1st Floor, 582 Heidelberg Rd, Fairfield 3078
ABOUT US

Churches of Christ in Australia began with individuals and families seeking a better life in colonial Australia. The earliest congregations were formed in South Australia in the mid nineteenth century.

THE FIRST MEMBERS MET IN HOMES, WORKPLACES AND MODEST CHAPELS TO SHARE THE LORD’S SUPPER AND READ SCRIPTURE TOGETHER. BELIEVERS WERE BAPTISED BY IMMERSION IN CREEKS, RIVERS AND THE SEA.

 

Initially, they called one another brother and sister, and referred to their congregations as Disciples, a church of Christ, or simply as Christians. Rejecting much of the church’s use of creeds, hierarchies and traditions, they sought to live out an authentic Christianity based on the New Testament.

As part of the Stone-Campbell Movement, which advocated Christian unity through the restoration of New Testament practice, these scattered congregations found common ground in the theological writings of Alexander Campbell. In a practical way, the ‘Letters to the Editor’ in the periodical “British Millennial Harbinger” alerted isolated members to one another’s presence across Australia.

Relationships were formed between congregations led by elders and deacons. Realising that persuasive preaching was needed in order to communicate the gospel, the congregations worked cooperatively to fund evangelistic initiatives.

At the height of the gold rush these early cooperatives of Churches of Christ sent preachers to establish congregations on the goldfields of Victoria and South Australia in the 1860s, and in Western Australia in the 1890s. Their preaching was effective and, in the decades that followed, most congregations employed ministers.

In the absence of theological barriers, women were occasionally employed as pastoral ministers from 1931, but sociological factors inhibited their wider acceptance as church leaders until the 1970s.

There has always been a tension between independence and cooperation in Churches of Christ in Australia. Churches accepted the assistance of visiting British and American evangelists in the 1800s, but resisted being treated as a colonial outpost and most often celebrated the work of local Australian evangelists and elders.

While numerous members became parliamentarians, Churches of Christ were resolutely opposed to state aid to religion. Colonial church conferences were established to enable and support collective efforts beyond the capacity of local churches, but congregations maintained the right to make their own decisions.

The first Federal Conference of Churches of Christ in Australia was held in 1906, resulting in the establishment of the first ministry training college just a year later. The education of ministers and missionaries led steadily away from biblical literalism and toward a broader theological outlook. Greater engagement with other Christian churches followed, and congregations increasingly welcomed believers from all denominations to share with them in the Lord’s Supper.

In the early 20th century, Churches of Christ in Australia grew considerably. There were just 24,000 members in the 1901 national census. By1921, their numbers had more than doubled to 54,500, peaking as a percentage of the Australian population at one per cent. Membership continued to increase until the 1970s.

Congregations were established in the ACT in 1951 and the Northern Territory in 1978. Chapels were built and funded by local members, and many were constructed by volunteers. Some timber chapels were built in a single day, demonstrating the movement’s practical, can-do approach to Christian faith.

Awareness of the social demands of the gospel grew throughout the first half of the 20th century, following on from women’s charitable work, and missionary efforts among Chinese communities in urban centres and Pacific Islanders in Queensland. Welfare agencies, aged care facilities, children’s homes, overseas missions, and Indigenous ministries were all organised by State and Federal Conferences of Churches of Christ.

In joining word and deed, conferences also took public stands on social issues, upholding religious conscience while appealing to the maxim, “where the Bible speaks, we speak: where the Bible is silent, we are silent”.

Most notably, in recognising Jesus’ opposition to violence, Churches of Christ made a number of public statements against compulsory military service between the 1930s and the Vietnam War. Repeated campaigning for the tightening of liquor laws in the early 20th century owed less to biblical precedent than it did to Churches of Christ’s long-term commitment to the objectives of the temperance movement.

Worship services have changed in recent decades, influenced by both the charismatic movement and contemplative Christian traditions. Greater variety between the congregations in worship style and spiritual expression is now evident, reflecting a prioritisation of local issues and identity.

Through all this the historical centrality of leadership by everyday Christians in worship and the Lord’s Supper has remained. Overall, Churches of Christ in Australia has moved from a focus on New Testament patterns of worship and church governance to a broader and more varied interpretation of what it is to live out the gospel in contemporary society.

 

Kerrie Handasyde

A LIVING HISTORY

We aim to provide a living historical resource for the movement. We add to our archives as new work is published.

 

For more information see

The Hindmarsh Centre

Fresh Hope NSW History

A selection of Churches of Christ texts, 1903-2003, is available in an electronic repository hosted by Abilene Christian University

 

Selected papers:

The Jubilee Pictorial History of Churches of Christ in Australasia

Transforming History: a discussion paper by Kerrie Handasyde

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism by Graeme Chapman
Historical Society Collection Policy
Remember Me: a liturgical, theological and social history surrounding two nineteenth-century chalices from Churches of Christ in Australia

 

Select bibliography:

Chapman, Graeme. ‘The Movement in Australia’. In The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, edited by Douglas A. Foster, Paul M. Blowers, Anthony L. Dunnavant and D. Newell Williams, 47-53. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.

Chapman, Graeme. One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: A History of Churches of Christ in Australia. Melbourne: Vital, 1979. http://webfiles.acu.edu/departments/Library/HR/restmov_nov11/www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/gchapman/ONELORD.HTM

Handasyde, Kerrie. ‘Pioneering Leadership: Historical Myth-Making, Absence and Identity in the Churches of Christ in Victoria’. Journal of Religious History, Vol. 41, no. 2 (June 2017).

Handasyde, Kerrie. With My Sister Beside Me: History of Women’s Ministries – Churches of Christ in Australia. Mulgrave, Vic.: Australian Churches of Christ Historical Society, 2014.

Hayward, Harold, et al. Challenge, Change and Courage: Celebrating 125 Years of the Conference of Churches of Christ in NSW. Rhodes, NSW: Churches of Christ in New South Wales, 2012.

Raftery, Judith. ‘Churches of Christ’. In Adelaidia. History Trust of South Australia, 2013. http://adelaidia.sa.gov.au/organisations/churches-of-christ . This is a revised version of an entry first published in The Wakefield Companion to South Australian History edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001.

Raftery, Judith. Evangelisation and Social Betterment: Four Decades of Churches of Christ Aborigines Mission in Western Australia. Mulgrave, Vic.: Australian Churches of Christ Historical Society, 2013.

Raftery, Judith. Singing the Faith: History, Theology and Hymnody of Churches of Christ in the Mid-Twentieth Century. Mulgrave, Vic.: Australian Churches of Christ Historical Society, 2011.

Risson, Geoff and Craig Brown. The Church from the Paddock: A History of Churches of Christ in Queensland 1883-2013. Kenmore: Churches of Christ in Queensland, 2013.

Rose, Gerald. ‘Churches of Christ in Australia’. In The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia,

edited by James Jupp, 295-299. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Sewell, Betty. Carnarvon: Interaction of Two Cultures. North Essendon, Vic.: Vital, 1990.

1st Floor, 582 Heidelberg Rd, Fairfield 3078
(03) 9488 8800