Updated: Dec 21, 2022
One of Australia’s most prominent Christian historians, Professor Stuart Piggin, recently sat down with Kurt Mahlburg to share about the Christian intentions for the First Fleet, revivals in the Illawarra and the Pacific Islands, and much more.
“Jesus is the desire of the nations,” Professor Stuart Piggin tells me.
“Some nations seem to desire Jesus in a way which unleashes revival. It would be a great tragedy in Australia if Australia as a nation never understood what God intended for it to be in the history of the gospel.”
Stuart Piggin is the Director of the Centre for the History of Christian Thought and Experience at Macquarie University in Sydney. He has had an illustrious career teaching history at world-class universities; has authored over 100 articles for academic journals; and has written seven books.
The Fountain of Public Prosperity, which Stuart co-authored with Robert Linder, won Australian Christian Book Of The Year in 2018. It is a riveting account of the vast contributions that evangelical Christians have made in the history of Australia.
Our one-hour conversation began with Stuart telling me how he became a believer. It was in fact during the 1959 Billy Graham crusade — one of Australia’s most prominent revivals — that Stuart’s whole family put their faith in Christ, one by one, after Stuart’s brother attended the crusade at the invitation of their uncle.
How Stuart’s Passion for Revival Began
Revival has been a theme of Stuart’s life. He told me that his passion for revival began in the 1970s when he began lecturing in history at Wollongong University.
The Mt Kembla mine disaster (the worst disaster in Australian history up until the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009) happened in this area in 1902. At the time, Stuart was attending the Soldiers and Miners Memorial Anglican Church at the time, which had kept the memory of the mine disaster alive.
Stuart began to study the Mt Kembla mining disaster and was struck at the religious sentiments expressed on the gravestones of the more than 90 victims, sentiments such as, “Come quickly to Christ, make no delay.” This seemed odd given that Australians — the blue-collar types especially — were supposed to be nonchalant about death, and not very religious.
It turns out that a genuine religious awakening had taken place just months before the mining disaster. Every gold mining village in the Illawarra region had been touched by this revival, and people had been converted in their hundreds.
Stuart discovered that in fact, the Illawarra revival was part of a much larger awakening that had taken place throughout country New South Wales and in Melbourne. Until he made this discovery, Stuart was under the impression that revival was an “American thing”, not an “Australian thing”. He was happy to learn that he had been wrong. Stuart has since studied and documented some 70 revivals that have taken place in Australian history.
The Christian Intentions for Australia
Inspired by what I read in The Fountain of Public Prosperity, I asked Stuart about the intention that many British evangelicals had for Australia to be a Christian nation. This is a little-known fact but one Stuart brings to life in his book.
The Great Awakening took place in 1740s Britain. George Whitefield was its greatest preacher, and one of the people converted under his ministry was Margaret Gambier, the wife of Charles Middleton. This godly couple was heavily involved in the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.
Charles Middleton became Comptroller of the Navy, a role that included oversight of the First Fleet’s dangerous journey to Australia. Middleton’s Christian faith and his strong anti-slavery stance motivated him to ensure the First Fleet had no resemblance to slaving ships.
He was successful in this endeavour. The fleet was seaworthy, safe, and well provisioned, with convicts disembarking in Sydney Cove heavier than when they left Portsmouth harbour eight months earlier. Among the approximately 1,400 travellers, there were only 48 deaths recorded throughout the voyage, which was a remarkable feat for its time.
A chaplain was appointed for the First Fleet voyage and to provide spiritual care for the new colony once settled. His name was Richard Johnson, and he had likely been approached for the role by ex-slaver John Newton (who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace) and famous abolitionist William Wilberforce.
Stuart tells me that Richard Johnson is one of the heroes of the story.
“He was temperamentally a gentle and shy fellow. But he stayed there for 11 years and the convicts really respected him. He was very good at pastoral work. He used to just sit down and talk to them.”
Richard Johnson held the first church service on Australian soil under a big gum tree just up the hill from what is today Circular Quay. Over 800 convicts and hundreds of soldiers and seaman would have been in attendance. Johnson preached from Psalm 116:12 — “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?” Recounting God’s faithful protection through disaster, it was an appropriate text for the new community.
Christian Influences in Australia and Beyond
“Christianity is probably the most formative influence on Australian history by a long way,” Stuart explained to me, “but it’s been left out by secular historians.”
The early chaplains were responsible for education in the new colony and were a formative influence on early Australian culture. William Wilberforce was very involved in all of these affairs, eager that “the Christian influence should be front and centre in the development of Australia,” Stuart tells me.
He also told of Australia’s hand in reaching Asia and the Pacific with the gospel. When the British set their sights on the Great Southland, evangelicals saw it as a great opportunity to preach Jesus to the native populations of Australia and the South Seas.
“The evangelicals who sent out Richard Johnson were very keen… that Australia should be used as a base for missions to the South Seas,” says Stuart. “The missionaries to the South Seas were incredibly successful… in the Pacific Islands, within a generation or so most of the islanders became Christians.”
In later generations, scores of Australian missionaries would be sent to Korea and play a vital role in the spread of the gospel there. Now, about one-third of South Koreans are Christians and they are the second largest missionary-sending country in the world after the United States.