Thursday, October 22, 2015

Reverend Richard Johnson - Australia's First Clergyman

Rev Richard Johnson
Source: Christian History Reserach


Reverend Richard Johnson was appointed to accompany the First Fleet to New South Wales to become the first clergyman in Australia. He is honoured by a monument in Richard Johnson Square in the centre of Sydney.

His story illustrates the significant difficulties he experienced in establishing religious services and building a church in the infant Colony.

Material on this topic has been drawn from Volumes one to four of the Historical Records of Australia [published by the Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament].


On 24 October 1784, Richard Johnson received a Royal Warrant that appointed him ‘Chaplain to the settlement of New South Wales’. He took up his appointment with the First Fleet at Portsmouth. As Chaplain to New South Wales he was required to be the guardian of public morality.

He held the first recorded religious service on shipboard in Australian waters at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788.

On 3 February 1788, he conducted the first religious service in the Colony under trees at Sydney Cove. He continued to hold regular services on a Sunday, weather permitting, prior to the construction of a wooden building five years later that was used for church services.

Apart from some assistance after 1791 from James Bain, Chaplain to the New South Wales Corps, Johnson undertook all the religious duties in Sydney for six years, until the arrival of the Reverend Samuel Marsden on the William on 10 March 1794.

On 10 June 1793, Johnson commenced construction of a temporary church in Sydney town, which he funded from his own finances. The first service was held the new building on 25 August 1793.The construction of the temporary church cost Johnson over sixty seven pounds.

The position of the temporary church was near the present ‘Richard Johnson Square, on the corner of Hunter and Castlereagh streets in Sydney. It was built of strong posts, wattles, and plaster, and was covered with a roof of thatch. A monument now stands in Richard Johnson Square on the approximate site of the temporary church.

Monument in Richard Johnson Square, Sydney
Wording on Richard Johnson Monument
The church stood for five years, and was also used as a school, in which 150 to 200 children were educated.

When Governor Phillip was replaced by Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose, Johnson’s troubles began.

During 1793, Johnson was embroiled in a number of controversies with Grose. Grose considered Johnson to be a ‘very troublesome, discontented character’. In January 1793, Grose disapproved of the action of Johnson in making a complaint about the method ordered by Grose of conducting divine service in the Colony.

During August and September 1793, following the completion of the temporary church, Johnson’s requests to be reimbursed for the construction cost were not supported by Grose. About the same time, Johnson made a request to have two men appointed to his service, one as a grave-digger and a second as a Sexton to ring the church bell and to keep the church clean. Grose refused the requests and this subsequently lead to bitterness between the two gentlemen.

In November 1793, Grose ordered eight of the ten convict servants provided Johnson to be taken away without notice. Communication between the two gentlemen practically ceased after then. Grose also terminated Johnson’s appointment as a Magistrate, following his previous appointment by Governor Phillip.

When Samuel Marsden arrived as the second Chaplain in 1794 he found Grose and Johnson still in dispute.

The next Governor, John Hunter, had a better relationship with Johnson. Hunter reinstated Johnson as a civil Magistrate. Following representations by Hunter, the repayment to Reverend Johnson of the expenses incurred in the building of the temporary church was authorised by the Duke of Portland in England in his Despatch to Governor Hunter, dated 31 January 1797.

On the evening of 1 October 1798 Johnson’s temporary church was burnt down. A new store shed was subsequently fitted out under instructions by Governor Hunter to accommodate religious services.

In August 1800 Lieutenant-Governor Philip Gidley King appointed Johnson as Treasurer of a Committee to conduct an Orphan Institution in Sydney.

Apart from his duties as a Chaplain, Johnson was considered one of the best farmers in the Colony.
Johnson left the Colony, with Governor John Hunter, in the Buffalo in October 1800. In 1812 Johnson gave evidence in England before the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Transportation. He died on 13 March 1827 in England.

Richard Johnson Memorial, Sydney

(1)     Concerns Raised by Reverend Johnson with the English Authorities
[Extract of Letter from Reverend Johnson to the Honourable Henry Dundas in England – Dated 3/9/1793]

“As Chaplain to this distant Colony, I humbly leg leave to state to you these following circumstances, viz: That from my first arrival in this country, which was at the first formation of the settlement, I trust I have at all times endeavoured to discharge the various duties of my sacred function with fidelity and diligence.

That in doing this I have hitherto met with many and great inconveniences:
·        That public works of different kinds have been, and still continue to be, so urgent that no place of any kind has yet been erected for the purpose of performing divine service.
·        That my own health has been greatly exposed and at times not a little injured, by this means.
·        That, for the same reasons (I mention it with sincere concern), there has been too general and repeated neglect shown to public worship.
·        That on these and suchlike considerations, I have at length deemed it advisable, and even expedient, on my own accord and account, to run up a temporary shelter which may serve the above important purpose until a better can be provided.
·        That I began this building on the 10 June 1793 and have just at this time got it finished.
·        That the building which I have erected will seat about five hundred people, and hold one hundred more when necessary.
·        That I have given in an estimate of the whole expense to his Honour the Lieutenant-Governor, the real amount of which has been upwards of sixty-seven Pounds, sixty Pounds of which I have paid in Spanish Dollars, and the remained in provisions, at or under prime cost.

I humbly trust, Sir, that what I have done will meet with your approbation, that it will be a means of rendering my own situation somewhat more comfortable that it hitherto has been, and also of inducing these unhappy people, whose reformation I do so ardently wish to see, to attend more willingly, and consequently more regularly, upon the solemn and public worship of God”.

(2)     Criticism of Reverend Johnson by Lieutenant-Governor Grose
[Extract of Letter of Lieutenant-Governor Grose to the Right Honourable Henry Dundas in response to the above letter – Dated 4/9/1793]

“I cannot pass over this business [request for re-imbursement for building a church] without observing that Mr. Johnston, who is one of the people called Methodists, is a very troublesome, discontented character. His charge for this church is infinitely more than it ought to have cost, and his attempt to make a charge of it at all surprises me exceedingly; for, on his applications to myself for a variety of little articles with which he has been furnished from the Stores, he has invariably stated that as he was building his church at his own expense he hoped to be obliged, and on this account generally was accommodated with whatever he came to ask. In compliance with his request, I have enclosed the estimate of his expenses, but I beg not to be understood as at all meaning to countenance his application”.

(3) Renewed Attempt by Reverend Johnson to Receive Financial Compensation
[Extract from Letter by Reverend Johnson to Governor Hunter – Dated 10/12/1795]

“I beg leave to state to you the following circumstances, viz: That after having made repeated applications, first to Governor Phillip, and afterwards to Major Grose, for a place of worship to be erected, and there being no prospect of my application being complied with, I was at length (after being in the Colony for about five year and a half) induced and resolved to erect a temporary place for the purpose.

That when I had completed this undertaking I laid before the Lieutenant-Governor Grose an estimate of the expenses requesting that he would transmit the same to the Honourable Mr. Dundas, not doubting but these expenses would be refunded.
But from letters which I have lately received from some respectable friends, some doubts have arisen in my mind whether the application and request which I have made will be complied with”.

(4)     Support by Governor Hunter for Johnson’s Request
[Extract of Letter from Governor Hunter to the Duke of Portland in England – Dated 21/12/1795]

“In justice to Mr. Johnson I have thought it right to comply with his request (to forward on his letter), and to say, that I believe his entering upon the business stated in his letter proceeded from his having no place or building of any kind appropriated for the performance of divine service, and from his great zeal in the duties of his function”.

If you are researching a convict ancestor, you are invited to go to the History Services NSW website at

Blog prepared by Kevin McGuinness

Photos taken in January 2009 by Kevin McGuinness