February 3 – First Christian service in Australia

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

First Christian service in  Australia, Christian pioneers

This was held in what is now Martin Place, Sydney, at 10am on 3 February, 1788. The Rev Richard Johnson led the service from under a large tree. Attendance was compulsory for the convicts. They were guarded by soldiers to ensure that they did not misbehave or try to slip away. For some, it may well have been the first service they had attended.  Phillip was pleased with the tone of the service and the attention given to the sermon on Psalm 116:12.  Johnson also performed the first baptism. The first service of Holy Communion was held on 17 February, 1788.

Unfortunately, the text of Johnson’s sermon has not survived. It was reported that he proclaimed a Gospel which gave generous pardon to the guilty, cleansing to the polluted, healing to the sick, happiness to the miserable and life to the dying. There were common themes in Evangelical preaching. Though Phillip suspected Johnson of Methodist leanings, he respected the devoted pastoral care Johnson gave the troubled, sick and dying.

Johnson disliked being an open-air preacher, but had no choice for there was no church building provided for a decade, until he built one at his own expense in 1798. It was burnt down on 1 October, possibly by disgruntled convicts. In addition to his ministry in Sydney, Johnson regularly travelled by boat to Parramatta to take services there. His preaching was complemented by catechizing and the distribution of simple Christian literature.

by Rev Dr Ian Breward