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Mervyn Archdall (1846–1917)

by D. W. A. Baker

This article was published:

Mervyn Archdall (1846-1917), clergyman, was born on 24 June 1846 near Clonmel, Ireland, son of Rev. William Rowley Archdall and his wife Catherine, née Archdall. His father was a Church of Ireland priest until sectarian violence drove him to England. Educated at Durham School and Corpus Christi, Cambridge (B.A., 1870; M.A., 1883), Archdall was ordained deacon in 1869 and priest next year. In 1869-73 he was curate of St George's, Kendal, Westmorland, and then became district secretary of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. This enlivened his interest in the Old Testament which he reverenced as mankind's real history — God's progressive revelation culminating in the incarnation. Archdall later founded a Sydney branch of the London Society and his condemnation of pogroms won him the affection of Australian Jewry. In 1882 Bishop Barker invited him to St Mary's, Balmain. He first married on 14 September in Stettin, Germany, Martha Caroline Christine Karow, daughter of a Lutheran pastor. They reached Sydney in the Potosi on 27 November.

Archdall soon became the polemical leader of the already predominant Evangelicals in the Sydney diocese, for he never let his 'doctrines sag or melt together like lollies in a bag'. Although fair, courteous and disliking controversy, he so propounded his principles that some claimed he provoked prejudice and strife. In many published addresses and theological pamphlets he criticized Darwinism, rejected much higher criticism and denounced Higinbotham's 'Christless Christianity'. Lithurgical Right and National Wrong … (London, 1900) was 'distinguished … by profound learning and accurate scholarship'. In 1898 he helped to found the Protestant Church of England Union and was a leader of the Australian Protestant Defence Association.

Rome's iniquities appalled Archdall. Roman Catholics were Christians in spite, not because, of their Church; he learnedly demonstrated many pagan survivals in Roman liturgy and government. Heathenism, he wrote, 'has its fulfilment in the Papacy'. He deplored Anglican latitudinarianism and was shocked when bishops tried to remove certain Old Testament passages from the Prayer Book to relieve the Church from defending their historical accuracy. Ritualism was worse; 'First, it comes purring gently and with feline step, and only asks for “toleration”. But once tolerated it soon threatens … until it can safely show and use its claws'. Scripture, not tradition, was his touchstone. Both episcopacy and government by presbyters were scriptural; the former was not essential for valid orders. Surplice, academic gown and tippet alone were legal vestments.

Archdall argued learnedly and read Scripture and the fathers in the original languages. When studying French, Dutch or German theologians he could become oblivious of time and forget to go to bed. He prized patience, careful investigation and weighing of evidence. He loved words and used philology to elucidate Scripture. His faith, while a living experience, rested on wide historical knowledge, especially of the apostolic, sub-apostolic and Reformation eras.

Archdall laboured earnestly in his parish but scorned a popular style. His carefully prepared sermons were beyond many hearers. One reported he was kept awake by Archdall's enthusiasm as though he were listening to a song in some foreign language. He judged hymns by their doctrine and forbade Newman's 'Lead kindly light' for it omits God's name. He condemned abbreviating Christian names as demeaning baptism and disdained increasing his congregation by 'Pleasant Sunday Afternoons'. He taught theology at home to many young clergymen. Donald Baker, later bishop of Bendigo, won his wife Rosa from Archdall's home.

Archdall persuaded his diocese to accept deaconesses for teaching and pastoral work; in 1891 he founded Bethany for their training and long supported it with a quarter of his income. In 1902 he became a canon of St Andrew's Cathedral and in 1908 incumbent of St Stephen's, Penrith. He retired to Drummoyne in 1913 where he died of cardiac disease on 22 November 1917; he was buried in the Field of Mars cemetery. His wife, daughter and two sons survived him. His estate was valued for probate at £1005.

Archdall's eldest child Mervyn (1884-1957), medical practitioner and journalist, was a captain with the Australian Army Medical Corps in 1917-18 in France and Belgium. In 1930-57 he edited with great distinction the Medical Journal of Australia. He insisted on high scientific standards, on publishing results of Australian medical research in Australia and on preserving the purity of the English language, of which he thought Fowler but an indifferent guarantee. His brother, Henry Kingsley (1886-1976), was an eminent Anglican clergyman, headmaster and academic in Australia, New Zealand and England. In 1922 he published in Sydney Mervyn Archdall, a memorial of his father.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Christian World (Sydney), 30 Nov 1917
  • Australian Church Record, 7 Dec 1917
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 14, 21 Sept, 14 Dec 1957
  • Punch (Melbourne), 13 Dec 1917
  • 'Obituary: Rev Canon H. K. Archdall', Times (London), 3 Mar 1976, p 16
  • S. N. Hogg, Balmain: Past and Present (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

D. W. A. Baker, 'Archdall, Mervyn (1846–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mervyn Archdall, n.d

Mervyn Archdall, n.d

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 12953

Life Summary [details]


24 June, 1846
Clonmel, Waterford, Ireland


22 November, 1917 (aged 71)
Drummoyne, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.