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Long, Margaret Jane (Retta) (1878–1956)

by Heather Radi

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Margaret Jane (Retta) Long (1878-1956), missionary, was born on 5 April 1878 at Ultimo, Sydney, only daughter and eldest child of Matthew Dixon (d.1935), carpenter and joiner, and his wife Matilda, née Brown, both Irish-born Baptists. Retta was educated at a small private school. She joined the New South Wales Christian Endeavour Union and began evangelizing at La Perouse Aborigines' Reserve where Christian Endeavour conducted Sunday services. Her father built two rooms on to the church, and, at the age of 19, she moved in as the first resident missionary.

In 1899 the mission was reconstituted as the New South Wales Aborigines' Mission. The Aborigines at La Perouse helped to secure Retta's welcome when she contacted Aboriginal communities on the south coast, the Hawkesbury and the Macleay. Public transport and whatever the Christian Endeavour network supplied were her only means of travel. In 1899 she walked seventy miles (113 km) during one visit to south-coast communities. Retta held a profound belief in the power of the Gospel to transform the lives of 'sinners' and thought that the Aborigines were in no way 'inferior to the white race'. She came to admire their spirituality, generosity and endurance. As a young missionary she was happy to accept their hospitality and their company on her journeys.

Unable to pay in full the money it owed, the N.S.W.A.M. resolved in 1902 to function as a 'faith mission' and to rely on God to supply its needs. Retta's role was supervisory in the field, and inspirational there and elsewhere. She was an able publicist and her success encouraged support. The evangelical press reported in detail her travel, her needs (a lady's bicycle), her appearances at Sunday services, and the 'bright singing and testimonies' of Aborigines with whom she worked. In 1905 she left the N.S.W.A.M. to form—with support from its Singleton committee—the Aborigines Inland Mission of Australia. On 11 January 1906 at the Baptist Church, Singleton, she married Leonard William Long; he was a Wesleyan and a fellow member of Christian Endeavour. Five of their seven children were to survive infancy. William and Retta became co-directors of A.I.M. They appear to have operated in absolute harmony, sharing the supervisory role, travelling extensively to visit A.I.M. stations, occasionally relieving a hard-pressed missionary, attending mission conferences and investigating a new field interstate.

The burden of maintaining the complex organizational structure essential in a faith mission fell more heavily on Retta. Her prayers were often directed to the matter of recruitment. She encouraged the Christian Endeavour connexion, sought the support of prayer circles, attended church services and addressed meetings. In 1907 A.I.M. began publishing Our Aim, a monthly magazine edited and partly written by Mrs Long. She maintained a voluminous correspondence: her outstanding gift was her 'ability to write helpful encouraging letters'.

Retta's mission assisted dispossessed and semi-urban Aborigines. When she began her work, Aboriginal communities were re-forming on recently gazetted reserves, and in camps on town commons and river banks. This resulted in the physical separation and isolation of their communities. With government permission, the A.I.M. built a church and a missionary residence on many of the reserves. Its missionaries lived among the Aborigines, often in similar material circumstances.

In 1910 the Longs moved A.I.M.'s headquarters to Sydney. An advisory council was formed in 1917, followed by local and interstate auxiliaries. During the 1930s interstate advisory councils took responsibility for local recruitment. A.I.M. was remarkably successful: there were forty-three missionaries in 1931 and fifty-two by 1940. In 1924 Retta had rejoiced that 'the most striking feature' of the year's work was the 'appearance of a Native Ministry. With almost unique suddenness simultaneously all over our field, God has laid his separating hands upon at least twelve men and women'. Although the numbers were small and some were backsliders, men and women continued to come forward.

After Leonard died from ptomaine poisoning on 28 December 1928, Retta continued as sole director. She reorganized the field into districts under a senior missionary and instituted a council to advise on placements. With her missionary son Arnold at the wheel of the A.I.M. van, she spent years pursuing the goal of a native ministry. In 1929 she began the Australian Evangel, a monthly paper designed for an Aboriginal readership.

From 1930 Mrs Long held a series of conventions for deepening the spiritual life of 'Native Christians', each extending over several days, and attended by hundreds. These were the 'great revivalist rallies' which a later generation recalled with 'reverence and nostalgia'. At these conventions she promoted her plan for a native training college. A fund was opened and negotiations commenced for suitable premises, but it was not until 1938 that the first two students entered the Native Training College, Port Stephens. Another of her initiatives was the publication of a book of hymns written by Aborigines.

Retta was physically frail. In 1935, partly for her health, she became less active. She began to write about the mission: Providential Channels (1935) was in the nature of a testimony; In the Way of His Steps (1936) a brief history; The Aboriginal as a Subject of the Kingdom of God (1938) a warm, but not uncritical, appraisal of the 'much maligned and misunderstood original inhabitants'. In 1937 she visited Britain to attend the Keswick Convention; she also went to Glasgow to inspect the Bible Training Institute and to Belfast to meet relations.

Mrs Long was emphatic that the mission's sole concern was salvation. It taught from the Bible and had helped those 'eager to read God's word' to learn to read. But it was not a mission which sought to 'civilize the native'. In practice, however, A.I.M.'s fundamentalist morality made many demands on its adherents. None the less, A.I.M. was in general less intrusive on Aboriginal culture than other missions, and it avoided involvement in institutions that took children from their parents. When A.I.M.'s missionaries in Darwin were evacuated during World War II and asked to care for Aboriginal evacuees, they did so. On their return in 1946 they received a subsidy and were given premises for the Retta Dixon Home. Mrs Long hoped that this was a new beginning, but the home was to have a troubled history. The Training College had also been evacuated during the war. Retta negotiated to rent premises at Dalwood, and in 1946 bought Minimbah House, Singleton. For a few years the college was little more than a training centre for Sunday School teachers, but by the 1950s a trickle of applicants for the ministry began. The college was renamed the A.I.M. Bible Training Institute in 1953 and opened to applicants from other missions.

Retta continued as director of A.I.M. until 1953, though frequently unwell; her family relieved her of much of the responsibility. Survived by her three daughters and two of her four sons, she died on 18 October 1956 at her Normanhurst home and was buried with Baptist forms in Rookwood cemetery. Mrs Long had achieved more than she intended. When Peter Read interviewed a later generation of the Wiradjuri he found that the Gospel brought by A.I.M. had become part of an 'old-fashioned but nonetheless respected Aboriginality'.

Select Bibliography

  • E. L. Telfer, Amongst Australian Aborigines (Syd, 1939)
  • A. E. Gerard, United Aborigines' Mission (Adel, 1945?)
  • I. Lindsay and H. Miles, Bringing Christ to Aboriginal Australia (Lawson, NSW, 1989)
  • J. Harris, One Blood (Syd, 1994)
  • Roll Call, 1897-1905
  • New South Wales Aborigines' Advocate, 1, 1901-05
  • Our Aim, 26 Jan 1929, 22 Oct 1931, 15 June, 16 Aug 1938, 16 Nov 1946, Nov 1956
  • Land Rights News, July 1988, p 24
  • P. Read, A History of the Wiradjuri People of New South Wales 1883-1969 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1983)
  • Conference with Mission Authorities, Darwin, 1948, A431 1948/1670, and Aborigines' Inland Mission, Retta Dixon Home, A452 1956/162 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Long, Margaret Jane (Retta) (1878–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 29 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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