A Secular State? Church, State and the Early Colonial Australian Polity

St Matthew's Anglican Church

Samuel Marsden's parish in Windsor

Drawing on recent theorists and critics of the notion of ‘secularisation’, such as Charles Taylor, this paper seeks to delineate the ways in which the relations between Church and State were understood in early colonial Australia. After sketching the broader European and British background the paper turns to the way in which an ‘established’ church was understood in early colonial Australia and the obstacles which stood in the way of it taking root. Though an established union of Church and State might not have been transported to Australia there remained considerable commitment to some form of a religiously-based social order. The result was a form of multiple establishments with the state forming an alliance between a number of churches rather than a single established church – an innovation which owed much to developments elsewhere in the Empire, particularly in Ireland. Though the state eventually withdrew from financing the churches directly, the alliance established a form of Church/State relations which varied considerably from that of the United States and its Jeffersonian ‘wall of separation’ between the two – thus calling into question any clear linear conception of ‘secularisation’ in the development of the Australian polity.


John Gascoigne was educated at Sydney, Princeton and Cambridge Universities and, since 1980, has taught history at UNSW where he is now a Scientia Professor. His publications have focused on the impact of the Enlightenment with his most recent book being Encountering the Pacific in the Age of the Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2014) (winner of the 2015 NSW Premier’s History Prize in the General Category). He is a fellow and member of Council of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and will be taking up the position of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard in 2016–17.


Date & time

Wed 18 May 2016, 4.15–5.30pm


McDonald Room, Menzies Library, ANU

Event series


School of History


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