For two centuries, Christian missions were a major force in the lives of Indigenous people. Who were the early missionaries, and what impact did they have?

In the following excerpts taken form his book, One Blood [1], John Harris uses original sources to examine the early missionaries’ encounters with Indigenous spirituality. These official records, newspaper articles and journals expose the thinking that informed the early missionaries’ actions as they sought to bring the gospel to Australia’s Indigenous people.    

 

Harris acknowledges early on that, “The first fleet did not transport God to Australia in 1788… God was already here, present and active as Creator and Sustainer of every remote corner of the earth. God was not indiscernible to Aboriginal people, a religious people who sought to relate to their environment in spiritual terms.” (pg. 17).

 

However, according to Harris, “Missionaries arrived in Australia not expecting to find among Aboriginal people ideas of any intellectual or spiritual depth” (pg. 541), and they largely failed to perceive any trace of spirituality among Aboriginal people. Harris quotes one such missionary, John Dunmore Lang, who wrote:

“[The Aborigines] have no idea of a supreme divinity, the creator and governor of the world, the witness of their actions and their future judge. They have no object of worship. . . They have no idols, no temples, no sacrifices. In short, they have nothing whatever of the character of religion or of religious observance, to distinguish them from the beasts that perish.” [2]

 

The Lutheran missionary, Christopher Eipper, similarly failed to discern any tangible evidence that Aboriginal people had the capacity to worship:

"I confess the prospects here are less encouraging, for the presence of an idol shows yet the dependence of the creature, and the necessity presented. . . to the mind, of having something to worship. This here must be first created…” [3]

According to Harris, the Jesuits in the Northern Territory acknowledged Aboriginal spiritual beliefs insofar as they ridiculed them, however they “modified their attitude when they observed supernatural phenomena which 'staggered' them” (pg. 542). [4]

Nevertheless, those missionaries who did recognise spirituality in Indigenous culture commonly associated it with evil, referring to Aboriginal people as ‘devotees of the devil’ " (pg. 543). [5]

There were some exceptions to this trend. Harris notes that John Bulmer, a long term missionary at Lake Tyers in Victoria, “was pleased to discover that Aboriginal people shared his belief in a creator of the world and in the immortality of the soul” (pg. 543). Bulmer wrote:

“The question has been asked. 'Have the Aborigines of Australia any idea of a supreme being?…’ They certainly have ideas of beings who existed long ago… and that to them all things as they now exist are due… Thus the Murray people had their Ngalambru or ancient of days… The Gippslanders had their Ngalambru, meaning the first… The Maura people had their Boganbe... meaning big or high… The people of the Wimmera had their Ngramba Natchea, meaning the oldest spirit… The blacks did not think death was the end of existence. They recognised the fact that a man had a spirit, Gnowk.”  [6]

 

Moreover, Harris writes that in New South Wales, the Wiradjuri people spoke to the Presbyterian missionary, William Ridley, of ‘Baiame’, “whose very name was derived from the word ‘to create’” (pg. 543), and whose distinctive attributes were “immortality, power and goodness” (pg. 543). [7]

Nevertheless, according to Harris, “very few missionaries acknowledged the possibility that Aboriginal spirituality could have been derived, even in part, from God’s general revelation of himself.” (page 327). He notes that Ridley, alone of all the nineteenth century missionaries, “recognised Aboriginal religious tradition and speculation for what it was - ‘the thirst for religious mystery’, a reaching out to God” (pg. 543). [8]

 

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