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Handt, Johann Christian Simon (1793–1863)

by K. Rayner

revised by Laurie Allen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Johann Christian Simon Handt (1793-1863), missionary and Protestant minister, was born with the surname of Hundt on 14 January 1793 at Aken-on-the-Elbe, Prussia. In early adulthood he changed his surname to Handt and he would later be known in Australia by the English form of his first name, John. Following in his father's footsteps, he began his working life as a tailor. He travelled extensively around the Baltic as a young man, and applied to enter the Basle Mission Institute from St Petersburg, where he had met Johannes Gossner, later founder of the Gossner Missionary Society in Berlin. In May 1827 Handt was ordained in the Reformed and Lutheran Church at Auggen, Baden, and soon left for England. Under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society and the Basle Mission, he travelled in December to Freetown, Sierra Leone, for onward passage to Liberia. The next year, after a bout of fever, he moved to Monrovia. In 1829 he went to Cape Mount to start an independent mission, but this lasted little more than six months. Suffering poor health, he returned to England in 1830 and was appointed by the CMS to help found its New Holland Mission, thus becoming the first ordained German to be sent to minister to Australia's Aboriginal people.

Handt sailed from Portsmouth as chaplain of the convict transport Eleanor and arrived in Sydney on 25 June 1831. At St James’s Church of England on 4 July 1832 he married Mary Crook (1804-1844), sometime schoolteacher in Tahiti and Parramatta and eldest daughter of the missionary William Crook. Six weeks later the Handts set off for Wellington Valley, about 250 miles (400 km) north-west of Sydney, with Rev. William Watson and his wife Ann to commence a mission station which received a government subsidy of £500 a year. Handt's main responsibility was supervising the older Wiradjuri boys, but he also preached and engaged in translation and travelled into surrounding areas to induce Aboriginal people to come to the mission. He enquired into Wiradjuri customs but seems to have been motivated more by curiosity than by scientific interest. Increasing friction between the missionaries, and his wife’s poor health—she had suffered a number of dangerous confinements and a stillbirth far from medical aid—drove Handt to return abruptly to Sydney in July 1836.

In 1837 Handt was sent to found a CMS station at Moreton Bay. From May he ministered to the two or three hundred Aboriginal people in the area without much success; he reported a respect for the Sabbath as his greatest achievement. He was also appointed chaplain to the penal settlement, and was encouraged by the response among the prisoners. When most of the convicts were removed in 1839, Handt continued as official protector of Aborigines, and cooperated with the German missionaries under Karl Schmidt and Christopher Eipper at Nundah. In 1841 and 1842 he reported pessimistically on the situation of Aboriginal people at the settlement. The CMS in Sydney had ordered him back to Wellington Valley in 1840 but he refused, resulting in the society’s severing its connection with him. He remained as chaplain at Moreton Bay, continuing to officiate in the 'church', a room over the gaol, until the penal settlement was closed in May 1842.

Next year the government gave Handt £100 to enable him to return to Sydney, where he opened a school and served as pastor to a small 'voluntary' Presbyterian group at Balmain under the auspices of Rev. John Dunmore Lang. Here Handt remained for three years but after his wife died in childbirth his school declined and dissatisfaction among his parishioners forced him to leave the ministry. He opened a second school but he still aspired to preach, and in 1850 he was admitted to membership of Lang's Synod of New South Wales.

At Lang's instigation, Handt left Sydney in January 1851 to pioneer the Presbyterian cause in the Berrima district, settling at Sutton Forest. When this church broke into three irreconcilable factions over a property transaction, he moved to Victoria and was received into the Synod of the United Presbyterian Church at Portland in January 1853, but soon broke with them as they thought him unprincipled. He then returned to association with the Church of England and held an official appointment as a hospital and prison chaplain at Geelong until dismissed from his duties in 1862. He died in penury on 7 July 1863 at Geelong and was buried in Germantown (Grovedale) cemetery by the Lutheran settlers to whom he had often preached. Two sons survived him; one daughter who lived past infancy had predeceased him, together with five children who had been stillborn or who had died in infancy.

Handt was sincere but also temperamental and impulsive; precipitate decisions made at various points of his life damaged his career. He diligently tried to teach Aboriginal people the rudiments of Christian doctrine and morality. His writing, however, is characterised by a lack of empathy with Aboriginal people and shows little appreciation of the value of their culture. He deserves to be remembered for leading the way for other German missionaries to Australia, who may well have learnt from his experiences and failures.

♦♦  This article was substantially revised on 15 June 2017

Select Bibliography

  • L. Allen, `“English Episcopalians” versus “German Lutherans”: The Contribution of Cultural and Theological Differences to the Failure of the Wellington Valley Mission’, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Sydney, 2011
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols. 21-23
  • A. Brauer, Under the Southern Cross: History of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Australia (Adel, 1956)
  • Proceedings of the Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East, vols 30-41, 1829-41
  • Church Missionary Record, vols. 7-10 (1836-9)
  • K. Rayner, 'The History of the Church of England in Queensland' (Ph.D. thesis. University of Queensland, 1963)
  • Mission 21 Archive Basle, Switzerland, Holding No. 58
  • B. Bridges, Ministers, Licentiates and Catechists of the Presbyterian Churches in New South Wales 1832-1865 (Melbourne: Ward, c1989)
  • John Dunmore Lang, Papers 1823-1887, item 10, SLNSW microfilm CY809
  • H. Carey and D. Roberts, The Wellington Valley Project. Available: https://downloads.newcastle.edu.au/library/cultural collections/the-wellington-valley-project/

Citation details

K. Rayner, 'Handt, Johann Christian Simon (1793–1863)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/handt-johann-christian-simon-2152/text2747, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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