Chief justice Samuel Way (front row, third from right) with members of the British and Foreign Bible Society in a garden in Adelaide in about 1912.
Image courtesy State Library of South Australia

ADELAIDE NOT WHOLLY CITY OF CHURCHES but shaped strongly by a founding on belief in freedom for Protestant Dissent/nonconformity 


ADELAIDE'S REPUTATION AS THE "'CITY OF CHURCHES" IS HALF MYTH.  Hotels have always outnumbered churches in Adelaide. In the 21st Century, South Australians have been among the highest in the nation for answering “No religion” in the census.

But faith beliefs have profoundly shaped South Australia right from its founding on principles of freedom on worship and separating church and state.

This was the dream of the British Dissenters and nonconformists, who wished to move beyond the traditions of the state church: the Church of England. At the end of the English Civil Wars (1650), many became Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists and Quakers.

Although the 1689 Toleration Act allowed their own places of worship, Dissenters still faced economic and social intolerance into the 19th Century.

In the 1830s, prominent London Dissenters Robert Gouger and George Fife Angas became interested in the colonisation plan by a Quaker: Edward Gibbon Wakefield. They promoted a British colony with a founding ethos of religious freedom, no favoured state church and no curb on one religious group over another.

The more progressive Dissenters drew on philosophy and scientific legacy of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. This sat comfortably with faith beliefs that engaged with the world rather than mysticism.

The strength of Dissenters in South Australia is essential to explaining why, among its other social advances, the province was among the first in the world to give women the vote and right to stand for parliament. But Dissenting faiths, in their alternate facet of conservative family values, also contribute to explaining why South Australia was the last state to have women elected to parliament.

Another aspect of the freedom of beliefs underpinning South Australia was that it also brought other influences, such as Lutheran Germans, Afghan Muslims and Jews, to the cultural mix.



in South Australia settlement; misunderstand Aboriginal culture 

Dissent, nonconformity higher among South Australian churchgoers than other colonies

Dissenters, or nonconformists, made up a higher part of the early population of South Australia than other Australian colonies. The role of religion in South Australia was important for the associations promoting the province in the 1830s. Those involved in planning South Australia wanted a society based on religious equality and liberty. Many opposed state aid, supporting the voluntary principle of adherents supporting their churches and clergy without government help.


Diversity of belief and disbelief noted by Mark Twain during visit to Adelaide of 1895

When Mark Twain visited South Australia in 1895, he repeated the view of Adelaide as  “the city of churches” but noted its diversity of belief. This diversity stemmed from the principles of founding South Australia – “civil liberty, social opportunity and equality for all religions”– viewed as important in attracting migrants. The diversity of places of worship  and encouraged. A 1900 survey revealed 33 chapels and churches, a synagogue and a mosque in the city square mile.


Christian settlers can't grasp Aboriginal culture as spiritual without civilisation

South Australia’s Aboriginal people didn’t need churches. The land was their spirituality. Europeans settlers generally didn’t grasp or accept this concept. They saw Aboriginal nomadic traditions as primitive tribalism. in 1838, Governor George Gawler' told the “natives”: “You cannot be happy unless you imitate good white men. Build huts, wear clothes, work and be useful. Above all things, you cannot be happy unless you love God who made heaven and earth and men and all things”.


Dissenters affronted early by Church of England's sole right to perform weddings

One of the first issues to upset South Australia’s dissenters went to the heart of why they sought religious freedom. Originally, only Church of England clergy could perform marriages in South Australia. The  colony's founders had succeeded in making South Australia the first British colony not to have state support of religion. But a clause inserted into the founding South Australia Act gave the crown the power to power to appoint “Chaplains and Clergymen of the Established Church." 



in approach, education; fight to keep church and state separate

Pioneer minister Thomas Stow stands firm against state aid for church schools

 First Congregational minister Thomas Qinton Stow helped build South Australia's first place of worship with gum posts, pine rafters and reed thatch on North terrace in 1838. Stow opened a daily classical academy, starting the long-standing Congregational link with a higher education in the colony. He was appointed to the first board of education in 1846. His firm stand against state aid to religion had a powerful influence from 1846 until the grants to churches were abandoned in 1851

James Jefferis followed by William Fletcher as champions of education and intellectual life

The Jefferis medal in philosophy salutes the work of Congregational minister James Jefferis in the founding of University of Adelaide in 1874. Jefferis didn't only earnestly promote education. As a public intellectual, his statements on issues, such as supporting Australian nationhood, earned him the title “prophet of federation”. William Roby Fletcher continued the intellectual tradition when he took over as minister of Stow Congregational Church in 1877. Fletcher took Jefferis's place on the University of Adelaide Council (1878-87) and became vice-chancellor (1883-87).


William Fletcher continues Jefferis's intellectual tradition and public discourse

William Roby Fletcher continued the intellectual tradition of James Jefferis when he took over as minister of Stow Congregational Church in 1877. Fletcher had won the gold medal at London University where he took a BA degree in mathematics, classics and moral and natural philosophy, and an MA in philosophy and political economy. At Adelaide University, Fletcher filled in as professor of English language and literature and mental and moral philosophy. 


economy of early South Australia via an array of Protestant sects

Edward Stephens a pillar of Methodism and colony's early banking and mining industry

A zealous Wesleyan, Edward Stephens was active in establishing Methodism in Adelaide. The first Methodist sermon was preached in his tent at Holdfast Bay. He was largely responsible for building the first two Methodist chapels. In 1840, he became manager of South Australian Banking Company and steered it through a depression. He was one of the first to visit the Burra Burra copper deposits. The bank profited greatly from him energetically promoting them.


Colony's Presbyterians few and divided but enable university, missions and colleges

Scottish Presbyterians made notable contributions to South Australia, despite their small numbers and struggle for funding. Walter Hughes gave £20,000 in 1872 to the theological Union College. The money was diverted to founding Adelaide University. John Flynn developed the flying doctor service from Australian Inland Mission. Prompted by the Rev. John Alfred Seymour and Professor Henry Darnley Naylor, lay members raised enough to start Scotch and Seymour colleges. 


Baptists early split over membership; now between evangelicals and conservatives

South Australia’s first Baptist congregation in was formed in Adelaide in 1838 by English and Scottish migrants. Most prominent was David McLaren, second manager of the South Australian Company. Baptists originated among Reformation radicals who believed the true church should give baptism only to those who had made a conscious decision of faith. A tendency towards American-style evangelism further divided the Baptist church in South Australia in the 20th Century.


Helen Spence among radical Unitarians prominent in business, politics and education

Unitarians were the most radical of Adelaide’s dissenters and had a greater impact than elsewhere in Australia.The intellectual preaching of John Crawford Woods appealed to liberal-minded, educated, wealthier people. Unitarians included politicians and business leaders such as Edward Morgan, Henry Ayers and Alfred Muller Simpson. John Howard Clark and Robert Kay were active in the education cause. Suffrage campaigner Catherine Helen Spence joined the church in 1856.



solid institutions, high church tendency but authority diminished

Holy Trinity oldest surviving church as Anglicans tend to take the high road

The Anglican Holy Trinity in North Terrace is the oldest surviving church in South Australia. Although rebuilt in 1880s to architect E. John Woods’ design, it has elements of the original building from 1838. This was Adelaide’s establishment church. As the pro tempore cathedral church, it became the place of worship for governors, many prominent families and the military until Christ Church, North Adelaide, was opened. It tended to be high church in teaching and worship.

Bishop Augustus Short starts St Peter's College, St Peter's Cathedral and the theological college

As a high churchman, the first Anglican bishop of Adelaide (1847-81), Augustus Short, frequently clashed with his own predominantly evangelical flock and with the province's Protestant Dissenters. Short, educated at Westminster and Christ Church, Oxford, became interested in the high-Anglican Oxford movement. He was consecrated as bishop in Westminster Abbey in 1847 after choosing to come to Adelaide. In 1872, Short surrendered his claim to precedence over all faiths as bishop of Adelaide. He transformed the Trinity Church school in Adelaide into the Collegiate School of St Peter. He also started the building of St Peter’s Cathedral (1869) and founded St Barnabas Theological College (1880).


Victoria Square site for cathedral blocked by supreme court in symbolic rebuff

The present site of St Peter’s Cathedral represents a rebuff to the  Anglican Church 's authority in South Australia. In 1848, governor Frederick Robe granted land in Victoria Square, marked in Light’s plan for public use, to the Anglican church to build a cathedral. When the grant was questioned, Bishop Augustus Short went to the Supreme Court. who confirmed the grant was invalid. In response, Bishop Short bought land for the cathedral on Pennington Terrace. North Adelaide.. 


Bishop Harmer leads failed referendum move for religious instruction in state schools

Anglican bishop John Harmer (1895-1905) was deeply involved was the unsuccessful campaign to introduce religious instruction in South Australian state schools.
Disappointed by the failure of a referendum on this issue in 1896,he became first president of the interdenominational Religious Education in State Schools League in1902 . Harmer was followed by Arthur Nutter Thomas, elected bishop of Adelaide by a panel  in England and consecrated in Westminster Abbey in 1906. 


after being small minority in the 19th Century Protestant colony

Catholic minority gets its first St Patrick's church that grows with south west of the city

The great majority of early South Australian Catholics were of Irish and mostly poor. Initially, without priests or churches, they met for worship in private houses. Their first priest William Benson arrived in Adelaide in 1841. Replacing an earlier version on the West Terrace corner, St Patrick's Church in Grote Street was opened 1845 and replaced in 1914 by a bigger building idesigned by Walter Bagot in the mode of Brunelleschi’s renowned 15th Century Church of San Lorenzo in Florence.

Australia's first Jesuits at Sevenhill: Mary MacKillop founds first Australian order

A characteristic of South Australian Catholicism was the strength of religious orders. Two Austrian Jesuits set up an abbey diocese at Sevenhill, near Clare Valley, in 1848. Besides planting valley’s first vines, the Jesuits set up a seminary and the first Catholic boys’ school in South Australia. At Penola in 1866 Mary MacKillop founded the first Australian religious order: the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, dedicated to giving poor children an education.


Catholic schools grow as parents told to use them as alternative to secular state system

The growing intensity of South Australian Roman Catholicism into the 20th Century was centred around having Catholic schools for all Catholic children. Australian bishops regarded the government (secular) education systems in each colony in the late 19th Century as a danger to their faith. They set up an alternative  system and ordered Catholic parents to send their children to church schools. Children in Catholic schools in South Australia grew from 1100 in 1866 to 5300 in 1900.


Catholics in majority by 2007, boosted by Playford era post-war migration from Europe

By 2007, the Roman Catholicism was the largest faith denomination in South Australia, with 21% of the state’s population.The church benefited from the late 1930s Thomas Playford era rapid growth in South Australian manufacturing industry that transformed the state economically and socially. After World War II, to meet the demand for labour, the state drew many immigrants from the United Kingdom and Europe. This migration further boosted the size of the Catholic community.



adding to the exotic mixture of faiths in 19th Century Adelaide

Edward Wakefield inspires his fellow Quakers to join the earliest free settlers

Edward Gibbon Wakefield, whose ideas were the basis for British settlement of South Australia, was a Quaker. The most crucial of founding ideas – freedom of religion – enticed Quakers to the colony. From 1825, the Quakers in London sent prefabricated meeting houses to Friends in outposts of the British empire. In 1839, they sent a house to South Australia. John Barton Hack gave land for the house in Pennington Terrace, North Adelaide, where parts of it remain in an 1840 cottage.


George Fife Angas helps Pastor Kavel bring first Lutheran refugees from Germany in 1838

A strong Lutheran presence started in 1838 when Pastor August Kavel brought out a large group of German migrants to South Australia. They came to escape religious persecution in Silesia, Prussia. A strong Dissenter, George Fife Angas, the wealthy Scot chairman of the South Australian Company chairman, gave a £8,000 for Kavel’s group to migrate. Captain Dirk Hahn brought another 187 Lutheran migrants who settled in the Adelaide Hills at what became Hahndorf.

Rundle St synagogue part of remarkable Jewish influence on South Australia

The Jewish community in South Australia dates from the earliest European arrivals, with philanthropist Emanuel Solomon calling a meeting to form a congregation in 1848 and a synagogue off Rundle Street in 1850. Despite their tiny numbers, the Jews have made a remarkable impact on South Australia in many areas, including politics. Eight mayors or lord mayors of the City of Adelaide have been Jewish and Vaibon Louis Solomon was briefly premier in 1899.


Australia's first mosque built by 'Afghan' cameleers working for Thomas Elder stations

Islam came to South Australia in 1865 with 31 “Afghan” (actually mostly from British-ruled India) camel handlers. They were recruited to manage camels imported by Thomas Elder and Samuel Stuckey to carry stores to and from Lake Hope and Beltana stations.They used desert springs as places of worship. This developed into Australia’s first mosque at Marree (Hergott Springs). Australia’s oldest surviving mosque from 1889 is in Adelaide city’s south-western Little Gilbert Street.



FAITH KEPT FRONT AND CENTRE OF COLONY'S 19th CENTURY with caring role alongside political, intellectual and radical edge

Church ministers, MPs, newspapers, business linked in 19th Century South Australia

The nexus of church ministers, newspaper editors, members of parliament and businessmen kept religion at the forefront of 19th Century South Australia. Premiers John Colton, Frederick Holder, Thomas Price and John Verran were all Methodist lay preachers. Holder owned the Burra Record newspaper. The Advertiser was founded byJohn Henry Barrow, a former Register journalist and Congregational minister. Baptist minister James (“Dismal Jimmy”) Allen owned the Register. 


1860s/70s homeopathy in Adelaide became social, medical reform with Christian theme

The homeopathy phenomenon  in Adelaide during the 1860s/70s was part of a social/medical reform movement linked with religious revival and philanthropy. Bible Christian church members, chief justice Samuel Way and homeopathic practitioner Dr Allan Campbell, were key figures, along with prominent figures such as George Fife Angas, premier John Colton, church ministers including the Anglican archbishop, businessmen and women active in church and other causes.

Philosophical society and university emerge from interest in serious debate and education

Adelaide’s dissenting headmaster John Lorenzo Young and four colleagues formed the Adelaide Philosophical Society (later Royal Society of South Australia)h in 1853. It was a forum for the issue of reconciling science (especially Darwin) with faith beliefs. Members and speakers, including Anglican bishop Augustus Short, led the way to founding Adelaide University in 1876 out of the Union College supported by Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Methodists.


From Julia Farr's home for girls to Anglicare: the other side of establishment church

The Anglican church has educated the children of the South Australia’s wealthier conservative class. But it has a tradition of support for the disadvantaged goes back to St Luke’s Church, built in 1856 in Whitmore Square. George Farr, former St Peter's College headmaster (1854-79), was later rector at St Luke’s. His wife Julia created and ran the Anglican Church home for parentless girls. Anglicare remains one of the state's biggest welfare agencies.


crusades against gambling; the Festival of Light born in Adelaide 

Methodists help win 1915 referendum on 6pm closing of hotel bars: stayed law until 1967

The South Australian temperance movement’s biggest win was in the 1915 referendum when 100,000 people out of 176,000 voted for 6pm closing of hotels. The temperance movement had strong support from Methodists and other nonconformist Christians who had kept to total abstinence and hostility to the liquor trade from the 19th Century. An attempt in 1938 to revoke 6pm closing faced a major backlash. The 6pm closing continued until 1967.


Sexual moral outrage of Social Purity Society in 19th Century flows to 1970s Festival of Light

The prostitution rife in Adelaide city streets since the colony’s start prompted outrage and groups such as the Social Purity Society. On the same theme, the Festival of Light, a Christian lobby group formed in the 1970s to promote certain standards and strengthen the family unit, had its first Australian branch founded in Adelaide in 1973 by Helen Caterer and the Rev. Lance Shilton. Mary Whitehouse came to Adelaide to launch it at a gathering of 12,000 on Montefiore Hill.


Australia's first Salvos Corps in Adelaide joins morality and welfare crusade from the 1880s

Adelaide’s morality and welfare crusade was boosted in the 1880s by the first official Salvation Army Corps in Australia. John Gore and Edward Saunders were both converts of the early Christian Mission. They met in Adelaide and decided to form a Salvation Army Corps. Gore and Saunders held a street meeting in Adelaide Botanic Garden on September 5, 1880. Gore became a temporary leader until, after an appeal to William Booth to London, Captain Thomas Sutherland and wife Adelaide were despatched on the Aconcagua, arriving at Adelaide in 1881. The new officers arrived wearing the first Salvation Army uniforms seen in Australia. Within three years, 32 officers were commissioned and 12 corps formed, and on the third anniversary 3,600 soldiers mustered for celebrations. The early Salvos found fertile ground for their work around Hindley and Waymouth streets, where prostitution thrived. But the welfare side of Salvos' work in Adelaide city centre also kept growing and continues today at its headquarters in Pirie Street. If offers many activities along with its emergency relief and counselling plus Do Unto Others nightly care for homeless and Market Place offerings for the needy.

Anti-gambling push has success in 1940s but ends with lottery referendum in 1965

Between the world wars, the Protestant churches devoted a lot of energy to opposing the liquor trade, gambling and secular events on Sundays. In 1933, the government set up a Betting Control Board, despite a backlash from churches. But World War II provided a case that gambling was wasting resources. Horseracing was banned in 1942-43. Restrictions continued until a 1965 referendum overwhelming supported a state lottery. Hotel opening hours extended to 10 pm in 1967.


UNITING CHURCH IN 1970s MELDS DISSENTERS' LIBERALISM; strong conservative evangelical phenomenon arises in Paradise

Protestant Dissenters' liberal side coalesces into new Uniting Church, formed in 1977

The biggest change for South Australia’s influential dissenting/ nonconformist sects came in 1977 when the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches combined as the Uniting Church. These churches had all admitted women to the ministry, with the Congregationalists in Adelaide the first in Australia when Winifred Kiek was ordained in 1927. The Uniting Church keeps up the liberal, even radical, side of the dissenter tradition of concern about political /social issues. 

Adelaide evangelical church at Paradise becomes national force, spreading to the US

Influencers Church has become a 20th Century Adelaide phenomenon, even expanding to two campuses in Atlanta, Georgia, in the USA. The church started  in Franklin Street in 1944 as an Assembly of God. In 1951, Tom Evans became senior pastor. His son Andrew became senior minister and grew the church with a move to Paradise. With other Evans family members involved, its expansion included setting up the Planetshakers City Church in Melbourne.


Catholic Church takes conservative swing under John Paul II but liberalism lingers

The story of the Catholic Church in South Australia after World War II is a swing to a liberal outlook gradually eroded by a reasserting of conservative control by Rome. But, in the tradition of Mary MacKillop, outstanding Catholic individuals continue their service to the community regardless of church liturgy or hierarchical attitudes. David Cappo, who became Vicar General  of the Adelaide diocese from 2002, also took on the role of Social Inclusion Commissioner for the state.


Family First/Australian Conservatives and Catholic Right Labor faith factors in politics

South Australia has produced two church-related political forces with state and national influence in the 21st Century. These are the Family First party and the Catholic Right faction of South Australian Labor Party. Family First grew out of the booming Paradise Community Church (later Influencers Church) that spread interstate and to Atlanta, USA. In the Labor Party, the Catholic Right has consolidated its place through the Shop, Distributive Allied Employees’ Union.


Contact Us

We welcome positive constructive feedback