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James Jefferis (1833–1917)

by Walter Phillips

This article was published:

James Jefferis (1833-1917), by unknown photographer

James Jefferis (1833-1917), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 489

James Jefferis (1833-1917), Congregational minister, lecturer and journalist, was born on 4 April 1833 at St Paul's, Bristol, England, the elder son of James Jefferis, carpenter and undertaker, and his wife Sarah, née Townsend. Educated at Bristol Grammar School he entered his father's building business and ran a Sunday school in Brunswick Square. A wealthy uncle, W. H. Townsend, civil engineer and surveyor, wanted James to join him but, finding him resolved to enter the ministry, offered to put him through Oxford or Cambridge with prospects of a benefice if he then entered the Anglican Church. Jefferis was strongly attracted to Dissent and declined. In 1852 he entered New College, a Congregational institution affiliated with the University of London (B.A., 1855; LL.B., 1856), where he learned to reconcile scientific discovery with religious belief and encountered liberal theological tendencies.

The London Missionary Society invited Jefferis to serve in India but he declined. In April 1858 he accepted a call to the Congregational Church at Saltaire, a model settlement of the alpaca king, Sir Titus Salt. Jefferis, though not formally ordained, settled happily there but physicians soon found him tubercular and advised him to go to Madeira. Instead Jefferis decided to accept Thomas Stow's invitation to help to form a Congregational Church in North Adelaide. Ordained on 16 December 1858 at Westminster Chapel he sailed from Liverpool in the Beechworth a week later with his young wife Mary Louisa (d.1864), née Elbury, whom he had married on 21 October at the Brunswick Chapel, Bristol.

Jefferis reached Adelaide on 24 April 1859 and on 15 May Stow opened services for the new church. Jefferis's preaching attracted worshippers and the North Adelaide Congregational Church was soon constituted with him as its pastor. The new church in Brougham Place was opened in February 1861. Adherents of other denominations, attracted by his eloquence and manly and liberal approach to religion, helped to swell the congregations. Jefferis's morning sermons were expositions for the faithful company, but he was convinced that a preacher should relate religion to life and in the evening services applied Christianity to topical questions. In 1860 he started the North Adelaide Young Men's Society, one of the first in the colony. The future leading citizens who passed through it were remembered as 'the Jefferis boys'. Repudiating the notion that Congregationalism's mission was to the thoughtful urban middle classes, Jefferis assisted in home missions for the country and the predominantly Catholic poor of Lower North Adelaide. He also served on the committees of benevolent institutions and as local secretary for the London Missionary Society in 1863 led agitation against blackbirding in the South Pacific. On 11 April 1866 at St Kilda Congregational Church, Melbourne, he married Marian (d.1930), née Turner.

An earnest promoter of education, Jefferis failed in the 1860s to lead Congregationalists into establishing a first-class unsectarian school in Adelaide. This experience and a visit to England in 1868 persuaded him to support compulsory, comprehensive and secular education under the state. He inspired Congregationalists in 1871 to seek Presbyterian and Baptist co-operation in opening an academy for nonsectarian higher education and theological training. Union College was formed in March 1872; classes began in May with Jefferis as tutor in mathematics and natural science. (Sir) Walter Hughes soon offered an endowment of £20,000. Jefferis helped to persuade the college council and Hughes that so large a sum should be used to establish a university in Adelaide. Jefferis was a member of the University Association formed in September and of the university council in 1874-77 and 1894-1917.

Jefferis often wrote leading articles on social and political subjects for the South Australian Register and the Advertiser which in 1876 unavailingly offered him the editorship and a partnership. His renown had spread beyond South Australia and in 1863 and 1875 John Fairfax tried in vain to entice him to Pitt Street Congregational Church, Sydney. In the 1870s Jefferis declined calls to churches in England, Melbourne and Adelaide but in 1877 he accepted a call to Sydney with a stipend of £1000.

Jefferis began at Pitt Street on Easter Sunday and soon repeated his Adelaide successes. The press amply reported his lectures, many of which were published as pamphlets. He also fostered the activities of the Young Men's Literary Society and extended Pitt Street's 'evangelical efforts among the neglected poor' in the slums; his abolition of pew rents removed an imagined barrier to artisans and set an example. He joined the successful campaign to divert the revenues of the Church and Schools Estates from the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Wesleyan Churches to public education, supported the Public Schools League and delivered a weighty reply to Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan's attack on the public schools. He modified his views on secular education and considered that Sir Henry Parkes's Public Instruction Act of 1880 with its provisions for nonsectarian religious teaching, was sufficient safeguard for both liberty and religion. In 1884 he joined Bishop John Barry's abortive movement to strengthen the religious provisions of the Public Instruction Act by introducing daily worship in public schools. Determined to restore the sanctions of Christianity 'with more than their old authority', Jefferis now claimed 'a vital union between religion and the State' which the withdrawal of state aid to the denominations left unchanged. But he broke with Barry's committee over denominational teaching in the schools, and would have nothing but unsectarian 'common Christianity'. For years he advocated the New South Wales Act as the solution to the religious problem in Australia.

By 1889 Jefferis was showing signs of weariness. His public ministry had crowded out visits to his congregation and he confessed that he could not manage alone the pastoral responsibility. His wife's health was also broken and she needed a change. In September he asked for fifteen months' leave and for an assistant pastor who would share his stipend. Convinced that the Pitt Street church had little future he also suggested the sale of the property, using the proceeds for a new suburban church, a memorial hall for mission work and denominational city headquarters. Although the deacons were disposed to accept his proposals, some church members opposed the plan and criticized him personally. Jefferis promptly resigned, refused any presentation and in December sailed with his family for England.

In September 1890 Jefferis began a ministry at New College Chapel, but London's air aggravated his chest and he moved to Belgrave Congregational Church, Torquay, Devon. There he ministered to an increasing congregation and addressed Congregationalist regional and national meetings, but years in Australia had not inured him to the inferiority of a Nonconformist minister in England. His desire to return to Australia was obvious from the English letters he contributed to the Australian Independent, except for the dark months after he lost some £10,000 in the 1893 bank crash. He declined calls to two churches in Sydney but in 1894 returned to Brougham Place where he had been happiest.

Under Jefferis the building was renovated and a large debt almost extinguished, but he had reached his zenith at Sydney and utterances once greeted as progressive sounded conservative in the 1890s. He was still influential in denominational and public affairs and continued to write for the Advertiser, but pastoral demands weighed heavily upon him. In 1900 he was assisted by W. H. Lewis, a Welshman, to whom he gave half his stipend of £500. He retired from the active ministry on 21 April 1901. In 1909 he edited Historical Records of the North Adelaide Congregational Church to which he contributed an 'Historical Sketch'.

Convinced that Australia was destined to be a new and nobler nation spreading Christianity, civilization and liberty throughout the southern seas, he had begun to advocate federation in the 1870s in leading articles in the Advertiser. Although an idealist, his study of constitutional law—he obtained his LL.D. by examination from the University of Sydney in 1885—and his knowledge of federal history in America and Canada equipped him for the practical issues. In a lecture at the Adelaide Town Hall in June 1880, published as Australia Confederated, he rejected Parkes's 1879 proposal for a legislative union and advocated the Canadian Constitution as the 'safest' example. He repeated the lecture in Sydney in August 1883 relating it to the current annexation question and in 1889 gave two more lectures on the subject. After his return to Adelaide Jefferis supported the federal movement with more lectures and sermons and enlisted the support of the South Australian Council of Churches, which he had helped to form in 1896, in the 1898 campaign for a 'yes' vote. Though his influence cannot be measured he deserves a place in the history of Australian federation as one of its most persistent advocates.

While critics marvelled at his versatility and his dogmatism, Jefferis satisfied many that Christianity was relevant to contemporary issues. He gave trade unionism his blessing but advocated compulsory industrial arbitration. Faced with secular schemes for social salvation he maintained that Christianity was the true socialism. The only prominent churchman to denounce the New South Wales contingent to the Sudan in 1885, he recognized the need for controlled immigration from Asia but denounced the 'White Australia Policy' as 'high treason against the laws of God and man'. He remained Puritanical and condemned the theatre, dancing, gambling, prostitution and other 'moral dangers', but would not advocate teetotalism as the panacea for all social ills.

A consistent contender for a more organized Congregationalism, Jefferis was three times chairman of the Congregational Union of South Australia and twice in New South Wales. In 1883 he persuaded reluctant Congregationalists in New South Wales to mark their jubilee by a conference of Australasian Congregational Churches and presided at it. The conference anticipated the formation of the Congregational Union of Australia and New Zealand in 1888 but he later declined to act as its chairman. He also supported Protestant union and often co-operated with other denominations in common causes. In Adelaide he had helped to form the Evangelical Alliance in 1869 and served as its president; in Sydney he was the moving force behind the impressive United Thanksgiving Service for Protestants at the centenary of New South Wales in 1888. A persistent critic of Roman Catholicism, especially its exclusiveness and authoritarianism, he sometimes linked the Salvation Army with it.

Genial but always dignified and sometimes chilling, Jefferis was much caricatured by cartoonists; hoary age made his leonine appearance even more awesome. In retirement he continued to preach, particularly on special occasions. His oratory no longer appealed to the young but he remained a revered figure in the Union Assembly of which he became a life member in 1901. He built Elbury House, Gilberton, and at Encounter Bay in 1894 bought the Fountain Inn, renaming it Yelki; in summer he held services in the old bar. To the last he walked long distances daily, especially at the bay where he became well known to fishermen as he gathered seaweed and rocks for his natural history collection. He died peacefully at Encounter Bay on Christmas Day 1917 and was buried privately at Brighton cemetery. He left an estate worth £14,500, and was survived by a daughter of his first wife and by his second wife, two sons and five daughters.

His second wife Marian was zealous in philanthropic causes. In Adelaide she campaigned for cottage homes for destitute children and in Sydney in 1878 formed a committee that induced the Parkes government in 1881 to introduce the boarding-out system for orphaned or neglected children. An original member of the State Children's Relief Board, she also advocated cottage homes with foster parents and founded one for twelve children in Newtown. She donated land at Encounter Bay for the Congregational Church in memory of Jefferis.

The Jefferis medal in philosophy commemorates his service to the University of Adelaide. Portraits are in the North Adelaide Congregational Church and Stow Memorial Church.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. Austin (ed), Farewell Sermon by Rev. James Jefferis (Adel, 1877)
  • L. Robjohns, Three-Quarters of a Century (Adel, 1912)
  • E. S. Kiek, Our First Hundred Years (Adel, 1950)
  • H. G. Pope, Our First Century (Adel, 1959)
  • Australian Christian World (Syd), 11 Jan 1918
  • S.A. Congregationalist, Jan, Feb 1918
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Dec 1889
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 17, 18 Apr 1901, 27 Dec 1917, 29 Sept 1930
  • Register (Adelaide), 18 Apr 1901
  • Mail (Adelaide), 22 Mar 1913
  • Observer (Adelaide), 29 Dec 1917
  • B. Dickey, Charity in New South Wales, 1850-1914 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1966)
  • W. W. Phillips, Christianity and its Defence in New South Wales circa 1880 to 1890 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1969)
  • Jefferis papers and newclippings (North Adelaide Congregational Church)
  • North Adelaide Congregational Church records (State Records of South Australia)
  • Pitt Street Congregational Church, Sydney, records.

Citation details

Walter Phillips, 'Jefferis, James (1833–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 18 May 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

James Jefferis (1833-1917), by unknown photographer

James Jefferis (1833-1917), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 489

Life Summary [details]


4 April, 1833
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


25 December, 1917 (aged 84)
Encounter Bay, South Australia, Australia

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.