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Tait, George (1844–1934)

by Valerie J. O'Byrne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

George Tait (1844-1934), Presbyterian minister and administrator, was born on 12 April 1844 at Parramatta, New South Wales, fourth child of Rev. John Tait and his wife Elizabeth, née Blair, both of whom had emigrated from Scotland in 1837 in response to an appeal for clergy to assist the colonial Presbyterian Church.

Educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, George excelled academically and in sport. He matriculated and entered the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1865; M.A., 1878) where he won second-year exhibitions in Greek and Latin, English and logic. He also played football (for Melbourne and Geelong) and intercolonial cricket. Proceeding to New College, Edinburgh, he studied theology and was licensed in 1869 as a preacher by the Free Presbytery of Edinburgh. On 22 June 1869 he married Mary Agnes (d.1933), daughter of Rev. John Sym with whom he was associated at Greyfriars Church.

Returning to Victoria, in 1870 Tait was ordained and inducted into the widely scattered rural pastorate of Donald which he traversed on horseback. His next ministry (South Yarra) was interrupted by the Victorian Presbyterian Assembly which appointed him principal of the newly established Ladies' College (later Presbyterian Ladies' College) in 1875. Tait brought impressive qualities to this task. As well as possessing intellectual stature and having a commitment to Christian principles, he combined practical common sense with administrative skill. Although inexperienced in the field of education, he insisted on the right to appoint the best talent available to staff the college and stamped it with high standards of academic excellence. In 1879 he caused widespread dismay by resigning. The reasons for his action are not known, but it followed the controversy surrounding the dismissal of his headmaster C. H. Pearson in 1877.

Tait accepted a call to Warrnambool where his ten years service was marked by an increased Church membership and an extensive building programme. Active in civic affairs, he also became involved in theological controversy with the Baptist community. Never one to shirk an issue, in Sermons on Christian Baptism (1881) he argued for the scriptural basis of infant baptism by sprinkling. He also contributed to the atonement debate sparked by discussion of Rev. Charles Strong's ministry. On public questions, he supported the shorter working week and the placing of Bibles in State schools. These activities and his increasing involvement in assembly affairs brought him prominence within the Church.

In rapid succession Tait was appointed junior clerk of the Church's Victorian Assembly, convenor of the business committee (1883), home mission superintendent (1889), then senior clerk (1891-1933). Meanwhile, in 1891 he returned to South Yarra where he remained until his retirement in 1914. In his capacity as moderator of the Victorian Assembly (1900-01) he attended the inaugural General Assembly of Australia, and served as its clerk until 1933.

In retirement Tait continued to espouse causes through his publications which included Church Union (1917), The Case Against Prohibition of the Liquor Traffic (1932) and The Bible, How to Think of It (1919). His assembly speeches were lucid and persuasive. Tall, erect and serious, with a high forehead and white beard, he was the epitome of a scholarly clergyman of his time. Quiet and reserved, he possessed a sense of humour, but did not suffer fools gladly. His family regarded him with affection, tinged with awe, and selflessly met his material needs. He enjoyed reading widely and watching cricket from the members' stand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Born into and nurtured by the Presbyterian Church, George Tait served it with honour and devotion as an administrator whose historical knowledge and judicial mind skilfully guided business through Church courts. In the parish he was esteemed for his evangelical preaching and innovative pastoral work. His theological writings, while not extensive, showed a willingness to confront issues and argue from first principles. Unusually for his time, he was an ecumenist.

Survived by five daughters and three sons, Tait died on 21 December 1934 at East Malvern and was buried in Kew cemetery. His portrait by W. B. McInnes, commissioned in 1930 to commemorate sixty years in the ministry, hangs in the Assembly Hall, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men, vol 2 (Melb, 1887)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, PLC Melbourne (Melb, 1975)
  • Centenary History of South Yarra Presbyterian Church, 1854-1954 (np, nd)
  • Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Proceedings of the Commission of Assembly, May 1901, May 1902, Nov 1914, May, Nov 1933, May 1934, May 1935
  • Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, July 1901
  • South Yarra Presbyterian Church Chronicle, May 1911
  • Messenger (Presbyterian, Vic & Tas), 11 Jan 1935
  • private information.

Citation details

Valerie J. O'Byrne, 'Tait, George (1844–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tait-george-8739/text15303, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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