Theme Aboriginal Missions

Written by Joanna Cruikshank, Deakin University

Early Protestant Missions

The colonisation of Australia occurred at a time when European Christians were developing a new interest in overseas missionary work. Evangelistic activity had been an important part of the Christian faith from its earliest days, and, during the early modern period, Roman Catholic and Protestant missionaries had been sent from European churches to China, India and the Americas. During the 18th century, however, the Evangelical Revival sparked a new concern among Protestants for converting the 'heathen', partly shaped by European exploration and imperial activity (Etherington, 9). In Britain, this concern resulted in the establishment of a number of missionary societies, including the London Missionary Society (LMS) in 1795, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in 1799 and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (WMMS) in 1818. Inspired by reports of explorers such as Captain James Cook, several of these early societies had a particular interest in evangelising the peoples of the Pacific, including the Indigenous people of the Australian colonies. In the early 19th century, missionaries from the LMS, WMMS and CMS attempted to evangelise Aboriginal people in and around the colonial settlements of New South Wales (Harris, 21-85).

Women had limited opportunities for leadership within these early Protestant missionary efforts. The earliest missionaries to Pacific islands were single men, as missionary societies believed that women and children would not be able to survive the difficult conditions of pioneering missionary work. However, after a number of the first missionaries formed sexual relationships with Indigenous women, missionary societies began to see missionary wives as an essential guard against temptation (Carey, 230-232). Samuel Marsden, influential Anglican chaplain to the colony from 1794 and strong supporter of Pacific missions, argued that 'Eve was given to Adam as an Helpmate to him even in Paradise before he had known either Sin or temptation or Sorrow. Much more will Man want a Companion now in such a Wilderness as the Islands of these Seas' (Samuel Marsden, Parramatta, 30 January 1801).

The model of wives as 'companions' to missionaries rather than missionaries in their own right was dominant during the first half of the 19th century. The records of male missionaries at the LMS mission at Lake Macquarie and the CMS mission at Wellington Valley show that their wives were integral to the work of the missions, both undertaking the substantial domestic labour required to sustain mission households and engaging with Indigenous people through teaching and care of the sick (Carey, 234-6).

In more urban missionary contexts, women could take on some formal leadership roles. William and Elizabeth Shelley, a couple who had formerly been LMS missionaries in Tahiti, established the Native Institution in Parramatta in 1814. The Institution was formed with the intention of converting and 'civilising' the children of local Indigenous people. After William Shelley died in 1815, Elizabeth became manager of the Institution and ran it until 1823, when it was closed down. Thirty years later, on the other side of the continent, an evangelical woman named Anne Camfield, wife of a prominent settler, established the Albany Native Institution. Camfield ran the Institution until 1872, when it was handed over to one of her female assistants. These two institutions, located in areas of white settlement and focused on the education and conversion of children, were seen as an acceptable domain for women's leadership (Cruickshank, 2008, 122).

Missions and Mission Societies, 1850-1900

During the second half of the 19th century, a new wave of missions among Aboriginal people arose across Australia. These included a number of Presbyterian missions (managed by Moravian missionaries) in Victoria and Queensland, Lutheran missions in central Australia and Anglican missions in Queensland and Western Australia. These missions, generally in locations remote from white settlement, were established and supported by settler churches, with some funds contributed by colonial governments and European mission organisations. In addition, a number of independent missions were established through the efforts of individual Christian couples, often in alliance with local Indigenous people; these included the Maloga mission in northern Victoria (established by Daniel and Janet Matthews), the Point McLeay mission in South Australia (established by George and Martha Taplin) and the Coranderrk mission in Victoria (established by John and Mary Green).

The establishment of these missions coincided with broader shifts in attitudes to gender roles, with the development of a mission philosophy of 'women's work for women' in European missionary societies from the mid-19th century. This philosophy emerged from missionary experience in cultures where missionary men were granted only limited contact with indigenous women and had to rely on their wives- or, more rarely, single missionary women- for evangelism among indigenous women. However, it quickly became part of a broader evangelical understanding of women as the key to religious reform. If 'heathen' women could be converted and civilised, this reasoning ran, first the family and then the whole society could be reformed. Through this shift in missionary culture, new leadership roles became available to women- both married and single- in Protestant mission societies around the world (Sherlock & Grimshaw, 184-5).
In Australia, this trend emerged first through the establishment of mission auxiliaries, societies established by women to provide funding and support to the major denominational missionary societies. These missionary societies were the 'first centralised statewide organisations of church women in the Protestant churches' and they multiplied quickly (O'Brien, 74). In 1884, the Ladies' Auxiliary to the London Missionary Society was established, followed in 1885 by the Baptist Zenana Missionary Society and shortly afterwards by Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican societies.

While some of these societies primarily acted to rally church-going women in support of existing missionary efforts, others promoted the employment of women as missionaries. Most of these women missionaries were sent to foreign mission fields but a small number were employed in Australia. For example, the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Unions (PWMU) employed a number of single women to work at the Presbyterian missions in far north Queensland. The most famous of these women, Matilda Ward, worked at the Mapoon mission for nearly thirty years. Ward, whose husband had died shortly after the couple established Mapoon in 1891, exercised some authority on the mission. For the most part, this authority was wielded in roles conventionally considered feminine- Ward oversaw the children's dormitories, taught at the mission school and visited the homes of young married Aboriginal women. The girls and women who had been under her care addressed her as 'Mother' or 'Aunty', reflecting the maternal model that informed her leadership. More unusually, Ward occasionally addressed the congregation at the mission church, and she and the others employed by the PWMU were required- sometimes against their inclination- to address mixed meetings of missionary supporters (Cruickshank, 2011, 35-8).

Women's missionary societies also gave women experience in fundraising, public speaking, producing publicity material and reports, and all the organisational processes of selecting and supporting missionaries. The PWMU annual report for 1899 stated: 'The women of our Church have learned the power of organisation, and by concerted action in this Missionary enterprise, they desire, in fellowship with Jesus Christ, to have the standard of service raised to His high ideal' ('Annual Report of the PWMU', 1899, xl-xli). The following year, the president of the Queensland PWMU wrote: 'Even if we are Presbyterian women who have been handicapped in our younger days, and not allowed to speak, [the PWMU] just shows today what the women of the Presbyterian Church can do' (Mrs William Jones, in Pigram, 8).

Women's Leadership in the 'Faith Missions'

While women's societies were forming within the major Australian denominations, a new approach to missions was developing outside these churches that had more radical implications for the kind of leadership that missionary women could exercise. This new model of mission, broadly categorised as 'faith missions', prioritised personal spiritual zeal and gifting over institutional support or formal training. Inspired by the work of the founder of the China Inland Mission, Hudson Taylor, inter-denominational missionary societies were established around the world, including Australia, in the latter part of the 19th century.

In 1882, a young woman named Florence Young, the sister of plantation owners in north Queensland, began holding Bible teaching meetings for the Pacific Islanders who worked on the plantation. Under her influence, a number of other white women began holding similar meetings on nearby plantations. By 1886, Young had established the Queensland Kanaka Mission, of which she was the secretary. Though the mission employed a white man as missionary, the bulk of the teaching was done by white women volunteers and converted Pacific Islander men. While the prominent role that women played in the mission may partly have reflected assumptions about the childlike qualities of the labourers, who were invariably referred to as 'Boys', Young and her fellow workers were deeply influenced by Hudson Taylor's philosophy of mission, including his openness to single women missionaries (Young, 51).

At the same time as the Queensland Kanaka Mission was formed, similar missions to the Aboriginal people were being established. In 1905, Retta Dixon, a missionary with the recently established New South Wales Aborigines Mission (NSWAM) left to form her own organisation for mission to Aboriginal people. For the next 48 years, Dixon directed this new mission, the Aborigines Inland Mission (AIM), sharing the role with her husband, Leonard Long, until his death in 1928. While Leonard played a significant role in the administration, Retta was recognised as providing the spiritual leadership of and inspiration for the mission. She penned a number of books about her experience and the experience of other AIM missionaries, emphasising the miraculous guidance and provision of God (Radi,

Both the AIM and the United Aborigines Mission (UAM), the other 'faith mission' that emerged from the NSWAM, consistently employed more women than men. The model of missionary character they idealised-self-sacrificing, entirely obedient to the will of God, encountering God's presence through emotional and miraculous experiences- seems to have been more attractive to women than to men. Within this model, women such as Retta Dixon Long were able to exercise an unusual degree of formal and informal leadership. More broadly, the insistence of Dixon Long that both men and women- whether married or single- should be considered missionaries in their own right, represented a significant departure from the long- standing practice within denominational missions of considering wives as 'companions' to missionary men (O'Brien, 142-51).

While the fundamentalist theology of the UAM and AIM meant that their missionaries saw individual salvation as more important than social improvement, both male and female missionaries could become involved in political activism where they felt injustice needed to be redressed. Mary Montgomerie (Montgomery) Bennett, a UAM missionary based at Mount Margaret Mission (Western Australia) from 1932, became a passionate advocate for the rights of Aboriginal people. She was particularly concerned about child removal and the mistreatment and misrepresentation of Aboriginal women, publishing and speaking to domestic and international audiences (Holland, 129-52).

Roman Catholic Missions

Roman Catholic missionary work among Aboriginal people had begun in Western Australia in the 1840s, but this work was primarily undertaken by male orders. The 20th century saw the growing presence of women religious on the Roman Catholic missions, including St John of God Sisters at Beagle Bay and Benedictine Missionary Sisters at New Norcia (both in Western Australia). These women often had limited autonomy, but could nonetheless exercise leadership in their relationships with each other and Indigenous people on missions. In doing so, they modelled a form of single female leadership unusual in counterpart Protestant missions. For example, Sister (later Mother) Mary Gertrude (Anne Greene), nursed at the Beagle Bay mission from 1930 and lobbied the Western Australian government to fund a leprosarium there, which she then helped to establish. She worked at the leprosarium until 1947, when she became provincial superior of the North-West (Clement,

Aboriginal Women's Leadership on Missions

Aboriginal women played significant leadership roles on missions, as teachers, community leaders and sometimes evangelists, but few were given formal authority or recognised as missionaries. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some Aboriginal women who had been educated at mission schools were formally appointed as teachers or teachers' assistants at the mission school. At the Victorian mission of Ramahyuck, Bessy Flowers and Emily Stephens taught at the mission school, which on several occasions received the highest results in the colony (Jensz). Angelina Noble, whose husband James Noble was the first Aboriginal person to be ordained, worked with her husband and the Anglican missionary, Ernest Gribble, at the Yarrabah, Forrest River and Palm Island missions. Angelina Noble played a central role in establishing the Forrest River mission, nursed, taught in the mission school and cooked for the mission staff. At Roman Catholic missions such as New Norcia, some Aboriginal women joined the religious orders that ran the missions and so were involved in the roles of teaching, care and administration that women religious undertook on these missions (Massam, 201-14).

Aboriginal women were given more formal- though still limited- leadership roles within the AIM. In her early missionary efforts, Retta Dixon worked closely with Emma Timbery, a leader of the Dharawal people based at La Perouse Aboriginal Settlement in Sydney. Timbery and Dixon made a number of missionary trips to Aboriginal communities together. Timbery was vice-president of the Aboriginal Christian Endeavour Society founded at La Perouse. Other Aboriginal women (and men) were formally appointed as 'Native Helpers' and received some training, but, as the title suggests, were not given status equal to that of the non-Indigenous missionaries (Nugent,

Additional sources: Marsden, Samuel, Parramatta, 30 January 1801, London Missionary Society Records, FM4/401, Australian Joint Copying Project microfilm, Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Published Resources


  • Choo, Christine, Mission Girls: Aboriginal Women on Catholic Missions in the Kimberley, Western Australia, 1900-1950, University of Western Australia (UWA) Publishing, Perth, Western Australia, 2001. Details
  • Harris, John, One Blood: Two Hundred Years of Aboriginal Encounter with Christianity: A Story of Hope, Albatross Books, Sydney, New South Wales, 1990. Details
  • O'Brien, Anne, God's Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 2005. Details
  • Pigram, Joan, For the Advancement of the Kingdom: The Work of Presbyterian Women in Queensland through the PWMU and the PWA, 1892-1992, Board of Finance, Presbyterian Church of Australia, Brisbane, Queensland, 1994. Details

Book Sections

  • Cruickshank, Joanna, 'To exercise a beneficial influence over a man': Marriage, Gender and the Native Institutions in Early Colonial Australia', in Amanda Barry, Joanna Cruickschank, Andrew Brown-May & Patricia Grimshaw (ed.), Evangelists of Empire? Missionaries in Colonial History, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2008, pp. 115-24. Details
  • Cruickshank, Joanna, '"Mother, teacher, adviser and missionary": Matilda Ward in North Queensland, 1891-1917', in Fiona Davis, Nell Musgrove and Judith Smart (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 27-45. Details
  • Etherington, Norman, 'Introduction', in Norman Etherington (ed.), Missions and Empire, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2005, pp. 1-18. Details
  • Grimshaw, Patricia & Sherlock, Peter, 'Women and Cultural Exchanges', in Norman Etherington (ed.), Missions and Empire, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2005, pp. 173-93. Details
  • Holland, Alison, 'Whatever her race, a woman is not a chattel: Mary Montgomery Bennett', in Anna Cole, Victoria Haskins & Fiona Paisley (ed.), Uncommon Ground: White Women in Aboriginal History, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2005, pp. 129-52. Details
  • Massam, Katharine, '"That There was Love in This Home": The Benedictine Missionary Sisters at New Norcia"', in Amanda Barry, Joanna Cruickshank, Andrew Brown-May & Patricia Grimshaw (ed.), Evangelists of Empire? Missionaries in Colonial History, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2008, pp. 201-14. Details
  • Massam, Katherine, 'A Leader without Authority: Mary Consuelo de la Cruz Batiz and Missionary Women at New Norcia', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 72-88. Details

Journal Articles

  • Carey, Hilary M., 'Companions in the Wilderness? Missionary Wives in Colonial Australia, 1788-1900', Journal of Religious History, vol. 19, no. 2, 1995, pp. 227-43. Details

Online Resources