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TRA WordTalks

The Makers of Australia — The Educators

Psalm 22:1-6
5th December 2004

This country has never valued its teachers enough. Those engaged in education at whatever level, are not recognised for their significant contribution to successive generations. We do not pay them enough, honour them enough, and while loading more and more responsibilities upon them, keep reducing their levels of authority and status within the community. The churches should be in the forefront of honouring our teachers because Jesus came teaching, and left his disciples with the command to evangelise and teach. Wherever the church has gone, it has always established schools.

Did you know education in Australia was established not by the government, but by the Christian Church? In the first hundred years of our country’s European settlement there were no government schools. It was only in 1880 that government education officially began and for the next hundred years church schools were opposed by governments that tried to squeeze them out of existence. Only the Roman Catholic parochial schools survived plus some large independent, largely Protestant schools. One hundred years later, in 1980, we saw the rise of church based schools once more and today 33% of all students are educated in church schools, and this percentage is growing annually in all levels of education. The Bible-based church-related schools of early colonial times was remarkably successful in meeting the academic and spiritual/moral needs of the younger generation of that day. Australia’s first church building also served as a schoolhouse. It was erected by Chaplain Richard Johnson at his own expense in 1793 and served both as church and school for five years until it was burnt down by a convict.

The majority of schools established in the infant colony were started by clergymen and supported by grants from religious and missionary societies. Every country saw missionaries of every denomination establish day schools. Evangelical clergy like Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden, supported by British missionary societies, constructed and staffed our first schools. Early Australian education, like that of America and other countries, was initiated not by government legislation and funding, but by the Christian church.

The Rev. Richard Johnson was deeply concerned about the moral state of the convict population to whom he was to minister. Three years after the colony’s settlement, he started Christian schooling. He wrote to a friend in England asking him to recruit someone prepared to establish schools on Sunday for illiterate convicts in New South Wales “with the intention of bringing some of those unhappy wretches to a better way of thinking.” By 1793 Johnson had built our first Christian day school. By the next year he wrote to the Secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel: “If any hopes are to be formed of any reformation being affected in this Colony, I believe it must begin amongst those of the rising generation.” The belief that education of the young was of the highest priority, was echoed by the Rev. Samuel Marsden in a letter addressed to the Bishop of London: “The future hopes of this Colony depend upon the rising generation. Little can be expected from the Convicts who are grown old in vice, but much may be done for their children under proper instructions.”

Governor King encouraged the establishing of schools. He set up and financed from private funds orphanages for the illegitimate offspring of convicts. Attached to these institutions were schools in which the inmates were taught tailoring, shoemaking and gardening up to the age of fifteen years. Many in Australia’s first decade saw the imminent threat of irreversible delinquency among the rising generation unless a Christian influence was brought to bear.

An historian, P.H.Partridge observes: “It was commonly assumed by respectable people that education (or at any rate the education of children of the lower orders) was an aspect of moral training and that since the Christian faith was the foundation of morality, education was the responsibility of the Church. It was assumed that the churches and religious organisations would care for the education of the young; that the clergy would be responsible for the schools and teachers.” They thought the only viable solution to the problem of moral degeneracy lay in religious instruction. Protestant churches of early Australia saw education not only as a direct means of inculcating Christian ethics and doctrine, but as a means also of developing widespread literacy which was fundamental to Protestantism itself: “The argument that teaching the masses to read was essential if Biblical truths were to be revealed to all, was central to the religious beliefs of the English philanthropists of the 1790’s who sponsored lending libraries, savings banks and Sunday Schools.” Cleverley The early church schools were different in staffing, curriculum, control and funding. How did all of this work out in practise?


The teachers were expected to be committed Christians. Rev. Samuel Marsden called for schoolmaster emigrants who possessed the attributes of “personal Piety and an earnest desire to communicate Christian knowledge.” One letter requests: “I wish you would send out a few persons with small salaries to take on them the office of schoolmasters. I say small salaries because if you were to give large ones, improper people would accept the situations. If you would look out for a few persons, fit for the purpose, I should be greatly obliged to you.”

Most schoolmasters were Christian in their personal belief and commitment. A number were missionaries. Some like Edward Eagar were converted convicts. Matthew Hughes, another ‘sincere convert’ and Wesleyan taught in the Kissing Point Chapel Schoolroom which was consecrated by Revs Marsden and Johnson in July, 1800. The Parramatta School had Rev William Crook who was foundational in establishing the Congregational Church in Australia. The aim was Christian teachers for Christian schools and this they largely achieved.


The curriculum centred on reading and writing Biblical truths and Christian doctrine. The first wattle and daub church school in Sydney’s Hyde Park being “conceived in the Protestant vernacular tradition expounded by Luther and Calvin in the sixteenth century” featured a curriculum of this kind. The children memorized the church catechism and recited it back on Mondays.

They sang Isaac Watts’ hymns and their Dixon’s Speller, in addition to the A B C contained prose excerpts designed to highlight Christian morality. By 1820 Australian church education adopted the monitor system popular in Britain. The teacher would teach the older and more competent students who would teach lower grades. Some claimed monitors enabled a ratio of one teacher to every five hundred children. In Britain, by 1820, some quarter of a million school children were enrolled in monitorial schools. In Australia we had few teachers and many children, so this system was eagerly adopted. Early members of our church like Thomas Bowden, John Hosking and Edward Eagar used the monitorial system before 1820. Commissioner Bigge selected it as best for the colony’s education system. So Christian teaching taught by monitors was the norm.


Churches and their missionary societies supplied the finances for schools under their control. Churches accepted that establishing, staffing and controlling schools was their responsibility. Government funding was not seen as the normal way to support schools. Some assistance from the government was received mainly by Anglican schools to which land was donated. Later, the need for many more schools in the colony imposed very heavy burdens upon all the churches and missionary societies undertaking the work. After fifty years the churches began to request government assistance, which then led to government control and a century of conflict. State aid and control for church schools is still an issue for governments and believers alike.


The assessment of schools of over a century and a half ago is extremely difficult. But we have two measurements. Did the early students become literate? Did their morals improve? Literacy increases can be measured by the numbers of people filling in marriage forms and signing their own names as opposed to those signing with an “X”. The marriage registers, still extant in a number of the early colonial churches at Sydney, Parramatta and Windsor for the years 1804 and 1814, show 55% of men and 24% of women born outside the colony could sign their names. The rest marked the register with an “X”. But for the same period the percentage of those born in the colony who could sign their names was 63% of men and 69% of women. Among the native born there was increasing literacy and the churches were the only source of such training.

Concerning moral behaviour there are several indications that the colony’s native born children were held in higher regard and had a lower crime rate than did convicts, emancipists and free immigrants. Commissioner Bigge saw evidence of moral growth in the native born. He recommended they be eligible for land grants and loans of cattle and that they be called for jury service. Bigge’s opinion was shared by others. Peter Cunningham in the 1820’s writing of the colony’s native born claimed: “they are a little tainted with the vices so prominent among their parents! Drunkenness is almost unknown with them and honesty proverbial; the few of them that have been convicted having acted under the bad auspices of their parents or relatives.”

A correspondent in The Edinburgh Review in 1828 described the native born as “in a more than ordinary degree, temperate and honest.” Whilst it could be claimed that these opinions reported in the contemporary press were possibly subjective and perhaps even politically motivated, but an examination of early nineteenth century Sydney Gaol committals reveals an average index of only 3.43 per thousand for the native born in contrast to 4.23 for free immigrants, 15.4 for emancipists and 10.4 for convicts.

Sir W.W. Burton, Judge of the Supreme Court, indicates that he was impressed by the law-abiding nature of the native born: “There was not one of them ever tried before the writer for any of those atrocious crimes which are attributed to their country, but belong only to the convict class; nor did he hear or know of any person born in the colony, being tried for or even charged with, either the offence of rape or any other licentious crime; nor has he ever found any offence committed by any one of them, such as to call upon him to pronounce sentence of death; and no such sentence has ever been passed within his knowledge, or any crime committed with such a degree of violence as justify it.”

Governor Macquarie claimed “the colonists were more regular in their conduct, more temperate in their habits and infinitely more moral and religious than they were” when he first arrived in the country. The Rev. Samuel Marsden, declared there was some connection between the sobriety, honesty and industry of the native born and their education in Christian schools. We honour our teachers and the effectiveness of Christian education.


Gordon Moyes

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