Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clark, Charles (1838–1903)

by Judith Walker

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

Charles Clark (1838-1903), by unknown engraver, 1874

Charles Clark (1838-1903), by unknown engraver, 1874

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S26/12/74/149

Charles Clark (1838-1903), Baptist minister and public lecturer, was born on 19 April 1838 in London, son of Daniel Clark and his wife Susanna, née Strudwicke. After completing his theological training at Nottingham Baptist College he became pastor of the Halifax Baptist Church in 1862; he transferred in 1864 to Maze Pond Chapel, London, where he was 'discovered' as a popular preacher. By February 1867 he had accepted a call to Bristol, one of the oldest Baptist churches in England. Attendances there were so large that admission was by ticket only, a significant indication of his popularity. Thus it was not surprising that in December 1868 he refused the pastorship of Albert Street Baptist Church in Melbourne. However, he changed his mind and accepted in February 1869.

With his family, Clark arrived at Melbourne in the Great Britain on 8 April and was warmly welcomed both as a Christian and an intellectual by his congregation at a public tea on the 22nd. This approval was demonstrated by the unanimous request for him to preach the annual sermon at the Collins Street Church in October. His sermons were couched in vivid language and, as in England, the church was always crowded: evening services often had to be held in the Theatre Royal. However, Clark's talent was not restricted to the pulpit for he soon became well known as a public lecturer; for example, his Oliver Goldsmith lecture in 1871 raised £600 for the Caxton memorial fund. His subjects included such figures as Queen Elizabeth, buildings as Westminster Abbey and literary authors as Goldsmith, Thackeray and Charles Dickens. Such was his popularity that the Melbourne Town Hall, with a seating capacity of two thousand, was too small, while reserved seats for the Dickens lectures, despite the customary length of two hours, cost £1 to £5. So numerous were Clark's public engagements that he could not preach the annual sermon in his own church at Albert Street. There he had become something of a problem: was he to be preacher or lecturer? Undoubtedly the deacons' report in 1873 stressed the need for more extensive visitation and fewer lectures which appeared inconsistent with the gospel. Whatever the reason, after a second unfavourable report Clark tendered his resignation. It was finally accepted in October 1874 and thereafter he made public lecturing his career.

Clark's decision was no mistake, for his lectures aroused united enthusiasm among the critics. He was said to have pioneered the establishment of a paying lecture platform in the Australian colonies. In 1876 he left to tour New Zealand, Canada and the United States and returned in triumph to lecture in Sydney. In 1879 he left for England where he was pastor at Haven Green Chapel, Ealing, until 1887. In 1889-90 he toured Australia and New Zealand, again with an enthusiastic reception. He was praised as the first man of note to make the public lecture platform a popular form of entertainment, particularly in Victoria, and for successfully destroying the traditional image of lecturers as 'fossilised fogies'. His reception was tumultuous both in capital cities and provincial towns. A later Australian tour of 1896 was a similar success, under the theme of great men and events in the Victorian era in honour of the birthday celebrations of Queen Victoria. Clark returned to England and continued as a public lecturer and freelance preacher. After an illness of six months he died at Bristol on 29 March 1903.

Unorthodoxy seems the key to understanding Clark's character, both as a preacher and lecturer. He was a liberal Christian but to many his liberalism appeared almost synonymous with rationalism. The evangelical Southern Cross deplored his lectures on Dickens and Thackeray who made 'caricatures of Evangelical Religion'. The Leader believed Clark's main virtue as a lecturer was his ability 'to render familiar to Australian audiences the most striking events in English history'. Benjamin Hoare, in Looking Back Gaily (Melbourne, 1927), considered him the 'supreme artist' of his day, 'a finished master of his craft … Matter and manner alike, down to the last oratorical pause, were those of the expert artist'.

Select Bibliography

  • F. J. Wilkin, Baptists in Victoria: Our First Century, 1838-1938 (Melb, 1939)
  • Baptist Magazine (London), 10 (1866), 2 (1867), 2 (1869)
  • Victorian Baptist Magazine, 1868-70
  • Australasian Sketcher, 26 Dec 1874
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 Mar 1890, 31 Mar 1903
  • Leader (Melbourne), 12 Apr 1890, 23 May 1896
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 2 Aug 1890
  • G. Lusty, The History of the Albert Street Baptist Church … 1850-1910 (Baptist Union, Victoria).

Citation details

Judith Walker, 'Clark, Charles (1838–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clark-charles-3213/text4839, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 September 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Charles Clark (1838-1903), by unknown engraver, 1874

Charles Clark (1838-1903), by unknown engraver, 1874

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S26/12/74/149