The Bible in Australia:
A Cultural History

By Meredith Lake
New South, pp. 544, $39.99

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Review by Robyn Douglass

“Bible Basher” is an Australian insult for someone who engages in enthusiastic proselytizing, or just someone who talks about Christianity a bit. There is a group of Bible Bashers who stake out the main entrance to Adelaide’s central railway station (and, incidentally, casino) every Friday night. They try to hand out free Bibles, which come with loud imprecations of doom for sinners and unwashed.

The skeptics have a point, the Bible has been at least partly responsible for dour, ‘wowser’ (killjoy) morality for the 233 years of European settlement in Australia. But as historian and broadcaster Dr. Meredith Lake demonstrates in this fascinating history, the Bible has a much more commendable role in the development of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies.

The structure of Australian social life owes some of its best parts to the good book. While a history of the Bible in Australia is entwined inevitably with a history of churches, Lake’s focus frees her from denominational constraints. The Scriptures are home territory for her, as she was raised in the evangelical Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

The Bible in Australia was first released in 2018, to wide acclaim. It took a slew of prizes, including the Prime Minister’s award for Australian history. Revised and updated, it was reissued in 2020.

The penal colony founded in Sydney in 1788 was meant to be a place of atonement and restoration. Supplying Bibles to the convicts became a small industry for the next 50 or so years. While some were used for smoking and wastepaper, many convicts drew consolation from the suffering Christ, likening their banishment to exile from Eden. Tattoos on convicts, on the record as “distinguishing marks,” often featured texts, biblical imagery such as crosses, and even illustrations copied from Bibles.

As the colonies opened to free settlers, Australia was recast as a promised land and Europeans took seriously the charge to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). They were God’s gardeners, taming the wilderness, and in the case of South Australia, Lutherans set up a paradise of dissent akin to the Mayflower pilgrims.

Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian influences in Australia are evident in the liberal foundations of its political and social life. The world’s oldest Labor party was founded in Australia by men who believed the worker was worth his hire (Luke 10:7).

As Lake describes it, the “discourse of national righteousness” shaped a community that, at its best, strove to provide for every member through welfare organizations and national provision for the elderly, invalid, and unemployed. To this day, Australian parliaments begin each sitting day with the Lord’s Prayer.

But this is only half the story, and Lake is meticulous in describing how Australia’s Indigenous people were invited to engage with the Bible. People who had occupied the land for around 50,000 years inevitably questioned the authority of these new sacred stories.

The 19th century saw the flowering of the evangelical movement, and missionary endeavors in Australia were a double-edged sword. While they sought to convert Australian Aborigines from a way of life practiced for tens of thousands of years, missionaries recorded and promoted indigenous languages, often so they could translate the Scriptures. Many took seriously Galatians 3:28, acknowledging the Indigenous people’s entitlement to salvation through Christ, and their equal status as children of God.

Lake demonstrates that it was Christian humanitarians who saw clearly that Indigenous people had a right to retain their land, and a few bold Christians exposed and denounced the massacre of Indigenous people.

In 1938, the 150th anniversary of white settlement, William Cooper of the Yorta Yorta people wrote to the prime minister of the day “from the standpoint of an educated Black man who can read the Bible upon which the British constitution and custom is founded.” He asked how a professedly Christian nation could murder Aboriginal people and take from them, without compensation, the land which God gave them. As Lake comments, “Cooper’s questions and his challenge to white nationhood remain significant today. They go to the heart of what it might mean for the Bible to continue to shape the Australian nation.”

Modern, multicultural Australia appears less attentive to the Bible than the old white Australia, but the popularity of new translations continues to surprise. Similarly, the Bible remains a powerful inspiration for artists, from writers to rock musicians, not all Christians. But as Lake makes clear, the Bible has never been confined to the churches.

The success of her study suggests there is still plenty of interest in the sacred text, and perhaps a new generation curious about the source of inspiration for many Australian institutions.

Robyn Douglass is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide, Australia, and a correspondent of The Living Church.