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Joseph King (1839–1923)

by Niel Gunson

This article was published:

Joseph King (1839-1923), Congregational minister, was born on 30 July 1839 at Downend near Bristol, England, son of James King, schoolmaster, and his wife Mary Ann, née Kitchen. He grew up in a nonconformist home in Oxfordshire and in 1853 was apprenticed at Reading. He attended a school run by his pious employer which nurtured five missionaries for the London Missionary Society including himself and his lifelong friend W. G. Lawes. In 1857 he became a member of Trinity Congregational Church, Reading, volunteered as a missionary in 1860, and entered Bedford Missionary College. He married Miriam Walkington in London on 6 February 1863, and was ordained on 11 February before embarking in the Wellesley for Melbourne. Arriving on 6 June, the missionaries travelled in Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and New South Wales on a promotion campaign, before leaving Sydney in the John Williams for Apia, Samoa. King served as a missionary on Upolu until 1865 and on Savai'i until 1872 except in 1869-70 when he was in charge of the training institution for Samoan pastors at Malua. In November 1872 King and his family left for England. On 27 July 1874 he resigned from the society because of his wife's ill health.

Having 'fallen in love' with Australia in 1863, King returned to Victoria where he continued to promote the Protestant missionary cause in the Pacific. He was Congregational minister at Sandhurst (Bendigo) in 1874-81 and at South Melbourne in 1881-89. From 1883 he gradually assumed much of the work of the L.M.S. in Australia, particularly in Melbourne as the president of its Victorian auxiliary, and revisited Samoa on deputation in 1887. While in London in 1889 he was invited by the directors to become their organizing agent for Australasia. For twenty-two years, until his resignation in 1911, King was an important link between missionaries in the field, the home society and government, particularly the administrations of British New Guinea and Papua. He was on terms of close friendship with George Brown, James Chalmers, Sir William MacGregor and Albert Maclaren. He claimed that his annual journeys in Australia and New Zealand averaged about 12,000 miles (19,000 km) and that he had 'the largest speaking acquaintance of any man in Australia'.

In June 1893 King chaired the committee of the first united missionary conference held in Melbourne and in 1896 he organized the centenary celebrations of the L.M.S. in Sydney. He accompanied the society's deputation to New Guinea and Torres Strait in 1897. In April 1900 he attended the Ecumenical Conference in New York as delegate for the New Guinea and Polynesia missions and some of the Australian auxiliaries. As sole member of a deputation to New Guinea and Torres Strait, early in 1905 he visited thirteen stations including Kwato, Port Moresby and Thursday Island. His ecumenical contacts no doubt helped in the eventual easy transfer of the Torres Strait mission to the diocese of Carpentaria.

King amassed a collection of original documents, including the papers of L. E. Threlkeld and other early missionaries; these are now held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. From them he wrote Ten Decades: The Australian Centenary Story of the London Missionary Society (London, 1895), Christianity in Polynesia: A Study and a Defence (Sydney, 1899), and W. G. Lawes of Savage Island and New Guinea (London, 1909). His 'Congregationalism in Australasia' was serialized in the Victorian Independent in 1917-18. He was also a regular correspondent and contributor to the newspapers. A life deacon of Kew Independent Church, King continued to preach and lecture until his death at Kew on 18 September 1923. He was buried in Boroondara cemetery, survived by his wife, two sons and five daughters. He was noted for his genial disposition, made friends readily, and had a remarkable ecumenical vision.

Select Bibliography

  • R. W. Thompson, My Trip in the John Williams (Lond, 1900)
  • R. C. Blumer and E. C. Rowland, The Pacific and You (Syd, 1943)
  • Victorian Independent, 1 Oct 1923
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 15 Apr 1911
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19, 20, 21 Sept 1923
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Sept 1923
  • J. King letter-books, 1866-1912 (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Niel Gunson, 'King, Joseph (1839–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 7 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]


30 July, 1839
Downend, Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


18 September, 1923 (aged 84)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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