“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’’Psalms 116:12-13
This was the first passage of Scripture preached on Australian soil at 10am on Sunday, February 3, 1788.
The very first service ordered by Captain Arthur Philip was held under a great tree near Sydney harbour. “No man was to be absent on any account whatever,’’ decreed the captain.
After a 36-week voyage, where all 11 ships were spared miraculously by God, this was a very fitting text indeed.
From our Christian heritage viewpoint, it was critical that a man of God deliver the first message. That man was Reverend Richard Johnson.
In October 1786, Richard Johnson received a royal warrant as Chaplain to the colony of New South Wales. When he arrived, Johnson brought to Australia 2,000 Bibles and other Christian books.
Johnson’s first flock comprised convicts (568 males, 191 females, 13 children), four companies of Marines and the Governor, Captain Philip.
“It is my duty to preach to all, to pray for all, and to admonish everyone,” he said.
By the end of 1788 his ministry extended with the growing colony to Rosehill, near Parramatta, where he visited monthly, then fortnightly by boat.
His ministry included visiting the sick, of which there were many. In the first five years he conducted 226 baptisms, 220 marriages and 851 funerals.
He also organised the establishment of a fund to care for orphans, especially after the Second Fleet arrived with hundreds having died en route and hundreds of others sick and dying on arrival.
Johnson also fulfilled the duty of a Magistrate, finding it a “most unthankful, troublesome office,’’ as he often had to officiate at hangings.
Using his own hands and his own money Johnson built a church in Macquarie Place Sydney, beginning in 1793, and completing it two years later despite intense opposition from the Rum Corps.
Three years after the first settlement, Johnson started Christian schooling for both convicts and free men. He established the first Schools in Sydney, Parramatta, and Norfolk Island.
By 1799 his schools, with three school masters, showed 526 children enlisted in Sydney, with 239 at Parramatta and 166 at Hawkesbury.
Thus, early Australian education was initiated not by government legislation and funding, but by the Christian Church.
By the time Johnson left Australia in 1800, some 12 years after his arrival, a firm foundation for Australia’s Christian heritage had been established.