Discover the role that Wilberforce played in Christianising the young colony of Australia in Great Southland Revival.
William Wilberforce (1759–1833) is best known as the British parliamentarian who spent his life in the fight to abolish of slavery. But few Christians know of the influential role Wilberforce played in shaping the young colony of Australia.
A close friend of the British Prime Minister who commissioned the First Fleet, Wilberforce used his political influence to help usher the flame of revival from Britain to the Great Southland.
Australia as an Outpost for the Gospel
Contrary to popular mythology, Australia’s founding was not a triumph of secularism nor a tale of mere vice and ungodliness. Australia is a product of revival. The First Fleet set sail from a Britain profoundly reformed by the Great Awakening, and ready to greet the dawn of the Second Great Awakening.
Captain James Cook had recently mapped Australia’s east coast and claimed it for the British Crown in 1770. He returned to London with glowing accounts of the Sydney coastline that inspired British authorities to establish a colony there.
The prospect of establishing a colony at Botany Bay fired the imagination of many in the evangelical world. Captain Cook’s journal notes were published in a popular volume called An Account of the Voyages (1773). This book would ultimately inspire a young William Carey to devote his life to the spread of the gospel in unreached lands.
Equally enthused was William Wilberforce, who had just committed his life to Christ and entered Parliament. Along with the rest of the Clapham Sect, Wilberforce viewed the southern continent as a frontier for the gospel and social reforms, and a strategic outpost to evangelise the South Seas.
As his first significant public act, before he began his lifelong campaign against slavery, Wilberforce made certain that chaplains were sent to look after the spiritual welfare of the new colony in Australia. In the years to come, he would maintain correspondence with those chaplains and with several Australian governors.
By the hand of God, Wilberforce enjoyed a position of great influence, being the closest friend of William Pitt, the Prime Minister whose government commissioned the First Fleet.
John Newton’s Influence on the Australian Colony
The ex-slaver John Newton (1725–1807), famous for his hymn Amazing Grace, also longed for a godly influence in Australia’s founding. Together with his good friend Wilberforce, Newton put forward the name of a young man from Yorkshire to be the First Fleet’s chaplain—an evangelical minister called Richard Johnson (1756–1827). Their bid was successful.
Before the flotilla departed, Newton wrote a poem and dedicated it to Johnson, who would soon be Australia’s first clergyman and an outstanding presence for the gospel on the far side of the world:
The Lord who sends thee hence, will be thine aid:
In vain at thee the lion, Danger, roars;
His arm and love shall keep thee undismayed
On tempest-tossèd seas, and savage shores.
Go, bear the Saviour’s name to lands unknown,
Tell to the southern world his wondrous grace;
An energy Divine thy words shall own,
And draw their untaught hearts to seek His face.
As an empire, Britain was looking to solve domestic policy challenges and extend her dominion, with little regard for the natives who would soon be displaced. As a spiritual empire within that empire and as products of revival, Britain’s evangelical Christians viewed Australia as a mission base that would strive for the salvation of convicts, officers, the Indigenous population, and the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands.
Pre-Order Your Copy of Great Southland Revival
Read more about Wilberforce and the other men who used the First Fleet to smuggle revival to Australia in Great Southland Revival, now available in the Canberra Declaration online bookstore. Use the discount code PREORDER6DEC to get 5% off all pre-orders placed before the 6th December.