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Murdoch, Patrick John (1850–1940)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Patrick John Murdoch (1850-1940), Presbyterian minister, was born on 10 June 1850 at Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of Rev. James Murdoch, Free Church of Scotland minister, and his wife Helen, née Garden. Patrick was raised in the highly erudite atmosphere of a Free Church manse at Rosehearty, the herring-fishing port of Pitsligo on Moray Firth. He graduated M.A. after four years at the University of Aberdeen and completed his training for the Free Church ministry as Cunningham scholar at New College, Edinburgh, and assistant minister at Regent Square Presbyterian Church, London, and South Free Church, Aberdeen. His contemporaries and co-religionists included (Sir) William Robertson Nicoll, founding editor of the British Weekly and the Bookman, whose career in religious journalism was later upheld as an ideal in the Murdoch family, and his friend the popular writer John Watson, alias 'Ian Maclaren'. Licensed to preach in 1878, Murdoch was ordained as minister at Cruden, Aberdeenshire, where he married Annie Brown on 5 January 1882. In 1884, when a crisis was disrupting the Free Church of Scotland, he accepted a call to the West Melbourne Presbyterian Church.

Murdoch and a large family party including his parents and his 10-year-old brother (Sir) Walter, arrived in Melbourne on 2 October 1884 only to find that the Victorian Church had its own crisis regarding Charles Strong. After three years at West Melbourne Murdoch was called to Trinity Church, Camberwell, in August 1887 and remained there until his retirement in 1928. He held prominent positions in the Presbyterian Church, being convener of the Victorian General Assembly's business committee in 1892-1918, joint convener of the 20th Century Fund, clerk of the presbytery of Melbourne South in 1896-1920, moderator of the Victorian General Assembly in 1898-99 and moderator-general of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in 1905-06. A churchman of strict principle, he demonstrated that the covenanting spirit was not dead during the Ronald v. Harper slander and libel case in March 1909 when he spent a night in 'the sheriff's quarters' at Melbourne gaol for contempt rather than obey Justice Hodges's demand to produce a letter in the possession of the presbytery of Melbourne South without its authority. Murdoch upheld the legal nature of the presbytery as an ecclesiastical court, whereas the judge took the view that he could 'no more allow members of the Presbyterian Church, through oaths administered to one another, not to produce documents … than [he] could allow two thugs, by virtue of similar oaths, to do the same thing'.

A cleric who valued social connexions, exemplified in his love of golf and bowls, Murdoch was tall, 'broad-shouldered, straight-backed and full of Christian fun'. He established friendly relations with persons of consequence: prime ministers as diverse as Andrew Fisher, Alfred Deakin and (Sir) Robert Menzies were his friends or admirers, and he had many contacts in the newspaper world. A theologian of the liberal Free Church tradition, he published Sidelights on the Shorter Catechism (1908), The Central Doctrines of the Christian Faith (1915) and Laughter and Tears of God and Other War Sermons (1915). Despite his orthodoxy he was better known for his reforming zeal, his humanitarian and ecumenical interests, and his sympathy for the underdog. Rev. (Sir) Irving Benson saw him as one of the architects of the Presbyterian Church in his day as well as 'a prince of preachers'.

Patrick Murdoch died at Auburn on 1 July 1940. A portrait of his wife (d.1945), painted by George Lambert in 1927, won the Archibald prize. They were survived by one daughter and three sons, including (Sir) Keith Arthur.

Select Bibliography

  • A. MacKay, Cruden and its Ministers (Adel, 1912)
  • A. Macdonald, One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria (Melb, 1937)
  • C. McKay, This is the Life (Syd, 1961)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • J. La Nauze, Walter Murdoch (Melb, 1977)
  • D. Zwar, In Search of Keith Murdoch (Melb, 1980)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 17 Nov 1899
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16, 17 Mar 1909
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 Nov 1928, 1, 2, 6 July 1940.

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Murdoch, Patrick John (1850–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murdoch-patrick-john-7695/text13471, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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