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Binney, Thomas (1798–1874)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Thomas Binney (1798-1874), by unknown photographer

Thomas Binney (1798-1874), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09379

Thomas Binney (1798-1874), Congregational minister, was born on 30 April 1798 at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, son of John Binney, builder. He was apprenticed to a bookseller and then trained for the ministry at Wymondley College, Herefordshire. In 1823 he had a charge at Bedford and next year was ordained and inducted at St James's Congregational Church, Newport, Isle of Wight. In 1829-69 he was minister of the King's Weigh-House Chapel, Eastcheap, London. At first he was a leading figure among the aggressive Nonconformists, eager to remove their disabilities and to win religious equality. Binney claimed the right common to all Englishmen to criticize everything national, including the Church of England, not merely in its official establishment but also as a religious institution. He was credited with saying that 'the State Church damned more souls than it saved', and his outspoken denunciations had great influence in the formation of the Tractarian movement.

Binney's greatest crusade was to reform and unite the Christian church. At the Weigh-House his practical and compelling sermons soon shook the fashionable congregation out of respectable formality and by 1833 a much larger chapel had to be built. His vision and vigorous personality inspired large numbers of young men to follow his cause; many of them migrated to the colonies, among them John Brown, Robert Gouger and R. D. Hanson who won prominence in South Australia, and John Fairfax, David Jones and John West in New South Wales. In 1836 Binney was the virtual founder of the Colonial Missionary Society which by 1856 had supplied nearly three-quarters of the Congregational ministers in Australia and Canada, with profound effects in the cause of religious equality. His name became known to thousands of emigrants by his published sermons and by petitions from the Weigh-House in support of colonial self-government.

In 1845 Binney toured Canada and the United States. After a breakdown in health in 1857 he visited Australia, arriving in Melbourne with his wife in March 1858. By June he had been to Brisbane and Sydney, by September to Adelaide and by March 1859 to Tasmania. Everywhere he attended political meetings and visited the homes of governors, leading citizens and his own disciples. Though the bishops in Adelaide and Melbourne denied him the use of Anglican pulpits, he lectured in the largest halls, his crowded audiences swollen by ministers of all denominations. In his messages he pleaded for practical Christian co-operation leading towards a 'confederation' of all churches. In Congregational Churches, greatly stimulated by his visit, he advocated less autonomy and more missionary work. Even in his rural travels in each colony he drew immense crowds and unusual response; from the proud Macarthurs of Camden to diggers on the goldfields he won warm welcome. Persistent publishers broke down his reluctance to reprint his most famous sermons and edition after edition sold out quickly. One of his happiest moments was on a ship bound for Sydney when Bishop Perry of Melbourne insisted on a joint service for the passengers, himself reading the prayers and Binney preaching. Perhaps his greatest triumph was his last lecture to 3000 people at the Exhibition Building in Melbourne with Governor Barkly in the chair; at the close he was presented with a stirring address by the chief justice, Sir William Stawell 'on behalf of thousands of our fellow colonists … because the brotherly love and Christian union, so dear to your heart … we trust has received a mighty impulse'.

Binney sailed in August 1859 restored in health. He resumed his duties in London and in October 1869 preached his last sermon at the Weigh-House. He refused to write a book about Australia but in 1860 published Lights and Shadows of Church Life in Australia in memory of his tour and including his 'Adelaide Correspondence' with Bishop Short of South Australia. Although never a great scholar or theologian Binney had been awarded an honorary LL.D. by the University of Aberdeen in 1852 and later a D.D. by an American university. He preached his last sermon in November 1873 at Westminster Chapel. He died at his home in Upper Clapton, London, on 24 February 1874; Dean Stanley took part in the funeral service. Predeceased by his first wife Isabella Barbara, née Nixon, he was survived by his second wife Elizabeth, née Piper, whom he had married on 19 November 1846 at Steyning, Sussex, and by four sons; they were educated at Mill Hill and two of them migrated to Victoria. Llewelyn Bevan, once his assistant, later became the 'prince of the Australian pulpit'.

Characteristic of Binney was his direction that his letters and journals be destroyed: 'I desire that no attempt to write a life of me be attempted or sanctioned by any of my friends. I wish only to be mercifully remembered by God'. The hymn, 'Eternal Light', is his continuing memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • Minutes of Proceedings at the Conference of Delegates from the Congregational Churches of South Australia, November 1859 (Adel, 1860)
  • E. P. Hood, Thomas Binney. His Mind, Life and Opinions (Lond, 1874)
  • J. Stoughton (ed), A Memorial of the Late Rev. Thomas Binney (Lond, 1874)
  • F. W. Cox, Jubilee Record, 1837-1887. The Congregational Churches of South Australia (Adel, 1887)
  • Register (Adelaide), Sept-Nov 1858, 11 Feb 1859
  • Examiner (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1859, 14 Jan 1860
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 30 May 1874
  • P. Mayfield, Thomas Binney. A Case Study in Nineteenth Century Nonconformity (S.T.M. thesis, Andover-Newton Theological School, USA, 1963)
  • manuscript catalogue under Thomas Binney (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

'Binney, Thomas (1798–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/binney-thomas-2995/text4379, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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