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François Louis Bugnion (1822–1880)

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François Louis Bugnion (1822-1880), universalist missionary, was born on 25 November 1822 at Belmont, Vaud, Switzerland, son of Pierre Louis Bugnion, travelling schoolmaster, and his wife Jeanne Marguerite, née Blanc. He was educated at schools in various Swiss towns and then studied theology in France, Germany and Russia. By 1843 he was widely known for his engaging personality, scholarship and piety. Early attracted by the teaching of Emanuel Swedenborg he became increasingly convinced of the need for a new universal church based on primitive Christianity. In November 1846, despite his admission of 'peculiar views', he was ordained in the Lutheran Church at Geneva and began the succession of evangelical tours that took him to five continents and engaged him for the rest of his life. Everywhere he gathered followers but never stayed longer than two years in one place.

In 1847 Bugnion toured the Balkans and was strongly attracted to south Russia; the first of his many publications was Le Bessarabie, Ancient et Modern (Lausanne, 1846). He first ministered to a colony of Swiss Lutherans at Chabag, near Odessa, then went to St Petersburg where he became friendly with the czar's chaplain, was naturalized and ordained priest in the Greek Orthodox Church. In 1849 he was elected to the Imperial Society of South Russia and invested with the degree of the middle nobility. As an independent missionary he then toured Asia Minor, Arabia and Egypt. In 1852 he was appointed vicar-general for the Caucasus and next year married Wilhelmina d'Erlach at Chabag. Bugnion won high praise from the consistory at Moscow but in 1856 fell foul of the government for his sympathy with the Mennonites. He fled to London, convinced of the need for settlements where believers could live in brotherhood, free from evil and government interference. He met Thomas Lake Harris and with him formed a Brotherhood of the New Life at Brocton, New York State. He later formed colonies in Kansas, Tennessee and elsewhere, but without his personal guidance some of them ran into erotic fanaticism. In 1861 he was naturalized in London and consecrated by the Swedenborg Church as a missionary bishop. In 1862-63 he served on Mauritius and Bourbon, endearing himself to the governor, Catholic priests and common people by his piety, tact and freedom from bigotry. After travel in Europe, America and the West Indies he went to Madras where he won thousands of followers in 1866 and tried to form a brotherhood colony for distressed Russian Mennonite families.

Bugnion published his Mémoires in Switzerland in 1872 and next year went to Sydney where in 1874 with help from Dr John Le Gay Brereton he published an abridged catechism for the use of Christian believers. Attracted by Australia's empty north he also applied to the South Australian government for permission to settle in the Northern Territory 40,000 Mennonites and other disciples from India, America and Mauritius. The Blyth ministry was not interested but Bugnion's Swedenborgian friends in Adelaide persisted. In 1875 the bishop visited Darwin and went on to Madras where he succeeded in starting a Brotherhood of the New Life for his flock. In March 1876 he was in Adelaide where the Boucaut ministry gave him £200 to recruit 1000 south Russian families and promised land and repayment of travel costs as soon as the agreement was ratified by parliament. By July Bugnion had gathered his migrants but their way through the Bosphorus was blocked by war between Serbia and Turkey. He returned to Adelaide in October but by then the plan had been abandoned by the government.

In 1877 Bugnion went to Brisbane where he saw the premier, John Douglas, and sought help in settling his Mennonites. With his daughter he sailed to Rockhampton and near Emerald was offered two agricultural sections totalling 4800 acres (1944 ha) which he estimated would accommodate 700 families. Jubilant, Bugnion wrote to friends from Russia to Peru describing Queensland's prospects. In The Celestial Church of Sion, Being a Brotherhood of the New Life (Sydney, 1875), he had called on believers to join the proposed settlement in north Australia and renewed this appeal in Sion's Liturgy (Rockhampton, 1878): 'We do not ask the surrender of all possessions nor an absolute obedience … but we urge the surrender of the scriptural tenth for the general wants of the Church'; Northern Australia is to be 'the Seventh State of the Sabbath of my career here below … in country chosen by the Angel himself'. Although the government offered no formal agreement Bugnion went to Constantinople in 1879 and completed his plans for the migration. Next year the Russian government forbade the departure of the Mennonites and the project ended, to the relief of many Queenslanders suffering from Russophobia. On 17 May 1880 Bugnion died in the steamship Euxine off Naples. The Brisbane Courier, 26 July, reflected: 'How much of the genuineness of the enthusiast and the missionary, and how much the finesse of the adventurer, prompted the actions of the projector of the Mennonite colony, it is impossible for us to determine'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Allen, Immigration and Co-operative Settlement (Brisb, 1881)
  • Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1876 (29, 160)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1878, 2, 17
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 29 Mar 1876
  • Register (Adelaide), 11 Oct 1876
  • Port Denison Times, 2, 10, 27 Mar, 28 Sept 1878
  • Colonial Secretary's letters (Queensland State Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Bugnion, François Louis (1822–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bugnion, Francois Louis

25 November, 1822
Belmont, Vaud, Switzerland


17 May, 1880 (aged 57)
at sea

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.