Saturday, August 1, 2009

Richard Johnson

Well here I go again - passing on all my fun knowledge about the folks that lived long ago... today's installment is all about Richard Johnson, subject: Christian History 2-B. I am doing a video presentation thing for this one, but I'm just writing in some of my conclusions about the man in this blog...

Richard Johnson, chaplain to the first fleet.
Gentle, self effacing Yorkshireman
British clergyman in the hot dry landscape of Australia
Successful farmer
Faithful pastor
Sound evangelical theologian
A man of his times.

I’ve done a lot of reading about this fellow in the last little while, and I’ve discovered something of a disparity in the way different people view Johnson. Christian historians tend to depict him as a faithful servant of the gospel, faced with many difficulties in his post – not least being resistance, and indeed even persecution, from the governing authorities. Certainly not a charismatic man, but one devoted to the spread of the gospel.

Secular historians virtually ignore Johnson, and when they do talk about him they cast him as a whinging, quarrelsome churchman.

So what can I learn from Johnson’s life? My underlying feeling is that Johnson’s culture suffered as much from the ‘grace’ obsession as ours does. The underlying anxiety most Christian men and women seem to experience is directly related to the question, “but are they saved?” They don’t seem to realise that most of those who operate outside of Christian culture are more concerned with ‘What is God like?’ if they are interested at all.

Johnson operated in a post Enlightment milieu, and his faith-assumptions seem to have been taken by surprise by the fact that the men he travelled to Sydney Cove with did not hold the Truth of Christian theology to be self evident. It sounds quite a familiar quandary.

But isn’t it a little strange that today’s church should be labouring under similar misapprehensions? It has been two hundred years. My feeling is that the church has done a bit of a ‘head in the sand’ trick in terms of creating its own culture. It’s amazing how assumptions can stick with us in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. And the facts are these: the truth of the gospel (as a whole) is deemed largely irrelevant by the majority of those who live in and shape our post-Christian society. The church needs to find a way to respond. As Newbigin wrote in 1983, “the expectations of the eighteenth century have not been realised. The heavenly city has not arrived. And we no longer expect it. Science has won victories beyond the dreams of the eighteenth century, but the world which results does not appear to us to be a more rational world than that of previous centuries.” (Newbigin 1983, p.17). .

How did Johnson respond? Well, he hoped for the best from those he worked with and under, persevering in his work as pastor to the colony. And when he started to feel the pinch of persecution he wrote whiny letters of complaint to the powers that be back home in England, as well as his family and friends. His attempts to drum up support for his cause, to try and lessen the burdens he had to bear by complaining loudly about the injustices and hardships he encountered have left a lasting impression of his legacy. It is these moments that are remembered and focused on by secular historians. They weaken the influence of the good he did considerably.

And that is a sobering thought for me. I can think of many times in my life where I found the burden of the difficulties (and perceived persecution) that I faced unbearable. Thrashing around for a way out I have spoken unwisely. Attempting to defend myself and make my life more bearable I have complained loudly. Reflecting on my experience of First Year at Canowindra my face starts to feel hot as I realise that, like Johnson, I too complained loudly, searching for a way out. Standing in front of the vines at Pinnaroo, the words of this song played in my mind around and around until they eventually sunk in:

So then submit yourselves unto God, resist the devil he will run from you, draw near to God, He’ll draw near to you, wash your hands you sinners, purify your hearts you hypocrites, be sorrowful, cry and weep, change your laughter into crying and your joy into gloom…
Humble yourselves before the lord and he will lift you up
Humble yourselves before the lord and he will lift you up

As long as I restlessly searched for ways to make my life more comfortable, I prevented God from being the one to lift me up. It felt freeing to let go of responsibility for my own happiness, and trust God for the solution(s).

Johnson’s story reinforces this for me. Indeed in one of his letters to Johnson, John Newton himself laments the younger man’s tendency toward loud complaining, urging him to suffer gladly for the sake of the gospel. Of course there is a place for complaint and making a noise about injustice, and the Rum Corps did need to be protested and stopped. But the lesson of humility is what resonates most for me in this study of Johnson’s life.

Well today I am visiting the museum of Blessed Mary Mackillop to do some study on her life. Its my first ever pilgrimage. Who would have thought I would come to team and go on pilgrimage?!?


  1. 'The heavenly city has not arrived. And we no longer expect it'
    ah, so sad.. like that bit you showed me about how our culture has ceased to hope.
    thanks for sharing your realisations/story shared here as well..
    I've been enjoying hearing you really engage with these people you're studying - not just spitting out info, but reflecting on it.