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Thatcher, Griffithes Wheeler (1863–1950)

by Alan D. Crown

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

Griffithes Wheeler Thatcher (1863-1950), Congregational minister and linguist, was born on 6 August 1863 at Collingwood, Melbourne, eldest child of Richard Henry Thatcher, stationer, and his wife Sarah Anne, née Smith, both English born. He regularly attended Sunday school at the Brighton Congregational Church and was influenced by its minister Rev. John Legge. Educated at Brighton College and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1883), Griffithes gained his M.A. in 1885 with first-class honours in natural sciences. His interest in geology was lifelong.

Assisted by a Congregational College of Victoria bursary, he was granted a certificate in mid-1885 which permitted him to enter a divinity course at the University of Edinburgh (B.D., 1886). He completed his studies within a year and also found time to study music. Late in 1887 Thatcher returned to Melbourne to teach Biblical languages and literature at the Congregational College. Ordained in 1888 (although he was never to exercise his ministry in a pastorate), he visited Egypt, Palestine, Syria and then went on to Leipzig in 1889. While living at Mansfield College, he attended the University of Oxford (B.A., 1892; M.A., 1896).

Graduating in the honours school of oriental studies, Thatcher lectured in Hebrew and Old Testament languages and literature at his college, and in 1900 became senior tutor. Some of his pupils, like Arthur Sadler, became prominent in Arabic or Semitic studies. At Mansfield College Thatcher worked with eminent scholars and was clearly of their ilk. His most enduring work, Arabic Grammar of the Written Language (1911), won him international acclaim. He also contributed to Hastings's Dictionary of the Bible (1900) and Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (1906), and to Encyclopaedia Britannica; he edited the volume, Judges and Ruth, in the Century Bible and wrote numerous articles, but his major glossary of South Arabian remained unpublished.

Guided by his evangelical convictions and by a belief that he was doing God's work, in 1909 Thatcher accepted the wardenship of Camden College (the Congregational training institution in Sydney) and thereby sacrificed his chances of being offered chairs in Britain or Europe. Arriving in Sydney with fifty-three cases of books, he was inducted on 17 March 1910. He devoted himself to building the non-residential college into a first-rate institution, both through his stature and through his teaching and administrative skills. He persuaded the council to provide residential facilities and in 1915 a new building at Glebe opened with six students. It was run on Oxford lines, with gowns, address by surnames, senior and junior common rooms, and a high table.

During World War I many of its men enlisted; Thatcher made the college a bastion of patriotism; he served as a censor and adviser to the Australian government. The shortage of staff encouraged him to invite the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational colleges to pool their resources and to give joint lectures, except on matters relating directly to their own church history.

With Rev. Samuel Angus, Canon Arthur Garnsey and Dean Albert Talbot, Thatcher had founded and was first president of the Heretics' Club in 1916. As acting professor of oriental studies at the University of Sydney in 1921, he lectured in and on Japanese. He was awarded an honorary D.D. by McGill University, Canada, in 1926. His unchallengeable academic credentials and his friendships with senior university academics (many of whom lectured at Camden College on subjects ranging from evolution to geography) made it possible for him to press persistently for the recognition of theological studies as suitable subjects for study at the university. After his retirement as warden in December 1932, the university was given authority to confer degrees in divinity and the Board of Studies in Divinity was established in 1937.

As a foundation member of the board, Thatcher taught its early syllabus in Old Testament studies and Hebrew, and drafted its administrative regulations for teachers and students. He also fought zealously to maintain teaching standards and to introduce research work in the field of divinity. Although he had hoped to cease teaching in 1941, circumstances obliged him to continue until October 1943; next March he resigned from the board due to illness.

All who knew Thatcher spoke of his facility with languages: after his retirement he undertook to learn a language a year, and he had a solid knowledge of thirty-seven tongues. Once, when a lecturer forgot verbal paradigms in Russian, Thatcher filled the lacunae promptly, from memory. His celibate status allowed him untrammelled freedom to study. A 'singularly modest man', he 'was lean and lantern-jawed'.

Skilled in Church politics and adroit in side-stepping controversy, Thatcher was chairman of the Congregational Union of New South Wales in 1910-11 and 1935-36: his annual addresses showed that he favoured church unity. He died on 11 March 1950 at Chatswood, Sydney, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £7955. Sydney University Press published a volume in Thatcher's honour in 1967, edited by one of his pupils Evan MacLaurin.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • J. A. Garrett and L. W. Farr, Camden College, a Centenary History (Syd, 1964)
  • E. C. B. MacLaurin (ed), Essays in Honour of Griffithes Wheeler Thatcher 1863-1950 (Syd, 1967)
  • Congregational Union of New South Wales, Year Book, 1910-11, 1935-36, 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Apr 1932, 8 Apr 1933, 23 Oct 1935, 14 Mar 1950
  • Uniting Church Archives, Parramatta
  • Board of Studies in Divinity, Minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Alan D. Crown, 'Thatcher, Griffithes Wheeler (1863–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thatcher-griffithes-wheeler-8775/text15383, 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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