Tuesday, October 02, 2012

the politics of Christian influence: Christianity and colonisation

James Boyce’s 1835 explores the Founding of Melbourne and in doing so, the conquest of Australia. Such books are essential reading for all those who care about mission and the witness of the church, because they allow us to reflect on the past.

Chapter 5: London 1835 includes a summary of the place of Evangelical Christianity in colonisation. “With the assistance of their …. [evangelicals] …. the British government became focused on the physical and moral welfare of indigenous people to an extent unknown before, or for the most part, since.” (37)

First, it helpfully notes that British Evangelicalism of the early 1800s should not be confused with present day American Evangelicalism.

Second, it notes the motivation. Once Slavery was abolished, indigenous welfare became a priority area of Evangelical concern. “Government control, along with support for enterprising ‘respectable’ settlers, was urgently needed to counteract the harm done to natives by lower-class European.” (38-9) This provides a contrast to the Domination narrative, which is often pinned on Christian colonisers. “The simple fact that evangelicals accepted that people had rights based on prior possession set them apart from the dominant settler discourse, which argued that the right to land arose from using it for farming.” (39)

This produced an ironic tension, that Christians supported colonisation because they saw it as “the primary means of ensuring that Aborigines were not degraded or killed by the lower order of Europeans.” (40)

Third, this advocacy on behalf of indigenous people relied on information. What happened in Melbourne and in the colonising of Australia, was that distance and lack of missionaries on the ground, meant that the Christian politicians lacked data to work for justice.

It’s a fascinating narrative about the relationship between church and society and the attempt to use politics for influence.

(New Zealand readers will want to read Chapter 7 – The Treaty, as it provides a fascinating analysis of a Treaty signing, both the politics and the processes, just a few short years before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. But that is for another post).

Posted by steve at 09:04 AM


  1. Are we to conclude the higher class Europeans would not degrade or harm indigenous people. Is “class” not in evidence here?

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — October 2, 2012 @ 9:36 am

  2. Class in Britain? Class in Christianity? Class in the settling of Australia? No, surely not!

    Class in the church today? no, surely not 🙂

    Nicely noted Bruce


    Comment by steve — October 2, 2012 @ 9:38 am

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