National Christian Heritage Sunday celebrates the Gospel of Jesus Christ arriving on Australia’s shores. The date for 2020 is Sunday 2nd February.
Australia’s first minister, Rev. Richard Johnson, arrived with the first fleet on the 20th January 1788. Then, on 3rd February 1788, Rev. Johnson held the first Christian service in Australia. This event is celebrated on the first Sunday in February each year. As Australia’s first Chaplain, Rev Johnson, spent 12 years in Australia from 1788 to 1800 with several roles as military and prison chaplain, parish priest, missionary to the indigenous community, and as a husband, father and provider during the early years of food deprivation.
He and wife Mary lived on the ship Golden Grove for some months before a building was built with a thatched roof which continually leaked during heavy rainfall. William Wilberforce and John Newton, the former slave trader of Amazing Grace fame, were the chief sponsors of the Botany Bay chaplaincy.
Newton becoming Johnson’s mentor, confidant and advisor, calling him the “first Apostle to the South Seas”. Newton with William Wilberforce founded the Eclectic Society seeing Johnson as “the means of sending the gospel to the other side of the Globe”. It was William Wilberforce in 1786 who suggested to the then Prime Minister William Pitt to have a Chaplain.
Careful preparations were made for the first service. The convicts were ordered to ‘be as clean as circumstances will permit’ and ‘no man is to be absent on any account whatever’. The guard was to be changed earlier than usual, so as to give those who had been relieved ‘time to cleanse themselves before Church’, and the ‘Church Drum’ was to beat at 10 0’clock. The Fleet had been in Sydney Cove the previous Sunday, but no service was held until order had been created on shore, the service taking place the following Sunday the 3rd February 1788, 232 years ago on a nearby grassy hill, the text being Psalm 116:12; ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?
Watkin Tench reported that the behaviour of both the troops and convicts was ‘equally regular and attentive’. Little is known about Richard’s wife, Mary as there is only one letter recorded of her corresponding with friends or relatives. She must have been a very pioneering, courageous, adaptable, patient, caring women. Johnson was a man of prayer and hope looking beyond the immediate and mortal, believing in God’s sovereign purposes for this new nation. He had brought with him over 4,000 pieces of Christian literature including 100 Bibles and 400 New Testament’s.
He was encouraged not to yield to the secular battle at the time raging against the Age of Faith being challenged by the Age of Reason & Relativism, a battle that continues to this present day! After Arthur Philip left in December 1792, Major Francis Grose took over administration of the colony & was uncooperative viewing Anglican Evangelicals and Methodists as trouble makers though he gave significant support to Rev. Bain the regimental chaplain, who was not an evangelical. Evangelical Anglicans back in England were criticised both externally and within their own church.
He was Australia’s pioneer educationalist establishing Australia’s first schools. Among Rev Richard Johnson’s qualities were that he had a kind disposition, was generous, humble & devout. He was humane shown by fostering aboriginal children including a 15 year old girl Abaroo whose parents had died. He visited on numerous occasions the huts of many convicts and visited before his departure the prison hulks, considerably distressing him.
He was dedicated & hardworking, receiving very little help from the authorities especially building the first Australian church with little help. He paid for it himself. He use to get up sometimes at 4.00 AM to travel to Parramatta to preach & performed numerous funerals, marriages and baptisms, as well as consoling those about to be executed. To be precise by Oct 1792 he had performed 226 baptisms, 220 marriages and 854 burials. God blessed his farming, producing Australia’s first Citrus orchard. He grew Australia’s first wheat crop. His garden in Bridge St in 1790 produced nearly a thousand cucumbers as well as other fruit & vegetables.
On his 100 acre farm granted to him which he called Canterbury Vale, the suburb now named after it, by 1795 he had cropped 38 acres of wheat that yielded 16 to 18 bushels per acre probably becoming Australia’s first wheat farmer, and by 1800 the year he left he had grown an acre of orange trees, nectarines, peaches & apricots as well as a two acre vineyard and stocked 150 sheep plus some cattle and horses. Tench recorded that he was the best farmer in the Colony. He also suffered hardship. In the early settlement they had little food and poor accommodation and he later developed health problems.
He had dysentery on the voyage out, was continually exhausted from his labours, on occasions had little sleep when guarding his home from looters, and lived in a rain drenched house. The Johnsons suffered disappointment and grief. Their first child was stillborn. Milbah their next child died just after returning to England. You can read more about the foundations of the church in Australia at http://www.nchs.net.au/resources.htm  This article was supplied with thanks to Christian History Research founders of National Christian Heritage Sunday.
Source: Dr Graham McLennan, Head of the National Alliance of Christian Leaders and Christian Historian