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John Gardner (1809–1899)

by Dirk Van Dissel

This article was published:

John Gardner (1809-1899), by Adelaide Photographic Co.

John Gardner (1809-1899), by Adelaide Photographic Co.

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 8761

John Gardner (1809-1899), Presbyterian clergyman, was born on 17 April 1809 in Glasgow, Scotland, the third son of Rev. William Gardner and his wife Mary, née Clelland. At 17 he entered the University of Glasgow where for nine years he studied for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. In 1835 he was licensed by the Glasgow Presbytery to preach and after some months in Paisley, became assistant to Rev. R. Smith of Lochwinnoch, father of Robert Burdett Smith of Adelaide. Gardner's first call was from St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Birkenhead, England, where he was ordained on 26 August 1840, and on 12 February 1844 married Catherine, daughter of John Alexander Forrest, a Liverpool merchant.

In 1843 the disruption of the Church of Scotland raised problems of loyalty for many English Presbyterians but although Gardner had been influenced by Dr Thomas Chalmers and many of his congregation urged him to associate himself with the Free Church movement, he decided that the issues did not affect English Presbyterianism. In South Australia many Presbyterians, interested in the Free Church, presented a signed address to its moderator in January 1844. Although the Established Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterians had churches in Adelaide, several influential businessmen decided to establish the Free Church cause and in 1849 applied to the colonial committee of the Free Church in Scotland for a minister. Gardner accepted the challenge and arrived in Adelaide in March 1850. He found no congregation but his amazing zeal and support from such businessmen as Thomas Elder soon built up the Free Church cause. On 6 July 1851 Chalmers Church was opened in Adelaide.

The cause expanded rapidly, often at the expense of the two older Presbyterian churches. In 1854 Gardner formed the Free Church Presbytery; its negotiations in 1860 for reunion of the three churches proved abortive but in May 1865 the Presbyterian Church of South Australia was formed and Gardner was elected moderator of its new presbytery. Prominent in the colony's social and religious affairs, he served on committees of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Aborigines Friends Association, the Bush Mission, the Benevolent and Strangers Friend Society and the Female Refuge. His lectures in 1853 at the opening of the Young Men's Christian Association, 'The Literary Merits of the Bible' and 'Missions: the Great Enterprise of the Christian Church', were later printed. He visited regularly at the Adelaide Hospital and in politics was active in educational matters and in opposing the bill to legalize marriage with a deceased wife's sister.

In 1868 Gardner accepted a call to St Andrew's Church, Launceston. In 1874 he moved to Queenscliff, Victoria. Elected moderator for 1883, he presided over the general assembly when Charles Strong was tried for heresy. Gardner's staunch defence of traditional Presbyterian doctrines and his skill and tact in handling the case benefited the orthodox party, but he must be held partly responsible if the treatment Strong received at the assembly is considered unconstitutional and unjust. Gardner retired from the active ministry in 1888 and died at Toorak, Victoria, on 10 May 1899. Predeceased by his wife on 30 March 1892 he was survived by three of their five children.

Gardner belonged to the older school of Presbyterian thought and had little sympathy with newer trends in theology. His enthusiasm and organizing ability explain the success of the Free Church cause in South Australia and also characterized his later ministry in Tasmania and Victoria. His Evangelical convictions and sincerity made him outspoken in defence of what he believed to be true and often blinded him to other forms of truth. These qualities, rather than originality, distinguished his life and ministry.

A portrait is in the museum of the English Presbyterian Historical Society and a tablet is in Scots Church, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Gray, ‘The history of the Presbyterian Church in South Australia’ 1839-1938, Presbyterian Banner, Feb 1932–Nov 1939
  • Observer (Adelaide), 26 Sept 1868, 13, 27 May 1899
  • Argus (Melbourne), Nov 1883
  • Leader (Melbourne), 20 May 1899.

Citation details

Dirk Van Dissel, 'Gardner, John (1809–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 6 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

John Gardner (1809-1899), by Adelaide Photographic Co.

John Gardner (1809-1899), by Adelaide Photographic Co.

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 8761

Life Summary [details]


17 April, 1809
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


10 May, 1899 (aged 90)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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