John Saunders: Baptist pastor and activist

imageSpeech at the Sydney launch of Ken R. Manley & Barbara Coe (eds), John Saunders: Baptist Pastor and Activist 1834-1848 (Sydney: Greenwood Press, 2014).

Rod Benson, 9 August 2014

When Dr Michael Frost addressed a meeting of the Baptist Historical Society two decades ago, on the evangelistic ministry of the Reverend C. J. Tinsley, he commended Tinsley to our members as an “inspiring” leader from whom we could all learn.

One could say the same of the Reverend John Saunders, and arguably with greater warrant. Indeed, the Tinsley Institute might have been named after John Saunders were it not for certain practical considerations and the distance in years between Saunders’ ministry and our own time.

Ken Manley and Barbara Coe have done our churches, and historians of Australian colonial life, a great service in collating and editing the Saunders letters and related documents, and shaping them along with lively commentary into a splendid “documentary biography” published in this handsome volume by Greenwood Press and the Baptist Historical Society of NSW.

As the Reverend Tim Costello observes in his foreword, Saunders was “effectively the founder of Baptists in Australia.” He continues:

If our denomination had known and told his story and, more importantly, followed his theological instincts, then we may have had a profoundly clearer voice and seen a greater impact of the gospel shaping our public life … Instead we Baptists have been ‘bit’ players in the major debates without a clear gospel anchor that was compelling and persuasive (p. v.)

Saunders was an outstanding preacher, wise pastor, strategic church planter, supporter of world mission, and exemplar of Christian social responsibility.

In spiritual and temporal fields, he excelled amid difficulty and privation, and achieved lasting positive change for the glory of God, the development of the Baptist denomination, and the betterment of colonial society.

On social issues his robust evangelical faith and enlightened social conscience united in vigorous pursuit of temperance, Aboriginal justice, an end to the convict system, increased European immigration, the alleviation of poverty and disease, and the education of children and adults.

Saunders maintained a balance between evangelical distinctives (such as they were in the second quarter of the nineteenth century) and the social expression of those convictions, which led him to engage in various forms of social responsibility.  He also recognised the importance of individual effort if the whole gospel and all its fruit were to be fully manifest. Yet he invested supreme confidence in the power of the Christian gospel to change hearts and to transform societies.

An excellent example of this confidence is the address which Saunders presented at the Annual Meeting of the London Missionary Society’s Australian Auxiliary in August 1842, meeting in the Reverend John Dunmore Lang’s church.

Saunders described the work of the LMS as “supremely good,” and observed that, if the church had worked to preserve herself from selfishness from the beginning,

we should not have heard in the present day of missions; for the work of evangelization would have been completed. But after the Gospel was first propagated, men seem to have forgotten their high responsibility, political ambition usurped the place of piety, and a desire for ecclesiastical rule stood in the stead of a regard for the salvation of men and the propagation of the Gospel.[1]

Saunders then gave an account of the rise of modern missions in England, and their progress throughout the world, acknowledging that, while “we cannot expect fruit from a tree just planted – yet how much has been effected by the instrumentality of these societies.

He went on to mention the abolition of slavery, the cessation of the widespread practices of widow-burning and infanticide, and ascribed these advances to “the power of God, for we have learnt that it is not by might nor by power, but by the Spirit of the living God that these things have been accomplished.”[2]

His convictions about the need for social transformation clearly flowed from his evangelical understanding of Scripture, theology and ethics.  His convictions on the mission of the church, and pastoral ministry, flowed from the same spring. In many ways, he is both an inspiration and an exemplar of what we hold to be true and vital in religious belief and practice as Baptists in 2014.

This book, the culmination of some thirty years of painstaking labour by the editors and others, provides a significant and detailed contribution to the primary and secondary sources for the life and ministry of John Saunders.

I am convinced that it is no exaggeration to claim that this volume will become the standard work on the effective founder of colonial Baptist work in Sydney and more widely in Australia.  It is an honour to commend the book to you today, in the hope that you will all buy a copy, dip into its rich pages, discover more of the man and his work, and be inspired by the example of one of the greats of our Baptist heritage.


[1] The Sydney Herald, 26 August 1842, p. 2.

[2] Ibid, pp. 2-3.

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