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Professor John Smith (1821-1885): Theosophical Dabbler or Devotee?

John Smith (1821-1885), foundation professor of chemistry and experimental physics at the University of Sydney, was born on 12 December, 1821, at Peterculter, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the son of Roderick Smith, blacksmith, and his wife Margaret, née Shier. From 1839 he studied at the Marischal College, Aberdeen (M.A., 1843; M.D., 1844). Smith arrived in Sydney on 8 September, 1852, on the Australian.[1]

Professor John Smith

There is a good deal of information available on Smith, but little work has been done on his philanthropic and religious views. An article from Sydney University, which understandably concentrates on his scientific work, briefly mentions his philanthropic interests but omits to make any mention at all of his religious commitments which were also an important feature of his life.[2]

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says of his religious views that ‘In the 1860s Smith served on the committees of several religious organizations’, by which is meant Christian organisations, and that

In January 1882 he had called at Bombay and joined the Indian section of the Theosophical Society, having been influenced by his wife’s spiritualism and the lectures of the theosophist Emma Hardinge Britten in Australia in 1878-79. In Europe in 1882-83 he experimented with the occult.[3]

This article’s religious emphasis falls on the last five years of Smith’s 63-year life and has little to say about his religious commitments during the previous 58 years. This is reflective of Jill Roe’s work which is mainly concerned with Smith’s interest in Theosophy[4] and, while not said overtly, she seems to want to paint Smith as a theological progressive moving from the strictures of a doctrinal Presbyterianism to Theosophy.  For Roe, Smith’s encounter with Theosophy was about ‘religious progress’ and the ‘maintenance of true religion’.

The usual paradigm for recruits to spiritualism was one of a theological ‘progress’ which moved from a nineteenth-century disillusionment with the revelation-based approach of Christianity to the intuitive approach to religious knowledge of theosophy. The disillusionment with revelation was rooted in an uncertainty about the Bible, fed by the rise of biblical criticism, the theory of evolution and an increased moral sensitivity repulsed by various biblical events. The problem with this hinted assessment of Smith is that while there is clear evidence of his interest in theosophy there is no evidence to support a disillusionment in his Christian thought, a point which Roe concedes.[5] Roe equates Smith’s interest in theosophy with a desire for ‘religious progress’, but it could equally be a case of intellectual curiosity. For a Professor of Physics, the role and reputed powers of the masters in theosophy would raise serious questions about the nature of matter and spirit. Perhaps it is from a desire for ‘scientific progress’ rather than ‘religious progress’ that Smith’s chief motivation to understand spiritualism arose. That is not to say that Smith had no interest in what Theosophy might have to say about spiritual matters. Rather, it might be better to see Smith as, to use Malcolm Prentis’ expression, a ‘dabbler’[6] in Theosophy rather than a devotee. This article seeks to examine such a possibility. (more…)

John Nicholson Mailer (1825-1892) Depository for the Religious Tract and Book Society

John Nicholson Mailer (1825-1892)[1] was born in Edinburgh to Andrew Mailer, a stone mason, and Marion Nicholson. His older brothers, Andrew and Robert, were shoemakers and John, at aged 16, was also apprenticed to that trade. John became a bookbinder, however, and married Mary Cochrane in July, 1852 in Edinburgh at St Cuthbert’s.[2] Andrew and Robert emigrated to America; Andrew in 1849 and his brother Robert and his mother Mary sometime before 1851.[3] John and Mary decided to come to Australia and arrived in the colony of New South Wales in November 1854.[4] Their eldest son Andrew (1854-1902)[5] was born in Scotland and the Mailers had four other children in Australia: John Henry (1857-1887),[6] Robert Adam Thomson (1861-1925),[7]  Mary (1862-1937) [8] and Ida Marion (1868-1868).[9]

In Sydney, John found work in his trade as a book binder[10] and became an assistant to James W Waugh in Waugh and Cox’s stationery and bookselling business in 1855.[11] In November 1862, John purchased the business operating at 286 George Street, Sydney, and advertised himself as a stationer and account book manufacturer,[12] telling potential customers that ‘his practical knowledge of the Account Book Manufacture enables him to assure those who may favour him with their patronage that nothing will be supplied but such as are of the best material, workmanship, and latest improvements.’[13] The business did not appear to prosper and by August 1864 all his assets were assigned to Trustees on behalf of his creditors[14] and by November 1865,[15] he had decided to cease trading and by December 1865, all his stock had been sold to pay off the creditors.[16]

In 1866, it had been necessary for the jointly operated bookshop of the British and Foreign Bible Society and Religious Tract and Book Society (RTS) to dismiss their depository and to seek a new appointment.[17] The Society had not been served well by its recent appointments as in 1862 the then depository, Joseph Holloway Morrison, was found guilty of embezzlement of society funds to the amount of about £600.[18] The newly advertised position attracted a salary of £250 with residence at the Bible Hall, Pitt Street, and the successful applicant was also required to post a security of £500. [19]  John Mailer applied and was appointed.[20]

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The Australian Religious Tract Society

The Australian Religious Tract Society (RTS) was inaugurated in Sydney, NSW, on August 13, 1823 at the suggestion of the then Governor of the colony, Sir Thomas Brisbane.[1] It appears that this was not purely a colonial initiative, however, for a few months prior to Brisbane’s suggestion the Religious Tract Society in London (RTSL) had had their attention drawn to the colony of New South Wales and to its spiritual needs. Within 30 days of the formation of the RTS, the Rev Richard Hill received an unsolicited consignment of books from the RTSL in the hope he might extend the operations of the RTSL in the colony. So, within a month of its formation and not the ten months, it would have required to obtain stock from England, the RTS could begin its work.[2] The purpose of the society was the procuring and distribution of religious tracts ‘such as to inculcate evangelic sentiments.’ More expansively, its primary object was

to afford the means of cheap, useful, and pious Reading; that the poorer Classes of the Community, and the young People more especially, who may be able to read, may obtain some of the most instructive and important Lessons of Life at a very small Expense.[3]

Its governing committee consisted of the Reverends Richard Hill (Assistant Chaplain, Anglican), John Dunmore Lang (Presbyterian), Benjamin Carvosso (Wesleyan),[4] William Cowper (Secretary, Anglican) and three laymen James Chandler, Alexander Kenneth Mackenzie (Treasurer)[5] with George Williams[6] as Collector and Depositary.[7] William Cowper was a driving force of the society being its secretary for the first 16 years of its existence only relinquishing the role of secretary in 1839 when his eyesight began to fail.[8]

By 1826, the Society had obtained the support of the Governor as Patron, its funds had increased and some 62,882 tracts had been circulated during the year. The society was the beneficiary of support from ‘home’ through grants from the Tract Societies of London, Bristol and Dublin upon which the RTS had been modelled.[9] Initially, support for the society was strong and numerous ladies attended its annual meeting and this was a sufficiently novel occurrence that their attendance, which ‘enlivened the meeting with their presence’, was especially remarked upon.[10]

Committee reports mentioned numerous responses to the receipt of various tracts by members of the public which indicate what the RTS saw as desirable outcomes from its work:

… in the course of conversation he informed me that he had been a professed Atheist until within a few months, but that the perusal of a tract – the Dairyman’s Daughter, I believe, had been instrumental in awakening him from his own vain dreams. He wished to partake of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and afterwards he did so.[11]

Many instances of good, resulting from the circulation of your tracts, have occurred within the last year or two. Some are now united with Christian churches, who, but for these silent messengers, might have remained dead in sin. One old woman, between eighty and ninety years of age, discovered by a tract distributor, ignorant and indifferent, is now giving evidence of a saving change wrought in her heart by the Spirit of God.[12]

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Samuel Goold (1820-1899) Congregationalist, Bookseller and Temperance Advocate

Samuel Goold

Samuel Goold was born in 1820 in Norton Lindsay, Warwickshire, England, the son of William Goold, variously described as a miller[1] or a grocer,[2] and his wife Elizabeth Canning. Samuel was their fifth son of nine children. Two of his brothers, John and Jabez, also came to the colony of NSW at some stage.[3] In 1847, Samuel married Mary Ann Johnson at the Tottenham Baptist Chapel and his profession was given as ‘Missionary’.[4] Mary Ann was the daughter of Philip Johnson, a shoemaker, and his wife Mary and was born in 1819 at the workhouse of St Botolph, Aldgate, London.[5] At the age of 13 she became a member of the Congregational Church, worshipping in the Poultry Chapel, London, then under the care of the Rev John Clayton Jnr (1780-1865).[6]

Arrival in the colony of New South Wales

Together with Mary Ann’s mother and sister, Samuel arrived in Queensland in January 1849 aboard the Fortitude, Rev Dr John Dunmore Lang’s first chartered immigrant ship. Samuel had been an apprentice and was probably an apprentice draper,[7] but his profession on the shipping lists was given as ‘bricklayer’.[8] It has been suggested that he helped build the Roman Catholic Chapel in Elizabeth Street, Brisbane,[9] but this cannot be possible as the Fortitude arrived in Morton Bay on 21 January 1849, and its passengers were quarantined as there were cases of typhus on board. The first mention of ‘Mr Gould, the builder’ in connection with the Roman Catholic Chapel, is on 31 January 1849 while Samuel Goold was still in quarantine.[10]

The Fortitude (Queensland State Library)

Sydney bound

Samuel and his wife did not remain in Brisbane but travelled to Sydney in September 1849.[11] It is not known if their departure was a result of disillusionment with the unfulfilled promises of Lang concerning the provision of land for the immigrants or whether it was related to the death of their infant son, Samuel, which occurred a few weeks before.[12] In Sydney, however, they wasted no time linking with the (more…)

James Comrie (1816-1902) Literary Philanthropist

In 1902 the Hawkesbury Herald wrote that

No man more truly deserved the name of philanthropist than Mr Comrie … he busied himself during the later years of his life by doing good by stealth. The perfume of good deeds, however, always betrays the doer sooner or later…[1]

James Comrie

Another paper described James Comrie as a ‘literary philanthropist.’[2] What were his activities ‘the perfume of good deeds’ that that led him to be deserving of the designation of ‘philanthropist’ and that of a ‘literary philanthropist’ in particular?[3] How was he able to be a philanthropist of note and “Who was James Comrie?” for he is, to-day, a largely unknown figure.

James Comrie was a Scot, born in Edinburgh 1 May 1816 and he died at Kurrajong Heights at Northfield on 2 November 1902.[4] He was the youngest of eleven children born to Peter and Helen Comrie[5]. James’ father died when he was two years old and he was raised by his pious Presbyterian mother. Though his mother was a ‘strict Presbyterian she had a catholic spirit, and took her children sometimes to hear Dr Thomas McCrie, Christopher Anderson,[6] and Wesleyan ministers’.[7] James himself was to emulate this religious catholicity, interacting and enjoying the company of Christians of all persuasions. His schooling must also have added to his non-sectarian outlook for he attended a Quaker school.

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Thomas Parker Reeve (1824-1913) Methodist, financial, governance and spiritual philanthropist

Thomas Parker Reeve was born on May 6, 1824 at Deptford in Kent, England, to Isaac Reeve, a mathematics and classical scholar and teacher[1] and his wife Elizabeth Parker. While living in Norwich, Thomas attended the St Mary’s Baptist Chapel where, aged 17, he was received into membership on December 1, 1841. He later recalled that:

in my youth while attending the ministry of the Rev W Brock of Norwich, my mind gradually opened to a sense of danger as a sinner, and of my need of a personal interest in the Great Atonement of Christ, but it was not till sometime after that I could realise a sense of God’s pardoning love.[2]

Thomas married Lydia Pepperday (1825-1898), a Methodist, in 1848 at St Ives in Huntingdonshire, England. Having travelled in steerage aboard the Calphurnia, they arrived in the colony of NSW on September 17, 1853,[3] with their two sons John (1849-1911) and George (1851-1951). Further children were born to them in the colony: Emma (1853-1863), Annie (1855-1943), Thomas (1857-1938), Lydia (1860-1946), Frederick (1861-1940), and Ada (1864-1867). The marriage was a happy one and on their 24th anniversary Thomas wrote ‘I think I can say we love each other more as we grow older and we are an [sic] happy yea, happier in all senses and I trust far nearer to God than we were years ago. I thank God for a good and affectionate wife’.[4]

 

Thomas Parker Reeve

Thomas Parker Reeve

Business

Thomas was a teacher like his father, but in November 1853[5] he set himself up in George Street, Sydney,[6] as an importer and ironmonger. He sold goods ranging from shoes, galvanic pocket generators (which purported to remove pain) to a wide range of ironmongery which included saucepans, boilers, knives and forks. It was said he remained there until ‘aided by his good wife, he amassed a modest competency, and then retired to Stanmore to enjoy the fruit of his honest toil.’[7] It would seem that he moved to Cavendish Street, Petersham (later Stanmore), around June 1873,[8] but continued working for some time probably retiring from active involvement in the business around 1880. By 1888, his son Thomas Henry had assumed control of the business as an ironmonger and organ importer.[9]advet smh nov 21853

Sunday Schools

On arrival in the colony, the Reeves immediately associated themselves with the Wesleyan (Methodist) Church and its activities.[10]  Thomas began his long association with the colonial
Christian education of children by becoming first Secretary and then Superintendent of the Hay Street Sunday school.[11] By 1855,[12] he had become General Secretary of the Wesleyan Sunday Schools of the South Sydney Circuit which embraced Chippendale, Hay Street, Glebe and Mt Lachlan.[13] This was a position he held until 1873[14] and in this capacity he visited local Sunday schools and sought to improve the communication skills of the teachers. With his move to Petersham (Stanmore), he opened a Sunday School class in a cottage at Stanmore saying ‘I hope and pray that this may be the nucleus of a large and prosperous Sabbath School’[15] and he became Superintendent of the Stanmore Wesleyan Church Sunday School from 1875 until 1879.[16] Something of his interest and zeal for the work is seen in a meeting he organised for the Rev William Taylor to address a group of Sunday School teachers. He did this because he was concerned that ‘the spiritual success in the way of conversions was not commensurate with the labour and zeal thrown into Sunday School teaching’.[17] His interest in Sunday (more…)

John Kent (1843-1916)

John Kent (1843-1916), Accountant and YMCA supporter

John Kent

John Kent

 John Kent was born in 1843 in Hinton Waldrist, Berkshire, England, the son of John Kent, a farmer with some 435 acres and employing 15 labourers, and Jane Gee. John was the fourth child and the eldest son among seven children. Around 1860, John left the farm and at 17 was placed under a private commercial tutor for special training in accountancy and commerce, possibly in connection with the drapery business.[1] After gaining experience in a solicitor’s office that specialised in bankruptcy, further work in private banking and then in a sales department of a warehouse in London, he decided on a commercial career in Australia.[2]

Kent arrived in Sydney in 1863[3] and obtained a position with the drapers and silk merchants Francis Giles and Co and by September 1864, the company had been placed in the hands of administrators as its debts were twice its assets.[4] This experience provided John with a personal understanding of company insolvency, and this proved very useful for his later business career which involved overseeing and administering such insolvencies. His employer’s business was bought by John Thompson and continued to trade under the name of Francis Giles and Co with Giles as manager.[5] It is possible that Kent retained his job despite the difficulties, but may have left after a fire destroyed the business in 1867.[6] Kent’s obituary says cryptically that after his time at Francis Giles and Co he spent some time in the country and then, after three years, ‘resumed his business career’.[7] It is probable that he spent some time, at least up to 1869, as an ‘Episcopalian catechist’ in the Kurrajong/North Richmond area.[8] During his time there he was involved in public controversy over the abandonment of denominational schools and the commencement of public ones. Kent was concerned that the public education system would not allow the scriptures to be taught within it, a concern he maintained throughout his life. On his return to Sydney he began work for W Gardiner and Co who ran a soft goods warehouse, a similar line of business to his former employers.[9]

In 1871, John married Helen Clayton (nee Felton) (1828-1902), a widow with two daughters Elizabeth (1856-1916) and Catherine (1857-1913), and John and Helen had one son, Walter John (1872-1873), who died at eight months and three weeks.[10] Initially living in Francis Street, Sydney (1871-1879), they began to move with the increasing success of John’s business. They moved first to Marlborough Street, Leichhardt (1880-1883), then to Marion Street, Leichhardt (1884-1897), followed by O’Hara Street, Marrickville (1898-1904) then, after Helen’s death, John moved to  Union Street, North Sydney (1905-1910) followed by a final move to Cleveland Street, Wahroonga (1911-1916).[11] At least from 1888, Kent also owned a country residence, farm and orchard of some 445 acres at Barber’s Creek, later known as Tallong.[12] Here he planted apples with a view to exporting them to England[13] which he did from 1892,[14] for he correctly foresaw that England could become a major market for the export of Australian fruit.[15]

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