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Kerr Johnston (1812–1887)

by Walter Phillips

This article was published:

Kerr Johnston (1812-1887), seamen's mission chaplain, was born on 26 August 1812 at Greenock, Renfrew, Scotland, sixth son of William Johnston, printer and publisher, and his wife Elizabeth, formerly Thomson. After his schooling, Kerr learned bookbinding in his father's business and became a member of the George Street Congregational Church, Greenock. In 1837-40, supporting himself by his trade, he took classes at the University of Glasgow and studied at Glasgow Theological Academy under Dr Ralph Wardlaw, a prominent Scottish opponent of religious establishments. Ordained on 23 January 1842, Johnston became minister of Mill Street Congregational Church, Perth. He married Eliza Denovan Gowan, daughter of a shipbuilder, on 4 August 1842 in the parish church, Berwick-on-Tweed, England. In 1847 he moved to Birdhopecraig, Northumberland. Having come to doubt the validity of infant baptism, he was baptized by his brother Robert, a Baptist minister, in Well Lane Chapel, Beverley, Yorkshire, on 9 April 1848. Johnston then became pastor of Bethel Baptist Chapel, Shipley. Late in 1852 he migrated to Australia and became pastor of the Harrington Street Particular Baptist Church in Hobart Town in May 1853.

Johnston had arrived in Van Diemen's Land in time to take part in the abortive campaign against state aid to religion, denouncing 'the unholy compact' between church and state as well as the proposal to subsidize truth and error indiscriminately. He entered wholeheartedly into evangelical inter-denominational events and agencies such as the Bible Society, the temperance movement and, it is claimed, attended the 'wild man' William Buckley on his deathbed. Johnston's particular interest was the Hobart Bethel Union Seamen's Mission, a branch of the agency that George Fife Angas helped to found. Johnston left Hobart in February 1857 to set up a mission to seamen in Melbourne.

There several retired captains and merchants as well as Bishop Charles Perry supported the proposal and the Victorian Bethel Union enjoyed the patronage of the governor and the United States consul. The colonial government provided a hulk, a former American clipper, for use as 'a floating Bethel'. Painted yellow, with 'Bethel Sailors Church' inscribed on each side, the Emily flew the blue Bethel flag emblazoned with a white star and dove with olive branch. A chapel with a blue-draped pulpit was created in the hold. For two and a half years, the Johnston family, with eight children, three servants and livestock, also lived in the vessel, moored between Williamstown and Sandridge (Port Melbourne).

The seamen's mission, essentially non-denominational but emphatically Protestant, opened in the Bethel ship on 1 July 1857; Perry delivered the sermon. Subsequently known as the Victorian Seamen's Mission, it moved ashore at Sandridge early in 1860, using a boatshed as a temporary chapel until the Mariners' Church opened in November. As well as preaching there, Johnston visited ships to distribute Bibles and evangelical tracts, particularly temperance literature, and sometimes preached to small groups. Occasionally he met with 'some Romish opposition'. Once criticized by a Church of England minister as a sectarian, he defended his position as a teacher of essential Christianity, asserting that the mission aimed to disseminate the Gospel among sailors 'apart from sectional differences'.

Johnston joined the Evangelical Alliance when it formed in Melbourne and regretted its demise in the 1860s. The interest of the Protestant churches in the mission soon waned, though he worked tirelessly, building the seamen's mission into a significant agency. He retired in December 1885 with a gift of £100 from the committee. Johnston died on 9 October 1887 at his home in Kew and was buried with Congregational forms in Melbourne general cemetery. His wife and seven of their ten children survived him; a daughter (Janet) married Daniel Matthews, missionary to Aborigines, and a son (Kerr) became a Methodist minister in Canada.

Select Bibliography

  • A. E. Brown, Garnered Sheaves (Melb, 1935)
  • N. Cato, Mister Maloga (Brisb, 1976)
  • W. D. McNaughton, The Scottish Congregational Ministry 1794-1993 (Glasgow, Scotland, 1993)
  • Victorian Seamen’s Mission, Annual Report, 1864, 1875
  • Southern Cross (Melbourne), 19 Dec 1885, 14 Oct 1887
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 July 1857, p 5, 19 Nov 1860, p 5, 25 Feb 1864, p 5, 29 Feb 1864, p 7
  • Janet Matthews’ diaries and memoirs in Norman family papers, PRG 422 (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Walter Phillips, 'Johnston, Kerr (1812–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 August, 1812
Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland


9 October, 1887 (aged 75)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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