"Baptists in Van Diemen's Land"

by Laurence F. Rowston

Chapter 5

I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you. (Isaiah 43.1e, 2a)

On 9 April 1848 the Rev. Kerr Johnston, previously Congregational minister, was baptised by his brother, the Rev. Robert Johnston, in Well Lane Chapel, Beverley, Yorkshire.

At his baptism Johnston told how in his last church he had been drawn nearer to the Bible, and the Bible alone. He had overcome his prejudice and espoused believer's baptism. Serious persons had frequently hinted at infant baptism as dubious, and as he questioned the practice, he discovered that he could not enter into discussion about it without something more than obscure references, disputed tradition, or the authority of names. For him, such passages as Romans 6.3; Galatians 3.27; or Colossians 2.11, could have no verification from infant baptism. On taking believer's baptism himself he knew that charges of changeableness and fanaticism awaited him, but he had concluded that better a slighting world than a frowning Saviour. [1]

Those who witnessed his baptism hoped that Johnston would be directed to a sphere of usefulness. That usefulness, in time, would be found in the port of Melbourne, in the colony of Victoria. Before leaving England in 1853, he was in touch with the London Seamen's Mission.


Johnston arrived in Hobart Town on 30 April 1853 with his wife and their seven children. The church manse, considered too small for the Rev. William Wade, his wife and their six children, was to accommodate the new arrivals for four years. His first service at the chapel was on 8 May. [2] At the Congregational Colonial Missionary Society meeting on 24 June he informed the gathering that he was grateful for this opportunity to join his Christian brethren in the denomination to which he once belonged. [3]


Johnston had grown up in Greenock, Scotland, where his father, William, printed the first newspaper in the town. It was in his father's printery that Kerr Johnston learned book binding. He was a member of the George Street Congregational Church in 1837 when he entered the Glasgow Theological Academy to train for the ministry of the Scottish Congregational churches. He studied under Dr. Ralph Wardlaw, a man of great dignity, loved by those who knew him but to strangers and those who only had knowledge of him as a preacher--distant and proud. He was an outstanding expositor of the Scriptures. Johnston was also a student of Glasgow University. It was during his University years that he became interested in the Seamen's Mission. [4] On completion of studies, he was ordained at Greenwick and married Elizabeth Denovan Gowan, the daughter of a shipbuilder in Berwick-on-Tweed. Johnston became pastor of the Mill Street Church, Perth, from 1842 to 1847. It is recorded that the membership of the Perth Church declined a little during his ministry. [5]

From 1848 to 1853 Johnston was pastor of the Bethel Baptist chapel, Shipley, Yorkshire. In the written history of that church it is recorded that "'God makes no two men alike.' This was very true concerning Peter Scott and his successor, Kerr Johnston. It was almost a change from Isaiah to Amos. Mr. Kerr Johnston was a fearless preacher, who spoke plain unvarnished truths." [6]

At Bethel Johnston encountered hyper-Calvinism, a theological view point with which he could not concur. At a baptism he heard that one of the candidates "had imbibed from the conversation of some persons that it was no use him attempting anything for his salvation: he could only wait; and if he was to be a christian he would be one, and if not it could not be!" [7] In Johnston's own words,

There is indeed a spurious Calvinism, called hyper-Calvinism, which limits its sympathies or energies to brethren in the faith, and leaves the unconverted for God to do with them as He pleases. There is apparent deference to Sovereignty in this system, but it is a mockery of Divine love, which designs the Gospel and Christian self-denial for every creature.

How Johnston found a pulpit in the Harrington Street chapel for four years where the likes of the hyper-Calvinist Henry Hinsby were so much at home, remains a mystery. Johnston believed in aggressive evangelism.


At interdenominational meetings in the colony Johnston preached the Gospel of Christian unity. He declared that it was no wonder that infidels should sneer at such professions when they saw Protestant ministers quarrelling among each other upon frivolous and insignificant points of doctrine or ritual. The union inculcated, respected not only the mystical union between Christ and his church, but such an union as the world may perceive and acknowledge. We should remember the ancient motto, divida et impera, for division invariably implied weakness. There was no way of justifying the sectional differences in the Church of Christ--sects and parties came from men, from the weakness of ourselves, not from the power of God. When he saw Protestant ministers shunning each other, and bitter feelings subsisting between the different sections of the Church, he mourned at the effect it must produce. [9] The attractiveness of the Bible Society, for Johnston, was its catholic spirit. [10] At its Annual Meeting the unity he witnessed among the various sections of the Church in promoting the objects of the Society, reminded him of the good old Scottish version,

Behold how good a thing it is,
And how becoming well,
Together such as brethren are,
In unity to dwell. [11]

This catholic spirit he sought was certainly displayed at the Baptist Chapel early in his pastorate. At a tea meeting held on 12 July 1853, the Rev. Henry Dowling occupied the chair and after some excellent addresses from him, the Rev. Frederick Miller, the Rev. Dr. W. Nicholson (Free Church of Scotland),, Johnston and Baptist John Alfred Huxtable were called upon to propose Dowling's plan for paying off the remaining debt on the chapel of 100 pounds. Dowling wished various friends to take collecting cards and report the result at the next meeting. Henry Hopkins, the "Father of Congregationalism in Van Diemen's Land", however, rose to suggest that the friends present should pay the debt at once, and he commenced by putting down 10 pounds. Dowling, Huxtable, Frederick Haller, Henry Speak, and others, followed this example, and in a short time 111 pounds was subscribed. [12]


On the question of Church and State, Johnston was equally clear. In 1853 that clarity of mind was expressed at a public meeting, convened at the Mechanics' Institute for the purpose of opposing the new Church Act which as about to be introduced to the legislature, embodying the principle of granting certain sums of money to every religious denomination.

Certain Church Acts which had been in operation in the colony, and which endowed Churches established by law, were to be abolished. Another Act designed to endow every religious sect indiscriminately, was about to be brought under the consideration of the Legislative Council and, if possible to make it the law of the land. This new measure offered encouragement to all creeds and parties, Churchmen, Latter-Day Saints, Presbyterians, Muslims and Roman Catholics--every class, calling themselves religionists would be eligible to receive support from the Public Treasury in proportion to their numerical importance. Johnston as called upon to move the first resolution:

That, while it must ever be the duty of all men to encourage and promote the Truth, it can never be their duty under any circumstances to encourage and support error; and that therefore to enact by law the pecuniary sustentation of religious creeds which are conflicting and mutually subversive, must necessarily involve the sin of countenancing error, is a virtual denial of the supreme authority and exclusive claims of Truth, and a public dishonour to Almighty God.

He dissented altogether from the grand principle upon which the Act was founded, namely the endowment of all sects--and consequently of truth and error. The union of Church and State had from its first connection been fraught with a vast amount of misery and suffering to those Christian denominations which depended on themselves, and not on the governing power for support. What persecution had raged against dissenters, because they conscientiously refused to pay church rates! Look at home, and see how even now men of God and truth are forcibly deprived of their goods by the parliamentary church. The unrighteous demand of its unholy conduct had been nobly resisted, and by none more firmly than by the Quakers (cheers). All honor to the Quakers (loud cheers).

They could imagine in a discussion between the unbeliever and the Christian, how the former would point to the bench of bishops, and ask, are these meek and humble followers of Christ? Are these politicians, rulers, lords, whom you call the ministers of Christ, the successors of the fishermen of Galilee? (loud cheers). Do you call that the truth which place men in such a position? Can they be appointed to feed the flock of God, and publish salvation to all, "without money and without price" and at the same time countenance and uphold a system which imprisons and persecutes all who cannot conscientiously conform to their creed or church polity? (cheers).

He (the speaker) would ask, was there no vitality in the religion they professed, that they should require the hold of Government to keep it in existence? Was Christ no longer their master, and would he no longer sustain his people, and prosper their labours for the conversion of the world without state pay? (immense cheers). Go to South Australia, and there see the success of voluntaryism. The unholy compact of Church and State must be broken (applause). Dissolve the connection and let religion alone; leave it to work its way unshackled by a foreign power, and it will spread over the world. He would say, agitate this subject for the honour of Christ--agitate for the cause of truth and righteousness, and not cease till the victory has been achieved. (loud cheering). [13]

Johnston had written to the Governor just days before to express his disagreement with the Bill. [14]


As fellow Baptists before him in Hobart Town, Johnston was very much involved with the Christian organisations. On the committee of the Bible Society, he preached at its Jubilee remarking, "If the Bible Society were buried, the angel Gabriel would be chief mourner, but there was no sign of interment tonight. (cheers)" [15]

At the Van Diemen's Land Colonial Missionary Society's annual meeting in 1853 he was heard seconding a resolution in "a speech replete with sound argument, illustrative anecodote and earnest piety." The work of the Bethel Mission (Mission to Seamen) also was "having a strong pull on his heart." [16]

At the annual meeting of the Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Wesleyan Missionary Society he gave the result of an interesting calculation, showing what Christianity might do for the world if the reproductive operation of Christian principle were to be more exemplified. Supposing 50,000 Christian labourers in the world were to be the means of making another convert, in fourteen years the number of converts would amount to 1800 million. In other words, in the fourteenth year, every sinner in the world would be converted! [17]

On the occasion of the second anniversary of the Hobart Town City Mission, Johnston, seconding a motion, went on to refer to the obstacles thrown in the way of the missionaries visiting the newly arrived immigrants, at the depot on the Old Wharf. He contrasted this with the facilities given to the Roman Catholic clergy, and urged the members of the society to make an effort to obtain access for their missionaries to a class of persons who stood so much in need of counsel and aid. [18]

Johnston frequented the Ragged School, the Young Men's Christian Instruction Society, the Wesleyan Sabbath Schools, Berea Independent Sabbath School and the Evangelical Union. [19]

His interests also extended to that of education, being in attendance for the half-yearly examinations at Home's Academy and Somerset House, the latter of which the Rev. W.R. Wade was Principal. His daughter Janet attended Somerset House and, in the annual examinations of 1855, won first class honours in Latin, Etymology, Geography, Writing and Science. [20]

In 1856 Johnston attended William Buckley on his death bed. Buckley, the "wild white man", had escaped from a convict party and lived with the aboriginals in the Port Phillip district for thirty-two years. [21]


11 August 1854 was a day appointed by proclamation for the people of Hobart Town to humble themselves before the Almighty so as to avert the calamities by which the nation, and the British Empire was threatened because of the war in the Crimea. In no portion of Her Majesty's dominions, it was asserted, was the day more religiously observed than in the city of Hobart as people packed its churches and chapels. All the public offices, and, with two or three exceptions, the shops also, were closed. The churches were filled with attentive and devout congregations, and the collections for the wives of soldiers exceeded even the wll known liberality of Tasmania, for more than 600 pounds was collected in Hobart Town alone.

At the Baptist chapel Johnston took as his text Habakkuk 3.2 and treated it as a prayer for the revival of religion and consequently as a prayer that the calamitous necessity for the war would be followed up by the civil and religious emancipation of European lands. [22]

Two years later, concurring with the invitation of His Excellency, the Governor-in-Chief, Sir William Denison, sermons were preached on 6 July 1856 in the various chapels around Hobart Town in celebration of the cessation of the war and the restoration of peace. Again at the Baptist chapel Johnston preached a suitable sermon.


Having proved such an outstanding public speaker and being a Baptist at heart, he was not afraid of taking on the head of the Church of England in Tasmania, Bishop Francis Russel Nixon. Nixon's address at St. David's, the cathedral church of Hobart, on Good Friday 1856 drew from him an open letter, which he had inserted in the press as an advertisement. The letter attacked what he saw as the unscriptural and dangerous declaration that people in their infant baptism "were adopted into the family of God." [23]


Temperance was one of the key issues of the 1850s. In 1854 there were 180 public-houses in Hobart Town for a population of approximately 23,000. Further, it was calculated that approximately 12 pounds per head, including women and children, was paid yearly for strong drink. [24]

Johnston, as a member of the Total Abstinence Society, eloquently and energetically pleaded the objects of the Society. It was his opinion that the spirit trade was worse than the slave trade in that the latter was a mechandise of bodies, while the former was a traffic in the souls of men. He gladly participated in public demonstrations. [25] He was able to make known that the "pure juice of the grape" was used at the communion table of the Baptist chapel. [26]

Johnston did not underestimate the essential part women could contribute to the cause:

That it is the privilege of women and peculiarly within her providence, to aid with her influence every moral and philanthropic movement, the zealous co-operation of the female sex be respectively but earnestly involved, as not only desirable, but even essential, to the success of the cause. [27]

Johnston hoped that the progress of the Society would prove the means of enfranchising people from this worse than physical bondage:

They wanted universal emancipation. Some may ask, what would, in that event become of those who dealt in the merchandise of spirituous liquors? All knew how miserably poor those merchants were; let them, therefore, propose for them the formation of a benevolent society. (Laughter) Let them combine with the emancipation of the drunkards an apprenticeship, not for these but for the merchants, that, when deserted by their former slaves, they may think of some means for present establishment; coffee-houses and reading rooms would form a noble alternative. [28]


On 17 April 1856, about a year before Johnston relinquished the work in Tasmania, a meeting took place at the chapel to consider the formation of an Evangelical Baptist Mission. Johnston took the chair and after reading the advertisement calling the meeting, he gave a homely fireside statement of what he had before his mind for a good many months. He spoke of his concern that something ought to be done by Baptists, but wasn't sure whether they could succeed or not. [29]

Obviously the Baptists were not able to succeed with their Evangelical Mission for Johnston preached his farewell sermon with them on 24 May 1857. His church presented him with an appropriate address on his leaving, and expressed deep regret that he should have been obliged to transfer his services. [30] He was finally taking up his appointment with the Victorian Bethel Union for Seamen. This new scheme of labour was to be among the seamen coming into Hobson's Bay and Williamstown. His new task was to embody the message that he had preached, that of Christian unity which he had so long sought for others.


In Melbourne the Johnston home was The Emily, a large, old American hulk, granted for the purpose by the Government. The hulk was painted a light colour, with Bethel Sailors' Church in large, black letters on the side. This strange church was officially opened in July 1857.

For two and a half years the family lived on the Bethel, anchored midway between Williamstown and Sandridge (Port Melbourne), then Leigh Terrace came to be their home at Port Melbourne. As time went on an old boat-house on the beach was used for services, and it is on that site that the present Port Melbourne Institute stands. The Bethel Floating Church was last seen to turn turtle after catching fire. A Sailors' Rest was opened at Williamstown. The work, apart from providing religious services, attractive amusements and literature, was an attempt at stamping out "Crimping" and the sailor's "Boarding Master Curse". It was also an attempt to "rescue 'Jack ashore' from the harpies of the grog-shops". [31]

During the year 1881, 49,000 seamen passed through the port. At the Sandridge Sailor's Rest there were 20,000 visitors from the various ships lying, from time to time, in the Bay.

After twenty-six years of active service in connection with the Mission, and a few years of retirement, the Rev. Kerr Johnston "passed over", leaving wonderful pioneer memories. His family, through all that time, was a source of great strength to him in all branches of the work. [32]


  1. Baptist Magazine, May 1848, p.298.
  2. Tasmanian State Arhives Arrivals, 1852-3, p.221; CSO-24-228 No. 8765; Hobart Town Courier, 7 May 1853.
  3. Colonial Times, 28 June 1853.
  4. Aileen Elizabeth Brown, Garnered Sheaves. Memoirs of the Mission to Seamen, Melbourne, 1934; Victorian Freeman, March 1881, p.71.
  5. Sievwright, Historical Sketch of the [Perth] Congregational Church.
  6. History of the Bethel Chapel ch.6.
  7. Baptist Magazine 1852, p.163.
  8. Church Record, 15 September 1854 p.8.
  9. Report of the Annual Services of the Colonial Missionary Society, Colonial Times, 28 June 1853; Hobart Town Courier, 24 June 1853.
  10. Colonial Times. 24 April 1856.
  11. Ibid., 29 March 1855.
  12. Ibid., 14 July 1853.
  13. Tasmanian Colonist, 28 July 1853.
  14. Letter of 23 July 1853, No.8765 CSO -24-228.5.4., T.S.A.
  15. Colonial Times, 24 April 1856.
  16. Hobart Town Courier, 21 December 1853; Colonial Times, 12 January, 17 August and 12 October 1856.
  17. Colonial Times, 16 January 1856.
  18. Hobart Town Courier, 7 December 1854.
  19. Colonial Times, 27 February, 25 March, 18 September, 29 October, 24 November 1856.
  20. Hobart Town Courier, 30 June 1854, 23 June 1855.
  21. Nancy Cato, Mister Maloga. Daniel Matthews and His Maloga Mission, University of Queensland Press, 1976, p.36.
  22. Hobart Town Courier, 14 August 1854.
  23. Colonial Times, 5 April 1856.
  24. Rod Kilner, Temperance and the Liquor Question in Tasmania in the 1850s. Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings, Vol.20, No.2, June 1973, p.82ff.
  25. Colonial Times, 24 December 1853.
  26. The Church Record, 17 January 1854, p.7.
  27. Tasmanian Colonist, 17 March 1854.
  28. Hobart Town Courier, 17 March 1854.
  29. Colonial Times, 19 April 1856.
  30. Ibid., 23 and 30 May and 4 June 1857. What exactly transpired between the members of the Baptist Chapel and the Rev. Kerr Johnston throughout his years with them remains unknown as the Church Minute Books of the period are missing.
  31. The Age, 18 February 1956; Annual Reports Mission to Seamen 1895 and 1902.
  32. Garnered Sheaves

Text obtained by A Kerr Johnston from Rev R F Rowston, 3 Portsea Place, Howrah, Tas, 7018.