Christian Socialism in Newcastle, 1890 to 1916

Tony Laffan

Tony Laffan is a social science teacher at Singleton. He has written two books on Labour History in the Newcastle region; Good Work at Westy, on the Socialist Labor Party from 1901 to 1922, and The Freethinker’s Picnic about Newcastle’s Secular Hall of Science, 1884 to 1893. Both are available for $10 posted from PO Box 235 Singleton 2330.

Christian Socialism, particularly of the low church variety, is a relatively neglected area of labour history. Yet for a period it was a significant influence among Australian labour activists.

An indication of this influence was the popularity of a number of American books from this tradition in Australia during the 1880s and 1890s. Coghlan, the statistician, testified to the large distribution of Gronland’s Co-operative Commonwealth, Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Henry George’s
Progress and Poverty . All three drew more heavily from the social gospel movement of the Protestant churches than from Marx.

The publication by the Australian Socialist League (ASL) of pamphlets by the Rev P.Moses and Rev T.Roseby is indicative of the presence of these ideas in NSW. Likewise several ministers in the Primitive Methodist church were active in the early moves to establish a Labour Party in Newcastle. Two of the most obvious were the Revs Hugh Gilmore and James Blanksby.

Gilmore carried the nickname “the red parson” when he was buried in Adelaide in late 1891. Yet in April 1890 he had been a guest of the Newcastle Primitive Methodists. He gave at least three lectures locally that made clear his support of the ideas of Henry George of Single Tax fame.

Blanksby, a Victorian by birth, was based in the Newcastle and Northern NSW Primitive Methodist Connexion. He preached mainly in Newcastle and its inner suburbs but, true to his church’s tradition of itinerancy, he was a frequent visitor to other coal mining townships such as West Wallsend and Greta. From the time of the 1890 Maritime Strike on, Blanksby was a frequent speaker and advocate for the Labour Electoral Leagues (LEL) and the ASL making many platform appearances for them.

Blanksby’s views can be ascertained from two lectures he gave within the Primitive Methodist Church. The first was delivered to the Wickham church during the Maritime Strike of 1890, the second was delivered at the church’s Northern District annual conference of February 1891.

Blanksby told the conference of his church:

The Christian church must be a family blended together, in which all individuals shared alike the responsibilities and the profits of the community. Anything like class distinction, anything that lay between man was contrary to the will and purpose of God. It was impossible to believe that the true interests of one man could be opposed to the true and rightful interests of another. The time was coming when all tyranny, all injustice, all oppression and all that interfered with the true rights of men, must be swept away … no man’s pleasure, profit, enjoyment, liberty or the inheritance of the earth which God had given him, should be at the caprice of some selfish man who happened to be more powerful … God’s purpose was to uplift mankind into one grand united family.1

His earlier address made clear what he meant by “one grand family”. On that occasion he told his Wickham congregation:

Christ said he that loseth his life shall find it. This may render impossible the immense possessions which some are accumulating today, but it places man above possessions, provides for the growth and development of individual and collective human life and guarantees to each what all is able to provide … every man must work, every man have his share of life’s provisions, comforts and enjoyments; that the aged and unfortunate shall live, not as the objects of charity, but as members of a family.2

Within the Primitive Methodist Church there were other ministers who expressed themselves as socialists but who were not identified publicly with the ASL or the LELs (Labor Electoral Leagues) as was Blanksby. The Rev. John Penman and the Rev T.R Davies3 also spoke along the same lines, and the minutes of several Primitive Methodist conferences reflected this interest in socialism during the early 1890s.

Each of these ministers ably represented the traditions of a long line of labour activists stretching back into the medieval guilds. The key phrase from Blanksby—“right not charity”—stretches back to the antiquity of working class organisation. These Christian socialists did not like what they saw as the modernisation of capitalism produced large corporations and trusts.

While Blanksby, along with local MLA and Methodist lay preacher John L.Fegan, broke with the LELs in 1894 when they objected to the imposition of caucus discipline, other Christian ministers continued to be identified with the ASL. For the three years 1897 to mid-1899 the Rev Donald Fraser provided the clearest example.

In 1897 a disagreement occurred in the Newcastle Presbyterian Church. Fraser left and established first an independent congregation, and then linked up with Charles Strong’s Australian Church. (Fraser built the Australian Church up to three congregations prior to leaving Newcastle in 1904.) Fraser also co-operated with Harry Holland who, along with Tom Batho, was publishing the Northern People in Newcastle for the ASL. Fraser advertised his Australian Church in Holland’s paper4 and it in turn carried a number of articles featuring Fraser’s sermons5.

During July 1897 Fraser and Strong gave lectures on Christianity and Socialism in Newcastle. Strong spoke of socialism as the practical realisation of Christianity: “Socialism has helped to give body to Christian hope”6. In November Fraser’s sermons included one on the religion of the future which was based on a chapter from Bellamy’s book Equality7. Another was entitled “The Kingdom of God on Earth”.8

The close identification between the Rev Fraser and the Newcastle ASL continued through 1898 and well into 1899. The Rev G.Walters, also of the Australian Church, joined in the campaign against the undemocratic constitutional proposals for Federation. However by 1900 the ASL had began to come under the influence of the Socialist Labor Party of the USA and the connection with Fraser atrophied.

The Australian Church was not the only Christian organisation to advertise in the Northern People. The Social Evangelism Association of NSW advertised its pamphlets and books9. Again the Northern People reciprocated by publishing articles by the American Christian Socialist, the Rev G.D Herron10. Herron considered competition to be a great evil leading to lower living standards and moral depravity among the workers. The Northern People quoted another Christian Socialist, the Rev D.M Isitt as saying:

it is a miserable travesty on the Christian religion which teaches to a man that the one thing he has to do is to look after his own soul while he leaves the rest of the world to drift to the devil.11

The Social Evangelism Association imported literature from the USA and many of its values can be found in the best selling book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. Herron’s writings for the period 1892 to 1900 are also available in book form. Yet another Christian minister praised for his socialist sermons was the Newcastle Presbyterian the Rev Downey, who was also active in the Loyal Orange lodges of Newcastle.

It could be said, however, that the clergy, who stressed class reconciliation and the redemption of greedy property owners, did not adequately represent the views and attitudes of their congregations and that to get the full measure of this Protestant form of Christian Socialism we thefore need also to look at other activists in the labour movement whom we can describe as Christian Socialists.

One such activist was Richard Proctor. Proctor was a vegetable farmer from Bolwarra just to the north of Maitland. For many years he was a public face for socialism in the Maitland district. He stood for the NSW parliamentary seat of West Maitland in the 1894, 1895 and 1901 elections as a socialist. Proctor stayed in the ASL following its withdrawal from the Labor Party in 1898 over a dispute about the exclusion of socialism from the party platform. However he was to be expelled from the ASL in 1903 for being identified with the Labor Party campaign for the Federal electorate of Hunter. Proctor was a frequent public park orator, a writer of letters to the editor and an author of numerous pamphlets (many of which are held in the Mitchell Library). As late as 1910 he was calling for the nationalisation of the coal mines as a way of settling disputes.

Proctor spelt out his main ideas in a letter published by The People and Collectivist of May 20, 1899:

Jesus, being divine, knew that saving money for self and family must produce selfishness and narrow misconceptions of religious life. He knew that saving money meant living on rents and interest, living on the result of the hard toil of brothers and sisters, and giving no service in return – that it was stealing, and so to prevent stealing and selfishness He commanded His followers for all time not to lay up treasures for self …He knew that the individual thriftlaying up for self was economic stupidity, and could produce nothing else than endless selfishness, stealing, injustice, muddle, sweating, slums, church debts, starvation and false ideas of God’s purpose for man’s brotherhood earth life.

Proctor sought to act on public opinion through the Protestant ministry whom he expected to convince that their existing concepts of political economy were wrong. However, as a farmer, Proctor was relatively remote from the major workforce in the region – the coal miners.

From among the miners there are at least four men who frequently made speeches at miners’ lodge meetings, who repeatedly wrote letters to the editor and who can be identified and tracked over a number of years. Dave Watson, A.T Griffiths, W.Muir and W.Laird can all be classed as Christian socialists and all were active in their respective local miners lodge. Indeed all were community activists playing roles not only in their union but also in organisations such as benefit societies, yearly clubs, co-ops, Loyal Orange and Masonic lodges, churches as well as the Labor Party.

Alfred T.Griffiths, a delegate from Elermore miners’ lodge to the 8 Hour Committee and later a representative of the Sewer Workers’ Union on the Newcastle Labour Council, was the most specific of the four. In 1916, deeply troubled by the slaughter in Europe, he wrote a pamphlet in which he remarked:

the only thing left is to leave the arbitration step, and make an attempt to rise ourselves upon the second and higher step of the principle of co-operation … whereby we may institute a Co-operative Commonwealth instead of a Capitalist Commonwealth and which will enable us to climb to the higher and third step of love.

Griffiths’ favourite biblical text was Acts Chap 4 Verses 32 onwards. Capitalism had to be transcended as it enhanced selfishness and prevented the spiritual welfare of humanity.

These four and many others defended their version of socialism against the challenge posed by advocates of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Preamble, with its emphasis on class war and industry wide unionism. They insisted that parliament and the Labor Pary could be an instrument for God’s work and the removal of social evils. In 1908 the miners’ union, the Colliery Employee’s Federation (CEF), held a district plebiscite to decide which form of union consolidation it should pursue. Peter Bowling, CEF Treasurer, argued for the IWW Preamble adopted by the Western Federation of Miners in the USA. Watson argued for arbitration and the Australian Labor Federation, a federation of existing unions. On the immediate issue Watson carried the day.12

During the campaign Watson13 and Muir14 claimed that the IWW was not socialism. They argued for a comprehensive role for the state but also for individual reconciliation. In letters to the editor both Watson and Muir claimed explicitly to be socialists. After a political struggle lasting over a decade and ranging over many issues Watson finally defeated Bowling as CEF President in 1911 following a disastrous district-wide strike.

Laird was an equally determined opponent of the ‘new unionism’. It is likely that Laird had been a member of the ASL. He claimed friendship with Keir Hardie, the British miners’ MP. He had been a shareholder in the Daily Post 15, published in 1894 by W.M Hughes and associates as they fought for the principle of caucus solidarity. Laird did not concede an inch as to who was the better socialist. But he, together with Muir, led his lodge, Minmi, out of the CEF when the Minmi miners negotiated a five-year no strike deal with ‘Baron’ John Brown.16 Laird was an influential member of his community. He had held executive positions, in some cases for years, in the Minmi miners’ lodge, the Minmi Political Labour League, the Minmi Accident Relief Fund, the Minmi Medical Fund as well as having served as worshipful master of Loyal Orange lodge No. 156.

It is clear from the types of resolutions passed and the issues debated within the CEF that Protestant Christian socialists, frequently Loyal Orange lodge members such as Watson and Laird, had considerable influence in a large number of CEF lodges. Similar activists to these four can be readily identified at miners’ lodges in the Merewether and Adamstown area of this period in particular Dudley, Glebe, the Sea Pit and New Lambton miners’ lodges. While supporting the existing forms of unionism and arbitration, and being reluctant to advocate strikes, these men none the less were extremely critical of certain developments within capitalism. They were advocates of wide ranging reform and of an active form of state intervention. They had a significant influence on the Newcastle labour movement for many years. Watson became a Senator and A.T Griffiths was the father of long time MHR for Shortland, Charlie Griffiths to name just two.

References

  1. Newcastle Morning Herald (NMH), Feb 10, 1891
  2. NMH, Sept 3, 1890
  3. NMH, Jan 26, 1894
  4. Northern People, Oct 30, 1897
  5. Northern People, May 1, 1897
  6. Northern People, July 10, 1897
  7. Northern People, Nov 6, 1897
  8. Northern People, Nov 27, 1897
  9. Northern People, Aug 14, 1897
  10. Northern People, July 24, Aug 28, Sept 4&18, 1897
  11. Northern People, Jun 5, 1897
  12. The People, Mar 14, 1908
  13. NMH, Nov 23, 1907
  14. NMH, Dec 2, 1907
  15. Common Cause, Dec 9, 1921
  16. NMH, Feb 25, 1913