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Bush Missionary Society – the early years up to World War 1

In 1861, the Queanbeyan-based newspaper ‘The Golden Age’ reported a case which it regarded as one of ‘rank heathenism’ and ‘an instance of the most lamentable ignorance it is possible to conceive of, as existing in a professedly Christian country’.[1] The ‘rank heathenism’ and ‘lamentable ignorance’ concerned a 12-year-old boy named Hobson and his lack of even a basic civilising experience of school and church or an understanding of the Christian faith. He was to testify in the Small Debts Court, but before he was sworn in to give evidence the Police Magistrate asked him a few questions:

PM         How old are you?

Boy        Don’t know.

PM         Have you been to school?

Boy        No.

PM         Ever been to church?

Boy        No.

PM         Do you say any prayers?

Boy        No.

PM         Ever heard of God?

Boy        No.

PM         Ever heard of heaven or hell?

Boy        No. [and after some hesitation] Yes, I think I have.

PM         What people go to heaven when they die?

Boy        Bad people.

The newspaper then commented on the situation and suggested a remedy:

Who the parents of the boy are, we know not; but such a specimen of rank heathenism we never heard of in a so-called Christian country. We draw the attention of the committee of the Bush Missionary Society to this case.[2]

The isolation of the ‘bush’ in colonial Australia meant that there were many, like young Hobson, who were never exposed to the Christian message, worship and prayer and were thereby ignorant of its precepts; the problem was recognised, but it was difficult to address. An attempt, however, was being made to address this lack of Christian ministry through the distribution of bibles and religious literature by colporteurs, and it was to this ministry of the Bush Missionary Society (BMS) that the Queanbeyan newspaper ‘The Golden Age’ looked in order to address the problem.

The BMS was, however, not the first in the colony of NSW to seek to deal with the issue of the spiritual neglect of the bush through the use of colporteurs.  This honour belongs to James Robinson, colporteur with the Bible Society, who was the first to provide a ministry of bible distribution to the sparsely populated rural districts.  In 1852, Robinson began his work in ‘the bush’ and in his helpful article Gladwin says that:

Robinson’s journeys were the first of many undertaken by dozens of colporteurs—across the Australian continent—on behalf of Australian Bible Society agencies during the second half of the nineteenth century. They provided important pastoral and evangelistic ministry to sparsely populated rural districts in the decades before the creation of dedicated ministries such as the Anglican Bush Brotherhoods (1897–1920) and the evangelical Anglican Bush Church Aid Society (BCA, founded 1919).[3]

Well before the commencement of the Anglican bush ministries that Gladwin mentions, and only a few years after the commencement of the work of the Bible Society, the ministry of the non-denominational Juvenile Missionary Society (JMS), later known as the New South Wales Bush Missionary Society (BMS), was inaugurated.[4]

Bush Missionary and his horse and cart on a visit (State Library of New South Wales)

The Commencement of the Bush Mission Society

The BMS was initially organised by a few keen youths aged between 14 and 17 years from the Bathurst Street Baptist Sunday School.[5]  It began its work in June 1856, distributing religious tracts to the fringes of Sydney and was originally called the ‘Senior Boys Benevolent Fund’ but one month later became known as the Juvenile Missionary Society.[6] By 1858, other bodies with similar names arose such as the Pitt Street Congregational Church Juvenile Mission Society.[7] So for this reason, and as the name was no longer appropriate as it didn’t reflect their maturity, emphasis and aspiration, it was decided in 1861 to change the name to the New South Wales Bush Missionary Society.[8] The initiators of the movement, while no longer juveniles, were still young and enthusiastic, so much so that the Rev Robert Steel felt it appropriate to caution them

… against going out every Sunday. As water could not be obtained from an empty cistern, so spiritual food could not be supplied to the perishing dwellers in the bush unless those who ministered to them prepared proper spiritual nourishment. The mind required them to think, and time to replenish its store of knowledge, and therefore if each young man went out once only in the month, or twice if needed, and spent the remainder in study his ministrations would be far more likely to result successfully.[9]

A number of senior boys, together with their Sunday School teacher, were the founding group of the BMS:[10] George Webber (1840-1903), Alfred Rofe (1842-1902), Henry Baigent (1842-1918), Joseph Palmer (1841-1919), John Drury and C Robinson while the teacher was George Richard Addison (1823-1894).  Timothy Steadman Moore (1839-1926), the son a Baptist minister, was the Secretary from 1856-1860 and the BMS owed much of its early energy and success to Timothy’s enthusiasm.[11] These teenage boys were also members of the Bathurst Street Band of Hope[12] which met in the Baptist school hall adjacent to the church. The Baptist minister, Rev James Voller,[13] encouraged the formation of this temperance group so it is most likely they were all in attendance at his church.[14]

Despite the decision to change the name to avoid confusion, some misunderstandings have arisen in the work of later historians.  In her work on colonial mission societies, Hilary Carey promotes a view that incorrectly credits to Congregationalists the work of the BMS. She does this because she mistakenly identifies the BMS’s precursor (the Juvenile Missionary Society), as being the ‘Juvenile Missionary Society’ of the ‘NSW Auxiliary of the London Missionary Society’ (LMS) a predominately, though not exclusively, Congregationalist society. Most recently, this association of the BMS with the Congregationalists has been repeated in John Croucher’s 2020 book on the history of New South Wales.[15]

The identification of the BMS with the LMS is, however, a result of confusion over the similarity of the names being used by various societies at the time. The identification of the origins of the BMS lying with the Congregationalists is certainly incorrect. In 1860, the Rev S C Kent said that until that year he had been unaware of the existence of the BMS. It is inconceivable that Kent, who was an executive member of the NSW Auxiliary of the London Missionary Society from 1855,[16] and also a prominent Congregational minister, should be ignorant of the existence of the BMS if it was Congregational in origin and linked to the LMS. Furthermore, in January 1877, the Congregationalist G C Tuting said that ‘twenty years ago he was present at a meeting at which it was announced that a few boys in the Bathurst-street Baptist Sunday-school had determined to send out a missionary to the bush districts’.[17] Joseph Palmer, a founding member and long-time secretary of the BMS, said in 1892 that,

the society was formed 36 years since by the senior boys of the Bathurst-street Baptist Sunday-school, who first used to work the suburbs before churches were established there, and subsequently developed into the present society, which sent its missionaries out into the far bush country and other isolated places.[18]

Carey has linked the wrong ‘Juvenile Missionary Society’ to the LMS. It is much more likely that the juvenile society linked to the LMS was the Pitt Street Congregational Juvenile Missionary Society whose special purpose was the support of destitute children at the London Missionary Society’s boarding schools on ‘the islands’.[19]

In the first instance, the BMS which was non-denominational, owed its origin to Baptist rather than to Congregational influence.[20] The BMS was commenced through the encouragement and with the support of the Baptist Rev James Voller who, speaking in 1861, said ‘He felt a peculiar interest, as to him the society was not new; he had watched its first development and subsequent growth during the five years of its existence’.[21]

The Ministry of the Bush Missionary Society

Initially, the BMS had various forms and locations of ministry in which it was involved, but all were undertaken by young men, and all were related to literature distribution. It is only with its renaming in 1861 that the Society begins to publicly, and more strongly, focus on bush ministry. Some of the early activities of the BMS were:

Places of Worship and Sunday schools.

To begin with, BMS only involved young men visiting the fringe areas of Sydney, with tracts in hand, where churches had yet to be commenced. As an extension of this visitation, however, they commenced Sunday schools such as the one at Randwick in November 1856.[22] They raised funds for the purpose of erecting a general schoolhouse at Five Dock in which to hold public worship and Sabbath school, and during the week a National School.[23] However, when the Anglicans of St Albans, Five Dock, decided to build a school room, the BMS withdrew their building plans in support of the Anglican work and returned the funds received to the donors. On seeing the Anglican work established they saw no need to continue at Five Dock and ceased their Sabbath school and tract distribution in the area.[24] In this early phase of its life, the BMS also established preaching stations at Balmain, Paddington, Lane Cove and Willoughby.[25] 


Agents were initially appointed at a small number of centres including Berrima, Grafton, the Hawkesbury, Fitzroy Iron mines, Port Curtis, Brisbane Water and Wide Bay. Agents would keep a stock of tracts and books for sale and distribution and would do local visitation. The number of Agents increased significantly over time so that by 1872 there were 85 local Agents in NSW and even some in Queensland.[26]

Itinerant Ministry

In October 1858, George Addison was distributing tracts and books and, over a five-day period, visited areas well beyond Sydney including: Broken Bay, Pitt Water and the country between Port Jackson and the Hawkesbury River. He undertook a second visit in February 1859, visiting huts between Broken Bay and Lane Cove and a large fishing station at Pitt Water followed by scattered houses between Lane Cove and Parramatta. A third visit was in March 1859, visiting houses on the coast between Manly and Broken Bay and back to Sydney via Lane Cove. The visits were welcomed and no-one refused to accept the tracts and books that were offered.[27]

Christmas Missions

The BMS took advantage of the 1858 Christmas holidays and sent six teams, with a total of 9 missioners, out to conduct visitation with tract and book distribution. They visited Waverly and Bondi, Middle Harbour, Lane Cove, Balmain, Camden and many other paces in these general vicinities. Their reception was appreciative and welcoming and there were a number who wanted more regular Christian ministry. These experiences of the value of visitation and tract/book distribution led to the desire of the BMS to respond to requests for Christian ministry in more isolated areas in the state.

The Rev Samuel C Kent was not exaggerating when he said of this early iteration of the BMS that,

his society there appeared to be a combination of different societies. There was a Young Men’s Christian Association, a City Missionary Society, a Bush Missionary Society, a Bible reading Society, a visiting Society for the Poor, a Tract Society, a Sunday School Society, a Ragged School Society and an Evangelical Alliance.[28]

This diversity of the ministry was to change and from 1859/1860 the ministry to the bush was to become its major activity.

The Focus on Bush Mission

With the increasing spread of denominational ministry to the margins of Sydney, the BMS saw the wisdom of surrendering their ministry at places like Five Dock and the Fitzroy Iron Mines and moving to more remote locations, and so supplying Christian ministry to the Bush became the Society’s focus.

In 1859, the BMS decided to employ a missionary to visit those who lived in the country and who did not have access to Christian ministry. At this time, the BMS had neither the funds, estimated at £250 per annum, nor a person to carry out the work[29] so they appealed to the Christian public to help fill this need. By November 1860, the BMS considered it had sufficient funds and support to employ a missionary and so W J Slater was sent out to begin his work as a bush missionary. Regrettably, the services of the missionary had to be terminated after 15 months in February 1862 as the BMS did not feel justified in running into debt. In January 1864, a renewed effort was made to have a bush missionary and John Wilson was employed.[30]

This refining of the activities of the BMS to principally being ministry to the bush led the BMS to articulate its purpose with greater clarity. The objects were twofold:

  1. To spread in the interior of the colony of New South Wales a scriptural knowledge of Jesus Christ, without reference to sectarian peculiarities; and
  2. The above object to be sought by the employment of travelling missionaries to sell Bibles and religious books and otherwise to disseminate Gospel truth in the bush; by supplying unpaid local agents with religious tracts for distribution; and, if required, with books for Sunday-school instruction; and by any other means which it may be deemed desirable to adopt.[31]

Qualities of a Bush Missionary  

 To have a bush ministry required the employment of suitable missionaries. Such a missionary needed to have certain characteristics in order to be successful, both physical and spiritual strength and stamina were essential.  John Mills, a long-time member of the BMS, described what the BMS looked for in a man who would be one of their missionaries:

We require a man who could drive a horse, swim a stream, traverse a mountain, penetrate the trackless forest, pull up a river where he had never before been; camp out with the howl of the dingo resounding in his ears; and, in fact, face with a bold heart all the hardships and deprivation of bush life; steadily upholding, at all times, and under all circumstances, the work of God. He must be a man who would be able to express himself courteously, and, if necessary, to speak roughly and decisively.[32]

Rev J Barnier observed from his own experience as a minister that bush missionaries had an advantage over a minister in this ministry for ‘as they had access to station hands, while ministers, who were looked upon and too professional, were avoided.’[33] In addition to these qualities it was recognised that ‘They ought not to be men of strong sectarian feeling, but sympathising with all evangelical denominations.’[34]

A typical advertisement of the BMS to fill a vacancy in 1876[35]  

Missionary WJ Slater on the first exploratory trip went on foot to places close to Sydney that had been previously visited by the Society members and following this, he went into the ‘Bush’ by horseback with saddle bags to carry tracts and books.[36] Later, in 1864, a wagonette drawn by two horses and loaded with a stock of bibles, testaments, and religious books was supplied by the Society.[37] Missionaries would travel in a designated direction and go from house to house distributing tracts, holding family services and speaking, as they had opportunity, of Christ and the great salvation.[38]

By the 1870s, the BMS had three bush missionaries. The colony was divided up into regions for the missionaries to share the work so that ‘Mr Palmer had been labouring in the South, Mr Fincham in the West, and Mr Druce in the North’,[39] with each missionary journey taking around 4½months to complete. In the two intervals of six weeks between these journeys, the missionaries had some resting time with their families, did deputation work in Sydney and the suburbs, and in places where financial support was given to the Society, and prepared by selecting books, tracts and so on for their next journey.[40]

Bush Missionary Visit (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)

While there were country-based Christian ministers who travelled great distances to minister to their flock, the BMS said there were still large tracts of county quite beyond their reach, where the gospel was never preached. People living in such parts were, the BMS believed, left without anything to put them in mind of eternal things, and their children were growing up ignorant of the simplest truths of religion. It was to these areas that the BMS sought to send its missionaries.[41]

The Missionaries

Initially, all the workers for the BMS were voluntary. In 1860, a decision was taken to employ a missionary, but the appointment was only for 6 months so as to not run the risk of the BMS going into debt. The first appointment was William J Slater who had been connected with the society from very early in its life; he was probably part of the Bathurst Street Band of Hope[42] which met in the Baptist Sunday school hall. The committee,

knowing him to be an earnest and humble follower of Christ, could therefore confidently invite him to become their agent in so great and glorious a cause – the preaching of the Gospel of Christ, the good news of salvation, to the white heathen in the bush.[43] 

The life of the Bush Missionary was tough; he was absent from family for around nine months of the year, was constantly travelling and the remuneration was not large. It is little wonder then that there was a considerable turnover in missionary personnel. The periods of service for those employed between 1860 and 1914 is shown in this table below:

Those who have served with the BMS up to World War 1[44]

Of the 30 men employed in the period 1860 to 1915, some 8 missionaries only gave 1 year or less of service. The reasons for this were no doubt chiefly the challenging conditions of the work but while there was a significant turnover in the missionaries, vacant positions were usually quickly filled.  Twelve served between 2 and 4 years and there were 5 men who served for more than 10 years with the longest serving 19 years during this period. Those who left often went into other forms of Christian ministry.

The number of missionaries employed by the BMS in any particular year varied over the period 1864 to 1915 and depended, in part, on the ability of the BMS to fund the position. Thus, the BMS in its provision of missionaries was dependant on the economic cycle, at least after its ministry became well known. When times were prosperous multiple missionaries were employed while in difficult times the number was reduced; from 1864 onwards, however, at least one missionary was employed at all times.

In response to the mining boom of the 1870s, the society sought to capitalise on the situation. It ran notices advertising their ministry and its extent, and sought to reach into mining districts asking those who had benefited from these mineral discoveries to assist in their work.[45] In 1874/5, the BMS was looking to expand the number of missionaries which they employed to four.[46] So it was that from 1871 to 1888, which was a time of strong support, between three and four missionaries were able to be maintained and in 1882 the number even rose to five. With the onset of difficult financial times in NSW in the 1890s, the BMS struggled to keep two missionaries in the field and with increasing deficits and a significant overdraft, the staffing was reduced to one from 1898 to 1910. A bequest of £500 in 1897 from J T Neale, followed by a larger bequest of £1000 in 1911 from Mrs J T Neale,[47] enabled the deficit to be wiped and the employment of three missionaries to take place from 1911 to 1915.[48]

By 1912, the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) and the Bush Missionary Society were seeking to cooperate and coordinate the work of the colporteurs so that the three BFBS workers and the three BMS workers could avoid duplicating their efforts by ministering in the same areas; it was decided that for the next three years the six agents would work in clearly defined districts.[49]

Up to the late 1850s, the more remote areas of NSW known as ‘the Bush’, was a neglected field of mission for the Christian church. A Bible Society colporteur began the work in this field, but soon after the BMS took up the cause with great enthusiasm and dedication. Their horse-and-cart-equipped missionaries were able to bring to ‘the Bush’ not only Bibles and religious literature, but the gospel to the unconverted and the ministry of encouragement to Christians who lived in the remote areas of NSW.

Dr Paul F Cooper

Research Fellow Christ College, Sydney

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. Bush Missionary Society – the early years up to World War 1 Available at–the-early-years-up-to-world-war-1

[1] The Golden Age (Queanbeyan, NSW), 14 November 1861, 2.

[2] The Golden Age (Queanbeyan, NSW), 14 November 1861, 2.

[3] Michael Gladwin, ‘Thus he sallies forth’: British and Foreign Bible Colporteurs in Nineteenth-century Australia’ Lucas 2.16 December 2020, 14.

[4] For clarity BMS will be used anachronistically for this organisation.

[5] Empire (Sydney, NSW), 5 September 1866, 8.

[6] SMH, Saturday 21 September 1935, 11.

[7] Empire (Sydney, NSW), 10 August 1859, 4; The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW), 21 January 1904, 7.

[8] SMH, 19 August 1861, 1.

[9] SMH, 20 August 1862, 5.

[10] The Kiama Independent, and Shoalhaven Advertiser (NSW), 9 January 1868, 2.

[11] Evening News (Sydney, NSW), 13 January 1870, 3.

[12] The Australian Band of Hope Review and Children’s Friend (Sydney, NSW), 13 September 1856, 13.

[13] SMH, 15 June 1855, 5.

[14] Where their denominational affiliation can be traced they are associated with the Baptist Church. TS Moore was an orphan having lost his mother and father and three siblings on or shortly after sailing to Sydney. A public appeal was made to assist the remaining family and TS Moore was possibly adopted by JM Illidge and he certainly worked for him selling the shoe made by this shoemaker. SMH, 29 December 1849, 1.

[15] Hilary M. Carey, ‘Bushmen and Bush Parsons: The Shaping of A Rural Myth. The 2010 Russel Ward Annual Lecture University of New England, 15 April 2010’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 14, 2011, 22; God’s Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World, c. 1801-1908. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 202; John S Croucher, A Concise History of New South Wales (Warriewood, NSW: Woodslane Press, 2020), 290.

[16] SMH, 12 June 1855, 5.                                                                                                                   

[17] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW), 20 January 1877, 72.

[18] The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), 26 July 1892, 2.

[19]  The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW), 10 December 1859, 3; SMH, 13 December 1859, 5.

[20] The statement by Arthur Hunt that the BMS “had its origin twenty-three years ago in a meeting of the elder scholars of the Pitt-street Congregational and Bathurst-street Baptist schools’ is mistaken. Pitt-Street had its own Juvenile Missionary Society. SMH, 15 August 1879, 5.

[21] Empire (Sydney, NSW), August 1861, 4.

[22] SMH, 21 September 1935, 11.

[23] Empire (Sydney, NSW), 26 May 1858, 4.

[24] Empire (Sydney, NSW), 26 May 1858, 4.

[25] The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW), 16 January 1907, 7; SMH, 12 July 1862, 1; 25 May 1867, 5.

[26] Empire (Sydney, NSW), 6 November 1872, 2; SMH, 21 September 1935, 11.

[27] Empire (Sydney, NSW), 10 August 1859, 4.

[28] SMH, 15 August 1860, 5.

[29] Empire (Sydney), 10 August 1859, 4.

[30]  The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser (NSW), 26 August 1862, 4; Evening News (Sydney, NSW), 13 January 1870, 3; SMH, 9 April 1864, 4.

[31] The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW), 21 January 1904, 7.

[32] The Newcastle Chronicle (NSW), 18 April 1871, 2.

[33] The Sydney Daily Telegraph (NSW), 15 November 1879, 6.

[34] The Sydney Daily Telegraph (NSW), 15 November 1879, 6.

[35] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW), 12 August 1876, 193.

[36] SMH, 10 April 1861, 5.

[37] SMH, 9 August 1864, 5.

[38] SMH, 28 January 1886, 7. Excerpt from 1885 Annual Report of THE NEW SOUTH WALES BUSH MISSIONARY SOCIETY.

[39] The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW), 27 January 1872, 107.

[40] The Kiama Independent, and Shoalhaven Advertiser (NSW), 16 January 1885, 2.

[41] SMH, 28 January 1886, 7 Excerpt from 1885 Annual Report of THE NEW SOUTH WALES BUSH MISSIONARY SOCIETY.

[42] Australian Band of Hope Journal (Sydney, NSW), 25 April 1857, 144.

[43] Empire (Sydney), 28 August 1861, 4. The exact identity is not certain but it is probably William James John Slater (1838- ) a tinsmith. 

[44] The span of their service is expressed in years though they may not have served for the complete year indicated as exact dates of appointment and resignation are largely unknown.

[45] SMH, 18 May 1872, 1.

[46] SMH, 4 December 1874, 5.

[47] Evening News (Sydney, NSW), 25 October 1897, 5.

[48] Evening News (Sydney, NSW), 24 March 1911, 7.

[49] SMH (NSW), 20 January 1912, 6.

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