On the 225th Anniversary of Australia’s first Church service

Read On the 225th Anniversary of Australia’s first Church service

A sermon preached at St Philips York Street, February 3rd, 2013, on the 225th Anniversary of the first sermon preached in the Colony of NSW by the Rev Richard Johnson.



What reward shall I give unto the Lord : for all the benefits that he hath done unto me?

I will receive the cup of salvation : and call upon the Name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows now in the presence of all his people... (Psalm 116: 11-13)


Today we have little concept of the difficulties and dangers through which the First Fleet passed in order to deliver its cargo to these shores. Its arrival here was a masterpiece of organisation, skill and courage. Given the ubiquity of modern communications, we can scarcely imagine what it was like to travel so far with little chance of report or cry for help. We forget how rarely European ships had passed this way and how uncharted the sea was. We can scarcely conceive how frail their ships were, how powerful the forces of nature that imperilled them, how lacking in the technical instruments by which the path may be found and the course traversed in safety. I think we may say that in truth the voyage of the First Fleet was one of the greatest feats of seamanship in recorded history. 

Historian of the First Fleet, Professor David Frost, says,  ‘This was an extraordinary accomplishment; and it was made possible by the care with which the voyage was planned, the skill of the people who conducted it, and the foods that the colonists were given’. (Alan Frost in The First Fleet, 2011, 176).

He quotes a participant,  Deputy Judge Advocate, David Collins:  ‘Thus, under the blessing of God, was happily completed, in eight months and one week, a voyage which, before it was undertaken, the mind hardly ventured to dare contemplate, and on which it was impossible to reflect without some apprehensions as to its termination... In the above space of time we had sailed 5021 leagues; had touched at the American and African Continents; and had at last rested within a few days sail of the antipodes of our native country, without meeting any accident, with a fleet of eleven sail, nine of which were merchant men that had never before sailed in that distant and imperfectly explored ocean: and when it is considered, that there was on board a large body of convicts, many of whom were embarked in a very sickly state, we might be deemed peculiarly fortunate, that of the whole number of all descriptions of persons coming to from the new settlement, only thirty-two had died since their leaving England, among whom were to be included one or two deaths by accidents; although previous to our departure it was generally conjectured, that before we should have been a month at sea one of the transports would have been converted into a hospital ship.’ (Ibid., 176).

Collins specifically mentions the blessing of God on the enterprise. Captain Watkin Tench makes the same point:  ‘Thus, after a passage of exactly thirty-six weeks from Portsmouth, we happily effected our arduous undertaking, with such a train of unexampled blessings as hardly ever attended a fleet in a like predicament.’

It is hardly surprising, then, that Johnson should choose to preach on ‘all the benefits of the Lord’. Like Tench and Collins, Johnson was acutely aware that their arrival in New South Wales was well and truly an experience of the good hand of God. He wanted to acknowledge this and to ensure that his congregation was conscious of it as well. They owed their lives to the Lord.

There are many biblical texts he could have chosen to give this message, some more obvious than the one he preached on. Why did he choose Psalm 116?

We do not know. No record of the content of the sermon has been left by either preacher or hearer. But we do have the Psalm and we do have some knowledge of Richard Johnson. On the basis of these two pieces of evidence, let me make these three observations:

First, please notice that the Psalm as a whole is intensely, even unusually, personal. ‘I love the Lord’, it begins, ‘because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy’. The religion of the Bible is corporate – it is about the people of God, the church of God. But, before it is corporate, it is personal. It is to do with the soul’s experience of and engagement with the living God; it is to do with the individual; it calls on us to take personal responsibility for our relationship with God, for our faith and repentance.

The Psalm goes on to describe a personal experience of the psalmist which was virtually deadly and from which he Lord mercifully delivered him: ‘you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling...’ Now Johnson’s choice here is odd. The great voyage was a corporate affair. They sailed together. Surely he should call on his whole congregation to give thanks together. But his text is personal: ‘what shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?’

It is as if he stands before them all, under the great tree which we are told was the location of the service, and sees them all individually, each one, and speaks to them personally about themselves, not so much as a body of people who had gone through great trials together.

If there is any truth in this observation, it fits Johnson’s ideas and practice of ministry. The gospel he preached was a gospel of salvation for all. But the entrance into salvation was personal and individual. Others cannot believe for you. Faith is not – cannot be – second hand.  Only you can repent from your own sins; only you can put our trust in Jesus Christ for your salvation. Only you can be converted; only you can be born again.

There is some evidence that the appointment of the chaplain to the Colony was with a view to the moral reclamation of the convicts. Johnson certainly preached against specific sins and sought reformation. But at the heart of his ministry was not moral reformation, but the redemption of the lost. If reformation were to take place it would only be through the experience of heart touched by and for God, a transforming personal experience which would lead the sinner to say, ‘I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy.’

Overall, in Johnson’s judgement he made little progress. But it is recorded that on that first occasion at least, the behaviour of the troops and convicts was ‘equally regular and attentive’ (Tench). Perhaps, on that occasion at least, hearts were open to receive the message of the gospel and people were moved personally. Certainly if Johnson were present today, he would not let this moment pass without addressing all of us, earnestly, personally, passionately, with the questions, ‘have your responded to Jesus Christ? Do you belong to him not merely outwardly but inwardly from the heart? Can you say, ‘I love you Lord, because you have heard my voice and my pleas for mercy’?

Second, please notice the surprising answer of the Psalmist. to the question, ‘What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?’

It is completely natural to see religion as a transaction between us and God. It is his business to be God to us, to benefit us; it is our business to be good for him. many people never see the folly of a head-prefect approach to God. If I am a sufficiently compliant and pleasing person in my journey through school, if I know or mix with or am related to the right people, I will be rewarded by being made a prefect or even head-prefect. The same, we think, applies to life. If I am sufficiently compliant and pleasant and good and even religious, God will think well of me and in the end reward me.

If this were true we would expect the answer of the psalmist to be, ‘I will keep your commandments, I will be a religious person’. Of course such an answer damns other people. On the whole Johnson was not preaching to the self-satisfied; he was preaching to the desperate and the outcast and to those with nothing. If religion is merely a moral code, the outward shell of wowserism, they really did have nothing at all to offer God and he had nothing to offer them. 

But look at what the psalmist says: ‘I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord’. He is not looking for reward; he is looking for mercy. He does not have any claim on God; he will never be virtuous enough for that; rather, his true and only response to God is to receive the freely offered gift of God, the mercy which God gives even to those who do not deserve it, ‘I will drink the cup of salvation’.

Listen to Richard Johnson’s last words, as recorded in his will made a few months before his death in 1826. There is no hint here that he is one of God’s prefects, that he should be rewarded for being a clergyman, or for travelling around the world at the peril of his life to plant the gospel and to reform convicts. Rather, here is the testimony of one who like his mentor, John Newton, was prepared only to say, ‘I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savour’: ‘in the first place I desire solemnly and devoutly to commit my precious and immortal soul into the hands of a merciful and covenant (promise) Keeping God, humbly trusting in the atonement made by his dear and only-begotten Son the Lord Jesus Christ, God and man for the forgiveness of all my sins and as my sole hope, right and title to Eternal life in the kingdom of heaven...’ (given in N.K.Macintosh, Richard Johnson, Sydney, 1978,110)

Without a doubt, that is what Johnson passionately wanted his hearers to understand, and he would say the same to us. Whether we fall into the class of the morally good or the morally desperate as the world counts these things, the way of salvation is the same. It is not by trusting in ourselves, but nor is it by damning ourselves: it is by drinking the cup of salvation provided for us by God, it is by calling on the name of the Lord in desperate humility, that forgiveness comes to us through Jesus Christ and his death for us on the cross. There is no hierarchy or status or superiority or inferiority when we kneel at the foot of the cross. We are all the same.

The third thing to observe is the transforming power of this gospel. The Psalmist has received the mercy of God and called on the name of the Lord. he has entered into a transforming friendship with the living God and with the people of God: ‘I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people’. The fulfilment of his vows is not an attempt to gain the mercy of God; that he has already obtained; it flows from his experience of the mercy of God. This is what he also calls the ‘sacrifice of thanksgiving’ the abundant joy in the personal relationship with God which transforms lives and brings them into glad obedience to the will of God.

Merely calling upon people to turn over a new leaf and be moral is a fruitless exercise; education programs about how to behave achieve little more; our moral lives spring from a renewed heart, from a walk with the living God, from being with his people and listening to his word. It is friendship with the God of all mercy which is transformational, not constant nagging to be good.

This is the witness which Richard Johnson bore, with little outward success. And yet we do not know how many private conversations he had with the dying and the condemned in which the grace of God burst forth into a weary and sad soul. What we do know is this. That along with other competing aims for the colony, other competing views of human nature, other competing views of penology, other competing views of salvation - the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ, that only the amazing grace of God can save us and that when we call on the name of the Lord out of our despair, he is merciful to us - has been faithfully taught and believed from the very beginning.

More than that. We can see at all sorts of points in our history that this gospel has achieved personal and social transformation. For agents of this message can always be found ministering to the captives, which is where our nation began. And some of the famous names and greatest works for good done in our community have been done in the name of Jesus Christ. The Christianity preached by Richard Johnson and the unbroken line of his successors to this very day was personal but it was not private. By its very nature it was public. It turned him and it must turn all who embrace it into men and women who care for the public good, who care so much for their society, for their nation for their world that they will sacrifice themselves for the good. Personal Christianity is powerful Christianity.

Which leads me to say this to you as solemnly as I can. Much as I love living in the new Australia which has sprung up since the 1970s, so too am I worried by it. Along with much that is good, there seems to be a persistent denigration and ridicule of the things of God, the Bible and the churches. There seems to be an extraordinary and growing ignorance of what God has revealed to us. There seems to be a deliberate embrace of patterns of life which are damaging to human well-being and sometimes even degrading. There seems to be a love of individual rights which swamps love of neighbour. The standards of public life  reflect a selfishness in private life which is against the community of love and care which is God’s will for us.

From the very first Sunday in the new colony, God witnessed to himself. Modern Australia was founded with the evangelical gospel watering its soil. To turn away from this now is to deny a fundamental element of our heritage and to close our hearts to the God who saves us by his mercy and transforms us by that same mercy. But when God challenges us about this, remember this: it is in the end the individual he speaks to. It is not even we, it is you, personally who needs to say, ‘What shall render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will drink the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord...I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy...I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.’ Do you love the Lord? Will you love the Lord?

Peter F. Jensen


(Photo: John Cowper)



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