Once a swagman, Williams rose to become a millionaire on the back of his unique Australian style of bushwear.
Born in 1908, Reginald Murray Williams was given a state funeral in Queensland in 2003. Premier Peter Beattie, said at the time, “When you pull on a pair of R. M. Williams boots everyone knows you walk taller. It’s not just the size of the heel, it’s the spirit of the man who made them in the first place.”
The spirit of this man was recognisably Australian. It could be argued they don’t come more Australian than R. M. Williams.
He was one of the few white men who could not only survive, but actually thrive, in the outback. Missionaries often invited him to help in their work amongst some of the most isolated of Aboriginal tribes.
His private life did not always run smoothly. Williams suffered physical and material deprivation during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He also endured the pain of spiritual depression that seems to have never left him.
He knew the words of Jesus
Being an Australian obsessed the imagination of Williams, but so too did Jesus. In his autobiography, Williams reveals a man deeply concerned over religious issues. He knew his Bible, and he knew the words of Jesus.
He wrote, “Although I can never claim to have standing with either rich or poor, still I believe that the Man who flogged the money-changers from the temple still calls all men to the heights of moral courage and spiritual peace. I should like to feel that there lies my allegiance.”
Williams was also a capitalist and doubted if Jesus approved. After making his fortune, he wrote: “When I had done this, my conscience bothered me. ‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ ‘How hard it is for them that trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God.’”
Such deep exploration of spiritual and biblical themes may seem striking, yet the statistics suggest there are many Australians who feel as deeply as Williams. They may not connect with the church, but they find a connection in Jesus.
It seems the practices and symbols of our churches no longer connect with Australians. I suggest it is because they developed in cultures and contexts far removed from the Australian landscape and psyche. While they once had meaning for those who immigrated from Europe, they no longer have meaning for many of today’s Australians.
Australian expressions of faith
Maybe this explains why MacKay says a revival won’t happen. Maybe it is because the Australian church has yet to find expressions of faith that connect with the reality of Australian life and culture.
At the end of his autobiography, Williams asks:
“… if the Man Jesus were to step inside my door or come knocking, would I know Him? … Would I welcome Him? I might. What would He say to me, looking through my façade of respectability into my soul? … I am torn by the tragedy of it all. How do I follow Him? How would I know God if I saw Him? I shall look for Him among the uncouth, the sorrowful, the have-nots. Maybe He will be there. And will He know me?”
Australians may have given up on the church, but like Williams they have not given up on Jesus. I wonder, if the church was more attentive to the spiritual search of people like R.M. Williams, and listen to their questions, maybe we could help them connect with Jesus. I’m sure they would be thankful.
Stephen L Baxter