All things change, but only ideas have histories. Historical understanding of religious ideas of Tasmanians over the last two centuries requires often complex investigation of legal, statistical, social, cultural, economic and political issues. Space is limited, so only mainstream European religions are discussed.
Only ideas have histories? Strictly, only command-ideas do.1 Garden of Eden narratives build on several. Before Adam was tempted and fell for him to be was, simply, to obey. His fall involved double wilfulness: disobeying the divine command; compliance with his own. Adam blamed Eve (the first excuse); Eve blamed the serpent. Four command ideas are disclosed – God's, Adam's, Eve's and the snake's. Each involved possible non-compliance. Here are four symbolically rich sequences of action and reaction.
To see religion in Tasmanian history as responses to command-ideas (including choosing to ignore them) is to see religion as dynamic and interactive. Many Tasmanians over two centuries have negotiated the fraught tale of how sin entered the world; how Law and a Covenant made obedience conceivable; how God's son made obedience possible. To many Tasmanians, this tale was the only hint of a cosmic dimension to life. The religion of European Tasmanians, mostly Judaeo–Christian, is evidenced from the start, yet interpretation can puzzle. How does one interpret census returns of religious affiliation? How do religious command ideas rate when compared to those of economic or social self-interest? Detection of hypocrisy becomes an art form.
Investigating religion in European–Tasmanian history involves estimating the effect of the convict system. Stated purposes include moral and religious reform. Outward respect for life, property and the institutions of religion was secured. However some twentieth-century historians, Russel Ward chief pathfinder, claim adversarial sub-cultures subsisted among convicts, later surfacing as working-class and radical-nationalist resistance to class deference and capitalist excesses. An assumed corollary is a functionalist interpretation of religion, emphatically of Protestantism, less of Catholicism, as capitalism's handmaid. Religion's impact was allowed, but as a dependent not independent variable. That the convictism sustain adversarial solidarism is undoubted, but evidence is also plentiful of ex-convict readiness to climb respectability's ladder: prosper, marry, grow families.
Some Protestants expected little more from free migrants. A Congregationalist body in 1843 saw free immigrants 'as principally intent' on wealth. Unlike the Pilgrim Fathers, they thought little of that 'better country, in comparison with which all the possessions of the world are a bauble'. This comes from John Barrett: the epigraph to his 1966 study of the 'religious aspect of life in Eastern Australia, 1835–1850'. (In calling his book That better country Barrett perhaps set the bar anachronistically high.) Michael Roe's 1965 Quest for authority in Eastern Australia offers a higher estimate of the moral quality of free migrants, as did John West in 1852 in The history of Tasmania. However Lloyd Robson, in A history of Tasmania, takes a lower view, epitomised by his reference to Launceston, at the height of anti-transportation agitation, as the 'heartland' of 'the uncomplicated moralism conspicuously well-suited to it'.
Form and content of religious command ideas are affected by local circumstances, but one needs to see them in longer perspective. The English background is deeply salient. Tasmania and New South Wales were not gaols, nor were prisoners slaves. The law applied by magistrates and the court of the Judge-Advocate was the law of England, so far as local – certainly unusual – circumstances permitted. Liberties were attenuated, sometimes severely, but only for a term.
English statutes establishing a form of Protestant religion were potent sources of command ideas relating to religion in Tasmania. Van Diemen's Land's first chaplain, Robert Knopwood, assumed the established religion of England was that of the colony. When in 1821 the child of the early Wesleyan missionary, William Horton, died in the colony, Knopwood at first refused use of the colony's burying ground, because the child was baptised by dissenters. Horton successfully protested to the lieutenant-governor.
Knopwood's establishmentarian assumption was natural but contestable. In law, worship by some non-conformist Protestants was lawful, although hedged with restriction. Roman Catholic worship by the late eighteenth century was in a similar legal position. Governor King in 1803 allowed a Catholic priest to perform religious offices, citing a recent Catholic toleration statute. Permission was revoked after the Castle Hill rising in 1804.
Until at least the 1837 Van Diemen's Land Church Act, which financially aided the 'three grand divisions of Christianity' – Churches of England, Scotland and Rome – the safest inference is that the religion of the Church of England was legally established, but in an organisationally incomplete way. A boost to establishmentarian perceptions was the 1825 creation, by Letters Patent, of an archdeaconry of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, an Archdeacon's Court, and a Church and School Corporation. Decisions of the Archdeacon's Court in ecclesiastical matters had legal force. The Corporation was to receive, as endowment for educational and ecclesiastical purposes, one-seventh of future crown grants. The charter proved unpopular, not least with non-conformists, and was dissolved in 1833.
Establishment's demise was put beyond doubt by 1860s rulings by English courts that establishment statutes had force only in England. However English law relating to voluntary religious associations and trusts proved of more enduring significance in Tasmania. This was mostly judge-made law, evolving in tandem with law relating to commercial corporations and companies. Leading command ideas underlying law relating to religious groups and trusts included defence of their religious liberty, and legal protection of property held in trust for them. Leading command ideas underlying business corporations and companies were analogous: rights to trade and manufacture, and legally to defend property in factors of production. Lord Mansfield was a paradigm eighteenth-century judicial activist in both domains.
Aptitude in middling ranks of English society, to join or create religious and commercial bodies, reflected and fostered a taste for self-governance. Linked with this voluntarist aptitude was a populist sense of collective property in religious, legal and governing institutions. Religious-civic crossovers were common. Baptism had civic as well as religious meaning, being practically conclusive evidence of legal capacity to testify on oath. This helps explain the many baptisms Knopwood performed.
Interpreting the dynamic and expansive Protestant and commercial culture which lapped the Derwent and Tamar, one should distinguish between English religious societies, such as the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, the Society for Promoting the Gospel, the Church Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society (LMS), and the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS), and the activities of what one now would call denominational bodies, for instance the Church of Scotland and the Wesleyan Conference. The first three societies were Church of England formations; the LMS, formed 1796, was mainly Independent, including Baptist; the BFBS, formed 1802, combined established Churchmen and non-conformists in about equal proportions. The society form could be dynamic, by-passing the tendency toward inertia of British parochial structures.
The mildly evangelical Knopwood was local secretary of the BFBS. In the last third of the eighteenth century, evangelical energy was at first directed to converting England and Britain. Only from the mid-1790s did conversion of the world rise in evangelical priorities. Perhaps the anti-revolutionary Tory chill of the 1790s made this a safer project.
By the 1840s, Tasmania was home for replicas and adaptations of British religious, self-help and commercial associations. Religious 'denominations', increasingly so-called, became religion's standard institutional form. Establishmentarian command ideas of parish and civic community as coextensive were in retreat, but not dead.
Antipodean Christianity was largely born modern, spun from capitalist energy and its discontents. Soon, Tasmania was tethered to the imperial economy by ramifying trade bonds. British entrepreneurs were soon aware (of course) of bountiful fisheries and abundant pastures. The later eighteenth-century evangelical movement is often seen as reacting to the eighteenth-century enlightenment. This is only plausible when enlightenment is interpreted in the continental anti-clerical mode; but recent studies of the British Enlightenment disclose deep links between religion, scientistic pragmatism, and dissent. John Wesley, archetype evangelical, much admired Locke and Newton. He wrote a book on electricity and described his 1780 hymn book as 'a little body of experimental and practical divinity'. Experimental? Gospel truths, he meant, were validated by experience.2 Wesley was modern in another way: Methodism methodises; in a sense Benthamises. Another evangelical, Lt-Governor George Arthur, adhered to the Lockean/Bethamite view of human nature. He once exclaimed: 'Bentham's notion that gaolers should possess a personal interest in their subject is beautifully realised in Van Diemen's Land'. Enlightenment strands in evangelicalism helped entrench command ideas of improvement, individual and collective. The emphatically evangelical Anglican rector of St George's, Battery Point, declared in 1854 that
despotism forgot that man is endowed with an understanding and a will … [The remedy for despotism is to] strengthen [the people's] independence, and to enlighten their minds … Philanthropy, religion! — here is your holy path! Educate and train the people to think and act for themselves … The human faculties can alone progress by their own social exercise and development.3
The Anglican High Church movement arrived in 1842 with Bishop Nixon. On one level this was an effort, begun in 1833, to rescue what was seen as the true Church of England from a British Parliament fallen apostate, admitting Roman Catholics and non-conformists. Does the State now, Gladstone famously asked, still have a conscience? No, he declared. High Churchmen emphasised the religious view from the sanctuary, but many evangelicals and low churchmen preferred the view from the pew. Vehement lay-sacerdotal rows occurred at St David's Cathedral in Bishop Bromby's time (1864–82).
The first Roman Catholic bishop, Willson, arrived in 1844. The Catholic cause struggled until caught up in the devotional revolution initiated in mid-century Ireland by Cardinal Cullen. Two Tasmanian developments converged. One was the assisted immigration early in the 1850s of many Irish Catholic brides-to-be, the other was the steady arrival from this decade of many Irish priests and members of teaching orders, bringing a French Catholic style of pietism, which at first disconcerted many local Catholics, and Catholic schooling. Catholic mothers increasingly recognised disciplined piety's domestic benefits. Women and priests became piety's A team. What came to be seen as 'traditional' Irish-Catholic piety was a post-famine construct, but potent nonetheless.
Three religio-cultural movements – British–Protestant, High Anglican, Catholic pietist – resonated long. Protestant linkage of national and British identity was dominant but never universal from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1950s, perhaps reaching its apogee in Great War memorials to those who died for 'God, King and Country' (sometimes 'Empire'). The link was strikingly attested in an 1864 incident. 11,000 English clergy, led by an evangelical Archbishop of Canterbury, protested when an English court squashed legal penalties imposed on two ultra-liberal contributors to the 1860 Essays and Reviews. Members of Hobart's tiny Particular Baptist chapel offered the Primate their 'gratulation … from this distant corner of the British dominion' for defending 'national recognition of the Bible'. The Archbishop at once replied, encouraged 'that those who dissent from the forms of our church, nevertheless should be steadfast in the faith'.4 High Churchmanship encouraged liturgical precisionism and Anglophile perceptions of Tasmania (especially the Midlands) as 'little England'. The first survives in now lonely pockets, the second as a tourist commodity. Irish Catholicism evolved from the late nineteenth century towards sentimental Irish-Australianness. The piety side became increasingly marginal from the 1970s, but gender-neutral, tourist-focused, Irish pub-and-folk culture thrives.
Energetic Protestants from around the 1840s strove for religious ascendancy in a civic and communal battle for Tasmanian hearts and minds. Music (congregational hymns and psalms, set to stirring tunes) was an attractive feature of worship, of the Sunday school experience, and of the occasional religious revival.5 It is easy to overlook how novel all this was at the time.
Knopwood read prayers! Churchmen were at first slow to join the musical revolution. English ecclesiastical courts were unsure until 1818 whether hymns were even lawful. This never troubled Methodists, to their great advantage. Presbyterians had long sung unaccompanied metrical psalms. From the 1830s, however, Protestant worship became a hymn singing feast. Even Catholics found niches for congregational singing. Around pianos, a popular import, groups of any and no denomination beefed out sacred songs. Romanticism and sentimental expressiveness transcended boundaries of command ideas of class and creed.
Education and educators lit pathways to the future. Sunday schools proliferated as places of imagination-stirring song and horizon-extending Bible and missionary stories. In larger Sunday schools, scholars were classified, and progression paths defined, often in educationally sophisticated ways. Literacy and numeracy, highly valued in a commercial society, were encouraged. Sunday schools often had large libraries. Congregationalists were initial pacemakers, but Methodists soon drew ahead. The Church of England began slowly, and even by 1906, with 7695 claimed scholars stood behind Methodists with 8426. Catholics rarely entered this race, relying on catechetical classes and Catholic schooling.
Sunday schools proved efficient denominational recruiters, but by the 1970s, as discussed later, limped badly. In consequence, Biblical imagery became a coterie rather than communal resource. Roman Catholics, as before, relied on Catholic schooling for faith-formation. This engine of recruitment was now saved or strengthened (views differ) by government funding.
Over the denominational period – from the 1830s to the present – women attended worship more frequently than men. One plausibly infers mutuality of interest between mothers and parsons, analogous to the Catholic mutuality. Church links, Sunday schooling and 'God's police' helped keep Protestant children and fathers in line. Subtler politics of patriarchy were noted by, for instance, the Tasmanian Woman's Christian Temperance Union, founded 1885.
Census returns were a colonial responsibility to 1901. The first Commonwealth census was taken in 1911. From the 1933 census the religion question was optional. By the 1861 census the denominational form had been religion's public face for over two decades: C of E by then was 52 percent, Catholic (boosted by transportation in the 1840s and immigration in the 50s) 22 percent, Presbyterian 10 percent, Methodist 7 percent and Congregationalist 4 percent. By 1891 Catholic fell to about 18 percent and scarcely rose, even after the Second World War. Methodist in 1891 rose to 12 percent; Presbyterian sank to 7 percent and Congregationalist to 3 percent. Baptist was 2 percent. C of E, a little over 50 percent in 1891, held that place until dropping to 46 percent in 1933, 43 percent in 1971, and 33 percent in 2001. Catholic, up to the 2001 census, for long stood a little below, but more recently a little above 18 percent. Between 1911 and 1971, Methodist dropped from 13 percent to 11 percent, Presbyterian from 8 percent to 4 percent, and Congregationalist from 2.5 percent to 1 percent. Baptists in this period slipped little — 2.5 percent to 2 percent. In 1977 Methodist, and nearly all Congregationalist churches, and some Presbyterian congregations formed the Uniting Church. Census reflections in 1981 were strange. Uniting Church was 4.2 percent. Methodist, now organisationally non-existent, was 4.7 percent! Adding continuing Presbyterians (2.7 percent) to Uniting, one gets 6.9 percent, still way below 16 percent for 1971. In 2001 Uniting plus Presbyterian was 9.4 percent. Perhaps more phantom Methodists now identified as Uniting.6 C of E (now called Anglican), Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist continuities may, at least until recently, evidence impressive ethnic-cultural continuities.
Denominational continuities may mislead, masking 'bottoms on seats' variations within and between denominations. Also masked by aggregate figures is regional variation. Catholic strength is urban, Cygnet and Westbury being rural exceptions. Anglican and Presbyterian strength has been in Hobart, Launceston and the Midlands. Congregationalists in the nineteenth century were city-based, but energetic in planting churches in Hobart and Launceston hinterlands. The dramatic surge in the Methodist percentage during the last forty years of the nineteenth century reflected Methodist immigrant settlement in the north-west and north-east and vigorous circuit organisation. A long echo is current pockets of Uniting Church strength in the north-west. Around Bream Creek and the Tasman Peninsula, Churches of Christ were uncommonly strong until recently. From the 1870s Christian Brethren have been relatively strong in the north-west, reflecting church-plantings of the 1870s. Baptist strength is in Launceston, the northern midlands, and the central north-west.
The 1950s was a time of promise for mainstream Protestants and Catholics. Employment stood high, as did home ownership. Hydro-industrialisation looked set to sustain a long boom. The associated domestic economy — man with job, woman as housewife and mother — traditionally fed Sunday schools and catechism classes, sustaining church optimism.
Yet prospects for mainstream denominations faded. Causal inter-linkages are complex. Some historians playfully but usefully see mainstream Christianity post-Second World War in four stages: the age of Builders (born pre-1941), Boomers (born 1942–60), Generation X (born 1961–80), and Generation Y (born since 1981). 'Boomers' disappointed mainstream denominations in two main ways. First, Boomer females often distanced or rejected Builder domestic models; seeking credentials, full-time employment, and access on their own terms (as producers and consumers) in the commodity explosion from the late 1950s. Safe contraception from the 1960s facilitated social and sexual independence. Second-wave feminism undermined divisions of domestic labour hitherto feeding children into Sunday schools and churches. Catholic retention of the young was stronger at first, catechetical instruction being structural in Catholic schools.
Second, there burgeoned from the late 1950s a youth culture resistant to 'Builder' values. The resistance was set to music (rock and roll, folk) and fostered life-style wishfulness (clothes, alcohol, drugs, sex). The music was neither pious nor genteel. Big business fostered and profited from a growing youth market. Student radicalism surged noisily but ephemerally in the 1960s and early 1970s. Mainstream denominations sometimes contested the trend, without much success, with happy-clappy Sunday schools and worship-styles.
A major challenge to explanation7 is so-called 'nominal' denominational adherence. The phenomenon is not new. The report of the 1855 Legislative Council Select Committee on churches,8 outstanding for detail, makes clear a large census/membership gap. An English historian asks recently whether 'nominalism' means 'believing without belonging'.9 Perhaps. The 'establishmentarian' concept implied polity and parish were parts of a single whole. The corollary, and possible explanatory key, is that people do not think they 'belong' to a church, but that it belongs to them.
In the 1970s and 1980s I enjoyed visiting old midland churches. Most were unsupervised yet open. Theft and vandalism changed this. Did open churches reflect survival in popular culture of the command-idea of community as parish? The question deserves more attention than it has received.
1. Command ideas are what historians discover whenever individual and collective human behaviour, and changes to that behaviour, are discovered to be purposive – to have point. Command ideas may be expressed unequivocally (Jesus' 'Do unto others…', Socrates' 'Know thyself…', Marx's 'From each according to his ability', Occam's 'Don't multiply entities beyond necessity', or allusively, perhaps metaphorically ('Be fruitful and multiply …', 'Don't give a sucker an even break', 'Love your neighbour', 'Pray without ceasing'). Political and other kinds of power, salvation, civic virtue, piety, martial virtue, truthfulness, justice, mercy, repentance, forgiveness, wealth, as sought, are, to that extent, command ideas. Rarely, if ever, does only a single idea find expression in an act. To call an act hypocritical subsumes it under at least three command ideas: will to deceive, purpose simulated, purpose concealed.
Having point is what makes individual and collective behaviour an action, not just an event describable in purely physical terms. The historical interpreter may begin with evidence of claims made by actor(s) or observer(s), or later reports of such claims, but soon moves to situational analysis. This involves conjoining evidence-attested descriptions of the act to be explained, with evidence-attested descriptions of circumstances in which, given postulated command ideas or command values, the thing done was necessary or appropriate. This move is what R G Collingwood had in mind, in The idea of history (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946, p 214), in saying that when one knows what happened, one already knows why.
Sometimes what is discovered is command symbols – poetic, musical, visual, perhaps – whose potency as imperatives reflects often difficult-to-express command ideas. When religion, whose imperatives are often expressed in symbol-rich idioms, is the historians subject matter, aspects often defy non-allusive restatement. The ethnographer Clifford Geertz, in the first chapter of The interpretation of cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), addresses this and related challenges in proposing, for heuristic purposes, the concept of 'thick description'. This extends the Collingwoodian quest for historical interpretation of past action into a Weberian quest for meaning. Geertz sees man-in-history as man in culture, an animal suspended in webs of meaning of his own making. Meaning of an act is explored by testing the fit of 'a repertoire of very general, made-in-the-academy concepts and systems of concepts' drawn from social sciences at large (p 28). Examples might be 'ideology', 'metaphor', 'actor'. 'role', and of course 'culture'. When terms fit, description of the evidenced act is thereby 'thickened', and prospects of non-allusive redescription improved. Collingwood's idea of historical interpretation and Geertz's of semiotic interpretation have a common ancestor: Vico's revolutionary eighteenth-century hope that 'what man has made, man can know'.
2. See D Bebbington, Evangelicalism in modern Britain, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989, p 49.
3. The Protestant: a Tasmanian evangelical journal, February 1854 (editorial).
4 . Baptist Union Papers, University of Tasmania Archives (BU 13/9).
5. R Evans has identified 25 Tasmanian revivals between 1845 and 1880, consulting religious periodicals and published memoirs. All were local. Twenty-three were in the north and north-west. Most were Methodist, a few were Congregationalist and Christian Brethren. Early Evangelical revivals in Australia, Adelaide, 2000, chapter 7.
6. In membership terms, this church's story contradicts the census impression: 11,319 in 1981; 6271 in 1994. P Gunn, 'Tasmania: in Heartfelt Hope', in W & S Emilsen, The Uniting Church in Australia: the first 25 years, Melbourne, 2003.
7. See, for Australia, P Bentley et al, Faith without the Church? Nominalism in Australian Christianity, London, 2002.
8. Legislative Council journals 1855, paper 36.
9. G Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: believing without belonging, Oxford, 1994.