By Kurt Mahlburg, with research assistance from Warwick Marsh
In the aftermath of Australia’s 2019 federal election, Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen admitted his party had abandoned Aussies of faith — and that this was among the reasons Labor lost. Around the same time, the ABC published an article reporting that few active Christians remain in Labor’s parliamentary party.
Given these contemporary realities, it may surprise Australians to learn that in fact, the Labor Party has deeply Christian roots. From the earliest days, Christian ideas and Christian people played an indispensable role in Labor’s formation and success.
The ALP emerged from the assorted labour parties scattered throughout Australia’s colonies. These were part of a broader labour movement that was gaining traction around the Western world in response to worker abuses. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and for the first time in history, dizzying wealth could be accumulated by those who wanted it enough and had no conscience against exploiting their workers.
Forerunners of the Australian Labour Movement
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were some of the earliest to campaign for labour reforms; in fact, their efforts are widely regarded as the birth of trade unionism. In 19th century Britain, there were severe penalties for most labour organising. Nevertheless, six farmers from the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset campaigned against wealthy landholders who had dropped wages, a move that inflicted great hardship on farmers in the area. Most of these men were Methodists (and three of them were lay preachers), moved by their Christian belief in justice and the equal value of rich and poor alike.
In 1833, they formed a ‘Friendly Society’ and swore oaths to each other, but they were soon found out, and an obscure law was used to have them charged as criminals. Their penalty was transportation to the penal colonies of Australia for seven years’ hard labour. Only after a mass outcry in Britain were they eventually pardoned and free to return.
Another prominent figure in the early efforts labour reform was the British politician Lord Shaftesbury (1801–1885). Shaftesbury was a committed evangelical Christian who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the poor. He turned down the chance at high office, and instead fought hard in parliament to protect young children from labour exploitation, reduce hours for workers, and make factories, mills and mines safer.
Around the same time the abolitionist Richard Oastler (1789–1861) was compelled by his Christian conscience to lead the campaign for a ten-hour working day to protect child factory workers. The economic plight of the poor in 1830s England also inspired Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872) and John Malcolm Ludlow (1821–1911) in their cause for ‘Christian Socialism’.
Not to be confused with modern definitions of the term, their socialism predated Marx and was concerned with moderating unrestrained capitalism and improving the condition of the working class in a just, Christian society. Maurice and Ludlow were men of the Scriptures and social conservatives who sought to apply biblical values to a rapidly industrialising world.
The story of labour party politics can’t be told without reference to Keir Hardie (1856–1915), a Scottish child coal-miner who became a trade unionist and the founder of the British Labour Party. An ardent follower of Jesus and a Methodist lay preacher, Hardie famously remarked,
The impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined.
In parliament, Hardie quickly gained a reputation as a firebrand. He wore a tweed jacket and a deerstalker cap, and he was never afraid of offending the well-to-do in speaking out against injustice and oppression.
Hardie was close friends with another unionist and committed Christian, Andrew Fisher (1862–1928). Fisher would later migrate to Australia and become the leader of the ALP and the young nation’s fifth Prime Minister. Fisher’s Presbyterian faith would inspire him to campaign for lasting social reforms like the aged pension and worker’s compensation.
In 1891, two events took place that would prove defining in Labor’s genealogy. First, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum (‘On Capital And Labour’). Sent out to Catholic leaders worldwide, this open letter rejected both socialism and unrestrained capitalism, and it supported the rights of workers to form unions and earn a living wage. It became a foundational text of modern Catholic social teaching, strongly shaping the outlook of the many Catholics who would later populate the ranks of the Australian Labor Party.
The second event in 1891 was the birth of what would eventually become the ALP. Labour candidates contested their first general election, forming the Labor Electoral League of New South Wales, and winning 35 of 141 seats to hold the balance of power. In doing so, they established themselves as one of the world’s earliest labour parties, even predating the UK’s. In 1904, Australia’s labour party would also become the first to form national government anywhere in the world — a remarkable achievement.
The Untold Story of the Methodists
Almost two thirds of the 35 successful candidates at that historic NSW election were known to be church-going evangelicals. Among them were nine Methodists whose dynamic spirituality is barely mentioned in the history books.
Historian Robert D. Linder notes that “none of these men were the typical nominal members so often found in churches today but active, convinced evangelical believers.”1 Their commanding presence in the party was obvious enough to one Catholic journalist, who in 1896 lamented that “the Labour Party is largely composed of pulpit-punchers and local preachers”.2
Methodists had been among the earliest migrants to Australia’s colonies. Thanks to steady migration and energetic evangelism among the convict community, their growth approximately tripled that of Anglicans and Catholics in the mid-19th century, soon making them one of Australia’s major denominations.
Tracing back to the revivalist John Wesley (1703–1791), Methodists had an innate zeal for lifting up the poor and reforming society. They saw social renewal as an indivisible part of the Christian life. The tender conscience of Methodists and their dedication to improving lives and societies for Christ is largely what drove the great reform movements of Great Britain and the United States. These also proved vital ingredients in the civilising of Australian capitalism.
Methodists were well-represented among the miners who had uprooted from Cornwall and other English mining districts to work the mines of Newcastle and Illawarra (NSW), Creswick (Victoria), and Moonta (SA). Their reformist convictions and their economic struggles all but destined Methodists for a symbiotic relationship with Australia’s labour movement. Countless Methodist lay preachers would rise through the ranks to lead their local unions and fill even higher offices.3
Lest their Christian motives escape us — as is all too common in modern tellings of the ALP’s history — let us briefly profile just four of them.
William Guthrie Spence (1846–1926) was a shepherd, shearer and miner who witnessed the Eureka uprising. He was also a Methodist lay preacher and a Sunday School superintendent, well-versed in Scripture and in demand as an evangelistic speaker throughout the colonies. He founded the Australian Workers’ Union and is known as the greatest union organiser in Australian history. Even on the political circuit, he was vocal about his debt to Jesus.
John Verran (1856–1932) converted to Christ as a teenager. He became a Sunday School teacher in his local Primitive Methodist church, honing skills that later made him a rousing union speaker. On becoming the first Labor Premier in South Australia’s history, he acknowledged the influence of his faith and church, remarking, “I am an MP because I am a PM [Primitive Methodist]!” After politics, Verran spent most of his time serving in the church and the temperance movement.4
Tom Price (1852–1909) was a passionate Wesleyan Methodist who was dedicated to trade unions and the temperance cause. Price believed that policies should be judged on how effectively they strengthened the family home. He too became a South Australian Labor Premier. Even after this, he continued to gather his extended family around the harmonium to sing revival hymns.
Joseph Cook (1860–1947) was born into grinding poverty. At age 13, his father died and he was forced to work the mines. Cook was committed to his local Primitive Methodist church and became a local preacher. He studied to improve himself at every opportunity, as was typical for many Methodists of his time. Cook was one of two Labor men in Australian history to graduate from pitboy to Prime Minister (the other being Andrew Fisher). He remained a devoted Methodist to the end of his life.5
It is difficult for Australians today to envisage the Christian complexion of the early Labor party. When Federation came around in 1901 and Labor won 24 seats in Australia’s first federal election, three of the caucus were Catholics and at least 18 were evangelicals — whether Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist or otherwise. Half of them were weekly church attenders.6
Labor’s voting bloc and the party’s rank and file had similar demographics. Writes Linder,
Many evangelical Christians supported Labor because of their high personal moral standards, their belief in the worth of every person in the sight of God and the need for social justice in society-at-large, and their acceptance of Labor’s radical criticism of the immorality of capitalist exploitation.7
As well as fighting for safer work environments and minimum wages for shearers, miners and maritime workers, Australia’s laborites campaigned for shorter work days and penalty rates on weekends and public holidays. These were markedly Christian concerns, aimed at helping men be more present with their families, more observant of religious holy days, and more rested for a return to work as the week began again. As one member in Victoria’s parliament argued,
[A] great number of men in the community… have forgotten the lessons they learned in their earlier days in Sunday school, or at their mother’s knee… but [even] under modern conditions the desire of modern people, if they are wise, is to obey the Mosaic instruction [to observe the Sabbath]. Therefore a community such as ours endeavours to minimise as far as possible the infractions of the Mosaic law.
The Catholic Workingmen’s Party
Slowly, the Methodist-led evangelical presence in the party faded. Linder cites a host of reasons for this.8
Methodists’ aversion to drinking and other vices led to caustic media portrayals of them as kill-joys and ‘wowsers’. After several generations of accumulated wealth, some graduated into the middle class, adopting more middle-class concerns. Theological liberalism was rife in evangelical churches as the 20th century dawned, sapping the time and energy of many and steering them in a more conservative direction. There were also nasty divisions and leadership spills during the 1920s, which prompted the more morally sensitive to bail out of Labor.
The Catholics proved more resilient. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish Catholics were Australia’s largest ethnic minority, making up almost a quarter of the country’s population. Many of them lived in working-class suburbs, subsisting on manual labour, small farming and other low-paid jobs, and often facing discrimination at school or work.
These factors, along with their church’s emphasis on equality and social welfare, drove many Australian Catholics to join the union movement, and eventually the Labor party. By the start of World War I, many branches of Labor came to be dominated by Catholics, giving rise to the ALP’s erstwhile image as the Catholic workingmen’s party. In 1929, Australia elected its first Catholic Prime Minister, Labor’s James Scullin, a son of Irish immigrants.
During the mid-20th century, Catholics would play a crucial role in saving Labor from its darker demons. Labor had always been moderately socialist in their policies. But the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that led to the world’s first (apparently successful) communist society posed a profound question for Aussie laborites: are we still satisfied to gradually reform capitalism, or do we too want to overturn it like the Russians?
In 1921, a resolution was passed calling for “the socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange” at the the All-Australian Trades Union Congress. The following year, Labor’s Federal Conference adopted a similar objective that remained official policy for many years.9
By the early 1940s, the Communist Party of Australia had successfully infiltrated the union movement, and controlled key trade unions. Many of its leaders became kingpins in Australian trade unionism. Some 40 percent of trade union members supported the Communist Party.
This created a big problem for the ALP, whose membership was deeply divided over the question of communism. The Menzies Liberal Party took advantage of this, successfully — and accurately — branding the ALP as ‘soft on communism’. Eventually, an even greater crisis would strike: the Labor Party split of 1955, which would banish Labor to the electoral wilderness for over two decades.
It was largely an ethnocultural split, with large numbers of Catholics leaving the ALP to eventually form the Democratic Labor Party in strident protest against communism. Catholicism and atheistic communism had little in common. Labor Catholics knew this, and they weren’t easy quitters: they had been trying to reform Labor and snuff out the totalitarian instinct for decades.
Directed by Bob Santamaria (1915–1998), the Catholic Social Studies Movement played a large part in this effort. The Movement (as it was also known) provided vital support to many unionists — Catholic and otherwise — in the ideological battle against communism during the mid-20th century. The Movement eventually became the National Civic Council.
Santamaria was a tireless advocate for Christian values, and though controversial in the ALP today for his role in the party’s split, he and countless other observant Catholics stepped up to defend Australian democracy against a very real threat.
As Australia secularised and as Catholics followed their Methodist predecessors up into the middle class, Catholics became inclined to vote for the more pro-faith Liberal Party, leaving Labor to increasingly secular devices.
Labor emerged from their wilderness in 1972 with the election of Gough Whitlam, an agnostic. In the fifty years and four Labor Prime Ministers since, Kevin Rudd has been the only practicing Christian (Paul Keating was a ‘cultural’ Catholic). Rudd, who converted from Catholicism to his wife’s Anglicanism, deserves more praise than he has received for reminding our nation of the deeply Christian impulses that for so long animated Australia’s labour movement.
If Labor can recover that story, it won’t just be the ALP that’s renewed. It might just be Australia, too.
- Robert D. Linder, “The Methodist Love Affair With the Australian Labor Party, 1891-1929”, Lucas: An Evangelical History Review, 23 & 24 (1997-1998), p. 40.
- Ibid., p. 38.
- Ibid., p. 40.
- Ibid., pp. 43-44.
- Ibid., pp. 40-41.
- Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder, The Fountain of Public Prosperity: Evangelical Christians in Australian History, 1740-1914 (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, 2018), p. 468.
- Linder, op. cit., p. 47
- Ibid., pp. 45-46.
- Brian McKinlay, A Documentary History of the Australian Labor Movement, 1850-1975 (Richmond, Australia: Drummond, 1979), pp. 91-92.