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James Forbes (1813–1851)

by E. L. French

This article was published:

James Forbes (1813-1851), Presbyterian clergyman, was the eldest son of Peter Forbes, farmer of New Braes, in the parish of Leochel-Cushnie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and his wife Margaret. After education at a parish school and King's College, he studied mathematics and theology at Aberdeen University (M.A., 1836). He was then licensed by the presbytery of Garioch, but before taking up parish work he decided to teach at a school in Colchester, England. He was ordained by the presbytery of Glasgow on 29 June 1837. Invited by Rev. John Dunmore Lang to work in New South Wales he sailed in the Portland, and arrived in Sydney in December 1837. Ordered by the presbytery of Sydney to Port Phillip, in January 1838 he travelled in the James Watt to Melbourne, where Rev. James Clow, newly arrived from Van Diemen's Land, had begun services of worship for the Presbyterian community. Forbes first served briefly in Geelong and then, at Clow's suggestion, returned to Melbourne.

Forbes quickly established himself as a preacher and pastor, and was called in June 1839 to minister to the congregation of Scots Church. Taking advantage of the Church Act of 1836, he accepted a government subsidy and secured a building for a church and day school; in 1841 it was replaced by a handsome Gothic structure with 500 sittings. For his success in promoting his church's cause, he received under the Church Act a stipend of £350, the highest for a Presbyterian minister in the colonies. By his efforts ministers were established in Geelong, Portland Bay, Belfast (Port Fairy), Campbellfield, and in a Gaelic-speaking congregation in Melbourne. When the presbytery of Melbourne was first constituted in June 1844 Forbes was elected moderator.

When news of the Scottish Disruption reached Melbourne in September 1843, Forbes found himself in sympathy with the anti-Erastian view of the Free Church. But the synod of Australia, notwithstanding an earlier decision denying transmarine jurisdiction to the Church of Scotland, decided after some vacillation to continue in connexion with it. Forbes thereupon resigned from Scots Church and founded the Knox Church, taking most of his congregation with him. Mainly through his leadership the Free Church of Australia Felix was constituted in June 1847. Finding some rules and usages of the Scottish Free Church unsuitable, the new presbytery enacted its own polity; drafted by Forbes, it was uncompromising in refusing state aid in any form. This was too extreme for a pioneer church, and after Forbes's death, when the practical Dr Adam Cairns became leader, the Free Church Presbytery reversed its position on state aid, thus opening the way to the reunion that was achieved in 1859.

Forbes championed the cause of public education at Port Phillip with great vigour. As convener of a presbytery committee he investigated the state of education. The report, presented in August 1842, severely criticized the financial regulations: they bore harshly on poor parents, were responsible for the attendance at school of only 800 from a total of 2015 children in the Melbourne area, provided beggarly salaries for teachers, and retarded the building of schools. A second report in November, compared the state of education in Port Phillip District unfavourably with that in Van Diemen's Land. Governor Sir George Gipps, frustrated by economic depression, declined to alter the regulations, but the reports were published in the press, received favourably and stirred the official conscience. Forbes was able to found the Scots School in November 1838, acknowledged the most efficient in the colony in the 1840s, the John Knox School in May 1848 and the Melbourne Academy (later Scotch College) which opened in October 1851. He also supported strongly the Merri Creek Aboriginal School, established in 1846 by the Baptist Church, and a 'bush' boarding school at Buninyong, opened by Rev. Thomas Hastie in 1847. He believed these bush schools solved the problems of scattered farmers in having their children educated.

His views on education and politics, forthrightly expressed in the Port Phillip Gazette and later in his own Port Phillip Christian Herald, adumbrated the typical position of the first generation of Presbyterians in Australia. Starting from the premise that government control was inevitably inefficient and never matched voluntary efforts on behalf of churches and schools, he argued that the government ought to provide liberal monetary help, yet not to the extent of making fees unnecessary, for their payment even when reduced for the very poor ensured parental appreciation of a 'duty to discharge to the public and their offspring'. He also asked where religion and education, which he believed were rightly inseparable, could remain connected in a public system of education in a colony of various faiths? His own answer was a modified yes: Catholic and Protestant might not concur on the use of the Bible, but Protestant agreement on 'the great doctrines of the Trinity, the Atonement, the Deity of Jesus, and the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures to make men wise unto salvation' offered hope for the religious instruction of the majority of school children. Minority views would have to be safeguarded by making religious instruction optional; compulsion, direct or indirect, was 'abhorrent to every feeling' of his 'soul'.

His other works of public improvement were numerous. He was president of the Melbourne Total Abstinence Society, secretary of the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute, and vice-president of the Melbourne Debating Society. Aboriginal missions, and particularly the enlightened work of the government officer for Aboriginal welfare, George Augustus Robinson, benefited by his good offices. His most enduring charitable work was the foundation in 1845 of the Presbyterian Female Visiting Society later renamed the Melbourne Ladies' Benevolent Society. His wife Helen Johanna, née Clow, whom he had married on 15 April 1845, was the first president; its widespread social work still continues.

The distinctive marks of Forbes's public and ecclesiastical acts were boldness and courage. These had their foundation in an alert mind, a keen sense of public duty, and a deep attachment to British institutions. Of slender build and never of robust health he contracted a chronic ailment of the trachea, which caused his death on 12 August 1851. He was survived by his wife and four children.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Sutherland, The History of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria (Lond, 1877)
  • A. Macdonald, One Hundred Years of Presbyterianism in Victoria (Melb, 1937)
  • E. Sweetman, Victoria's First Public Educationalist (Melb, 1939)
  • Victorian Temperance Review, Sept 1851, supplement
  • W. A. Sanderson, ‘The Beginning of Presbyterianism in Melbourne’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 15, no 4, Dec 1935, pp 124-31.

Citation details

E. L. French, 'Forbes, James (1813–1851)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 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]




12 August, 1851 (aged ~ 38)

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