Rev. Richard Johnson

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Reverend Richard Johnson

In a land intended to be dumping grounds for Britain’s moral filth, Reverend Richard Johnson worked hard at laying the foundations of Christianity in Australia. Born in 1757 at Welton, England, he was educated at Magdalen College, Cambridge. He graduated with a BA in 1783, and was appointed a deacon and priest by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1786. Only five months before the First Fleet set sail, Richard Johnson was recommended and approved for the position of Chaplin, to establish the Church of England in Australia.

Governor Phillip saw Johnson’s job as a "moral policeman" to the convicts, but the chaplain viewed his position as a door of opportunity to preach the Gospel to the "dregs of humanity." His work began even before the ship landed, and his moral nature displayed. Johnson found the ship's company very disrespectful and profane and targeted this in his teaching. On the following Sunday it was noted that for days afterwards their behaviour had improved.

On Sunday the 3rd of February 1788, Johnson preached his first sermon to a crowd of both soldiers and convicts. Being a result of the Evangelical revival in England, Johnson laboured for their salvation and tried to encourage goodness in them. He requested the help of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, who provided him with 4200 books in total for the new colony, including Bibles, Testaments, Prayer Books, Catechisms, Psalters, and religious booklets against common sins.

His job was not an easy one as he was meant to carry out many duties placed upon him by the Governor as well as the mission of his own. Johnson’s duties included officiating at hangings and acting as magistrate when needed. In the first five years, he conducted 226 baptisms, 220 marriages and 851 funerals. One of Johnson’s obstacles was the lack of support he received. He and his wife, Mary, lived in a cabbage palm hut for the first three years while the Governor had two mansions. Many times his family was short of food and in addition to his regular duties; he worked on his farm to provide for his family.

Richard Johnson was a compassionate man who even took an Aboriginal girl, who had contracted smallpox, into his home for several months. This trait made Australia appear as a destination unsuitable for him, but at the same time, he was the best man for the job.

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He was a man of action and able to relate to the working class man often visiting the convicts in their own huts. His challenge was the lack of response given back due to the compulsory religious position the congregation had been forced into. Convicts were lined up in the pews on a Sunday with the soldiers rifles constantly aimed at them, forcing them to listen to a sermon. This had little effect in establishing religious belief as the situation was viewed upon by the convicts of other faiths, mainly Roman Catholic and Church of Scotland, as offensive while the English convicts viewed as part of their punishment.

Johnson was constantly frustrated by the Governors lack of assistance. After waiting patiently for four years for a church to be built, he finally built one himself on his own expense. In 1793 he completed the first church in Sydney, but to ruin his accomplishment, it was later anonymously burnt down in 1798.

He carried on his work in Australia until he was forced to return to England after twelve years due to his health. He attempted to get some recognition for his long and arduous service in terms of a pension, but was told one year’s salary was all he could expect. Consequently in March 1802 he resigned from the position of Chaplin. Despite this he still continued interest in the affairs of the Australian colonies. He died on the 1st of March in 1827.

Through the acts of Reverend Richard Johnson an illustration of a strong willed and determined man is formed. His commitment ensured that he was the first of a group of priests who ensured that evangelical Christianity dominated the Protestant church in Australia for the whole of the nineteenth century.

Johnson was once referred to as Patriarch of the Southern Hemisphere. Although the title seems extravagant for a man who was constantly torn between his own mission of compassion and salvation and the duties placed upon him the authorities, his successes deserve to be embellished when they are viewed in comparison to his challenges. He brought the Gospel to Australia alone with virtually no supp


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