In late August, we had the pleasure of hosting Dr Meredith Lake, author of The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, for two days. Her book has just won the Australian History Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, recognizing its readability, the wide-ranging exploration of the ways the Bible infused Australia’s past, and her argument that in order to understand the colonial history of Australia (and we’d add New Zealand), we must better understand how the Bible operated as a cultural and literary text in our societies.
The Bible is central to our project. It was the key way in which Australasians encountered the Middle East in the late 19th century, and it was the common reference point for almost all Australians and New Zealanders who went to the region in the first half of the 20th century. Sunday schools and Bible study groups flourished in the mid to late nineteenth-century as part of what Lake calls a ‘church boom’ in the colonies. Sermons and family bible reading ensured that the lessons of the Old and New Testaments were tightly woven into daily life in Australia and New Zealand.
Bibles were also the most common book soldiers took to war. Harold Kretschmar’s Bible Study group gave him a Bible before he embarked, which had a photograph of the group pasted inside the front cover. Australasians learned the Bible in varying depth, but for most, at the very least, ‘the Holy Land’ was the place of Jesus’ birth and death. Chaplains and padres led tours and gave lectures to men and women who were stationed in the Middle East. How men reacted to the sights of the Holy Land were also influenced by Bible-learning with many soldiers being dismayed by the ornateness of the Church of the Nativity, or the commercialism of what they saw as sacred places.
Sunday Schools were a vital mechanism for learning the Bible in the early 20th century, probably more so than church attendance. As well as the establishment of Sunday School classes across Australia and New Zealand, large numbers of tracts, newspapers, and journals were produced for young readers and those who taught them. Illustrated Bibles and Children's Bibles were especially popular, creating not only stories of the Bible and its peoples and landscapes for children, but images as well.