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Christian Missions & Aboriginal Australia – a Story of Survival (Part 2/2)

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[Without Christian missionaries, there’d be no Aboriginal people in Australia today. Missionaries saved Aboriginal people. This is part two, part one is here.]

Note: this topic has also been covered in this video.

The Curse of Ham

The dominant position of most early settlers, Christian or not, was that Aboriginal people were inferior, barbaric, and uncivilized.

The Christians fought for Aboriginal people on the basis of all nations being of “one blood.”

This raises a question. If everyone is of “one blood” – why weren’t Aboriginal people equal? Why inferior?

Because of the Curse of Ham.

There is a story in the Old Testament where Noah (from the ark), having planted a vineyard, gets drunk one night and falls asleep naked in his tent.

One of his three sons, Ham, sees his father naked. Ham walks outside the tent and tells his two brothers, Shem and Japheth, about Noah lying inside naked.

Shem and Japheth take a garment, walk backwards into the tent so they don’t see their father’s naked body, and cover him with the garment, their faces turned the other way.

When Noah wakes up, he curses Ham’s son Canaan:

“Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”

26 He also said,

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. 27 May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”

Ham had four sons: Canaan, Cush, Mizraim, and Phut. But as Harris explains - “instead of seeing the fulfillment of the curse of Canaan in the Hebrew conquest of the Canaanites, the curse was seen to apply to Ham and all his descendants: Cush (Ethipia), Mizraim (Egypt) and Phut (Lybia). These were African nations and included black races. By extension, the curse was given universal application, not only to the black peoples of Africa, but to all black races of the southern hemisphere.”

Whereas the descendants of Ham were considered inferior servants, even slaves; the descendants of Noah’s other two sons, Shem and Japheth, were considered superior masters.

(This misinterpretation of the Bible, where skin colour isn’t even mentioned, had huge consequences - it was used to justify the slave trade in the Americas and the Apartheid in Africa.)

Aboriginal people were cursed black nomadic hunters and gatherers, descendants of Ham. Europeans were blessed settled farmers, tilling the soil, descendants of Japheth and Shem.

Until about 1930, this was the theological background of most Australian missionaries, who were determined to ‘uplift’ the Aboriginal people.

The early missionaries believed in the ‘civilize-first’ principle, not in using religion as a means to civilize the Aboriginal people.

What did it involve? How did they try to civilize?

Through the main pillars of the western way of life: work, settled life around a farm, material goods, education, and the gospel.

Unfortunately, these pillars – non-negotiable to the westerners – were antithetical to the Aboriginal people.

Let’s now look at the main ones…


The concept of work – central to, and pedestalized in the West - was foreign to the Aboriginal people, who looked at toiling missionaries with a mix of pity, disbelief, curiosity and friendly scepticism.

Settler Charles Griffith observed in 1845 - “They [Aboriginals] do not court a life of labour – that of our shepherds and hutkeepers, our splitters and bullock drivers appears to them one of unmeaning toil – and they would by no means consent to exchange their free, unhoused condition for the monotonous drudgery of such a dreary existence”.

Farming & Social Status

Aboriginal people didn’t understand European farming. They didn’t see the point of laboriously tilling the soil over and over on the farm, e.g. planting rice, where the same soil would produce yams for no effort. Once the yam season was over, they would simply move elsewhere and harvest something else in season, e.g. wild berries.

In 1890, Father Marschner was frustrated - “…they prefer their former mode of life to the tiresome labour of tillage and ploughing. Though we promise them that later on they will live in houses, the prospect leaves them quite cold, for their shelters of bark suffice them…”

Missionaries saw themselves, and their farming style, as superior. On a farm, they were the masters and the Aboriginal people were the peasant labourers.

Farming and everything else they did was a pathway to uplifting the cursed. They expected the Aboriginal people to eventually get it, to learn the ‘civilized,’ superior way of farming (and everything else), and leave their traditional lifestyle.

But the Aboriginal people refused to be servants at the bottom of the social hierarchy. They didn’t see the missionaries as their masters, they often refused to work, and refused to call the (Lutheran) missionaries ‘Master.’ If they worked, Harris notes, it was out of pity, compassion, friendship, or in exchange for food or tobacco.

Material values & Settled life

The greatest challenge was to convince the Aboriginal people to leave their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Missionaries were looking for a stimulus, a “carrot” they could use to get the Aboriginal people to settle and work in exchange for material rewards.

But material status symbols, e.g. clothes, houses and vehicles weren’t valued by the Aboriginals, who only valued food, tobacco, and knives – things to satisfy immediate wants and enhance (but not change) their traditional lifestyle.

This absence of wants frustrated missionaries, who were trying to figure out what will “stick,” and what will make Aboriginal people adopt the European lifestyle and value system. They wanted to find desires in Aboriginal people that could only be satisfied by the missionaries. They wanted to find a mechanism through which the Aboriginal people would settle, become civilized and then, Christianised.

But this too was difficult.

As Samuel Marsden, a Chaplain of NSW, wrote in 1822 – “Missionaries going amongst savage nations are very differently situated from those who go to preach the gospel to civilized heathens. It is necessary to introduce the simple arts amongst the savages in order to arrest their idle vagrant habits. I think it will be very difficult for missionaries to maintain their ground in any savage country without the introduction of arts and commerce.”

By ‘savage nations’ and ‘savage country’ he meant Aboriginal people and Australia and by ‘civilized heathens’ he meant others, e.g. Maoris in New Zealand, where Marsden moved after his disappointment with Aboriginal people. Maoris were more interested in European goods and lifestyle; therefore, they were easier to civilize and Christianize.

Guilt, sin, the Bible and Aboriginal people

The idea of guilt and sinfulness is central to most Christians, believers in Jesus Christ, the ultimate redeemer … who was born, died and rose again for all people. Repentance is part of the faith that leads to salvation.

The 1880 Lutheran missionaries also believed that the path to Christ for Aboriginal people should be through the consciousness of sin and guilt; that they too are sinful and guilty and have to find God through Jesus the redeemer.

But this concept was difficult to impart.

The Aboriginal people didn’t see why they were sinful and guilty before God, what was wrong with them and, why they should strive for salvation.

They didn’t see why they should give up their free way of life in exchange for, what to them was, an alien lifestyle of peasant servants.

That doesn’t mean they rejected Christianity and the Bible, which some missionaries translated into their languages.

As Harris explains -

many Aboriginal people related to Christianity and found parallels between their belief systems and the Bible.

The Old Testament is full of stories of wandering nomads and patriarchs creating sacred sites. The story of snake-fighting Israelites, who were wandering through the desert for 40 years. The ‘an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth’ law is akin to the Aboriginal strict tribal laws.

The book of Revelations “…is a book of dreaming, so important a communication medium to Aboriginal people. It is also a book which speaks of the righting of injustice and the removal of oppression. It speaks in dream imagery of a God who will set history right.”

The concept of the divine creator, divine intelligence, or spirit, was known to many Aboriginal people, e.g. in northern NSW, where their God ‘Baiame’ translates as ‘to create.’

Finally, Aboriginal people always performed rituals and liked the Christian church rituals, e.g. hymn singing.

Two hundred years ago, progress, resources and land were the main drivers of the expansion to all corners of the world by the colonial empires.

In Australia two hundred years ago, progress, resources and land were the main drivers of the expansion to all corners of the continent.

Most settlers had a pragmatic, situational approach to this new, large country full of untapped potential. The way they treated Aboriginal people was wrong but common in those days.

Early missionaries began fighting for Aboriginal people on religious grounds – a view outdated by then.

But old and dusted ideas saved Aboriginal people.

This could be a lesson for us today, in our post-modern, post-religious, technocratic, and digital society.

We are embracing Artificial Intelligence, DNA mimicry, expansion to Mars, and the Internet of Things.

These are exciting times.

But let’s not forget what an overly forward-looking, arrow-like focus did to those whose culture and lifestyle is more circular and less linear.


If you missed part one, go here.

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