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Lillie, John (1806–1866)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Lillie (1806-1866), Presbyterian minister, was the fourth son of David Lillie, a Glasgow merchant. After some education at the University of Glasgow, he was licensed by the presbytery of that city. Soon afterwards he became tutor to the family of the Duke of Argyll at Ardencaple Castle, Dunbartonshire; the future eighth duke was his pupil. Meanwhile the congregation of St Andrew's, Hobart Town, had asked the Church of Scotland to suggest a replacement for Archibald Macarthur. After some complication a committee nominated Lillie late in 1836. These moves coincided with colonial legislation to assist equally the Churches of England, Rome, and Scotland. On arrival at Hobart in September 1837, Lillie was recognized at once as Presbyterian leader by Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin and by the church after brief delay. Not only did Lillie remain dominant during his frequent terms as moderator, but as an effective speaker and administrator he kept Tasmanian Presbyterianism united despite church disruption in Scotland (1843) and a querulous colonial society, a conspicuous success when contrasted with the confusion in contemporary New South Wales and in Tasmania in later years.

Lillie's other great achievement as a churchman was to uphold the equality of his church with the Church of England. From the outset he advanced James Thomson's arguments for multi-establishment with a staunchness which clinched their victory. This cause, combined with inclination, prompted Lillie to engage in politics. Towards Franklin he was ambivalent, sometimes critical, but the prime mover in formal farewells; common antipathy to the Anglicans linked him with Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot; his aggressiveness shocked Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison, but won grudging respect. The outstanding issue on which Lillie challenged Anglican claims was education. He fought successively Franklin's New College scheme, any system of denominational primary education, and the grant of the Hutchins School site. Generally he triumphed, sharing service on the board which in 1853 effectually recommended non-denominational schools.

Education meant far more to Lillie than a field in which to best the Anglicans. In 1838-54 he was president of the Hobart Mechanics' Institute and his annual presidential addresses have properly won acclaim as 'the high-water mark of learning publicly disseminated' in Van Diemen's Land (Nadel, Australia's Colonial Culture, Melbourne, 1957, 131). He was active in the Tasmanian Society and in 1841 wrote the introductory article in its admirable Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science. When the society split after Eardley-Wilmot's arrival, Lillie went with the lieutenant-governor's faction, which soon became the local Royal Society. He was a foundation vice-president and secretary in 1845-48. He also helped to establish the Hobart Town High School, acting as rector in 1850-51 and setting it on a distinguished course. Glasgow University granted him a D.D. in 1848.

On 1 June 1838 Lillie married Mary Gascoigne, daughter of John Burnett; she bore him several children. Lillie won economic security by investing, in association with the Russell family, in the sheep industry of Victoria's western district. After 1849 his only publications were two funeral sermons. Suffering ill health he went to Britain in 1856, lived there for a few years, visited Hobart in 1858, and in 1861 migrated to Christchurch, New Zealand, where with William Kermode he had helped to finance the North Canterbury pastoralist, G. H. Moore. He revisited Hobart in mid-1862 and died aged 59 at Christchurch on 15 January 1866, survived by his wife, three daughters and a son.

His concern for education and science suggests that Lillie was more a nineteenth century liberal than a traditional Calvinist. He was always sensitive to the heresy of exalting secular learning and human capacity, yet inexorably the optimism of contemporary liberalism overcame these scruples, causing him to posit a future 'in which the human spirit, freed from every disturbing and oppressive influence, shall realize the full evolution of its indefinite and most glorious capacities of both moral and intellectual improvements' (Knowledge as the Means of Correcting Prejudice, 34).

Select Bibliography

  • J. Heyer, The Presbyterian Pioneers of Van Diemen's Land (Launceston, 1935)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), The Narrative of George Russell (Lond, 1935)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 2-4 (Lond, 1952-59)
  • 'The Foundation and Early Work of the Society', Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1913, p 143, footnote 46
  • Lyttelton Times (New Zealand), 4 Jan 1862
  • CO 280/70.

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Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Lillie, John (1806–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lillie-john-2360/text3091, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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