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August 1989


The earliest religious group of any size in Australia was Anglican, since most of the convicts and their guards were of that faith. In the rough-and-tumble conditions of life in that far-off colony, Christianity suffered. Slowly, over a period of time, the people of Australia have become very secular, with materialism, permissiveness and rebellion against traditional authority quite evident. Professor Leonie Kramer at the University of Sydney notes that “…there is endless talk about politics, but still none about questions of the spirit.” (National Geographic, Feb. 1988: 198). This has accelerated a decrease in church attendance, especially in the larger, more traditional faiths, such as the Anglican, Catholic, Congregational, Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. The only measurable growth is seen in certain Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

The major religions of Australia

Anglican 3,860,000
Uniting Church (Presb. – Meth.)1,460,000
Presbyterian 213,000
Baptist 204,000
Lutheran 114,000
Church of Christ 92,000 * Association of Churches of Christ, an earlier attempt at restoration. See history section for details.
Salvation Army 54,000
Methodist 75,000
Adventist 67,000

(From Patrick Johnstone, Operation World)

The Catholic Church is fairly active. The percentage of non-Christian religions is small, being primarily Muslim, Jewish and Chinese faiths. Those affirming to have no religion amount to about 22 percent of the population. However, only about 12 percent of the population attends church regularly, so a large majority is essentially unchurched.

Churches of Christ

Scottish and English Roots
The history of the Restoration Movement in Australia spans a period of over 150 years. The first churches of Christ in Australia were established in the British colony of South Australia in 1847. Thomas Magarey and Thomas Jackson from the newly established churches of Christ in New Zealand, along with a group of former Scotch Baptists, formed a church in the city of Adelaide. A second church was established the same year at Willunga on the outskirts of Adelaide by a group of Christians from the Beith and New Mills church in Ayrshire, Scotland. Soon other churches were formed at Hindmarsh (1855) in Adelaide and in the country centres of Burra (1849), Milang (1859) and Point Sturt (1861). The movement spread to the colony of New South Wales in 1852 when Albert Griffin and a group of former Wesleyan Methodist lay-preachers formed a church in Newtown, a suburb of Sydney. Griffin had been introduced to the ideals of the Restoration Movement through reading copies of the “British Millennial Harbinger” and the “Bible Advocate” sent by his cousin who was a member of the Church of Christ in St. Pancras Road, London. Other churches were soon formed in Sydney city (1860), the Sydney suburb of Fairfield (1865) and the country centres of Taree (1863) and Newcastle (1866). During the “gold rushes” in the colony of Victoria in the 1850’s a church was established at Prahran in Melbourne. Families from churches of Christ in Glasgow and Sanquahar in Scotland and London and Nottingham in England were part of the first church that met in 1853 under the leadership of Robert Service (later Premier of Victoria). Other churches in Melbourne were established at South Brighton (1857), Beaumaris (1859) and in the major goldfields town of Ballarat (1859).

The ‘pioneer’ Churches of Christ in Australia kept in close contact with the British Restoration Movement. James Wallis, editor of the British version of the Millennial Harbinger included regular reports on the progress of the movement in Australia and New Zealand and was in regular correspondence with church leaders in the colonies. New churches were established wherever the pioneer members settled. Preaching took place in the open air, in tent meetings and rented halls. Pioneer preachers were almost all self-supported. By the early 1860’s there were around 25 churches with 650 members in the three colonies. In the 1860’s churches in Victoria began to financially support evangelists to work with one or a number of churches such as George Day and Matthew Wood Green in New South Wales and Isaac Mermelstein in Victoria.

The Outstanding Work of Thomas Milner and Henry Earl
Although much had been accomplished by the untrained and mostly self-supporting colonial preachers it was a believed that the movement would progress much faster if trained evangelists could be engaged to work in Australia. The arrival of the Scottish evangelist, Thomas Hughes Milner in 1862 had made quite an impact on the churches in Melbourne. Milner attracted large crowds wherever he spoke and confirmed the need to have trained men working in the Australian capital cities. Finding no one who would be prepared to come out to Australia from Britain, the churches in Melbourne appealed to churches in the United States. In 1864 Henry Earl moved to Melbourne. Henry Earl was an Englishman who had migrated to the United States at the age of 17 and trained at Alexander Campbell’s Bethany College. After several years working with the Waverly City Christian Church in Missouri, he moved to England where his powerful preaching made a significant impact on the churches there. Henry Earl had an even greater impact in Australia. In Melbourne crowds of 1,200 people would regularly come to hear him preach. Within six months nearly 200 people had been added to the church in Melbourne. He then moved to Adelaide in South Australia where he regularly preached to crowds of over 2,000 people. In 1866 Thomas Magarey estimated that over 600 people were added to the churches in Victoria as a result of Earl’s work in the colony. By the time Earl returned to the United States in 1872 the Australian churches had doubled in size. Henry Earl’s success paved the way for other American evangelists such as George Surber, Thomas Gore, Oliver Carr, W.H. Martin, H.H. Geeslin, J.J. Hailey, A.B Matson and J.W. Shepherd. Most of these men were from the University of Kentucky and the College of the Bible, studying under such teachers as J.W. McGarvey and Robert Milligan. Thomas Gore spent over fifty years working in Australia. Along with the other American evangelists, Gore conducted a training program for Australian evangelists. Other young Australians moved to the United States to be trained. J.W. Shepherd was an associate of David Lipscomb (editor of the Gospel Advocate) and was later to become a well-known writer and leader among the Churches of Christ in the United States.

An Australian Restoration
Australia also had its own indigenous “restoration movement” in the colonies of Tasmania and Victoria. Stephen Cheek, a teacher and a distant relation of the famous Baptist preacher Spurgeon, was studying to become a minister in the Congregational Church. He developed strong convictions on the Biblical teaching on baptism and left the Congregationalists. He came in contact with a Plymouth Brethren evangelist, was baptised and began preaching for them. Between 1876 and 1878 Cheek and James Park travelled extensively throughout Tasmania and into Victoria, preaching and setting up churches on the New Testament pattern. Cheek continued to study the scriptures and preach fearlessly the things he discovered. However, many in the Brethren Church in Victoria accused Cheek of introducing the teachings of Alexander Campbell. Mystified by this, Cheek began to study the writings of Restoration Movement leaders such as Wallis and King in Britain and Campbell and Scott in the United States. Fully convinced of his position Cheek continued to preach and teach in Tasmania and Victoria, converting people and setting up New Testament churches. In 1881 Cheek met with fourteen of his co-workers in Castlemaine, Victoria to discuss the possibility of a union with the Churches of Christ. He also wrote to James Park and other leaders in Tasmania about their views. As a result to these discussions, Cheek’s group of churches merged with the ‘mainstream’ of the Restoration Movement in Australia.

By the mid-1880s the population of the Australian and New Zealand colonies had reached three million. It was estimated that there were 130 churches with 26 trained evangelists (the majority Australian) and over 8,000 active members in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and New Zealand. By 1894 the churches in Melbourne had grown to such an extent that it was called the largest “Metropolis of Disciples in the World”. This was because it had a greater concentration of members than any other city in the world, with 30 churches and over 3,500 members. In 1901 the six Australian colonies merged to form a united Commonwealth of Australia. The College of the Bible was established to train Australian evangelists in 1907. Australian churches initiated mission work in India, China, Japan and the Pacific Islands.

The Churches of Christ in Australia between the 1880’s and the 1930’s experienced most of the tensions and controversies that affected the British and American movements over that time. Sharp disagreements existed over such issues as the formation of non-Biblical organisational structures, the introduction of instrumental music in worship and the impact of theological liberalism and the ecumenical movement. These issues led to the separation of the Churches of Christ in the United States and Canada (officially recognised in 1906) and the independent Christian Churches (from 1926 onwards) from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In Great Britain the churches formed two groups similar to the U.S. Churches of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). However, in Australia the movement did not divide. It developed a “Conference” structure that kept the churches together in a single organization. The Australian Conference of Churches of Christ encompassed “ecumenicals” (wanting denominational status and union with the denominations), “evangelicals” (with much in common with other conservative groups such as the Baptists and Anglican evangelicals) and “restorationists” (with a commitment to the concept of restoring New Testament Christianity).

There were only a few churches in Australia that maintained contact with the Churches of Christ in the United States. A.G. Chaffer and James Park spoke at the annual Victorian Conferences calling for a return to the original principles of the Restoration Movement. Chaffer established small independent congregations at Healesville, Victoria (1908) and Fairfield in Melbourne (in 1938). In Sydney J.W. McGregor also helped form independent churches at Merrylands (1904), Upper Colo (1911) and Kurrajong (1932). McGregor had worked with J.W. Shepherd while he was in Sydney. John Allen Hudson from the Churches of Christ in the United States toured Australia and New Zealand in 1938 to survey the situation of the Restoration Movement churches in those countries. He initiated contact with Chaffer and McGregor and held discussions with Conference leaders in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. In Tasmania he made contact with Colin Smith, the Secretary of the Tasmanian Conference. As a result of his discussions with Hudson, Colin Smith decided that his convictions were closer to the Churches of Christ in the United States and left to train at Abilene Christian College in Texas. Upon returning to Australia in 1941, Smith helped churches in the Sydney area and formed a new church at Westmead (1945). He later moved to Brisbane in Queensland and helped establish the church at Wynnum (1958). Other Australians including Allan Flaxman and Carmello Cassella moved to the United States for training. Flaxman established the church at Lakemba in Sydney (1957) and Cassella established the church at Holland Park in Brisbane (1958).

Influx of American Missionaries
Colin Smith arranged for Charles Tinius from Tulsa, Oklahoma to work with ‘non-denominational’ Churches of Christ in Australia in 1948. The term ‘non-denominational’ was used to distinguish these independent congregations from those associated with the Australian Conference of Churches of Christ. Tinius was to be the first of over sixty workers who would come to Australia from the late 1940’s to the mid 1970’s. Tinius worked with churches in Sydney and began discussions with many preachers within the Conference churches. He edited a paper called the Old Paths which was distributed widely among Conference churches up until he left Australia in 1950. Smith also arranged for Tom Tarbet to move to Melbourne in 1955. Tarbet established a new church at West Footscray and assisted A.G. Chaffer’s former congregation at Heidelberg (Chaffer died in 1951). He stepped up the effort to appeal to members of the Conference. He also distributed a monthly paper, Truth in Love (named after Stephen Cheek’s paper), which gained a circulation of three to four thousand each month. As a result of these efforts a number of Conference preachers made the same move as Colin Smith, including Les Burgin and Hubert Edwards in Melbourne, Alf Dow and W.J. Campbell in Brisbane and Joe Pearce in Perth. A number of members from Conference churches helped to form ‘non-denominational’ congregations in Newcastle, Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Rockhampton, Gympie, Bundaberg, Inverell and Armidale. By the time Tarbet had left Australia in 1960 the number of congregations in Australia had increased from 8 to 23. While many of these were “house churches” the situation in Australia had changed considerably during that time.

The pace of growth in Australia continued during the 1960’s. The number of U.S. workers in Australia rose to ten in 1964. New congregations were established in 20 additional locations in State capital cities and country areas between 1960 and 1967. However, the greatest growth occurred during the period 1968 to 1976. By 1968 the number of U.S. workers in Australia had risen to 23. Due to an economic downturn in the United States in the mid 1970’s, however, nearly all U.S. workers had to return home. During that eight-year period new congregations were begun in 37 locations in every State and Territory of Australia. While not all these churches survived or thrived, by 1976 there were approximately 64 non-denominational Churches of Christ in Australia. A full-time training institution, the Australian Bible College was established in Sydney in 1968. The college was reorganised in 1970 with the name Macquarie School of Preaching (later the Macquarie School of Biblical Studies). The non-denominational Churches of Christ in Australia reached their peek in membership towards the end of the 1980’s with just over 2,090 members and 80 congregations.

Status at the Beginning of the 21st Century
A survey of non-denominational Churches of Christ in Australia in 2001 identified a combined membership of just over 1,850 in 78 congregations. Membership numbers are based on surveys reported by congregations. Some churches may have reported "attendance" as opposed to "baptized members.” There were 45 congregations in major urban areas with a combined membership of just over 1,400. The highest membership totals were in Queensland (just under 550 in 24 churches) and New South Wales (nearly 530 in 20 churches). The average size of congregations was 33 members in urban areas and 14 in country areas. The ten congregations with the largest membership were: Gipps Street, Toowoomba (96), Westchurch, Perth (80), City Beach, Perth (80), Canberra (77), Blacktown, Sydney (72), Holland Park, Brisbane (71), Belmore Road, Melbourne (70), The Point, Brisbane (60), Eastside, Sydney (54) and NorthWest, Sydney (50). The fastest growing churches in the major urban areas were the relatively newer churches at the Point in Brisbane, Westchurch in Perth and NorthWest in Sydney.

Spiritual Needs/Challenges

General Editor

Dr. Bob Waldron, Missions Consultant and Researcher


  • Peter Gray, Sydney, Australia

Resource People

Sources Cited and Suggested Reading

Chapman, Graeme, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: A History of Churches of Christ in Australia, Vital Publications, 1979.

Gray, Peter. [n.d.]. History of the Churches of Christ in Australia. An unpublished paper.

Roper, David, Voices Crying in the Wilderness: A History of the Lord’s Church With Special Emphasis on Australia, Restoration Publications, Salisbury, South Australia, 1979.