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Walters, George Thomas (1853–1926)

by Diane Langmore

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

George Thomas Walters (1853-1926), Unitarian minister, was born on 23 October 1853 at Liverpool, Lancashire, England, son of William Miles Walters, carver and gilder, and his wife Katherine, née Yelverton. Educated at the local elementary school and a private academy at Everton, he considered commerce before deciding that he wished to be a Baptist minister. While preparing himself for the ministry, he worked for Nettlefold & Chamberlain, screw manufacturers, of Birmingham.

Since childhood, when his Baptist upbringing had encouraged his taste for preaching and engendered nightmares about hell, Walters had sought religious truth; at 15 he rejected the Baptist chapel and restlessly visited the churches of Liverpool. Having rejected the Trinity and the doctrine of eternal torment, he entered Rawdon College, Yorkshire, believing that he was 'already tainted with heresy'. During his training, exposure to the Biblical criticism of D. F. Strauss and J. E. Renan further challenged his acceptance of orthodox Baptist doctrine. Reading a pamphlet which propounded Unitarian beliefs, he found what he had been seeking. After studying at the Unitarian College, Manchester, he was appointed to Burnley, Lancashire (1876-78), and Aberdeen, Scotland (1878-84). On 8 August 1876 at Upperthorpe Chapel, Yorkshire, he married Marian Radcliffe (d.1886).

In 1884 Walters was appointed by the British and Foreign Unitarian Association of London to the Melbourne Unitarian Christian Church at Eastern Hill. For four years he presided over its burgeoning and wealthy middle-class congregation, supervising the building of a handsome church and establishing a Social Union to broaden cultural activity among his adherents. He contributed to Melbourne's intellectual life through the Shakespeare and Shelley societies, and through his journal, Modern Thought, begun in 1885.

An intense, dark, bearded man, balding later in life, Walters preached with eloquence and 'incisive force', but his congregation became increasingly uneasy about his secular interests and his radical political and theological views. The church committee challenged his policy of inviting prominent laymen into the pulpit and almost succeeded in prohibiting a debate on the Irish question, chaired by Walters who held republican sympathies. When in 1888 they reinstated the Lord's Prayer in the service, he resigned in protest.

Accompanied by his wife Myra Aimée, née Tuckett, whom he had married with Presbyterian forms at Queenscliff on 4 October 1886, Walters transferred to the Hyde Park Unitarian Church, Sydney. Active in the Dickens Fellowship, he wrote a Biblical drama, Joseph of Canaan, which was produced to great acclaim in 1895 by George Rignold at Her Majesty's Theatre, Sydney, and then in Melbourne. Walters' other plays, Thou Fool and Under the Southern Cross, were later performed. He was a member of the board of the Pitt Town Co-operative Settlement, the council of the Womanhood Suffrage League and the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts committee. As in Melbourne, he established a lively literary and social union within the church.

In 1898, after conflict with the church committee, Walters led almost all his congregation out of the Unitarian Church and set up a branch of the Australian Church which met at the Independent Order of Oddfellows' Temple. In 1903 the two congregations amalgamated as the Australian Unitarian Church. From pulpit and through pamphlets he preached essentially the faith that he had discovered as a student, although his understanding evolved in response to the challenge of scientific thought. His early lyrical expositions of nature as the revelation of the deity were by the 1890s tempered by an acceptance of the Darwinian doctrine of natural selection which, in turn, led him by 1916 to espouse eugenic theory. He continued his ministry until 16 November 1926 when he was knocked down by a car and killed at Mosman. Survived by the son and daughter of his first marriage, he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Wilson, The Story of the Sydney Unitarian Church 1850-1974 (Syd, 1974)
  • D. Scott, The Halfway House to Infidelity (Melb, 1980)
  • J. Roe, Beyond Belief (Syd, 1986)
  • T. W. H. Leavitt, Australian Representative Men, vol 2 (Melb, 1887)
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 May 1888
  • Table Talk, 3 Feb 1893, 25 Nov 1926
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 June 1918, 2 July 1920, 25 Dec 1923, 10 Nov 1924, 27 May, 3 June 1925, 17, 18 Nov 1926
  • Bulletin, 25 Nov 1926
  • Unitarian Church (Sydney) minutes (State Library of New South Wales)
  • H. G. Turner papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Walters, George Thomas (1853–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walters-george-thomas-8973/text15791, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 October 2019.

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

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