Appointed as a military chaplain, rather than a church missionary, Johnson was, in the eyes of the convicts, part of the ruling establishment. And because of his evangelical persuasion meaning he was not a traditional Anglican Church man, he was socially despised by the military.
Neither Governor Phillip nor his successor Lieutenant-Governor Grose provided any funds or labour for an official church. So at his own expense (later reimbursed), Johnson set about the construction of a church without approval of Grose. This did little to help his strained relationship with Grose who said Johnson was “one of the people called Methodists, [and] a very troublesome, discontented character.” Johnson’s focus on personal salvation was seen as detrimental to good order and discipline.
Grose actively discouraged people from attending Johnson’s services and sometimes marched his soldiers out in the middle of a service. Soldiers and convicts were openly encouraged to treat him with contempt and at times stones and insults were flung at him when he walked down the street. Johnson’s health deteriorated and he returned to England with his wife and two young children in 1800.
Despite his faithfulness in performing his ministerial duties, along with a huge workload, Johnson faced apathy, resentment and competing expectations. Although an evangelical by conviction he was severely constrained and compromised as a military chaplain. It was a no-win situation. On the one hand he was beholden to the governors though unsupported and despised. On the other he was despised by the convicts because he was in league with the governors.
The act of arson that destroyed his church building, which will bring a smile to many an Australian, gives insight to the difficult environment in which Johnson operated. It is also an example of a particularly Australian attitude of disdain for the church and Christianity.
Sadly, the church arrived in Australia carried in the arms of government rather than in the hearts of the people. It came enmeshed with enforcement of the law rather than an invitation of grace. It came as an imposition from on high rather than a gift rising up out of people’s lives. And Australians have lived with a distorted view of God and his authority ever since.
While Australians are right to reject this distorted view of God sadly when they do so they reject God altogether.
This is perhaps the greatest challenge we, the Australian church, face . . . that is to find a way to demonstrate and explain what God is truly like. Let’s pray that God grants us the insight, wisdom and grace to do just that.
Stephen L Baxter