Thus he sallies forth: British and Foreign Bible Society colporteurs in nineteenth-century Australia

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This article offers a pioneering scholarly account of Bible Society colporteurs in colonial Australia. It demonstrates that their approach differed from European and British models due to the geography and dispersing pattern of settlement across the massive Australian continent. These intrepid Bible peddlers faced numerous challenges: rudimentary and expensive transport infrastructure, vast distances to traverse, bushrangers, competition from bookhawkers and denominational colporteurs, modest wages and lonely journeys that could last more than half a year. Yet colporteurs demonstrated a capacity to adapt, with specially fitted rafts, rowboats, carts and wagons, and utilised technological advances such as the new media of magic lanterns.
They also offered a lay ministry that in many places meant that they were the only religious representative with whom people had contact. Their work, apart from selling Bibles, books and tracts, included public meetings and lectures, preaching sermons, leading church services, offering family prayers and informal counselling, providing occasional offices such as funerals, running and establishing temperance meetings, and providing a human link and lifeline to civilisation for myriad lonely settlers. Their customers included pastoralists, selectors, townspeople, children, shepherds, shearers, rabbit trappers, railway navvies and foreign migrants such as Chinese gold diggers. Also striking is the near universal warmth and appreciation—goldfield and pub hecklers notwithstanding—with which these indefatigable men were met by settlers. Their diaries and reports punctuated Bible Society periodicals and platform speeches, providing colourful promotional material that cast colporteurs as religious actors in an emerging romantic myth of ‘the bush’ that would find its apotheosis at century’s end in the poetry of A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson. As Meredith Lake has pointed out, colonial believers associated that bush myth with a potent notion that the bush also represented a ‘godless frontier, a zone of spiritual need beyond the edge of settled European civility’—a fact that was borne out in census findings that the highest proportion of self-declared agnostics, free-thinkers and atheists lived in the outback and on the goldfields. ‘Practical atheism’ was another term commonly used to describe a remote population among whom religious beliefs and practices had become almost non-existent.

This article also illuminates the character of some of these missionary evangelists, pastors and salesman – personable and often a single man. The brief sketch of Isaac Livermore suggested ways in which Australian colporteurs embodied metropolitan prescriptions of the BFBS colporteur’s ideal qualities: "A Christian with Howard’s philanthropy, Brainerd’s devotion, Page’s fidelity, and Milner’s business accuracy, would make a model colporteur." Given such high ideals and the demands placed on colporteurs, it is no surprise that turnover was high, especially once young men turned their hearts towards marriage or the burgeoning Australian goldfields. Missionaries, clergymen, preachers and prominent laypeople have tended to be the focus of studies of religion in colonial Australia, but it is clear that any full-orbed account of the colonial religious landscape should also incorporate colonial Australian Bible Society colporteurs.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Pages (from-to)13-29
Number of pages13
JournalLucas: An Evangelical History Review
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020


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