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The Australian National University

Clergy, Colony and Empire: Anglican Clergy in Australia and the British World, 1788–1850

Date and time

Wednesday, October 21, 2015 - 16:15 - 17:30


McDonald Room, Menzies Library, ANU

Joseph Backler (1813-95), 'St Thomas' Church, Port Macquarie, 1832-42', SLNSW ML/273

Anglican clergymen in the Australian colonies in their earliest years faced very particular challenges. Lacking relevant training, experience or pastoral theology, these pioneer religious professionals not only ministered to a convict population unique in the empire, but had also to engage with indigenous peoples and a free-settler population struggling with an often inhospitable environment. This was in the context of a settler empire that was being reshaped by mass migration, rapid expansion and a widespread decline in the political authority of religion and the confessional state, especially after the American Revolution.

Previous accounts have caricatured such clerics as lackeys of the imperial authorities: “moral policemen”, “flogging parsons”. Yet, while the clergy did make important contributions to colonial and imperial projects, this paper offers a more wide-ranging picture. It reveals them at times vigorously asserting their independence in relation both to their religious duties and to humanitarian concern, and shows them playing an important part in the new colonies’ economic development, making a vital contribution to the emergence of civil society and distinctive intellectual and cultural institutions and traditions within Australia. It is only possible to understand the distinctive role the clergy played in the light of their social origins, intellectual formation and professional networks in an expanding settler empire, a subject explored systematically here for the first time.

Taken together, this revised understanding of clergy, colony and empire suggests the inadequacy of readings of colonial Australian history — not least the old secular nationalist approach — that do not give due attention to the dynamics of imperial power and religious faith.


Dr Michael Gladwin is Lecturer in History at St Mark's National Theological Centre in the School of Theology, Charles Sturt University, Canberra. A graduate of the Australian National University and the University of Cambridge, he has written widely on the religious and cultural history of Australia in the context of the British World, as well as the relationship between religion and war in Australian history. Michael is the author of Anglican Clergy in Australia, 1788–1850: Building a British World (2015) and Captains of the Soul: A History of Australian Army Chaplains (2013). His current research projects include the intellectual history of Christianity and colonialism during the long nineteenth century, the place of civil religion in Anzac Day commemoration, and an edited monograph on the history of preaching and religious discourse in Australian public life.


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