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James Elder (1772–1836)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published:

James Elder (1772-1836), missionary and settler, was born in Edinburgh. He became a builder and stonemason and in 1797 a teacher in the Edinburgh Gratis Sabbath School Society. With William Scott he was accepted as a missionary by the Edinburgh Missionary Society and transferred to the (London) Missionary Society for work in the South Seas. He received some medical training in London and with John Youl was ordained at the Congregational Chapel, Portsea, before sailing in May 1800 in the Royal Admiral. After the surgeon had died from fever, Elder took charge of the numerous sick. When he reached Sydney in November 1800, he conducted a weekly mission at the Brickfield and soon gathered large congregations at the regular preaching stations. He also visited the convicts who were under sentence of death. He served in the Tahitian mission from July 1801 until he returned to Sydney in March 1808. On 19 July 1808 he married Mary Smith, daughter of a free settler at Baulkham Hills, by whom he had ten children. The couple returned to Tahiti in October, but Mrs Elder suffered a prolonged nervous breakdown because of the suicide of the captain of the Perseverance who had professed love for her. When the mission was virtually abandoned late in 1809 Elder was one of the missionaries who arrived in Sydney with John Eyre in the Hibernia in February 1810. As he had disagreed fundamentally with the other missionaries, Elder was dissuaded by Samuel Marsden from returning to Tahiti with them in 1811, and after farming for a short period at Baulkham Hills, he settled at Parramatta. There, according to John Dunmore Lang, he 'resided as a baker and grocer, having completely divested himself of his Missionary character and occupying himself in driving his own horse and cart twice a week to Sydney for flour and groceries', but he continued to exercise his surgical skills when called upon. By 1819 he had built Elder House (later the Woolpack Inn), added bookselling to his activities, and is said to have designed and built some of the first substantial homes in Parramatta.

After Lang arrived in 1823 Elder requested him to hold the first Presbyterian services in his house. These weekly services lasted for six months until Elder 'growing tired of his visits actually procured their discontinuance'. Lang later accused Elder of damaging his reputation, and in due course Elder joined William Wemyss, the commissary, in opposing the constitution of Scots Church. He continued to take an active interest in civic and philanthropic affairs, and was appointed to Parramatta's grand jury in 1826. His fellow missionaries complained of his 'unbecoming Spirit and Disposition of mind'. Youl found him 'so stiff and formal—that he is like a rock', but his reserve and obstinacy were balanced by his intellectual gifts. He died at Parramatta on 12 March 1836. His wife survived him until 8 September 1861.

Other missionaries who were sent out to reinforce the Tahitian mission before the Christianization of the islands, and who visited or settled in New South Wales, included John Davies (1772-1855), James Hayward (1769-1850), James Mitchell (d.1827), William Scott (d.1815), Samuel Tessier (d.1820), Charles Wilson (1770-1857) and John Youl.

Mitchell, who had originally come to Australia with the First Fleet as quartermaster of the Sirius, broke his connexion with the society at Sydney in order to 'superintend a Weaving Manufactory', but was then employed by Simeon Lord as his agent at Norfolk Island. There he married, opened a public house, and later moved to Van Diemen's Land, became deputy-postmaster at the Derwent in November 1813, and died at Hobart in June 1827. The others engaged in preaching at Toongabbie and Kissing Point, and commenced new services at Concord and Liberty Plains before their departure for Tahiti in March 1801.

With the exception of Hayward, the missionaries came back to Sydney in 1810, and practised their artisan crafts until returning to Tahiti between 1811 and 1813. John Davies, who had received some training as a schoolteacher, was appointed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie to start a charity school in Sydney. These missionaries also formed a Congregational Church with William Crook. Hayward visited Sydney between February and April 1819 on his way to England. His wife had died in October 1812, and while in London he married Mary Hewlitt, the widowed sister of James Wilshire, former deputy-commissary, and Mrs John Eyre. He returned to Sydney in October 1820 and continued in the Tahitian mission between March 1821 and January 1823, when he retired to Sydney and became a tutor in the family of Nicholas Bayly. Ill health prevented him from returning to the islands, and in later life he became depositary for the Bible and Religious Tract Societies, which position he held until his death in Sydney on 5 November 1850. In 1823 he formed a friendship with Lang and became one of the first elders of the Presbyterian Church in the colony. After resigning his eldership, he played a major role in the establishment of the Congregational Church in New South Wales, services being held in his house from 1829 until the opening of the Pitt Street Church, and he was one of the first deacons appointed in 1833. He was an active member of various philanthropic societies.

These missionaries supplemented the religious and educational work commenced by the Duff missionaries in the colony.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Lang, Narrative of the Settlement of the Scots Church, Sydney (Syd, 1828)
  • J. Sibree (ed), A Register of Missionaries, Deputations … From 1796 to 1923, London Missionary Society (Lond, 1923)
  • A. C. Nelson, History of the Effective Establishment of Congregationalism in the Australian Colonies and New Zealand (Hob, 1930)
  • J. C. Rivett, The Fabulous Woolpack Story (Parramatta, 1956)
  • J. Davies, History of the Tahitian Mission 1799-1830 (Cambridge, 1961)
  • P. O'Reilly and R. Teissier, Tahitiens Répertoire Bio-Bibliographique de la Polynésie Française (Paris, 1962)
  • G. L. Lockley, An Estimate of the Contribution Made in NSW by Missionaries of the LMS … Between 1798 and 1825 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1949)
  • LMS archives (Westminster)
  • manuscript catalogue under Elder (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'Elder, James (1772–1836)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


12 March, 1836 (aged ~ 64)
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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