08 Review: Ian Breward, A History of the Churches in Australasia

Mark Hutchinson, , Southern Cross College

Book Review:

Ian Breward, A History of the Churches in Australasia, Oxford and Melbourne: OUP, 2001.


Back in the early 1980s, David Bollen et al suggested that the time was not yet for the comprehensive history of Australian religion. The books which have appeared through the twenty years since then have tended to prove them correct. Most have been worthy attempts at large canvasses which do one or two things well, and remain full of lacunae in other areas. On many things, particularly the history of minority traditions such as Pentecostalism, the secondary literature just has not been there to do a good enough job. Ian Breward’s latest work (A History of the Churches in Australasia) is probably the best of that breed of book – and while we may still be awaiting the appearance of an Australasian Sydney Ahlstrom, Breward’s achievement here is to indicate that the time is drawing nearer for truly magisterial histories of Australian religious life to appear. A review such as this can only briefly point to some of the major issues which the book throws up, but taken as a contribution to defining the task ahead, it is still a useful exercise.

There is a sense in which Ian has been writing this book for most of those two decades since Bollen et al wrote. His first attempt at an overview, Most Godless Place under Heaven (1988), was thematic in form, and sought to lay out the survey pegs for work after his translation from Knox College, Dunedin, to Ormond College in Melbourne. His strength – and indeed, the comparative strength of New Zealand religious history generally – is evident even here in this latest work. His first crack at a comprehensive book on Australian Christianity came with his History of Australian Churches (1993), which was a very useful work in a limited market, and demonstrated both his growing confidence in Australian material and the limited nature of the rest of Australian religious historiography. With this background, he was the obvious choice for the Pacific section of Oxford’s History of the Christian Church series. This is not to say that the book escapes the tensions of the state of the art, and of its international setting, however.

It might be slightly confusing, but probably accurate, to say that this is a fine piece of work on a difficult subject by a mature and thoughtful historian, which is not thereby necessarily the definitive book on the area. It may well be a definitive book for some time, simply because of the weight of Oxford’s reputation and the enormous respect which those in the craft have for Ian as a scholar and a gentleman. It is not the definitive book, however, simply because it lacks sufficient definition in focus and thematic insight to say new things in that Clark-esque fashion which will make it last for generations. While it tidily brings things together for readers approaching the subject perhaps for the first time, it doesn’t demand attention in any stylistic or thought-provoking way. These problems of definition and ‘edge’ essentially arise out of the problems of compression, and the demands of an artificial category.

The problems with dealing with the mass of material which this sprawling canvas demands defines Ian’s scope (‘Churches’, ‘Australasia’) in such a way that Michelangelo himself might have been tempted to give up. After a jerky, indecisive start, the book proceeds to talk about Australian aboriginal people and thus the failure of Aboriginal missions before any background is provided on such driving forces as the evangelical revival. So, the missions fail before the first chaplain is appointed. The French appear in Tahiti as if from a space ship – with little reference to the driving global forces which impacted so profoundly on the islands of the sea. Such jarring organisational issues are too common in the book, and result from a broader lack in the Australian religious history scene of thematic discussion and good historical conceptualisation. While Ian’s book is about Christianity, the great weight of material in the Australian religious history corpus is about Aboriginal primacy and Aboriginal religion – and the demands of this material is such that it bends the focus of a book which is part of a series, and which thus suffers under demands of non-inclusion as well as demands of inclusion. The challenge, as Ian fortunately points out for religious historians who will follow in his footsteps, is to come up with a new literary form for handling Australian religious history, in such a way that it can be knit into the larger issues of Australasia and the region. This will require a much more reflective historical craft than has generally been the case in the strident, secularist agendas of Australian universities. Ian has clearly made a contribution here in pointing out such a need, even if he has not quite met that need in this work.

The definitional issue is paramount. While choosing to write about ‘the churches’ avoids some of the problems caused by a culture which has been ambivalent to religion, it stumbles into others. What does one include as ‘Christianity’, for example? What is a church? The lack of definitive answers to both these issues means that there is no basis on which the actions of Christians can be disentangled from the institutionalised forms of civil religion in this ‘Christian country’, or from the imperial appropriation of Christianity and the historical tropes of Christendom by the British and the French. So we are never quite sure how to understand ‘Christian’ attitudes to indigenous rights, or non-Christian religions, or that Christians themselves were part of a movable feast in thinking about the application of ‘Christian thought’ to hugely challenging new global realities. Likewise, the attempted definition of ‘Australasia’ falls somewhat flat – after demonstrating the problems of applying overarching terms to localities which specifically reject being embraced by other peoples’ categories, Ian lobs in the hopeful statement that ‘Australasia is a useful label’. We are left unconvinced – not because the Pacific is not vastly important for Australia and New Zealand and vice versa, but because the hard work of exploring the intellectual engagements involved in the geo-cultural space has not been done. With Australian soldiers chasing gun-runners and kidnappers in the Solomons, propping up failing governments heavily influenced by the religious cultures discussed in the book, and disembarking Afghani refugees on islands threatened with global warming, the subject is clearly of enormous importance. An opportunity to make a signal contribution to Australasian intellectual history from the perspective of the religious historian has thus been missed. Such a work needs to get beyond useful labels, and engage with the underlying issues, a task which the huge scope of the work makes almost impossible.

That said, the great contribution of a work like this is to juxtapose stories in unexpected and thought-provoking ways. The difficulties of the scope also provide opportunities – to see a Samuel Marsden, for example, in his more natural Pacific and missionary guise rather than in the loose fitting coat of the convict chaplain that historians have usually dressed him up in. We see Pacific peoples appropriating and moving faith in highly creative and dynamic ways (which creates tensions, admittedly, with the emphasis on ‘the churches’). We see thereby many of the missiological and cultural challenges which face later traditions – such as Adventism or Pentecostalism – when they come to write their stories across spaces already inhabited by the thought worlds of Methodism and Catholicism. Such accounts challenge to the core the smug secularism of much of Australian writing about religion, and the silly assumptions (about ‘the destructive inheritance of missions’, for example) which still emerge in discussions about the role Australia plays in the Pacific.

Ian Breward is a fine historian who has produced a very useful book which deserves to be read and appreciated. If one received points in history, as in diving, for ‘degrees of difficulty’, his effort in A History of the Churches in Australasia, would score very highly indeed. It tells us much about what still needs to be done, however, both in terms of intellectual history and in terms of understanding our own religious heritage.

Mark Hutchinson