Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Northey, James Douglas (1890–1975)

by John F. Bodycomb

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

James Douglas Northey (1890-1975), Congregational clergyman, was born on 26 March 1890 at Hindmarsh, Adelaide, eldest of four sons of James Northey, stoker, and his second wife Mary Elizabeth, née Davis. When his father died, 12-year-old Douglas left Kyre College and worked as a printer's devil to help support his mother, brothers and half-sister. In 1906 he was apprenticed to a bookbinder.

Raised in domestic piety by a mother who 'lived her faith', Northey began preaching at the age of 16 and was challenged by an old minister to 'take up the Lord's work'. At that time his ambition was to be a professional athlete. Stockily built and possessing extraordinary physical energy, he excelled at every sport he tried: he was regarded as a prospective international cricketer, though he was blind in one eye from a football injury.

When he completed his trade, Northey entered Parkin Theological College, Kent Town, and studied at the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1919). He was ordained a minister in the Congregational Church on 1 December 1916. At Riverton Methodist Church on 20 December that year he married Eva Janet Hannaford. Parish appointments followed, at Kensington Gardens (1916-21) and Victor Harbor (1921-29).

In 1929 Northey transferred to Canterbury, Melbourne, where he quickly distinguished himself. An indefatigable proponent of the ecumenical movement, by the early 1930s he was advocating organic union between the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches (eventually achieved, with his active assistance, in 1977). He was chairman (1934-35) of the Congregational Union of Victoria and president (1936-37) of the Council of Churches of Victoria. In 1938 he helped to found the Christian Commonwealth Movement, which sought to interpret the 'kingdom of God' in socio-political terms. A member for twenty-one years of the Melbourne College of Divinity (B.D., 1936), he was its president in 1944-46 and 1957-59.

Northey left Canterbury in 1940 to become principal of the Congregational College of Victoria. A major formative influence on generations of candidates preparing for ordination, he rebuked pietism and the introverted church, narrow-mindedness and inflexibility. As president (1948-50) of the Congregational Union of Australia and New Zealand, he travelled extensively, visiting theological schools and preaching from famous pulpits in Britain and the United States of America.

With a resonant voice which he used to effect, Northey was a popular speaker—not only in pulpits, but at retreats, conferences and secular public events. He rarely spoke without a full handwritten script before him. Having joined the Freemasons in 1921, he had risen to be a grand chaplain with the United Grand Lodge of Victoria. He co-founded Mayflower Lodge (Congregational). His rapport with men was a singular asset. A prolific writer of pamphlets and articles for religious and secular media, he was renowned for his love of the deft phrase, and for his quirky alliteration (which some considered obsessive). For one whose logic and rhetoric could border on the overpowering, he was flexible, tolerant and forgiving. One of his maxims was 'guiding principles are better than prescriptive rules'. In public he was the epitome of dignity, and was often seen in a homburg, black coat and striped trousers. In private he was warm and at times riotously comic. Students goaded him at the dining-table to tell favourite jokes so as to see the tears of uncontrolled mirth before he could deliver the punch-line.

'J.D.', as he was widely known, retired from the college in 1960 and served as a locum pastor for eight years with the South St Kilda congregation. Survived by his son and two daughters, he died on 28 February 1975 at Kew and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Congregationalist, Apr 1975
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1975
  • K. Hammond, Northey Family History (typescript, 1994, held by author)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

John F. Bodycomb, 'Northey, James Douglas (1890–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/northey-james-douglas-11258/text20081, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 September 2014.

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

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