Methodism in Australia

A History

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Glen O’Brien , Hilary M. Carey
Routledge Methodist Studies Series
  • New York, NY: 
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As this volume states, there is no modern scholarly history of Methodism in Australia. While this collection of essays does not quite fill that gap, due to some neglected areas, the quality of the scholarship in the seventeen essays does take the critical examination of this form of Australian Christianity a substantial way towards such a desideratum. The editors themselves recognize, for example, that the interaction of Methodism and politics in Australia has not been examined sufficiently here. This omission is perhaps all the more significant given the case the editors make in their introduction for Methodism’s contribution to Australian public life. 

In a continent the size of Australia, with differing colonial histories, a third of the essays pay due attention to the various regional developments since the arrival of the first Methodists. There is also attention given to Methodism in a federated Australia since 1901, as well as an essay on Australian Methodism in the British Empire, a welcome addition given the excessive nationalistic thrust of most Australian historiography. 

The second part of the volume pays attention to various themes, some chosen presumably because of their traditional prominence in Methodism—religious experience, worship and music, and mission. Other chapters include attention to gender, scholarship, and welcome concern for what happened to Methodism once it became completely absorbed into the Uniting Church in Australia, after which Methodists and Congregationalists, unlike Presbyterians, had no “continuing” congregations. 

Glen O’Brien’s essay on the first decades of Methodist growth illustrates the rapid expansion after initial decades of very small growth that came with gold discoveries, as well as the importance of lay initiatives in making Methodism one of the most widespread colonial denominations in Australia. Picking up the story from 1855, other chapters narrate the development of Methodism in the various Australian colonies. Malcolm Prentis emphasizes the strength of rural Methodism in New South Wales, identifying proselytism and revivalism as major ingredients of strong Methodist growth throughout the 19th century. In exploring the development of a uniquely liberal form of the denomination in Victoria, Renate Howe looks at the influence of an unprecedented number of educational institutions in a Melbourne enriched by the goldfields. Methodism in South Australia is seen by David Hilliard as confident and publicly assertive due to its expansionist evangelicalism and its numbers (a far higher proportion of the population than in any other colony). Queensland, a separate colony from 1859, had a Methodism that contributed to a generally conservative colonial culture, according to John Harrison. Alison Longworth traces Methodism in Western Australia beyond its colonial past to 1977 from a small, struggling, isolated church until the discovery of gold and a rapid inrush of immigrants resulted in a more socially engaged Methodism, including Aboriginal missions.

Beyond these narrative chapters, Tony Duncan illustrates the British imperialism of Australian Methodists. In a denomination largely derivative of British Methodism, but which adapted well to the huge distances and isolation of the Australian outback, a major initiative by Australian Methodists was to seize the opportunities created by empire in order to develop missions both domestically and in the Pacific, as David Roberts and Margaret Reeson establish in their chapter. Ian Breward unfolds Methodist engagement in early 20th-century reunion efforts with other Protestant churches; Samantha Frappell discusses the contribution of Methodism to an emerging Australian nationalism in the 20th century; while Jennifer Clark follows the usual historiography in pinpointing the 1960s as the watershed in the ongoing decline in Methodist adherence in Australia. Despite valiant attempts to do so by Anne O’Brien in her chapter on Methodist women in Australia, there seems to be little to distinguish women’s roles within Methodist churches from that of their counterparts in other Protestant denominations. Hilary Carey traces the various stages of Australian Methodist historiography from providentialism, through commemorative and then “heritage history,” all authored by Methodists, to more recent scholarly “reflexive” histories. She rightly comments on the relative paucity of scholarly attention to the predominant conservative Wesleyan Methodism in comparison with smaller, more socially radical Methodist denominations. This is a common distortion in many national historiographies, where scholars have preferred to investigate radical but minority denominations, rather than more dominant conservative ones. 

While theology is referred to in a number of essays—particularly in Glen O’Brien’s chapter on Methodism as a religious experience of freedom from sin through trust in God—it is not seriously examined in most of the volume’s chapters. D'Arcy Wood’s chapter on Methodist worship makes clear that Methodist theology was communicated in its hymnal in worship derived largely from Britain and Free Church traditions, and Garry Tromp points to a fitful existence of Methodist scholarship and theology, particularly after WWII. This lack of scholarly attention to theology in an otherwise strong work of scholarship is a pity as theology was central to Methodist identity. Doctrinal understanding gave a particular flavor to Methodist evangelicalism that is not attended to in many of the essays, a large number of which, in a rather reductionist fashion, simply refer to a common evangelicalism that Methodism shared with other Protestant churches. But most Methodist varieties retained a theology, based on an Arminian soteriology, that gave Methodism a unique identity within predominantly Calvinist Protestant evangelicalism. Perhaps understandably, in view of the institutional character of churches, Methodism in this volume is analyzed carefully and well, mostly in terms of various sociological categories—gender, demography, adherents, emigration, institutional characteristics, and so on. But churches are rather unique institutions in that they are fundamentally carriers of religious beliefs. More attention to those specific beliefs and theologies would have considerably strengthened this important volume in Australian religious and cultural historiography.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rowan Strong is Professor of Church History at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Glen O’Brien is Associate Professor of Church History at Booth College (a member institute of the Sydney College of Divinity), and an adjunct lecturer in the University of Divinity. He is a Research Fellow of the Australasian Centre for Wesleyan Research and an Honorary Fellow of the Manchester Wesley Research Centre. He has published widely on Wesleyan and Methodist themes and engaged in post-doctoral research at Duke University, Asbury Theological Seminary, and Oxford Brookes University. In 2013 he served as a Member of the 13th Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies.

Hilary M. Carey is Professor of Imperial and Religious History and Head of the School of Humanities at the University of Bristol and adjunct Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle (NSW). Her books include Believing in Australia (1996), Empires of Religion, ed. (2008), Church and State in Old and New Worlds, ed with John Gascoigne (2011), and God's Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World (2011), which was nominated for the Ernest Scott Prize.


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