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Phillips, Hubert Palmer (1897–1987)

by Norman Young

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Hubert Palmer Phillips (1887-1987), Methodist minister, was born on 15 December 1887 at Portland, Victoria, son of locally born parents William Phillips, schoolteacher, and his wife Blanche Salisbury, née Wilson. Palmer was educated at Portland State School and—after his father’s transfer to Ballarat—at Buninyong State School and Grenville College. He worked for the Commercial Bank of Australia until he was accepted as a candidate for ministry in the Methodist Church of Australasia. In 1908 he entered Queen’s College at the University of Melbourne, intending to study arts and theology, but a shortage of ministers led to his appointment to circuit ministry before his course was completed.

Serving as a probationer (1909) and then ordained (1913) minister, Phillips moved around country circuits in Victoria and Tasmania. He became widely known for his participation in community affairs and sport, playing football, cricket and tennis for local teams. On 24 March 1913 at Buninyong Methodist Church he married Florence Lelia Whykes. Early in World War I he was a vocal supporter of conscription, but by its end, having talked to returned servicemen, he became a convinced pacifist and leading participant in various national and international peace organisations.

Superintendent (1925-30) of the Fitzroy Methodist Mission, Phillips was noted for his evangelical preaching and welfare work in that underprivileged community. The same commitments marked his time (1933-39) with (Sir) Irving Benson at the Central Methodist Mission at Wesley Church, and in assisting the social reformer Oswald Barnett. An active member of the League of Nations Union and president (1945-50) of the Victorian branch of the United Nations Association, in 1936 he had been a Victorian delegate to the World Peace Congress in Brussels. Undeterred by critics who labelled him a communist fellow-traveller, he maintained that along with meeting the needs of the unemployed for food, clothing and shelter, governments should reform the social and economic system that had led to the Depression.

This call for justice paved the way for Phillips’s appointment in 1939 as director of the social services department of the Methodist Church in Victoria and Tasmania, a position he held until he retired in 1958. Not content to restrict his proclamation of the Gospel and its social implications for churches, he spoke on the Yarra bank, debated with rationalists in city theatres before large audiences, and was involved in two evangelical campaigns in the 1950s—the Methodist ‘Mission to the Nation’ (where social issues were prominent) and the Billy Graham ‘crusade’ (aimed mainly at individual conversions).

While later conceding that such campaigns had no lasting effect on the drift from the churches or the growth of the ‘permissive society’, Phillips continued to promote ‘education about the faith’. A leading anti-gambling and temperance advocate, he was critical not of those who suffered from alcoholism, for whose rehabilitation he worked tirelessly, but of those who profited from their addiction. His targets included the governments that—he argued—pandered to powerful interests.

A well-informed, vigorous and effective debater, Phillips always concentrated on the issues at hand, refusing to impugn the character of his opponents. He treasured the comment made to him by Premier (Sir) Albert Dunstan at the end of a public debate: ‘you hit hard but you fight fair’. Widowed in 1966, on 14 March 1968 at Bentleigh Methodist Church he married Lillian Gladys Lawry. Widowed again in 1984, he died on 11 November 1987 at Brunswick, survived by one of the two sons of his first marriage, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Heritage: A Journal of the Methodist Historical Society of Victoria, no 10, 1960, p 1
  • H. Palmer Phillips, Memories and Reflections (manuscript, 1974, Dalton McCaughey Library, Melbourne)
  • personal information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Norman Young, 'Phillips, Hubert Palmer (1897–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/phillips-hubert-palmer-15439/text26654, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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