Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ruth, Thomas Elias (1875–1956)

by John Garrett

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

Thomas Elias Ruth (1875-1956), Baptist then Congregational minister, was born on 17 December 1875 at Aveton Gifford, near Modbury, Devon, England, son of George William Saunders Ruth, baker, and his wife Mary Ann, née Elson. 'Christened, confirmed and converted in the Church of England with every intention of preparing for holy orders', he embraced Baptist opinions as a student and was immersed. After training for the ministry at the Bristol Baptist College and University College, Bristol, in 1897-99, he served at Southampton (1901-05), Liverpool (1905-11) and Southport (1911-14) and won swift acclaim as an orator in the Free Church Federal Council. Lloyd George was his model: observers thought he was, even physically, a miniature version of the Liberal statesman—a comparison he enjoyed. He chose the pulpit, but revelled in the atmosphere of the hustings. At Southampton he married Mabel Edith Law on 2 April 1902; they had two sons and a daughter.

A self-styled 'comprehensive and progressive churchman', Ruth deprecated fixed creeds—he called them crutches. Called in 1914 as minister of the Collins Street Baptist Church, he burst on Melbourne as a preacher of 'exuberant zest'. His Empire loyalism in war and his lifelong antipathy to Roman Catholicism drew battle lines for his after-church Sunday night 'red hot addresses' on social questions in the auditorium directly opposite his church. His attacks on Archbishop Mannix at these crowded public meetings led to some of his congregation providing him with a bodyguard in case Mannix partisans should assault him. Although he and Mannix were at daggers drawn over such questions as conscription and mixed marriages, they sometimes met genially in private to savour each other's brisk company.

In 1922 Ruth resigned to enter on 'general ministries in capital cities'. In March 1923 he was invited as evening preacher to the Pitt Street Congregational Church, Sydney. By May his deacons noted with satisfaction an evening congregation swollen to 1500 and a sevenfold increase in the offertory. In 1925 Ruth succeeded N. J. Cocks as minister of Pitt Street without evident scruples about his switch from Baptist to Congregational allegiance.

After an initial boom period at Pitt Street, problems followed. By 1929 world depression had dampened Ruth's ambitious fund-raising for rebuilding the adjacent Church House (now Pilgrim House). Church attendance gradually fell off, even though Ruth continued his powerful preaching: mental depression matched the prevailing economic climate; the pews were hard; the church was chilly in winter. Edwardian pulpit eloquence seemed less impressive. Nevertheless Ruth fierily maintained his convictions. He denounced Premier J. T. Lang and J. S. Garden. He supported the widely vilified scholar Rev. Samuel Angus and called the New Guard of Eric Campbell 'these young men of the dawn'. Ruth invoked the Anzac spirit, urging preservation of a white, British and mainly Protestant Australia.

In Sydney he was active in the Millions Club, a Freemason and an ardent golfer. His literary lectures on Wordsworth, Browning and 'Sons and Songs of Devon' revealed where part of his heart still lay. One of his Pitt Street members recalled him as 'a visionary, physically short … he bounced'. Ruth's utterances, published at intervals as books, occupy formidable space in libraries.

Resigning from Pitt Street in 1938, he retired to the South Australian Baptist Homes for the Aged, Norwood, but returned later to Sydney. Survived by a son, Ruth died at Killara on 29 March 1956 and was cremated with Congregational forms.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Kingston, It Don't Seem a Day Too Much (Adel, 1971)
  • Today (Melbourne), 30 Apr 1932, p 16
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Dec 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Sept 1922, 18, 19 Apr 1931, 3 Jan, 2, 4, 5 Oct 1933, 14, 28 May 1934, 2 July 1938, 8, 13, 21 Apr 1956
  • Pitt Street Congregational Church minutes, reports and correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Garrett, 'Ruth, Thomas Elias (1875–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ruth-thomas-elias-8305/text14561, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 August 2014.

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

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