Posted by: duncandrews | May 30, 2012

Evangelicalism and one of the darkest periods in Australian history

I’ll finish my series on a theology of tears soon, but my time recently has been taken up with an essay on the connection between evangelicalism and the ‘Friendly Mission’ to the indigenous people of Tasmania in the 1830s. Here’s a summary of my thoughts:

The ‘Friendly Mission’ was the successful but ill-fated attempt to relocate, without physical coercion, the Aboriginal peoples of Van Diemen’s Land to Flinders Island. It came as the culmination of a complex and volatile series of events, and precipitated the tragic death of almost all indigenous Tasmanians within 50 years. After giving an outline of the events of the Friendly Mission, this essay will explore the issue of its connection to evangelicalism. Using both an historical and a theological definition of ‘evangelical’, it will be found that the main actors involved in the Mission, most notably its leader George Augustus Robinson, were, or at least presented themselves as, motivated by evangelical concerns. However, when placed in its broader historical context, it will be argued that the Mission cannot be seen as evangelical in a fundamental sense. In the light of the domestic socio-political events out of which the Mission emerged, including the ongoing conflict between the settlers and indigenous peoples and the role played by the government in establishing and funding the Mission, it is apparent that political concerns were the real motivator. This is reinforced by a comparison of the Friendly Mission with international evangelical activist movements, specifically abolitionism. Despite Robinson’s characterisation of the Mission as an extension of evangelical abolitionism, he failed to account for key differences. These differences meant that, while evangelicalism certainly played an important part in the discourse surrounding the Mission, it was not the Mission’s primary concern. The Mission ultimately served, not the cause of the Christian gospel, but the cause of (British) social cohesion and stability in a new and volatile colonial outpost.

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Responses

  1. Tell us more, Duncan. That’s a pretty bleak picture you’ve painted in your abstract. I wonder if people in the future will say similar things about our churches in Sydney at the beginning of the new millenium?

  2. Hey Jonathan – thanks, you’ve raised a great point. I also wonder how we are doing a similar thing today… Anyway, it’s late (for me!) and I’ve just submited the essay – so I’ll just cut and paste my final paragraph!

    ‘This capacity to participate in and legitimate non-evangelical agendas under sincere evangelical motives serves as a warning to evangelicals in all spheres, not just in relation to indigenous history. The Friendly Mission highlights the danger of the highly motivated, well intentioned evangelical who considers their work the work of God but who has failed to reckon with the broader cultural and political agendas they may unconsciously be advancing. However, that warning should also encourage a more thorough and critical evangelical engagement with cultural power structures, and at the same time an embodiment of the subversive gospel call to love regardless of cost and in spite of opposition. It is through this kind of politically engaged and culturally critical pursuit of Christ-like love that today’s evangelicals, in contrast to Robinson, may recapture something of Wilberforce’s vision and transformative evangelical activism.’


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