Indigenous Ministries – Ugly Past and the Bible's Influence (Part 1)

All countries have ugly histories and Australia is no exception. The white settlor's treatment of the original Indigenous Australians was appalling, and in some ways hard to believe. Christians could ask - Where were those called to "uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed [ie: the indigenous people]”? What were the Australian church and mission organisations doing? Given the damages of the past, what sort of future is there for Christianity and indigenous people?

This is the first of two articles on the history of indigenous ministries in Australia. This first article starts with the ugly treatment of indigenous people. It then looks at what the church was doing. It finishes with the impact of the Bible in defending indigenous people.

Warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: This article includes images of deceased people.

Indigenous ministries - ugly past

The ugly past

Brutal Colonial Views

The British colonists arriving in Australia from 1788 denied the human rights of indigenous people. They came with myopic views and a hunger for wealth to support their actions.

Many believed that Europeans were superior beings to Indigenous people. It was claimed that indigenous people were sub-human and not worthy of human treatment. With this thinking they justified the cruel treatment of aboriginals. (A similar view and treatment was made towards African slaves in other parts of the world). Some subscribed to ‘social Darwinism’, believing that according to the ‘survival of the fittest’, the Australian aboriginals would die off and become extinct.

At this time, the self-serving ‘doctrine of discovery’ was also influencing some European nations. This doctrine (which is beyond the scope of this article) was used by ‘Christian’ countries to justify taking land from ‘non-Christian’ nations.

These views were held across the colonised world and had a devastating effect on indigenous people in other countries such as USA, Canada, and New Zealand.

Brutal Colonial Actions

Many Australians today are probably more aware of the poor treatment of African Americans (and perhaps Native Indians) than Australian aboriginals. Sadly, our Australian history contains countless stories of cruelty towards indigenous people. To highlight some examples:

  • The land of Australia was stolen from the Aboriginal people. There was no treaty in place, nor compensation for the taking of the land. Aboriginal protests lead to further hardships and persecutions.
  • European white settlors introduced diseases (smallpox, syphilis, chickenpox, measles, influenza, and others) which spread amongst the Indigenous people and resulted in many deaths and loss of fertility. For example, around Port Phillips around two-thirds of the Aboriginal population died from venereal diseases brought in by the settlors. (Similar stories can be told about the Spanish impact on indigenous South Americans).
  • Many Aboriginals were murdered. Multiple massacres have been recorded. Strong military force was used against aboriginals. Some missionaries raised concerns about settlors taking pride in killing aboriginals. It took 50 years before any while settlor was charged for murdering an aboriginal.
  • Essentially genocide was committed in Tasmania. Over 90% of the Tasmanian Aboriginal population were killed by white settlors, and the rest moved to a reserve where they died off.
  • Sexual exploitation, abuse and prostitution of aboriginal women and girls was common. Children were forcibly taken for sex and/or household servants.
  • In the 20th century, there was the infamous stolen generation, whereby half-caste children were taken from their aboriginal families and place in institutions or non-aboriginal homes.

Church Failure in outreach and care for Indigenous people

The Australian church has a terrible history in relation to the indigenous people. There appeared to be an indifference or lack of moral courage to do the right thing. The church at large was slow to respond and largely silent about the unjust treatment of aboriginals. Consider the following extracts from the Christian historian John Harris:

[In the early 19th C] ..the church almost totally ignored the Aborigines. There were few Christian laypeople distressed by the situation … Not only did the clergy remain silent, but their congregations did not encourage such action of their clergy either... In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Christian churches in NSW made very little effort to do anything for the Aboriginal people. Not only were the efforts to bring the gospel to them minimal, but so was any attention to their material well-being. ... [ When the Tasmanian Aboriginals were being killed off in large numbers - ] What the Christian churches were doing while all of this was going on is a question which is shameful to have to ask. The answer is simple: almost nothing.
John Harris
One Blood: 200 Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity: a Story of Hope

Some food for thought comes from the Christian Aboriginal rights campaigner Charles Duguid (1884-1986). He claimed that the failure to defend and value Aboriginals “lies heavily with members of the Christian church. It is we [Christians] who profess to apply the spirit and teaching of Christ to the solution of all human problems. If in 1788 and throughout the following years the Christian Church had directed its mind to the dilemma of the aborigines, if it had maintained an uncompromising stand on their just treatment then this fine face would long ago have become a proud and happy part of the Australian nation”.

Indigenous issues in the Australian churches and mission organisations included:

  • Church members not welcoming Indigenous people into their services and community.
  • Early missionaries looking down on aboriginals. John Harris believes that ‘most missionaries views on Aborigines were not clearly distinguishable from those of the rest of the community’. This can be seen in missionaries expressing derogatory views on Aboriginal culture and intelligence. Incredibly some theologians went as far as to question whether an aboriginal had a soul.
  • Church members (including leaders) exploiting aboriginals for financial gain.
  • Mission organisations were slow to translate the Bible. In fact, most indigenous translation work only began in the past 60 years.
  • Church members presenting a lifestyle to the aboriginals that differed from generally accepted Christian values.
  • Poor nurturing and development of indigenous Christian converts.
  • Thank God for the Bible

    Earlier it was mentioned that many (in the 18th and 19th Century) saw the aboriginal people as being inferior to the colonials. Social Darwinism was used to enforce this idea.

    Thankfully, the Bible was used to refute these views and promote equality of all mankind before God. All people are created in the image God (Genesis 1:27) and of equal value. To quote the Australian historian Henry Reynolds:

    The humanitarians pitted the authority of scripture against the upsurge of scientific racism, which was quickly seized on in the Australian colonies to justify death and dispossession as in was in the US to provide intellectual buttressing to the institution of slavery
    Henry Reynolds
    This whisperings in our hearts

    In our next blog article, Indigenous Ministries - the faithful few and a better future? we will look at the encouragingly actions of a faithful few Christians. Lastly, we finish with the state of indigenous ministries.


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