made sin, that is, treated as a sinner deserved to be treated, for us. He was delivered up into the hands of wicked men, and crucified, that by his sufferings and death, he might make atonement for our sins, and procure an honourable and happy reconciliation, between a righteous God, and offending sinners .   ( 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 )   I beseech you, therefore, to prize and to study this gospel, that you may obtain a growing experience of its benefits. Praise God for such a Saviour, and such a salvation as he has provided. Adore him, for that infinite wisdom and boundless mercy which he has displayed in the redemption of fallen man ; and never rest, nor be satisfied, till you have good and scriptural reason to hope, that this Saviour is yours, with all the blessings he is exalted to bestow without money and without price.

Our food, my brethren, then only can nourish us, when it is eaten and digested. Medicines can only profit us, by being applied, and taken. It is exactly thus with the gospel. We may hear, and talk of these things, but so long as they remain matters of speculation, and do not enter into our hearts, into the very vitals of our souls, (if I may so speak) we cannot be the better for them. Christ is the bread of life. His flesh is meat indeed, and his blood is drink indeed!  But unless we ourselves do spiritually eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of man (for our Lord speaks of food for the soul, not for the body) we have no life in us. ( John 6: 52-58


The second part of Mr Johnson's pastoral address will be published in a following post on In diebus illis.  It details the state of the Colony of NSW from his daily experience and offers some suggestions for its improvement.

The population of the Colony of New South Wales in 1792 was slightly in excess of 4000.  Settlements existed around Port Jackson, Parramatta and Norfolk Island.  Being more specific about population numbers is difficult, since statistical returns before 1795 have not survived.  We know how many convicts arrived in the Colony in the First, Second and Third Fleets (1788-1791 with some other smaller fleets), being approximately 4300.  Soldiers, officials and others also add to the increase of this number.  Mr Johnson tells us that 854 burials took place between 1788-1792.

A copy of the Reverend Richard Johnson's Address to the Colony of NSW is kept by the National Library of Australia.  The Library photographed the book, converting it to a portable document format file, available online.  The Library also makes available a transcription of the book with optical character recognition software.  Unhappily, however, the OCR software was no match for the archaic spellings employed by Mr Johnson, and required the author of this article to manually transcribe Mr Johnson's address, so that each word and scripture quotation is accurately presented - we hope.


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