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Strong, Charles (1844–1942)

by C. R. Badger

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Charles Strong (1844-1942), clergyman, was born on 26 September 1844 at Dailly, Ayrshire, Scotland, third son of Rev. David Strong (1803-1855) and his wife Margaret Paterson, née Roxburgh. After schooling at Ayr and Glasgow academies he studied arts and divinity at the University of Glasgow in 1859-64 (hon. LL.D., 1887) where, influenced by Rev. John Caird, he rejected the Calvinist scholasticism of his day and adopted a liberal, Broad Church theology. In 1865-66 he travelled on the Continent as a private tutor, and in 1866-68 led a mission to the Dalmellington ironworks, Ayr. He was licensed to the presbytery of Glasgow, ordained to the Old West Kirk, Greenock, in 1868 and was minister to Anderston parish church, Glasgow, in 1871-75. In 1872 he married Janet Julia Fullarton, daughter of Archibald Fairrie Denniston, a Greenock solicitor; they had three daughters and five sons.

In May 1875 Strong was chosen to replace I. Hetherington at Scots Church, Melbourne; he arrived with his family on 23 August. His success as pastor, preacher, liberal theological teacher and social reformer brought him prominence, but he soon aroused suspicion and hostility among a powerful section of the Presbyterian Church. His clerical opponents were alarmed by his essays that appeared between January 1878 and December 1879 in the liberal Presbyterian Review (edited by Rev. William Henderson), and by an article on the atonement in the Victorian Review in 1880; his worship and catechetical innovations, his advocacy of reform of the Westminster Confession, as well as his outspoken condemnation of social evils encouraged them to attack his orthodoxy at the Melbourne presbytery in March-April 1881: as a result he was instructed to change the emphasis of his preaching. Facing continuing friction with the presbytery, aware of his intellectual isolation and desiring to avoid serious divisions in the Church, he tendered his resignation on 8 August. At the request of the church officers and congregation he agreed instead to take six months leave. However, an incautious speech by J. C. Stewart, a supporter and elder of Scots Church, rekindled attacks on him; amid the turmoil he left his family in Melbourne and visited Scotland in March-October 1882.

On his return Strong supported the opening of the Public Library and Art Gallery on Sundays and was admonished by the presbytery. In August 1883 he was attacked for failing as chairman to register dissent from G. Higinbotham's lecture on 'Science and Religion'. The presbytery threatened him with a libel for heresy and asked the General Assembly to intervene. He resigned from Scots Church in September and prepared to leave Victoria. The assembly delayed the case until 14 November, when Strong was being farewelled by a huge crowd at the Melbourne Town Hall and presented with a cheque for £3000; at the meeting he declined an invitation to attend the assembly and affirm his orthodoxy, and in a letter he described its proceedings as unconstitutional and illegal. He sailed on 15 November and next day the assembly declared him to be no longer a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria.

In November 1884 Strong returned to Melbourne. At the Temperance Hall, Russell Street, he ministered to a congregation largely composed of religious liberals and ex-members and adherents of Scots Church. In November 1885 the Australian Church, a free religious fellowship, was founded and he was invited to be its first minister. The foundation stone of a large new church was laid in 1887.

Passionately concerned for his fellow men, Strong continued his work for the underprivileged. In 1880 he had been active in the Australian Health Society, and that year was president of the Convalescent Aid Society which was largely supported by Scots Church. He was a member of the Society for the Promotion of Morality, and with G. Coppin promoted model lodging-houses in 1883. Interested in education, he was a member of the council of Scotch College and in 1880 of Ormond College. In 1886 he and members of the Australian Church established the Social Improvement Friendly Help and Children's Aid Society to carry out social and charitable work in Collingwood and Richmond. He had been a member of the council of the Working Men's College from the 1880s and helped to open a branch in Collingwood in July 1891; he founded a Working Men's Club the same year. He formed societies to discuss literature and music but his major association was the Religious Science Club. In 1892 he was involved with Horace Tucker in the utopian Village Settlement Movement; by 1894-95 they were in debt over the scheme. He was also very active in the National Anti-Sweating League and was elected a vice-president on 12 August 1895.

Strong's earnest and strenuous advocacy of unpopular economic and social views was a factor in the decline of the Australian Church. He was active against the Boer war and imperialism, and in 1905 founded and chaired the first Melbourne Peace Society. In England in April-November 1914 he talked with prison reformers and attended a peace conference at Liverpool; on his return to Melbourne he helped to form a branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. With a son in World War I, he signed the anti-conscription manifesto in December 1917 and was attacked in the press for it; many of the best members of his Church resigned. Between the wars Strong campaigned for the relief of victims of the Spanish civil war, advocated justice to the Aboriginals, and urged prison reform and, above all, abolition of capital punishment. He also worked for the proper care of mentally defective children.

From 1913 Strong lived in Barnato Grove, Armadale. His wife died on 23 April 1919. Active to the end, he suffered a fall while on holiday at Lorne and died there on 12 February 1942. His estate was valued for probate at £8372. He had received many legacies over the years including some £20,000 from an uncle in 1938, but gave virtually all to charities. His Church continued in smaller premises in Russell Street that had been bought in 1922, but in February 1957 it was dissolved. In 1958 the Charles Strong (Australian Church) Memorial Trust was established to further the study of comparative religion.

'With a pale, thoughtful face … tall spare figure [and a manner] charming in its mingled mildness and dignity', Strong was a gifted profoundly religious, highly intelligent idealist; but he was seen by many contemporaries as a destructive rationalist. His teaching was defensive and apologetic: he taught that Christianity was more endangered by theological obscurantism than by critical historical investigation, natural science or biblical criticism and that failure to love one's neighbour was more serious than doctrinal doubt. He was admired and trusted by men like Charles Pearson, Bishop Moorhouse, Alfred Felton, George Higinbotham, Alfred Deakin, H. B. Higgins and Bernard O'Dowd. Strong kept abreast of contemporary scholarship in biblical studies and comparative religion; but he was neither a profound scholar nor a systematic thinker, and his views must be reconstructed from a profusion of writings such as sermons and lectures. Until his death he edited a publication for the Social Improvement Society known variously as Our Good Words (1887-89), The Australian Herald (1889-1908) and The Commonweal (1908-42).

Select Bibliography

  • The Scots' Church Case. By the Promotors of the Bill (Melb, 1884)
  • R. Hamilton, A Jubilee History of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria (Melb, 1888)
  • A. Macdonald, One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria (Melb, 1937)
  • Australasian, 24 Oct 1885
  • General Assembly minutes 1875-84, Melbourne Presbytery minutes 1874-85, Scots Church Session and Committee of Management minutes 1875-85 (Presbyterian Church Assembly Hall, Melbourne)
  • Strong papers, Australian Church minutes, 1904-46, sermons and lectures (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

C. R. Badger, 'Strong, Charles (1844–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/strong-charles-4658/text7697, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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