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Flierl, Johann (1858–1947)

by P. G. Sack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Johann Flierl (1858-1947), missionary, was born on 16 April 1858 at Buchhof, parish of Furnried, Bavaria, son of Johann Konrad Flierl, farmer, and his wife Kunigunda, née Dannhauser. He was determined to become a missionary but with parents too poor to send him to university a missionary seminary was his only hope. After completing primary school he worked for four years on his father's farm, until he was old enough to enter the seminary in Neuendettelsau. It had been founded in the 1850s, primarily to train pastors to serve communities of Lutheran emigrants, but Flierl hoped that a small mission among the American Indians, abandoned some years before, would soon be reopened. He was told instead that a missionary was wanted for work among the Australian Aboriginals; he volunteered, and left for Australia shortly after his consecration at Easter 1878.

Flierl spent seven years working on Bethesda station at Cooper's Creek. In 1882 he married Beate Maria Louise Auricht, daughter of J. C. Auricht, a Lutheran pastor in the Barossa Valley, South Australia, and seemed ready to settle down to a quiet life in a remote desert reserve. Early in 1885 he heard about the founding of a German colony in New Guinea and decided to go there as a pioneer missionary to help the local people 'that the white settler may not drive them, too, from the land of their fathers, as he has done with the American Indian and Australian native'. It was July 1886 before Flierl, a tall, strong, determined young man, landed in Finschhafen, the capital of the new colony, having founded another mission station (Hope Valley) among the Aboriginals during an enforced stay in Cooktown, Queensland.

His first station in New Guinea, Simbang, near Finschhafen, seemed discouraging. The local people were hostile and Flierl and his first colleagues battled with health, language and supply problems. Having started a second station on Tami Island, the local trade centre, in 1889 they were just finding their feet when an epidemic wiped out almost half the European population; Finschhafen was abandoned in 1891 but Flierl resolved to stay in Simbang, perhaps most of all because he felt too old to make yet another start and live to see 'the harvest ripening'—which he knew would be slow. Spurred on by an ultimatum from his wife, who was worried about their baby daughter, Flierl embarked upon a determined push into the mountains to avoid the effects of the climate. He devoted much time during the next years building a station on Sattelberg and a road to Finschhafen, which cut the travelling time from three days to five hours.

Until 1899 when the first baptisms were performed, the mission progressed slowly. Subsequent doubling of the stations was still consolidation rather than expansion. Yet it was clear that rapid development was possible—as well as necessary if competing missions were to be kept out of the area, but heavy financial and logistic problems had to be faced. A supply station was founded at Finschhafen in 1903 and next year Flierl moved down to Heldsbach on the coast where, besides starting a commercial coconut plantation, the mission acquired its first substantial vessel in 1907. By 1914 the entire coast, from Sio in the west to the Papuan border, had been occupied and major inroads into the interior had been made. Flierl, now in his late fifties, thought of withdrawing into the background.

The 'end of an era' atmosphere was reinforced by a visit from Superintendent Steck from Neuendettelsau. Intended as a fundamental review, it would have led to conflict but, with the outbreak of World War I, reforms were out of the question and a different kind of struggle for survival began. Under the eye of a distrustful Australian military occupation, Flierl steered the mission carefully, strengthening connexions with Lutheran churchmen in Australia and the United States of America, to secure supply of goods and personnel. These connexions became even more important after the war, when it seemed as if the German missions would be expropriated and their staff deported. It was 1925 before this threat had passed and 1929 before the reorganization of Protestant mission activity had been completed.

Honoured with a doctorate of divinity from Wartburg Seminary, Iowa, Flierl retired in 1930 with his wife to her hometown, Tanunda, South Australia. Four years later, after his wife's death, he returned to Neuendettelsau with his daughter, who died before him; he died there on 30 September 1947. Of his four children, Wilhelm and Johannes became ordained mission pastors, Dora was a mission teacher and nurse and Elise married the missionary Georg Pilhofer.

Some believe that Flierl was too pre-occupied with the external side of mission work, that he was a planter of crops rather than shepherd of souls. There is some truth in this criticism but it does not do him justice. Though not an inspired theologian he was humble, pious and knew the bases of his faith. He did not take a deep interest in the alien cultures he met but, nevertheless, he founded a mission, that, more than any other external force, gave a sense of community to the previously divided peoples of the Morobe peninsula. Though paternalistic to the local people, he always aimed at putting them on their own feet and was prepared to stand up for them before both the German and Australian administrations. In such confrontations, his gaunt features, gruff voice, penetrating blue eyes and patriarchal beard were assets. A prolific writer, his main publication in English is Forty Years in New Guinea (Chicago, 1927).

Select Bibliography

  • E. A. Jericho, Seedtime and Harvest (Brisb 1961)
  • G. Pilhofer, Die Geschichte der Neuendettelsauer Mission in Neu-Guinea (Neuendettelsau, 1961-63)
  • Neue Deutsche Biographie, vol 7 (Berlin, 1966).

Citation details

P. G. Sack, 'Flierl, Johann (1858–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/flierl-johann-6196/text10367, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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