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Thompson, Leslie Muir (1885–1975)

by T. M. O'Connor

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Leslie Muir Thompson (1885-1975), Methodist clergyman, was born on 1 December 1885 at Geelong, Victoria, second son of William Thompson, produce merchant, and his wife Annie, née Brennan, both Victorian born. After the family moved to Melbourne, his parents were associated with the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Prahran. Educated at state primary schools, at Wesley College and at Queen's College, University of Melbourne (B.A., Dip.Ed., 1913; M.A., 1916), Les showed a keen mind, devotion to the Church, contempt for formality, and an enduring ecumenical vision. He began training as a home mission assistant in 1911 and was ordained in 1912.

In 1914 Thompson was appointed to the Methodist mission to the Indians in Fiji. As part of his training, he spent two years in India studying languages. On 18 March 1915 at the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Benares (Varanasi), he married Grace Elizabeth Foster Waitt. In 1916 he took charge of the mission at Navua, on the south coast of Viti Levu, Fiji, where he witnessed the end of the sugar industry's indentured-labour system, under which Indians led a life of 'virtual serfdom'. The Methodists taught many non-Europeans in the colony and Thompson oversaw several small schools for Indian children. Transferred in 1918 to Nausori, he again supervised a number of schools for Indians.

As the mission's secretary for education and its representative on the Fijian Board of Education, Thompson formed a united front with his Catholic counterpart in opposing the new educational policies of the governor, Sir Bickham Sweet-Escott. With quiet perseverance, Thompson and his Methodist colleagues overcame the objections of their superiors in Sydney and acquired land at Navuso on which they established a successful agricultural training school. He sat on the Fijian Education Commission in 1926 and persuaded Governor Sir Eyre Hutson to appoint Frank Tate as its adviser.

In 1927 Thompson represented Fiji at the Imperial Education Conference, held in London. He attended the first ecumenical World Conference on Faith and Order at Lausanne, Switzerland, as a delegate of the Methodist Church in Australia and the South Pacific. His final missionary appointment was to Suva. There, among other duties, he superintended a large school in which 'Fijian and Indian boys studied and did practical work side by side'. He thought that both 'races' could 'without disadvantage be educated together'. In 1931 he returned to Victoria. His reminiscences were to be published in Melbourne Studies in Education 1966 (1967), edited by E. L. French.

Thompson was a circuit minister in 1931-48, serving first at Kyneton and then in Melbourne. His ministries were characterized by liturgical order and pastoral fidelity. While stationed at Williamstown in World War II, he was a naval reserve chaplain (1942-45). He also worked as secretary (1938-49) of the Victorian Council of Churches, a role in which he promoted Life and Work weeks, lecture visits by church leaders from overseas, and measures to assist the postwar relief and rehabilitation of European churches.

Seeing 'religious education as an influential field for ecumenical endeavour', Thompson contributed to the implementation of graded lessons in state schools and helped to prepare an agreed syllabus. In 1949 he was appointed director of the Council for Christian Education in Schools. His diplomacy was important in negotiations which led to the Victorian Education (Religious Instruction) Act (1950) allowing religious instruction to be given in state schools during school hours. Thompson obtained Commonwealth government recognition of the council as a charitable organization, an important step in securing financial support from corporations and individuals for secondary-school chaplaincies. His success in obtaining concessions from politicians disturbed some of his clerical brethren who saw him as a schemer.

Following his retirement in 1957, Thompson continued to foster support for Christian education as convenor of the Australian Council of Churches' education commission, and as a member of the Methodist standing commission on education and of the Wesley College council. He died on 30 October 1975 at Canterbury and was cremated; his wife, their three sons and two of their three daughters survived him. W. H. Frederick praised his gifts and his multifaceted ministry.

Select Bibliography

  • Methodist Church (Victoria and Tasmania), Minutes of the Annual Conference, 1911-76
  • Methodist ministers' records (Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria Archives, Elsternwick, Melbourne)
  • Council for Christian Education in Schools records (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

T. M. O'Connor, 'Thompson, Leslie Muir (1885–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thompson-leslie-muir-11850/text21211, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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