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Richard Johnson (1753–1827)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

Richard Johnson, by G. Terry, c.1787

Richard Johnson, by G. Terry, c.1787

State Library of New South Wales, 110350288

Richard Johnson (1753?-1827), Church of England clergyman, was the son of John Johnson, of Welton, Yorkshire, England. He was educated at the grammar school at Kingston-upon-Hull, and engaged in farming and teaching until 1780, when he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, as a sizar (B.A., 1784). He graduated with a good reputation as a scholar and was ordained by the bishop of Oxford in 1784. On 24 October Johnson received a royal warrant appointing him 'Chaplain to the settlement' of New South Wales. The date of Johnson's commission disposes of the story, which Judge Sir William Burton reported on Samuel Marsden's authority, that the appointment of a chaplain was due to 'a pious man of some influence', who at the last moment secured the support of Bishop Porteous of London and Sir Joseph Banks. Johnson owed his nomination to the Eclectic Society, a group of evangelical clergy and laymen interested among other things in missions and in prison reform. With William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton and John Newton among its leaders, the society was a powerful force in English religious life and could influence official policy. On the other hand it cannot be stated that, without the Eclectics, there would have been no chaplain with the First Fleet.

Johnson was taken to inspect the hulks at Woolwich by Thornton and introduced by Wilberforce to the Societies for the Propagation of the Gospel and for Promoting Christian Knowledge. These societies, the long-established and orthodox missionary department of the Church of England, supplied him with a large number of religious books and tracts. After a long sojourn at London and Lymington Johnson took up his appointment with the First Fleet at Portsmouth. There the character of his sermons led Governor Arthur Phillip to request him 'to begin with moral subjects'.

These three factors, the Eclectic Society, the church societies and the governor, represented the various parts of Johnson's ministry. As chaplain to the settlement, 'according to the rules and discipline of war', he had to be the guardian of public morality; Phillip considered this to be Johnson's main, if not his only, duty. As a clergyman under the general jurisdiction of the bishop of London he had to carry on the regular ministrations of the church. As the protégé of the evangelicals, and by his own unswerving convictions, he had the task of promoting the conversion of his charges. Johnson never succeeded in reconciling the three or in carrying out any of them to his own satisfaction. Although his faith did not waver he lacked the buoyancy of spirit to apply it. However, his extensive correspondence with English patrons and friends, filled with accounts of the depravity of the convicts and indifference of the officials, was probably more pessimistic in tone than his practical achievements warranted. Johnson doubted the eventual success of the colony and of his mission to it, and after 1791 tended to cast too much blame on himself.

On the voyage in the Golden Grove Johnson held services at sea for two of the ships, and at Cape Town for as many as he could. On 3 February 1788 he conducted the first divine service in Sydney 'under some trees' (or 'a great tree') and preached from the text 'What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me' (Psalm 116: 12). On 17 February he celebrated Holy Communion in the 'markee' of Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who resolved 'to keep this table as long as I live, for it is the first Table that ever the Lord's Supper was eat of in this country'.

Johnson soon became one of the busiest men in the colony. Apart from some help after 1791 from James Bain, chaplain to the New South Wales Corps, he carried out all the clerical duties of the colony for six years. He held services, either in the open air or in a store-house, at Sydney and Parramatta, performed the occasional offices of the church—baptisms, marriages, churchings, burials—attended the execution of condemned men and worked hard among the convicts. One of them wrote home, amid the sickness and hunger of 1790, that 'few of the sick would recover if it was not for the kindness of the Rev. Mr Johnson, whose assistance out of his own stores makes him the physician both of soul and body'. In the horror of the Second Fleet he ignored Newton's earlier advice that 'it will be madness in you to risk your health, by going down into the hold of a ship, where the air must be always putrid from the breath of a crowd of passengers in chains'. He supported Phillip's policy of befriending the Aboriginals, took a native girl, Abaroo (Boo-ron), into his family, and once remained as a hostage while Bennelong visited the governor.

In October 1792 he wrote An Address to the Inhabitants of the Colonies, Established in New South Wales and Norfolk Island (London, 1794). Newton amended a section which had made the sensitive Johnson seem 'personally hurt by wickedness you had met with'.

When Phillip was succeeded by Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose Johnson's time of troubles began. Grose represented Johnson as 'one of the people called Methodists, [and] a very troublesome, discontented character'. In 1793 Johnson, tired of being a 'field-preacher' and despairing of getting a church built by the government, irritated Grose by putting one up at his own expense at a cost of £67 12s. 11½d. Disputes also arose over the time allowed for Sunday morning service, the chaplain's ministrations to men under sentence, the enforcement of Phillip's regulation for church attendance and the withdrawal of most of Johnson's convict labour. When Samuel Marsden arrived as second chaplain in 1794 he found Johnson and Grose 'involved in a serious quarrel'. Grose and Johnson had different views of the chaplain's office. The lieutenant-governor considered Johnson's emphasis on personal salvation detrimental to good order and discipline—hence the unfounded but not surprising charge of Methodism—while Johnson believed that the twin aspects of religion could not be separated. So he came to think of Grose's rule as a time when 'things went on from bad to worse, and from worse to worse still, until (I will not say all vital religion and godliness, but) even almost all common morality, and even decency, was banished from the Colony'.

Johnson found Governor John Hunter more sympathetic. In 1797 he was recompensed for his church, and in July 1798 wrote in defence of Hunter's administration against the charges of John Macarthur, of whose conduct and that of the trader-officers he disapproved strongly. In October his temporary church was burned down and a new store-shed had to be fitted up hastily for divine service. Johnson had general supervision over the increasing number of schools, and in August 1800 Lieutenant-Governor Philip Gidley King set up a committee, with Johnson as treasurer, to conduct an orphan institution. Johnson used money from former subscriptions that he had collected. A month later he was thanked 'for his attention and assiduity in the concerns of the orphans in the colony'. But in October King had to publish yet another order 'respecting a proper attention being paid to the observance of the Sabbath'. He reported that Johnson 'has met with much obstruction formerly in the execution of his duty. I believe him to [be] a very honest man, and I think has been ill-used in this colony by those in it'.

Johnson had been appointed by Phillip to act as a civil magistrate. He was removed by Grose but reinstated by Hunter and remained in the office until he left the colony. Such an appointment was not unusual, for this was the hey-day of the clerical justice of the peace and Johnson, as a civil official, believed it his duty to take part in the administration of justice. However, his main secular occupation and chief solace was farming. Watkin Tench thought him 'the best farmer in the country' in 1790, and Johnson 'flatter[ed him]self that there are not many here who understand agriculture better'. At first he doubted the durable quality of the soil, but he gained some early success with citrus fruits, grapes, vegetables, wheat, barley and tobacco. The land allotted to him as a glebe under Phillip's additional instructions, 20 August 1789, he considered of little use, '400 acres (162 ha) … for which I wd not give 400 pence', but on his own 350 acres (142 ha) at Canterbury Vale, as earlier on his patch at Brickfield, he worked hard and well. Before he sailed for England Johnson sold his Canterbury farm to William Cox and disposed of his land at Ryde, but he does not seem to have engaged in agriculture and stock-raising solely for gain. It gave him personal satisfaction and contributed to the colony's morale and well-being.

Johnson had first applied for leave for reasons of health in 1798; he sailed from Sydney with Hunter in the Buffalo in October 1800. From the time of his arrival in England in May 1801 he tried to secure some compensation for his long colonial service and some preferment in the church at home. For the former he received a year's salary, though he might have had two had he not thought that Marsden should be given an allowance for his extra work at Sydney; in the latter he secured nothing, and late in 1808 was still 'wholly unprovided for, and … under the painful necessity of serving as a Curate', as he had been doing chiefly in Kent, Essex and Norfolk. For some time this had been due to uncertainty about his return to Australia. In March and August 1801 King had asked that Johnson be sent back or replaced. Lord Hobart thought it 'probable that Mr Johnson will not return to New South Wales', but Johnson characteristically did not give even a tentative verbal resignation on the ground of illness until March 1802. In 1805 King was still hopefully including him in the list of civil officers on leave, and as the owner of eight colonial cows and two oxen.

In 1808 Marsden, on a long visit to England, made representations on Johnson's behalf to the missionary and evangelical friends who had lost interest in their former protégé. It may have been as a result of this intercession that Johnson was presented by the Crown in 1810 to the united rectories of St Antholin and St John the Baptist in the City of London. In 1812 he made his last contribution to Australia by giving evidence before the select committee of the House of Commons on transportation. He died on 13 March 1827.

Johnson had married just before sailing for New South Wales; his wife, who survived him until 1831, bore him a daughter whom he called by an Aboriginal name, Milbah (b.1790), and a son (b.1792).

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 1-4
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 1-5
  • W. Tench, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay (Lond, 1789)
  • J. Bonwick, Australia's First Preacher (Lond, 1898)
  • G. Mackaness, Admiral Arthur Phillip (Syd, 1937)
  • W. H. Rainey, The Real Richard Johnson (Melb, 1947)
  • G. Mackaness (ed), Some Letters of Rev. Richard Johnson (Syd, 1954)
  • C. M. H. Clark, A History of Australia, vol 1 (Melb, 1962)
  • R. Border, Church and State in Australia 1788-1872 (Lond, 1962)
  • Gentleman's Magazine, Oct 1786, Dec 1790, Apr 1794, Apr 1827
  • G. A. Wood, ‘The Reverend Richard Johnson, Australia's First Clergyman’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 12, part 5, 1926, pp 237-70
  • manuscript catalogue under Richard Johnson (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Johnson, Richard (1753–1827)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Richard Johnson, by G. Terry, c.1787

Richard Johnson, by G. Terry, c.1787

State Library of New South Wales, 110350288

Life Summary [details]


Welton, Yorkshire, England


13 March, 1827 (aged ~ 74)

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