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The Early Missionaries: Theology

There is so much controversy surrounding the early missionaries in Australia. Using John Harris’ book, One Blood, we explore the theology informing the early missionaries’ efforts to proselytise Australia’s Indigenous people, and the effect it had on their interactions with the First Australians in the context of early settler society.


Although the early missionaries encountered many problems, some that were beyond their power to solve (pg. 20), Harris notes that “it is also true that in most cases the missionaries themselves were not equal to the task.” (pg. 20). According to Harris, “The better educated missionary candidates were usually sent to such places as China or India where it was anticipated that they would be competent to debate Buddhist or Hindu philosophies. (1). The standard for Africa, Australia and the South Pacific was much lower.” (pg. 651)

A Flawed Theology

The early Australian missionaries’ theology was not only inadequate, but deeply flawed, particularly their belief that Indigenous Australians were the cursed descendants of Noah’s son, Ham. This view was the result of a serious misinterpretation of Genesis 9 and 10:


And the sons of Noah, that went forth from the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan...And [Noah] said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said Blessed be the Lord God of Shem: and Canaan shall be his servant. . . And the sons of Ham; Cush and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan.’ (2)

According to Harris, “Instead of seeing the fulfillment of the curse of Canaan in the Hebrew conquest of the Canaanites, the curse was seen to apply to Ham and all his descendants: Cush (Ethiopia), Mizraim (Egypt) and Phut (Libya). These were African nations and included black races. By extension, the curse was given universal application, not only to the black peoples of Africa, but to all black races of the southern hemisphere.” (pg. 29-30)


Harris identifies two significant consequences of this misguided theological perspective; one positive, and the other negative. 

"Degraded Humanity"

On the negative side, writes Harris, Indigenous Australians were consequently considered by missionaries of the time to be ‘the lowest scale of degraded humanity.’ (3) (pg. 30). The Presbyterian Minister, Thomas Dove, wrote:


They live in the lowest stage of degradation lacking all moral views and impressions… such is the depth of their degradation that they have reached the level of the beasts, every thought bearing upon the nature of rational beings has now been erased from their breasts.” (4)

The extension of Ham’s curse on the African nations to include Indigenous Australians on the basis of their skin colour also perpetuated the imagery of light as good and dark as evil. This is evident in the writing of the Anglican preacher, William Henry:


O Jesus, when shall thy Kingdom come with power amongst them? When shall the rays of thine eternal gospel penetrate the gross darkness of their minds (well represented by their faces) and illuminate their benighted souls.” (5)

Essential Humanity

Nevertheless, there was one vital positive outcome resulting from this otherwise damaging theological perspective. Harris points out that “The view that Aboriginal people were degraded, even that they were the most degraded of all people, still contained within it one essential safeguard. They were still human. Although the belief In their utter degradation was terribly flawed, it was not therefore fatally flawed…In the final analysis, the belief itself demanded the essential humanity of the Aborigines. If they were descended from Ham, they were also descended from Adam.” (pg. 32)

Although acknowledging Indigenous people as human hardly seems extraordinary, in the context of colonial Australia it distinguished missionary opinion from that of wider settler society. This is expressed by a pastoral letter from Catholic Archbishop John Bede Polding written in 1869:


"[Some of our fellow colonists] have, in justification of a great crime, striven to believe that these black men are not of our race, are not our fellow creatures. We Catholics know assuredly how false this is: we know that one soul of theirs is, like one of our own, of more worth than the whole material world, that any human soul is of more worth, as it is of greater cost, than the whole mere matter of this earth, its sun and its system or, indeed, of all the glories of the firmament." (6)

Likewise, 'Philanthropus', who, according to Harris, was almost certainly the Church of England clergyman Robert Cartwright, wrote in the Sydney Gazette in 1824: In the sight of the Creator, their souls I believe to be of infinite importance… If we therefore now hasten their destruction or neglect to promote their salvation, shall we be innocent or without blame?” (7)


The missionaries, regardless of their church denomination, maintained this opinion despite strong and relentless opposition, often citing Acts 17:26: "God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth." (pg. 35)

One Blood

The Christian community’s belief in the essential humanity of Indigenous Australians had profound implications. According to Harris, There were times when the whole Christian community… rose to their powerful best when confronted with community agitation for the massacre of Aborigines.” (pg.35). In response to the trials over the Myall Creek massacre in 1838, the Reverend John Saunders wrote:


"Does it seem strange to speak of the majesty of the New Hollanders? Wilt thou despise the Saviour of the world? Then despise not him who sprang out of the same stock, despise not him for whom Christ died. The Saviour died as much for him as he did for you. Now by every sentiment of humanity and love you are bound to love him, to admit him to your fraternity and to treat him as a fellow man." (8)


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

  1. Beetham, T.A. 1967, Christianity and the New Africa, F.A. Praeger, London, pg. 12
  2. King James Version of the Bible, 1611, Genesis 9:18, 9:25-26, and 10:6
  3. Threlkeld, 1853, in Gunson, N. 1974, Australian Reminiscences and Papers of LE. Threlkeld, AIAS, Canberra, pg. 54 and 71
  4. Dove, T. 1842, "Moral and social characteristics of the Aborigines of Tasmania", Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, 1 (4), pg. 249
  5. William Henry to S Pinder, 29th August 1799, LMS South Seas Letters, LMS Archives, London
  6. Pastoral letter of the Archbishop and Bishops of of the Province, Assembled in the Second Provincial Council f Australia, 1869 (reproduced in O’Farrell, P. 1969, Documents in Australian Catholic History, Vols 1-2, Chapman, London)
  7. Gazette (Sydney), 5 August 1824 
  8. Colonist, 20th October 1838


  1. Nancy White, Flickr, 'Choconancy1', 274861381_25cf240558_o[1]
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