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Gosman, Alexander (1829–1913)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Alexander Gosman (1829-1913), Congregational theologian and social reformer, was born on 21 February 1829 at Crail, Fife, Scotland, son of John Gosman, builder, and his wife Catherine, née Auchterlonie. He attended the parish school, spent about three years in business in Leith and Dumbarton and then taught in schools in Dundee and Greenock. He moved to Glasgow as assistant English master at the High School and also taught and acted as chaplain in the Glasgow Asylum for the Blind. He decided to study for the ministry in 1850 and entered the University of Glasgow and the Congregational Theological Hall. He was ordained on 27 June 1855 at Haddington, East Lothian. In September 1857 he married Jane, daughter of William Buchanan of Alexandria, Dumbartonshire.

In response to appeals by the Colonial Missionary Society Gosman sailed with his wife and daughter in the Great Britain and arrived at Melbourne on 21 September 1860. In his first pastorate at Ballarat Gosman won repute as a scholar and preacher and was called in 1863 to the Independent Church, Alma Road, St Kilda. He was appointed lecturer in 1864 and later professor of English and metaphysics at the Congregational College of Victoria; in 1876-1913 he was its principal. In 1878-83 he was an examiner in logic and mental and moral philosophy at the University of Melbourne and in 1878-1905 ministered to the Congregational Church at Hawthorn. Elected chairman of the Congregational Union of Victoria in 1869, 1883, 1895 and 1904 he was also the first chairman of the Congregational Union of Australasia in 1904-07. He visited Britain in 1884 and was a delegate to the first International Congregational Council in 1891 and the second at Boston in 1899. In 1904 he was awarded a doctorate of divinity by the University of St Andrews.

Gosman always considered himself a 'public servant', basing his sermons on the 'needs' of the people as suggested by public opinion and interpreting the new doctrines of evolution and 'Higher Criticism' of the Bible to a questioning generation. He published articles and reviews in such periodicals as the Victorian Review and anonymously wrote weekly leading articles on social, philosophical, scientific and political subjects for the Daily Telegraph in the early 1880s. He was often in open controversy with more orthodox churchmen such as Bishop James Moorhouse, and his pamphlet, Mr Justice George Higinbotham on The Orthdox Faith. A Review and a Vindication (Melbourne, 1887), earned the judge's admiration. Gosman also defended his colleagues who tackled evolutionary subjects, and reserved his judgment when Rev. John Campbell's 'new theology' earned widespread censure.

From the 1860s Gosman had campaigned for the use of the Bible as an historic and literary text in State schools. As a founder of the Bible in State Schools League and a vice-president of the National Scripture Education League he advocated adoption of the New South Wales system for Victoria. In the scripture election campaign led by Bishop Clarke in 1894 Gosman withdrew from its council, disapproving the lessons recommended by the royal commission on education and describing the proposed referendum as a 'hopeless muddle'. He was similarly insistent in pressing for a chair of mental and moral science at the university in 1882 and in advocating divinity degrees in 1909 on purely secular grounds.

Gosman's humanity was early aroused by the poverty of many migrants. From Ballarat he informed the Haddington Courier that clerks and middle-class men should not emigrate if they were making a living. Eager to champion the 'toiler' against the excesses of individualism he crusaded for social justice. He was the first president of the Anti-Sweating League in 1895-1902, and active in the Charity Organization Society and the Leongatha Labour Colony; his name was said to be a 'household word' in the 1890s. His involvement with labour and socialism was not on party lines but accorded with his belief that natural law ought to be the ultimate appeal in all personal, social, industrial and political matters. Gosman argued for free trade as an antidote to unemployment and was committed to the concept of progress, visualizing the eventual removal of poverty and inequality of opportunity. When the Victorian Factories Act was amended in 1896 he became chairman of the shirt (wages) board and his handling of its four hundred or more determinations to the satisfaction of employers and employed was deemed a 'triumph of conciliation, conscientiousness and common sense'. His lecture series in the eastern colonies were published as Socialism in the light of Right Conduct and Religion (Melbourne, 1891). Gosman was a delegate to the Bathurst Federal Convention in 1896. He penned much verse in the cause and one of his federal anthems was printed by order of the Victorian government. At Brisbane in 1895 he deplored the possibility of Japanese raids and, with his faith in a 'Greater Britain', hoped that Australian federation would help to hasten imperial federation.

Outside his denomination, Gosman's closest friends were Charles Strong, H. G. Turner, the philosopher Henry Laurie and Alfred Deakin. Despite his liberal theology Gosman insisted on certain shared orthodoxies and his humanitarian emphasis prevented friction with his Evangelical colleagues, though he was often 'confused and perplexed' by their actions. A keen believer in church union, he refused to be bound by historic creeds. While he and his influence survived, Congregationalism could make a contribution to Australian life out of proportion to its numbers. He died from bronchial pneumonia on 15 January 1913, survived by his widow and six of their seven children. Of his sons, John had a produce business in Melbourne and Sydney, and William, sometime principal of Camberwell Grammar School, was assayer and ore expert to the Mount Lyell Mining Co. The second daughter, Janie Buchanan, married William Warren Kerr, a noted Congregational layman.

A portrait by Frederick McCubbin is in the Congregational College of Victoria, Kew.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • Congregational Union, Jubilee Volume of Victorian Congregationalism 1888 (Melb, 1889)
  • R. E. W. Kennedy, ‘The Leongatha Labour Colony’, Labor History, May 1968
  • Congregational Year Book, 1860-1913
  • Congregationalist (Melbourne), 10 Feb 1913
  • Congregationalist (Sydney), 10 Feb 1913
  • Table Talk, Nov 1895
  • Australasian, 24 June 1905
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Jan 1913
  • F. H. Cutler, A History of the Anti-Sweating Movement in Victoria, 1873-96 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1956)
  • Gosman papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Gosman, Alexander (1829–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gosman-alexander-3642/text5673, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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