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Grey care: perspectives on ageing

By Rod Benson

This article presents biblical, psychospiritual and pastoral perspectives on ageing and older people.  It demonstrates the magnitude of the cultural shift from biblical culture to our own, summarises key gerontological theories, and examines problems and issues relating to older people in the context of pastoral care within the setting of a Christian faith community.


When I first watched Titanic, I was most impressed by the unforgettable teenage Rose (played by Kate Winslet) who also appears as the 101-year-old Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Gloria Stuart, an actress whose credits reach back to the early days of ‘talkies’).  The older Rose, reminiscing about her experiences as a young single woman who fled wretchedness and found romance aboard the ill-fated liner, appears wise, in control and deeply satisfied with her life.

Screen images of older people are generally not so positive.  From the ambiguous portrayal of the main characters in Cocoon to the witty pathos of Ruth Cracknell in Mother and Son, media representations of older persons tend toward sentimentality or caricature.  Their time is up; they have had their day; the young now rule.  And this is never more apparent than in advertising – unless you’re selling pensioners’ insurance or home security.

Secular trends easily establish currency in the church, especially in urban contexts.  Generational differences lead to misunderstanding.  Lack of meaningful dialogue and shared experiences result in conflict.  There are battles over music styles and quality of lyrics, questions about sermon content and dress standards.  We hear nostalgic ruminations about successful church programs of yesteryear.

Delegates to denominational assemblies (at least among the Baptist churches with which I am familiar) are predominantly pastors and retired persons.  There is growing emphasis among Christian community service agencies on retirement projects – with the notable exception of the Salvation Army.  National statistics point to the ‘greying’ of the church, especially since the so-called baby-boomers began to reach retirement.

The Bible and ageing

Those of us who are ‘younger’ can easily dismiss or marginalise older people.  But they have a great deal to offer, and many older people feel a need to interact and to continue experiencing a full life.  So it is time to bridge the generations and subvert the stereotypes.  Consider this poem by Jean Thompson:

White hair: relegation.
Instant dismissal.  Just one of those oldies.
Past action or thought.

White hair: anonymity.
Faceless old nuisance to put into care.
One more for the file.

But white hair is freedom.
Release from convention.  At last unrestricted.
To act as you please.

Yes, white hair’s a distinction.
It shines in the sunshine like snowfall in winter,
A badge of experience.
One who survives.

Although age-related changes occur throughout the life cycle, ageing may be defined as the process of change after maturity is reached.  Ageing is culturally assumed to onset between about the ages of 55 and 65 years, often coinciding with retirement from fulltime work.  Research generally demonstrates the heterogeneity and unpredictability of the aging process.  Life experiences, attitude and psychospiritual factors all have a bearing on one’s outlook as retirement age passes and the existential ‘autumn’ and ‘winter’ of life set in.

In contrast, Scripture accepts the transitoriness of youth and reflects realism regarding the problems and issues of old age.  Yet it presents ageing people as dignified, venerable and wise.

In Scripture longevity is considered a reward for a virtuous life, and advanced age is a gift from God.  Jewish and Christian communities were led by elders – older men and women possessing a wealth of knowledge and skill built over a lifetime of experience.  Special respect and care were given to aging members of Christian communities, and developing leaders were educated and trained in pastoral care of older persons.

Throughout Scripture, while finitude and other effects of ageing are clearly experienced by elders, the concept of permanent retirement from vocation or profession is unknown.  From a biblical perspective, human life involves development and change rather than stasis; ageing is divinely intentional and part of what it means to be a human person; and the capacity to ‘do’ is not the definitive measure for determining the worth or value of a human person.

To reflect on verses such as Genesis 3:19, Exodus 20:12, Proverbs 3:1-2 and 16:31 is to recognise how far we have drifted culturally from the image of ageing as a sign of wisdom, long life as a symbol of divine blessing, grey hair as glorious, and the unequivocal care of those who can no longer independently care for themselves.

With this awareness, Christians (whether voluntary or paid) are well placed to provide professional yet personal pastoral care to elders, to train lay pastoral carers, and to assist elders in finding the specialised care they require.  Yet pastoral carers require knowledge of gerontological theory and competency about ageing issues, and specific gerontology-related training is often missing from seminary and college curricula – although this is certainly not the case for Morling College where I work.

What it’s like to grow old

Ageing is inescapable in a universe prone to anomie and entropy.  There are various explanations for this.  The genetic theory argues that human cells are designed to expire after a certain number of divisions, perhaps from damage to cellular DNA.  The ‘wear and tear’ theory suggests that cells naturally reduce functionality over time.  The physiological theory postulates that organ systems deteriorate, leading ultimately to death.  Ageing is perhaps best understood as a combination of these theories.

Practical theological and psychospiritual issues arising from this observation.  For example, loss of paid work may lead to loss of a primary source of meaning, identity and mental health because the self is grounded in vocation.  There are also problems for older people who do have paid work.  A Sydney Morning Herald poll published on 28 February 2004 revealed that 97 per cent of respondents believed that employers did not really value older workers.

In addition, gradual limitation of life choices and options usually occurs in later adulthood, where one is forced toward acceptance or rejection of one’s life direction decided in earlier years. Further, elders are sometimes confronted with anxiety associated with the possibility of non-being, or the existential awareness of the certainty of their mortality.

These issues are closely related.  It can be difficult to affirm eternity in the face of frailty and temporality, and to celebrate stability when transitoriness seems pervasive.  It can also be difficult to offer effective, theologically nuanced pastoral care in such circumstances.

Some older persons ask anguished questions about theodicy such as, ‘Why can I not die when it is time to die?  What kind of life is this?”  In his Introduction to Pastoral Care, Charles Gerkin bravely responds by saying that “Any answer is hidden within the mystery of God, a mystery that at times seems to be more cruel than loving … pastoral theological thinking must ask the hardest questions about God and God’s justice.”

A complex process

Various metaphors and systems seek to express or explain the ageing process.  Many pastoral carers unconsciously approach their ministry armed with powerful metaphors drawn from medical disciplines.  This may illuminate issues but can also muddy the waters of effective and wholistic pastoral care.

Carers may benefit from interdisciplinary theory and the introduction of new, integrative metaphors.  For example, it is helpful for elders and their carers to be aware of the dialectical forces that hold negative and positive aspects of aging in creative tension.  It is undoubtedly healthy to maintain the capacity to be ‘in process’ throughout one’s lifetime.

Lifespan theories of human development often emphasise multidimensionality and multidirectionality.  Life may be perceived as a process of mastering a set of loosely connected age-related tasks.  But not all gerontological theorists agree with each other.  For example, some acknowledge the flexibility and paradoxes of later adulthood, casting elders as capable of self-actualisation and of affecting their own continued development.  Others argue that elders naturally withdraw from social roles and become more self-preoccupied, disengaging from earlier roles and limiting personal horizons.

While both of these perspectives are reflected to some degree in actual situations, pastoral carers generally discourage disengagement in favour of outlooks offering realistic substitutes for those no longer possible due to finitude and related issues.

Yet therapeutically effective or economically viable substitutes may be unavailable, and many elders are uninterested in substitutes for dearly loved outlooks, roles and activities.  As one grows older, the level of social integration and quality of relationships rather than the number of activities experienced often increasingly defines wellbeing.

Theoretical insights

Theorists of psychotherapy and counselling have interpreted the changes associated with ageing in various ways.  Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung, for example, divided the lifespan into four quarters.  In the first, childhood, the individual created problems for others but was not yet conscious of their own.  Quarters two and three constituted stages where one dealt with conscious problems of life.  In the final stage the individual again became increasingly a problem to others.

Jung argued that personality development was not fixed by early childhood experiences.  He believed that mid-life presented a fundamental reorientation in personal outlook as changes become necessary to make the most of the opportunities afforded in the later years.  This has a major bearing on the kinds of pastoral care delivered to ageing persons, and the mode of their delivery.

Spiritual factors were, for Jung, necessary influences on human development.  This suggests that spirituality may play a role in delivering meaning and hope to elders and may provide a psychologically healthy view of dying.  Further, as self-centredness diminished with age, energy could be channelled to the deeper spiritual issues of life.

Of greatest significance for gerontology, however, is the work of Eric Erikson, a German-Jewish psychoanalyst who spent much of his life in New England.  In 1950 Erikson described eight ‘stages’ of psychosocial development, each characterised by a core life task whose achievement allowed smooth transition to the next task – a process he called ‘epigenesis.’

After childhood stages came stage six – ‘young adulthood’ (ages 20-40) where the dialectical focus was seen as intimacy versus isolation.   Stage seven, ‘adulthood’ (40-65), represented generativity versus stagnation.  Stage eight, ‘maturity’ (65+), involved a tension between integrity and despair.  For Erikson, realising epigenesis depended largely on successful negotiation of earlier developmental tasks that may not have been successfully completed due to illness, accident or other misfortunes.

In Aging and God, Harold Koenig suggests that spirituality may provide a key to achieving intimacy, generativity and integrity.  A spiritual worldview may integrate one’s perception of meaning, provide continuity between this life and the next, and offer a grid by which errors in one’s past may be forgiven and a new life commenced.  Erikson saw the potential of spirituality (what he called the ‘numinous’) for achieving integration in later adulthood.

Another important perspective is that of Charles Gerkin, who taught pastoral theology at Candler School of Theology.  Rather than adhere strictly to chronological models, Gerkin formulated a loose typology of ageing styles drawn from literature of ageing and from personal experience: ‘continuity’ (where work resembling what one did during earlier adulthood is pursued); ‘radical change of vocation or location’; ‘withdrawal’ (slowing of pace and closing in of boundaries); ‘heroic aging’ (“ability to cope with the exigencies of aging, but [using] that period of the life cycle to overcome lifelong disabilities and [sharing oneself] with others in unusual and creative ways”); and ‘tragic aging’ (the experience of ageing without semblance of dignity or self-respect).

The gerontological revolution

For many older adults, a balance among faith, culture, community and individual wellbeing is only tenuously maintained, and all are contained within a dynamic, interactive process.  The diversity of approaches to our understanding of the ageing process highlights the fact that ageing is a complex and multifaceted process attenuated by paradox, discontinuity and mystery.  Yet it is deeply practical.

In the Western world life expectancy has never been greater.  With notable exceptions, those immediately above the median Australian retirement age and those rapidly approaching it are the most affluent and self-centred elders this nation has witnessed (in contrast to Jung’s much earlier observations).  And there are so many of them!

The trend is expected to rise.  As this ageing population expands and encounters unprecedented levels of physical frailty, cognitive decline and psychospiritual distress, its members will exert increasing pressure and influence on social, economic, political and religious structures.

Government policies and programs will increasingly cater to ‘grey’ voters at the expense of the younger.  Already this has been institutionalised, with state governments establishing Departments of Ageing, and the Commonwealth government’s Department of Health and Ageing.  There are also research institutions and political lobby groups dedicated to aged care issues.  The church too will continue to be faced with significant age-related issues. If you thought the church culture wars were coming to an end, think again.

In this context, we can speak of an emerging gerontological revolution in Western countries.  It is a challenge that demands a significant increase in effective and wholistic pastoral care of ageing persons.  But it is also a challenge that may be informed by biblical principles, a challenge that the church has been working at for centuries, and a challenge that can best be met, I argue, through the ministry of an informed and servant-oriented faith community.

Existential aging

Someone has said, “If you want to know what it is like to be old, you should smear dirt on your glasses, stuff cotton in your ears, put on heavy shoes that are too big for you, and wear gloves, then try to spend the day in a normal way.”

Admitted to hospital a few years ago, I found myself in a ward of older men and discovered that my illness, though life-threatening, was relatively insignificant compared to the serious illnesses these men were fighting.

One octogenarian said, “Both my children work, and have families.  They have their own lives to deal with without being burdened by someone like me.”

“I have nothing to live for,” another reflected.  “My wife’s gone, my kids have their own lives to lead.  What have I got to live for?  I live in my own home, but [the doctors] won’t let me go there.  I can’t walk.  I don’t care.  I just don’t care any more.”  Then, with tears filling his eyes, he confided to me, “I prayed last night that God would take me away.”

Despite much media preoccupation with youth and youthfulness, Australian society is rapidly greying.  Soon one in four Australians will be over 60 years old.  Younger adults will feel increasing pressure to care for them through church-based and other services, as well as to fund their health and other needs through taxes.  Politicians and policy makers will feel the strongest pressures as they listen to the perspectives and desires of ageing people and respond accordingly.

Physical factors

To be old is not necessarily to feel unviable.  Some things are not ordinarily graspable except as the result of experience in extended lives.  Affirmation of the richness and dignity of elderhood, informed by a biblical theology of aging, offers an excellent starting point for effective pastoral care of elders.

A multitude of issues confront elders, presenting problems associated with impairment, change and loss.  Issues may be physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social – or a combination of these.  As pastoral counsellor William Clements observes, “the issues remaining toward the end of life are some of the most significant of the entire human life cycle, and the manner in which these final crises are handled will have an impact on personhood and even physical survival.”

Stress is generally seen as the most important environmental factor aging the rate of ageing.  There are various causes and symptoms of stress; each person presents a distinctive profile.  One often overlooked issue of ageing attended by significant stress is the crisis of recognition illustrated by Simone de Beauvoir’s self-revelation after looking at her reflection in a mirror at the age of 55:

I often stop flabbergasted at the sight of this incredible thing that serves as my face … I had the impression once of caring very little about what sort of figure I cut … I loathe my appearance now … when I look, I see my face as it was, attacked by the pox of time for which there is no cure.

The longer one lives, the greater the likelihood of experiencing physical disability.  Some elders respond in depression; others refuse to recognise themselves as their physical appearance dictates; still others derive significant status, fulfilment and joy from possessing physical signs of ageing.

Many ageing adults suffer some form of physical impairment (such as hearing loss, visual impairment, arthritis, brittle bones, or psychomotor loss resulting in inability to walk unaided).  Many elders are unable to distinguish high pitched audio tones, leading to the practice of turning on the television or radio very loud, or preventing them from fully engaging in the experience of a live concert or worship service.

Others suffer from a wide variety of visual impairments.  They may have difficulty driving or walking at night; they may lose their driver’s license.  They may become unable to read, or recognise others’ faces, or locate familiar objects in their home.

For these reasons elders are often helped immeasurably by maintaining a familiar, reassuring and consistent environment.  Having a trusted confidant (such as a daughter or friend) is another key to maintaining good mental health in later adulthood, especially for those who live alone.  Regular (preferably daily) contact with a confidant assists the elder in debriefing on daily routines and enables them to receive empathy.

Others who can provide similar ministry include health care professionals, nutritionists, pastors – even lawyers.  Carers should, however, be aware of the possibility of transference and countertransference behaviours, and learn to manage these.

Intellectual and psychological factors

In the intellectual realm, often the most acute problem associated with ageing is short term memory loss – “long, detailed and rich stories of the life they lived years ago contrast sharply with the inability to maintain a few facts or pieces of new information needed to conduct the day’s activities.”

Perhaps the next most common problem is depression.  This is often misunderstood or overlooked.  Depression may be caused by chemical or biological factors, but may also result from the overall situation in life, which an elder feels powerless to change.  Some elders develop paranoid reactions to events and individuals in their lives.  They may display exaggerated suspicion and mistrust of others; and may accuse others of control behaviours, working against their interests, or stealing from them.  A central feature of paranoia is the tendency to project blame on others.

Senile confusion also affects some elders.  Symptoms may include severe memory loss, disorientation, emotional instability, and significant impairment of mental and physical functioning.  Those presenting such symptoms may be suffering a condition known as Organic Brain Syndrome, or Alzheimer’s disease, or another related disorder.

Many elders today live alone or are isolated from social interaction by various impairments.  Some live in uncaring and possessive relationships where individuality and personal rights are neglected or infringed.  There will often be tension between a desire for privacy and the need for human contact.  For pastoral carers, lack of punctuality in visitation, or failure to properly identify oneself, may lead to unnecessary anxiety.  It may take a long time, or several visits, for the social ‘ice’ to break.

When visiting, care needs to be taken to minimise problems associated with hearing loss (sit in a good place, speaking slowly and clearly but not patronisingly).  Delivery of a church bulletin or newsletter often reduces anxiety and promotes dialogue.  Reading Scripture, engaging in prayer and dispensing communion may also be appropriate, depending on the situation of the elder’s faith journey.  It is also important to maintain a balance between supportive care and nurturing change, between pastoral direction and allowing for independent personal growth.

Grief is a reality for all elders.  John Bowlby, best known for his work on attachment theory, proposed four stages of significant grief: numbness (involving disbelief, confusion, restlessness, feelings of unreality); yearning (actively seeking wholeness or the deceased); disorganisation and despair (acceptance of the loss accompanied by depression or a sense of helplessness, and often great fatigue); and reorganisation (retaking of control of one’s life accompanied by forgetting, renewed energy, hope and a decline in depression). These responses will often occur as themes rather than (or in addition to) chronological stages.

There are also different kinds of grieving: normal grieving (high distress immediately following the loss with rapid recovery); chronic grieving (continuing high distress over several years); delayed grieving (little distress in the first few months but high levels at a later point); and absent grieving (no notable level of distress immediately or later).  Elders may also suffer multiple losses in a relatively brief period, which can result in a telescoped and chronic grief reaction.

Spiritual factors

Spiritual needs are deeply felt and increasingly central to the experience of many elders.  Spiritual needs may be defined as conscious or unconscious strivings that arise from the influence of the human spirit on the biopsychosocial natures.  These include desires for meaning, purpose and hope, to transcend circumstances, for support in dealing with loss, for continuity, for validation and support of religious behaviours, to engage in religious behaviours, for personal dignity and a sense of worthiness, for unconditional love, to express anger and doubt, to feel that God is on their side, to love and serve others, to be thankful, to forgive and be forgiven, and to prepare for death and dying.

Given the diversity of these spiritual needs, and the frequency of experience, it is important for professional and lay pastoral carers to be aware of the needs and how they may be met.  Elders generally express more traditional religious beliefs than younger persons today, and are less inclined to embrace moral or spiritual relativism.  They are more likely to pray to an objective ultimate being, to read the Bible, and to be exposed to religious electronic media.

In my experience, the happiest and healthiest elders are those who attend church most often, and poor adjustment is found in those with low or declining participation in regular church activities.  What is not clear is to what extent this correlation means that healthy elders can keep active in religion, or whether their religious participation keeps them healthy and happy.

The practice of spiritual rites and ordinances provides continuity in elders’ lives, enables them to accomplish and celebrate life transitions, aids in recalling cherished beliefs and experiences, and reinforces healthy traditions.  Pastoral carers may also find it beneficial to perform rites of entrance on infirmity, and rituals that focus on death as an event to be welcomed rather than feared.  The funeral itself should not be viewed exclusively as a therapeutic vehicle for the living – still less as merely an opportunity for evangelism – but as an important rite of passage, conveying the individual into a new status in the faith community.

Other losses

The most significant loss an older person will experience is often the death of a spouse or life partner.  Other major causes of grief among elders include violent deaths of loved ones, the death of a son or daughter or friend; and a range of bodily losses including loss of meaningful work, loss of hearing and sight, diminution of mental awareness, loss of the ability to urinate and defecate unassisted, and loss of sexual function.  This last item is a particularly acute problem for some elders who feel unable to speak with professionals about the subject and who are unaware of the widespread nature of sexual dysfunction among aging persons.

Retirement from career or full time employment is also often experienced as acute loss.  Since a career, for many people, meets a cluster of psychological, social and financial needs, its loss may be attended by physical and/or psychological illness.  Additional forms of loss felt by elders include loss of a sense of youth; loss of a familiar world; loss of one’s home and associated memories and emotional investments; loss of independence (often accompanied by loss of dignity and control); loss of a sense of value to others; and decline in general health.

Other impairments and losses experienced by elders include being regarded as part of a homogenous group whose needs and circumstances are relatively uniform; relocating (for example, as a result of retirement), leading to the cutting of some family and social ties and the need to develop new social networks; loneliness, especially following the death of a spouse; fear of criminal behaviour (such as stealing or assault); and coming to terms with finitude.

Elders often engage in pastoral care themselves, especially of their own children and grandchildren, and perhaps friends and neighbours.  This provides excellent opportunities for activity and stimulation, but may also strain physical, emotional and financial resources.  Regular habits of self-nurture will help replenish physical and emotional resources.

One of the greatest barriers to effective pastoral care by elders is the presence of unresolved relational issues from the past.  Three ways to resolve these hurts are for the elder to spend quality time with alienated parties; to write heating letters to perpetrators/victims (in order to get in touch with one’s deep and possibly buried feelings); and to pursue the process of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Dealing with death and dying

The last issue elders face is dying.  About 75 per cent of all deaths in Australia today occur among those aged 65 and over – perhaps as much as 30-40 years after retirement.  Death defines the endpoint of human life and may be viewed as punishment, transition or simply loss (of the ability to complete projects or carry out plans, loss of one’s body, or experiencing the physical and relational world).

In her seminal book On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross suggested that the process of dying involves five sequential steps: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  These are positive changes, but her thesis has been widely critiqued fore its methodological weaknesses and cultural specificity.  Instead of stages, it may be more helpful to consider the dying process as having a range of themes or common elements that appear, disappear and reappear in the process of dying in any one person.  Themes may include terror, pervasive uncertainty, fantasies of being rescued, incredulity, feelings of unfairness, a concern for reputation after death, the fight against pain, and so on.

Many elders today die in hospitals rather than at home or in nursing homes.  Hospice care offers a positive alternative.  The philosophy underlying hospice care has several aspects.  Death is viewed as a normal and inevitable part of life, not to be avoided but embraced.  The patient and family prepare for death by examining their feelings and planning for later life.  The family is involved in the patients care as fully as possible, so each family member can resolve their relationship with the dying person.  The patient and family retain control of care and the care-receiving setting.  Medical care provided is palliative rather than curative, with a minimum of invasive or life-prolonging measures taken.

Problems for caregivers

In each of the above pastoral care contexts different degrees of knowledge and skills are required, and different levels of intervention are appropriate to meet the particular needs.  Another way to approach effective delivery of pastoral care to elders is to focus on the roles and functions of the caregiver.  One could also identify organisational and attitudinal factors that tend to deliver successful pastoral care outcomes.

There are many voluntary activities and ministries in which most elders may engage such as churches and church camps, missions and other parachurch agencies, hospitals, school events, public gardens, exhibitions and zoos.  As physical mobility and mental health decline, the balance tends to shift from activity to passivity, and from offering to receiving care.

Elders experience certain problems of which carers need to be aware and to which they need to be ready to respond in appropriate and sensitive ways.  First, elders may refuse help or advice.  Some older parents avoid relying on adult children or pastoral carers until they have no other choice, perhaps thinking they will be seen as burdensome.  Some conceal their needs for care because they fear the imposition of nursing home care.  Others reject services provided by non-family for fear that family contact will diminish, or due to inexperience with professional people in their home.

Second, elders are increasingly subject to ageism and physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual abuse.  Elders often suffer serious physical and psychological consequences of such abuse.  This may range from ignoring toilet needs to physical violence, or expressing the attitude that elders are out of touch with (cultural) reality or that they are useful only in their capacity for prayer.  Ironically, age is not in itself a badge of sanctity, and elders’ prayers are no more special than those of anyone else.

Third, since daughters care for many elders, the rise of women’s employment has led to a diminution of this form of care, with negative consequences.  Pastoral carers outside the family cannot completely replace such care, but much can still be done.


Perhaps I have cast an excessively pessimistic vision of ageing and the autumn and winter of the human lifespan.  I have tried to be realistic.  One who sought to be both realistic and optimistic was John Wesley, the great seventeenth-century preacher and pastor.  He lived to 88, and many of his most productive years of ministry came after age 60.  On his 85th birthday, in 1788, Wesley wrote in his diary: “I am not so agile as I was in time past. I have daily some pain … I find likewise some decay in my memory in regard to names and things lately passed.”  Then he moved from prose to poetry, revealing the philosophy of life that inspired and focused his extraordinary achievement:

My remnant of days
I spend to his praise
Who died the whole world to redeem:
Be they many or few,
My days are his due,
And they all are devoted to him.

Rev Rod Benson is Ethicist and Public Theologian at the Tinsley Institute, Morling College, Sydney.  This article was published in Zadok Perspectives 83, Winter 2004, pp. 15-19.  For references see the published version.

T E Ruth and The Common Weal

In 1918 the Australian Baptist Publishing House (ABPH) released a book by the Rev. Thomas Elias Ruth (1875-1956) titled The Common Weal: Eighteen Studies in Social Subjects.[1]  The book included a foreword by Professor Meredith Atkinson of the University of Melbourne,[2] and was dedicated by the author to Arthur Black, “in token of friendship and fellowship; in admiration of his practical churchmanship; and in acknowledgement of the inspiration his passion for social service means to the author – though we are now physically separated by over 12,000 miles.”

At the time of publication, T.E. Ruth was the Minister of the Collins Street Baptist Church in Melbourne.  Ruth had previously published books and pamphlets, including the ABPH-published Wake Up, Australia! and The Catholic.  Known for his “flashes of wit, passion and fervour,” he was clearly suited to public life.[3]

Emigrating from England to Melbourne in March 1914, Ruth found himself in Sydney shortly after war broke out in Europe on 4 August, where he reportedly convinced a large Baptist young people’s rally to join him in the affirmation, “I am not a pessimist, because I am a Baptist,” the antiphon of which was, “Magnificent in its heartiness!”[4]  As one of his biographers observes, “He chose the pulpit, but revelled in the atmosphere of the hustings.”[5]

Life and ministry

Son of a Devonshire baker in whose Anglican tradition he was raised and prepared for holy orders, T.E. Ruth concluded that infant baptism did not stand for spiritual regeneration through reading a book, Outline of Christian Doctrine, by Dr Handley Moule, Bishop of Durham, and sought baptism as a believer.  His rector referred him to a Baptist minister who baptised him in South Street Chapel, Exeter.  He attended the Bristol Baptist College and University College, Bristol, from 1897 to 1899, where he gained a reputation as an original thinker, and served in Baptist churches at Southampton (1901-05), Liverpool (1905-11), and Southport (1911-14).

At Southampton, in 1902, he married Mabel Edith Law; they had two sons and a daughter.[6]  Ruth was Minister of the Collins Street church in central Melbourne from 1914-22, resigning at the age of 47 to enter on “general ministries in capital cities.”  In 1923 he began preaching at Sunday evening services of the Pitt Street Congregational Church in Sydney, where audiences soon grew to 1500 with a sevenfold increase in the offerings.  Two years later Ruth succeeded the Rev N.J. Cocks as Minister of the Pitt Street Church.  He had made a smooth and peaceable transition from Baptist to Congregational ministry.

Ruth retired from Pitt Street in 1938 and moved to Adelaide, but in 1942 was again interim Minister at Collins Street Baptist Church,[7] and later returned to Sydney where he died at Killara in 1956 and was buried according to the rites of the Congregational Church.[8]

Consuming passions

Ruth was an enthusiast for church union, believing that to be “only a Baptist” was to be a bigot (a label he did not favour but one which many Australian Baptists wore with pride), and that “to go to a Baptist heaven” would hold no charm for him.[9]  He also claimed that “[d]enominational division was a greater evil than infant baptism.”[10]  In the midst of the carnage and slaughter of the Great War, he appears to have accepted a sombre version of the doctrine of purgatory, and saw this conviction as antithetical to what he termed “the saccharine selfishness of some of [the Protestants’] Sankey hymns and … Glory songs.”[11]

Prominent dispensationalist Sydney Baptist William Lamb, always vigilant for truth, published a book attacking him and described him as “a Jesuit in disguise.”[12]  In fact, Ruth was a convinced Protestant and, in the late 1910s, the strongest and most eloquent public opponent of the fearsome Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Dr Daniel Mannix (although it was rumoured that the two men enjoyed a cordial personal relationship).  On the basis of a series of sermons preached in 1918, it appears that Ruth was a universalist who, in view of the love and justice of God, believed that “We shall all come home at last”.[13]

Ruth was also an enthusiast for nation and empire, as this extract from a 1915 sermon, titled “Wanted men, wanted more men,” amply demonstrates:

Oh, young man of the sunny south, fit and free, with enormous faith in your country, and splendid capacity for service, give yourself to save Australia’s name from the slightest suspicion of underestimating the danger of Empire: Your King is calling, your country’s calling, your women are calling, too; We want a hundred thousand men and the First that we want is You.[14]

Ruth favoured the preservation and development of a white, British, predominantly Protestant Australia.[15]  He developed a reputation in Melbourne as “the central Protestant spokesman for Imperialism,” and led the support for conscription in opposition to Catholic Archbiship Dr Daniel Mannix’s “no” case.[16]  In a sermon at the Pitt Street Congregational Church in April 1932 in support of the New Guard movement and its opposition to NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang, he described World War I diggers as “the supermen of the Southern cross,” and called on others to follow their example in the battle for public morality.[17]

Ruth and public theology

It is public morality, or public theology, that occupied Ruth in The Common Weal.  The 18 “studies” are actually “notes of simple red-hot addresses” he had presented on Sunday nights to apparently large audiences in the Melbourne Auditorium (built in 1913, later the Metro Theatre), directly opposite the Collins Street Baptist Church, “in the ordinary course of my ministry.”[18]

In a self-deprecatory “Author’s note,” Ruth defined the purpose of the addresses as to “lead the reader to think for himself, and to invest his influence in the affairs of the Commonwealth for the sake of the Kingdom of God.”  He acknowledges indebtedness to four particular books and “a score of other books.”  The four listed books give an indication of the breadth of Ruth’s reading and the influences he was willing to acknowledge: Professor Francis Greenwood Peabody, Jesus Christ and the Social Question: An Examination of the Teaching of Jesus in Its Relation to Some of the Problems of Modern Social Life;[19] Rev S.E. Keble, Industrial Day-Dreams: Studies in Industrial Ethics and Economics;[20] Dr Lyman Abbott, Christianity and Social Problems;[21] and Dr Washington Gladden, Social Salvation.[22]

In his introduction, Ruth also mentions F.D. Maurice’s dictum that “we must either socialise Christianity or Christianise socialism”; and reiterates Dr Hatch’s view that “The unaccomplished mission of Christianity is to reconstruct society on the basis of brotherhood.”[23]  These authors sought to bring together the disciplines of theology and sociology, and to apply Christian principles to the great social problems of the day.

This was also T.E. Ruth’s passion, driven by a keen understanding of the universal Fatherhood of God, an assurance of the Lordship and agency of Jesus Christ, and an awareness of the kingdom of God as a practical, terrestrial, social reality.  His passion birthed a vision, the largest possible, in which:

The world’s wounds will be healed, the world’s weaknesses will be cured, the world’s wickedness will be banished, the world’s problems will be solved when men acknowledge the governance of God, when the sons of men become the subjects of the Father King and the earth becomes the realm of righteous rule, the home of the commonwealth, the sphere of spiritual socialism …

I believe that the only lasting solution to the social problem will be found in applied Christianity, and that the Church of Jesus must enter into more vital relations with the social kingdom of God.[24]

He concluded the first address in The Common Weal by appealing “to converted people to express their faith in some practical good Samaritanism,” and urged young men and women “to hand themselves over to Christ the only Saviour of the Soul, and the only Hope of the Race, for service in the city and the State, that God’s kingdom may come and His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”[25]

Against the view that Ruth was at heart a socialist, it should be noted that he believed Conservative, Radical and Socialist governments alike were only “good” in so far as they followed the will of God as set forth in the Bible and exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus, whose “ministry is the manifesto of the will of God.”[26]  Ruth also strongly condemned anarchism, then on the ascendency among political radicals in Australia and elsewhere, as “poisonous ideas” that had no future in the modern world.[27]

Further, the themes chosen by Ruth for publication in The Common Weal, from industrial relations reform to literature censorship, from affordable housing to the “misuse” of alcohol, indicate the richness, comprehensiveness and large-heartedness of his personal interests and social concerns.  That these interests and concerns were articulated by a theologically trained and well-read Baptist minister with a gift for oratory only added to their potency.

What of the specific issues addressed in the book?  The remainder of this paper outlines the content of each chapter in The Common Weal, with emphasis on Ruth’s rhetorical style and the rationale for the positions he took on specific issues.  Present tense has been used throughout to convey something of the immediacy and passion of the addresses.

Industrial relations

In chapter 2, “The reconciliation of capital and labour,” Ruth takes aim at intractable industrial disputes and “a series of costly strikes” that threatened to cripple economic prosperity and national progress.  He views the forces of capital and labour as “on a war footing,” and pleads for the Employers’ Federation and the Trades Hall to see things from their opponent’s perspective: “It is not a big country or a loud voice that makes a great man, but a big outlook, the power to appreciate the other man’s point of view, and to correct insularity of thought by fellowship with the community of interests.”[28]

Although the Gospels give no instruction on appropriate economic machinery to manage an industrial economy, Ruth invokes the example of Jesus in overcoming “the peril of parochialism” by casting a wider horizon (setting “daily duty in its relation to wholeness”); in refusing to subordinate “profits to personality” (that is, placing individual worth and the common good above the pursuit of profits); and in setting forth the principle of selfless social service.[29]  He gives a brief outline of political economy,[30] and states that it is social utility – not labour, not capital – that determines surplus value.

The solution to the great problem of conflict between labour and capital is not the creation of more laws but the application of the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12),[31] since it is the selfishness of labour and capital, and the fact that both interests forget their responsibility to the wider community and to God, which ultimately causes industrial unrest.

Ruth concludes: “Only the man who prays, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ can properly pray, ‘Create a better social order, O God, and renew a right relationship between men.’”[32]

More on industrial relations

In chapter 3, “Industrial Prussianism,” the author extends his treatment of industrial relations in the previous chapter to the current great coal strike, and refers to Jesus as “our industrial redeemer.”[33]  By “Prussianism” he means a ruthless and despotic attitude similar to that articulated by Prussian Generals and the Kaiser in the Great War.  Ruth rails against exploitation of labour by capital, denouncing the system of economic slavery introduced by “Capital Prussianism” resulting in “a calculated capitalistic contrivance that crushes independence, that makes a workman nothing but a machine for grinding out wealth.”[34]  There is also “Labour Prussianism,” which has attained an unprecedented perfection of organisation and can order rank and file unionists to “down tools” as though they were military conscripts.

On the other hand, Ruth claimed that “the very introduction of machinery put an end to individualism in industry, and necessitated the rise of Trade Unions.  He affirmed the role of the union agitator, but held that a strike should only be called with a secret ballot and that married men should have “at least thrice the influence of the single man” in such votes.[35]

For Ruth, all forms of Prussianism are “parochialism touched with despotic power,” and therefore insane.  The way to industrial peace is the New Testament vision of “righteousness, justice, brotherhood and joy,”[36] faithfulness to the Golden Rule, and reliance on the work of God in the individual person.[37]

Work and employment

In chapter 4, “Workers and non-workers,” Ruth changes pace.  Wanting to discover first-hand “the tramp’s philosophy of life” while on holiday in Westmoreland ten years before, he had dressed as a tramp (swaggie) and sought accommodation in a “casual ward” (hostel) attached to a workhouse.  He found boarding conditions rough, conversation between tramps both crude and knowledgeable, and the “work” demoralising (consisting merely of detention in a closed-in yard until the manager released them at his whim, according to the administration of the English Poor Law).

Ruth lamented “the tragedy of prolonged unemployment” and the possibility of unemployability for those who remained out of work for long periods.  He praised recent efforts by Continental countries (especially Germany) to grapple with problems of poverty, vagrancy and unemployment.[38]  He lays the blame for rises in unemployment in Australia on class warfare between labour and capital, and argues that the solution is personal:

There is no adequate mission to the social conscience that is not overwhelmingly individualistic.  There is no real collectivism that is not based on personal character.”[39]


In chapter 5, “Houses and homes,” the author examines enlightened town planning and the moral foundations of family life as major contributors to the common good.  He claims that:

it is quite impossible to go into some of our own nearer suburbs without feeling the ugliness and the offensiveness of the wretched houses and monotonous streets that seem to have been dumped down in haphazard fashion and shaped by accident and disaster.[40]

He regards a slum as “not merely a blot on the beauty of a place, and not merely a menace to physical health, and a centre of moral filth [but] the negation of civilisation, the negation of Christianity.”[41]  Towns and cities should be properly planned with moral purity as well as social amenity in mind; and slum owners should be prosecuted in the same way as butchers who knowingly sell tainted meat.[42]

Far more precious, though, is the family who lives within a house.  For Ruth, the family is the fundamental social organisation, and problems of home life are more important than the constitution of the state or the divine order of the church.[43]  He especially mentions the institution of marriage (and the prevalence of divorce), and overcrowded and insanitary conditions (associated with a decline in decency, morality, citizenship and religion), and claims that “The decay of homelife is the cause of many of the evils infesting our streets and parks and sea beaches.”[44]  The solution lies in divinely ordered home life:

The nearest image earth holds of hell is the loveless, joyless home, where God is not known, where contempt has supplanted reverence, where hate has cast out love.  And the nearest image earth holds of heaven is the home where God is known and worshipped, where father, mother, children know God well enough to laugh in His presence, where perfect love casts out fear, the place of light and love, holiness and humour, mirth and music, song and sacrifice.[45]

Indecent literature

In chapter 6, “Literature and life, and the Devil in ink,” Ruth tackles the problem of the corrupting power of literature (or, as we would describe it today, of communications media).  “Literature is the spring of our mental life, the greatest agent in our social and religious education, and the devil seeks to poison life at its source.”[46]

At issue are indecent newspapers and magazines, and “the sex novel,” but also “euphemistic words,” “commercial grabs,” “degrading exhibitions,” “passions which actually unmake man,” “clever schemes of colour and design that subtly convey poison to the soul,” and “the glamour of expressive airs of rich, luscious sounds of sensuous and seductive music.”[47]  Further, in journalism and the publishing industry, there are the twin dangers of “being bought” and of sensationalism.[48]

Moreover, Ruth argues,

the press is very much more than the mirror of public life, it is the maker of public sentiment and soul.  It often sets the pace for public men and sets the standard for public morality, and, within certain limits, it can make or mar a public man, it can create or destroy public morality.[49]

There are also, in Ruth’s estimation, newspapers that wallow “in the filth of demoralising details of crime and evil-doing, papers published in the Commonwealth that are positively indecent, the publication of which ought to be prohibited by the law that prohibits immorality in public places.”[50]  Ruth advocates protecting the mind from the onslaught of immoral publications just as one protects the body from the ravages of infectious disease.[51]

The solution to the problem of various kinds of indecent literature is to employ the strategy outlined by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8-9 (“Whatever is true,” etc), and to “pass into real personal fellowship with the immortals” by occupying the mind with the works of such greats as Shakespeare, Milton, Ruskin, Dickens and, of course, the biblical writers.  For “good is better than bad.”[52]


In chapter 7, “Problems of sex,” the author takes up the delicate subject of sexual reproduction, described as “the father-mother ideas of life’” and common departures from the ideal.  From the creation stories in Genesis, Ruth finds that “the genesis of the father-mother idea is in God,”[53] and “we have so much more power than flower or bird or beast.”[54]  But this power for good may also be adapted for evil purposes with catastrophic results, as evidenced by sexual immorality that results in sexually transmitted infections, prostitution and the birth of children outside of marriage.  Thus by

letting lust take the place of love … we can transgress the ordinance of God and men, and the penalty is written in bodies bloated by loathsome disease, that spreads its poisons of putrefaction, not only among the sensualists of society, but among innocent men and women and children, bequeathing even to children unborn a heritage of foul blood and depraved instincts.[55]

When Ruth considers prostitution – or, as he was compelled to describe it, “the social evil” –

we think of the poor abandoned woman of the streets, abandoned of church, abandoned of society, abandoned by herself, abandoned to a life of immorality, of vice and shame, until she becomes a prolific cause of corruption, an actual peddler of plague.[56]

Society has tried to repress and manage such persons through legal penalties, segregation and regulation.  Christ’s method, argues Ruth,

is fundamentally different, and rests on a radically different assumption.  To Him, she is not an abandoned woman.  She is not shut out from the congregations or from His personal conversation … Christ’s first principle was that vice in woman was curable.  The second was equally radical and far-reaching.  He did not condone in man what is condemned in woman … Christ’s method of dealing with the social evil [was one of] compassion and cure.[57]

By way of emphasis, Ruth quotes Dr Napheys: “ ‘Would you learn the only possible method of reforming sinful women?  … Reform the men.’”[58]  In regard to children born outside of marriage, he observes with characteristic pastoral sensitivity that

There are illegitimate parents, but there are no illegitimate children.  There never have been, there never can be any illegitimate children.  The children born of illegitimate parents ought never to be penalised by the community.  In any case the child is the best asset of the community, and the community ought to care much more for the child.[59]


In chapter 8, “The case against the drink traffic” (the first of five chapters on this subject), Ruth makes an unmitigated call for total abstinence from the consumption of alcohol.  In doing so he had the support of the vast majority of Baptists, and many Protestants, who believed with him that

there is absolutely no evil so far-reaching in its influence, and so diametrically opposed to physical, mental, moral, social, and Imperial well-being, nothing that so certainly and effectively poisons the springs of our common life as the deplorable drinking habits of our day … [Alcohol is] an age-long curse, which it is impossible to exaggerate, and which it should be the chief aim of civilised people to kill.[60]

He continues:

Think of the ruin that has been wrought within your own domestic domain, within your own social circle, within the realm of your commercial activity … The misery in our hearts and homes is but a faint echo of the ravages of the great Beast that makes war against the Lamb, the hydra-headed monster, breathing forth misery, blighting men, ruining women, cursing little children from their birth, turning home that should be heaven into hell, streets that should be pure into advertisements of lewdness and vice, and life that should be lovely with divine light into darkness and devilry.[61]

Ruth claims that alcohol consumption causes physical and mental deterioration, “affects the moral nature,” and “is of the gravest social significance.”[62]  The solution is to oppose the industry, to apply every legitimate influence to secure legislation restricting “the drink traffic,” and to abstain from consumption of alcohol.

More on alcohol

In chapter 9, “The Church and temperance reform,” the author considers the role of the churches in the temperance movement (the push to reduce or prohibit the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages).  Ruth begins with an apologetic for Christian social action in general:

the Christian Church, with its mission of healing the moral diseases and remedying the moral wrongs of our time, is bound to face the issues of social ferment.  All problems of social unrest are ethical at the root, and all ethical questions are fundamentally religious, and the Christian Church cannot stand coldly aloof …

The Christian Church is a society founded by Christ for the salvation of the world.  The first line of its duty is to win men to Christ, to bring them into touch with God, that they may realise their relationship to the eternal.  And you cannot possibly exaggerate the importance of this work even from the social and political point of view …

But that is not the whole duty of the Church.  The second line of duty is the salvation of society.  The mission of the Church is not only to the individual, but to the social conscience [and] it is the business of the Church to see that its members discharge their duty, not only in the social worship of Almighty God, but in the social service of their neighbours.[63]

And so to temperance.  Ruth is appalled at the number of people he knew who had “been ruined by this subtle agency of the devil.”[64]  He suggests that alcohol is “far and away the mightiest stronghold of sin our nation knows,”[65] that “the churches are called by the events of our time to take their true position as leaders in the aggression on this awful evil,”[66] that fermented wine “never should be used in any church professing to stand for the salvation of men,”[67] and that Christians ought to deny their “legitimate rights” in order to do their “larger duty.”[68]  For

total abstinence is not simply a temporary expedient for a critical condition of society.  It is one of the conditions of the highest physical, mental, and moral efficiency.  Pledge yourself to Christ.  Pledge yourself to the State.

And let not the sword sleep in your hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In Australia’s great and glorious land.[69]

Still more on alcohol

In chapter 10, “The drink traffic and public life,” Ruth continues his theme of temperance, examining the social and political ramifications of the liquor industry.  He observes that in ancient times distillation was unknown, wines were mild in strength when compared to modern wines, and Buddhist and Islamic traditions explicitly required total abstinence.[70]  He argues that “Right through our history this evil has corrupted and debased civic and political life, and in this crisis it stands revealed as our greatest Imperial foe.”[71]

Ruth criticises Australian politicians for looking only to the next election rather than campaigning on moral principles,[72] and denounces vested British liquor interests allegedly establishing themselves in Australian public life.  “It is time,” Ruth says,

for politicians and publicists of all parties to unite to curb and control this great enemy … high time for us to translate into economic and political practice that which we profess to believe, that only “righteousness exalteth a nation” (a reference to Proverbs 14:34).[73]

Alcohol again

In chapter 11, “ ‘Vested interests’ versus ‘victory’,” the author quotes extensively from Hansard to show that prohibition of certain publications of the Strength of Britain movement was motivated by vested interests of the liquor industry to suppress material that might aid the temperance movement.[74]

He directly attacks the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, asking, “Where is Mr Hughes on this vitally important question?  … What has the Prime Minister done?  Is he standing supinely by while drink robs the Empire of men, money and munitions?”[75]  He urges political leaders to proclaim “prohibition during war and mobilisation,” and challenges his audience, “in the name of the Strong Son of God, to use your influence, in every possible fashion, to secure the overthrow of wrong and the establishment of right.”[76]

Last word on alcohol

In chapter 12, “Why not censor the drink traffic,” Ruth argues that, since a form of literature censorship was established in Australia for war purposes, the drink traffic ought also to be censored.  Just as political propaganda that might advantage Germany is censored, so alcohol that might weaken public morale should be restricted.[77]  Instead, “We have censored the truth about the drink trade.  It is time the trade was censored.  It is time Australia came into line with Canada.”[78]  Ruth sees no hope for radical change in the present federal government (the Win-the-War Government), nor in the outcome of the next general election.  But he believes

the hour has struck for a great citizens’ movement.  The people are ready.  And the leaders are ready.  Arrangements are underway … And this is real church service – service for the good name of God, service for His glory and our fellows’ good …

Our immediate duty is to secure a proclamation of prohibition against the misuse of the alcohol God has made [he approved of its use as an industrial chemical], during war time, and the time of demobilisation.  That is our duty.  And may God help us.[79]


In chapter 13, “Australia’s pet vice,” the author sets gambling in his moral sights, acknowledging it as a very ancient and universal vice, and declaring it to be theft, and the gambler a thief who stands condemned by the Decalogue (“Thou shalt not steal,” Exodus 20:15) in the same way that a murderer stands condemned by the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”[80]  He distinguishes the vice of gambling from the legitimate activities in which it occurs:

it is not with racing I am concerned now, but with that which robs racing of its value, robs recreation of its recreating ministry, degrades innocent pastimes into moral pests and plagues, and makes even of charitable appeals a means of fostering the lust of gain, of sealing up the springs of sympathy, and of coarsening character.[81]

Ruth also observes (quoting the Anglican Bishop B.F. Westcott and the English philosopher Herbert Spencer) that gambling seeks personal pleasure and gain through another’s pain and loss, without making adequate compensation or adding anything to the sum of common wealth.  Further, he argued,

it is quite beside the mark to say that the gambler works.  So does the bank robber.  So does the house-breaker.  So does the pick-pocket – but it is criminal work.  It is equally beside the mark to say the gambler displays skills, it is not the skill of a tradesman who provides his fellows with necessities, or the skill of the artist who clothes ideas with beauty and refines the thoughts of men, or the skill of the statesman who applies the principles of political economy to the welfare of the people, or the skill of the physician who applies to life the laws of health, or the skill of the soldier or sailor who defends his country’s cause – it is the skill that violates the laws of honourable labour that seeks all the time to get something for nothing, the cunning that would get gain without recompense, that would take advantage of another’s ignorance.[82]

The solution to the problem of “gambling … with its concomitant evils, always and naturally associated, of drink and immorality,” is, for Ruth, for the state to introduce “much more effective legislation”[83] to restrict the practice, and for the individual to adopt “the simple law of neighbourly love.”[84]

More on gambling

In chapter 14, “What’s wrong with a bet?” Ruth asks whether gambling is inherently wrong, or only wrong because of its lurid and evil associations.  In answer, he reiterates the general argument of the previous chapter in the strongest terms:

In the act of gambling, God is dethroned, and chance is substituted.  All that Christ taught of the Fatherhood of God; all the sovereignty, and all the love included in our Lord’s conception of the first cause and final end of life; all the ideas of justice and right-dealing; all the moral majesty and movements of mercy are consciously or unconsciously – often unconsciously – repudiated, and chance becomes the gambler’s creator, chance the gambler’s providence, chance the heart and soul of the gambler’s life.  Men are marionettes, made to move by chance.

Things are not ordered – they simply happen.  Risk is substituted for reason, chance for conscience, luck for pluck.  Christianity, I repeat, stands for the sovereignty of God; gambling, for the sovereignty of chance.[85]

Further, gambling “is an utter denial of the brotherhood of man and all its implications.”[86]  Whether he wins or loses, the gambler “is engaged in a transaction that cannot stand the test of elementary morality.”[87]  For a Christian, money is only ever held in trust, “Christianity stands for the stewardship of wealth”[88] and “it is shameful to lose money in gambling; it is immoral to win it.”[89]  Ruth concludes:

And the remedy?  It is in the realisation of the reality of the doctrines of grace – the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the dignity of labour, the stewardship of wealth, the sanctity of life.

No believer in Jesus has any right to bet.  Every church member should regard raffling and gambling as a distinct repudiation of churchmanship.  We are here as the agents of the redeeming Word, to act for Christ; and complicity in this evil will unfit us for the task to which we have pledged our lives – the uplift of humanity, the righteousness of the race, the redemption of society, the joy of life.[90]

Gambling again

In chapter 15, “After the Referendum, the Cup!” the author expresses concern that the Melbourne cup (Australia’s premier horse race) was overshadowing more weighty matters such as a referendum.  He acknowledges that Scripture is silent on the morality of horse-racing, but argues that it has ceased to be a sport and has degenerated into evil,[91] especially on account of corrupt bookmakers.[92]

Ruth appeals “to the social conscience of the community to be honest with God and just with man, adding the following to the rhetoric expressed in the previous chapter:

Gambling means the denial of the dignity of man and the taking of a mean opportunity to inflict injury.  Gambling cuts right across the principles of commerce and makes a man an economic thief.  Gambling adds immeasurably to the sins of society and makes meaningless the Saviourhood of Christ.  Gambling spoils the man, injures his home, unfits him for honest commerce, destroys his social and civic qualities, and works untold mischief and misery in all his relationships.[93]

Sunday trading

In chapter 16, “Can we save Sunday as a democratic institution?” Ruth turns to the observance of Sunday as a day of rest, in decline for commercial reasons.  He believes the principle of a weekly day of rest from labour is “part and parcel of our common life, a democratic institution, a great heritage of the common people, a gift of Christ.”[94]  It is “woven into the very texture of our physical necessities … indispensable to our physical stamina.”[95]  Moreover Sunday rest allows for spiritual fellowship and exercises with the goal of “the widening of the horizon, the enrichment of being, the fulness of vision, the beautifying of life, the completion and coronation of character.”[96]

Yet commercial and popular pressure, in the form of Sunday picnics, Sunday excursion trains and steamers, and Sunday picture shows (i.e. films) threaten to dismantle the institution.  In response, Ruth observes that “Sunday amusements mean Sunday employment.”[97]  In particular,

Sunday pleasures are usually purchased at the price of somebody’s pain, and generally mean a coarsening of nature, a deadening of sensibility and a general deterioration of character … [Sunday pleasures are] an offence not only against the Divine in man, but against our social democracy, an offence not only against our great religious traditions, but against the world’s workers.[98]

Ruth urges his audience “to guard our Sundays, make much of our Sundays, and Sundays will make much of us … Citizenship depends on churchmanship.”[99]


In chapter 17, “Christianity and amusements,” the author addresses the charge that churches and amusement agencies are necessarily and essentially antagonistic.  He replies that “both groups are guilty of the sin of schism.”[100]  Amusements that do not afford recreation are frauds; one cannot live on amusements; Christianity is for those who aspire to wholeness and for whom “character is the golden goal”; Christianity has no message for the idler.[101]

For Ruth, with respect to amusements, three things are certainly clear:

(1) We must avoid unnecessary association with evil;

(2) We must guard against excess even of legitimate pleasures; and

(3) We must make amusements our ministers not our masters.[102]

Ruth cautions against churches entering into competition with commercial amusements, citing the example of Charles Sheldon (of “What would Jesus do” fame).  But he suggests that

Christian people might capture the passion [afforded by such amusements] and purify it, by demanding the best, by supporting the best, by praying for amusement caterers as for other servants of the public.  But here again the impact of the Christian appeal is to the individual.  The salvation of the city depends on the salvation of the soul, and the service of the citizen.[103]

A final word on Christian social action

In chapter 18, “Why can’t we cast out devils?” Ruth ends his series of “Studies” on a sombre note, reminding the church of its faithlessness and impotence in the face of impending moral crisis and urgent social need.  He reminds his audience that, immediately after the glorious transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-13), Jesus finds his disciples perplexed at their inability to cast a demon out of an epileptic boy (vv 14-21), and explains that their failure was the result of unbelief.

Ruth casts much of the conduct of today’s individuals, communities and nations as analogous to the madness of the demon-possessed boy, and suggests that the world is oppressed by the “evil spirits” of selfism, sensualism, scepticism, and superstition – and that, despite its nature and mission as “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16), the church appears powerless to heal such moral sicknesses.[104]

The only remedy for the church is regeneration;[105] “a mighty revival of faith” in God, in man, in the gospel of saving grace, in Jesus Christ, in Christianity, in the Holy Spirit, and in the “unseen” (by which Ruth may have meant the spiritual or eternal in contrast to the physical or temporal); and “a mighty revival of faith in one another.”[106]

Ruth concludes the chapter, and the book, with these words:

Let us partake of [our Lord’s] passion, that He may cast out from us our own selfishness, our own sensualism, our own scepticism, our own superstition, and so possess us, that in us, through us, by us, He may cast out the evils that destroy the men He loves and that ruin the world for which He died.[107]


The Reverend T.E. Ruth was a significant Baptist minister in England and Australia.  He was a talented preacher and a passionate writer.  His large contribution to Australian society as a Christian minister, a public theologian and a social activist – evident in part through the lens of The Common Weal – deserves greater recognition and attention.  His strong opposition to alcohol and gambling might have been tempered by greater attention to other social problems of the time.

Yet Ruth is an exemplar of what can be achieved by a person who embraces what Walter B. Shurden has called the “four fragile freedoms” precious to Baptists around the world: freedom to study and obey the Bible; freedom to relate to God without the interference of creed, clergy or civil government; freedom for the local church to order its own ministry and mission; and freedom of religion.[108]

Like Shurden, Ruth would also have wanted his various audiences to balance the freedoms they embraced with an equivalent sense of responsibility for the world they inhabited.  At his memorial service in the Pitt Street Congregational Church in 1956, the Rev A.P. Campbell said of him, “T.E. Ruth with his voice and his pen stood boldly as an advocate of civil and religious liberty.”[109]  He was, in his own words, a “superman of the southern cross.”

There is a place in Australian Baptist life for more women and men of similar passion and gifting today.

Rev Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister. He is Ethicist and Public Theologian with the Tinsley Institute, Morling College, Sydney.

[1] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal: Eighteen Studies in Social Subjects (Sydney: ABPH, 1918).

[2] On Atkinson see Warren Osmond, “Atkinson, Meredith (1883 – 1929),” Australian Dictionary of Biography (Volume 7; Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1979), pp 121-122, available at, found on 16 Sep 2007.

[3] Sandra Thwaites, “Rev T.E. Ruth, a city preacher in a time of war and after,” Our Yesterdays 4, 1996, p. 25.

[4] The Australian Baptist, 29 Sep 1914, p. 16.

[5] John Garrett, “Ruth, Thomas Elias (1875 – 1956)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography (Volume 11; Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), pp 485-486; available at, found 16 Sep 2007.

[6] Garret, “Ruth, Thomas Elias (1875 – 1956)”, p. 485.

[7] Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo to ‘Eternity’: A History of Australian Baptists.  Volume 2: A National Church in a Global Community (1914-2005) (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2006), p. 506.

[8] A collection of the papers of Herbert (1867-1963) and Ivy Brookes (1883-1970) contains their correspondence with Rev T.E. Ruth from 1923 until 1956, and a collection of Ruth’s writings comprising typescript copies of sermons, pamphlets issued by the Loyalist League of Victoria, and cuttings of his articles in the press. See National Library of Australia MS 1924,, n.d., found on 16 Sep 2007.

[9] Thwaites, “T.E. Ruth,” p. 33.

[10] Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo to ‘Eternity’: A History of Australian Baptists.  Volume 1: Growing an Australian Church (1831-1914) (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2006), p. 228.

[11] Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo (Vol. 2), p. 416.

[12] William Lamb, Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead: An Examination of the Teaching in Rev. T.E. Ruth’s Book, Wake Up Australia! (Sydney: Australian Baptist Publishing House, 1918), p. 46 inter alia.

[13] Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo (vol. 2), p. 416.

[14] M. McKernan, Australians in Wartime: Commentary and Documents (Melbourne: Nelson, 1980), pp. 26-27; originally published in The Australian Christian World, 15 Jan 1915.

[15] Garrett, “Ruth, Thomas Elias (1875 – 1956)”, p. 486.

[16] Thwaites, “T.E. Ruth,” pp. 19, 27-31.

[17] Manley, From Woolloomooloo (vol. 2), pp. 436-437.

[18] “Author’s Note,” front material of book.

[19] London/New York: Macmillan, 1900.

[20] London: Culley, 1907.

[21] London: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1896.

[22] London: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1902.

[23] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 7.

[24] Chapter titled, “The social significance of the kingdom,” in T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 2, 7.

[25] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 8.

[26] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 4.

[27] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 7.

[28] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 11.

[29] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 11-12.

[30] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 14-15.

[31] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 15.

[32] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 16.

[33] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 17.

[34] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 23.

[35] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 26.

[36] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 24.

[37] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 27.

[38] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 32-33.

[39] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 34.

[40] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 39.

[41] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 39.

[42] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 40.

[43] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 37, 43.

[44] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 42.

[45] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 44.

[46] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 47.

[47] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 45-46, 49.

[48] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 48-49.

[49] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 48.

[50] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 49.

[51] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 50.

[52] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 51.

[53] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 52.

[54] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 55.

[55] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 55.

[56] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 56.

[57] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 57-58.

[58] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 58.

[59] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 58.

[60] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 60.

[61] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 61.

[62] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 61-62.

[63] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 67-68.

[64] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 72.

[65] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 74.

[66] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 74.

[67] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 70.

[68] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 75.

[69] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 75.

[70] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 76-77.

[71] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 81.

[72] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 78.

[73] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 82.

[74] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 84-91.

[75] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 93.

[76] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 93-94.

[77] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 95.

[78] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 99.

[79] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 103-104.

[80] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 105, 108.

[81] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 107.

[82] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 109.

[83] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 107.

[84] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 111.

[85] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 113.

[86] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 114.

[87] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 115.

[88] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 115, 116.

[89] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 116.

[90] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 117.

[91] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 120-121.

[92] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 122.

[93] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 124.

[94] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 125-126.

[95] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 127.

[96] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 127.

[97] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 129.

[98] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 128-129.

[99] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 131.

[100] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 132.

[101] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 135.

[102] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 137.

[103] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 140.

[104] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 143-145.

[105] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 146.

[106] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 149.

[107] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 150.

[108] Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1993).

[109] The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Apr 1956.

The addictive web of pornography

At the Sydney launch this week of a new book, Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry, speaker after speaker stood and described, sometimes in shocking detail, the proliferation and normalisation of pornography, the way it’s become a global industry, and how it shapes our culture and harms us all.

The 38 contributors have done an excellent job documenting and analysing different aspects of the pornification of our world.  Again and again at the launch, I heard the phrase, “Something’s wrong.” “Something’s wrong.”

Naming the evil is important, but it can avoid the painful reality of naming the root causes – not patriarchy, not capitalism, not organised crime, not fascist attitudes and values, but the moral bankruptcy of human nature that urges us to subvert the good, and do wrong.

Which is why I’m glad the book ends with strategies of resistance, and holds out the possibility of hope and renewal for anyone caught in the addictive web of pornography.

Broadcast on 2CH Sydney, 23 October 2011.

Big fat lies about sex

A new book with a provocative title caught my attention this week.  Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry, edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray, reveals the ugly side of a powerful global industry that trades in violence, crime, degradation, and the wellbeing of millions of men, women and children.

At the official launch in Sydney on Thursday, Julie Gale, activist and founder of Kids Free 2B Kids, said Big Porn Inc was “a brilliant exposé on how the porn industry has sold us big fat lies about sex and sexuality.  No previous generation has had to navigate such a flood of porn-inspired imagery and concepts.  Essential reading for everyone, especially the deluded defenders who remain wilfully blind to the harmful impacts.”

We can blush, we can try to ignore it, but the relentless objectification of women, and the increasing sexualisation of our children, demands a courageous moral response from consumers and from government. 

Broadcast on 2CH Sydney, 23 October 2011.

Review of Australia’s classification system

The content of films, computer games and magazines, is classified in Australia by the federal government’s Classification Board, but recently there have been a lot of complaints that the system is broken. Some young people think the classification guidelines, particularly for computer games, are too strict, but many parents think the guidelines are already too lenient and should be tightened.

The federal Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, has referred the National Classification Scheme to the Australian Law Reform Commission and asked it to conduct widespread public consultation. The review will consider existing laws, the current classification categories, the rapid pace of technological change, the need for better information processes, the effect of media on children, and the desirability of a strong content and distribution industry in Australia.

The Commission has released an issues paper and called for public submissions due by July 15, just five days away. If you would like your voice to be heard, the NSW Council of Churches website has information on how to make a submission.

Broadcast on 2CH Sydney, Sunday 10 July 2011.

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