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McGibbon, John (1828–1882)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

John McGibbon (1828-1882), Presbyterian minister, was born on 14 June 1828 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of George McGibbon and his wife Mary, née Calder. Educated at Edinburgh in parish and night schools, he was recruited by Rev. John Dunmore Lang for the Australian ministry in 1849. He arrived in Sydney with Lang early in 1850 and in December was licensed by his Synod of New South Wales. He assisted Lang at the Scots Church. In 1853 the committee of management tried to have McGibbon appointed co-pastor but Lang objected. Some of the committee and congregation withdrew and formed a new congregation under McGibbon at Woolloomooloo. A successful minister, he was liked by his congregation who, led by John Frazer, had by 1860 built and largely paid off a substantial stone church and manse in Palmer Street. McGibbon had been ordained by the Synod of Australia and was active in it. In 1865 he was its clerk when it dissolved connexion with the established Church of Scotland and united with the General Synod of New South Wales. He was moderator of the Sydney Presbytery in 1871 and of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1874. He studied at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1863; LL.B., 1868; LL.D., 1870) and in 1873-82 was a member of the theological faculty of St Andrew's College.

McGibbon championed what his supporters called Evangelical and others ultra-Protestantism. For him a central tenet of Protestantism was its opposition to Rome. He first achieved prominence in 1865 when he attacked Governor Young for supporting an appeal for funds to rebuild St Mary's Cathedral after its destruction by fire. Several long controversies with Catholic apologists followed and introduced into colonial life a level of sectarian debate absent since the early 1840s. In 1866 Catholic attempts to prevent him lecturing on a theme that 'Rome was the anti-Christ' resulted in the 'Battle of York Street'. In 1868, after more serious sectarianism sparked off by Henry O'Farrell's attempt to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh, McGibbon with Revs Zachary Barry, Barzillai Quaife, Wazir Beg and John Sharpe founded the Australian Protestant Banner, a weekly that exposed and attacked the errors of Rome and 'accommodating' Protestants. In 1869, after a dispute with Beg, McGibbon began the Protestant Standard and edited it with increasing assistance from Barry until 1881; it was the organ of the Orange lodges in the colony until 1895.

In the early 1870s McGibbon had been the chief publicist for the Loyal Orange Institution of New South Wales which was rejuvenated in 1868. His iteration that Orangeism was simply Evangelical Protestantism did much to break down English prejudice against its Irish associations and helped the institution to reach its peak of 25,000 members in the early 1880s. In great demand as a speaker he often preached from the pulpits of other Protestant denominations and often visited the country. In October 1870 he began the Protestant Institute to combat the new Catholic Truth Society. In the late 1860s and early 1870s he had strongly supported the movement to build a Protestant Hall. He had helped to win Presbyterian support for (Sir) Henry Parkes's 1866 Public Schools Act and in 1874-75 he and Barry championed Rev. James Greenwood's Public School League, ensuring that it adopted a moderate interpretation of 'secular'. Although not a total abstainer he campaigned energetically for temperance. In 1877-80 he appeared seventeen times before the licensing bench to prevent the opening of a public house opposite his church. His comments on the case took him twice to another court to answer libel charges. He also stressed Sunday observance and condemned dancing, theatre, race-going and gambling.

McGibbon's energetic advocacy undermined his health. In 1876 heart disease was detected. A world trip provided only temporary respite and in 1881 he gave up all editorial duties. On 22 June 1882 he died at the Palmer Street manse, survived by his wife Margaret, née Ferguson, whom he had married in 1855, and by four sons and three daughters. His estate was valued at £7510. Orangemen erected a large obelisk over his grave in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Lang, The Case of the Scots Church, Church Hill (Syd, 1853)
  • J. Cameron, Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church in New South Wales (Syd, 1905)
  • J. E. Carruthers, Memories of an Australian Ministry 1868-1921 (Lond, 1922)
  • A. D. Gilchrist (ed), John Dunmore Lang, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1951)
  • C. A. White, The Challenge of the Years (Syd, 1951)
  • Presbyterian and Australian Witness, 1 July 1882
  • Protestant Standard, 1 July 1882
  • Bulletin, 1 July 1882
  • Town and Country Journal, 1 July 1882
  • M. Lyons, Aspects of Sectarianism in New South Wales circa 1865-1880 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972).

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'McGibbon, John (1828–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgibbon-john-4092/text6539, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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