An outline history of the Baptist Union of Australia
Based on Baptised into one Body by Basil Brown
published by the Baptist Union of Australia, 1987
© David Parker Sept 1999, Nov 2009
Baptist churches began in Australia from the 1830s and the first Baptist Union was formed in 1862 in Victoria, but the Baptist Union of Australia was not formed until 1926. However, efforts to form an Australasian Association date from the early 1850s with John Ham (Sydney) and Decimus Dolamore (Nelson, NZ). In fact, an Association was formed as early as 1858 but it did not survive beyond its second meeting! Separation of Australian colonies led to formation of localised Associations although frequent intercolonial movement of ministers meant that there were always those who saw the wisdom of wider fellowship. In later years, virtually all Baptist churches in the country (the exceptions being the very small numbers of Calvinistic and fundamentalist churches) have been affiliated with the one network of state unions.
Nationalistic moves towards federation on the political level in late 19th century had their influence on Baptists and the first meeting of intercolonial representatives took place in Melbourne November 1897 to discuss matters of common concern. Nothing came of the suggestion that they should continue meet on a three yearly basis.
After the Federation of the Australian colonies in 1901, Baptist representatives from New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia met in Adelaide in September 1902 for an Interstate Baptist Federal Conference under the chairmanship of Rev. Silas Mead. It was acknowledged that, if Baptist federation were to be achieved, the local autonomy of the various Unions must be maintained, save on issues which had their consent. These issues should be dealt with by a representative Federal Council meeting annually at Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide in turn. Most of the areas of co-operation which still engage the energies of Australian Baptists were discussed by the Conference. General approval was given to this scheme by State Unions and a Federal Council established. It met again in Melbourne 1903, but there few tangible results.
The establishment of the Baptist World Alliance in 1905 provided encouragement for an Australian Baptist Union. So an Australasian Baptist Congress was convened for Sydney in 1908. Seventy-seven delegates gathered from every State of the Commonwealth and from New Zealand, with a considerable number of associate delegates in addition. This congress drew Baptists together in a new way. Up to this time, for the most part only denominational leaders had shown concern about the federation of Baptist work, but the Congress created a wider desire for denominational unity. The editor of The Southern Baptist, Rev. F.J. Wilkin, summed up the impact of the meetings exuberantly by reporting that despite the lack of concrete steps, "the federal spirit was intensified."
A second Congress met in 1911 in Melbourne with 83 delegates. Many were eager to form a Union, even though they were conscious of serious differences between the states on matters of organization and belief. But NSW was not ready for federation.
However, a new Federal Committee was established to take action where there was agreement already. An Interstate Convention was organized for Aug 1912, again in Melbourne at which it was agreed that there should be an Australian Baptist College in Melbourne to train ministerial students for both home and overseas service. It was also resolved that the missionary work in India which had been conducted by separate State missionary societies should be federated in an Australian Board of Foreign Missions, the members of which should be elected by their home State, and which would meet twice annually in Adelaide. Finally, it was determined that an Australian Baptist Publishing House be set up in Sydney to issue, inter alia, a penny weekly denominational paper.
As a result of these decisions, the Australian Baptist Publishing House was set up began published the Australian Baptist on 7 Jan 1913 (The Southern Baptist which had circulated the southern states was closed, as was the Queensland Baptist, although the latter was reopened in 1921. In Feb 1913, the Australian Baptist Foreign Mission commenced (although without Queensland participation). Legal problems prevented the Victorian College being transferred to the States as the Australian Baptist College, despite the wish of the Victorians for this to happen. Thus the idea of a national college was abandoned.
World War I prevented further meetings of delegates, (apart from a small Board), but the nationalism developed by Australian involvement in the War and concern to overcome minor issues greatly stimulated the desire for unity. Thus the deferred 3rd Australasian Congress gathered in Melbourne in August, 1922, with all states and NZ taking part. It was highly successful. It was decided to prepare proposals for increasingly close co-operation which might lead ultimately to the creation of an Australian Baptist Union.
The 4th Australasian Baptist Congress assembled in Adelaide in August, 1925 (but there was no one from NZ). The most significant business was careful scrutiny of the draft constitution of a proposed Baptist Union of Australia, which was then referred back to state unions for adoption. Within three months, the Constitution had been endorsed by each of the six State Unions. In consequence some 240 delegates and associate delegates assembled in Sydney in late August, 1926, to establish the Baptist Union of Australia. Visitors from England, Holland and New Zealand were associated with the Assembly.
The Chairman of the Interstate Board, Rev. J.H. Goble, presided over the inaugural ceremony in the Burton Street Tabernacle on the afternoon of August 25. By-laws were adopted and following Boards were constituted: the Home Mission Board, to be located in New South Wales; the Educational Board, in Victoria; and a Young People’s Board, in Queensland. Preparations were made for the setting up of an Advisory Board and a Ministerial Pension Fund at a later date. The relationship of the already existing Australian Baptist Foreign Mission Board to the new Union was discussed. Steps were to be taken in the future for its incorporation into the Baptist Union, but it was agreed that, for the present, it would function along the lines of its own constitution, reporting annually to the Executive Council and to Assemblies of the Baptist Union of Australia, both of which had power to make recommendations to the Foreign Mission Board. Rev. J.H. Goble, unanimously elected the first President of the Union, was only one of a group of outstanding men and women who have contributed to the formation and development of the Baptist Union of Australia as its officers and leaders..
The Baptist Union of Australian is a federation of State Unions, not a fellowship of churches. (This parallels the Commonwealth of Australia which is a federation of states.) The Union proposed to foster fellowship and co-operation between Australian Baptists, and to demonstrate their essential unity in doctrine, polity and service. It would confer on matters of concern to the churches in the Commonwealth and on the mission field and, in co-operation with State Unions, would carry out work considered desirable. The Union would operate by its Assembly meeting not less frequently than triennially, through its officers and Executive Council, and by means of its Boards. Efforts over the years to engage interest of rank and file Baptists in the Assemblies and program of the BUA were not very successful. So there was a change in 1975 to a convention type program which is geared to families in a holiday atmosphere.
The BUA is now based in Melbourne, although in earlier years it moved around the states. The newspaper, The Australian Baptist ceased publication in Dec 1991; the BUA then published a small quarterly promotional magazine, The National Baptist for a number of years.
Important ministries of the BUA include:
Australian Baptist Missionary Society (Now Global Interaction)