Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Henderson (1826–1884)

by Don Chambers

This article was published:

William Henderson (1826-1884), clergyman, was born on 5 December 1826 at Dalserf, Lanarkshire, Scotland, the eldest son of William Henderson, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née Hamilton. He studied divinity at the University of Glasgow and for two years at Hanover where he also learnt to speak German fluently. In 1853 he accepted a call to Victoria and on 19 April he married Isabella, daughter of Rev. Charles Thomson. In the Free Church mission led by Dr Adam Cairns they left Edinburgh in the Hurricane and arrived in Melbourne on 10 September.

Henderson was immediately inducted to the charge at Williamstown and in 1857 was called to Ballarat. Very popular amongst his congregation, the Roman Catholic poor and the Lutheran miners to whom he preached in German, he was sharply criticized by more orthodox Presbyterian clergy and laymen who objected to his activities in the sporting and social life of the youth of Ballarat. He held a commission in the volunteer militia and never hesitated to speak out on political issues. In 1864 he was a founder of Ballarat College where he convened the committee for five years and was a visiting lecturer.

Henderson was respected for his superior powers of debate, transparent humility and evangelical fervour. He was also known for 'advanced' views and hostility to theological rigidity. He denounced what he considered ecclesiastical hypocrisy, especially Sabbatarianism, and with the backing of the Ballarat presbytery agitated for greater doctrinal freedom in the Presbyterian Church. When Charles Strong was expelled in 1883 Henderson was one of his few clerical supporters though they differed on some theological questions. Rev. R. Hamilton's comment that Henderson's views 'at times ran too much in the German groove to be much relished by the Church in general', reflected a contemporary prejudice against theologians who criticized the narrowness of Anglo-Saxon dogma. However, he was moderator in Victoria in 1872-73 and represented Victoria at the Pan-Presbyterian Council in Edinburgh in 1877. Many of his sermons and addresses were published and as one of Ballarat's best-known public lecturers he tackled such diverse matters as European politics and Darwinian evolution which he never feared as a threat to Christian faith. His most notable works were Christianity and Modern Thought (1861), a series of lectures on Christian apologetics, and If, and What? Twelve Lectures on the Foundations of Christian Theism (1882). In 1878-80 he edited the Presbyterian Review, though his reforming spirit aroused some opposition from members of the General Assembly.

Henderson suffered from diabetes and was granted leave for eighteen months by his congregation. A visit to New Zealand brought little relief and he died at Ballarat on 22 July 1884. His funeral was attended by many prominent dignitaries; even the anti-clerical Sydney Bulletin waxed sentimental on his death. The mayor of Ballarat and other leading Victorians initiated a financial appeal to relieve his widow's poverty, and the tower of St Andrew's Kirk was completed as a memorial to him. Of his two sons and six surviving daughters, Charles James became superintendent of the Bank of Australasia and Isabella Thomson founded Clyde Girls' School.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Hamilton, A Jubilee History of the Presbyterian Church in Victoria (Melb, 1888)
  • Monthly Messenger, Aug 1884
  • Ballarat Courier, 25, 28, 30 July 1884
  • Ballarat Star, 28 July, 8, 9 Aug 1884
  • Bulletin, 2 Aug 1884
  • private information.

Citation details

Don Chambers, 'Henderson, William (1826–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 20 July 2024.

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, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 December, 1826
Dalserf, Lanarkshire, Scotland


22 July, 1884 (aged 57)
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

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