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Rentoul, John Laurence (1846–1926)

by Stuart Macintyre

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Laurence Rentoul (1846-1926), clergyman and controversialist, was born on 6 July 1846 at Garvagh, Londonderry, Ireland, fourth son of Rev. James Buchan Rentoul and his wife Sarah, née Wilson. His father and grandfather were Presbyterian ministers, the latter having moved to Ulster from Perth, Scotland, to promote unity among Irish Presbyterians. Rentoul was educated at Queen's College, Belfast, graduating B.A. in 1867 with second-class honours and M.A. in 1868 with first-class honours. He abandoned a course in the law for theology and pursued postgraduate studies at Leipzig, Germany, before being ordained a minister of the Presbyterian Church of England in 1872.

As incumbent of St George's, Southport, Lancashire, he caught the ear of the noted London preacher Oswald Dykes, who had been in Australia in the 1860s and often acted as adviser to the colonial Church. When the wealthy congregation of St George's, East St Kilda, Melbourne, sought to attract a minister from Britain and offered a stipend of £800 per annum, Dykes nominated Rentoul. He arrived in 1879 with his wife Annie Isobel, daughter of D. T. Rattray, whom he had married at Southport on 30 October 1878. When his student friend (Sir) John MacFarland followed him in 1881 to take up the post of master of the newly established Ormond College at the University of Melbourne, he was struck by the contrast between the forms of religion in their native Ulster and those in Rentoul's thriving new church: 'he has an organ, a choir, and an anthem to drown the jingling of the thruppences'.

Rentoul arrived on the eve of a fierce conflict within the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, between scholastic Calvinists who clung to the orthodoxies of the Westminster Confession and liberals who sought to revivify their faith with a more latitudinarian theology and active ministry. Charles Strong of Scots Church, Melbourne, incurred the wrath of the fundamentalists for publishing in 1880 a sceptical account of the doctrine of atonement and by chairing in 1883 a meeting at which George Higinbotham delivered his famous lecture on 'Science and Religion'.

Rentoul played a prominent and particularly vituperative role in the campaign against Strong, whom he described in 1881 as a Unitarian. His own theological position, which he described as the 'liberal' faith of an 'evangelical broad churchman', was not sharply different. Like Strong, he sought to interpret Christianity in the light of recent biblical criticism and to accommodate the tenets of his faith to scientific knowledge. In later years he was associated with Strong in various public causes; he preached at Strong's Australian Church, and, like him, was accused of rationalist and Unitarian heresies by guardians of the old orthodoxy.

Rentoul's behaviour at this time seems to have been motivated by a mixture of caution, a need to expunge his own uncertainties, and perhaps his personal ambition. A recent benefaction had made possible the appointment of two professors to the theological hall at Ormond College, and there was keen lobbying among local candidates before Rentoul secured the chair of biblical languages and Christian philosophy. While his academic claims were undeniable—the Theological Faculty of Ireland conferred a doctorate of divinity in 1884—it was said that he owed his appointment to his persecution of Strong.

Living in one of the residences in the Ormond grounds, he occupied the chair until his death. He became principal of the theological hall in 1906. As memories of the Strong affair faded, he injected a more critical content into his teaching of the scriptures, and introduced students to contemporary theological and philosophical issues. He stressed that candidates for the ministry ought to have a broad education in the humanities, and sought to communicate his own love of literature. From 1889 Andrew Harper relieved him of responsibility for Old Testament Hebrew, but for more than forty years he lectured several hours each morning, attended to pastoral duties and correspondence each afternoon, preached widely and still found time to prosecute his many disputes.

It is difficult to summarize the full range of causes Rentoul took up, more difficult to discern a consistent pattern. He was a critic of the Roman Catholic Church (The Early Church and the Roman Claim passed through six editions) and was sometimes associated with the Orange lodge; he was also an intimate of Archbishops Carr and Mannix. The campaigns of the Irish Land League, in which his father was active, were a formative boyhood experience; he supported Home Rule during the 1890s, and even delivered the St Patrick's Day address in Melbourne in 1901—yet he opposed the establishment of the Irish Free State. A liberal nationalist and self-proclaimed pacifist who declared that international conflict was caused by capitalist rivalry, he warned Australians against being drawn into 'European brawls' and campaigned fearlessly against Australian involvement in the South African War. Following the outbreak of World War I, he hymned the nation at war ('Forward! Quit yourselves like men!'), became chaplain-general in the Australian Imperial Force, and urged conscription for overseas service. But when several of his theological students were threatened with expulsion from Ormond because they refused to enlist, Rentoul defended them before the Presbyterian Assembly.

The core of his beliefs were apparent in his attempts to define Australian citizenship in terms of an evangelical Christian morality. During the debates on Federation he insisted that the Constitution must 'recognise God'. He campaigned vigorously for the teaching of scripture in government schools, and dismissed as 'twaddle' the notion that mere secular training could restrain the passions of the heart. At the same time he resisted all attempts to turn Christianity into a social gospel: 'it could only be done by letting Christ into their hearts to kill greed and covetousness, and by building up a pure manhood, a pure womanhood, and a pure home life'. Thus from the platform of the Victorian Peace and Humanity Society he urged that love and charity should guide the nation in its provisions for the poor, the criminal, the Aborigine and the worker.

Rentoul was a forceful preacher, though perhaps forbiddingly severe. A hostile sketch written in 1887 describes a high bald head fringed with hair, long thin arms extended and a weak voice forced to its utmost limits. His figure was small and spare, even frail, but erect; his movements brisk and purposeful. The portrait that hangs in Ormond College suggests asceticism, keen intelligence and tightly controlled passion. In public debate he was all the more formidable for the absence of all restraint. Known as 'Fighting Larry', he would employ any argument that met his purpose. His pen was a weapon of destruction, his forensic style designed to crush all resistance. At the same time he did not hold a grudge and was surprised when his victims did. In a revealing interview given when he became moderator general of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in 1912, he explained that 'people think it is a great compliment to me to say that I am a great fighter, but I can honestly say that I never fight willingly … I fight only when I must'. The martial assumption is arresting, but the testimony also suggests the strain that was imposed by such unbending self-righteousness. In private dealings he showed courtesy and kindness. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1920.

Rentoul's chief pleasures were solitary—gardening and reading. His closest friends were clerical colleagues. During summer holidays he fished for trout with his compatriots MacFarland and H. B. Higgins. He published three volumes of verse, fervid and deeply felt but mediocre in quality. His 'Australia' was included in the first Oxford Book of Australasian Verse. He passed on his love of literature to his elder daughter Annie Rattray, a poet and writer of children's books illustrated by her sister Ida Outhwaite. Rentoul's last years were overshadowed by the nervous breakdown of one of his two sons, Ormond, who was cared for within the family (but for whom prayers were said in Catholic convents). Rentoul's wife, who had earlier suffered an accident, declined under this ordeal. Rentoul's dying words, when he collapsed at Spencer Street Station on 15 April 1926, were an apology for the inconvenience to the porter who tended him. He was buried in St Kilda cemetery. His wife and children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. S. Cleary, Australia's Debt to Irish Nation-Builders (Syd, 1933)
  • A. Macdonald, One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria (Melb, 1937)
  • C. R. Badger, The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church (Melb, 1971)
  • R. G. Ely, Unto God and Caesar (Melb, 1976)
  • S. Macintyre (ed), Ormond College Centenary Essays (Melb, 1984)
  • Australian Herald (Melbourne), 1900-02
  • Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Blue Books, 1879-1906
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 25, no, 1954, p 144
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22, 28 Mar 1887, 14 Sept 1912, 16 Apr 1926
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Mar 1901, 16 Apr 1926
  • D. Chambers, Theological Reaching and Thought in the Theological Hall of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, 1865 to 1906 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964)
  • D. Chambers, A History of Ormond College 1881-1945 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • Ormond College archives (University of Melbourne Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'Rentoul, John Laurence (1846–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rentoul-john-laurence-8184/text14311, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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