It is the 3rd of February 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I'm Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1788.
Sure, plenty was happening in the Western World with Revolutions and what-not, but today we turn our attention to a place that has unfortunately been underrepresented here on the Almanac.
The place has only been known for a couple of hundred years, at least by those of us in the Western Hemisphere. We could tell the story of how Ptolemy and the Ancients deduced a necessary landmass on the other side of the world and called it Terra Australis Incognito. Of course, from the perspective of the inhabitants of this "incognito" land, maybe they deduced a necessary landmass on the other side of the world and thought of it as Terra Supernas Incognito. We could translate that "the unknown land to the north," Terra Australis Incognito, or what was called "the unknown land to the south" and then "Australis" and finally "Australia."
Up north, the first record we have of the land comes from Portuguese explorers in the early 17th century who possibly were blown off course and then misidentified what they found. It was Dutch explorers a few decades into the 1600s that first successfully navigated their way to the southern land. They called the island (or what they knew of it) "New Holland."
But it was James Cook in the 1770s who successfully charted the East Coast of Australia, noted its relatively fertile pockets, and kicked off a frenzy back home for the land that was soon known as "new South Wales." In the 1770s, some things happened with Great Britain. They lost several colonies. It was a big deal; you probably heard about it.
And so Great Britain was looking for new colonies, and New South Wales seemed to fit. Except, the trip across the Atlantic was child's play compared to the trip to the Southern Hemisphere. And while there was indeed some arable land, it was tough land to work. The Brits needed to encourage immigration and so chose the easiest people to encourage—prisoners who had no other choice. The penalty of "transportation," or seven years of hard labor in Australia, became a popular sentence for a certain kind of ruffian.
The plan would be one of the largest single mass and semi-voluntary migrations in modern history. Eleven ships with over 1500 people (about half convicts) would set sail in 1787.
At the time, the prime minister was William Pitt, the younger, a friend to a circle of Anglicans known as the Eclectic Society. Pitt asked these abolitionist evangelicals to advise him on the right chaplain to send with the fleet. Amongst those in the society were the former slave trader John Newton and abolitionist William Wilberforce. Wilberforce suggested the Rev. Richard Johnson. Johnson went to school with them but had taken longer to graduate from Cambridge as he came with no money and had to leave school to work on the farm periodically. Pious and able to farm, Wilberforce recommended that Johnson be christened the new "Bishop of Botany Bay." Warmly evangelical with hands made for hard work seemed ideal to Pitt and others.
Having been just married, Johnson boarded that First Fleet and spent eight harrowing months sailing to the southeast corner of the new colony. Johnson would come into conflict with Arthur Phillip, the first governor of the colony of New South Wales. Phillip saw the church's role in the new country for the spreading of morality, education, and what he called the benefits of a Christian civilization. To what extent Johnson disagreed, we don't know, but as an abolitionist back home, he would have likely been more sensitive to the more unsavory elements of colonization.
On the 26th of January, 1788, the First Fleet officially raised the British Flag in Sydney Cove, the observant refer to this as "Australia Day." A few days later, on this, the 3rd of February in 1788, the Reverend Richard Johnson preached the first Christian sermon in Australia, under a tree in the Sydney cove. The approximately 1500 people, convicts and civilians, had been on a deadly trip and were now in a foreign, harsh land. And the text chosen by Johnson? Psalm 116 vs. 12-13: "What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord."
In the face of difficulties, thanksgiving would be his theme for the almost 13 years he spent working as both pastor and farmer. The story of the church in Australia is one we look at in subsequent shows, it's not always pretty, but we remember the Bishop of Botany Bay's initial optimism. He preached the first sermon in Australia on this the 3rd of February in 1788.
The reading for today is a short stanza from a poem by John Newton. This is the first stanza of his "Father Forgive Them."
Father, forgive (the Saviour said)
They know not what they do:
His heart was moved when thus he prayed
For me, my friends, and you.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 3rd of February 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by a man who sees the Crocodile Dundee franchise not as "movies," but "films," Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true. Everything is going to be ok.