The History of Early Revival in Australia

19 May 2021

5.5 MINS

The Australian environment was at first so hostile, so inhospitable, to Evangelical Europeans that they could not envisage how it could ever be the scene of revival. A missionary to the Aborigines, Lancelot Threlkeld, said in 1828:

There is ‘no moving on the tops of the mulberry-trees, no shaking of the bones; but all dry, dry, very scattered bones, in the midst of a waste howling wilderness’.

The image of the dry bones is a reference to Ezekiel 37, the most celebrated Old Testament passage on revival. The image of the wind in the mulberry trees is a reference to 2 Samuel 5.23-24. It, too, was a favourite image of revival among those who were products of the great revivals which swept Britain and America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The picture is of the heavenly host of the Lord going into battle or of the wind of the Spirit blowing in the treetops. In a revival of religion both things happen: the heavenly host moves against the powers of darkness, and the Holy Spirit blows with Pentecostal power.

Methodist minister Sir Alan Walker, perhaps Australia’s best-known Christian in the second-half of the twentieth century, once had an experience of the Holy Spirit which recalls this image of the wind in the treetops.

He was about to commence one of the most successful evangelistic campaigns in Australia, the Mission to the Nation of 1953-4.He was then in his early forties, and, in giving him sole charge of the campaign, the Australian Methodist Church had entrusted a relatively young man with an awesome task:

As the day of the opening came near, I was filled with anxiety and fear. I walked into the stillness and gathering darkness of the Australian bush. Beneath the towering gum trees I lay on the ground, on the dry autumn grass, and tried to pray.

Presently, in the stillness, an evening breeze stirred. I could hear it rustling in the leaves of the gum trees above me. Suddenly I was far from Australia. There came into my mind the picture of Jesus speaking to Nicodemus in Jerusalem. I could see them, in a room, as Jesus tried to explain the mystery of the ‘new birth’, the mystery of how the Spirit comes into a man’s life. I imagined a wind sprung up there too.

Jesus walked to the window. The breeze could be heard in the [olive] trees, outside. Jesus quietly said to Nicodemus: ‘The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

As I thought of it all there came to my mind, there in that Australian bush, a simple sentence. The wind is in the gum trees! The wind is in the gum trees! It was to me a promise. I knew that God would bless the Mission to the Nation. We would hear the wind of the Spirit blowing across Australia.

The desire for revival has been a relatively frequent characteristic of Australian Christianity, especially, as this experience of Alan Walker’s suggests, of Australian Methodism. The phenomenon of revival has not been as common as the desire for it.

In fact, one of the many stereotypes about Australian Christianity is that there has never been a religious revival in Australia. Such a stereotype is typical of the stereotypes about Australian religion in its negativity.

I want to give you four positive propositions about the history of revivals in Australia.
We need to have a few myths to allow the demythologisers a target. I wish them happy hunting.
My four ‘myths’, or propositions, are as follows:

  1. Revivals have been relatively frequent occurrences in Australian history;
  2. Although revivals in Australia usually have been localised, their genuineness may be demonstrated from surviving sources of evidence;
  3. Past Revivals in Australia have raised the moral standards of whole communities;
  4. Revival has come as a form of social salvation to the marginalised, minority and underprivileged groups in our society.

The critical faculty rushes in to put another side to each of these propositions, but too many unseen facts and little-rehearsed experiences get trampled in the rush. We have had so many people speaking to us of late about revival in Australia that we thought we would devote out next conference to it.

Before I launch into my four propositions, just a couple of prolegomena. First, revival is a good subject to study at an interdisciplinary conference. Apart from the historical aspect, revivals raise significant theological, sociological, and psychological questions. Sometimes revivals have been on such a scale that they assume cultural significance. In serious histories of Australian religion, there has yet been little attention paid to the impact of revival on the formation of Australian culture. This paper begins to explore the place of revival in Australia’s social and cultural history.

Second, let me offer the following definition of a revival. Theologically, revival is a work of God which consists of an outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit upon large numbers of people at the same time. Empirically, it is occasionally preceded by an expectation that God is about to do something exceptional; it is usually preceded by an extraordinary unity and prayerfulness among Christians; and it is always accompanied by the revitalisation of the Church, the conversion of large numbers of unbelievers, and the diminution of sinful practices in the community. In light of this, we are in a position to deal with each of our four propositions about the history of revivals in Australia.

Revivals have been relatively frequent.

J Edwin Orr, late Professor at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary, argues that three waves of evangelical awakenings have swept across Australia:

  • in 1859-60 there were revivals linked with the missions of William Taylor and Thomas Spurgeon;
  • there was an ‘Australasian awakening’ between 1889 and 1912 associated with the missions of John MacNeil, Reuben Torrey and Charles Alexander, Florence Young, and J Wilbur Chapman;
  • and that of the 1950s, featuring the crusades of Orr himself, Alan Walker, Oral Roberts and Billy Graham.

At first sight this claim looks unlikely, but it should not be dismissed without a careful review of the extensive evidence bearing on his claim.

For a start, we have unearthed data on about 70 revivals in nineteenth-century Australia.

1834 Hobart TAS
1835 Sydney NSW
1836 Hobart TAS
1839 Albion Park NSW
Launceston TAS
1840-41 Parramatta NSW
Windsor and Castlereagh NSW
Bathurst NSW
1843 Melbourne VIC

1844 WA
1847 Bathurst NSW
1851 Cobbety Paddock NSW
Bourke Street NSW
1852/3 Rylestone NSW
1853 Bendigo VIC
1858 Bathurst NSW
Manning River NSW
1859 Great Brighton VIC
Little Brighton VIC
Moorabin VIC
Melbourne VIC
Ballarat VIC
Goulburn NSW
1860 Bendigo VIC
Geelong VIC
Castlemaine VIC
Manning River NSW
Goulburn NSW
1860-62 Maitland NSW
1860 Burra SA
Geelong VIC
1862 Moonta SA
Adelaide SA
1864 Hobart TAS
Kiama NSW
1869 St. Arnaud VIC
1870 Manning NSW
1871 Goulburn NSW
Brisbane QLD
1873 Bendigo VIC
Geelong VIC
Warwick QLD
1874-5 Moonta SA
Wallaroo SA
1875 Ballarat East VIC
1875-6 Kangaroo Flat VIC
Forest Street VIC
Inglewood VIC
Bendigo VIC
Ballarat VIC
1877 Toowoomba QLD
Bulli NSW
Wagga Wagga NSW
Kentishbury TAS
1879 Taree NSW
Manning River NSW
1880 Taree NSW
Cobar NSW
Glebe NSW
Marrickville NSW
1881 Ballarat VIC
Marburg QLD
1886 Armidale NSW
1887 Geelong West VIC
1891 Launceston TAS
Geelong VIC
1894 Maitland NSW
Waverley NSW
Bendigo VIC
Port Pirie SA
Broken Hill NSW
Moonta SA

Then the new century began with the largest evangelistic campaigns in Australia’s history. R.A. Torrey arrived in Melbourne (April 1902) following successful evangelistic tours in Japan and China. The Melbourne Mission was preceded by prayer, work, and unity. Every house in Melbourne was visited twice:

Within a few weeks the Spirit of God laid hold of the Christians, and there was a conscious assurance that the city and its suburbs of nearly five thousand population was going to be moved as never before… Whole families were brought to Christ, as well as infidels, publicans, and actresses… A policeman averred that since the mission opened in his district, he and his fellow constables had practically nothing to do. Theatrical managers declared that if the mission continued they would have to close their establishments.

… Do you wonder? God’s people were in earnest, the Holy Spirit was given His way and sway, and believers greeted each other with: ‘The big revival has begun. Glory to God.’

Attendances totalled a quarter of a million each week when the population of the whole of Victoria was only one million. Meanwhile, in 1902-3 a tent mission crusade throughout 200 country towns of New South Wales reported 25,000 inquirers…

Read more here: Re-Visioning Australian Colonial Christianity: New Essays in the Australian Christian Experience 1788-1900.

[Image: painting by Sian Butler, photo by David Clode, Unsplash]

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  1. Karen Stuckey 8 September 2022 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    Many, many revivals!! Thank you God.
    As I am collecting information, there are pockets all around Australia. Jacobs Ladder even in Adelaide, Bordertown has had many in South Australia. So exciting to read.

    • ROBERT DENNIS KALULE 1 January 2024 at 3:18 am - Reply

      this is great information, as the church, we need to fully be aware and appreciate the past works and visitation of the Lord in the lives of his people in different places and times.

      as a Chrisitian leader, we have begun a program to facilitate deep learning experiences for this generation as we invite believers and ministers to visit with us on ground, those places where the Lord visited people in special ways. Australia has been top the list, we want ministers from different countries to experiences the sharing of these experiences of the past visitations.

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