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John Dunmore Lang (1799–1878)

by D. W. A. Baker

This article was published:

John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), by unknown artist, 1888

John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), by unknown artist, 1888

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2265510-1

John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), Presbyterian clergyman, politician, educationist, immigration organizer, historian, anthropologist, journalist, gaol-bird and, in his wife's words engraved on his statue in Sydney, 'Patriot and Statesman', was born on 25 August 1799 at Greenock, Scotland, the eldest child of William Lang, a small landowner who worked as a ships' joiner, and his wife, Mary Dunmore, who came from a similar background; she had formidable powers of moral indignation and such capacity for vituperation that in comparison her son's most savage strictures seemed but a mild remonstrance. Lang was educated for the ministry at the Largs parish school and the University of Glasgow, winning many scholarships and prizes (M.A., 1820). He later remembered the divinity professor, Dr Stevenson Macgill, as his most influential teacher, but was perhaps even more impressed by Dr Thomas Chalmers, then minister of the Tron Church in Glasgow. Thus Lang was brought up by Evangelicals who were beginning to challenge the prevailing moderatism within the Church of Scotland. He was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Irvine in 1820 but, having an Evangelical aversion to the common system of lay patronage, considered emigrating overseas and, being assured by his younger brother in Sydney that a suitable field of labour there awaited him, he sailed in 1822, arriving in May 1823. He was the first Presbyterian minister in Sydney, although Rev. Archibald Macarthur had settled in Hobart Town in December 1822.

The Scottish community in Sydney welcomed Lang as their minister. His first task was to build a church. Private subscriptions, he hoped, would be supplemented by a grant from the government which was both aiding Catholics and supporting the Church of England. An official refusal in insulting terms signed but not written by Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane provoked Lang to a spirited defence of the Presbyterians; this sharp rebuke to the governor deprived Lang of support from influential sections of the community. Yet sufficient private funds were collected to begin Scots Church, which was finished in 1826.

Early in 1824 Lang's parents and their family arrived in Sydney. Soon afterwards Lang returned to England where he persuaded Bathurst to grant him an annual stipend of £300, obtained his doctorate of divinity and induced Rev. John McGarvie to become the minister at Portland Head. Back in Sydney friction between Lang and Dissenting Presbyterians was caused by personal conflicts, suspicion that Lang was insufficiently Evangelical and alarm at his readiness to challenge the civil authorities. This culminated in Lang's first polemical work, Narrative of the Settlement of The Scots Church, Sydney, New South Wales (Sydney, 1828), which was a violent attack on Deputy Commissary General William Wemyss, the leading Presbyterian layman, who had first befriended and provided hospitality for Lang but whose support for Lang's church had since grown cold. However, one of Lang's minor targets was James Elder, who sued him for libel, claiming £300 for being described as a 'renegade missionary'; he was awarded damages of one farthing.

Lang, always eager to promote education, opened a primary school in 1826; John Robertson was one of its first pupils. In 1829, prompted by proposals to revive the Free Grammar School, Lang approached Archdeacon William Grant Broughton, who was then planning The King's School, to see if he could co-operate with him in promoting secondary education. At first he thought this possible, but later feared that Presbyterians would not receive fair treatment in an Anglican school. He therefore appealed to Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling to grant land for a Presbyterian school. This was refused, so in 1830 Lang joined, much to Broughton's disappointment, a group, predominantly Dissenting and emancipist, which was proposing to establish the non-denominational Sydney College. This venture provoked much sound criticism, not only from Broughton, as tending to produce irreligious education; but in the thinly settled colony the smaller denominations had little alternative. In 1830, however, before Sydney College was built, Lang inherited considerable properties from his father and, hiding his intentions from the governor and public, decided to abandon Sydney College and to sail again for England to make arrangements for a Presbyterian secondary school.

In England in December 1830 Lang was struck by the country's poverty and thought this might be relieved by emigration, while well chosen migrants might produce a moral reformation in New South Wales. Lang was alarmed by the gross wickedness produced by transportation, and free emigration complemented his plans for education. He persuaded the Colonial Office to grant a loan of £3500 for the establishment of a college on condition that an equal sum was subscribed privately. He obtained an advance of £1500 on this loan to take free migrants to Australia. Lang selected about 140 persons, Scottish tradesmen and their families. They agreed to repay their fares out of wages received when building the college. Lang recruited three schoolmasters and two more Presbyterian ministers. He also persuaded his 18-year-old cousin, Wilhelmina Mackie, to marry him. The wedding was to be at Cape Town to avoid opposition from Lang's mother, anticipated because of the difference in their ages. The marriage was happy and in all his public controversies Lang was comforted by a warmly harmonious family life, marred only by tragedies involving his children; of ten, five died in infancy.

Returning to Sydney in 1831 Lang was applauded for his patriotism and enterprise in bringing such valuable migrants, tradesmen better than any in the colony, who were to raise standards among Sydney builders. The Australian College buildings were commenced. But an intemperate attack by Lang on the Church and School Corporation, the lands of which, he suggested, could be sold to pay for immigration, led to a censure by the Legislative Council in 1832 which impaired his credit and lessened the public's financial support; so Lang was forced to use his own property to complete the buildings. Nevertheless the Australian College opened in 1831, and survived with ups and downs till 1854; at its best in the late 1830s it appears to have been run very efficiently.

In 1833-34 Lang again returned to Britain. As always on voyages, he wrote; this time it was his An Historical and Statistical Account of New South Wales, both as a Penal Settlement and as a British Colony, 1-2 (London, 1834) which ran to four editions. The Westminster Review suggested that its title should read 'The History of Doctor Lang, to which is added the History of New South Wales'; however, it was among the most widely read and fully informed accounts of Australia. In 1835 Lang commenced the weekly Colonist, which ran till 1840. The Colonial Observer (1841-44) and the Press (1851) were also Lang papers. Lang wished to use these journals to protect himself and the Australian College from newspaper attacks and to improve colonial morality. The upright young minister was always horrified by the licentiousness of the convict colony. Even his agitation for free immigration had a moral purpose, for he hoped the immigrants would behave better than convicts and emancipists and, by reducing colonial wages, lessen the workers' deplorable dissipation. He attacked fancy dress balls, Sabbath picnicking and alcoholic intemperance. A major target was the colonial press, especially that section run by convicts or emancipists. In June 1835 the emancipist, Edward O'Shaughnessy of the Sydney Gazette brought a libel action prosecuted by William Charles Wentworth. At the preliminary hearing Lang defended himself so ably that the case lapsed. Lang's sharpest journalistic attacks were made on sexual immorality; he was determined that none should enjoy the pleasures of matrimony without undertaking its responsibilities. He drove some offenders from society, one of whom later committed suicide. Lang recounted their sufferings with an implacable, hard impartiality.

In 1836 Lang again visited Britain, determined to recruit sufficient new clergy to outvote the backsliders and their abettors. The clergymen who had been recommended to him were often deemed suitable for the colony because they were unsuitable at home. Too many were over-fond of the bottle. Other members of the Presbytery of New South Wales, established in 1832, were far away in the bush, in ill health or insufficiently energetic to take action against this evil. He embarked in July, and before leaving Sydney Harbour wrote an article on the settlements at Twofold Bay and Port Phillip, which was sent ashore by the pilot for publication in the next issue of the Colonist. His recruitment of clergy in Scotland, northern Ireland and Germany was made easier by Bourke's 1836 Church Act which provided more liberal government support for religion. Lang obtained twelve Presbyterian clergymen, three Lutheran missionaries and ten German lay assistants, none too many, for he saw the Roman Catholic Church making every effort 'not only to rivet the chains of popery on a deluded people in the Australian Colonies, but to extend the reign of superstition over the neighbouring and highly interesting isles of the Pacific'. Lang also greatly stimulated Australian immigration by persuading destitute Scottish Highlanders, vainly seeking government funds to emigrate to Canada, to request government assisted passages to Australia. Over four thousand individuals were thus gained for New South Wales.

Lang returned to Sydney in December 1837 confident that 'McGarvie and his drunken party' would be 'done now and for ever'. But instead of relying on the increased numbers within the Presbytery of New South Wales to purify that court, he decided to establish, with the support of five new ministers mostly from Ulster, a new church court, entitled the Synod of New South Wales, which he hoped would soon embrace several presbyteries and quickly deprive the Presbytery of New South Wales of all influence. He miscalculated. McGarvie, a moderate, whose respect for civil authority approached Erastianism, retained the support of the government and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. So schism grew, for the Synod of New South Wales, while embracing the Westminster Confession of Faith, forbade appeals from its decisions to any church court overseas. The schism caused Lang's fifth trip to England in 1839 to secure the disallowance of an 1837 Presbyterian Church Act which recognized the Presbytery of New South Wales as the controlling body of the Presbyterian Church, to persuade the British government that colonial Presbyterians were independent of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and to obtain for the Synod of New South Wales the hitherto withheld financial support implied by Bourke's Church Act. But the Colonial Office, advised by the General Assembly, refused to interfere with the Presbytery of New South Wales, and Lang failed to assert his clerical independence.

Early in 1840 he sailed for the United States to investigate how its churches managed without government support and, if possible, to raise sufficient money to make him independent of the General Assembly. In travels through eleven States from Massachusetts to South Carolina he was horrified by the wickedness of Catholic immigrants who both desecrated the Sabbath and formed an undue proportion of convicted criminals, was delighted by the evident moral and financial success of Presbyterian churches, and deeply impressed by the great merit of republican government based on the independent sovereignty of each State and a large measure of local autonomy. During Lang's absence the two Presbyterian groups in New South Wales combined to form the Synod of Australia in connexion with the established Church of Scotland. Lang returned from England in March 1841 and joined this body.

In October the synod agreed to accept suitable Australian College graduates as candidates for the ministry. This decision was important to Lang as it affected three of his great interests, the training of a native-born ministry, the future of the Australian College and the extension of the church. He immediately went to Port Phillip and Van Diemen's Land to raise funds for the college. With the approval of a congregational meeting, he was absent from Scots Church for five Sundays, arranging supply for his pulpit by Rev. Thomas Atkins, a Congregationalist who had unsuccessfully applied to join the Presbyterians, but in November twenty-eight members of Lang's congregation formally complained to the Presbytery of Sydney of Atkins's unsuitability. In January 1842 the presbytery resolved generally on the undesirability of ministerial absences and referred the complaint about Atkins to synod, which admonished Lang to pay more attention to resolutions of church courts. On 6 February from his pulpit Lang denounced the Synod of Australia as 'a mere synagogue of Satan', actuated by 'a spirit of rancorous hostility' which 'could have emanated only from the Father of Evil'. He said he saw no abstract objection to a connexion between church and state, but that in New South Wales this meant state support of error, and, indeed, of the 'damnable delusion'. Moreover, within the Presbyterian Church it produced 'worldly-mindedness … lamentable inefficiency … clerical delinquency and … strife and contention'. He announced his resignation from Scots Church, intending to establish Presbyterianism in New Zealand. But his congregation wished him to stay and it was agreed that he should, and that Scots Church should renounce all state support and all connexion with the Synod of Australia. Lang's letter of resignation to the presbytery announced that he and the congregation would retain the Scots Church property. In October the synod ordered Lang to answer charges of slander, divisive action and contumacy. At the meeting Lang prepared to answer charges relating to his actions before 6 February, but refused to acknowledge synod's authority on or after that date. There were no charges for anything before 6 February so Lang and his supporters left the meeting, which proceeded to depose him from the Christian ministry, the heaviest sentence within its power. However, synod took no legal action in the civil courts at this time to obtain the Scots Church property. Lang could abandon the synod and renounce state aid because his congregation was perhaps as large and wealthy as all other Presbyterian congregations in the colony put together. He thus anticipated the disruption of the Church of Scotland and the subsequent formation of colonial Free Churches. But despite some similarity of principle Lang did not join with the Free Churchmen in New South Wales.

In June 1843 Lang was elected by the Port Phillip District to the Legislative Council in Sydney. In the next five months he served as chairman or member of nine select committees and made 184 speeches and statements and, irked by the £81,000 civil list, spoke of no taxation without representation, hinting that 100,000 free-born Australians, though now loyal to the Crown, would presently emulate the North American colonists. In August 1844 Lang moved for the separation of Port Phillip from New South Wales. He ably described the evident political and financial disadvantages suffered by the residents of Port Phillip and the gross injustice of holding them to New South Wales against their will. But the motion was supported only by members elected by the Port Phillip District. Lang later suggested to the Separation Committee in Melbourne that the members for Port Phillip should present a joint petition to the Queen. Lang prepared this petition which was favourably received and he became widely regarded, not only in Melbourne, as the author of separation. In 1844 Robert Lowe's select committee on education reported strongly in favour of a National system. Lang had earlier opposed this proposal, but now gave it his full support. Lowe resigned his seat before the report was submitted and Lang moved its adoption. The report was adopted, but Governor Sir George Gipps refused concurrence and continued the denominational system.

In 1845, when the colony was recovering from depression and it seemed likely that assisted migration would be resumed, Lang decided to visit England again to encourage Protestant migration. He accordingly made two extensive tours in the Moreton Bay and Port Phillip Districts to gain information about Australia as a field for British emigration. He sailed with his wife and family in July 1846 by way of Brazil where he visited the University at Olinda and was afterwards elected an honorary member of the Literary Institute there. The next three years were among the busiest of Lang's busy life. He tried unsuccessfully to modify the Order in Council implementing the 1846 Squatting Act and to promote colonial railway and steamship companies. He published a pamphlet urging Irish Home Rule. But his main task was persuading people to migrate to Australia. Besides his books and pamphlets, some distributed free, he wrote many letters for the English press, including a weekly letter from March 1848 in the Evangelical British Banner. He made extended lecture tours beginning in the cotton manufacturing districts. He hoped to promote cotton growing in the Moreton Bay District and thereby add a valuable industry to Australia, provide employment for migrants and also undermine negro slavery, which he thought would collapse when free labour proved more efficient. By popular request he lectured widely, speaking in London, Bristol, Birmingham and many other English cities. He twice toured Ulster and spoke many times in the smaller towns as well as in the larger cities of Scotland. Despite a little money from well wishers in Australia he mainly supported himself and was often short of funds. Once he had to flee Edinburgh to avoid arrest for debt.

His continual theme was that the grinding poverty of Britain could be readily relieved by the boundless opportunities in Australia. He believed a prosperous Protestant peasantry in Australia would ease the evils of English industrialism. He gave many a desire to migrate to Australia; but the costs of transport remained an obstacle, especially when the fare to America was so much cheaper. Lang vainly tried to overcome this problem by founding emigration societies and joint-stock companies, and sought assistance from the government, which was then subsidizing approved migrants. He proposed that reputable migrants who paid their own fares should, in return, receive a free grant of crown land. Prolonged correspondence failed to secure this concession, so Lang visited Benjamin Hawes, under-secretary for the colonies, at his home in Brighton. According to Lang, Hawes twice verbally approved his plans, although Hawes later denied it. But Lang at once arranged for about 270 migrants to sail in the Fortitude in September 1848, on the assumption that they would receive free land in proportion to their passage money. This land, of course, was not granted. Lang attempted to co-operate with the emigration officials over his next three emigrant ships, but was so annoyed by them that he decided for his fifth and sixth ships, in 1849, to act independently. Three ships went to Port Phillip and three to Moreton Bay, taking more than 1200 migrants. Before returning on the last of his emigrant ships, Lang addressed an open letter to Earl Grey in which he criticized the whole administration of the Colonial Office, suggesting that assisted migration was a plot, through mixed marriages, to Romanize New South Wales. He bitterly attacked proposals to resume transportation and insisted that the Australian colonies be given control over their own affairs. After suggesting that Grey be dismissed and impeached he forecast the emergence of the United States of Australia.

In lectures delivered in Sydney in April 1850 Lang proclaimed his republicanism for the Australian colonies. This republicanism was due partly to his belief in the necessity of local self-rule, because he thought all government from a distance was bad government, and partly to his recent treatment by the British government and his dislike of aristocratic influences in English society and politics. Usually he chose to express his republicanism in his published writings, but ignored it at elections, preferring instead to cheer enthusiastically for the Queen when his opponent called for this show of loyalty. In 1850, however, he thought an Australian republic a serious possibility, for with aid from Henry Parkes, James Wilshire and other radicals he founded the Australian League to encourage a sense of national identity, to resist any further convict transportation and to promote, by moral means exclusively, the entire freedom of the Australian colonies and their incorporation into one political federation. The Australian League made little impression, although Lang's republican ideals, as published later in Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia (London, 1852) and The Coming Event; or, the United Provinces of Australia (Sydney, 1850) were in considerable measure realized after the granting of responsible government and still more so in the twentieth century after the formation of the Commonwealth.

In July Lang was elected to the Legislative Council and sought a select committee to investigate Grey's charges against him of having selfish motives, deluding his migrants and attempting to deceive the New South Wales government. Without appointing a committee the council debated these charges and, while there was a bare quorum of thirteen, passed a motion censuring Lang. In February 1851 he published in the Press sketches of the 'De'il's Dozen' who had voted for his censure. The sketch of Thomas Icely alleged that in 1824 he had nefariously acquired the ship Midas and thereby heartlessly ruined its previous owner. This was untrue, as Lang apologetically acknowledged in a later issue; he had been deceived by a rumour current for many years. Lang was convicted of malicious libel and sentenced to four months gaol and £100 fine, which was paid by a public subscription of 1s. a head. In the general election of 1851 Lang headed the poll for the city of Sydney, but did not take his seat as he was still in debt from his migration expenses and was being pressed by creditors. Some months earlier he had been gaoled in Melbourne until able to effect a compromise.

In February 1852 Lang sailed again for England. A public meeting in Brisbane had authorized him to seek separation and increased immigration for the Moreton Bay District. He also had business with his publishers. He spent a year in Britain, terribly lonely and desperately short of money. His emigration projects were snubbed by the Colonial Office, but some migrants were perhaps gained by the lectures he delivered as occasion arose.

In 1854 Lang was elected to the Legislative Council by the Moreton Bay District. He chose to stand for this district so that he could press for its separation. In December the council passed an address of farewell to Sir Charles FitzRoy. Lang, who alleged, probably correctly, that FitzRoy had got a girl in Berrima pregnant, moved an amendment, supported by five other members, criticizing the governor's moral influence as 'deleterious and baneful in the highest degree' and tending 'to alienate from Her Majesty the affections and respect of the Australian people'.

In December Lang's eldest son, George, was manager of the Ballarat branch of the Bank of New South Wales. He had been exceedingly lax in keeping records and submitting regular returns to headquarters. A senior bank official, Alexander Stuart, was sent to investigate and found deficiencies of about £9000. George Lang and the accountant, F. L. Drake, were charged with embezzlement, and sentenced respectively to five and four years hard labour. Lang refused to accept his son's guilt, and in January 1855 published a letter in the Melbourne Argus unhesitatingly and firmly denying the fairness of the trial, the impartiality of the judge, the criminality of the prisoners, the justice of the verdict and the equity of the sentence. Lang was charged with bringing the administration of justice into contempt. He spoke for two hours in his own defence and the jury unanimously and immediately acquitted him. Lang then published The Convicts' Bank; or a Plain Statement of the Case of Alleged Embezzlement (Sydney, 1855), in which he charged Stuart with 'malice prepense of the foulest character imaginable … and a degree of low-bred brutal malignity worthy only of an incarnate daemon'. At the instance of Stuart and the Bank of New South Wales Lang was charged with criminal libel and sentenced in July to imprisonment for six months. Despite 10,000 signatures on petitions for his release the sentence was served in full. In 1856 Lang petitioned the Victorian Legislative Assembly for a select committee to enquire into the conviction of his son and Drake. It reported in August 1857 that if evidence it heard had been allowed by the trial judge it was very questionable that the jury would have convicted. This evidence concerned a gold-buyer employed by the bank named James Burtchell who rapidly and mysteriously acquired a fortune and hurriedly left Australia just before the bank's deficiencies were discovered. The report, however, was equivocal, not definitely exculpating Lang and Drake, who nevertheless were released.

In December 1858 the Presbyterian minister at Shoalhaven invited Lang to preach in his church, which legally belonged to Alexander Berry who forbade Lang to use it. Lang wrote two letters to the Illawarra Mercury which were reprinted in the Kiama Examiner. Berry, said Lang, was the exact type of those antediluvian oppressors for whose enormous wickedness God was pleased to shorten the duration of human life; and he asked what would become of the world if creatures like Berry were to live for hundreds of years and reduce whole generations of Shoalhaven serfs to miserable vassalage and degradation. Five legal actions followed. Lang was twice acquitted of criminal libel. Berry got substantial damages from both newspapers. At a public meeting to raise funds to pay these damages, Lang read out the offending letter and was again charged with libel but acquitted.

In March 1860 Lang announced in a letter in the Empire that, following a recent English Divorce Act, a divorced husband with three Scottish names had married his adulterous concubine. Such marriages, Lang said, were abominable in God's sight, and he suggested that the parties concerned, instead of applying to a Protestant clergyman, might rather have approached the lessee of the parish bull, or the jockey who let out stallions for hire. Soon afterwards Lang was accosted in Hunter Street by a large muscular man, twenty years his junior, who thrashed him with a horsewhip and left his card entitled Malcolm Melville Macdonald. Captain Macdonald, a well-known Sydney sportsman, was fined £5 for assault.

In 1862 Lang piloted a bill through the Legislative Assembly to abolish primogeniture in intestate estates. It was probably his most lasting legislative achievement. In May 1863 he libelled Rev. John West in the Empire and escaped with only £100 damages. In May 1865 Lang won £350 damages from the Sydney Morning Herald, after it alleged that he had been financially dishonest in 1840-41. This was the only time he abandoned his principle of never suing for libel.

After his rejection by the Synod of Australia in 1842 Lang had enlisted several ordained clergymen during his long stay in Britain in 1846-49, and in April 1850 he established the Synod of New South Wales, thus creating an ecclesiastical jurisdiction without which his voluntary Presbyterianism must have evolved into Congregationalism. He then devoted much time and energy to establishing and maintaining ministers of this synod in different parts of the colony. In 1853 the Presbytery of Irvine, on an application from the Synod of Australia, and, without even citing Lang to appear before it, declared he was no longer a minister of the Church of Scotland as he had since 1842 withdrawn himself from that church's recognized court in New South Wales. Strengthened by this decision the Synod of Australia commenced an action against Lang to obtain the Scots Church properties. After several years delay the Equity Court in October 1859, and the Supreme Court on appeal in July 1860, found for the synod. Despite opposition from his congregation Lang determined to appeal to the Privy Council and sailed for England in December 1860. Several complicated legal actions followed in the Presbytery of Irvine, the General Assembly and in the Court of Session, Scotland's highest civil court, before the presbytery in March 1863 reversed its previous endorsement of Lang's deposition from the ministry. Lang returned to Australia in July 1861. Eight months later the Privy Council found for him because he had occupied Scots Church twelve years before confirmation of the sentence of deposition was sought from the Presbytery of Irvine. In November the Synod of Australia, following the Scottish and English legal decisions, resolved that though Lang had been guilty of schism, slander and contumacy its sentence of deposition should be rescinded.

After several years negotiations between the four Presbyterian groups in the colony, the Synod of New South Wales dissolved itself in 1864 in preparation for the general Presbyterian union achieved in September 1865. Some, especially within the Synod of Australia, had wished to exclude Lang, but his position as senior Presbyterian clergyman in the colony and as a member of its legislature secured his inclusion. In December 1867 an Act was passed for the establishment of a Presbyterian college within the University of Sydney. Public subscriptions for its support were collected, the subscribers to elect the college council. Out-manoeuvred, Lang was restricted in the collection of subscriptions, and therefore of votes, to the more distant and thinly-settled parts of the colony. When the twelve councillors were elected in November 1870, Lang and only one of his supporters secured places, and there was no representative of those who had adhered to the established Church of Scotland. It was Lang's great ambition to become principal of the college. In July 1871 the Free-Church-dominated council voted against appointing Lang. In February 1872 it appointed Rev. John Kinross, but discovered that under the Act it was necessary to appoint as principal a member of the council, which Kinross was not. On 1 September Lang announced his resignation from Scots Church to devote himself to the training of a native-born ministry. On 24 September the council elected Rev. Adam Thomson as principal, but Lang, ever fertile in defeat, objected that this too was illegal, as Thomson's election meant there was a principal and only eleven instead of the statutory twelve councillors. He hoped, by referring the matter to parliament, that another tribunal might alter the arrangements whereby he was consistently outvoted in the council, but neither premier nor governor was impressed and the incorporation of St Andrew's College was duly proclaimed in the Government Gazette, 24 March 1873. Lang challenged the legality of the college in the Supreme Court, but in June lost the case and decided to appeal to the Privy Council. In October a public meeting was held to inaugurate St Andrew's. Uninvited, Lang attended to protest. His supporters reduced the proceedings to complete disorder, the pandemonium being so great that when members of the audience went across the street to the police station they found the constabulary had discreetly retired to avoid the necessity of assisting at the inauguration.

In December Rev. Dr Archibald Gilchrist was inducted to the charge of Scots Church. Earlier and not always happily, Lang had several colleagues at Scots Church but his position now was altered and subordinate. He retained the nominal status of senior minister but received only a retiring allowance and devolved responsibility and executive functions upon Gilchrist. In April 1874 he sailed for the last time for England, travelling by way of the United States. In London he arranged for the fourth edition of his history of New South Wales and for his Privy Council appeal. This, however, was allowed to lapse. He returned in 1875.

In March 1877, when Archbishop John Bede Polding lay on his death-bed, John Robertson persuaded him to receive Lang, and Lang to visit him; both needed persuading as each thought the other would not agree to the meeting. The two clerics, antagonists for four decades, were alone together for about three-quarters of an hour while Robertson stood outside to prevent interruption. It is said that when Lang was driven home he had tears in his eyes and for once in his life remained silent. In May Gilchrist resigned to accept a call from North Melbourne. The Scots Church congregation was unwilling that Lang should resume full responsibilities but, with the support of the Presbytery of Sydney, he determined to do so. The congregation's officials then locked and boarded up the church to prevent entry by either minister or people, so Lang was reduced to seeking a policeman and a builder to gain access to the pulpit he had founded and preached from for more than fifty years.

Lang died, after a stroke, on 8 August 1878. His widow, faithful to his memory, rejected a letter of condolence from the congregation as unfitting after their recent treatment of her husband, and also refused to accept a grant of £3000 from the government because the Legislative Assembly had voted against such expenditure while Lang was still alive.

Above all, Lang was a Presbyterian minister and always retained the Calvinism of his youth. Yet he co-operated willingly with other Protestant clergymen, especially Baptists and Congregationalists, often more cordially than with fellow Presbyterians, for his anger was most strongly aroused by those whom he felt had put their hands to the plough and then looked back. That he was responsible, even when elected moderator of the General Assembly in 1872, for divisions and tensions within the Presbyterian Church is obvious. But he was not alone responsible, for the history of Presbyterianism in Scotland and the other colonies was almost equally schismatic. Self-consciously an upright man he always castigated public immorality, but hundreds of the poor, homeless and bereaved remained deeply grateful to him as benefactor and friend. His belief in the authority of a literal interpretation of scripture, together with opinions about the imminent collapse of the Papacy, persuaded him that the end of the world was at hand. But neither this millenarianism nor his fundamental pessimism, which saw almost all men doomed to early and utter destruction inhibited his continual activity for the temporal welfare of the unregenerate. His achievements in promoting education and immigration bear comparison with those of any of his contemporaries, but would have been much greater had his intense inner drive not been inextricably compounded with an irresistible impulse to hurt those who showed opposition or were even merely lukewarm towards his designs. Lang's political career, which finished in 1870, was marked by many electoral triumphs and he witnessed the achievement of almost all his political aims: the cessation of transportation, the separation of Victoria and of Queensland, the introduction of responsible and democratic government, radical land reform, National education and the abolition of state aid to religion. Was Lang influential in this long process which culminated in a liberal, democratic and secular society? Or, was he like a man in a boat, shooting over the political Niagara, and furiously whipping the water to make it go faster? He never took office, nor is it likely that any cabinet containing him would have lasted a fortnight. His penny postage and the abolition of primogeniture in intestate estates are meagre achievements when compared with Robertson's reform of the land laws or Parkes's reform of education. Lang was never a member of any of the factions which dominated New South Wales politics after 1856, and visitors were surprised to see how little notice the great Dr Lang excited in the Legislative Assembly. The failure of his republicanism also suggests a limited political influence, for he was quite powerless on this issue so dear to his heart. Yet it would be wrong to think that his advocacy of other causes was successful only because he was preaching to the already converted, for his was undoubtedly one of the most powerful voices extolling the virtues of liberal and secular values. His published works, whether of a polemical propagandist or more broadly educational nature, were not confined to his numerous books and pamphlets, for almost every day, it seems, he wrote an article for the press or at least a letter to the editor. His writings, though repetitious and egotistical, are nevertheless always vigorous and informative and often tinged with powerful sarcasm. These, together with innumerable lectures given in Sydney or in the bush on his never-ending colonial journeyings, must have had a large, though unmeasurable, influence in inculcating the colonial values which were dominant in Australia by the end of the nineteenth century.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Gilchrist (ed), John Dunmore Lang, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1951), and for bibliography
  • Lang papers (National Library of Australia and State Library of New South Wales and Presbyterian Library, Assembly Hall, Sydney).

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. W. A. Baker, 'Lang, John Dunmore (1799–1878)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 May 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

John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), by unknown artist, 1888

John Dunmore Lang (1799-1878), by unknown artist, 1888

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2265510-1

Life Summary [details]


25 August, 1799
Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland


8 August, 1878 (aged 78)

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.

Key Organisations