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Colonisation and Christianity: An Australian Perspective


What makes January 26 different from any other day? In recent years it has been remembered as Australia Day. But it hasn't always been so, the day not being recognised nationally until at least a century after Captain Arthur Phillip arrived at a small sandy cove with eleven British ships on this day in 1788 to establish the settlement that has become known as Sydney.1 To have a national day is a product of the modern nation state, much like a flag or a national anthem. And, like a flag, the national day tries to summarise what it means to be Australian. If you look at the flag and listen to the anthem you will find that they are formed around themes from the colonial past. Similarly, Australia Day emphasises colonial history. In recent years I have become more aware of this colonial story and how it is not the only story to explain or describe my country. Many others seem to be asking similar questions, and whether January 26 should still be the Australian national day is no longer certain.

This article will explore the process of colonisation and how it has interacted with Christianity. It will consider to what extent Christianity shaped colonisation and if, in turn, colonisation has changed Christianity. The intention is to challenge assumptions about what it means to be an Australian Christian and to consider other stories, apart from colonisation, that can guide.

What is colonisation?

For as long as there have been people we have moved from one location to another. As Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, however, a new pattern developed. Earlier migrations tended to be more along the lines of diaspora: that is, members of a particular ethnic group travelled to a distant location to set up a new settlement, and even though they maintained the cultural identity of their country of origin the settlement became embedded into the pre-existing indigenous population. That movement was sometimes voluntary, as we would recognise in the Chinese traders who settled throughout the towns of Australia and the Pacific. Diasporas have often also been involuntary as refugees have fled wars and natural disasters. Jewish communities around the world are an example of this.

But as Europe commenced its Renaissance, rival nations took advantage of new developments in boat building, navigation, politics, religion, science, and economics to claim large tracts of distant continents. When they arrived at their new colonies, the invaders from various European countries followed what could be described as an evil formula to dispossess the indigenous people. Through war, rape, slavery, disease, alcoholism, and being tricked into debt, inhabitants of much of the non-European world were either completely wiped out or reduced to a sad remembrance of their previous self-sufficiency. Many treaties were made but most were broken by the European drive for absolute control.

The justification of this behaviour by religion and science is fascinating and reflects poorly on both. As the theory of human evolution was developing, it was assumed that there was a hierarchy of races, that some were more highly evolved than others. Of course, Europeans thought themselves to be the most developed, while other races were inferior. This de-personalisation of non-Europeans reduced the moral implications of violence against them: if indigenous people weren’t fully human, they could be treated like animals. Lancelot Threlkeld, a missionary to Aborigines in New South Wales, appalled by the attitude of British settlers, remarked, “if it could be proved that the Aborigines…were only a species of wild beasts, there could be no guilt attributed to those who shot them off or poisoned them”2 (p. 339).

Christians had their own Bible-based excuses for racism2,3 (p. 442) and there was also direct approval of colonisation from the church. By the 1400s Portugal and Spain were exploring and settling the West African coast and associated Atlantic islands. At the same time, Eastern Europe was under attack from the Ottoman Empire. In response, the Popes issued a series of rulings, or bulls, between the 1450s and 1490s that authorised Portugal and Spain to conquer non-Christian lands and enslave the inhabitants. In 1493 this culminated in Pope Alexander VI imagining a line down the Atlantic Ocean, granting to Portugal all the world east of that line and to Spain all the land to the west.4 This arbitrary division of the world coincided with Christopher Columbus sailing to the Caribbean.

With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see the presumption of the Pope as God’s representative on earth to dispose of it as he pleased as one of many false teachings that the European Christian church accrued during its first 1,500 years. William Howitt, a Protestant English historian writing 180 years ago, proposed that the underlying false teaching that promoted this behaviour was what he termed, “spurious devotion,” explained as, “whenever…mere outward penance, or the offering of money, is substituted for genuine repentance and a new life”5 (p. 26). For up to 800 years the gospel of Christ had been replaced by an empty show, so that the public consciousness was unaware of the Bible’s teachings about justice. As Howitt wrote, “all the feelings of love and sympathy that glow alone in the gospel,” had been, “withdrawn”5 (p. 26).

So much for Catholic Europe. Did Protestants do any better? In some areas of public thought Protestants were more able to learn and adapt. A good example was accepting the science of astronomy about the form of the solar system and adjusting Bible reading accordingly. Were Protestants able to be inspired by Christianity towards different, more humane methods of trade and settlement? Unfortunately not. Queen Elizabeth, England's first-born monarch of the Reformation merely copied the Popes’ pattern as English explorers looked towards North America. In 1578 Elizabeth granted Sir Humphrey Gilbert all the land he might discover that had not already been claimed by a Christian prince, and later gave a similar charter to Sir Walter Raleigh5 (p. 333). Howitt, writing 250 years later, lamented that, “Protestant England and Protestant America continue to spurn every great principle of Christian justice in their treatment of native tribes”5 (p. 333).

The justification of injustice towards indigenous people in colonies from both scientific and Christian perspectives does not necessarily mean that either science or Christianity encouraged the injustice. It illustrates instead that the powerful will manipulate any body of thought, regardless how noble, to maintain their power.

It would be simplistic to label all of colonisation as bad. Without it we wouldn't have the modern nation of Australia. The dark side of colonisation has generally been minimised, however, especially the tendency to despise indigenous people and their cultures whilst recklessly degrading the land to exploit natural resources. Likewise, colonisation is not the only form of governance with a poor track record towards indigenous people. For most of the time that Australia has been a democracy we have intentionally excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians from the benefits of our modern nation6 (p. 235).

To what extent did Christianity shape colonisation?

The link between Christianity and colonisation is complex. On the one hand, colonisation was practiced enthusiastically by European countries with a professed Christian ethos over a five hundred year period. Economic colonisation often proceeded hand-in-glove with religious colonisation that was at least as brutal. Spaniards forced Americans to worship Jesus or die, while giving no teaching that we would recognise as the Christian gospel5 (p. 99). Yet there were a few examples of the gospel breaking through, despite the greed and violence of settlers. In Paraguay, South America, Jesuit priests established settlements called Reductions, where indigenous people could live in safety, developing agriculture and industry while learning the gospel. Those peaceful settlements were violently attacked by Portuguese Brazilians and the Jesuits were expelled by the Spanish5 (pp. 119-144). William Penn established the North American state of Pennsylvania with an explicit understanding of peace with Native Americans. Quaker settlers there did not steal land, and in turn none were attacked5 (pp. 356-366). The colony of South Australia was established with Letters Patent approved by King William IV in 1836. This document affirmed “the rights of…Aboriginal Natives” for “occupation or enjoyment” on “any Lands therein now actually occupied or enjoyed by such Natives.”7

These examples of consideration of indigenous people were exceptions from a pervasive rule of subjugation. For the Christian missionaries who sought to help native tribes the main task was often to provide a safe place from the harm that came with European “civilisation”2 (p. 4684).

Was there any guidance from the Bible that the explorers and settlers could have used in their colonisation? None directly, as the social phenomenon of colonisation was unknown during biblical times. The Bible celebrates leaders like Abraham, Joshua, and David who settled or conquered new territory. The settlement of Canaan by the Israelites was particularly infused with a God-given prerogative to remove the pre-existent nations and any trace of their religion, as in Joshua 23:5,

“The Lord your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you.”

European colonisers often appropriated this posture. For example, when the explorers Blaxland, Lawson, and Wentworth walked from Sydney across the Blue Mountains to see what is now called Bathurst, it was described as, “like Canaan on rapt Israel’s view”6 (p. 41). The Bible story, however, gives no direction to generalise the experience of settling Canaan to any other location. Despite the strength of the Canaan narrative, most of the Bible is written from the perspective of the nation of Israel in decline, in exile, or controlled by foreign empires. Or of Christians who, in the language of the letter to the Hebrews, were “strangers” even in their own countries.8

While the Bible does not speak directly to those who colonise, the biblical perspective is even further from an indigenous viewpoint. The Bible is not written from the perspective of being “at home on country.” Not even Jews could claim to have known God and lived on the same country since the beginning of time. At least the Apostle Paul could affirm that people who had never heard of Jesus have God’s law “written on their hearts.”9 That is, God has ways of guiding people in his path of righteousness beyond the story of the Bible.

Indirectly, however, the Bible, from both Jewish and Christian writers, has a lot to teach about how to treat someone from a different ethnic group. The exiled Jews were advised by Jeremiah the prophet to “seek the peace of the city” to which they went as refugees.10 Prophets emphasised justice in place of oppression. To recognise the “cause of the poor and needy” was to know God.11 As Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul invested a lot of thought in establishing Christianity as a religion that spanned ethnic divisions. When preaching in Athens, Paul noted that God made every nation from “one blood.”12 And in his letter to the Roman church, Paul went so far as to claim that in Jesus we have no national identity.13 Of course, the zeal of missionaries to travel the world in search of those who do not know about Jesus can be traced directly to his command to “teach all nations.”14

On first contact with Europeans, indigenous people around the world were presented with a conundrum: there was a painful contrast between Christian beliefs and the practice of settlers. Red-Jacket, a Native American orator from the country of the Niagara River spoke for millions of indigenous people when he responded to a missionary in 1805:

“Brother, we are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbours; we are acquainted with them: we will wait a little while, and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again what you have said”5 (p. 400).

In speaking of the British settlement of Australia with convicts, Howitt despaired:

“That dreadful and unrighteous system, which Columbus himself introduced in the very first moment of discovery…the convict system…the throwing off the putrid matter of our corrupt social state on some simple and unsuspecting country, to inoculate it with the rankness of our worse moral diseases, without relieving ourselves at all sensibly by the unprincipled deed, has here shown itself in all its hideousness”5 (p. 470).

Australian historian Manning Clark observed that, “on the eve of the discovery of gold…all had been influenced by at least one of three creative forces in their civilization — Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, and the Enlightenment”6 (p. 129). An initial New Testament-inspired “amity and kindness” towards Aborigines “was replaced,” however, “by the more primitive Mosaic law of the Old Testament of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” as settlers claimed land from traditional owners6 (p. 34). By contrast, John Harris, the child of Anglican missionaries to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, perceived a less pervasive Christian influence. Harris pointed out that, “Christian settlers were few and their light was feeble”2 (p. 234).

The deficiency of Christianity in the European settlement of Australia is painfully told by Reverend John Gribble.15 In 1885, Gribble left New South Wales — where, amongst other things, he had peacefully confronted Ned Kelly when the bushranger held-up the town of Jerilderie2 (p. 7737). So, he was a man of Christian courage. Gribble left New South Wales because he had been called by his Anglican Church to be a missionary to Aborigines at Carnarvon, on the dry Gascoyne River in northern Western Australia.

It is hard to imagine a more isolated town than Carnarvon. A narrow strip of land is watered by the Gascoyne as it flows out of sight, under the sand. Beyond that strip of green are endless hot plains of low scrub populated mostly by flies. In front is the immense Shark Bay, the entrance of which is flanked by cliffs that claimed many Dutch sailors on their way to Indonesia. Carnarvon is still hours of travel from any other town, despite modern technology.

Gribble arrived in Carnarvon to find a lawless place. Even though slavery was outlawed in the British Empire by 1833,16 it was standard practice in this part of Western Australia fifty years later. As farmers claimed the land, they claimed the Aboriginal people of that land, men and women, to be used as suited immoral men15 (pp. 15, 32). Gribble’s mission provided a safe haven for the Aboriginal people of the Gascoyne region and for that the farmers tried to run him out of town. Public meetings were held against him, building supplies for the mission were boycotted15 (p. 17) and Gribble’s life was threatened15 (p. 29). The church administration that had called Gribble sided with the farmers15 (p. 23). Gribble’s only defense was to write letters to newspapers in Perth.

So, while it would be false to absolve Christianity of the stain of colonialism, it would likewise be unfair to blame all the ills of the colonial project on Christianity. There is nothing in the New Testament that anticipates what was done in colonies. Unfortunately, as Clark assessed of the nineteenth century Australian clergy, Christians across the ages have made the error to, “[prostitute] their religion to the service of the social needs of the classes in power,” and to allow Christianity, “to become a religion of social utility”6 (p. 132). By trying to “fit in” and ask nothing more of people than that they “be nice and quiet” we can forget our Christian calling to pursue justice with compassion.

This clash between European settlement and Christian principles was widespread. By the time missionaries arrived in numerous locations around Australia, the local people had already been decimated by frontier wars and disease. Attempts were made to translate parts of the Bible into Aboriginal languages but often by the time that task was complete there were no speakers of the language left2 (p. 1046). Mission stations were routinely a place of last resort for Aboriginal people after access to their hunting and fishing grounds was denied and they would otherwise starve. Once farms and towns were established Aborigines faced other problems as survivors of the frontier wars were relegated to the fringes of society. Then missions provided a haven from, “the gross immorality of life outside the mission”2 (p. 1163). Many of our Aboriginal nations could share the words of Phillip Pepper from eastern Victoria: “Only for the missionaries there wouldn't be so many Aborigines walking around today. They're the ones that saved the day for us. Our people were finished before the mission men came”2 (p. 4132).

In quoting Pepper I do not intend to whitewash the history of missions in Australia. Much happened through government policy and attitudes of Christian missionaries which we should regret. Some of the problems of the missions related to a fear of syncretism. It was assumed by many missionaries that traditional Aboriginal beliefs were opposed to the Christian worldview,2 (p. 10238) and so Aboriginal beliefs, culture, and language were banned from many, but by no means all, missions2 (p. 10679). At the same time, many missionaries appeared to be blind towards their own syncretism, being unable to conceptualise Christianity without European civilisation and farming2 (p. 2592). Despite the problems, generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have emerged from missions and churches.

Why should these confronting stories be remembered on Australia Day? For two reasons. The first is that the five hundred year project of colonisation can be seen as a failure of Christianity. As noted by Howitt, colonisation flourished when Christianity was distorted such that the New Life in Christ was replaced by rituals. Likewise, recall that Clark perceived a reversion to legalistic thinking rather than persistence in the gospel, along with relegation of Christianity to a tool of social control. While it could be argued that the ill-effects of colonisation were due to not enough Christian influence, others might argue the problem was too much Christian input. But the answer to that question might mask a more important point. Christianity is perhaps not so much about applying a formula for social engineering as it is a method to help us adapt to social needs. Through the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, Jesus taught us that responding to a difficult situation with compassion is more important than maintaining the status quo.17 Criticising past generations is easy, but begs the questions: How will we be judged? To what degree is our desire to do good negated by self-interest?

While Christianity influenced colonisation, it can also be said that colonisation has changed our understanding of Christianity. Racism, male dominance, greed, normalisation of violence — all negative ways of thinking that are explicitly denounced in the New Testament yet are essential components of colonisation — have become embedded in the religion of those who follow Christ. Even our relationship to place has been distorted. The yearning for the “mother country” by settlers has flavoured the way we anticipate Jesus’ promise to take his followers to Heaven, as we sing hymns such as, “This world is not my home.”18

The second reason I have reviewed our colonial history is that this is still a live issue. The current disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians is a direct consequence of recent history, and the same can be said for indigenous people of other post-colonial countries. Descendants of settlers may be unaware that the benefits of migration came at a cost for someone else, namely the indigenous family that lived where they do now.

I believe Christianity has a role to play in healing the nation of Australia. There are a few domains where the understanding and abilities of Indigenous Australians are recognised by the non-indigenous population. Sport, art, and land-care come to mind. Christianity should be one of these domains of meeting between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have a similar level of Christian affiliation as the non-indigenous population.19 Christianity provides a common language, a link of peace between the two groups, much as the Apostle Paul wrote about Gentiles and Jews in his letter to the Ephesians. Remember that Paul taught in Ephesians 2:13, 14:

“But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

More than just a meeting place, Christianity provides an opportunity for those of us who are settlers to learn from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters how to live as Christians in this vast country.

To give an example, there is a line of thought in Christianity of loathing the place where we live. In part this is built on Jesus saying, “I am not of this world.”20 And while it is important to, “store up treasure in heaven,”21 we also need to give thanks to God, “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment,”22 remembering that, “the earth and all its fullness are the Lord’s.”23

The loathing of place can be amplified by a colonial mindset that, as already noted, despises the new country in a nostalgic defense of the old. This is especially true in Australia, where we have spent the last two hundred years trying to transform the places we live to be more European. Growing up in Melbourne I noted how hard it was to find a native gum tree as most public spaces were treed with northern hemisphere oaks and elms. How can we, instead, recapture the vision of the Apostle Paul of the unique role of Jesus to, “gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth”?24

Here is an Aboriginal voice that can help:

“Jesus has two places — his father’s father’s place is Heaven and his mother’s father’s place is the world. The relationship through his father's father is called Aknganentye. Jesus is related to Heaven through his father’s father. The world — his mother's father’s country — is what he called Altyerre…He’s little Jesus all right, son of David, belonging to the Father of Heaven, but he’s a traditional owner, because, through Bethlehem, he belongs to this world too. Because he was born in this world…He’s got two places — his father’s country and his mother’s country. Like us.”25

It took Wenten Rubuntja, an Arrente man from central Australia, a campaigner for Aboriginal land rights whose painted petition now hangs proudly in the Parliament of Australia,26 to teach us that Jesus is a traditional land owner, with all the obligations to country and kin that entails. This, in turn enables us to celebrate both Jesus’ mother’s country — this Earth that every day bears our weight — and his Father’s country — the “land that is fairer than day”27 for which we wait.

I have found learning about colonisation to be disorienting. Early Australian pioneers who I used to view with nostalgia as they carved their farms out of the bush I now understand to be men of violence and greed. National Parks, which I used to enjoy as examples of pristine nature I now experience as an empty home where the people who used to care for it have been evicted and now the house is broken by vandals and weeds grow through the cracks. As a nation, Australia celebrates the young who died in wars overseas yet wilfully forgets thousands who were massacred on her soil.

Whether we like it or not, Colonisation has influenced all Australians and those in other post-colonial countries. It has shaped Australia’s past and present but it does not need to determine the future. Instead, let us be open to hear indigenous wisdom that cannot be imported from outside our respective countries. Let us be aware of the layers of colonial thinking that skew our understanding of Christianity and be willing to shed them. Let us continue to realise the Christian vision to live as God's people in which ever place we find ourselves.


Notes & References:

1. National Australia Day Council Ltd. About Australia Day: History. [Online]

2. Harris, John. One Blood. Brentford Square: Concilia Ltd, 2013.

3. Genesis 9:25.

4. Wikipedia. Inter caetera. [Online]

5. Howitt, William. Colonization and Christianity. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longmans, 1838.

6. Clark, Manning. A Short History of Australia. 4th rev. ed. Camberwell: Penguin Group (Australia), 2006.

7. History Trust of South Australia. Letter Patent. [Online]

8. Hebrews 11:13.

9. Romans 2:15.

10. Jeremiah 29:7.

11. Jeremiah 22:16.

12. Acts 17:26.

13. Galatians 3:28.

14. Matthew 28:19.

15. Gribble, John. Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land. Perth: Stirling Bros, 1886.

16. Wikipedia. Slavery Abolition Act 1833. [Online]

17. Luke 10:25-37.

18. Brumley, Albert. “This World Is Not My Home.” #189 in Advent Youth Sing. Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1977.

19. Australian Bureau of Statistics. Religion in Australian, 2016. 2071.0 – Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia – Stories from the Census, 2016. [Online] 2017. 54%.

20. John 8:23.

21. Matthew 6:20.

22. 1 Timothy 6:17.

23. Psalm 24:1, in 1 Corinthians 10:26.

24. Ephesians 1:10.

25. Rubuntja, Wenten. The Town Grew Up Dancing. Alice Springs: Jukurrpa Books, 2002. pp. 173, 174.

26. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. The Barunga Statement. [Online]

27. Bennett, S. F. Sweet by and by. #428 in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. Washington: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1985.


Further Reading:

Kemp, Celia. A voice in the Wilderness: Listening to the Statement from the Heart. Sydney: Anglican Board of Mission – Australia, 2018. [Online]

Kemp, Celia. Songs from a strange land: An Australian Advent calendar. Sydney: Anglican Board of Mission – Australia, 2019. [Online]


Paul Johanson is a general practitioner in Scarborough, Queensland, where he has focused on improving access to primary medical care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Image: Uluru, Northern Territory, courtesy of the author.


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