The first brethren in Queensland

The earliest reference to Queensland in my sources is from 1861: “For some years there resided in this town [Gourock, 45km west of Glasgow, Scotland] a couple, Robert and Mrs Sinclair—who were well known for their interest in the truth and in all that concerned the brethren generally. Brother Sinclair was a shoemaker by trade, and in a comfortable way of business; but he had a son who was in precarious health, and his removal to Australia was recommended. In the autumn of 1861, all the arrangements with this view had been made, and the party had got as far as Liverpool on their way, when—sad to relate—the youth died just on the eve of their embarkation. The father and mother, however, having disposed of their business in Gourock, decided to carry out their purpose of emigration, and subsequently made their home in Queensland, Australia” (William Norrie, The Early History of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in Britain, Vol 2, page 178).

The second reference is from 1866: “On the 23rd of last month [January 1866], Philemon Coley, a member of the Birmingham ecclesia, left the town with his family to join the emigrant ship, Southern Ocean, at London, with the view of proceeding in that vessel (by government free passage), to Queensland, Australia” (The Christadelphian, February 1866, page 39).

Brother Coley was given a letter of introduction by the Birmingham ecclesia:

“Ann Street Schoolroom

Birmingham

Sunday, January 21, 1866

This is to certify that the bearer, Philemon Coley, has been in fellowship for the past two years with the Church of God assembling in Ann Street Infant schoolroom, Birmingham—a church distinguished from all other sects and denominations in Birmingham in the following respects…”

Then follows a detailed description of their beliefs. The letter concluded: “Philemon Coley has, during his fellowship with the church aforesaid, adorned his profession of the faith by a becoming walk and conversation, and they therefore recommend him to the fellowship and confidence of all in any part of the world of like precious faith, with whom he may be thrown in contact.”

The letter was signed by seven brothers and three sisters, including Robert and Jane Roberts.

Brother Sinclair of Brisbane was re-immersed by Brother Coley (from near Ipswich) in 1873 as he had come to understand that his first immersion in Scotland 12 or more years earlier was not based on a ‘right apprehension’ of the Gospel.

Brother Robert Roberts, during his first visit to Australia, mentions meeting Brother Coley in Ipswich on 23rd November 1895: “On the railway platform was a large company of brethren and sisters awaiting me. I had to go through many greetings nearly in the dark. I might almost have been in Scotland from the number of Caledonian names and voices, which was owing to the immigration, a good many years ago, of quite a colony of mining brethren from Tranent, near Edinburgh. I knew no one by face except brother P. Coley, who emigrated from Selly Oak, Birmingham, 30 years ago, and had now become a patriarchal veteran, in striking contrast to the slim, clean-shaven young man of the early days. He is the centre of the township of Coleyville, at Mount Walker, some 60 or 80 miles up the country; post-master, consulting physician in general, and a few other nondescript things that are liable to crystallise around a man of character in a new country” (The Christadelphian, August 1896, page 291).

The first baptism in Queensland was of Sister Dorcas Bott in Springsure, near Emerald, in 1875, some 14 years after the arrival of Brother Sinclair. She was immersed by her husband, who had been baptised in Sydney in 1872.

The spread of the gospel

Preaching the Gospel in those far-off days was not easy. Early colonial life was focussed on making a living, with little serious thought to religion. Brother Coley observed: “I have lent several of our books to neighbours, but they are returned, and very little said about them. Most of the people about here go to chapel on Sundays, and curse and swear all the week. They don’t care about hearing the truth, but we must keep sowing the seed, even if there is no appearance of fruit. It may bring a crop some time. ‘Paul may plant and Apollos may water, but God gives the increases.’” (The Christadelphian, March 1869, page 63).

The Maryborough Chronicle reported on 23rd June 1877, that in the census for 1876 there were 13 Christadelphians in Queensland. In the 2016 census there were 2306.

In the first 30 years after the arrival of Brother Coley the Gospel of the Kingdom spread to the following locations in the years listed:

1868 – Ipswich

1873 – Brisbane

1875 – Springsure

1880 – Inskip Point

1883 – Abbotsford, Rockhampton

1884 – Maryborough

1885 – Bundaberg, Toowoomba (1886 – Crow’s Nest, 1893 – Goombungee, 1896 – Southbrook)

1887 – Gatton, Gympie (1894 – Cedar Pocket)

1890 – Mackay/Eton

As in most localities the membership fluctuated due to economic factors. A depression of trade often caused brethren to move to other towns to find work. An example of this was the ecclesia in Gympie:

1887 – 8 members

1888 – 15 members

1889 – 11 members

1893 – 9 members

1895 – 30 members

In 1876 Brother Faulk advised “no one to emigrate from England if they are able to get on at all, as times are very backward in the colonies” (The Christadelphian, December 1876, page 573).

In 1884 Brother Yardley of Brisbane responded to another brother’s advice not to emigrate to Queensland by pointing out the huge size of Queensland and the varying work opportunities available: “He says there are some totally unfit for colonial life, and from these unfavourable reports may come, but the man who would compare Queensland with England as an abode and field of labour for the working class, knows not what he speaks nor whereof he affirms. The Liverpool brethren came at a time when emigrants had been pouring into Brisbane at the rate of hundreds per week. Therefore it was not to be wondered at that Brisbane, so far as labour is concerned, should be overdone, but then Brisbane is not Queensland, a country that boasts 800 miles in breadth, 1300 in length, and a sea-board of 2500 miles. This requires more than a few days to qualify one to speak or write upon the subject at all, and, therefore, it does not follow that because labour was scarce in Brisbane, that it was scarce everywhere else” (The Christadelphian, July 1884, page 335).

In 1885, the Brisbane ecclesia hired the Oddfellows’ Hall in Caxton Street, off Petrie Terrace, which is still standing, on a regular basis: “Now that we have taken a room for our meetings and for public lectures, I hope the silence which has hitherto prevailed at Brisbane will often be broken by the brethren residing here” (The Christadelphian, August 1885, page 381). It is not far from the current ecclesial hall in Petrie Terrace!

The first ecclesia

The first ecclesia was established in Ipswich. Brother Fred Mogg gave an account of the formation of the ecclesia and its growth over the following five years: “During the stay of Brother Faulk in Queensland, he baptized, in 1877, John Alfred Robinson, whose baptism was noticed in The Christadelphian of that year. Shortly afterwards, Brother Faulk left Queensland. In 1878, another brother arrived from Tranent, named Peter Reid, who, after a short time, made my acquaintance, and a young man staying with me, named Henry James. We were both connected with the Baptists. I was baptised with the Baptists of Mountain Ash, Glamorganshire, South Wales, in 1873, where my parents still live, and connected with the same church. I write of them, so that if there is any brethren living near they may carry on what I have begun by letters.

My father’s name is Samuel Mogg. I am now happy to say that through what Peter Reid laid before us both I and Henry James were baptised into that faith once delivered to the saints, on May 6, 1879. Louisa Mogg, my wife, formerly Baptist, yielded obedience to the truth June 1, 1879. Ann Robinson (24), wife of Brother Robinson, was baptised into the truth June 22, 1879. Jane Collins (50), formerly Baptist, mother to Sister Mogg, was baptised into the truth August 4, 1879. Frederick Guard (28), formerly Baptist, and Eliza Guard (28), his wife, both yielded obedience to the truth January 23, 1881.

Up to the middle of this year, we had been breaking bread from house to house every first day of the week. At this time we thought we were strong enough to rent a meeting place, which resulted in renting the Temperance Hall. Our first day of meeting there was on the 31st of July. Brother Paterson, of Brisbane, son-in-law to the late Brother Steele, of Edinburgh, was with us on that day.

The Tranent brethren will rejoice to hear we had the pleasure of baptising Alexander Orr (19) on the 19th of September, 1881, being the fruits of their labour. Francis Reid (20), son of Brother Reid, was baptised on November 29, 1881. On the following Sunday we all had an invitation to Brother Reid’s, to partake of the good things that would be laid before us. After which, all the brethren spoke at length of the happiness they enjoyed with Brother Reid on his eldest son having been brought to the truth. Elizabeth James (19), wife of Brother James, and daughter of Sister Collins, was baptised January 19, 1882” (The Christadelphian, June 1882, page 287).

By 1890, the ecclesia consisted of 45 members and by 1893, it had risen to 65.

1885 fraternal gathering

A fraternal gathering was held in Ipswich (the largest ecclesia at the time) involving brethren from different parts of Queensland. The gathering took place on November 7, 8 and 9: “From Brisbane came brother and sister R. Weldon, brother and sister J. Yardley, with two daughters, sisters in Christ also, and brother E. Waite. From Gatton, brother J. Robinson and sister Bella Robinson, his daughter. Besides the Ipswich ecclesia, there were present, by special invitation, a few of the interested strangers of the district. On behalf of the Ipswich ecclesia, a few words were said in commendation and encouragement of those who, by word and deed, had assisted in the great and arduous task of defending the truth, in the purity of the Word revealed in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, ‘which are able to make wise unto salvation,’ and were ‘given by inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’” (The Christadelphian, April 1886, page 188).

The gatherings were then held annually, initially in Ipswich, and in 1888 it was held in Brisbane.

The thrill of the gospel

Brother George Byrne of Inskip Point (near Gympie) was baptised on 28 February 1880. He described his amazement at having found the true gospel: “I am now astonished—when I look back—that I ever believed in the ‘immortality of the soul’ theory with all its attendant delusions. There is something that a man can understand and appreciate in the Christadelphian belief. There is no mystery and no uncertainty” (The Christadelphian, October 1880, page 462).

This excitement is reflected in the Ipswich ecclesia in 1891: “The ecclesia has increased to the number of 61, ‘making our meetings,’ says brother Robinson, ‘ever joyous, encouraging, strengthening, and invigorating. It is indeed cheering and refreshing when a number of brethren are all pulling at the one end of the ecclesial cord, all endeavouring to do their utmost to advance the truth and things leading up to the same; but O, how hurtful when otherwise, when ‘crotchets’ and other affairs which tend to weaken our standing more or less according to the severity of the—well, what will I call it?—‘plague’, I think, is a fitting appellation for anything which tends to bring about spiritual weakness, sickness, lethargy, or death. May our heavenly Father preserve us from all or anything that may have a tendency in this direction, at all times, through Jesus, the Captain of our salvation, and Great High Priest who stands in Aaron’s place” (The Christadelphian, July 1891, page 279).