Richard Johnson (chaplain)

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Richard Johnson
Bornc. 1756
Welton, Yorkshire
Died13 March 1827(1827-03-13) (aged 70–71)
EducationMagdalene College, Cambridge
SpouseMary Burton
ChurchChurch of England

Richard Johnson (c. 1756 – 13 March 1827 in England) was the first Christian cleric in Australia.

Early life[edit]

Johnson was the son of John and Mary Johnson. He was born in Welton, Yorkshire and educated at Hull Grammar School under Joseph Milner. In 1780 he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge as a sizar and graduated in 1784.[1] His first post was as curate of Boldre, where William Gilpin was vicar. After about a year in Boldre, Johnson moved to London to work as assistant to Henry Foster, an itinerant evangelical preacher.

Life in New South Wales[edit]

Johnson was appointed chaplain of the prison colony at New South Wales in 1786.[1] This appointment was due, in large part, to the influence of the Eclectic Society and two notable men, John Newton and William Wilberforce, who were keen for a committed evangelical Christian to take the role of chaplain in the colony.[2] Johnson and his wife Mary sailed with the First Fleet and arrived in Australia in 1788.[1][2] In addition to guiding the spiritual life of convicts, soldiers and settlers in the new colony, Johnson was charged with providing education to the convicts.

At the first Christian service held at Sydney Cove on Sunday, 3 February 1788, Johnson took as his text Psalm 116:12-13:[3]

What shall I render unto the Lord
for all his benefits towards me?
I will take the cup of salvation,
and call upon the name of the Lord.

As Governor Arthur Phillip was primarily concerned with finding means of feeding and housing the soldiers and convicts in the harsh conditions of the colony in its early years, labour could not be spared for the building of a church.[1] Services were held in the open air and even four years later, when Johnson appealed to Phillip for churches at both Sydney and Parramatta, he had no success.[1] Under lieutenant-governors Grose and Paterson, Johnson fared even worse. Grose made vague charges against him and Johnson made many complaints about the treatment he received.[1]

He was given a grant of land where the suburb of Ashbury now stands and worked it so successfully with the help of some convict labour that, in November 1790, Captain Tench called him the best farmer in the country.[1] He planted seeds of oranges and lemons he had obtained at Rio de Janeiro, which later on produced good crops of fruit, and occasional references are found to his having made a fortune by his farming; this is all probability an overstatement, though he sold his land and stock to good advantage when he left the colony.[1]

In May 1789 the Johnsons took into their home an indigenous girl aged about 15, called Araboo or Boorong, who had survived the 1789 Sydney smallpox outbreak. She learned some English and some Western customs and visited the Johnsons after returning to her own people.[4][5]

In 1790 he and Mary had a daughter, who was given the Aboriginal name Milbah.[2] They also had a son in 1792.[2]

In early 1793, Johnson cared for the ill chaplain of Malaspina's Spanish expedition, Fr José de Mesa, with, according to the expedition's journal, "a kindness, spirit of unity and a simplicity that were truly of the Gospel”.[6]

In June 1793, tired of waiting on the authorities, he began to build a church himself, and by September, at a cost of about £67, completed a building capable of holding 500 people.[1] Even allowing for the difference in the purchasing power of money and the comparative flimsiness of the structure, this was a remarkable achievement.[1] This church was burnt down in 1798.[2] Johnson, with his wife Mary, taught between 150 and 200 school children in this church.

An assistant chaplain, the Reverend Samuel Marsden, was appointed in the same year and arrived early in 1794; and henceforth Johnson had the support of a stronger personality than his own.[1] In 1794 he published An Address to the Inhabitants of the Colonies established in New South Wales and Norfolk Island and, in 1800, obtained leave of absence to visit England.[1] He sailed on the Buffalo in October and did not return to Australia.[1] In June 1802 King in a dispatch said: "I understand that Rev'd Mr Johnson does not mean to return."[1] Practically he retired in 1802, but so late as July 1805 he appears on a list of officers as "On leave in England, no successor or second clergyman appointed".[1]

Return to England and later life[edit]

After returning to England, in about August 1801 Johnson took up a curacy with the Reverend Thomas Dykes of St John's, Kingston-upon-Hull. During this time he had opportunity to influence William Cowper, who became the third chaplain to New South Wales after being recruited by Samuel Marsden. In November 1803 Johnson was curate at Bunwell, Norfolk, a position he occupied until he moved to West Thurrock, Essex, in April 1809. In 1810 he was presented by the king to the united parishes of St Antholin and St John Baptist, in London.[1] He never served as a curate at Ingham, despite oft-repeated claims to the contrary. The Richard Johnson who served at Ingham was a different person.

Johnson continued to take an interest in Australia, appearing before the House of Commons Select Committee on Transportation in 1812[2] and in 1815 he recommended John Youl to be chaplain at Port Dalrymple. He died on 13 March 1827.[1]

In popular culture[edit]

Johnson was portrayed by Ewen Bremner, and his wife by Genevieve O'Reilly, in the 2015 TV series Banished.[7]

See also[edit]


This article incorporates public domain text from the reference.[1]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Serle, Percival (1949). "Johnson, Richard". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Cable, K. J. (1967). "Johnson, Richard (1753–1827)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
  3. ^ "Richard Johnson Obelisk". City Art Sydney. Retrieved 23 January 2021.
  4. ^ Lonsdale, Natalie (2019). "Johnson, Mary (1753–1831)". People Australia. National Centre for Biography. Retrieved 12 August 2021.
  5. ^ "Letter of Richard Johnson to Henry Fricker". State Library of New South Wales. 1789. Retrieved 12 August 2021.
  6. ^ David, Andrew (7 December 2018). The Malaspina Expedition 1789-1794:Volume III: Manila to Cadiz. London: Hakluyt Society. p. 84. ISBN 9780904180848.
  7. ^ "BBC: Banished". Retrieved 19 May 2022.

Further reading[edit]

  • Richard Johnson - Chaplain to the Colony of New South Wales by Neil K. Macintosh, 1978. ISBN 0908120168
  • Australian Christian Life from 1788 - An Introduction and an Anthology by Iain H. Murray, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh 1988.
  • Peter G. Bolt, "The Case of the Disappearing Chaplain: Reverend Richard Johnson's 'Missing Years'", Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 95.2 (2009), 176–195.
  • The state of religion and education in New South Wales by William Westbrooke Burton, 1840. Available on Google Books.
  • Some letters of Rev. Richard Johnson, B.A.: first chaplain of New South Wales, collected and edited, with introduction, notes and commentary by George Mackaness, Sydney: G. Mackaness, 1954 (Sydney : D. S. Ford)

External links[edit]