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The Early Missionaries: One Blood

The early Aboriginal Christian missions in Australia are surrounded by controversy. John Harris' historical account, One Blood, allows original sources - official records, news articles and diaries - to shed light on the complex situation of the early Australian missionaries.

Whilst Harris admits that it is hard to sum up the early missions with any word other than failure (pg. 125), he also notes that “...however unwittingly, however imperfectly, however inadequately, (the Christians among the convicts) did carry the knowledge of Christ to these shores.” (pg.18)

Nevertheless, he regrets that “It is one of the great tragedies of the recent history of Australia that true Christianity was for so long so very difficult to discern in the life of this outpost of a distant nation which called itself Christian.” (pg.18)

Article 2.1

Failure of the Early Missionaries

Harris largely attributes the missionaries’ perceived failure to three key factors which were present in settler society within very few years of white settlement. These were:

  1. The low view of Indigenous society and culture displayed by the missionaries
  2. The brutal or immoral treatment of Indigenous people by many settlers
  3. The gross contradictions between Christian values and the lifestyle of colonial white society (pg.44)

The missionaries’ low view of Indigenous society and culture is amply evidenced in the writings of the early missionaries. Harris quotes the Wesleyan missionary, Samuel Leigh, who “described Aboriginal people as ‘barbarians’ to whom had been assigned ‘the lowest place in the scale of intellect’”(1), and the Lutheran missionary, William Schmidt, who “wrote that (Aboriginal people) were ‘the lowest in the scale of the human race.’”(2) (pg. 29)

Harris notes that “A consequence of this low view of the destiny and status of Aboriginal people was that the early missionaries maintained a social distance between themselves and Aboriginal people whom they regarded as their inferiors socially.” (pg. 135)

This, along with the early missionaries’ failure to distinguish between the gospel and what they considered “civilisation”, European culture, seriously undermined their efforts to communicate Christ’s love to Indigenous people.

Brutality and Corruption of White Society

Also well-documented is the cruel and degrading treatment of Indigenous people by many settlers. Harris laments that A generation of Aborigines (sic.) in south-eastern Australia were to experience the brutality and corruption of white society before the church formally responded to their need.” (pg.40)

It was common practice for white men to keep multiple Indigenous women captive for sexual purposes, and many brutal acts were committed against Indigenous people in the name of ‘sport’ (3) (pg.54 and pg.89). According to Harris, “Aboriginal people inevitably thought Christianity to be the religion of the British colonists” (4) (pg.59), and consequently, the brutal treatment of Indigenous people by the colonists also undermined the message of Christ’s love that the missionaries sought to deliver.

It was not only the settler’s behaviour towards Indigenous people, but the general immorality of life outside the mission that contradicted the missionaries’ efforts. According to Governor Hunter, 1798, "'a more wicked, abandoned and irreligious set of people have never been brought together in any part of the world.’” (5) (pg.37). Harris writes that, consequently, “As (Aboriginal people) began to understand the missionary teaching on sin and eternal damnation, they began to ask... whether or not particular white men known to them would be punished for their very public sins, and why the missionaries preached about sin to the Aborigines so much and not to the whites.” (6) (pg.59)

A Burning Injustice

Of course, there were many other factors contributing to the missionaries’ failure, including misunderstandings between missionaries and their respective mission societies, lack of financial support, the declining Indigenous population as a result of disease and dispossession, and personal disagreements amongst missionaries, settlers and governing authorities. (pg.126-145)

Catholic Archbishop, John Bede Polding, wrote that:

"...In great part, the want of success must be attributed to the bad feeling and want of confidence, naturally caused by the mode in which possession has been taken of their country - occupation by force, accompanied by murders, ill-treatment, ravishment of their women, in a word, to the conviction on their minds that the white man has come for his own advantage, without any regard to their rights. Feeling this burning injustice inflicted by the white man, it is not in the nature of things that the black man should believe the white man better than himself, or suppose the moral and religious laws, by which the white man proposes the black man to be governed, to be better than those of his own tribe." (7)

While various reasons were given for the failure of the early missions, the fact that they had failed was undisputed (pg.127).

Essential Humanity

Despite their flawed approach, Harris credits the early missionaries for their adamant belief in the essential humanity of Indigenous people. “It is unfair to criticise these missionaries for being negative towards Aboriginal culture”, he notes, “while outside the missions Aboriginal people were being shot, tortured and sexually exploited by those who would deny them their very humanity.” (pg.137)

Stop & Think... Racism and Religion

  • The racist views that Harris details are so appalling to us today, that it is difficult to imagine how so many people could be so misguided. What questions does this raise for us today in the way we think about those who are different from us? What ‘blind spots’ could exist within our commonly-accepted views which are potentially actually deeply flawed?
  • If the initial contact between Indigenous Australians and the representatives of the church was in many ways negative, how might this still colour the relationship that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Christians today?

Want to know more?

Watch Sharing Our Story Episode 2 to find out more about this era of our shared history.

To watch the full Sharing Our Story series, click here.



Harris, J. 2013, One Blood (electronic resource): Two hundred years of Aboriginal encounter with Christianity, Concilia LTD, Brentford Square

  1. Strachan, A. 1870, The Life of the Rev. Samuel Leigh, Missionary to the Settlers and Savages of Australia and New Zealand”, Wesleyan Mission House, London, pg. 114 &116-120 
  2. Report from the Select Committee on the Condition of the Aborigines, New South Wales Legislative Council, Votes and Proceedings, 1845, pg. 20
  3. The Pastoral Letter of the Archbishop and Bishops of the Province,1869, pg. 14-16, cited in O'Farrell, P.1969(I), Documents in Australian Catholic History, Chapman, London, pg. 413-416
  4. Watson Diary, 28 March 1834, 29 July 1834, Australian Joint Copying Project, M233, National Library of Australia 
  5. Governor Hunter, cited in Ward, R. 1967, Australia, a Short History, Horwitz, Sydney, pg. 40 
  6. Watson Diary, 28 March 1834, 29 July 1834, Australian Joint Copying Project, M233, National Library of Australia
  7. New South Wales Legislative Council, Votes and Proceedings, 1845, pg. 1
  8. Schmidt, 1845, cited in Hull, W. 1846, Remarks on the Probable Origin and Antiquity of the Aboriginal Natives of NSW, Melbourne (attributed only to ‘A Colonial Magistrate’), pg. 38


  1. Harris, J. 2013, One Blood (electronic resource): 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity, cover illustration by Sally Morgan
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