Preaching in Australia (V)

Robert F. Turner

To summarize this series, we first consider a brief history of the Lord's work in Australia. Although my historic sources are limited, it seems the gospel was brought to that country by a converted Scotch Baptist, Thomas Magarey, in 1844. He settled in Adelaide, other brethren arrived there from Scotland, and by 1865 there were five congregations in South Australia, totaling 253 saints. In Sydney, New South Wales, 1852, Albert Griffin contacted Mr. and Mrs. Henry Mitchell from Britain, and shortly thereafter they were meeting and worshipping together. Griffin baptized the first converts of record (four men) in Cook's river.

In Victoria, the earliest records go back to 1852. By 1855 Robert Service was publishing a paper there, called The Melbourne Medleys; and two American preachers were on the scene by 1866 -- T. J. Gore and G. L. Surber. Alexander Campbell was partly responsible for their coming, and apparently they brought his writings. In 1871 another American, Oliver Carr, moved to Tasmania, and in one year reported 108 saints there. A Tasmanian school teacher, Stephen Cheek, learned the truth by independent study, and began to preach. He moved to Victoria, where he read much of Alexander Campbell's writings, and found himself in agreement. In 1882 Cheek shipped to Queensland, landing at Brisbane, and began a whirlwind preaching tour which resulted in numerous converts and a scattering of active churches. He died of overexposure and pneumonia early in 1883.

Again stressing my limited sources, it seems these early churches were patterned after the Scotch and British churches, and were ultra conservative. A long-time member of the "Associated" church (digressive outgrowth) told me that the early churches did not use mechanical instruments of music in the worship, but I have no written record whatever of this, or of the history of its first use. I do note American influence in early Australian church history; at a time when the American Christian Missionary Society was forming in the U.S. (1849) and when the liberal elements in America were developing, and using the instrument. (1865 - 1880) The first major church conflicts in Australia, as in America, were over organization (Cooperation??) and the Americans played a surprising part in this. In A. W. Stephenson's book, Pioneering for Christian Unity (Austral Prtg. and Publ. Co., Melbourne, Vic. - 1940), be says that the British Millennial Harbinger first called for annual meetings in Australia (ca. 1865), and that British preachers were its strongest advocates. When the "Conference" became a major issue (1866-72), it was the Americans that insisted "the decisions of conference should not be binding, but that the delegates should convey any decision to their respective churches for their acceptance or otherwise." (Pg. 67) This slowed the development of organic ties among churches, but did nothing to remove the root. "Association" meetings continued, the principle of collective action was generally accepted, and Stephenson admits (Ibid., p. 70) "the move in recent years throughout Australia has been toward a strengthening of the bond between churches, and conference decisions are becoming, mutually, more binding upon individual churches."

In Our Generation

At the close of World War II, when brethren in America were sparring with one another in the opening battles of "our" second war on institutionalism and the social gospel, the members of the now digressive churches in Australia were also in strife. The "Conference" was becoming more binding upon churches (see above quote, 1940) and their colleges (preacher factories??) were turning out a "clergy" that no longer stressed "out-of-date" things like- baptism. For the greater part, social activities dominated the church roster, and modern theology filled the pulpits. And a few stalwart souls were beginning to stand up and be counted-for Christ. American churches were going into greater social and welfare activities, into closer institutional ties and collective action on the part of churches; at the very time a conservative element among the Australian "Associated" churches was coming out of such practices. It is essential to an understanding of current developments that we see this contrast.

The American preachers who went to Australia in the late 40s and early 50s found a "ready-made" audience: strong-hearted people already in rebellion against their own liberalism and institutionalism. (Australians gave the name "Associated" to the so-called "Cooperative" Churches of Christ there.) These "Antis" (?) coming out of the Associated churches, were the ones who were willing to discuss mechanical instruments of music with American preachers who emphasized baptism and independent congregational organization. A large percentage of the N.T. churches now found in Australia had their beginning when Australian preachers like Les Burgin and Alf Dow renounced the "Associated" church, joined hands with American preachers, and conducted "missions" in places where Burgin and Dow were well known, and could get a bearing among former associates.

While U.S. churches were building fishing camps, recreation halls, general welfare institutions, and were developing an institutional "party," they were supporting preachers in Australia who fought to bring people out of these very things. This implies no intent to deceive-no taking money under false representation. U.S. and Australian developments were simply moving in opposite directions, and the preacher away from home was caught in the needs of his circumstances, and remained with his basic conservative teaching of years past. U.S. churches branded as "Anti" all who opposed their church-hood projects, and used quarantine tactics to "protect" their flocks from conservative teaching;-just like "Associated" churches in Australia were doing, to keep Tom Tarbet, Les Burgin, Johnny Ramsey, and others from reaching "their members" with the truth. (Before you deny this you should read back issues of Truth in Love, published in Melbourne, Vic., beginning May, 1956, with Tom Tarbet as editor.) I do not know how those fellows who experienced such things can return to the U.S., quietly preach for a liberal church, and live with their conscience.

But this is the Australian story -- and there, the first and second waves of American preachers were replaced with men more fully steeped in home-country digression. There were personality conflicts (Australians dislike back-slapping "palaver") but the problems were deeper than this. The "promoters" came-with Ivan Stewart "Campaigns," "Australian Bible College" church "socials," "U.S. elder control" of Australian churches, and such like. (One Australian preacher wrote me about a "Youth Rally" featuring an r entertainment session" with "The Darling Downs Duo," "Songs of the Seven," and "Our own version of Johnny Cash.") The Australians were appalled by the promoters lack of respect for New Testament patterns. They were being asked to accept and promote things that violated the very scriptural principles that had but recently brought them out of the "Associated" churches. Some Australians were turned about by the display of money and numbers, some turned completely away, while others stand with varying degrees of opposition to liberal American ways.

Then, late in 1967, several conservative U.S. preachers headed for Australia, and the liberal preacher, Marvin Phillips (Perth, W.A.) sent out a mimeographed "treatise" to warn Australians against these "church splitters." But such methods do not work so well among the independent Australians. Brother Bob Harkrider answered the attack with "An Open Letter to Christians," freely acknowledging his views on church support of schools, welfare institutions, social functions and other church-hood projects, and offering scriptural studies. He appealed for fair, non-sectarian consideration; and church after church opened their pulpits to brethren Harkrider, Jim Everett, Bill Hall, Tommy Poarch, and others like them. There was no effort made to push churches into this or that 64camp," nor to "Americanize" them; but there has been established a heartwarming fellowship among saints of kindred spirit.

When I went to Australia in January, 1971, it was by invitation of Australian churches, for eleven "missions" extending from Launceston, Tasmania, to Emerald, Queensland. But U.S. preacher Claude A. Guild (Brisbaneg Q'ld.) sent out a mimeographed letter to "caution you about ... Robert F. Turner." On the letter he sent to a member of the Rockhampton church (not to the preacher or leaders who are conservative) there is this handwritten note: "I hope you can stop the plans for Rocky for this man." No appointments were canceled, and many doors were opened for Bible studies on current issues. In fact, previously quiet Australians "went to bat" for my right to preach the gospel from their pulpits.

I did not go to Australia to "introduce the issues." Liberal preachers did that when they promoted their church-hood and social schemes; and there are plenty of conservative-minded Australians who saw the unscripturalness of these projects without any help from the U.S. But liberal preachers have tried to keep this opposition under cover-have even taken "credit" for "establishing a new congregation" after losing a local fight to subdue their dissenters. And they have brought the whole thing to the attention of Australians by their carnal efforts to halt conservative preachers. I am only reporting what I observed during 14 weeks "down under."

I am told that a preacher for a congregation of five Australians once reported that "1,200 saints and their friends" assembled to hear Pat Boone and George Bailey. Well, I can top neither their number nor their gall. In eleven missions, there were at least 154 non-member visitors, many who came often. Several thousand tracts and announcements were distributed; hours were spent in home studies, and more hours in "Question" sessions following each meeting. Twelve precious souls were baptized into Christ as a direct result of the missions, and recent letters report a continuing buildup in the enthusiasm, work, and baptisms in the places visited. The fellowship of approximately 200 saints was enjoyed immensely, and their prayers and cooperation were deeply appreciated.

The work in Australia is at a critical point. If ever there was a need --an opportunity practical  inviting -- demanding the very best among "us" -- offering so much in return -this is certainly it. And, who will answer?

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XV: 39, pp. 7-9
August 12, 1971